My Year of Writing and Other Writing-Related Activities- 2018 Edition

My Year of Writing and Other Writing-Related Activities- 2018 Edition

 

The Shining Wall:

Now available for pre-order!

(TL;DR- I signed a publishing contract with Transit Lounge!)

 

I started the year with a big decision to make. My Australian agent hadn’t been able to sell my manuscript Barely Human (AKA Day of the Neandertals) and thought that my new (and I think much better) manuscript The Shining Wall, which was set in the same world, would receive a similar reception from Australian publishers. Their advice was to put the manuscripts in the drawer and write something new.

 

But I still believed in this world I’d created and wanted to keep trying. If not in Australia then in the US or the UK or with a small press. I was sure there was a publisher out there for my dystopian, futuristic, cloned Neandertal stories. So I went off on my own and started querying The Shining Wall.

 

One of the first places I queried was Transit Lounge. Barry Scott from Transit had shown interest in Day of The Neandertals when I’d met him at the HARDCOPY Program at the ACT Writers Centre in 2016. Transit ultimately decided Day of the Neandertals wasn’t for them, but I had come away from my meeting with Barry with the impression that he really understood what I was trying to do with the manuscript.

 

So I queried Barry and he immediately requested a full manuscript. Within a couple of weeks Barry got back to me concerned about the ending of the story. I had tried to write a stand-alone novel, but the ending I’d initially written had intersected with the ending of Day of the Neandertals. I then spent a month writing another 10K words onto the end of The Shining Wall. Not long after submitting this revised manuscript I was signing a publishing contract for my debut novel to be released in April 2019 with Transit Lounge Publishing in Australia.

 

Throughout 2018 I was occupied with other The Shining Wall related pre-publication activities such as:

  • An edit with Penelope Goodes. Turned out to be nothing more terrifying or arduous than a line edit, thankfully!
  • A proof read. My mum has informed me that one (easy to miss) typo has made it through the process- see if you can spot it- where’s Wally style.
  • Got blurbs from two of my favourite writers Meg Elison and Marlee Jane Ward (I can’t tell you how terrifying and exhilarating that was!)
  • Discussed back cover copy and cover options with Transit

 

Other Writing in 2018:

  • I wrote and polished a 30K novella, The Unnaturals, set in the same world as The Shining Wall (currently out on submission).
  • I wrote another 30K novella to second draft stage. Set in a completely new world. Still scifi with apocalyptic themes. The working title is ‘The Vine’ or ‘The Vine of Death’ if I’m feeling dramatic. This may yet become a novel.
  • Wrote a couple of short stories that nobody wants to publish.

 

Writing related activities that required me to be sociable in the real world:

  • Gave a 20 minute presentation on ‘Bringing Back Extinct Species Through Cloning’ at Continuum 2018 in Melbourne.
  • Recorded a podcast episode about one of my favourite books, ‘The Book of the Unnamed Midwife’ by Meg Elison, with Marlee Jane Ward for her Catastropod podcast (due to be released early 2019).
  • Volunteered at the inaugural Speculate Literary Festival in Melbourne (mostly I showed people to their seats and handed around a microphone).

 

Goals for 2019:

  • Launch The Shining Wall (around April).
  • Figure out how to promote The Shining Wall.
  • Hopefully attend some festivals and conventions.
  • Finish my novella that may become a novel.
  • Give up on writing short stories because they’re obviously not my strength.
  • Start on something new and exciting (TBA).

My Favourite Books Read in the Last Five Years

favebooks

 

My Favourite Books Read in the Last Five Years

 

If you’re anything like me you’ll just scroll through this waffle at the top to get to the list.

 

Hazza

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

by Claire North 2014

After every death Harry returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of the lives he has already lived. So begins a mind-bending, mind-boggling and truly genius plot that left me considering quitting writing because I could never achieve something so perfect.

wolf road

The Wolf Road

by Beth Lewis 2016

When Elka learns that the solitary hunter who took her in as a child is a murderer she flees into the vast wilderness. Set in a post-apocalyptic world The Wolf Road is dark and gritty with survivalism and a complex female protagonist.

