by Ian McHugh

With the re-release of her Dream of Asarlai trilogy as an e-book omnibus, I took the opportunity to interview Our Nicole about the books, her writing process, cover letters, using life model decoys and planning like Rimmer from Red Dwarf (you’ll see).

COV_DreamOfAsarlaiDream of Asarlai Trilogy

An exciting Urban Fantasy trilogy full of intrigue, action and a hint of romance. For centuries, the gadda have worked to keep their identity secret from the rapidly expanding human race. All this is now at risk – the most terrible of gadda teachings, the Forbidden Texts, have been stolen and the race is on to find them. Asarlai believes the gadda should rule the world, and she will risk everything, and everyone, to achieve her ambition. As the body-count mounts, Asarlai finds a powerful ally and the pressure builds to stop her and retrieve the Forbidden Texts before she can change the world forever. Join Maggie Shaunessy, Ione Gorton and Hampton Rouke on their quests to save what is dear to them … and the world as they know it.

Praise for Nicole Murphy: ‘engaging’ DAILY TELEGRAPH, ‘compelling’ KIWI REVIEWS, ‘fresh and interesting approach to an urban fantasy series’ Bookseller+Publisher, ‘a rollicking romp through the space where romance and fantasy collide’ The Courier-Mail

– – –

In terms of your current writing projects, The Dream of Asarlai trilogy must seem like a bit of a blast from the past for you as the author. How does it feel to have the books re-issued as an omnibus edition?

It feels amazing! I love that the publisher, HarperCollins, has enough faith in these books that they’re prepared to do this for them. Even though, quite frankly, the sales haven’t been fantastic. I’ve believed in these books from the beginning, have been sure there’s an audience out there for them, it’s just a matter of finding them. It’s nice that my publisher has the same belief and is willing to try new things to find that audience.

I happen to think the main audience for these books is the US, so now that the ebooks are being published in this omnibus and the price point is much better than for the individual books, I’m hoping that a new round of marketing will start having some cut through. That said, you never know what will make a book sell or what doesn’t, so it could all be wishful thinking on my behalf.

But I love these books and I’m so glad to see them get another chance.

You’ve gotta love a story that keeps on giving. 

I’m calling this ‘The trilogy that will not die’ :)

In contrast to your short fiction, your book projects, both published and forthcoming, sit pretty squarely in the romance genres – paranormal or otherwise. Do you think you’ve found your niche as a novelist? Or just what’s working for you now?

I think it’s a bit of both. My style, which is quite active and simple, suits these types of stories. Also, my main interest in terms of writing is portrayals of women, and in particular women’s sexuality. I’m interested in exploring and showing as many different aspects of that as I can.

Writing romance in short story form is hard. For a while, I thought it impossible, which might be why so few of my short stories have any romance (although I’ve been doing more of it). On the other hand, the fact many of my shorts are so different to my novels shows that I’ve more than that one area of interest, so it’s possible that over time, I’ll morph out of romance and into other things.

I started writing epic fantasy, and I’ve always loved a good murder mystery. So maybe one of those two will come into play eventually.

An epic murder romance fantasy! 

I kinda think George RR Martin has this one covered. And people have a go at me about the amount of sex in my stories. Jeez!

Is there any kind of romance, especially speculative-romance, that you don’t think you could ever write? Is there any kind that you haven’t tried your hand at yet but would like to? Would you need to do it under another secret nom de plume so people won’t think you’re dirty(er) and weird(er)?

I’ll leave it to people to read ‘Release’, the collection of paranormal erotic novellas that’s coming out in June under my Elizabeth Dunk name, and then judge if I need to worry about people thinking I’m dirtier than they currently do. As for weird – I’d love to be weird, but I think all I’ll ever manage is quirky and I don’t think that requires a secret nom de plume. Although if I did have one, it would have to be something awesome, like Agneskia Morgentrude, or something.

The romance I don’t think I could every write is the inspiration, or religious-based romance. I’ve read some fabulous books in this sub-genre, but I’m too earthy to be that pure J As for what I’d like to write – I would have said a real zombie romance, sexy and hot but squelchy and stuff as well, but then last week I read Erica Hayes’ Demon Chained and she’s freakin’ done it, and it’s awesome and more than a little disturbing, so there’s that done. I’d love one day to come up with a NEW vampire romance idea, but nothing I’ve thought of so far has been anywhere near original enough. So the two things that are playing on my mind are to a) write a real Mills & Boon romance (they’re called category romance in the industry and don’t believe what people say about that formula thing – they are freakin’ hard!) and b) a Regency romance. I have the idea for this one.

