Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Aspect

One of the main themes in The Way of The Kresh is how the Kresh species is forced to adapt its common response toward Kresh that are maimed or disabled. Whereas before these 'imperfect' Kresh would be euthenased, this isn't really a sensible option after the Hegemony mutilates so many of them. My main protagonist, Jeldon, is - of course - a key figure in changing this, but to show such a change you have to demonstrate it in various ways. It can't be just a one off event where every Kresh turns to the other and says, 'you know, I think we may have been wrong all these years.'
 
That means I have to show Jeldon being challenged and then accepted by his own on several occasions. Which could be boring and repetitive. That's where aspect comes in. While the underlying effect of each scene will be the same (and reinforcing), and may contain some of the same actions e.g. the challenge, the counter and the acceptance, each scene can be made fresh and still - hopefully - exciting by picking out a particular aspect to look at the action differently. So in the latest challenge scene I showed it from the point of view of my secondary human protagonist, Rhys. As he hadn't seen this before, and knows little of Kresh society, he was able to bring something fresh to the events as they unfolded.

That got me thinking about focussing and pulling out aspects in other scenes. There are some scenes that just have to be shown. You may have scene A, the set up, which is going to lead to a really awesome scene C. But to get there and for it to make sense to the reader, you really have to show them scene B, which is actually quite static and boring but necessary. But scene B can be brought to life if you choose to tweak or magnify a particular aspect. One obvious way is to set scene B in some setting that is jawdroppingly awesome, so even if the action is pedestrian the reader can look at the pretty pictures. That's okay but gets a bit wearing if repeated again and again. The poor reader gets 'shiny bauble' fatigue. But there's other ways to polish, e.g. by showing the scene through a character that may have some emotional baggage attached to events or setting or the other characters involved. That's a good one because you're also deepening reader understanding for your character and making them richer and more real. It's always good if a scene can be doing at least two things for the reader, like progressing the plot and explaining a character's motivations.

It may take a little more thought and maybe even some back tracking and rewriting, but if you can freshen the repetitive or the mundane in your writing, it's certainly worth it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

String

I'm thinking about string in relation to the novel. As in 'how long is a piece of'. While I have the general shape of the plot that's been mapped out for yonks, I'm down in the nitty gritty of events at present, not all of which I'd thought out in detail. But present circumstances require things to occur just out of logic and I have to write them (and keep the story interesting). Part of this is due to the fact that at the beginning of this draft (which will be the first full draft) I decided that I would stay with my protagonist Jeldon every step of the way and not 'jump' at a chapter end to, for example, a few days later when the next chapter starts. I'd done a lot of that when I was writing the series of Kresh short stories, because that is what short stories do, they cut to the chase. But novels are more expansive and when I really started writing the novel and I came to those short story gaps, I had to think about what populated them and this often lead to some really nice discoveries and broadening and deepening of the story, setting and characters. It has become one of the more enjoyable creative aspects of the current draft. The flipside is that while I know where I'm going, I don't necessarily know how long it's going to take me to get there. I thought I was on the home run, but now - as a result of the situation Jeldon finds himself in - I realise I have to write a whole other adventurous episode before we get to the final part. I'm not sure how long that's going to take or how long it's going to end up. Hence the string.

The other thing about writing so fully this way is that I know a lot of this stuff is going to end up on the cutting room floor. But that's fine too, because what remains will be informed by a fuller understanding on my part about just what's gone in to making the story what it finally is. The nice part about not having a particular deadline is that I can take that time and discover the unfolding of the story as it comes. So I'm in a good place right now.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Break and spruik

Last week, I had a break from the novel, due to a few things that disrupted my ability to write early in the morning. That and feeling the need for a lie in until 6.30. I don't particularly like breaking off in the middle of writing. There's always the worry that you will lose momentum of forget where you're up to. But as I have more than 170,000 words behind me, there's already a lot of stuff I've written that I've forgotten about, so as long as I know where I'm going, which I certainly do, it's not much of a worry.

It was also nice to have a rest. But I'm back into it now with renewed verve. Not just because of the rest but because on Saturday I attended the annual picnic organised by Cat Sparks. It was a convivial gathering mainly of spec fic writers both large and small all talking about their work - sales and disasters, what they're working on, who's reading who - and so on. While it's nice to catch up with others, this kind of gathering always reawakens my competitive edge and while I wouldn't say it within anyone's earshot it makes me want to write better, bigger and more successfully than those around me. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit to these feelings but competitiveness has to be a good thing if it gives me renewed energy for my project.

