Monthly Archives: August 2012

Wednesday Writers: Holly Kench

I came across Holly’s blog rather randomly, but was immediately captivated by her sense of fun and hilarious illustrations and I’ve made it one of my regular reads. Don’t be misled by her comedic talents, it is not just another funny blog but has something truly important to say. Sometimes comedy is just a disguise for lack of substance, and a social conscience can be at the expense of the ability to laugh at oneself, but Holly is that rare combination of someone who can make you laugh out loud on one hand, but really make you think on the other.

How to write good and stuff.

I have always loved words. I don’t mean stories, reading, or writing, though I love those too. I mean words. According to my mother, when I was very little I would sit alone in the back seat of the car, convinced that no one could hear me. There, I would repeat certain words I’d discovered over and over again, like some mystical mantra, or, more likely, like someone who’d just escaped from Arkham Asylum.

Once I could read, it wasn’t long before I became that weird kid at school, who sat alone in the playground reading instead of playing on the monkey bars. I was banned from bringing my own reading material to school because it was “inappropriate”, but, luckily for me, there was always a dictionary available. The dictionary soon became one of my favourite books, which is how I became the seriously weird kid, who sat alone in the playground reading the dictionary. 

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the day my grandfather gave me a copy of the Shorter Oxford was one of the happiest in my life.

Of course, words are amazing in and of themselves, but it is how we use them that really gives them power. How we use words is how we give them context and, ultimately, how we imbue them with meaning. It is easy to understand this in terms of words which have multiple meanings. The word ‘run’, for example, could mean anything from an uncomfortable physical activity to an unfortunate hosiery situation, until it is used and given context. Yet, I don’t think this is a concept I truly understood until I studied Latin. 

When we translate texts from another language, the multiplicity of word meanings and the potentialities that this creates become apparent. We make decisions in translation that might be a correct translation of the words, but which affect the meaning of the text. We decide, for example, whether to use particular four letter words when translating Catullus, and in doing so, we affect how a reader understands that poem.

This is what writers do every day. They create meaning by collecting words and curating them in such a way that a story develops from the profusion of possibilities. 

In order to create meaning from words, writers need to know and understand the rules of writing. This knowledge helps us to select and use words in a way that creates new worlds and enriches the texture of those imaginings.

There are many things a writer can do to improve their knowledge of language and the intricacies of grammar. Without a doubt, the best way to improve such knowledge is to read. Read all the books you can, then find more, and read those too. Just keep reading. Keep a grammar guide handy if you’re unsure about your technique, but, if you’re really serious about your writing, learn a second language, then learn a third and a fourth. Once you understand how to put words together in another language, writing within the rules of English will come naturally (except, of course, in those cases when English is totally nonsensical). 

There are also a lot of “how to” guides for writing all over the Internet. If you are unsure about a grammar form, you can Google it. If you are uneasy about the definition of a word you’re using, hello dictionary.com (though please, do double check with your Oxford). There are also a lot of people telling you what you must and absolutely must not do in your writing. Sometimes I feel bombarded by articles telling writers how to write. You know, like this one.

I see article after article alleging that the passive shouldn’t be used, and articles claiming that to occasionally split an infinitive is the worst crime a writer can commit. Microsoft Word constantly harassing me about fragmented sentences. 

Yet, I have to wonder, are they missing the point?

It’s important for writers to know and understand the rules of writing if they want their work to be meaningful. However, it’s also important for writers to know that it is okay to break the rules. Sometimes it’s best not to take these things too seriously. Sometimes it’s best to realise that the rules really are there to be broken.

Given the option of frolicking in the sunshine with the other children, reading “appropriate” texts such as The Baby-sitters Club, or settling down with the dictionary, I would choose the dictionary every time. However, even the most avid lover of words occasionally needs more than a dictionary to entertain her. When banned from my desired reading material, I didn’t simply give up. The teachers never knew of my secret stash of novels, which I carefully accessed whenever they were out of sight. They also failed to realise that behind the pages of my dictionary was plenty of space to hide more illicit reading material. I was such a rebel.

Of course, as any good rebel will know, you have to know the rules to break them, and then breaking them is half the fun. I’m not suggesting that writers should feel free to throw the rules completely out the window. They should not, for example, stop worrying about whether a verb agrees with its subject. 

Seriously, don’t. That would really hurt me, deep in my soul.

What I am suggesting is that you should use the rules to your advantage. Follow the rules to ensure that your meaning is clear. Then break the rules to create new meanings. 

Words are the real playground for writers. They are our sites for fun, play, discovery, exploration, and creativity. Enhance your use of words by understanding and respecting their correct usages. Just don’t allow the rules to restrain your relationship with words.  The ever expanding content of the dictionary should tell us that the possibilities are endless. Therefore, the way we use words should be about anything other than restraint. We should use words and create with freedom. 

Because, the thing is, sometimes the best way to write well is to write wrong.

Holly Kench is a writer and feminist, with a classics degree and a fear of spiders. She enjoys writing fantasy and humour, for adults, young adults, and children. Holly seeks stories that contemplate the world as much as books that provide escape, but doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive. These are the sort of stories Holly tries to write. She is convinced we can change the world through popular culture. Holly writes about her life as a stuffed olive at www.stuffedolive.com.au and has recently started a new project for the promotion and publication of inclusive young adult fiction at www.visibilityfiction.com.

