Monthly Archives: September 2012

Wednesday Writers: Meg Mundell

As someone with a foot in two camps, Meg Mundell is exceptionaly qualified to talk about the mechanics and craft of writing. Not only is she a journalist with a proven track record and a huge amount of varied experiences, Meg is also the author of the acclaimed and multiple award nominated Black Glass, one of the stand out spec fic novels of 2011. As someone who has aspirations in both these directions, I’ve always been very interested in hearing Meg talk about her approach to writing, and delighted to discover how generous she is in sharing her knowledge with other writers. It’s always a pleasure to discover that someone you look up to as a writer is also a wonderful person! Whatever you are writing, I think that you will find a great deal of value in Meg’s post and I am thrilled to welcome her to my blog for today’s Wednesday Writer.

LOCATING STORIES: THE POWER OF PLACE

Most readers, when they open a book, are seeking something deeper than entertainment. When I dive into a story, I want to be transported into another world: a hardscrabble logging camp in the remote Louisiana wilderness, in Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing; the sky-skimming exhilaration of mid-air flight, in Claire Corbett’s When We Have Wings; the trauma-steeped corridors of a wartime mental hospital in Pat Barker’s Regeneration; the cabin of a dying space shuttle stranded on the dark side of the moon, in Jed Mercurio’s Ascent – just to name a few recent and memorable reads.

What do I want from a story? I want to slip through the back of the wardrobe and emerge in Narnia; to step through the mirror into Wonderland. To feel the brutality and isolation of that muddy logging camp, to catch the thrilling lift of that thermal updraft, to suck down the last lungful of oxygen in that doomed space shuttle. I want to feel like I’m really there.

As a writer, the same holds true: when writing, I set out to immerse myself in an alternate reality, to disappear into what narrative researcher Charlotte Doyle calls the “fictionworld, the imagined environment in which my characters play out their lives. I want to build a rabbit-hole into which my readers will gladly take a tumble. I want to give them a palpable and satisfying sense of thereness.

To this end, I invest a lot of energy in creating vivid settings. After all, nothing happens in a vacuum: all stories take place somewhere. A compelling setting can serve a story in so many ways: it helps anchor your tale in a specific place and time; it can entice or force characters into taking certain steps, or facing particular choices, propelling the story forward (two teens, lost on a camping trip, must share a sleeping bag to ward off hypothermia); it can shape the way characters interact with one another, the way social roles and power dynamics unfold within the story (a lowly office cleaner, unfairly facing the sack, discovers the manager passed out drunk beneath her desk after-hours); it can evoke mood, provide drama and narrative tension, and reveal a great deal about characters’ lives, emotions and personalities.

But most importantly, a convincing setting helps readers feel like they’re actually there in person, seeing the fictionworld through the characters’ eyes, feeling it with all their senses. Recent neurological studies have shown that when you get “lost” a good book, your brain replicates the sensory experiences of the characters you’re reading about. I kept this idea in mind while writing my first novel, BLACK GLASS, a work of speculative fiction. The book is set in a dystopian near-future world (or perhaps a parallel “now”) ruled by surveillance, segregation and civil unrest. Two of my main characters, young Tally and her friend Blue, are homeless “undocs”, struggling to survive on the fringes of a hostile city, in a society that sees them as worthless.

In bringing this setting to life, I borrowed some of Melbourne’s street names and landmarks, relocated, morphed and re-configured them to suit the tale, and amped up the sense of “there-ness” until it felt convincing. To research some of the book’s crucial sub-settings, I went out “location-scouting” missions – long walks and bikerides through some of Melbourne’s more derelict, forgotten corners: industrial zones, vacant lots, stormwater drains. Like anyone forced to survive on the streets, Tally and Blue must find safe spots to sleep at night, and to depict these hidden corners, I also drew on my time spent working at The Big Issue years ago, as staff writer and deputy editor. The magazine’s vendors showed me some of their own sleeping spots, tucked down back alleys, under bridges and freeway overpasses. With the writer’s natural magpie instincts, I shamelessly borrowed and adapted these locations too.

So much for research. How do authors write vivid settings? There’s no need to harangue readers with long descriptive passages, or tangled strings of adjectives: a few telling details will often do the trick. Does the place have a particular smell? Does it show signs of neglect, or traces of past inhabitants? Are there clues to what has happened here, or is about to happen – an overturned chair, a neat row of children’s shoes, a forest of waist-high weeds, a deck of playing cards splayed across the floor? How do your characters feel and behave in this place – are they at home here, or are they outsiders? Are they trapped, seeking sanctuary, cast adrift, out of place?

I find places endlessly fascinating. They shape our experiences, our relationships, our sense of self, the very course of our lives. Place is so central to how I see the world, when I sit down to write a new short story, setting often comes to me first. I count myself lucky that storytelling – of both the fiction and non-fiction varieties – has given me the perfect excuse to visit some amazing places in the name of research: an old quarantine station, outback truckstops, idyllic riversides, the backrooms of a crematorium, a gigantic factory that prints money. It’s also allowed me to draw on the magic of lost childhood places, to recall those peculiar enchanted sites that were once so special to me.