That said, I’ve also got an idea for a new science fiction romance, and there’s the fantasy romance I need to pull out of the trunk and save, and I’ve got a few contempory romances that I’ve drafted and need to work on, and if Release does well then I’ll HAVE to write some more erotica and I’ve started to work on an idea for that…

 Two more questions from that one: You mention Erica Hayes as a writer who’s written a kind of story you’d like to write yourself; who is another writer who writes the stuff you love but don’t think you can write yourself? And: There’s plenty of different kinds of monster romance, in my (admittedly limited) experience and vampires aside, it always seems to be the guy who’s the monster – is that true? If it is, is there scope in the genre for it to be otherwise? (Okay, that’s three questions, but I think we both understand that we’re writers here, not adder-uppers.)

Let this be a salient lesson to all the up-and-coming writers up there – if  you can’t add up yourself, either get a good accountant on retainer or find a friend or family member who can. Cause if you’re going to be as successful as you dream of being, maths IS going to be part of your life.

I’d like to point out that Erica doesn’t just write the type of story I’d love to write – her writing itself is sublime, particularly in the Shadowfae books. Rich and descriptive and sensual and you just sink into the words and the beauty and almost forget that she’s made a whole genre really writing urban fantasy based on Melbourne’s underworld, with crooks and gang bosses and murderers as the heroes and heroines. Awesome stuff.

There’s loads of books I’d love to have written, of course, but actually the thing for me is that I’d love to write more atmospheric stuff. Books with imagery that haunts you, even when the actual story itself is fading away. You write like that, and so does Kaaron Warren and Margo Lanagan. That’s the type of stuff I’d love to write but know I never could.

There is a very definite sense in the majority of monster romance that it’s the man that’s the monster. My theory behind this is because for a while, these stories were where alpha heroes went. We went off them in romance – well, they could be alpha-ish, but they couldn’t be too harsh, or two cold, even if the heroine did redeem them by the end of the story. Whereas vampires and werewolves HAVE to be like that, so we could have our deep, dark, tortured hero who by the end of the book is still deep, dark and tortured except when the heroine is around and then they become a marshmallow. But there’s definitely scope for the girl to be the monster. For example, in Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate series, to an extent Alexia Tarrabotti is the monster, because she is able to turn the supernatural to human with just her touch. Everyone is either scared of her or wants to use her. Erica’s heroines are definitely as monsterous as the heroes. Keri Arthur’s Riley Jenson is a werewolf/vampire hybrid and she well and truly matches it with the men and in some cases, is much more badass.

There – two questions with one answer. That’s how you do it!

The next few questions I’m hitting up everyone with:

A book needs a good elevator pitch. What was your pitch for The Dream of Asarlai?

Oh, dear lord. I didn’t have an elevator pitch for the Dream of Asarlai and honestly, I’m not entirely sure what I’d say! This is the query letter that I sent Stephanie Smith in 2009. Based on this letter, Steph asked to see the full manuscript and the book was signed by HarperCollins four months later (which is should be noted is RIDICULOUSLY fast in the publishing world, so this is one of those ‘it can happen’ things, not a ‘this is how it happens’ thing). Also note the original titles – took Steph and I AGES to come up with the ones that were eventually used. I suck at titles.

“Dear Ms Smith

LOVE IN CONTROL is a modern fantasy romance at 107,500 words.

What would you go through to keep your identity secret from all of society? That is the dilemma facing the gadda, a race of people who live on Earth amongst humans and can perform magic. The question becomes very important when a rogue gadda decides its time for her race to rule the world.

It’s a particularly pertinent question for Margaret Shaunessy, brought up amongst humans and wanting to be just like them. Maggie has no choice but to be gadda, but will she fully embrace it? When she meets Lucas Manly, who is gadda but doesn’t know it, it starts a chain of events that not only leads Maggie to the truth of who she is, but to a great love.

The story of the rogue gadda will arch over the three books of the series, called BALANCE OF POWER, while each novel contains a stand-alone romance featuring a new couple.

I worked for four and a half years as a newspaper journalist, finishing in January this year to focus on my fiction, and have had more than a dozen short stories published. I edited the anthology THE OUTCAST, published by CSFG Publishing in 2006 and edited Issue 25 of ANDROMEDA SPACEWAYS INFLIGHT MAGAZINE, published by Andromeda Spaceways Incorporated in 2006. I am very involved in fandom, having worked for five years on the committee for Conflux (including chairing the convention in 2007) and am on the committee for Aussiecon 4.