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Why I don’t feel guilty about being a straight, white male

As I have alluded to in other posts, I am very much trying to find my way when it comes to issues like feminism and privilege. While I have always tried to treat all people with the same level of respect and dignity, I have to be honest and say it was from a fairly uninformed point of view. These issues didn’t really register on my radar growing up, but this changed when I became involved in the spec fic community because, in Australia at least, these issues are a fairly constant topic of debate and discussion. For example, I remember meeting the people behind Galactic Suburbia and thanking them for changing the way I read speculative fiction because it is no exaggeration to say they had a huge part in opening my eyes to things I had always taken for granted.

So, I am well aware of my lack of knowledge, and because of that I deliberately seek out articles and blogs that might broaden my horizons. There are lots of wonderful posts out there (like this one), but sometimes the most interesting stuff, and the most offensive, can be found below the comment line. One thing that I have noticed in discussions of privilege is that a lot of straight white males seem to take any suggestion that they might have life a little easier as a personal attack. One of the more common things I hear is that they didn’t ask to be born that way, and that it isn’t their fault, so why should they feel guilty about being a straight white male and having all the advantages that come along with that?

Now, I actually agree with that argument. You can’t help how you are born, the circumstances or the genetics that you are dealt, and noone should ever judge you simply on that basis (though often those making this point don’t see the hypocrisy in applying the same judgements to others born a certain way). I don’t feel guilty (other than on realising how fortunate I am) simply due to the fact I was born in an affluent country to middle class parents, with “white skin” and a liking for the opposite sex. Why should I? It’s not something any of us have any control over. I don’t feel any personal guilt for the things that were done by my ancestors, nor do I feel that I can be held accountable for the actions of others.

So, while I don’t condone the way that this opinion is often expressed, I do understand and even agree with it. But, that is where my path diverges. You see, I think there is plenty for me to feel guilty about. Not the actions of others, or my unchosen circumstances, but the things I myself have done. I don’t take responsibility for the existence of the patriarchy, or the fact that I exist in a world of privilege. I take responsibility for the things that I have done to perpetuate them.

I feel guilty about the times when I have made racist or sexist or anything-ist jokes, or when I have laughed along or when I have simply remained silent. I feel guilty about the times when I have been cut extra slack because of my status and, through sheer laziness, taken advantage of that instead of working as hard as other people must. I feel guilty about the times I have made women feel uneasy or uncomfortable because of my obliviousness to their boundaries. And, I feel guilty about the times when I have judged how others should react to my comments or behaviour, or to their own circumstances, from the safety and security of my own place of privilege, calling them humourless or over sensitive if they dared take offense.

When I was younger I was outraged by the idea that certain groups should be treated differently to make up for past imbalances, believing that it was actually counterproductive to creating a truly equal world. But I have slowly come to the realisation that, unfortunately, hard work and ability are not all that matters, and that they not are rewarded exactly the same regardless of who you are. It’s become clear to me that sometimes, when things have been stacked against a particular group for too long, artificial measures are required to bring things back into balance. It’s not a case of punishing anyone, or rewarding mediocrity, but creating an even playing field.

An example that springs to mind is the quota system in South African cricket. I used to believe that if players were talented enough that they would make the team regardless of colour or background, but now I see that this was fairly naïve. It assumes that two players will get the same opportunities, and will face the same attitudes, but that just isn’t true. A non-white player has to overcome years of disenfranchisement, embedded prejudices and most likely had to contend with less access to opportunities and resources a player from one of cricket’s more traditional demographics. So, before skill and ability and work ethic even come into it, the latter is already out in front and more likely to be selected. The quota system is not about punishing white players or denying them their chance, not does it mean that mediocre players get into the team (just ask England!), you still have to have the talent. It’s about making sure everyone starts from the same place. Hopefully one day that will happen naturally, without need for artificial constraints, but that day is not now. Not yet.

The same thing applies to a lot of other initiatives, ones that I used to decry. Now, I have no doubt that, like any human institution or system, there are times when they are abused, or go too far. But I can see the need for them now, in a way that I never used to, because I understand that due to the nature of privilege some people are born with advantages others do not automatically receive, while others are born already behind the eight ball and will have to overcome more than I will simply to get to the same place. I can’t argue with the necessity, and the morality, of doing something to try and fix the mistakes of the past.

But, it is not enough to support these institutionalised programs. To riff on Uncle Ben, “with great privilege comes great responsibility”, and I believe that I have a responsibility to do something on an individual level, rather than leaving it to others, especially the government, to do it for me. The thing is, though, sometimes it is very hard to know what the right thing is to do or to even believe I can make any difference. At a fairly removed level, there are some things I do due to this desire. I work for an organisation that provides welfare for the most disadvantaged, and does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, gender or orientation when it comes to employment, membership or who it helps – and I take a fairly substantial pay cut on what I might earn in corporate to do so. I sponsor some children in a country not as fortunate as my own. But, these things are not enough, they don’t require any real modifications to my day-to-day behaviour.

That’s where it counts, in the constant daily interactions I have with others. That’s why I have tried to push through things in my workplace to combat bullying and harassment, it’s why I try and be a safe space for my female friends, it’s why I try and not buy into the “guy talk” at the sporting clubs to which I belong. Note I say “try”, because I often fall short. It’s why I try and be an informed voter and informed human being. It’s why I try and spread the word about things I see online that I feel are good initiatives. It’s why I try and use what small influence I have on the world around me, whether through what I write or what I say, to change it for the better.