Writing also gives me a free passport to explore (and invent) places I’ve never visited in real life: spooky underwater caves, a cosmetic surgeon’s consulting room, the slippery deck of a container ship. What’s more, the wonder of stories is that these trips can be shared with others. Author and academic Nigel Krauth suggests that writing and reading involve a shared navigation of an imaginative terrain: “The psychological journey [of] the characters…is replicated for the reader. Poems and stories are…journeys of upheaval from a place left behind into new experience, new vision, new knowledge and understanding.”

When I open a book, that’s exactly what I’m seeking: new experiences, new sights, sounds and smells, a touch of armchair-based upheaval. No two people will read a single story in exactly the same way; our own unique imaginations, values and perspectives always play a part (for proof of this subjectivity, look no further than book reviews). But when we do read the same story, you and I immediately have something in common: we’ve both visited the same fictionworld, seen it through the characters’ eyes, felt it through the conduit of their senses. Sure, it might be an invented place, one that exists purely in the mysterious realm of the imagination. But in a very real sense, we’ve both been there.

Meg Mundell is an author, journalist and researcher based in Melbourne. Her first novel BLACK GLASS (Scribe, 2011) was shortlisted for the 2011 Aurealis Awards (in two categories), the 2012 Norma K Hemming Award, the 2012 Chronos Award (Best Long Fiction), and the 2010 Scribe-CAL Fiction Prize, and Highly Commended in the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award. Meg’s short stories have appeared in Best Australian Stories, New Australian Stories, Australian Book Review, Eureka Street, Meanjin, Harvest, The Big Issue and Sleepers Almanac. Her journalism has been published in The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review, The Big Issue, The Monthly and others. She’s now working on three projects: a second novel, a non-fiction book about outback trucking, and a PhD looking at how authors research “sense of place”.

Website: www.megmundell.com | Twitter: @megmundell | Facebook: www.facebook.com/megmundell.writer

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A Conversational Journey through New Who – Season Three Report Card

See David’s S2 Report Card, Tansy’s S2 Report Card and Tehani’s S2 Report Card through the clickies! (See our Season One Report Cards here)

SEASON THREE REPORT CARD – David

The Doctor: David Tennant

While there were a few not so great episodes in this season, there were also some exceptional ones that gave Tennant a chance to really shine. With someone as charismatic as Tennant there is always the temptation to just play himself, amplified, but instead we had plenty of chances to see the full range of his acting ability.

This is the season where I think he is really at home in the role as the Doctor and while the first season was about him finding his feet, this one is about him making his mark. Yes, there are some clunkers of episodes, there are also some of the best writing and acting we have seen so far.

The Companions:

Martha Jones: Freema Agyeman

I love Martha as a companion, but too often she gets shortchanged. Instead of focussing on her intellect and the way she, as much as any human can, interacts with with Doctor as somewhat of an equal, we had far too many scenes where they play up the romantic angle. It’s not just my own aversion to this speaking here, I really do think it was to the detriment of her character.

I hated the idea of her being set up as somehow competing with Rose, to me Martha deserves to be judged on her own merits. The episodes where she is left simply to be Martha are excellent and wanted to see more. I thought Freema was stellar in Human Nature and the way Martha brings a modern perspective to different times was handled perfectly. I wish they had made more of her travels in the season finale, that was perhaps my favourite bit about it, the way that she achieved so much and kept the flame burning while the Doctor was house elfing around.

Recurring Characters:

Captain Jack Harkness: John Barrowman

I much preferred this Jack to the one we had seen earlier. I thought there was more depth to his character, as if he had matured a bit (can I use matured and Jack in the same breath?) after all the things he had seen and the way he had changed. The idea of a man who couldn’t die was very clever, as was the way it was used as a plot device, but I wasn’t convinced by the Face of Boe payoff.

As I have probably said way too many times, I love the Doctor/male companion/female companion dynamic and I thought that Martha and Jack were a much better pairing than Jack and Rose.

The Master: John Simm

I think I will be in the minority here, but John Simm’s Master didn’t grab me at all. He seemed to be trying to compete with Tennant, and it didn’t come off as much as I am sure he would have hoped. There were some nicely chilling moments, but I would have been more than happy to see Derek Jacobi as the Master for the whole of the character’s appearance.

Saying that, I loved the reappearance of the Master, another example of how this incarnation of the show is very much a continuation of Classic Who and that its heritage hasn’t simply been thrown out. I hope he makes another appearance!

Martha’s family: Adjoa Andoh (mother Francine), Trevor Laird (father Clive (divorced from Francine)), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (sister Tish), and Reggie Yates (brother Leo).