I have included the synosis of Love in Control, and the full manuscript is availble for reading. I thank you in advance for the time you have taken to consider this submission.”

“Love in Control”, eh? Yes, well. Ahem. “Balance of Power” isn’t bad, though. How did you get to Dream of Asarlai as the overall title? Was it you or Stephanie or someone else who came up with it?

I’ll have you know that ‘Love in Control’ would have worked BRILLIANTLY for a fantasy romance. That said, I so suck at titles that I wouldn’t take my word for it.

Coming up with the titles was a real saga. It was immediately clear my initial titles wouldn’t work – for the story it had become, ‘Love in Control’ no longer worked and we couldn’t use ‘Balance of Power’ because it’s the title of book by Richard North Patterson. So I came  up with a long list of ideas and sent them to Steph. None of them worked. So I came up with some more, and sent them to her. ‘Dream of Asarlai’ was originally a proposed title for the novel, but Steph liked it as the trilogy title. Great – so we had a trilogy title, but still no name for the book. It was so close that there was actually marketing material out there with the name ‘Love in Control’ on it…

So I came up with another list of possible novel titles. At this point, I sent it to Steph saying ‘That’s it, if we don’t get a title out of this, then I give up. Call the fricken books whatever you want…’ She came back with ‘actually, The Secret Ones isn’t too bad’. And lo, it was done. The cover designer dropped the ‘the’ because it didn’t fit the design. They also dropped the ‘R’ that used to be in the middle of my author name because it looked shit too. The reasons things happen…

The next title I came up with was for the third book – Rogue Gadda. The second book, Power Unbound, again took forever and again, it was only in the last week or two before print that we finally nailed it.

As a result, I am so not wedded to my titles of anything. Anytime a publisher wants to change it – go ahead. I suck so badly at it, you can’t do worse.

Thinking back to when you were writing the Dream of Asarlai books, what aspects of this story were new for you compared to previous stories, or challenged you to extend yourself – in terms of things like genre, character types, plotting or style?

Okay, let’s travel back in time to 2003. I’ve been at this ‘I’m going to be a writer and get published and be rich and famous gig’ for a couple of years at this point and quite frankly, I sucked at it. At the beginning of 2003, I had two realisations. A) I didn’t know how to edit to save my life and I needed to learn, quick smart, so I could turn the dross I was writing around into something saleable and B) I was kidding myself with all this epic fantasy and weird science fiction shit – I should be writing romance and I needed to bring it front and centre rather than have it as a subplot.

I’d come up with an idea, developed the world and decided it was going to be three books (not a linked trilogy at that point, but more a three book series – same world, some repeating characters, different story lines). I decided that series would going to be the one in which I actually wrote a real romance, and I taught myself to edit.

I was running my second hand bookstore in Sussex Inlet at the time, which was really just a front to sit somewhere and write. Luckily for me it didn’t make a lot of money or have a lot of customers, so I had a LOT of time to write. So I set out the schedule – I’d write a book a month (they were 60k books back then – the published version is 110k) then when all three were written, go back and do the first round of editing on all three, then when that was done go back and do the second round of editing.

It was a very strange process because I was being so deliberate in each step of the editing process as I taught myself, but it was worth it. I did learn to edit that year. And I learnt that I can write romance, and that I’m good at it. If not for that year, and those books, I have NO idea where I’d be right now. Probably not published in novel length form.

There’s a certain point when a writer is kicking around an idea for a story that they start to get excited about it, and in my experience it doesn’t always happen right away. What was that moment of excitement for you with The Dream of Asarlai?

Dream of Asarlai started as an actual dream – I dreamt about a girl who was working in a university and having an affair with a hot guy but she was hiding from him the fact that she was a witch. As soon as I woke up, I started working on it. I knew straight away I didn’t want to do regular witches, but that I wanted to develop my own race of magical beings.

At first, I tried to have this race come from Australia, but I just couldn’t get my head around the idea of this secret magical race co-existing with Indigenous Australia. How could I do that without stomping all over their mythology?

So I started to think laterally. If humanity began in Africa, what would be the most diametrically opposed country for a counter race of human-like creatures to evolve in. The answer immediately popped into my head – Ireland.

Then I realised how perfect that was. Ireland is THE land of myth and magic. What if all those stories about fairies and giants and so on were human beings’ recounting of encounters with a real, actual magical race? At that point, neurons fired and I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to get started.

