Transition Girl

Why transition girl?... Best answered by a quote from the Iliad....."The soul was not made to dwell in a thing; and when forced to it, there is no part of that soul but suffers violence."

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Prcrastination days with Pudeldame

My drafting work on the sequel for the Peithosian Gift (working title Peithosian Curse) started with a bang a couple of months ago. Then I hit a wall - about 25,000 words into the drafting. That was three weeks ago. Got stuck on a scene where I was not sure what I wanted the POV character to do. It took several sittings to land something on the page but not before I spent a day side-tracked with rethinking the timeline for the whole novel, reworking that timeline and then plotting out the scene by scene storyboard to match the new time line. Eight years become thirty-six months. I came back to the storyboard early scenes three more times to cross-check particular characters and their emotional progressions to ensure consistency with the revised timeline.

I usually describe this sort of reworking effort as procrastination. The source of my unwillingness to write is sometimes related to my overly analytical mind discovering plot holes (rarely the size of canyons but big enough that I just know a reader of the story would grumble at stumbling into it). It can also be because I am just not feeling creative on my chosen day of writing and no amount of staring at the computer screen is going to inspire me. I once spent a day counting the number of ways I could procrastinate and reached a number well into the 60s suggesting, like many writers, I can always find an interesting way of filling the time in the surrounding silence of the solitary pursuit to avoid answering the question - what to write next?

More often than not, the faffing around does lead to some spark of an idea and the writing eventually flows. But when it doesn't, it is better to let go and do something else. Today I'm writing this blog. After almost a week of driving, walking, staring at the screen, watching tv, listening to philosophy podcasts, admiring random art painted on giant silos out in the country, scowling at the dampening wintery rain that cut my road-trip shorter than originally planned, rearranging my bookshelves (to give me more room to buy more books), making rocky-road slice, seeing a movie and having ice cream for the first time in almost two years (and feeling sick afterwards), walking some more, loosening up with a therapeutic massage, trying my best to dampen the urge to impulse buy more books online shopping (and failing miserably). Probably didn't help that I watched the movie "Hector and the Search for Happiness" on iTunes only to discover that it was based on a book by a French psychiatrist traveller so, yes, I simply had to get the book...Some of my favourite philosophy 'fiction' books have been written by French writers (see The Elegance of the Hedgehog as an example).

The list goes on. On the plus-side, I now have a better understanding of the great debate post WWII between Satre and Camus. Another plus, discovered a curious German band - called Pudeldame - who's YouTube video clips reminded me of the music videos made in the 90s that were entertaining stories in themselves. The music was good, too - though I will confess German is not the easiest language on the ear. Lead singer is also an actor with lovely puppy-dog eyes who I have been watching on a sublime series on Stan called Deutschland 83 (and 86). There is some serious procrastination going on here. Check out one of the music videos here: https://youtu.be/8fXsUamZrxY

I can feel the 17-year-old punk girl, Grace, bubbling up inside of me. She is one of the POV characters in the sequel. I am supposed to be writing one of her scenes today. It's early. I still have six hours of procrastination ahead of me.






Friday, October 12, 2018

The appeal of dystopian fiction

I recently wrote a piece for Flux Magazine - an online magazine in the UK - about the appeal of dystopian fiction for women. Well, that was the brief given to me. I did not think I could speak for all women so I wrote about why this type of fiction appealed to me.

Here's the link: http://www.fluxmagazine.com/the-appeal-of-dystopian-fiction/

And here's the text reproduced below if you don't like clicking on random links.

Utopia – is it a good place or perhaps a state of mind? Somewhere inside of all of us, do we strive to be better? Do we search for that physical place so beautiful to take our breath away? Do we also seek a mental space where the things that made us afraid, sad or angry no longer exist? Is happiness a state of being, a pursuit, a choice or something that just happens? What is it to be a moral person in a good society?

I begin with these questions because I believe these are at the heart of why dystopian literature can be so appealing – to women, to young adults; in fact, to anyone fascinated by what makes individuals and the world around us tick. This is more so when we are watching some of our greatest fears playing out around us in real time. We search for meaning, for truth, for role models to emulate when we face hard choices in our own lives. Sometimes it is a conscious quest for escape, or for answers; sometimes not.