I liked seeing the way Martha’s family influenced her life and impacted on her actions, and I thought it was generally pretty believable. I thought, though, that they made Francine very hard to sympathise with. While Jackie sometimes did things that I couldn’t agree with, she was a very likeable and sympathetic character, and you could always see that she was acting out a genuine desire to protect Rose. Francine, however, came across as a bit nasty.

What is your favourite episode of this season?

Hands down – Human Nature/Family of Blood. I really enjoyed Blink, but if it had been up to me Human Nature/Family of Blood would have gotten the Hugo. This was Doctor Who, and television, at its best. It touched on a number of complex issues without taking the easy option, it was deeply emotional without being heavy handed and it featured some amazing guest performances. I was really moved by this episode, and full of admiration for the complexity of what they managed to pack into two episodes.

It gave us a whole new look at the Doctor as a character and elevated Tennant in my eyes as an actor, and he was brilliantly supported by Freema and the guests. The villains were as creepy as it gets, plus it was set in an era that fascinates me. It lived up to the billing in that it looked at love and war and human nature – what more can you ask for?

Least favourite episode?

I didn’t think it was as bad as everyone else seemed to, but The Lazarus Experiment was definitely the weakest of the episodes.

Favourite guest performance?

It’s hard to split Jessica Hynes as Joan Redfern and Carey Mulligan as Sally Sparrow, while Derek Jacobi was perfect. I am going to, under protest, pick Jessica Hynes because she was a big part of why my favourite episode to date was so amazing.

Describe this season in one word!

Rollercoaster

Grade: B+

Wednesday Writers: Peter Clines

I have a tendency go on reading jags, where I will read everything I can get my hands on by a certain author, or set in a certain universe, or part of a particular genre niche. So, after reading World World Z I went through a stage of reading every zombie novel that I could get my hands on. I trawled through Amazon’s catalogue, whether it was traditional or self publishing, and purchased book after book. As you can imagine, while I found a few gems, I also came across some…not so great stuff. So, I was a bit jaded when I came across a book that was essentially summed up as “zombies vs super heroes”. I decided to give it a go, certain it couldn’t be as cool as the concept sounded. I was right, it was far better than I imagined! You can read my review of Ex Heroes here, and it is still one of my favourite books of all time. Wanting more, I looked up Peter Clines and found my way to the Permuted Press message boards, which not only led to me to more of Peter’s work, but one of the best small presses out there – one that has given me a lot of opportunities as writer that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. Between that, and his most excellent blog on writing, Peter has had a huge impact on my writing, and continues to produce great book after great book. So, as you can imagine, it is very exciting for me to welcome Peter to Ebon Shores, and I have no doubt you will all get a lot out of his post.

Take A Deep Breath…

I saw a piece of trivia on one website a while back that said the average novel takes just under five hundred hours to write. It wasn’t explained how this number was reached. It also didn’t explain what they defined as “to write.” Was that just under five hundred hours to finish the first draft or to create a polished manuscript? So, really, this number was kind of meaningless. But it was on the internet, which I suppose immediately makes it as valid and worthwhile as this piece you’re settling down to read right now.

Any number like this that doesn’t tell you the whole story is artificial and kind of useless. I can tell you it takes me ten minutes to make dinner, but that leaves a lot to question. Did I just boil pasta and heat up some tomato sauce? Did I prepare everything this morning so I only had a few steps left? Maybe I’ve just got a very old microwave that takes forever to heat a Hot Pocket.

My metaphor is failing, so let me try an analogy instead

Most Olympians can run 100 meters in about ten seconds. Men tend to come in a hair under that, women just a fraction of a second higher. Usain Bolt just did it nine-point-six seconds, officially making him the fastest man on Earth.

So we can say that it took Usain less than ten seconds to become a gold medalist. That’s not much of a time commitment at all, is it? One-sixth of a minute and I can be an Olympic record-setter?

It makes you wonder why more people don’t do it.

Probably because we all understand it actually takes a lot more than ten seconds, even for someone as fast as Usain Bolt. Usain ran in the Olympics this summer, yeah, but he started running back in the mid-nineties and began training while he was still in high school.

It took him almost twenty years to make that ten second run. He was putting in hours and hours, day after day, long before any of us had ever heard of him. And now he’s reaping the benefits of those years.

Some people think I just came out of nowhere. That I sat down one day, decided to write a novel, and boom. Ex-Heroes. Just like that. If you believe that number I mentioned to you at the top, I didn’t even spend three months working on it.

The truth is, though, there was a lot more to Ex-Heroes than that.

There were the action scenes acted out by my collection of Micronauts and Star Wars figures when I was a kid. There were the comic books I’d plot out and draw in fifth grade when I was supposed to be learning about integers or something (I don’t know what—I was busy making comics). There were the sci-fi and fantasy stories I wrote in junior high (all destroyed when our cellar flooded—thankfully), followed by some early horror stories in high school, plus numerous school writing assignments I bent and twisted to my own preferences. There was the werewolf novel in my first two years of college, followed by the urban fantasy novel (before there was such a term) in the second two years. And two different writing courses with two different instructors (one fantastic, one… not so much). Then there was the after-college novel that got delayed when I detoured into screenwriting for a few years and which I didn’t finish until 2001. All that led to a career as an entertainment journalist, churning out stories and reviews and interviews, often on a tight deadline for about six years.

