Category Archives: Writing

Spring Water

Spring is making itself known here in Fife. First off was the snowdrops, which I knew from extensive research (reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are the first sign of spring. Now some purple and yellow flowers have started to appear. I’ve been informed these are crocuses; another plant I only know from books.

#spring is springing #scotland #flowers

A post shared by Cat Hellisen (@cat_hellisen) on

One thing there’s no shortage of here in Scotland is water (it’s coming through my roof, which is…less fun), and Water is also the wonderful anthology I am very proud to have been part of. A collection of African short stories from across the continent and diaspora, it received this lovely write up from WAWA BOOK REVIEW:

What plays out in this rich collection is a stimulating re-imagination of water: as giver and taker of life, as nourisher of life and harbinger of woe, as purifier, as an unstoppable change agent. Each of the writers featured in this anthology dares to plunge into deep water to deliver a rich serving, a robust contribution to the discourse of life (reminding us that the African story is not a single trite tale but, like water, a refreshing outlet into the intricate design of a fertile continent).

The review had kind things to say about my story and I was so happy to read this:

Perhaps the boldest in the collection, Cat Hellisen’s ‘The Worme Bridge’ captures the unsettling transformation of an entire family into scaly aquatic creatures. The gripping story almost forcefully drags the reader into the strange world of the unfortunate family, pushing the borders of imagination to the lofty realm from which the writer conceived this grim tale.

If you haven’t yet checked out the anthology, it’s available internationally via Amazon in either paperback or ebook format.

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STEAMPUNK STORYBUNDLE

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It’s kinda odd to be (sort-of) included in a Steampunk Storybundle because I’ve never considered myself a massive fan of the steampunk/clockpunk movement. (despite the fact that there are some awesome names there – Cat Rambo, Genevieve Valentine – obviously I need to check my presumptions at the door like whoa). Partly it was because a lot of the “Victoriana But With Goggles!” motif felt very one-dimensional, but there are writers in the genre who I’ve enjoyed. They take a slightly different angle with the concept, and the stories are substance over flash. You’ll see there is also the South East Asian steampunk collection, The SEA Is Ours, in that bundle, so definitely not a one-dimensional package.

When I was  initially asked if I’d be interested in contributing to a ghost steampunk anthology my first thought was “why me?”. Then I realised I’ve been writing so much stuff that fits a loose definition of the genre but without the Victorian and colonial trappings, so I plunged back into my Three Dog Dreaming-verse, and wrote a story about love and ghosts and roosters, which was included in the anthology Ghost In The Cogs.

 

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It is winter in Pal-em-Rasha and all the roosters have been strangled. We are in mourning. The prince was born white and strange, his dead sister clinging to his heel, and since then, three weeks have passed without cock-crow.

People work with their heads bowed and their lips pinched. In the markets—normally ringing with calls and shouts and trades—money falls from palm to palm in muffled offerings. Even the People of the Dogs wrap the hooves of their shaggy red oxen with rags when they come down to the city from their mountain homes. Peasants chase the monkeys away from the orange groves and the tamarind trees, and the leaves hang dry and limp. The little brown doves do not heed the king’s order for silence, and they line the buildings, chuckling at each other in low coos, taking turns to steal the fallen rice from between the road stones.

 

I would definitely recommend that readers also check out the work of Beth Bernobich and Lisa Mantchev if they want to read more within the genre.

An Update on Newsletters

Once, long ago, I tried to get the whole newsletter thing going but it all felt very frustrating for me and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do the sort of thing I saw in other author newsletters. I’m not really the type of writer who is going to hand you a how-to on publishing, or an ebook on marketing. Man, if I knew how to do those things properly, I’m sure I would have a great newsletter for you. But I’m still learning.

What I do know how to do is be myself. Sometimes that means I witter on about inspirations, or I talk about the books I’ve read or shows I’ve watched. Sometimes it means snippeting, or cheerleading people to write 100 words with me. Sometimes it means arting, or running, or wibbling. Occasionally I’ll come to a realisation about writing or publishing and share my moment of *ahem* genius with the world at large.

So that’s what you’re going to get when you subscribe to a newsletter written by me. It’ll be me, being me. A roundup of me. If that doesn’t get you excited then I don’t know what will.

But just in case that didn’t work, I’m giving you two choices:

 

THIS:

OR THIS:

 

These are a few of my favourite things…

It’s in your head now, isn’t it. Sorry.

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But actually I’m talking about the things I love in stories: subtle magic, tea, sleight of hand, labyrinths, drugs, queerity, deceit, love as war, found family, gardening, seduction.