On the coeur de lion publishing side of things, X6 got a nice plug from Max Barry on the First Tuesday Book Club. I could listen to this all day -

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Characters

Jonathan Franzen was recently interviewed by Leigh Sales on ABC's Lateline:
LEIGH SALES: I recently read an interview with Vladimir Nabokov from 1967 in which he's told that E.M. Forster says his characters often take over and dictate the course of a novel. And after a scathing critique of Forster, Nabokov says "my characters are like galley slaves". Are yours galley slaves?

JONATHAN FRANZEN: I'm with Nabokov on being intensely irritated by that remark of E.M. Forster's. It's as if to say, you know, "I'm such a special genius that my creations have such enormous vividness, such passionate life that I really have no control over them".

That's a weird thing for a fiction writer to say because it first of all can't possibly be true. But also it would seem to suggest that that kind of writer is abdicating a responsibility for meaning, because what the characters do has everything to do with what the story means and if it's like you're letting the characters say "well no, sorry, I don't like the story you're trying to tell".

You've somehow - if you could do it, which I don't think you can - you would be abdicating the primary responsibility of the story teller which is to create something that means something.
Franzen makes some good points, and I am a huge Nabokov fan. I'm guilty of saying I'm just 'doing what the voices tell me.' There's a certain amount of romanticism in believing there's some external muse talking to you. But if you want to be harsh, yes, I agree with Franzen, it is a w*nk. Although there are some elements of writing in general and characterisation in particular that lead to the kind of distancing that can be mistaken for - or identified as - an external muse.

Firstly a lot of creative invention springs seemingly fully formed from our subconscious, or certainly that's the way it works for me. I know my mind is working on story points and questions at a level below my awareness of it, and sometimes it will throw up one of those 'aha' moments that seems like it came out of nowhere when in fact it really came from deep inside.

Next, when creating a character, and in order for it to be believable, it has to have a consistent operating mode. It's entirely valid for a writer to say, 'my character wouldn't say that', or 'my character would never do a thing like that.' Inconsistent characters lead to bad and confused writing, but thinking about characters as fully formed individuals who have a 'vote' in how the story will unfold implies that they exist externally to the writer when in fact they're simply aspects of the writer's own personality. Again, it's easy to fall into Forster's of thinking.

Finally (though I'm sure there are other elements in play that lead to this type of dissociative thinking), and to paraphrase Ibsen, conflict is the essence of all fiction. If I have a number of characters in my head, then the writing really becomes interesting when they are in conflict. That involves a bit of doublethink to enable the author to argue both (or even more) sides of an argument through the mouths of opposing characters, which again can lead to a feeling that these voices are in some way distinct, external and not originating from the same place.

EM Forster is clearly wrong, but it's easy to see why he might think that way. Maybe Nabokov should have given the guy a break.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ego boo

Last year I took part in a small film by broadcasting student Max Rowan called Independent Inkwell about small independent presses in Australia. The documentary was show on TVS (Sydney's community TV channel) a couple of months ago, but it's now available for viewing on YouTube. I've embedded the video at the coeur de lion website. It was fun to do and I don't think I come over as too much of an idiot.

Talking real

I've been thinking a lot about dialogue lately. It can be such an economical conveyer of emotion - no need for internal monologue or character description if your character can sum up their reaction or current emotional state in just a few words - and it can force an immediate shift in reader attention - well, I was thinking about that over there but, whoah!, what did he just say???