And then, boom, just like that… Ex-Heroes.

Which actually took me about six months of rather intense work.

So… still not under five hundred hours.

A better number is one you may have heard from journalist Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers. According to him, it takes 10,000 hours of practice to reach the point that most people would rightfully consider you an expert in your field. Not to achieve something in your field, mind you—this is just all the work you need in order to hit that point where you can achieve something.

Now, to paraphrase Bill Cosby, I told you all that so I could tell you this…

Yeah, now you have to start paying attention again. Sorry.

The publishing industry has gone through several radical changes in the past five years. The rise of Amazon has really shaken up the way the market works. The loss of Borders and all its shelf space was a huge blow. And the explosion of the ebook market and self-publishing has shifted some of the perceptions of what a writer needs to be successful.

This rapid shift of the marketplace and the rush of technology has changed our own expectations a bit. One way is that a lot of people who never would’ve had a chance to get their work in front of anyone else are getting that chance. This isn’t necessarily always a good thing, mind you. A lot of people may try to argue the point, but I’d be willing to bet good money the odds of actual success aren’t any better today than they were twenty years ago. The raw numbers may be higher, yes, but the actual percentages… not so much. For every ten or twenty literary geniuses who finally get to show off what they can do, there’s two or three thousand people rushing stuff to the market who should honestly be banned from touching a keyboard.

In a roundabout way, that’s what I wanted to talk about. It may sound a bit self-obvious, but for writers these days there’s an undeniable push to get things out there as quickly as possible. We’ve all been conditioned to not wait on things. That push is spurred on by a lot of “how to” websites tossing up meaningless (or carefully spun) factoids and numbers as if they’re some sort of benchmark people can use to judge if their work is ready to go.

A lot of folks follow this “advice.” Just check the Amazon listings and see how many authors are churning out a new book ever six or seven weeks (way, way less than five hundred hours of work). They don’t have time to do anything less. They’re modern writers, with an audience that demands results now. Right! Now!

This is a real shame, because most of these stories end up feeling… well, rushed. I’ve seen some good stories that would’ve been great if the writer had just taken some time to really work on them. And I’ve seen stories that could’ve been passable which ended up just plain God-awful because the author didn’t want to spend any extra time working on them.

Pretty much across the board, the most common mistake I see in manuscripts—and that I hear about from publishers, editors, script readers, contest managers—is spelling. Writers who couldn’t be bothered to learn how to spell the words they were using and find out what they mean. That’s a basic line-edit of their manuscript.

But let’s be honest. Those ten thousand hours weren’t supposed to be spent on small stuff like that, right? That’s what the spell-checker is fort. And smell check said each wood was correct.

Meow, sum of yew may bee giggling or filling a bite smog rite about now. After all, hear I am gong on abut bad spilling and halt of these wards are spelled wrong. Except, you seen, hey aren’t. Not won singlet thin is spilled wrong inn these too paragraphs. Which is why a spell-chick pogrom well sea nothing wrong and till me my manuscript is fine.

Much like mine did before I sent this off to the editor here at Ebon Shores. And probably like his did, too.

Yeah, you’re smiling, but I see this kind of stuff constantly. People who don’t know the difference between its and it’s, or between sheer and shear, or compliment and complement. And they didn’t want to spend the time to learn. Or even just to make sure they hadn’t made a mistake.

If I had to offer a useful tidbit to an up-and-coming writer—just one single bit of advice I wish they’d listen to—it would be to take their time. Don’t rush. Don’t be in such a mad hurry to get your work out there that you put it out before it’s ready. If your story is going to find an audience, it’s going to find it just as well in another three weeks as it will today.

Use that time to do another draft. Go through your manuscript line by line. Spell check it with your eyes and a dictionary, not a computer program. While you’re at it, give the dialogue one more polish. Maybe read it out loud. Better yet, give it to a friend who isn’t familiar with the material and ask him or her to read it out loud. And then make changes where necessary.

Y’see, there’s a downside to this fast-paced, technologically-advanced future world we live in. It’s the first impression that you never get to make again. In the world of dating, you can just move on and try to hide the whole incident. In publishing, though… things on the internet are there forever.

If I rush my story out and it gets a dozen bad reviews, those reviews never go away. Ever. Even if I update my story and fix some problems after the fact, those comments will be tied to my book for the rest of its history. They’re the fun-at-the-time pictures from Spring Break in Las Vegas that, unfortunately, did not stay in Las Vegas.

Now, sure, I’m not talking to everyone. I’m betting a fair number of you put your work through a good, honest two or three drafts before showing it to anyone, and probably another two or three before submitting it anywhere. And there’s also a chance that if you keep trying to come up with reasons to do another draft, you’ll keep finding them. I’m sure we all know that certain someone who’s been working on the same manuscript for years and years and years because they’ve always got one or two drafts to put it through.