I don’t profess to be an expert on the reasons why dystopian fiction is growing in popularity, particularly among women and young adults. But I can share why I became an avid reader (and writer) of these types of stories in my teenage years into adulthood and that may offer some insights into the trend.

My genre of choice was dystopian science fiction – novels, short stories and films. What captured my imagination the most was the use and abuse of technology especially AI and cyberpunk, and life in controlled societies, especially those reacting to a new development or 'game changer'. What makes us human and what takes that away.

Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man collection of short stories has given me life-long uneasiness over ‘smart’ houses. Ursula Le Guin, one of my favourite writers, and her story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas especially stood out as a philosophical masterpiece exploring what was wrong with a world where happiness depended on the suffering of others. And P.D. James’ The Children of Men is one of the most believable dystopian books ever written purely because it rings true about how governments and people could react the way the author describes. There are so many more.

What I read and wrote was shaped by what I saw around me. Reading books about nuclear weapons during the Cold War just before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, I am certain I might have been the only teenager designing fallout shelters in the early 1980s as a ‘choose your own topic’ school science project. That said, I was not alone in writing stories about worlds struggling in the aftermath of apocalyptic wars.

Context is everything for both readers and writers. I do not think this is a new phenomenon. Stories written in ancient Greek times, such as the play Antigone by Sophocles, were magnifying glass reflections scorching the earth - illuminating the fears of the people of the time, who were surrounded by near constant war and subjugation between nation states.

Dystopian fiction, for me, shed and amplified light on certain societal trends that, if they were to take a wrong turn might make what I read more than just fiction. Is it art imitating life or life imitating art? The trends that troubled me the most were focused on those failing to remember the past and being condemned to repeat it. It does not surprise me that Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale are being read and re-read by many now. History is strewn with examples of societies filled with oppression and the literature written at the time that helped to provide a yardstick of the truth. Timeless classics.

What might happen (now and) in the near future if power was concentrated in the hands of an elite few and those with that power took away our freedom? This is a key question I am exploring in my fifth novel, The Peithosian Gift.

The story was born out of a conversation I had with a close friend on an epic road trip. Wondering whether growth of consumerism could be or was being used as an opiate to control the masses, we talked about how persuasive advertising and propaganda could be and how some people seem to be more easily persuaded than others. In my usual tangent style, I speculated about a ‘what if?’ question around every living thing having a will that could ‘push’ ideas onto another living thing. From there, the seed grew into the idea of the push and pull of Nature, and a bunch of people who had a gift and, by the time we reached home, I had the shell of a story that turned into The Peithosian Gift.

The novel is the first in a planned speculative/fantasy series about two warring families who possess the power of mind control. It tackles a range of philosophical questions and moral dilemmas, including whether mass mind control is good or bad for society. I am writing the sequel currently and cranking up the volume on aspects of this theme. For example, I wonder whether a lack of choice can be genuinely accepted to be a form of happiness, whether seceding decisions (consciously or otherwise) to someone or something else can make us content because it is easier than having the free will to choose. Don’t even get me started on how algorithms could be used and abused in this context – that’s a commentary for another day.

Utopia — is it a place that cannot be?


Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Little Things Matter - Getting the 'Dys' out of Dysfunctional Families

I recently wrote a piece for Female First UK - an online magazine - talking about a source of inspiration for my fifth novel, the Peithosian Gift. I focussed on dysfunctional families because this theme was a core aspect of the book.

Here's the link to the article that went live today: https://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/cristina-archer-peithosian-gift-exclusive-feature-why-little-things-matter-1164706.html

And, if you don't like to click on random links, here is the text reproduced below...

Many years ago, during one of those provoking training courses that punctuated my professional career, the presenter offered a quote that helped me to recognise a key to my moral compass:

“They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” (Carl W Buehner)

At the time, the quote emphasised that we should treat each other with care and respect. Yet it always reminded me of family. Not necessarily blood relatives – for family can also be those people in our lives we adopt to assume the role of surrogate siblings or parents – those whose shared purpose is centered on being supportive caregivers to each other. Fundamentally, nurture is at the heart of a functional family, what we build beyond the nature in our genes.