I don’t think that to be able to do these things that I need to be ashamed of the way I was born, nor do I think that I need to take every post pointing out examples of privilege as a personal attack. Yes, there is a minority of people who will automatically paint straight, white men as oppressors, but to use them as an argument against the idea of privilege is disingenuous at best. And, maybe they have a reason to be distrustful, it can’t be easy living in a world that seems tilted against you. I can deal with reading a few posts that are somewhat antagonistic against my “kind”, it’s certainly small potatoes compared to what someone who is gay or female or non-white has to put up with every day.

Through this journey of discovery, I have become aware that there is a lot of injustice around me, not in some far off country, but here in the lucky country. My eyes have been opened to the things that I take for granted are not the reality for too many people. The fact I can express my opinion without threats of rape or violence or being called vile names, the fact I can go out at night dressed how I please with out worrying what it might seen as an invitation to, the fact I can hold hands with my wife in public without a very real chance of a beating. All these things and more should be for everyone, and I don’t want to live in a world where they are not.

Being aware of my privilege doesn’t mean being ashamed of who I am. It means using what small power and influence my privilege gives me for good, not evil. It means, rather than perpetuating the system that gives me this privilege, and being content to reap the benefits, that I do what I can to dismantle it. It means trying to support those with less privilege than me, not in a condescending and disempowering fashion, but by listening to them and finding out what they think I should be doing.

You may think that by talking about people who get defensive whenever privilege is discussed I have merely set up a straw man, easy to knock down. All I can say to that is read below the line and see the comments that these sort of posts provoke (for a great example I would point you to the post by John Scalzi I linked to at the start of this post, who I think is an excellent example of someone operating from a position of privilege and influence trying to use those things to improve the world around him). You will soon see that there is indeed a certain type of straight white male that flocks to comment in high dudgeon. That’s not the sort of person I want to be. Do you?

O

Wednesday Writers: Lisa L. Hannett

I seem to be doing well when it comes to hosting writers just as they are celebrating a significant milestone. Perhaps I should be advertising this as, “agree to be a Wednesday Writer and good things will happen to you!”? Of course, it could simply be due to the fact that with so many talented people in Australia that there will always be something major happening. Today’s guest, Lisa Hannett, is indisputably one of Australia’s major talents, and her recent World Fantasy Award nomination is simply the latest in a growing and extremely well deserved recognition of her work. It’s a real pleasure to welcome such a gifted writer, and lovely person, to my blog today as she talks about the importance of not writing in a bubble.

Knowing What You Write

Most of us are compelled to write because we love stories: hearing them narrated, staying up all night reading them, watching them unfold on the big screen. And many of us are driven to write the types of stories that we also enjoy reading, whether it’s speculative fiction, memoir, historical fiction, Literature with a capital ‘L’, romance, mystery, or combinations of any/all of these. Inspired by all of these wonderful narratives, we attempt to invent our own new stories, share our unique voices, create our own styles, and add fresh perspectives to old favourites.

Of course, we don’t want to simply re-hash what other authors have already written. We recognise trends when we see them: orphans in schools of magic and wizardry; tales about vampire hunters, vampire lovers, vampire detectives; stories of people who can speak to the dead, or of the dead who can speak to the living; spunky witches who fight crime in urban settings; fairy tale adaptations; the oh-so-familiar “I am part of a quest, with an elf, a giant, a princess, a prince, dwarves and a prophecy and I’m aided by wizards and magical tools narrative”; and the tried and true “I’m the first person or last person on this planet; I’m in an intergalactic war; I’m living on a space station that looks remarkably like Earth, but is largely a hologram” narratives.

I’m not trying to disparage such trends here. Just because some storylines are familiar doesn’t mean they are bad. Similarly, just because some genres are familiar, or follow conventional formulas, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. (By the same token, inventing something entirely new isn’t necessarily the equivalent of good, either.) But in order to recognise the trends, to write into them or write our way out of them, or to come up with Brilliant and Original New Stories No-one Has Ever Imagined Before (Really!), we all need to do one thing.

Read.

Read a lot.

Read more.

Read even more.

And, most importantly, read critically.

Read like writers.

What is it about your favourite stories that make them your favourite? The dialogue? Characterisation? Narrative drive? Imaginative new worlds? The style? The rhythm of the writing? How did the authors achieve these appealing effects?  What worked in this plotline? What was unnecessary in that one? How did that author combine disparate genres (like crime and fantasy, historical and futuristic fiction, etc)? What made you think ‘Wow!’ while reading? Why? What made you cringe? Why? What made this story unsatisfying? Why did that one tick all the right boxes but still end up seeming sort of blah?

Read outside of the genre in which you intend to write. You may not want to write about the French Revolution, or ancient Egypt, or Alaskan oil rigs, but reading non-fiction accounts in these areas might trigger new and bizarre storylines you mightn’t otherwise have considered. Read Regency novels not because you want to recreate that period in your own work, but for the banter, for the examples of rigid social hierarchy, for the way these authors emphasise character more than frocks and balls. Read poetry for the rhythm, the evocative images, the inspired turns-of-phrase. Read boring academic treatises just to let your backbrain compensate for the tedium by daydreaming.