After a while of that, your story stops looking like a coherent tale and a bit more like the Winchester Mystery House.

So that’s my piece of advice to you. Ignore the online factoids. Be willing to put in those ten thousand hours. Do the extra drafts and the extra checks.

When it comes to writing, be an expert.

Peter Clines grew up in the Stephen King fallout zone of Maine and—fuelled by a love of comic books, Star Wars, and Saturday morning cartoons—started writing science fiction and fantasy stories at the age of eight with his first “epic novel”  Lizard Men from the Center of the Earth.  He made his first writing sale at age seventeen to a local newspaper, and his first screenplay got him an open door to pitch story ideas at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager.  

 He was the inspiration for both the epic poem Beowulf and the motion picture Raiders of the Lost Ark, and is single-handedly responsible for repelling the Martian Invasion of 1938 that occurred in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.  Eleven sonnets he wrote to impress a girl in high school were all later found and attributed to Shakespeare.  

Clines is the author of several short stories, countless film and screenwriting articles, and the runaway hit 14. He has also written Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, The Junkie Quatrain, the mashup novel The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe, the upcoming books Ex-Communication and Dead Moon, and an as yet-undiscovered Dead Sea scroll.  Every Thursday he can be found ranting about writing-related matters on his cleverly-named blog, Writer on Writing

There is compelling evidence that he is, in fact, the Lindbergh baby.

Jetsetting…

I was planning a detailed Worldcon roundup today, but my planned writing time on the plane did not happen thanks to the gentleman in front of me. But, the good news is that I am Perth which means I get to see a lot of the people I met at Swancon (which has a special place in my heart because of them making my first Con so amazing AND some of the Aussie BwBers – plus I get to go yachting! Oh, and I am meant to do some work lol

This being a jetsetting writer is a tough gig…

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Wednesday Writers: Michael Pryor

One of the first book launches I ever attended was the launch of George Ivanoff’s Gamer’s Challenge. It was a great event, not least because of the MC who managed to keep a room full of writers entertained and laughing – can you think of a tougher crowd, especially when you are keeping them from their wine? Further encounters with Michael have convinced me that he is one of the most engaging guys in Aussie spec fic circles, with a very cool steampunk sensibility to boot. Just as important, though, is the fact he is a vastly accomplished and experienced writer, and it’s a pleasure to invite him here to give some tips on tense.

Things Are Getting Tense

You face a number of important decisions when writing a story, some more important than others. While the choice between dark chocolate Tim Tams and milk chocolate Tim Tams might take up a considerable amount of writer brainspace, decisions about character, motivation, setting and plot sequencing are probably more crucial in the successful outcome of one’s story. There are, however, aspects even more fundamental than these, matters that are verging on the mechanical but are vital in making your story all that it could be.

Two of the most important involve choices about Tense and Point of View. I’ve previously written an article where I give some thought to the pros and cons of the various points of view a writer can adopt. Now it’s time to do the same for the prickly matter of Tense.

In formal grammatical terms, the tense of a verb indicates the degree of completeness of an event, and traditionally is considered as an sign of when something happened. In most straightforward terms, we tend to think of Past Tense, Present Tense and Future Tense. After that it gets much more complex and much messier. It is with some relief on my part, therefore, that I’m writing about writing, and not about grammar.

Whether you realise it or not, when you write the first word of that first sentence of that first draft, you’re committed to writing in one tense or other. Sometimes it’s only on the rewriting that one begins to question the tense used, and then the can of worms opens.

Broadly speaking, you have to decide between two tenses: the Past Tense and the Present Tense. I know, I know, some have chosen to write in the Future Tense (‘Brianna will be going through the door and then she will encounter the mysterious stranger.’) but while that sort of thing has a sort of old-fashioned avant garde charm, it’s hardly the stuff of mainstream narrative.

First some examples, just to make sure we have everyone on board.

Present Tense: ‘Brianna goes through the door and she meets a mysterious stranger.’

Past Tense: ‘Brianna went through the door and she met a mysterious stranger.’

And before the nitpickers jump up and down too much (and where would we be without nitpickers? Overrun with nits?) you can have many variations on these while still remaining, broadly, within the domains of the Present and the Past – ‘Brianna is going through the door and she is meeting a mysterious stranger.’ ‘Brianna has gone through the door and she has met a mysterious stranger.’ English is a language not without possibilities, after all.

So what tense do you use? It all depends. Both have advantages. Both have disadvantages. Sometimes, you only know if you have chosen the better tense by rewriting a section in the alternative tense. Often, the contrast is stark and either reassures you that the better tense has been chosen, or it’s a striking demonstration of the benefits of the tense you should have chosen …

The Present Tense’s great quality is the immediacy it imparts. When done well, the Present Tense puts a reader right in the middle of the narrative and it unfolds in front of him or her. It’s happening here and now and you’re part of it!