Of course in the wrong hands it can be at best bland - 'that's a nice digital watch' - and at worst clunky - as in 'do people really talk like that?' Dialogue has to be true to character as well, and I'm working to try to differentiate between the many voices in my head when I put them down on the page. Part of that comes from thinking about the character, what they're like, how they're likely to react and - consequently - what they're going to say. But the best dialogue comes when you as writer take time to listen and give your character space to speak for themselves. That's what happened this morning. My two main protagonists have finally come together in the Kresh novel. What on earth are they going to say to one another and - more importantly - how does the conversation get started? When faced with this kind of situation, I find the best thing to do is not think about it. So I had my blank page beside me but I didn't force anything. I just waited, looked at the newspaper, checked the email. Then I picked up my page to put it away for the day and finally the first exchange came and it was just that sort of left field, true to character set of words that I was waiting for. Now we're ready to talk.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Retro-fit ahead

The Way of The Kresh has a major and minor plot line and I've been methodically working through the major line - following Jeldon in his travels to reclaim his homeworld - for a couple of years now, but this morning major and minor plot lines collided, an event which I approached with a certain amount of excitement and fear. Excitement because I'm closing in on the final section of the story. Fear because 1. I've been writing this story from inside Jeldon's head exclusively for a long time, and 2. it means I have to shift pov to my minor plot line character - disgraced Hegemony pilot Rhys - and show him at a point that is quite far along his personal story without actually having taken that trip with him in any real detail. But so far, I think it's working and it also means I get to comment on Jeldon from an external point of view. The downside is that when I go back to fill in the minor plot line, I may have to retrofit Rhys's actions from this point on.

As a result, all kinds of thoughts about how Rhys got to where he is, not just physically but emotionally and morally, are firing off in my head. There's so much to do and see, talk about and think about for both characters that I'm letting them spark off each other and recording what happens. Good times.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Loving the alien

For a long time now, I've been inside the head of my protagonist in The Way of The Kresh. Jeldon is outwardly very alien - a cross between mollusc, insect and crustacean physiology - but just how alien is the inside of his head? The answer is 'not very' and that's because it's really the only way I can use him to drive a story and still have that story understandable to a human reader. We can all create totally alien characters whose motivations and resulting actions are a complete mystery, but how satisfying would that be as a central feature of a sustained narrative? Not very, I suspect. So Jeldon has emotions and reactions that we can identify with, but those emotions and his personality have been constructed and affected by the society and environment he inhabits. Really what Jeldon is, is a foreigner; someone from another country where they do things differently, but someone who we still have enough points of reference in common with to be basically understandable.

If you want to be grand about the whole thing, you could say the Kresh society in the novel is a way of holding up particular mores that exist in our society for inspection. That's certainly been the case for a lot of SF, but it hasn't been my prime driver. Those societally discursive elements that are emerging as I write are a product of the situational tension I wanted to create for Jeldon early on to make him interesting to readers. That's a pretty cool thing and it seems to be supporting my emerging thesis that if you get the character right and sufficiently complex, a great many other elements of the story will emerge from that.

Your main character has to stand out. There has to be an immediate point of difference for the reader to latch on to. So, the Kresh society is very insular. While it exists within a loose collection of worlds that have trade ties - called the Lenticular - they prefer not to rely on or have much else to do with outsiders. Jeldon is different. He's one of the few Kresh to leave homeworld and travel to other planets. And he's the only Kresh ever to do it on his own. That instantly makes him an oddity in his own society and creates tension between him and others of his kind. It also provides him with opportunities that other Kresh do not have when the shit hits the fan.

The other reason why Kresh - other than Jeldon - don't travel off-world alone is that the Kresh share an empathic link with each other. There is an underlying worldmind, not a hivemind - they're not telepathic, but an underlying emotional patterning which is comforting to Kresh. They always know what the emotional temperature of their surroundings are, how they are viewed by others, how their words are received. Being somehow outside of that makes them uncomfortable. Not Jeldon. So he's considered strange. But that element of his psychic make up means that when the human-backed Hegemony invade homeworld and begin to systematically mutilate Kresh, removing the hood which provides this empathic link, then where most Kresh are unable to cope and commit suicide, Jeldon is already hardened to the loss, although that's not to say it doesn't deeply affect him.