Both sorts of families – traditional and unconventional – have been important in my life and the concept of family has featured in much of my writing from when I began to put pen to paper.

My first short story, written just before my thirteenth birthday was a Lovecraft-inspired horror tale about a box of slime three siblings discovered in a remote abandoned mine. It coincided with my family’s move from the city to the country and how much more I needed to rely on them then, living in the middle of nowhere.

While I was too young to read horror fiction at the time, my father was anti-censorship so let me read as many books, including non-fiction, as I wanted to read. My childhood conversations with family around the dinner table, where I was encouraged to push the boundaries on discovering and discussing ideas and opinions, also encouraged my interest in philosophy and science, giving me a lifelong fascination with these disciplines that has intersected deeply with my literary pursuits.

To this day, I am not sure whether the freedom I was given by my parents as a teenager was a good or bad thing. The topics of discussion over those dog-eat-dog debate-filled dinner table conversations have been (mostly) long forgotten but I still remember how I felt afterwards. Why couldn’t a meal be just a meal?

I do appreciate the value those hard conversations had in shaping me – inspiring the inquisitiveness that has pervaded my entire life. But I also often wonder if I could have learned better life skills if empathy had featured more in my childhood landscape.

The little things matter. The unfair weight of expectations placed on me, by my father especially, pushing me to be more or different to what I wanted to be. Being afraid to bring home art made at school because it was frivolous and did not match the career choice he believed I was meant to pursue. Intelligent discourse encouraged, emotional revelations not, the behaviour I learned from this lethal combination was to forcefully and regularly suppress any healthy release of cathartic fluids.

So, I wrote to make sense of life, release those bottled up feelings onto a page in a created world and explore family dynamics – the ‘dys’ in dysfunctional (and dystopian).

My fifth novel, The Peithosian Gift, was born out of a conversation I had with a close friend on a road trip. This friend is my surrogate brother, with high emotional intelligence, and to whom the book is dedicated. We talked about how persuasive advertising can be and how some people seem to be more easily persuaded than others. In my usual tangent style, I speculated about a ‘what if?’ question around every living thing having a will that could ‘push’ ideas onto another living thing. From there, the seed grew into the idea of the push and pull of Nature, and a bunch of people who had a gift and, by the time we reached home, I had the shell of a story that turned into The Peithosian Gift.

The novel is the first in a planned speculative/fantasy series about two warring families who possess the power of mind control. It tackles a range of philosophical questions and moral dilemmas and, at its core, explores why it is important that we do not project an image onto a person of what we want or expect them to be. Setting unrealistic expectations will hold them back from discovering who they are meant to be.

Remember, think about (and feel) the impact you have on others – they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. If you push too hard, you may break them.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Inner voice centricity

I am not a superstitious sort generally speaking though there have been times when I have wondered whether there is something to the concept of bad karma. That's me on a bad day. On a good day, I usually recognise that bad stuff happens for no reason at all and it is most likely just a coincidence that it occurs just before I am about to take a vacation. With one exception, my significant travel plans over the last decade have been stymied by bad stuff happening just before I was due to travel. With one exception, the bad stuff has been health related (either my own or close family). My so-called "travel curse".

I was planning to go to a wedding in late September in London. This travel was ruled out by my doctor who missed his calling as a dystopian story-teller. I swear the man could have made one of those classic "fire and brimstone" exorcist performing priests seem tame in comparison. Apparently a plane full of people on a long haul flight is a life-threatening risk for someone with my medical history. I could have hopped on that plane but was terrified to do so after the medical lecture. Perhaps this is how phobias start?

So I 'converted' my overseas travels to a domestic road trip to the middle of nowhere (otherwise known as most inland parts of Australia). There would be some 'civilisation' - the occasional country town, some bigger than others, measured by size by the number of hotel-pubs on the main street running through town. Mostly, I would be on back roads Where there are next to no cars and definitely no people. Somewhere where I could step out of my car and yell at the top of my lungs at the Universe for giving me a plethora of inherited uber-crappy autoimmune diseases that make my life a challenge on the best of days. Consolation prize.