The Past Tense, on the other hand, appeals to our expectations of a story as a recounting, as something that has already happened and we are only learning about it.

In that case, is it too much to say that reading the Present Tense is like being in the audience for a play, while reading the Past Tense is like listening to a story-teller tell a tale of days gone by?

The Present Tense can sound fresh, almost spontaneous – but in unexperienced hands it can sound breathless, as if the narrative is running on the spot. Sometimes it can verge on sounding as if the narrative is being made up as it goes along.

The Past Tense can sound authoritative and assured – but if done carelessly can be ponderous and distant, and the whole thing starts to resemble the opening title crawl from Star Wars.

Regardless of your choice of tense, one fundamental rule remains: DON’T CHANGE TENSE! Whatever tense you’ve chosen, stick to it throughout your piece. Naturally, this rule is like the Pirate Code and is more of a guideline than your actual rule, but I strongly suggest that you abide by it. Deliberate and conscious tense changing can be done, has been done, and continues to be done but unless you’re actively aiming to jar your readers or to upset them or to irritate them, don’t do it. Actually, even if you’re aiming to jar your readers or to upset them or to irritate them, don’t do it. Find some other way to impress – or annoy – them.

While it might sound revolutionary and experimental, tense jumping is actually tired, self-conscious and a too-easy device that draws attention to itself and away from the narrative.

I tend to write in the Past Tense, particularly for longer works. I have written Present Tense pieces, but mostly short stories. I like the naturalness of the Past Tense and the feel of working within a tradition that has deep, psychological resonance with us, that part of us that responds to and wants to be part of Story. Having said that, I have found times when only the Present Tense will do, with the intimacy that it brings and the seductiveness with which it works.

Which Tense? Whichever is right for your purposes.

Best-selling author of the ‘Laws of Magic’ series, Michael Pryor was born in Swan Hill, Victoria, and currently lives in Melbourne. He has worked as a drainer’s labourer, a truck driver, a bathroom accessories salesperson, an Internet consultant, a software developer, a textbook publisher, in a scrap metal yard and as a secondary school teacher.

Michael has published more than thirty popular and critically acclaimed novels, more than fifty short stories, and has over one million words in print. His work has been longlisted for an Inky award, shortlisted for the WAYBR award and six times shortlisted for the Aurealis Award. Seven of his books have been awarded Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book status.

For more, see his website www.michaelpryor.com.au

 


timecrash

A Conversational Journey through New Who – Voyage of the Damned (S03 Christmas Special)

David is coming to New Who for the first time, having loved Classic Who as a kid. Tehani is a recent convert, and ploughed through Seasons 1 to 6 (so far) in just a few weeks after becoming addicted thanks to Matt Smith – she’s rewatching to keep up with David! Tansy is the expert in the team, with a history in Doctor Who fandom that goes WAY back, and a passion for Doctor Who that inspires us all. We’re also joined today by guest viewer Joanne Anderton, who is also discovering New Who for the first time! We’re working our way through New Who, using season openers and closers, and Hugo shortlisted episodes, as our blogging points. Just for fun!

Last time we looked at the Season 3 finale and now we move on to:

“VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED”
Christmas Special 2007.
The Doctor – David Tennant
Astrid Peth – Kylie Minogue

TANSY:
Before we get started, can I just ask – have you both watched “Time Crash,” the Children in Need special which takes place between the farewell of Martha and the collision of the TARDIS with the Titanic?

TEHANI:
I have! But I went and watched it again to remember. So cute seeing Tennant fanboy over Peter Davison (er Moffett – that’s not confusing at ALL).

DAVID:

I hadn’t, but I have now! I wish I had watched it first, because it makes the start of “Voyage of the Damned” a little more understandable. I know it is one of those things that if you aren’t a fan would make very little sense at all and would seem very self indulgent, but I LOVED it. My strongest memories of Doctor Who are Baker and then Davison and it brought back a lot of memories.

I really enjoyed the little jokes about aging and the obviously heartfelt bit at the end, and Tennant was clearly thrilled and a little awed to be working with Davison. It’s great to know that he is a fan at heart too, and so are the writers. I’ve really appreciated that New Who hasn’t just thrown out or tried to disown Classic Who and this is a great example of how most of the people in the new show wanted to be involved because they loved the old show.


On to Voyage! For me, this is probably the strongest of the Christmas specials so far. I have to admit, for a moment I was thinking that is was actually set on the real Titanic, and then I started to notice all the odd little features of the setting and twigged. In my defense, I was distracted when I caught of a glimpse of someone and thought, “OMG, is that Kylie?!”

TANSY:
I’ve had mixed feelings about “Voyage of the Damned” in the past but on this rewatch was interested to see how technically good it is – so tightly plotted, and cleverly put together. Things that are vital later are telegraphed early on, such as the forklift, or the undercurrent about cyborgs being seen as an underclass (though they can get married now!) I think it’s held up very well, and I would agree it’s the best of the Christmas specials though I still *like* “Runaway Bride” more, purely because of Donna.