Dissatisfaction, even more than admiration, can inspire innovation in writing. In other words, knowing a genre, a style, a trend, or an author’s work inside out — reading to the point of being sick of it — can help you realise what it is you do and don’t like about these narratives; and, by extension, what you do and don’t want to include in your own writing. Reading so much epic fantasy that you think you’ll scream if you see another prophecy can be a useful catalyst: sure, you might end up loathing the genre, but you might also realise that no-one has ever done x,y or z…

Almost every creative writing course will, at some point or another, offer up that most hackneyed piece of advice: “write what you know”. “Writing what you know” implies that you must be familiar with your subject matter — but it doesn’t mean you must have lived it. We all draw on our own life experiences when writing; we’re inspired by the people we encounter, things we’ve done, snippets of things we’ve overheard. But “writing what we know” shouldn’t stop there — it shouldn’t be a restriction. I’ve never lived in the Deep South, but that didn’t stop me writing a suite of stories in an imagined version of that setting in Bluegrass Symphony. I don’t “know” those States personally, but I do know what it feels like to yearn for things, to want to belong, to be a human among other humans. So I did lots of reading to fill in the blanks of the setting — to add to my stockpile of what I “know” for writing. The best writers are all magpies at heart: pilfering shiny bits of knowledge from all the books, newspapers, magazines, websites, and stories they read, and storing them for later.

So writing “what you know” might mean you write from your own life and experiences, or it could mean that you write zombie stories because you know the zombie genre inside out — you’ve read heaps and heaps of zombie narratives, and so know how to reinvent or circumvent them. Or you write historical fiction because you have a passion for 14th century China. You write hard science fiction because you’ve been reading such stories since you were a kid. If you are going to write literature, mysteries, crime novels, fantasy or science fiction, children’s novels or graphic novels, it helps to read them all widely — so that you can see what hasn’t been done yet. So you can see what unusual direction you might take. Not just so that you can see how to emulate what has come before. It isn’t so much “write what you know” but “know what is written” so that you can add something new — something only you could have come up with — to the trove.

Lisa L Hannett hails from Ottawa, Canada but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia — city of churches, bizarre murders and pie floaters. Her short stories have been published in Clarkesworld Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, ChiZine, Shimmer, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror (2010 & 2011), and Imaginarium 2012: Best Canadian Speculative Fiction, among other places. She has won three Aurealis Awards, including Best Collection 2011 for her first book, Bluegrass Symphony (Ticonderoga), which has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Midnight and Moonshine, co-authored with Angela Slatter, will be published in 2012. Lisa has a PhD in medieval Icelandic literature, and is a graduate of Clarion South. You can find her online at http://lisahannett.com and on Twitter @LisaLHannett.

Wednesday Writers: Pete Aldin

At Natcon this year I had the opportunity to be on two panels dealing with religion, and to say I was nervous would be a major understatement. I had no idea how they would go, or how they would be received. Thankfully, though, they seemed to go pretty well and I received a great deal of feedback over the weekend relating to them. One of the people who took the time to come up and chat about them, and say some very kind things both about the panels and my writing, was Pete Aldin. Aside from the nice words, it is always wonderful to meet someone who shares similar beliefs to you, and doubly so when they turn out to be a great guy. Not only is Pete a talented writer, but he is also extremely humble about his achievements. If I hadn’t checked out his website I wouldn’t know how well is he is doing with his writing, and I had to nudge him to mention some of his achievements in his post. Such humility is most definitely not the norm! It’s things like this, as well as his many other sterling qualities, that make it such a pleasure to welcome Pete to Wednesday Writers today.

Antagonists in a Writer’s World

I can’t express how “freaked out” I was by David’s invitation to contribute to Wednesday Writers. “Who am I to post writerly stuff alongside authors whose stories I’ve enjoyed, and sundry other wise persons?” I asked myself. As I tried to come up with ideas for a post here, the background buzz of anxiety expressed in that question eventually gained my full attention long enough for me to realise that it held a clue, an indication of something I could write about (and with full expertise): those things which hold us writers back…

I started writing as a young bloke, churning out a fair amount of cute-but-crap scifi and war fiction between the ages of 13 and 20. During early high school, my friends were my fans as I filled a procession of exercise books with a post-apocalyptic saga set in Melbourne. The saga involved teenage boys battling “mutoes” and other dangers. None of it was great, but it was a start. And writing was a passion.

Somewhere in my early 20s, the wheels fell off. The typewriter (yep, I’m that old) and the notebooks got mothballed or trashed. I stopped writing.

During my 30s, I thought about writing speculative fiction a lot. I wanted to. But I didn’t. And I kept on “didn’t-ing” until I hit my midlife wake-up at 40, whereupon I decided to back myself and have a go. At 46, I’m now officially new to this author-thing, with a mere four notches on my short-story-sales-belt and a novel under submission. I’m at the very beginning of the life that 13-year-old Me always wanted, and I regret those missing decades where I allowed myself to be sidelined as a writer.