It seems the Universe was not in the mood to hear my roar. A day before my brother was due to fly down from his home town to join me for the first few days of the drive, my routine visit to one of my possie of specialists (my favourite one as it turns out - my endocrinologist always entertains me with wonderful stories about his family adventures) ended up being not so routine. My latest blood tests and talk of pain at the site of a former tumor (see Operation Ditching Rupert from 2013) leads him to order a CT scan - "first available" - and I'm suddenly in the hospital drinking bitter tasting contrast in anticipation of a fresh medical test.

I ring my brother - tell him our trip may be delayed (while I wait for results) or replaced by a hospital stay. I let my work colleagues know. There are a few among them all too familiar with my travel curse. I really want to be on the road but it seems my body is resisting the prospect.

I have read the science that suggests our body is prone to get "ill" at the start of a vacation - something about working with a certain degree of stress and then 'relaxing' which somehow weakens the immune system (with greater risk of exposure to bugs etc). The body takes a vacation, too, and nasties take up residence. I have certainly experienced this first-hand ahead of some of my vacations. But I don't think the idea of physiological responses to vacation time extends to the growth of unwelcome house guests inside my body. Maybe the universe is telling me that I should embrace my introverted nature and accept that being a home body means "staycations" rather than vacations would be better for my health.

There are certainly pluses in doing so - I've started writing the sequel to the Peithosian Gift (aptly named the Peithosian Curse). Some quiet time at home would be a great opportunity to continue one of the best parts of the early drafting process - creating new characters channelling my "inner voice". As a concept, it is difficult to explain. My preferred writing style is inner-voice centric. This basically means I tend to focus on the thoughts and feelings of the characters I write - getting inside their heads. It's an interesting thought experiment to contemplate the perspective of a 17 year old punk girl one week and a 36 year old prodigious neuroscientist male the next.

I generally find male characters easier to write and all of my favourite characters from my earlier books have been boys and men. I am not saying that they are emotionally simpler than girls and women. I just suspect my inner-voice is naturally more masculine than feminine. This might have something to do with growing up with brothers, being more fond of science then dancing, working in a profession dominated by men. There I go again, seeing patterns and correlations that may just be coincidence.

But I digress. I was describing the "travel curse". The outcome of the medical tests came quickly - an actual plus of my medical history is the specialists can get priority status on running diagnostic tests so I only usually lose one nights sleep in the wait time. Counting only hours to learn my fate with a different inner voice trying to reassure me that everything will be alright.

My inner voice was right for a change. The pain was an existing tumor (benign) sharing its growing pains with me. It's now the size of a mandarin. Luckily I have space inside me - prime real estate vacant land where some of my missing organs used to be. Being spleenless can be a blessing after all. Clearly, I am an optimist.

Friday, August 17, 2018

the right thing to do

I just spent a week in Australia's capital, Canberra, with a small group of incredible, intelligent, articulate people exploring and discussing some great philosophical writers over history. It is a rare treat when my two vocations, as a public policy adviser and a speculative fiction writer, converge in the types of questions I have been grappling with for a long time. The public service is, of course, filled with consideration and application of the concept "what is the right thing to do" - in terms of fairness and justice. I am sure I chose a career path in this sector precisely because I wanted to make a difference to the quality of life for others. And I have known for almost as long that I write speculative fiction to delve into ethics in more detail and make sense of life.

The course was a welcome time-out, with use of technology discouraged. I spent my week - days and evenings - in a room at the back of Old Parliament House which overlooked the new building on the hill, blue skies outside, in open and thought provoking discussion exploring questions like: what is a good society; what are the basics for human rights, justice and fairness, and how should I behave as an individual to name a few. Readings covered significant philosophers old and new, many of which I had read before but never with the benefit of hearing other reader perspectives. This latter aspect made the course (offered by Cranlana) exceptionally worthwhile.

It probably should not have surprised me that the thought-provoking conversation on questions for which there are no easy answers left me with more questions to contemplate at the end of the course. What is it to be human, to be humane? What constitutes reasonable behaviour for a good life? What is at the core of human values (the corollary of which was are we really mainly driven by self-interest)? Even though every 'model' we examined was subsequently proven to have flaws, were there tools or models (refined) that could lead us to a good society? Was there a way to help balance that self-interest driver? There were many more questions.