What’s subtle magic? It’s a pretty wide umbrella – think of anything from Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy books or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels which have no magic but feel magical, to Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books, which are about a magician and has talking dragons. I’m not overly interested in the kind of mages throwing spells in battle stuff that sometimes gets tossed my way because I say I like fantasy.

Tea’s easy. I love tea, but what I mean by tea is more the salon, the tea-room, the empty bar, gin and glass and porcelain. It’s the connections made and the battle lines drawn over polite sips. This actually ties in with deceit, legerdemain and seduction. All are facets of the same prism.

Labyrinths have always fascinated me. Whether we’re talking  mazes that could lead you out of this reality and into another, or House of Leaves, or meditative religious labyrinths designed to centre the mind and spirit, they turn up in all my writing thought processes (even if they’re not always overtly in the story.)

Queerity is my word for the people and spaces between the norm. It includes genderqueer, but also the idea of houses as identities, of cities as characters, stories as maps, human bodies as novels and paintings. Queerity and drugs often go hand in hand in my work. Think Tanith Lee and Clive Barker.

Love as war. Self-explanatory, I think. Ellen Kushner does it beautifully in her Swordspoint books, though she might not call it by the same name.

Found family and gardening are the same thing. Community, socialism, gifting, friendship, family structure. I don’t see enough of this currently in the SFF I read, but I have stumbled over it here and there in small doses.

Someone on twitter pointed out that my list of loves sounds a lot like my first book. Which made me happy. I wasn’t doing promo, but it was good to see that what I love does come through in what I write. I need to hold onto the things I love and share them with the like-minded.

So what’s on your list?

DAY 7! And cookies were needed. Also, gin.

The first few days of nano (or fauxnano, or #100words, or whatever you’re doing to get through November) are always the easiest. You’re still fresh, full of zing! Held aloft on a wave of naivety and sheer clueless joy.

By day seven, that wave has crashed into the soggy shores of Bugger All This For A Lark, and your zing has gone the way of all things. Returned to the foul earth, trampled underfoot. I’m here to tell you it’s only going to get shittier. But that’s good. Because if you know now already that it’s probably going to be less fun than grating your face with a rusty zester, you’ll trudge on regardless, carving out terrible prose with a grim determination matched only by dying men trekking through the snow.

On the plus side, you probably won’t have to kill and eat your own dog, so in that sense nano’s a winner.

I’m not here to lie to you. Middles are the Worst. Week two and three are going to suck. Your plot is going to fall apart, your characters are gonna be dumb as fuck, and your dialogue will sound like it was written by a person who was raised by lemurs and has yet to meet and converse with another human. What is werds even.

This is normal. This is first-draft fast-draft suck, and it’s okay. You don’t have to delete anything, you just have to write a different scene, or tackle the story from a different PoV, or go all Tolkien and have your characters start singing a forty-nine verse song. You’re finding your way through the snow.

There are ways to get yourself through this. It being nano – you can have word wars, you can pick a word of the day and incorporate it into your scene. I usually find setting myself a 15 minute writing sprint can give me a fair number of words. A few of those scattered through the day can get me to my minimum.

Don’t read back. Guys, it’s Nano, no-one is expecting works of scintillating genius. At this point if what you’re writing is barely above See Jane Run, you’re probably golden.

Go. Have fun. Don’t die in the snow.

 

 

 

Building a Wall.

A good while back I interviewed Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer for Bookslive about their collaboration as Frank Owen, and their “Cowboy Apocalypse” novel SOUTH.

Interested in what these two immensely talented writers had to say about their process, their world-building, and the things that inspired the horror of the world that is South of the Wall?  Read on.

SOUTH

 

Cat:  You’re very different writers in terms of stories and styles and backgrounds. Can you tell us a little about Frank Owen, and the different facets of Diane and Alex that go into making him the writer he is?

Alex: Writing is a personal process, and so it took some time to figure out how best to write together. The way I saw it was that I’d drive the story line – try to get the pace and plot going so that there’s something happening in every chapter. Then over that Diane brings a very accessible but literary style – smart and layered and mesmerising.

Cat: P.J. O’Rourke once made the comparison between the Voortrekkers and the American pioneers, noting how much they have in common. Do things like this give you the overlap to make the story engaging for both American and South African audiences?

Alex: We were both initially uncomfortable with the idea of setting it in America since neither of us has spent much time there – but even so, the place didn’t feel foreign to write. That stems largely from the cultural colonisation that America has been doing for a century, through movies and books and big brands. America has become both a country and a genre. We’re writing in the genre.