And to this day, every time I go back to writing about the gadda (which by the way is a re-arranging of the name Dagda, who is one of the big-time fairies in Irish mythology) it feels comfortable and exciting to me.

So it was finding the right place. Interesting. 

I’ve always found have a clear sense of place really important to creating story and characters.

Without wanting you to give away any spoilers for the book(s), were there any darlings that you had to murder in writing The Dream of Asarlai, as in characters or scenes or plot threads that you were really attached to that the story was better without? If so, how long did it take you to realise that the darlings had to die and what made you realise?

Darlings galore. The big thing was the realisation in the final weeks before book three, Rogue Gadda, was due at the publisher that I’d basically ripped off the exact same plot point of book one. In both books, one of the protagonists was kidnapped. Different reasons, different results, but still I couldn’t do that. That was one of the in the shower realisations, and then you kick the wall and crush your toes and then you can’t walk… Luckily, the publisher had built in a bit of flexibility and so we were able to extend the deadline a few weeks, so I could rip it all out and re-write the last third of the book. That’s the only time I’ve not hit a deadline and hopefully it won’t happen again.

In terms of characters being removed, the big one was the heroine’s brother in Rogue Gadda. It was during the editing process – I have a system I use that helps me look at every scene really objectively. I realise that not one of the scenes he was involved in really did anything, and if they did so something it could be done in another way, without having him involved. So he went. It took a bit of re-writing, because I had to re-jig the plot as a result, but what I came up with was much more interesting.

The one that never was written, but to this day I wish could have been, was killing the hero in Rogue Gadda. Man, it would have been so awesome, because already he was a reader favourite, and it would have broken their little hearts and been a real talking point. But when you’re writing romance, the number one thing you DO NOT DO is fail to deliver the happily ever after. So, Hampton lived and he and Charlotte cooed at each other at the end. But I did manage to kill someone else (had a reasonably good body count in these books considering they’re romance) and I’m having fun torturing him in the follow-up trilogy…

Ah, The Princess Bride Rule: no point killing someone if you can leave them alive to suffer. Follow-up trilogy, eh? 

Stay tuned….

Also, I’ve seen – and tried – your scene-analysing system. Could you elaborate a little bit on it?

Sure. Where some people say they have issues turning their internal editor off, I have issues turning the pedantic little bitch on. So I’ve come up with a number of ways of doing this. The big one is what I call my colour charts:

Basically I use an excel spreadsheet to note down the following details for every scene in the book:

    • Scene name and page number – seriously, if you’re going to do anything like this, note down the page number. Nothing worse than recognising a scene needs to be re-written, or moved, or deleted or whatever and then having to scroll the manuscript to find it
    • Point of view character – for some genres this might be more important than others, but being able to see how many scenes various characters are narrating or leading can help you with the balance of the book. For example, when I did this for Rogue Gadda, I realised that Hampton had something like 31 of the 52 scenes, Charlotte the other 21. In some genres not an issue maybe but in romance, no way could the hero have that much more page time than the heroine. The heroine can have more (because romance is generally a genre about women) but the hero can’t. At least, not that much more. So I had to re-write a number of scenes – sometimes it was easy, because they were both in the scene, sometimes I had to change what was happening in the story or how I told it. I think the final count ended up more like 28 to Hampton, 24 to Charlotte. Still not a complete balance, but four scenes difference wouldn’t feel as unbalanced as ten scenes difference. And there was no more change I could make without completely changing the plot.
    • Time and place of the scene – time is important to ensure you’re keeping track of the time period the novel is happening over. You don’t want it to move ahead three months in time but they’re still tripping around in summer, for example. And the place as well needs to be kept track of. Sometimes you need both – Rogue Gadda was taking place in both Ireland and America, and Hampton would transfer from one to the other in a heartbeat so I needed to know the time he was leaving Sclossin to ensure he arrived in Boston at a suitable time, and vice versa
    • Scene description – writing a few sentences describing what a scene is about and what happens is great, because it makes you question whether this is important and whether it’s the best way to do it. Sometimes you realise that actually, this scene isn’t doing much at all and it exists for just one piece of information. So you transfer that piece of information to another scene, cut this one and presto – you’ve got extra wordage
    • Scene types – this is where the colours come in. I devise a list of scene types – something like ‘sitting around talking’, ‘sitting around thinking’, ‘full on action’, ‘medium action’, that sort of thing. Then I assign a colour eg all the sitting around talking scenes are orange. Once you assign a scene type via colour to each individual scene, you then get a very clear picture of where things might be dragging (too much sitting around, not enough action), where the pace is becoming too relentless (action after action after action, you need break). For this series, I added an extra column and marked where a scene included magic. I learnt a lot. In Power Unbound for example, the moment I finished this I saw two things with the first quarter of the book – a) it was all sitting around and talking, with not a lot happening and b) I didn’t use any magic whatsoever. So I tweaked a few scenes to add some magic, and then I blew up a building. As you do.