 

welcome-to-orphancorp

Welcome To Orphancorp

by Marlee Jane Ward  2015

In a near-future dystopia driven by corporate greed Mirii, a defiant and big-hearted teenager, navigates oppression, identity and sexuality in an industrial orphanage. Short and sweet read with a voice that grabs you at the first page and doesn’t let go as you laugh and cry all the way to the end.

 

Skin

Skin

By Ilka Tampke 2015

Set in Southwest Britain, AD 43. Skin follows the story of outcast, Ailia, who has been chosen for a spiritual path by tribal ancestors. Part fantasy, part history, part romance and all compelling female protagonist, page-turning storyline and skilful writing.

 

diet

Dietland

by Sarai Walker   2015

While Plum Kettle is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery she is drawn into an underground community of women who live life on their own terms. Dietland takes on the beauty industry, gender inequality, and weight loss obsession and opened some new doors in my mind. I’ve also recently heard that Marti Noxon is making a tv series based on this book.

 

Midwife

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

by Meg Elison 2014

In the wake of an illness that killed women and children and made childbirth deadly, the midwife struggles and survives and finds her place in the dangerous new world. Unputdownable and thought provoking.

 

power

The Power

by Naomi Alderman 2016

Women, starting with teenage girls, develop the power to cause agonising pain and even death. With the power in their hands the world changes completely. The Power asks difficult and important questions about our contemporary world and the myth of gender essentialism. And, yes, there are apocalyptic themes too.

tender

Tender Morsels

by Margo Lanagan 2007

A dark retelling of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red. Full of Margo Lanagan’s characteristic lush and evocative prose.

 

forest

Into the Forest

by Jean Hegland 1996

Two teenage sisters, Nell and Eva, struggle to survive alone in their Northern California forest home as society collapses around them. It has an apocalypse, survivalism, a forest and sisters. What more could you want?

parable-of-the-sower

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia E. Butler 1993

In 2025 the world is slowly, apocalyptically, crumbling. Lauren Olamina, a hyperempath, is forced from her home into a dangerous world. This book and its sequel Parable of the Talents have attracted renewed interest lately due to their parallels with the Trump presidency. A few years ago I discovered Octavia Butler when I first read her vampire novel Fledgling. I promptly got hold of as much of her work as I could and read it all. I love everything she’s done, but Parable of the Sower is my favourite. Probably because of the survivalism themes (a favourite reading topic of mine for reasons unknown even to me). Her work resonates with me in a unique way. Octavia’s understanding of humanity is so accurate and so beautiful and her prose so clear and precise, yet evocative.

Honourable Mentions

 Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near

 Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach

 Written in Red by Anne Bishop

 Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

 Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

 The Road by Cormac McCarthy

 Dog Boy by Eva Hornung

 Among Others by Jo Walton

 The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Dawn by Octavia E. Butler (Soon to be brought to the small screen by Ava DuVernay!!!)

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell

 

Reflections on HARDCOPY 2016- Part 2 Going Public

iters part-2-going-public

Reflections on HARDCOPY 2016- Part 2 Going Public

After the first round of HARDCOPY participants were invited to apply for the Going Public Weekend in November. Only 10 of the 30 writers would get the opportunity to receive industry level feedback from a group of publishers and agents.

I didn’t get through to the Going Public weekend. So I let myself sulk for about a week. I’m no stranger to rejection though and I soon moved forward with a new plan, which involved querying agents until one of them fell in love with Day of the Neandertals.

My plan was in full swing when I got a call from (the wonderful) Nigel Featherstone. One of the (many) rising stars of our group had been offered a publishing contract and was withdrawing from the Going Public weekend. And I was next in line. It took me about 10 seconds to accept the offer and run off to book another flight to Canberra.

Preparing for Going Public was quite different to the other two weekends, in that there was actually some preparation required. I had to know how to talk about my manuscript and I had to know who I was talking to. It was a bit like studying for an exam, lucky for me the other participants had already done some research and I could copy their notes.

