A. V. Mather

A. V. Mather is a Brisbane-based speculative fiction writer. You can follow her on Twitter @AVMather

sullivan_ShadowboxerI admit that I came to this YA fantasy/action novel with a little trepidation. Professional fighting – in this case, Muay Thai fighting – is just not my thing. The sum of my experience in this subject comes from watching Jet Li movies (of which I am especially fond), which puts me, maybe, a fingernail ahead of total ignorance.

Given that, I was delighted to find myself completely engaged by ‘Shadowboxer.’ Tricia Sullivan won me over with a story that is filled to bursting with impassioned characters, ruthless villains, mysterious places, and hungry ghosts. Her world is a richly layered place, filled with intrigue and action and woven through with a unique element of fantasy. This multicultural story is complex and follows two disparate characters whose lives are about to become enmeshed.

Latina American, Jade Barrera, is trying to channel her aggression into her dream of becoming a professional Muay Thai fighter, but when you’re a teenager with ‘angry bones’ things have a habit of getting out of control very quickly. She has already ruined her first big fight and then compounded the foul-up by punching out martial arts movie star, Tommy Zhang, who’d dissed the local stray cat. Now, she must do whatever it takes to win back the favour of Mr Big – her mentor and owner of Mr Big’s Combat Sports Emporium –for messing up his potential business relationship with Zhang. Unfortunately for Jade, redemption comes in the form of banishment to a gym and training camp in Thailand, run by Mr Big’s cousin.

For eight year old Burmese war refugee, Mya, life so far has been frightening and confusing. Taken from a Burmese prison camp to an orphanage in Thailand, she is now indebted to her benefactor, Mr Richards. But Mya is no ordinary peasant girl, nor is Mr Richards a kindly old man.

She has been specifically chosen by him, along with other children, for her ability to enter the Immortal Forest, a place of legend that exists between our world and the next. Mr Richards has been using gifted children and the Forest for illegal endeavours and has plans for Mya that will see him ascend to a position of unchallenged power.

Although their life experiences are literally worlds apart, when Jade and Mya come together they find a kinship that provides the strength that each needs to battle their demons. Mya’s subtle mysticism compliments Jade’s hard-edged urban style. The world of competitive fighting and the spiritualism of Thailand provide a rich background for their story. The ‘fish out of water’ scenario works well for both characters and it is satisfying to watch Jade’s character growth as the story develops. Beneath all of the action, there also lies a subtext of two girls trying to find their place within worlds dominated by controlling male figures.

A great deal of research has gone into this novel and the author has crafted her world with care. There are no false notes as the story moves between the backstreets of New York, the slums of Thailand and the fantasy world of the Immortal Forest. Combining all of these elements into a believable story and then telling it with the voices of a tough Latina teenager and a young Burmese orphan is no small task. Tricia Sullivan manages to make it look easy and this is a terrific story for YA fantasy readers who are looking for something different. So much in YA urban/supernatural fantasy centres on young protagonists who discover a hidden world and become warriors. ‘Shadowboxer’ delivers a fresh perspective on this theme which I found rewarding and refreshing.


Running up that hill

A while back on my blog in a post called ‘Steepness’ I wrote about a workout I sometimes do.  It involves running up a hill with a flight of steps cut in it. It’s a killer workout.  After a few repetitions you either vomit, or almost-vomit (if you start with a completely empty stomach).  It’s a workout that pays huge dividends in terms of physical conditioning. And it’s a workout that I will make many excuses to avoid. (At the moment I’m claiming hayfever).

What I found, briefly, was that if I isolated the hardest part of this hard workout and worked it repetitively, as intervals, I got better rapidly. And the intensity of mental focus that arose out of that isolation work was staggering. It was really remarkable. I’ve wanted to unpack this in relation to writing for ages, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I wanted to say. Then my partner (who trains fighters in his work) started telling me about research in a field called ‘deliberate practice.’

Deliberate practice is a method of improving performance through stretching yourself, making mistakes, and critical self-evaluation while remaining ignited toward your goal. It’s an area of research developed by K. Anders Ericsson centring on sports performers, classical musicians, chess players, and some other professionals. If you want to read more about it, here’s an article. Malcolm Gladwell also wrote about these ideas in Outliers This is a huge area, but in brief here’s what I’m getting: the essence of deliberate practice is forcing yourself to deal with steepness. It’s a way of increasing the gradient of your learning curve whether you are a beginner or an old-timer. And I would add from my own experience of running the hill that this approach creates a degree of intensity that burns through mental barriers.

It’s like putting yourself in the anaerobic threshold zone and staying there even when you think you’re going to die. But how to apply these sports metaphors to writing? When I first read this stuff about classical musicans practicing like demons I was repelled. I was all like, ‘Oh, but I’m a creative, dude. I’m not gonna do drills. That messes up my flow, like. Yuck.’ I think I said to my partner: ‘But this represents the whole ethos that I ran away from screaming, years ago.’

Then I thought about it a bit more. Deliberate practice is a set of ideas cultivated around performance, and specifically around performance in areas where success or failure can be clearly defined. So we can run into trouble when we try to apply these methods to creative work. Partly this is because of the definitional marsh surrounding the notion of creative ‘success.’ Success for a classical musician performing a score relies on that musican reaching an agreed standard of what is ‘good’ or’ excellent.’