TEHANI:
I even think there’s some telegraphing of things to come in season four, which was impressive. But agree, it’s well put together!

TANSY:
And yes, Kylie! It was such a big deal when this came out, and casting Kylie Minogue was almost a parody of extravagant casting – a sign that the show was big, bigger than we had ever imagined it would be. She even posed with a Dalek, though unlike Katy Manning, she kept her hot-pants on. But despite the evident stunt-casting, I think her performance works really well – she brings a wistful sweetness to Astrid, and I like the depth she gives to the character, which as written could have been played by someone half Kylie’s age.

David … did you REALLY not know Kylie was in this? How had you possibly remained unspoiled about that?

DAVID:
I’ve tried very hard to avoid spoilers, which has been rather difficult! Obviously there are a few things that I can’t help but know about, like that there is someone called River Song in the future and that Neil Gaiman wrote an episode, but I have managed not to pick up too many details. Imagine how tough it was sitting on two Doctor panels at Worldcon!

So, I probably heard that Kylie was in an episode at some point, but I would have just let it go in one ear and out the other, and definitely wouldn’t have remembered which episode it was exactly.

TEHANI:
I just did about my fourth rewatch of this episode, and think that this is probably the strongest acting I’ve ever seen from Kylie. Still a little cringey at times, but I think that was more about the instant Doctor-adoration than the Aussie-ness of her performance! Solid!

TANSY:
I love that in the last year you’ve gone from someone who’d never watched the show to someone who has watched some episodes FOUR times!

TEHANI:
Instant fangirl, just add Doctor! :)


DAVID:
The cast in general is very strong, quite a few actors who, even if you can’t put a name on them straight away, you know that you have seen them before. Clive Swift will always have a special place in my heart and Geoffrey Palmer is excellent as the doomed Captain. And, it’s good to see that they’ve kept up up the Christmas Special tradition of a villain who relished the chance to chew up the scenery (and a few other traditions I am sure we will come to later!). George Costigan appears to channelling Doctor Evil at some point!

TANSY:
Yes there are some great parts and casting choices considering that it is basically a disaster movie with a limited time for each of the roles to shine. I love that they got in someone with Geoffrey Palmer’s track record to play what amounted to a couple of scenes, but didn’t he sell those scenes gorgeously?

TEHANI:
I adore Geoffrey Palmer! He’s a fantastic actor and it was really cool to see him in this.

Tansy, you’ll have known this of course, but I have just been surprised by the Doctor Who connections of many of the cast, listed in the Wikipedia entry for the episode:

Clive Swift and Geoffrey Palmer have had previous roles in the classic series. Swift portrayed Jobel in Revelation of the Daleks, while Palmer played Undersecretary Masters in Doctor Who and the Silurians, and an administrator in The Mutants. Jessica Martin had played Mags in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. In addition, Bernard Cribbins played Tom Campbell in Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D., the second Doctor Who feature-film adaptation starring Peter Cushing as well as Arnold Korns in the audio play Horror of Glam Rock.

And of course, we’ll see more of Bernard Cribbins later (no spoilers David!).

TANSY:
I knew about Bernard Cribbins and Geoffrey Palmer (if you want to see a young Cribbins, the two Peter Cushing Dalek movies make great family viewing fare for Saturday afternoons, and the DVD release for them was super cheap)! I remember Jessica Martin as Mags too but had forgotten she was in this in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role of the Queen’s voice. I had no idea about Clive Swift, probably because I haven’t watched “Revelation of the Daleks” for 15 years or more – it was one of the few stories they didn’t include in the big ABC rescreening of classic stories in the three years before New Who began.

The casting choice that leaps out at me is young Russell Tovey, who is even more famous now than he was starting to be back then, thanks to Being Human and other prominent roles. This was the first thing I ever saw him in and the first time I’d even heard of him, but he is adorable as the baby-faced and steadfast midshipman Alonso Frame.

DAVID:
I thought Kylie was wonderful in this, but it seems the Doctor only has to look at someone before they want to jump on the TARDIS! Not that the Doctor can talk, his loneliness is very apparent in how eager he is to replace Martha. One can’t help but wonder how much fun it might have been had Mr Copper become the new companion, but that was never on the cards. Shame.

TANSY:
Ha yes, the Doctor totally gave Mr Copper the brush off, didn’t he? Funny how he tends to only encourage the young, hot ladies for the most part… I do like the Astrid-Doctor relationship, and the fact that she obviously has saucy designs on him (love the crack where he says she should see him in the morning and she is TOTALLY up for that), even though it is the third companion who has fancied the pants off him (thank goodness for Donna!)

But I also like how much of a story we get to Astrid, through only a few telling details. Her longing to travel and her wonder at walking the “alien” streets of London is very touching, and you get the sense that she would have been a very good companion in the classic sense. While she has nothing else in common with Ace, I was reminded of her with the set up of the waitress who ends up waiting tables no matter how exotic the location she travels to…

Oooh and another tidbit – there were huge rumours ahead of time about what Astrid’s role would be, because her name is an anagram of TARDIS. But that was a total red herring.