The actual weekend was exhausting, exciting, nerve-wracking, exhilarating, sometimes devastating and ultimately wonderful.

These are the things I learned and the feedback I got from HARDCOPY Going Public 2016:

  • HARDCOPY is well regarded in the Australian publishing industry
  • In terms of cover letters and pitches agents want to know your ideas on genre and comparison books, however the publishers wanted to make that decision for themselves and didn’t like being told (this seemed particularly so in the case of whether something is YA or adult).
  • A lot of them don’t like synopses. Two industry professionals told me they thought they would hate my story based on the synopsis, but then ended up loving the extract.
  • Agents and publishers genuinely want to help new writers succeed.
  • Not everyone is going to connect with your work. You need to keep trying until you find someone who does (bearing in mind to act on any advice and criticism that feels true to you along the way).
  • Write what you want to write in the way you want to write it rather than trying to fit into a particular box or market.
  • Don’t implement changes to fit a particular agent/publisher unless they really fit with what you are trying to do
  • The publishing industry is difficult and bleak for debut authors in Australia/ It is a great time to be a debut author in Australia. Still not sure what the take-home message was on this issue.
  • Publishers and agents need writers.
  • Persistence is key
  • Response to your work can be crazy-subjective
  • Examples of wide range of feedback I got for Day of the Neandertals:
    • The prose– perfectly serviceable/ crisp/ accessible/ great just as it is/ needs polishing/ nothing fancy/ evocative/ needs refining
    • The story– seems very plot driven/ seems very character driven/ a page turner/ a wild ride (which in this particular case was euphemistic for ‘WTF did I just read’)/ suspenseful/ needs streamlining
    • Worldbuilding– fantastic/ confusing
    • Structure– Works well/ confusing/ changes between characters too abrupt
    • Exposition– take some out/ put more in
    • Characters– use more introspection/ use less introspection
    • Genre– YA crossover exists/ YA crossover doesn’t exist/ I think this is adult/ have you tried writing it for an even younger audience?
    • Comparisons– Your book comparisons are spot on/ I’m not familiar with any of your book comparisons/ I think it’s like Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things/ I think it’s like Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things/ Hunger Games meets Jurassic Park/ Has anyone ever compared it to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things?
    • Themes– fresh/ topical/ very dark/ suitable for school reading lists/ I think there is too much dystopian fiction about
    • Most perplexing feedback– Does it have to be about Neandertals?

 

As a direct result of contacts made during HARDCOPY 2016 I accepted an offer of representation from Danielle Binks of Jacinta di Mase Management just before Christmas 2016 (still waiting for official paperwork, but I think it’s pretty safe to disclose this now).

2016 was a pretty good year for my writing. Meanwhile disturbing trends in world politics could see an increase in interest in dystopian fiction like Day of the Neandertals (always looking for a bright side) and hopefully a resurgence in punk rock music!

Special thanks to Nigel Featherstone, Mary Cunnane, Sarah Mason, Sophie Mannix, the HARDCOPY selection committees and all the industry professionals and writers who participated.

HARDCOPY is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and has been supported by the Australia Council for the Arts

 

Reflections on HARDCOPY 2016- Part 1

hc-logo

 

HARDCOPY 2016

2016 has been a year of ups and down, both personally and globally. All over social media people are welcoming the death of 2016 and while I can see where they are coming from, on the whole 2016 has been a fantastic year for me, mostly because I participated in the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY professional development program.

Weekend One- Manuscript Development Masterclass:

HARDCOPY began with a manuscript development masterclass with editor Nadine Davidoff on an icy May weekend in Canberra.

I must admit once all the participants started talking about their manuscripts (ranging from YA to crime to historical to humour to fantasy and literary and some genres in between) my imposter syndrome set in. Everyone’s work seemed much more grown up and serious than my little story about cloned Neandertals fighting for freedom in a post-apocalyptic world (really that just sounds like a pulpy sci-fi novel or a bad action movie). But then Nadine got us to think about what had compelled us to write our story and the emotions behind the writing.