A basketball player drilling shots knows exactly what he or shy is trying to achieve. Even in the chaotic environment of a game where the player has to deal with teammates, opponents and the unpredictable unfolding of events, at least there is clear feedback that tells her ‘where did I go right?’ and ‘where did I go wrong?’ There are objective criteria to be met.

If you’re a writer you’ve probably already spotted the problem I’m talking about. One reader loves how you did X in a story. Another reader thinks it’s tacky. And so on. Or maybe you look at a bestselling or highly praised book and go, ‘Huh? What’s all the fuss?’ while noticing that critics describe a book you love in pejorative terms. Trying to judge your work (or anybody’s) against an objective standard is impossible. There is no such thing.

The whole enterprise is a recipe for crazy sauce. And yet, we must go on, crazy sauce or no. Personally, my sense is that although trusted readers can encourage you and a good editor is priceless, ultimately you spend most of your time in your own head. You stand or fall on your own judgement.

So the decisions about what to work on in your writing have to be yours. To start with, how can we identify strengths and weaknesses? I have found that the obvious, most foolproof way is to look for the steepness. Look for what is hard. Steer into the wind. For example, maybe dialogue is hard and you avoid it. OK. If you can identify that, then you can do something about it. You aren’t doomed to write wooden dialogue for the rest of your life.

Go read books that have excellent dialogue. Read plays. Watch movies–good movies with good writing, not just movies where stuff blows up. And practice dialogue in isolation. You could try writing a whole story in dialogue, or at least a whole scene. And this is important: work with the expectation that it will be bad. Don’t let suckage stop you. When you have some product, examine it carefully and conscientiously to identify your failures, correct what you can, and go again. Writing ain’t magic (except when it is, but that’s out of your control so you may as well forget about it).

It’s a learning process like any other. If you look closely, you can find a way to apply deliberate practice to your writing at pretty much every level, from word choice through all the levels of style and structure, right on up to subject matter and work habits. The trick is to isolate problem areas, devise ways of addressing them, then evaluate the result and adjust accordingly. All of these stages are important. You can’t just put in blind mileage; you have to invest in the meta, in the critical examination of your own process. And this never stops.  There is no arrival. That’s what makes it a practice. And it’s not supposed to be easy. The whole point is to push past your own resistance. So many times I have thought, ‘I can’t do that. I’m not that sort of writer. I can only do this.’  But the lesson of deliberate practice is that you can be any kind of writer you want to be if you’re prepared to take on the steepness. My personal bugbear of the moment is endings.

I’m famous for starting things, going a certain way, and then starting something else. My hard drive is full of undeveloped and half-developed projects.  I work and work and have no product. So at this moment, I’m forcing myself to finish what I have started. I hate it! It’s not fun. But I’m learning from this. It’s like psychological kettlebells. No pain, no gain. And look: we’re all human here with all kinds of demands on our time and energy.  We may need to pick our battles carefully, choose wisely where we invest energy. So it’s important to be smart and practice with eyes open as to what specific work will do the most good. Personally I believe that desire is probably the most important thing, because it’s desire that keeps driving you even when the work is too hard and the road seems too long.

So I will leave you with the quote that hangs above the computer in our kitchen: Champions are made from something they have deep inside them, a desire, a dream, a vision.  They have to have last-minute stamina, they have to be a little faster, they have to have the skill and the will.  But the will must be stronger than the skill.’ –Muhammad Ali


Tricia Sullivan is a science fiction writer. She also writes fantasy under the pseudonym Valery Leith. She moved to the United Kingdom in 1995. In 1999 she won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel Dreaming in Smoke. Her novel Maul was also shortlisted for the same award in 2004. Sullivan has studied music and martial arts. Her partner is the martial artist Steve Morris, with whom she has three children. They live in Shropshire.

I’ve had some lovely reviews this week that are really worth linking to. The first is a Nylon Angel review from Book Chick City, in tandem with my post on my researching confessions.

The second is this fascinating review of Burn Bright from a GoodReads reader. I love it when people put some real thought into their reflections. Reading Time (magazine of the CBCA) also gave Burn Bright an excellent review which you can read here.

Aside from that, my Aurealis Award turned up in the mail today, so photos are coming soon :)

I’m working on edits of Angel Arias and Tara Sharp book 3, so am back in the writing groove after the disruption of book tour excitement. Now I’m a little more focused, I’ve been thinking of making the Sentients of Orion series available on Smashwords. Since Nightshade Books withdrew from the contract, I’ve been a bit unhappy and unsure as to how to go forward. Winning the award has given me a bit of confidence to pursue making the series more widely available. Currently you can only buy it in Commonwealth countries, and I would really like North American readers to be able to purchase it. If you have an comments or thoughts or advice on this, I would welcome them.

June is going to be a big month for me with two Supanovas and Voices on the Coast, so I need to keep my head down and working up until then. However, while I’m being boring, I think I’ve nearly managed to persuade Tricia Sullivan to guest blog for us soon. Fingers crossed!


davitt-award  aurealis-award   logo-curtin-university

Peacemaker - Aurealis Award
Best Science Fiction Novel 2014

Curtin University Distinguished Alumni Award 2014

Transformation Space - Aurealis Award
 Best Science Fiction Novel 2010

Sharp Shooter - Davitt Award
Best Crime Novel 2009 (Sisters in Crime Australia) 





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