I’m not alone in being thwarted as an author. Just as the fictional hero of your favourite novel faces hurdles and battles along his/her journey, so the author who created them faced their own barriers and thwartings in bringing that hero to life. We-who-write have our own story arcs. We face obstacles, handicaps, try-fail cycles, small successes and painful setbacks – even enemies – as we forge ahead on our quests to publish stories that resonate with other people. Here’s just a few of the ogres we battle…

“I’m No Good”

Self-doubt is the most common hang-up and obstacle I hear other writers saying they face. And I suspect it bullies many budding authors with amazing talents into keeping their talents in a metaphorical box beneath their bed. It certainly plagued me enough when I first said, “Dammit, I’m gonna be a writer”.

But I’m finding that these days I face it far less often than I did a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s because seeing your name in Andromeda Spaceways or Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show feels validating. Maybe it’s a practise thing – the more you do it, the more confident you feel. Perhaps it’s because I have great writing buddies who keep things in perspective for me, journey-friends. Or maybe it’s because I’m a closet Cognitive-Behaviourist and work hard at keeping my self-talk healthy. Different things will work for different writers in overcoming the demon of self-doubt…but they will only work if we utilise them to oppose that inner enemy.

Having said that, sometimes when a writer hears that inner voice uttering those words, well, maybe there’s a reason to pay attention. No, I’m not saying that when the writer reads over their first draft and it’s clunky, cheesy and crass, they should abandon their entire writing dream. I am saying that perhaps the voice of disgust is just their Inner Editor nudging them to fix something. That’s not a cause for depression; it’s an opportunity to improve.

“I should be doing something constructive”

I hate this one. And the main reason I hate it is because it gets me with embarrassing frequency.  There’s always something more important or pressing that I “should” be doing with my time. Life is full of “shoulds”, of demands and desires that accomplish diddly squat. Fortunately I have a wife who tells me “Writing is constructive. Go write”. I don’t think I’d have stuck with it if I didn’t have her. Not all writers are that lucky.

Whether it’s the washing up, playing xBox with the kids, the vacuuming, ringing your poor old mum, doing your tax…it’ll wait! If we live balanced lives, we have to carve out time for our writing. We have to say NO to stuff. We have to honour the commitment we’ve made to ourselves and our (future) readers.

“Weirdo!”

I have to be honest that one of the things stopping me from pursuing writing in the past was the fear of what other people would think of me.

I haven’t mixed with a lot of spec fiction fans over the decades (thankfully, that’s changing). So when I first began to write, friends would look askance at me – especially when I told them what I was writing. (They would have been okay with it if I’d been writing some political or religious or self-help tome). Even now, when I tell a stranger I write scifi/fantasy/horror, I can see the panic creeping across their face as they scan the room for the closest escape route…that or their eyes glaze over until we return to talking about something “normal”, like football (shudder) … or politics or self-help books.

I work in a high school. When I was scratching out a first draft for this post on a school excursion (on a train), the student sitting next to me turned around and said, “Watcha doin’?”

“I’m writing an article for a friend’s blog,” I replied.

Slowly she uncurled an index finger, levelled it at me and said, “Nerd.”

I said, “Thank you.”

Why on earth should someone else’s negative opinion define me? And if it’s important that I feel “normal” as a spec fiction writer, then I should spend more time with other people who read and write it.

Because it is normal. And it’s cool.

“Unclean!”

This is a little like the weirdo one, only stronger. When you come from a strong faith background like I do, the power of opinion (read judgment) can be all the more hobbling when it’s levelled by those who share your basic belief system. Now to be sure, there’s a massive spectrum of attitude amongst Christians toward scifi-fantasy-horror (everything from “Beam me up, Harry Potter!” to “That’s of the devil!”) and unfortunately many of those who think it’s a little suss denounce it loudly.

As an ex-pastor, I’ve found it most difficult to come clean about my passion, my dreams and projects with the very people with whom in some ways I should feel most at peace.

There’s a whole other story there, but basically it’s been a matter of reminding myself that while the perspectives and ideas of others are valuable, in the end I define myself. And I define myself as Writer. I can write about dark deeds and still be devout in my faith (Sheesh, just read some Old Testament stories! Young hoons call a prophet “Baldy!” and a bear comes out of the forest to tear them apart? Tell me that’s not horror).

Anyone who thinks I can’t be a Christian and write this stuff is merely ignorant on that topic. And that’s okay. And it brings me to my last writer barrier…

Sheer Unadulterated Ignorance

I suffer horribly from the syndrome of “I dunno what I dunno”. It struck me first when I finally completed my first novel only to find from two interested agents that it was 80,000 words too long for the industry. (“If you could cut it back to 100k, Mr Aldin, we’d be happy to take another look”. “Er, it’d be easier to write a whole new novel to the 100k word limit, but thanks for the heads up.”)

Ignorance can waste your time, it can waste your efforts. It can make you bark up the wrong tree or walk past the tree up which you should be barking (Did that make any sense at all?).

Ignorance can discourage, because you don’t know answers that are a mere Google search or Skype call away.

And the answer of course is to learn, to become a student of spec fiction, of the craft of writing, of the business of publishing, of the world of other wonderful writers and ideas that surround us and remain at our fingertips in this amazing age of globalisation and information. Ignorance is no excuse.

As I conclude this rambling string of ideas, it suddenly hits me: the obstacles and enemies we writers face also provide areas we can mine for wonderful conflict in our spec fiction tales…

Seeking to combat a galactic-scale threat, an alien comes to earth to forge an alliance. Doing this means going against his own orthodox religious precepts which teach that mingling with other species is evil. For his decision, he is treated as weird by the earthers he’s come to negotiate with and now he’s wondering if he’s good enough to pull this off, while his clan-wives back home keep telling him there are far more constructive things to do with his time if he wants to save his race…

Bam! Angst. Obstacles. Conflict.

