Sunday, January 29, 2012

A few words with Tracie McBride

Today, fellow author and dweller of the southern hemisphere, Tracie McBride, joins me on my blog. Like me, she wears many hats, and not only writes but edits. Welcome, Tracie!

You've been writing for quite a while now, and have short stories available in a number of anthologies. Can you tell us a little about the general theme of your tales? Which of your shorts are your three favourites of all time, and also, would you ever plan on a novel-length work?

One of the advantages of being a short story writer is that I have the luxury of exploring a multitude of themes. Having said that, there are some I keep returning to because they’re lodged deep down in my psyche. Often I’ll intertwine the banality and familiarity of modern-day suburban life with surreal or horrific elements. Parenthood and other familial relationships also come under the microscope often.

I’m glad you asked for my three favourites instead of just one, because it’s a bit like having to choose which one of my children is my favourite. In no particular order, I choose –
Baptism, in which a young friar attempts to convert a pod of predatory mermaids to Christianity.

Ghosts Can Bleed, the title story of my collection, which deals with themes of grief and the despair of a life lived without meaning.

Last Chance To See, the story of a woman who is killed in a car accident and is given a ‘loaner’ prosthetic body to extend her life by another 24 hours. This story was inspired by my aunt Noeline who died of cancer in 2008.

Writing a novel remains an elusive goal; the official line is that I’m waiting for a novel-worthy idea to come to me, but the truth is that the thought of writing a novel scares me. I enjoy the immediacy of the short story, the more readily attainable goal of completion and publication, the liberty to experiment with voice and structure that is harder to get away with in longer works, and the challenge of expressing my ideas in as few words as possible.

The short story is quite a different beast from novella and novel-length works. What, in your opinion, are the hallmarks of a great short story? What are some of the issues you see in short story submissions for anthologies?

I have particular tastes in short stories. I like a story that makes me sit back at the end and say, “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that.” Stories that leave a little mystery and room for the reader to interpret it in their own way.Stories that are elegantly constructed with subtle and well-crafted (but never over-laboured) imagery.

I read slush Dark Moon Digest, a US-based horror magazine. The number one issue is a poorly crafted story. If a writer mixes up his or her tenses, doesn’t know how to punctuate dialogue correctly or hands out adverbs like lollies, then I find it difficult to see past the craft to the story within. Number two is a lack of originality. I come across a lot of clich├ęd concepts and overused tropes.

Electronic publishing has created fantastic opportunities for writers, but it's also resulted in a slew of published works that needed a bit of extra spit and polish before release. What's your advice to writers who're embarking on self-publishing?

Oh boy – you’re trying to get me into trouble, aren’t you? I’m full of advice for indie writers, especially for those at the beginning of their career, but I find that many of them aren’t very receptive to constructive (or any) criticism. I’ll try to limit it to three key pieces of advice.

1) In the absence of a competent editor (and let’s face it, how many indie writers can afford one?) join a critique group. In particular, join a group that has members who are further along in their writing career than you are.

2) Learn to accept criticism with good grace. Even better, learn to heed it.

3) Read widely. Read outside your favourite genres. Read intensively within your favourite genres. Buy books on the craft of writing. Keep those books by your bedside and re-read them until you’ve memorised them.

Small presses. There are hundreds, if not thousands more of them around compared to just a few years ago, and it seems like every Tom, Dick and Harry considers himself a publisher. How does one discern whether a publisher is legit, and what are the benefits of entrusting one's writing to a small press as opposed to going it alone?

I don’t know if I’m the right person to ask this question. Because I write short stories and poetry, I have less invested in finding the ‘right’ publisher, so I have a cavalier attitude to choosing a publisher; if they promise to pay me for my contribution and send me a contributor copy, then they’re OK by me. But for fledgling novelists, my advice is to become involved in the writing community (although the act of writing is a solitary exercise, the business of being a writer is not). Join writers’ groups, Facebook groups and professional organizations such as the HWA. Listen out for news, watch where other writers are submitting and observe who wins awards. Dodgy or under-performing publishers will be outed soon enough.

For me, the biggest advantage of signing with a small press is that it provides me external validation and an honest appraisal of the value of my work; they’re not my mother, they’re not my best friend, they don’t have to say they like my work if they don’t want to, and yet here they are saying that they like it well enough to pay me for the privilege of publishing it. Another advantage is that, although small presses don’t have the resources of a major publishing house, they can still expose your book to a wider audience than you can reach on your own. And unless you’re a particularly multi-talented or resourceful writer, the editing, layout and cover design work will be superior to what you’ll be able to afford or achieve on your own.

Please tell us a bit more about your title that's just seen release with Dark Continents' Tales of Darkness and Dismay collection. What were your intentions when you and John Irvine started discussing initial concepts?

The collection is called April Fool and other Antipodean horror stories. It contains three short stories by John Irvine and two by me. John and I share a country of origin (New Zealand), a love of speculative poetry and brevity in storytelling, and a certain dark and dry sense of humour. We’re also both board members of Dark Continents Publishing. And that’s about the extent of our commonalities. So rather than work with a cohesive theme, we’ve gone in the opposite direction by compiling a collection that showcases the diversity of style and theme to be found in Antipodean horror.

Tell us more about Dark Continents Publishing (DCP). I've had the pleasure of reviewing a number of the full-length horror/dark fantasy titles, all of which blew me away as a fresh approach to non-mainstream writing with a serious literary edge to the genre. DCP allows its authors to retain a very authentic voice and a high quality of writing in general, which has been refreshing. What makes DCP special, especially as a "gatekeeper" in current times when it's sometimes difficult to find good-quality fiction among the slew of releases?

First of all – thank you very much! Like most small press, we’re not as driven by financial imperatives as the major publishing houses, so we can afford to take risks and choose novels on the basis of quality rather than looking solely at their likelihood of mainstream commercial success. We have global distribution through our printer Lightning Source and their distribution chain, so we’re not restricted to tailoring our publications to a limited geographical appeal. We’re small, we’re quick, we’re flexible and we’re adaptable. But the main reason DCP is special is that we’re all writers ourselves. We understand the creative process.And we know the difference between sanding down a novel to generic blandness and polishing it until it gleams.

Buy Ghosts Can Bleed here and April Fool here.
Follow Tracie's blog here.