One might think that would make Jeldon more attractive to his fellow Kresh. Here's someone that can keep it together when terrible things happen. But to keep the ball in the air and keep that dramatic tension going for Jeldon, Kresh have a deep mistrust of any physical deformity or injury among their kind. Those who are disabled by injury or birth are euthenased. Although Jeldon can still function even without his empathic hood, he is now seen as an outcast, someone that should be executed if they do not have the decency to commit suicide. This element of the novel, which was really just put in to create dramatic tension for Jeldon has assumed wider proportions within the story now, given the widespread acts of the Hegemony. Hating the disabled is okay within the framework of Kresh society (I know it's not really okay but we have to respect other cultures, don't we?), but when an external force comes in and disables the majority of the population, that framework must change or the society will fail. So a relatively simple character element has become one of the main conundrums of the story which must be resolved through the action. Everything's connected - which is how it should be.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Superficial

I've been working off and on (more off really) on a particular story since 2004 and I haven't really brought it home yet. 'The Superficial Contact of Two Bodies' is a far future tale of love, betrayal, death, redemption and the end of the universe. I haven't been able to finish it to my satisfaction (not yet) but I love it, because I think it has the potential to juggle a lot of different elements - a satsifying science fictional universe, an interesting and at times exciting plot line, and at the centre a complex and very human character. The title is taken from a quotation, as a lot of my titles are, and is a cynical reference to love, which - hopefully - through the frame of the story, can be seen to be ironic. Clearly I'm not giving up on it, mainly because of the human character aspect. Paul Haines is a friend and also a writer whom I greatly admire, not least because his blisteringly honest work shows characters that are fully-fledged three-dimensional people. They are neither good or bad, but both and neither. They encapsulate contradictions and demonstrate that for all we'd like to believe, we are not - when it really comes down to it - rational creatures. That's something I believe in deeply and something that I want to see in my own work, because it's what excites me and what I think excites a reader. To be presented with a tale where the protagonist appears wholly real, and to partake in their most secret moments is an exciting thing. So work continues.

I also read a lot of unpublished stories from writers when I'm reading for anthologies, as well as reading a lot of independent press stuff through my reviewing work. A lot of these stories don't (IMHO) spend enough energy in investing their characters with real life and complexity. Writing's a difficult craft and there are lots of things to think about. Does the plot make sense, how's the pacing, is this going to hold reader interest, how's my dialogue, etc. But I believe if authors took time to really think about their characters and invest them with as much living, breathing reality as they possibly could, then a lot of the other elements of story would flow naturally from that investment. In a way it's like saddling up the right horse and letting it pull the cart as it will, rather than focusing too much on an aspect of the cart, the wheels, the seat etc. and then grabbing a nondescript horse out of the stable and sticking them together. If your character is as real as you can make them then the world around them becomes real by how they interact with it. The plot starts to make sense because your character's actions must make sense to them. They speak realistically because that is how your character speaks.

My story will only work when I get the character exactly right. When he lives and breathes and acts in my created world. He's waiting for me to finish that story. I know that because he already has a life.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

For the Win!

I've just heard that Margo Lanagan's story 'Sea-Hearts', which appeared in the coeur de lion novellanthology I edited called X6, has won the World Fantasy Award. Maybe it's that I was up very late last night, but I can't help feeling euphoric and slightly disconnected to reality. This is the fourth award the book has won this year.

 My company is an extraordinarily small independent press with no real budget for marketing and promotion and, we have to face it, Australia is a loooong way from the publishing centre of the universe, but that such a small (though not in size) book from a one-person operation has been able to make such a big impact within the speculative fiction arena is really fantastic. Of course the amazing stories my authors gave me are the major cause of our success, but I feel a bit of reflected chuffedness about the whole thing. And, yes, maybe just, the right to pat myself on the back once of twice.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Trust

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an element of creative writing that isn’t often spoken about. It’s the writing equivalent of ‘ask and ye shall receive’. And really it’s what I like to think of as a matter of trust. I’ve been writing for quite a number of years now and in the past I’ve become disheartened with a work in progress because I couldn’t figure out a plot point or I didn’t know where the story was going, and as a result I’d get tied up in knots and things would grind to a halt.

Somewhere along the line I learned to trust myself. Maybe once I had a few stories under my belt. The kind of trust I’m talking about is having faith in your creative ability, in believing that your unconscious side – which is really where all the cool creative stuff happens – will offer up what you need when you need it. After I noticed what was happening, I began to see it more and more (which may simply be the observer effect) but it also made me less prone to worry about my work and seize up.