Story.

Like all good narcissists, Pete Aldin writes about himself and his writing at http://www.petealdin.com/. He occasionally blogs about parenthood from the male perspective at http://freakedoutfathers.blogspot.com.au/. He lives in Melbourne Australia with his wife, two sons and a small yappy dog. His addictions include Strongbow sweet apple cider, Medieval Total War and the FIFA franchise on Xbox. He doesn’t like pina colada or taking walks in the rain.

When he’s not writing, Pete works with GenYs and high school students as a tutor, life coach and social worker. He is a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association and Codex Writers Forum. 

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Chicon is Coming!

I am currently in a state of overwhelming excitement, because in just a few weeks I will be in Chicago for WorldCon! There are a few reasons why I am a quivering mess. firstly, I have never been overseas before, so this is all new to me (I know – sad, right). With each step, like applying for a passport (oh my God does anyone ever get a good picture?) or organising flights, it is hitting home that soon I will be in a foreign city. It was meant to be a longer holiday, but unfortunately some things came up and it will now only be just over a week. But, that is still a week in another country!

Secondly, I will get to hang out with the amazing folk of the Brotherhood Without Banners, the George R.R. Martin fan group. Some of them I get to see every few months, some I last saw at AussieCon and some I have been talking to for almost a decade but have never met in the flesh. I am sure most readers understand that you can have deep and abiding friendships with people from the internet, and will see why I am so thrilled that I will finally get to meet them. Plus, I will get to hang out with George!

Thirdly, unlike AussieCon (which was brilliant), I am going to Chicon as a writer, with all the added excitement this brings. I’ve had so much fun at that conventions I have been to, and gotten so much out of them, that I can only imagine what ChiCon will be like. I am looking forward to the socialising and the talking writing with other authors and the making of  new friends and connections. There will be great panels and lots to learn. I know I will be exhausted by the end of it, but it will be more than worth it.

And finally, as someone very much at the beginning of my career I was really not expecting a chance to be involved in the programme itself, and was quite happy to be part of the audience. But, I’m delighted to be on a few panels, and more than a little nervous. There are some names there that I really look up to and I feel a little out of my depth. But, it will be an adventure and if you are there, feel free to come along and say hello!

And, now back to counting down the days…

(this program is still subject to change)

Fri Aug 31 12:00:pm Fri Aug 31 1:30:pm Tolkien in Technicolor
Buckingham From the aborted Beatles concept of The Lord of the Rings to the forthcoming Hobbit trilogy of Peter Jackson, a discussion of films based on the books of J.R.R. Tolkien.
Barry Lyn-Waitsman David McDonald Norman Cates The Wombat Toni Lay
Sat Sep 1 1:30:pm Sat Sep 1 3:00:pm Effective Habits for Aspiring Authors
Columbus CD A nuts-and-bolts panel discussing work habits for the aspiring professional author. How to organize, prioritize, set goals, avoid distractions, and make valuable networking connections in the industry. The panel will also discuss mistakes to avoid.
Brad Aiken Brad R. Torgersen Cecilia Tan David McDonald Lillian Cauldwell
Sat Sep 1 6:00:pm Sat Sep 1 7:30:pm Doctor Who: Is It Still a Kid’s Show?
Buckingham Has the “kids show” gotten more grown up with the last three Doctors? Was it an adult show even before the original cancellation? When, and how, did the transition happen, if it did?
David McDonald Kerri-Ellen Kelly Lynne M. Thomas Michael Lee Ryan K. Johnson
Sun Sep 2 6:00:pm Sun Sep 2 7:30:pm Have Sonic Lipstick Will Travel
Haymarket Celebrating the great Sarah Jane Smith, as a Companion and on her own.
Anna Sheehan David McDonald Ryan K. Johnson Stephanie Grace
Mon Sep 3 10:30:am Mon Sep 3 12:00:pm Getting the Most Out of Writing Groups
Columbus EF There are all kinds of writing groups for all kinds of writers. What should you look for and what rules should you follow to get the most out of the experience? How do you handle conflicting suggestions and how do you comment on others’ writing effectively?
Bill Shunn David McDonald Derek Kunsken Sarah Stegall Tim Susman
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Wednesday Writers: Travis McKenzie

There is a lot to like about conventions, the carousing, the food, the panels, the walking away with a swag of new books. But, my favourite part is the social side. Not only do you get to catch with old friends, but it is also a chance to meet new people and plug into the wider wrtiing community. I am always fascinated to find what is happening outside my usual circles, and to realise that even in my own city there are exciting new writers producing great work that I haven’t yet had a chance to hear about. At Continuum I found myself on a panel with a writer whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting before, but by the end of the panel I’d learnt he really knew his stuff and had convinced me I needed to check out his work. So, it’s great to have Travis McKenzie here today to draw on his own experiences with writing a trilogy.

The trouble with trilogies, part 1.

Sequels are hard. They are like the second big relationship you get into when you’re in your mid 20s. You know a bit about yourself, you know a bit about girls, and you know things better be better this time around. A good one can expand everything; fulfil expectations and hint at wonders still to come. A bad one can be little more than a rerun of the first, all the time that old refrain ‘fool me twice…’ echoing in your head.