Drawing on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the most obvious question of all - once you have seen the light, can you ever truly ever go back to the darkness? I thought not and, moreover, also thought what I did in the light mattered. I lost track of the many different versions of the "trolley-problem" there were in everyday examples discussed by all and sundry among the participants.

I came out of the experience with a few ideas (and perhaps frameworks/tools) on how to 'apply' what I had discussed:
- we have a choice to be virtuous and we are judged by our choices - my own long applied personal "epitaph test" turned out to be a reasonable guiding principle. If I face a difficult choice, I am guided by the idea; for what would I want to be remembered.
- recognising that taking the high ground as a moral agent can come at a great personal cost and I should be prepared to wear that possible outcome.
- there are clear structural limitations in models of the role of government and tensions within myself (and individuals generally) that create a great range of trade-offs, compromises and (sadly) some seriously extrinsic incentives to use/abuse concentrated power (there's that self-interest thing again).
- there are a range of personal attributes that would make applying ethics a little 'easier' - such as mindfulness and inquisitiveness.
- there are a few key philosophical writers with useful frames on which to think about ethical issues - I particularly liked excerpts written by John Dewey, Zygmunt Bauman, Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Stephen Gardiner, Alistair Macintyre, and Martin Luther King Jr.
- think 'response-able', avoid the moderate path of least resistance, and find an independent 'sage' to test ideas.

Many years ago, in a similarly pitched course designed to build self-awareness and better leadership skills through conversations with other leaders, I was told a story of two men walking on a beach where thousands of starfish had washed ashore and were stranded in the low tide. One of the men was picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water. The second man questioned the first, asking why he was wasting his time saying there were too many stranded. The first man responded by saying to as he pointed to the single starfish held in his hand that he was making a difference, one starfish at a time. We were given a paper yellow starfish which, 27 years later, I still have as a reminder that even small actions can make a difference. The Starfish Story was one shared by another member of the group as if a serendipitous reminder in the last few days - a perfect punctuation of why we were there.

And finally, another idea shared by different participant about a recurring dream he had digging downwards and discovering one dead society one after another, each built on top of the other made me think do we ever really learn from our mistakes as a society. Are we destined to be in a continuing cycle of (un)constructive destruction and creation. I believe there is a short story in this idea, which I will add to my long list of pieces to write in the next 12 months.

At the end of the course, I shared with the participants a little personal poem I wrote that best summed up my contemplative mood:

I wish, I wish that I could be
the highest bird atop a tree
with hope to hear my inner voice
and understand a trying choice
on which direction I should take
and what changing winds my life will make.









Friday, July 20, 2018

celebrating milestones

There are just a few short days before the release of my sixth book - "the Peithosian Gift".

It's fair to say, I am quite excited about this one. It was a labour of love, taking almost five years to draft, redraft, rewrite, and finally edit. There were a few major life events along the way, one of which was my mom passing away suddenly from the effects of a very aggressive blood cancer. I know, it's those 'moments' in life that shape us. That particular event certainly led the charge of me shifting closer towards full hermit mode. Writing about philosophical dilemmas in my fiction writing and pumping up the volume on my reading of philosophical literature.

At this stage of the process, when the book has been through its editorial paces, the art work for the cover and marketing made sparkly, the distribution networks lined up neatly, pre-sale markers doing the rounds, and the final discussions with the marketing team about the strategy to get the book onto reader radars - this is the 'business end'. I have the added benefit of two publicists for this latest book - one in my main market (north America) and another in a market I'd like to reach (UK/Ireland).

The marketing this time around will be a 4-6 week book campaign - getting the book out to influential reviewers, organising interviews, and giving a very large number of librarians an opportunity to look it over. I may have to burn the midnight oil for some interviews given I'm on the other side of the world compared with my main markets, but this is a small price to pay to share my insights about the themes of the book.

As for those themes, I explore a few: (1) freedom to make your own choices in life, (2) abuse of power, (3) family loyalty, (4) concentration of power in the hands of a few, (5) Nature versus nurture. I also consider how history has a way of repeating itself especially when we do not remember (or know) why we were fighting the first place.