Doing the colour charts takes time – two to three days solid, I’ve found, so you’d give up an entire weekend to it – but once it’s done, it’s so clear what is right and wrong and then you know EXACTLY what you have to re-write and how.

As well as having a day job, you’re also very active in the writing community – with the Conflux conventions, Aurealis Awards and your involvement in CSFG – how do you balance that with your writing? Do you have life model decoys? Or does it just come down to typing really really fast (noting that I’ve seen you knock out ten thousand words in the time it takes me to write one thousand)?

Dammit, McHugh, the life model decoys are supposed to be a secret!

The answer is – I don’t balance it with my writing at all, which is why I’m pulling back on that sort of stuff. For a long time, it all balances nicely, but in the month or so before a big event like a Conflux convention, writing time goes out the window. I’ve got four books coming out in the next twelve months – I don’t have time to not write.

However, the writing fast does help during the not as time crunchy periods. I’m lucky in that not only do I naturally tend to do everything quickly, but that my approach to writing leads me to fast writing. My writing style is quite utilitarian, and I don’t spend time worrying about the words (I tend to do that during the editing process, if I do it at all). It’s rare that I sit down at my keyboard not knowing EXACTLY what I’m writing next (even when I was more of a pantser than I am now – I’d spend the night before daydreaming my story, so when I got up the next morning, it was ready). I’m really good at ignoring distractions – I can have my internet browser open, for example, but not look at it until I’ve done the set word count or time (I think I developed this from being from a large family – you can’t jump at every scream or thump you hear). And then there’s fact that I learnt to touch type in high school – the best thing I ever learnt at school.

So yes, I can write fast. Yesterday morning, in 40 minutes, I churned out 1300 words. Good words? I won’t know that until I go back to edit, but there’s a more than 90% chance they’ll be in the book I submit to the publisher.

The other aspect is that for as long as possible, I protect as much of my writing time as I can.  First I’ll give up just one day a weekend to organising stuff. Then I’ll give up both days. Then I’ll start organising during the evening (when I try not to work at all – that’s social and relax time). It’s always a sad moment when I realise there’s so much organisation work to do, it can’t just be on weekends or evenings any more and I have to give up my mornings too.

On top of everything else you and your life model decoys are doing this year, you’re also teaching the Year of the Novel program at the ACT Writers Centre. I find that teaching is a good balance to writing. How does it fit for you? Does it help you with your writing?

I adore teaching. I find it really helps me as a writer for two reasons. Firstly, when you’re putting the lesson together, and working out how to explain how to put characters on a page for example, you have to pull apart your own process and you learn a lot from that. It’s one thing to just do something, it’s another to work out how you do it, why it works and whether there’s actually any weaknesses in there that you can develop. Sometimes, you research or learn from other people to add to your lessons, and so there’s more learning there.

Then in the actual process of teaching, you learn from the students. Every one, no matter where they are on their writing journey, has something interesting to say. An idea you’ve never considered before. A problem they need help with that in discussing leads you to a new realisation about your own work.

The other thing about teaching is that you get to have a moment of insight and involvement in someone else’s development. That gives you a sense of – ownership? Whatever it is, for me it means that when someone I’ve taught achieves something, I feel the joy of that as fully as I do for my own achievements. Sometimes more.

So yes, love teaching and will never stop that.

 – – –

Nicole Murphy has been telling stories for as long as she can remember and been writing them down since primary school. She’s had five novels published – three as Nicole Murphy (the Dream of Asarlai trilogy with HarperCollins Australia) and two as Elizabeth Dunk (contemporary romance with Escape Publishing).

Nicole has had more than two dozen short stories published, the most recent in Bloodstones, an anthology of urban fantasy published in 2012 (didn’t have a good year for sales in 2013). She edited The Outcast for CSFG Publishing (including the Aurealis Award nominated horror short “Woman Train”) and Issue 25 of Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, both published in 2006 and In Fabula-divino, an anthology of new writers, published in 2013.

You can find her website here, and you can find Dream of Asarlai for Kindle, iPad and Kobo.