The problem is, I love sequels. I can’t get enough of them, and for my chosen genre — Epic Fantasy — they are as much a part of the territory as dragons, wizards and prophecy. I always knew my story would span a series, that was the point, in fact, of starting it in the first place. I saw the basic premise of my story (a world where everyone does magic and one boy who can’t) as a natural trilogy. The problem was, I only began with a vague outline of where everything was going.

I was what we call a ‘pantser’ and by the seat of them I flew — well, perhaps stumbled — through book 1. This is fine for some, and I know many writers swear by it, but for me, I needed a different approach for book 2. I needed structure.

I read recently about an abandoned sequel for E.T. with the dubious title of E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears. The plot went something like this. The Aliens from the first movie return, but this time they are evil — a genetically identical, but philosophically opposed race of ‘E.Ts’ who want to take over Earth. And its up to Eliot and the original E.T to stop them. Now on the surface that is a catchy plot, might even have worked, if it wasn’t for the little problem that it would have destroyed the entire theme of the original. Spielberg had the good sense to abandon that one — if only Lucas had as much restraint.

Another sequel that should have been avoided (and there are many, but this is my personal favourite) was Highlander 2: the Quickening. The problems of this can be summed up by the catchphrase of the first: There can be only one. To be more clear, for a movie that told us in no uncertain terms that there can only be one immortal, when they suddenly introduced an entire planet of them, the premise, and any connection to the first was destroyed. The list goes on, but the lesson remains the same; from Speed 2: Cruise control, to Teen Wolf Too, bad sequels either try to repeat the first or change it so dramatically all connection to the first is lost.

The lesson from this? If you change the rules, you change the story. The easiest way out of this problem is to change nothing at all and merely have new problems face the characters like so many TV shows that re-set at the end of each episode. There is the illusion of a bigger plot unfolding, but scratch the surface and you find only melodrama. You can dress it up with wizards and magic, but there are many series out there that feel like Days of Our Lives, and for me, hold about as much interest. I want change, I want expansion, and most of all I want resolution. But that last one, at least, is a problem for book 3. First, I have to make sure my sequel is Empire Strikes Back, and not Matrix Reloaded.

I think the answer lies in narrative structure. We have all taken creative writing 101 — whether in an actual class, via wikipedia, or Stephen King. We all recognise virtue of plot arcs, be they 3, 4, or 5 acts in length — and it is relatively easy to achieve this in one self-contained story. Characters are introduced, they face ever more complex predicaments, then climax, and resolution. Cut to black. Yet we often forget that an entire series must also follow a greater arc if it is to be satisfying.

In my day job I teach art. I recently set my year 11 students the task of defining their own principle of beauty. This is one of those impossible problems that I love giving my students. It instantly creates discussion, and forces them to back up whatever arguments they want to make with specific examples — the core of any good essay. My favourite this year was a student who argued that beauty is like fractal regression; any small part must itself work as a complete composition, no matter how you divide the work. He used Van Gough’s Starry Night as an example and demonstrated that if you zoom in, every magnification seems to work as its own complete abstract work of art.

He got an ‘A’ — and his essay made me consider that when it comes to writing, the opposite is true. When we expand a story over multiple books, there must be a coherent structure that each new episode becomes a part of. Just as Act One of a tale can be defined as ‘call to adventure’ so too does book one of a series perform the duty of introducing us to the world and characters of the bigger story. Act two has been defined as (warning tvtrope link — you may not return) ‘Confrontation’ by some, ‘rising action’ by others. If you consider some of the worst sequels you can recall, they do not so much as raise the action, as reset it.

If you follow that link you find a great quote from Empire Strikes Back producer Gary Kurtz, who sums this up perfectly,

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”
I think too many of us, instead of setting the tree on fire, tend to put our characters up a slightly taller tree, or worse, throw them in front of a bus.

Right now, I’m piling the kindling. I promise that everyone will be safely home — if not a little singed — by the end of book 3.

Born just before the ‘80s began T.B McKenzie grew up in South Gippsland Victoria, where boys either surfed or played football. He did neither and, as this was a time before the Internet, he found his escape in books. Somehow he missed the boat on Tolkien but discovered instead the works of Lloyd Alexander, Terry Pratchett and Ursula Le-Guin, who all had a lot to say about things people seemed to have forgotten.

He never looked back and ever since his first story — written in grade four about a monster, a sword, and a hero — he knew he wanted to be a writer. He lives now with his wife and young son in Melbourne, where he makes money to pay the bills as an art teacher and stays up way past his bedtime writing the sequel to The Dragon and the Crow

Dragonfall Press is a small independent publisher of science fiction and fantasy, located in the Hills of Perth, Western Australia. Commenced in late 2010, their goal is to get unknown Australian authors known and to promote the wonder of worlds within words.

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Wednesday Writers: George Ivanoff

When I first met George it was as part of one of the best panels at last year’s Continuum (which is saying something as it was a great Con). As I got to know him better I found that not only was he an excellent speaker, but a huge Doctor Who fan and short story writer, a connisieur of fine Scotch, and perhaps the best dressed man in Aussie spec fic! But, if all that weren’t enough, he is also an extremely talented writer with a deep understanding of his craft and of the business of writing. So, I am delighted to welcome him here today to talk about the importance of maintaining your passion as a writer.