Cat: South is an alternative history of the US, with the timeline deliberately fudged. We spoke about this Great Divide you create in your version of America. You are also able to draw on your South African experience. What were your thought processes while building this United America?

Alex: This story is basically a transposition of apartheid onto the American continent, though the dividing line is literally one border – a bit like the ‘homelands’. ‘South’ explores what apartheid might look like there.

Cat: The characters in ‘South’ run the gamut, and there were those I hated, those I wanted to give a good kick up the arse, and those I loved. Could you talk to us a bit about your favourites to write, and how you approached the heroes and villains in your story?

Alex: The backbone of the narrative rests on our favourite: Felix Callahan, an ex-TV salesman and amateur meteorologist living in an underground shack. He’s pivotal, yet he’s a reluctant participant the whole way through. We like him because his agenda is pretty clear. He’s not motivated by love or money, but by the hope that he might be left alone to drink his whiskey.

Every villain in South is really only trying to survive. They’re not malicious for the sake of it. The real villains are up North, since they’re the ones who’ve decimated everything below the border. Those guys we deal with in the next book, North.

Cat: South has a distinct Dark Tower (Stephen King) feel, though your story has stripped the magic and replaced it with science. Was King a deliberate influence? What other stories fed into the writing of South?

Diane: King is God. But all of Bradbury and Le Guin get a nod, too. Michiel Heyns’s ‘The Reluctant Passenger’ and Claire Robertson’s ‘The Spiral House’ resonated. Real news stories infected the writing: Wouter Basson repeatedly getting away with his apartheid experimentation; Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit that lets mushrooms do the decomposition work after your death.

Cat: I know both of you have strong feelings on music. Was getting into the sound of the south important for you while working on this series?

Diane: I kept listening to Miss Texas 1977’s ‘Nettles’, and it twanged something in my head. Books are ballads, too. The curated nostalgia inherent in bluegrass and folk is fascinating – that history and experience that you find in every culture:

Johannes Kerkorrel and the Gereformeerde Blues Band; Valiant Swart. I also stumbled on The Civil Wars, and Iron Head Baker – the prisoner who first sang ‘Black Betty’.

And Gene Kierman of Miss Texas composed two tracks for the series. They’ll be downloadable from the site.

Cat:  I had some difficulties with accepting certain things – the winds and the viruses, and later the mushrooms. It turns out all this is plausible. Can you talk about the research?

Diane: A lot of mushrooms – like shiitake and oyster, not psychedelic ‘boomers’ – really are anti-viral as well as anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. China has known this for 10 000 years. Our government ought to be researching the hell out of these things. Mushrooms have direct implications for HIV, TB, hepatitis, and the common cold. They literally grow in wood and – usually – horseshit, though on a formal scale it’s a pasteurised substrate. Kimberley farmers tried large-scale oyster-mushroom farming in De Beers’s abandoned mine shafts: I’ve eaten some of those babies. South Africa has loads of sites – Mushroom Guru, Funguys Gourmet, and so on.

 

As always, it was a pleasure chatting with these two immensely talented humans, and I suggest you go check out South. And maybe stock up on mushrooms….

 

Getting Ready for the Weekend and Remembering faces

Hev1LeL

So this weekend is Kingsmead Book Fair, and I am pretty excited to be part of this, on a panel with Joanne Macgregor, Edyth Bulbring, and chaired by Bontle Senne.

 

We’re on at 13:45 in the Gym:

LOVE CAN MAKE YOU BEAUTIFUL
GymYoung Adult novelists Edyth Bulbring(Snitch)Cat Hellisen(Beastkeeper) and Joanne Macgregor(Scarred) discuss the themes of bullying and bloodlines, beauties and beasts and the transformative power of first love. Chaired by fellow youth writer Bontle Senne.

There will be an SASL interpreter at this session.

Now, fun stuff aside, I’m going to offer an apology in advance, and a small explanation.

Firstly, if you see me and want to say hi, PLEASE DO!

 

Secondly, even if we have met several times before, it’s probable I won’t recognise you. This is not because of you, it’s because of me. I have great difficulty remembering names and faces. I try very hard to build up a mental index card that matches people up, but if you do something like comb your hair differently, wear (or not wear) glasses, change your clothes, meet me in a different place, my index cards get scrambled and I need to re-sort them. This can take a while, and it’s very embarrassing for me because I hate making people feel like I don’t care who they are. I really do care, I just have an actual problem. The problem is made worse when I am anxious or stressed, and public situations make me both.