So let me explain what came out of that exploration-

In 2013 Harvard geneticist George Church claimed that he could clone a Neandertal. This intrigued me. My first thought was Hell yes. Somebody please clone a Neandertal. I wanna see that. So I decided to write about it. In order to write about Neandertal cloning I had to think about why we would clone Neandertals, how they would be treated, what they would be like and also how the science would work. The science part was fairly straight forward (for a biological scientist such as myself) and I learned that George Church was being extremely optimistic, but there is a chance in the future that we will be able to reverse engineer a Neandertal genome from a modern human genome. So to be plausible I set my story in the future. Extrapolating current social and technological trends into a future world brought up interesting themes and possible scenarios. Working out what Neandertals were like required research into the fossil evidence and as a result I became a staunch defender of the reputation of Neandertals. I get quite offended now when someone uses ‘Neandertal’ as an insult. Thinking about how cloned Neandertals would be treated and why we would clone them really took me into sticky ethical areas and brought up issues of prejudice, exploitation and identity. I also chose female main protagonists because I am inspired to improve the representation of women in science fiction. Through all this I came to realise the writing of this seemingly superficial sci-fi adventure was driven by frustration, anger and sadness at the shortcomings of the human race. (Phew- and I thought it was just an exercise in imagination!).

But enough about me and more about HARDCOPY. While the manuscript development class got me thinking about my manuscript in new ways and re-iterated important aspects of craft, one of the most valuable aspects of this weekend was the sense of community I got from meeting the other participants. I think we all felt somewhat validated to have made it into the program and were all excited and happy to be there. Everyone I met was kind and funny and interesting and genuinely easy to get along with. I got a sense, even from that first weekend, that the connections made would be permanent and we’d all be, at the very least, following each other’s careers closely into the future.

I left Canberra, that weekend in May, on a high and full of inspiration and motivation.

Weekend 2- Intro2Industry:

The into2industry weekend in September was a further opportunity to hang out with my cool group of new writer friends. It was also an opportunity to hear from writers, publishers, agents, booksellers and other industry professionals. For me the publishing industry was demystified. Throughout the weekend my emotions ranged from hope to a complete absence of hope and back again (regarding the chances of having a successful career as an Australian author). And I went home each night with a thumping headache from listening so hard. The most salient messages for me were that there is no one path to publication and that getting your first book deal is just the beginning.

After an interesting discussion of social media, I think most participants started a Facebook author page or opened a twitter account (it was twitter for me and I’m still not sure I’m using it correctly).

Then we all went home and applied for Round 2, where 30 would be whittled down to 10 (well actually 11 in this instance). More on that to come…

 

HARDCOPY is an initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and has been supported by the Australia Council for the Arts

 

 

How to Clone a Neandertal

knochenhaufenneanderthaler1856

After hearing the claims of Harvard geneticist George Church that it could be possible to clone a Neandertal I began writing a novel (and short stories set in the world of this novel) exploring the lives of cloned Neandertals. But is Neandertal cloning really a scientific possibility?

What exactly is cloning anyway?

When referring to biological organisms cloning is defined as the process of creating an exact copy of a DNA sequence, cell or organism. So for example the famous Dolly the Sheep was made as an exact copy of an adult sheep through the use of the adult sheep’s genetic material (DNA). The assumption is that any organism whose DNA we have access to can then be cloned using the blueprint encoded on that DNA.

 How do we do clone an animal?

To date the only way cloning has ever occurred is by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). A somatic cell is a bodily cell, say from the skin or muscle, which is not a reproductive cell (the reproductive cells being the sperm and eggs). SCNT involves transferring the nucleus (the region of the cell where DNA resides) of a cell from one organism into the egg cell of a host organism. When the technique is successful, we get an animal that is genetically very similar to the original animal.

 Can we use SCNT to clone a Neandertal?