The Joy of Writing

Writing is my career. With young children to look after, it is currently a part-time career — but I still write each and every day. It can be frustrating at times, when a deadline is looming and the words just aren’t flowing and every sentence takes a Herculean effort but doesn’t seem quite right and self-doubt is taking a battering ram to your door. And it’s not the easiest of careers, given the difficulties of finding publication and the erratic income.

But, you know what? I love it all anyway.

I used to make a lot more money when I worked as a web development consultant, but these days, as a writer, I’m a much happier person.

When asked for advice by people wanting to write, I usually spout the old cliché: “Write lots, because the more you practice your craft the better at it you will become. Read lots so that you can learn from writers better than yourself.” And this has become a cliché, because it is true.

But if I’m asked for advice about writing as a career, I have a different answer. If someone is interested in it as a career, I assume they already write and read, lots. Writing as a career generally involves writing every day (or at least, most days) as well as doing lots of writing related stuff like speaking about writing, promoting your books, approaching publishers and generally networking. In many ways a writing career is more than a career — it’s a lifestyle. So if you’re going to be doing this every day, then your really have to…

LOVE WHAT YOU DO!

Find the joy in writing. And in the associated tasks. It’s there! It really is! Go look for it.

I’ve met writers over the years, who don’t actually seem to like writing. They like having written and they like being published, but they don’t seem to enjoy the process. Me? I love the process. Each step — from plotting, to drafting, to endless rewriting to editing to publishing to promoting. Yes, there are difficulties and frustrations inherent in each of those steps, but underneath those difficulties and frustrations, I LOVE IT ALL!

I love plotting out a new novel. This is where I get to throw around all sorts of outlandish ideas and concepts to see which will bounce and which will fall flat. This is where I get to meet potential new characters, in a sort of fictional equivalent to speed dating. What’s your name? What’s your job? What do you love most about life? What frightens you? What’s your deepest, darkest secret? Sorry, you’re boring. NEXT! Then there’s the ‘jigsaw puzzling’ of it all together. Will the pieces fit? Will there be pieces left over, or will there be huge gaps in the picture?

I’ve recently gone through this with my new novel, the third in the Gamers series. I’m still on a high from it. Excited! Now I’m in the first draft stage. And I love that too. This is where I let it all rush out, not thinking too critically about it. This is the only stage during which I don’t have to think about whether or not it’s working. I simply trust in the outline I’ve created and in my instincts if they lead me to deviate from it. It’s a rather joyous feeling of freedom.

Then comes to rewriting. This is where the detail happens. This is where the characters are fleshed out, where they progress from mere words to living, breathing people within my mind. This is where the pot is either tweaked or twisted or tortured into shape. This is where I bend it all to my will. Love it!

Then comes the editing. I’ll admit that this part can be nerve-wracking as I finally allow someone else to view my baby — and I know they are not going to love every aspect of it; I know they will suggest changes, from a little nip and tuck to major reconstructive surgery. But there’s also excitement in that — an adrenaline rush. And even if the feedback will take ages to implement and perhaps even change some aspects beyond recognition, I know that it will lead to something better. In the back of my mind a voice calls to me from the 70s: “You can rebuild it. You have the technology to make it better than it was before — better, stronger, faster.” (Okay… so my mind can be a rather odd place at times.) ((And yes, I know it’s not an accurate quote… but it’s in my mind so I can do anything I want with it.))

Eventually, after all of that, I get to hold the book in my hands and gaze upon the hopefully wonderful cover with my name on it. And yes, sometimes the cover isn’t wonder, but hell, it still has my name on it, and I wrote it and now people are going to read it. Holding it in my hands for the first time is pure delight — as is seeing it on a bookshop shelf for the first time… and the tenth time… and the hundredth time… and the…

And then you get to tell people about it. What’s not to love about that. ;-)

There is JOY in every step of the way and in all sorts of unexpected places — from the discovery of a plot point which could include a Doctor Who reference (What can I say? I’m a fanboy!) to the thrill of putting together a proposal I’m certain has no hope but which I’ll put in anyway… just in case… and because I love the idea.

The joy in writing. It’s the reason I’ve pursued writing as a career. It’s the reason I will continue to do so. If I didn’t have that joy? Well, I’d go out and get a real job.

George Ivanoff is an author and stay-at-home dad residing in Melbourne, Australia.

He has written over 60 books for children and teenagers, including fiction and non-fiction. He has written school readers, library reference books, chapter books, novelettes, novels and even a short story collection. He has books on both the Victorian Premier’s and the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge booklists.

His teen science fiction novel, Gamers’ Quest, won a 2010 Chronos Award for speculative fiction. The sequel, Gamers’ Challenge, was nominated for a 2012 Chronos Award.

George also writes short stories and articles for adults as well as kids. Of all these, he is most proud to have had the opportunity to write a Doctor Who story for the Short Trips: Defining Patterns anthology (Big Finish, UK, 2008).

Occasionally, George has been known to moonlight as an actor. He has had small roles in numerous productions including the television series Neighbours and the feature film Frozen Butterflies.

George eats too much chocolate and drinks too much coffee. He will sometime indulge in a nice bottle of wine or a single malt Scotch.

He has one wife, two children and two cats. And he is very content!