 

So, if it appears I have no idea who you are, just be gentle and say your name and remind me when we last saw each other and I can reshuffle my index.  😀

 

I other news, I’ve put CHARM up on Smashwords with a new cover, and added my Mundus short story Oma Zoli’s Mirror.

charm(1)Irene Kerry has grown up with the memory of her mother’s suicide, and has been in love with her best friend Rain for as long as she can remember. She thinks she’s dealing with both just fine until the day her best friend falls in love with a much older man. A man who knew her mother, and believes Irene is a magician like her. In order to protect her friend and family, Irene gets dragged into a hunt for an ancient magician who steals and eats magic, and discovers that the things she thought she knew about her mother’s death were all lies.

 

 

 

 

OMA ZOLI'S MIRRORDylan McKenzie is a collector of magical artifacts from this world and others, but when a voice underground tells him to look for his heart’s desire, he is pulled into the web of a fallen goddess, sent to murder her sister and bring back her soul.

Oma Zoli’s Mirror shows your heart’s desire. Or her heart. Or her desire. She spins webs to get what she wants, but will the man she’s trapped do as she commands?

Gimme100 and the May Patreon Project

May is feeling pretty damn stressful. I’m still trying to sort out paperwork for the UK immigration thang, I miss that guy what I married once, I may have an aikido grading coming up, I’m still fixing the house, and I’m trying to reignite an old project for the agent-person. Add to that, I’ll be away part of May for the Kingsmead Book Fair.

Hev1LeLSo yeah. Feeling a wee bit eeeeeeek.

But mainly I need to be productive and all that nonsense, so to that end I have two small projects running. The first is a twitter-based bit of fun designed to get over that horrible feeling of, “oh god, words, they are scary, I cant make them, I’m going to watch Sherlock (again) instead.”

It’s called #gimme100, and the premise is that simple – give me 100 words every day. You can write more, but don’t write less.

and people have started joining in, which is pretty cool.

My other project is for Patreon, where I’m growing a story from seed, showing how I grow, compost and prune a short piece of writing.

Growing Stories in small spaces

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(start here)

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(previous)

I heard funeral chants. They were distant dreams while I was buried under a blanket of soft goat wool. I was neither awake nor asleep. Instead of being alive, I lay in a half-world of raging sands and alternating fogs so damp and heavy that they pinned my arms to my sides, kept my eyelids pressed shut. It was better to stay there than wake and deal with everything I’d lost.

My skin feels tender and stretched, even the slightest movements pull at stitches, remind me of my bruises.

Read More →

Finding new shapes in words

I’ve spoken a bit before about losing the joy in writing. For a good while now (since writing and selling Beastkeeper), I’ve been struggling with my novel-writing. No matter how many novels I start, I decide they are trash, will never sell, and that I’m wasting my time. I junk that book and start the next one, hoping that this time I can stop sounding like Cat Hellisen and instead write something that will appeal to a wider range of readers and therefore to editors.

Lather, rinse, repeat, because you know how people talk about “finding their voice”? Yeah. I have a voice. This is my voice. If we were talking in terms of singing, I am not Britney Spears or Lady Gaga or anyone else whose name you know. Maybe I’m Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy  (though he’s more productive and better known than me, Especially as The Palace Brothers, which was my intro to his sound, so…maybe not). Still if this is what I sound like to other people then it might explain my lack of chart success. (FTR, this is one of my favourite songs).

Anyway, so now I have to take a different path. Less of the “finding my voice” and more of the “accepting my voice”. Knowing its limitations and working on those areas, reveling in the bits that sound like no one else but me.

But that means not throwing away the stuff I’m working on, and damn, let me tell you – that’s scary. To keep writing something even if you know most people are going to go eh, whatever, Next! That goes against everything I wanted for myself as a writer (a career, fans, books in book stores).

So I’m doing it in small steps. I am writing 750 words a day on my novella and NOT DELETING because Cat, you can fix this later, stop hating on everything you write. At least for the moment.

I’m remembering to enjoy doing small things that give me space to sing – like poetry, or fanfiction, or flash pieces. Stop worrying about selling by writing stuff that I know already doesn’t sell, so it doesn’t matter.

The Migratory Patterns of Family Recipes

When I am done with the novella, my agent wants me to work on an old novel that I had (once, again) abandoned, and it is all stitchery and witchery and women’s gods and women’s power, so I am pretty excited to get back into that world. This is why I write, so I can play.

In the mean while I have books out there on submission, and one day they will find the editors they are meant to find. Or they won’t. And that’s just how it goes. All I can do is keep writing small and large about the things that interest me. Making up my own songs, drumming my own beat.