The Kresh books I’ve been writing for quite a number of years have two plot strands centred on two very different characters. I knew that at some point towards the end the story these two strands had to interact, but I had no idea how that was going to happen. I’ve had no idea how that would happen for the best part of 14 years. I should have been worried, but I wasn’t. I knew my unconscious would be working on the problem and would deliver the solution. That’s what happened just a couple of weeks ago, walking to work and musing idly about my story. The solution came fully formed and entirely organic in the way it brought the two strands together. Like most ideas of that ilk, it was obvious. But only after the fact. 

Trust also works at the micro-level, line by line. There are times where I have no idea what I am going to write next. I may have a goal for a scene in terms of plot but haven’t worked out how that goal will be achieved. So many times now I’ve written a word I didn’t know I was going to write and that’s carried me into a scene or an image or an exposition that does just what I needed done.

I don’t think I’m particularly special as writers go. I think this is an effect that occurs and can be encouraged in just about anybody. The trick is to recognise it and believe it will happen. Trust. It’s a wonderful thing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kresh - Progress and Process



The Way of the Kresh is my (now) two book space opera, currently ‘in progress’. That progress has been fairly non-existent at some stages in my life, but progress now is steady to the point that I’m at the 170,000 word mark and closing in on the finale in the next few months.

Mind you, it’s been a long time coming. Kresh began as a glimmer in my mind on a Melbourne tram ride home from the 1996 Aurealis Awards ceremony held in Justin Ackroyd’s original Slow Glass Bookshop in Swanston Street. I penned a three part short story, which appeared as online fiction on the Nuketown website, which is still going although they don’t publish fiction any more. It was followed up by a five part serial ‘The Kresh War’, again published solely on Nuketown. At some point, I decided I had enough for a novel and started researching and doing background work, because the hero of my little story is Jeldon, who is a nine foot tall bipedal, chitin-covered ‘lobster man’ (for want of a better term) with a cobra-like hood that gives him, like all Kresh, an empathic ability. I even sketched a picture of Jeldon and worked out how the chitinous plates all fit together, how the Kresh reproduce, defecate, what their mythos/ religion is, and how their society is ordered and functions. All standard SF worldbuilding fare. 

I got feedback on an early section of Kresh from a special workshop run as part of Aussiecon III in 1999. In between I completed another novel, Horizon, which is currently lying in the bottom drawer, but despite a number of attempts I never really got past the first section of Kresh. Not until I hit on my current process. It’s simple really. Start writing at the beginning and don’t stop until you get to the end. Don’t go back and polish, don’t get side tracked. At 5.45am every weekday morning, I get out of my warm comfortable bed, make a cup of tea and type on the laptop, or – more recently – write in a spiral bound A4 notepad. The target is 500 words or two pages of handwriting, and regardless of how motivated or otherwise I feel, how well the words flow or don’t, how much of an idea about where I’m going or what’s going to happen next that I have or not, that’s been pretty much it for the last two years. Right now, for what I need to do, it’s the only way that works for me.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Mirror, Darkly for ASIM

My 'chick-lit' urban horror story 'A Mirror, Darkly' has sold to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and is due to appear in issue #51 in April/ May 2011. This is my first short story sale for far too long. My last story, '... They  First Make Mad' (which you can hear as part of the Terra Incognita Christmas 2009 podcast) was published in Agog! Fantastic Fiction way back in 2002. Though I haven't exactly been slacking off either in writing or publishing in the intervening years, just not at short story length.

'Mirror' had a significantly geographic  birth and early development, conceived in Broome, parts of it were written in the UK and on a couple of international flights, including during stopovers at Changi International Airport. It's set in Sydney, my recently adopted home, around the Erskineville area and parts of it are liberally lifted from a very boozy party I went to in Glebe, although the house that is 'blessed' with the mirror in the story is based on one in Summer Hill.

'Mirror' also contains a fair bit of swearing, sex and blood. Thankfully Simon Petrie, who selected and is editing the story, is neither squeamish nor a prude.

Web presences

In our lives we all adopt and adapt different personas. And in the 2010s those personas have a digital manifestion - indeed must have such a manifestation - if they are to be known beyond small circles of friends. As a publisher with coeur de lion publishing and a podcaster with Terra Incognita, I've developed visual representations and digital homes for those personas. But probably the most important persona (to me) has lain fairly dormant, at least in any outward way. That's my persona as a writer, which is mainly what this blog will be about, although I'll be touching on happenings in publishing, podcasting, reviewing and other areas in which I'm involved.