Even though Svante Pääbo and colleagues completed the first sequence of the Neandertal genome in 2010 we can’t use SCNT for cloning Neandertals (or any other extinct organism such as a mammoth or a dodo). Due to the degradation of cells and DNA after an animal’s death (even if they are frozen in permafrost) it has proven impossible to isolate an intact somatic cell or nucleus from long-dead animals. Only intact somatic cells contain the complete and properly packaged genetic material required to create a viable clone. To produce an organism the genome must be sitting on chromosomes and on the proper number of chromosomes (chromosomes are structures composed of DNA and proteins that organise the genetic material in the nucleus). Without chromosomes cells can’t divide to form a whole organism.

Alternative method for Neandertal cloning

Svante Pääbo and colleagues found Neandertal and modern human genomes are 99.84% identical. Harvard geneticist George Church suggested using gene editing techniques (such as CRISPR/cas9) to transform human embryonic stem cell DNA into Neanderthal-like embryonic stem cell DNA by altering the sections of the genome where modern humans and Neandertals differ. From embryonic stem cells an embryo could be generated and grown into a Neandertal-like baby.

What is CRISPR/Cas9?

CRISPR/Cas9 is a defence mechanism found in a wide range of bacteria. CRISPR is a collection of DNA sequences in the bacterial genome which represent dangerous viruses. The second part of the defence mechanism is a set of enzymes called Cas (CRISPR-associated proteins), which can precisely snip DNA and destroy invading viruses based on RNA molecules (another type of biological molecule) constructed using the CRISPR sequences.

 How can CRISPR/Cas9 assist in transforming modern human cells into Neandertal-like cells?

Biologists have recently co-opted the ingenious CRISPR/Cas9 system for precision genome editing in the laboratory. If they feed Cas9 the right CRISPR-RNA sequence they can cut the DNA wherever they want.

If the desired Neandertal sequences (synthesized in the laboratory by stringing DNA bases together using the Neandertal genome as a template) are added at the same time then cellular repair systems can use these DNA sequences to repair sections of the genome removed by Cas9. The result being a modern human genome edited to closely resemble the Neandertal genome.

This is not a foolproof system, however. Occasionally the Cas9 enzyme cuts in the wrong place and the desired replacement sequence is not always incorporated. Cells need to be tested to determine whether or not the editing process has been successful.

3d render of dna structure, abstract  background
3d render of dna structure, abstract background

Summary of the steps required to clone a Neandertal

Steps:

  • Assemble the Neandertal genome
  • Compare the genome to modern human genome
  • Identify places where genome differs and requires alteration
  • Synthesize strands of Neandertal DNA matching genomic regions to be changed
  • Design CRISPR-RNAs to represent regions of DNA to be replaced
  • Deliver CRISPR-RNAs, Cas9 enzymes and synthesized strands of Neandertal DNA into modern human embryonic stem cell
  • Measure cell expression to see if it Neandertal genes are incorporated and functioning
  • Push the embryonic stem cell to start developing
  • Implant the embryo into the womb of a surrogate mother for gestation and birth

Possible Complications

It’s likely to require many attempts to achieve Neandertal cloning success. Embryos that are not viable would die early, possibly before implantation. Implantation in the surrogate mother would depend upon compatibility between the embryo and surrogate and even if an embryo was brought to term, there’s a high likelihood that the infant would die soon afterwards or have significant health problems due to errors in the gene-editing process.

Conclusion

While it is theoretically possible to clone a Neandertal, (or more accurately reverse-engineer a modern human cell to produce a Neandertal-like embryo), it’s a complicated and technically difficult process with a large chance of failure (even cloning animals such as Dolly the sheep results in a high percentage of failure and deformity). It is also likely to be a time-consuming and expensive process and without a compelling reason to do so I can’t imagine why anyone would attempt it. Then there is the question of what we would do with a cloned Neandertal once we had succeeded in creating one. For more of my thoughts on this refer to my short story Planet of the Neandertals published in Don’t Open Till Doomsday.