The book will be available through all the usual sites (Amazon, Book Depository etc) but here's a link to the publisher's pre-order page if you wish to venture there:

https://www.rowanvalebooks.com/book/the-peithosian-gift

And if you're wondering what the book is about, here's a brief synopsis:

The Peithosian Gift is a speculative fiction novel about two warring clans with the power to control the minds of others. Since ancient times, the Morgans and the Kanes have violently disputed the right to use their gift. The present-day Morgans are outnumbered and persecuted by the Kanes for using their gift; most are in hiding, while others avenge the slaughter of their kin. The Kanes hunt and assassinate Morgans to prevent a mind-controlled world. While one clan seeks a ‘saviour’ to restore the imbalance, the other fears the birth of a too-gifted child. Radha, born of a third, lost clan, has superior powers that she is scarcely able to control. Events lead to a clash of clan leaders and key players, forcing Radha on the run with both sides hunting her.

Remember "your will is not your own" - accept it and you will survive.

And, finally, no milestone celebration would be complete with setting the next milestone. Tthe teaser for the sequel, "the Peithosian Curse", which is now being drafted is - "what would you do to fit into the crowd?" I am VERY excited about where my characters will be venturing in the book to come.

Happy reading.

Friday, April 27, 2018

story board design

It's a sunny day on the Sunshine Coast - the perfect place for my niece to celebrate her birthday (even if she is working). I'm working, too - now four days into five that I set aside to start my effort to prepare a story board for a possible sequel to the book that is being released in late July. Yes, "the Peithosian Gift", now has its publication date and my meandering writing efforts since January now need to refocus.

I started April thinking about what full-length novel I wanted to write next. There are three possibilities:
(1) write the next part to the Panopticon series - three written, the fourth to be written - working title "The Helotry".
(2) write a sequel to the book just written - working title "The Peithosian Curse".
(3) write a completely contemporary piece based on one of my short stories - "The Hunger".

Each option has something to offer.
(1) It's been several years since I spent time writing about Gabriel and Nemesis and their siblings - they were an interesting family in an epic battle - I miss them.
(2) While it took me longer than usual to write the current novel, there is still a significant story to tell in the world I've created.
(3) An interesting family and a test of my skill to write outside my preferred speculative fiction genre and centred on a twelve year old child.

I put together a story board for Gabriel's next story at the time I set his family aside. My analogy at the time was, after well over a decade exploring the world of his family, I was ready for a holiday.

I've spent the last four days thinking about the sequel for the current novel - synopsis written, key new characters created, and two of six sub-plots roughly designed. There's quite a bit of philosophical musings in this piece, largely a reflection of the course I have been spending a chunk of my time over the last few months (and the next several) doing. At the moment, I also feel I've reverted a bit into standard tropes for the genre - the unknown narrator reflecting on past events (the conscience of the story), a group of scientists searching for the truth. I believe that they can both work as concepts in the story as long as the main protagonists and the conflict between them dominates the telling of the story. These are the plots/sub-plots I have yet to flesh out though.

I haven't started the story-board for the contemporary piece (so, for anyone thinking about the French film about vampires in Paris - this is NOT it). The child in the story is the offspring of a "fixer". I envisage twelve to be the perfect age between the innocence of youth and coming to understand the reality of the surrounding world.

As a rule, I spend a few months developing a good story board and doing any related research to improve the detail in story. In the speculative space, it involves a lot more thought-experiments (for the obvious reason that I cannot change the thing I've chosen to change in my "what if" question being explored). While there are some contemporary worlds I would consider exploring for real (immerse myself in a world to better understand the characters), I can say unequivocally, I don't think I will be seeking out fixers any time soon. I'll try my best not to take the Sopranos as my benchmark - brilliant though that television series was in terms of story-telling.

The designing of the story board is possibly one of my favourite parts of the writing process. It is the time when there are so many possibilities and my imagination can run wild with the freedom to travel along many a tangent as I figure out how to assemble the story-puzzle. It is wonderful to feel it all coming together. The ideas once formed can then be explored to my heart's content as I then write the story itself.

I'm excited.