TEHANI:
This is what I love best about these reviews with you two – all the little tidbits (even when they were red herrings)! :)

DAVID:
The rest of the characters are all very well realised (if quite stereotypical), from the oily rich man to the midshipman whose sense of duty shines through. I particularly loved the Van Hoffs and was devastated when they died. There is a very high body count in this episode actually! The whole secondary characters dying in noble self sacrifice is very Classic Who, seemed to happen almost every episode.

TANSY:
From what I have heard, disaster movies are actually a big TV tradition in the UK, and so this was constructed with that in mind. It’s the first time (except maybe for 1996) that Doctor Who has really felt like an action movie rather than a TV show. And of course the high body count goes along with that – bumping everyone off one by one.

I really liked the Van Hoffs too – I wince at the ‘comedy of fat’ elements that I think go too far, but it’s pretty clear that everyone who mocks them is an ass. They’re a great example of a sweet, loving couple. It’s a sign of how great their relationship is that Morvin laughs his head off when Foon confesses her terrible secret. And oh – you really feel for her when he falls, and later when she sacrifices herself in such a heroic fashion, and you know that it’s because she doesn’t want to be without him.

TEHANI:
After multiple watchings, I thought the “comedy of fat” elements were actually quite well done – like you said, anyone who mocks is obviously an ass, and the way the Van Hoffs handle the mockage is great. Just my thoughts though :)

TANSY:
Ha yes I agree with you after this viewing but I think in the past I was wincing too much to notice – and Russell T Davies does have something of a habit of writing fat characters that are figures of fun.

Bannakaffalata was a lovely alien addition to the crew of survivors – I like how many of these characters had a comic dimension to them, balanced out with the horror and drama of what’s happening to them.

TEHANI:
Back to David’s point about the high body count: for some reason, I had it in my head that midshipman Alonso also bit the dust at the end of the episode, until I rewatched again today. There’s so many people who die, it just must have stuck that he did too!

As an aside, the Doctor’s glee at being able to say, “Allons y Alonso!” was just delightful.

TANSY:
He totally seems marked to die, doesn’t he? I had a similar experience with the movie American Graffiti, where I misremembered the ending for years and was deeply upset at the death of a character in a car crash … and then later watched it and discovered that he came out of it just fine!

The Allons y Alonso line actually really confused me the first time I heard it, I think because “Allons y” had not registered with me as a true Doctor catchphrase – he’d only used it a few times before this special, maybe only once – and I’d forgotten about it. Now of course, it makes sense! I think I was annoyed at it originally as a blatantly tacked-on catchphrase, but as with many things Whoish, familiarity and nostalgia has swept away the irritation.

I have to say one of my favourite bits of this whole episode is the Bernard Cribbins cameo, and the whole reference back to the previous two Christmases and why everyone in London has evacuated. It’s just brilliant! I enjoy these details that show how the stories we have watched have changed the perception of the world around them in these high media days. I also like the Doctor trying to defend Christmas from Mr Copper’s slanders, only to break and admit, “What am I saying, my Christmases are always like this.”

DAVID:
The idea that all these alien invasions have consequences has been touched upon quite a bit in New Who, from the Christmas invasions to the alien museum, and it is an idea that I like. Once things go public, it makes sense that these things would change the perceptions and worldviews of the average person. It doesn’t seem credible that they would just exist in isolation, or be so easily covered up. I’ve also liked the little nods to the idea that there would be groups that might notice the Doctor cropping up throughout history and build conspiracy theories around it, as well.

TANSY:
The Christmas (disaster) special was something that we got entirely from New Who rather than Classic, and to me really sums up the RTD era as a whole – I love how quickly and easily it formed a tradition, and one which we take completely for granted. Not sure that we really needed the running joke about pretendy snow, though – yes they always make it snow in Christmas movies, and yes it never snows in London at Christmas but I seem to recall around about the time this special was released that they DID have a massive cold snap, and London had snow at Christmas. Time to retire the joke, Russell T…

Previous Episodes
“Rose”, S01E01
“Dalek”, S01E06
“Father’s Day”, S01E08
“The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances”, S01E09/10
“Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways”, S01E12/13
Season One Report Card – DavidTansyTehani
“The Christmas Invasion”, 2005 Christmas Special
“New Earth”, S02E01
“School Reunion”, S02E03
“The Girl in the Fireplace”, S02E04
“Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel”, S02E05/06
“Army of Ghosts/Doomsday”, S02E12/13
Season Two Report Card – David, Tansy, Tehani
“Smith and Jones”, S03E01
“The Shakespeare Code/Gridlock”, S03E02/03″
“Human Nature/Family of Blood”. S03E08/09″
“Blink”. S03E10″
“Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Timelords”, S03E12/13/14