Monthly Archives: October 2012

Wednesday Writers: Narrelle Harris

I first met Narrelle at my second convention, and my first Melbourne con – Continuum in 2011. During the Con I had the opportunity to moderate a panel for the first time and was rather nervous (to put it mildly). It was a panel that depended on audience interaction to work, and Narrelle was one of the audience members whose input made it a real success, something for which I was hugely grateful. She was also kind enough allow me to email her and ask her some questions about some of the excellent points she raised in one of her own panels, and she also steered me in the right direction in developing my writing through study. That an established writer would take the time to do so was something I thought was very generous and really encouraged me at a formative time.

So, I was delighted to discover that not only was she a great person, but also an extremely talented writer who has gone from strength to strength with each release. And, as you can see from her bio, her skills do not end with fiction! Naturally I had to get her on board for Wednesday Writers, and I am sure that any writer will find this post hugely helpful.

Writing with five senses

World building can be a tricky business. There’s so much to consider. Social systems, economic systems, political systems, gender roles, landscapes, geography, rules of physics, laws of magic, flora, fauna, what colour is the sky?

Sometimes, when writing, we can get lost in the vista. We explain how things work, and what they look like, but maybe we forget that places have other sensations as well.

While describing what the elements of a world looks like is important, we have four other senses that experience any world we inhabit. Places sound and smell and even taste different from each other. Some of them feel different under your feet or under your hands.

Cobblestones under foot in an old Central European town square seem to change their shape as I try not to twist my ankle on them, but it’s a different kind of treachery to walk on than a smooth, wet Melbourne footpath.

Melbourne, my adopted home town, has all kinds of experiences I associate with it at different times of year and at different times of the day.

At night, I sometimes hear a brief hiss-crackle and see a flash of light as tram pantographs flare up at intersections.

At twilight in spring and summer, I can hear hundreds of sparrows chirruping away as they find their roosts for the night in the trees along Elizabeth Street. On some days the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages are pure Melbourne, and sometimes they transport me to the calishes that ply for trade along the esplanade in Alexandria, Egypt, and sometimes to the medieval square of Krakow where rows of carriages wait to take tourists down to Wawel castle.

The smell of wood smoke always takes me to winter in Krakow, now, because it’s a scent I so strongly associated with my year in that city. Some very hot, very dry days smell like house bricks and dust baking in 35C+ degree days and will forever be Cairo in summer to me.

I still remember waking in Cairo at 4am some summer mornings and hearing the call to prayer at some middling distant mosque. Some mosques had the most musical muezzins, with their Allah Akhbar! sounding so exotic to my ears, so beautiful. The day outside was not yet started, though cool, hazy light was starting to spill over the city. It was a quality of light and a spiritual sound that existed in a separate world to the din and bustle of Cairo at any other time of the day or night.

I remember, too, that the hot, hard stone of the Great Pyramids in the Egyptian sun had a different feel and a different smell to the moss-covered temple stones in the humidity of Thailand.

Born and bred in Australia, I discovered that European autumn had its own sounds. We were walking through a forest in Krakow one crisp autumn day, off to visit a monastery that was only open to visitors once a year (and the incredible sound of the chanting of the temple’s monks that swelled out of the gates of that medieval building as we approached made it into one of my Witch books, I loved it so much).

During the walk, I could hear a faint rustle and patter, which turned out to be part a gentle sprinkle of rain against dry leaves, and part the falling of red and yellow autumn leaves to the already leaf-thick ground. I come from a country full of non-deciduous trees and I didn’t know that sound could happen.

Neither did I know that fresh snow crunched underfoot when mine were the first feet to step in it. Sometimes it even squeaked a little.

There’s a chocolate factory in Krakow, too, which made the air taste and smell of chocolate, which wasn’t as nice as you’d think. It was too sweet and a little stale and altogether strange and overpowering.

Coastal towns smell like sea salt, but coastal holiday towns out of season smell of stale, damp concrete and carry the creak of empty swings moving in cold winds in unused playgrounds.

In my vampire novels, my vampire Gary hasn’t eaten food since the 1960s. He’s missed out on a food revolution. As part of his friendship with Lissa, she eats all these things he can smell but not ingest and describes their flavours and textures to him. It’s become an important part of the world of vampire-inhabited Melbourne I’ve created.

When you’re building your world, stop in the middle of your own sometime and close your eyes. What else is going on? What are your other five senses telling you? Visit new places and be receptive to what makes them distinctive. Use your five senses to make the worlds you create as full and as deep as the one you live in.

Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Her book, The Opposite of Life, is a vampire novel set in Melbourne. In March 2012, her short story collection, Showtime, became the fifth of the 12 Planets series (released by World Fantasy Award winning Twelfth Planet Press). Walking Shadows, the sequel to The Opposite of Life, is due for release by Clan Destine Press in June 2012.

Narrelle also writes in the business sector. She created the Melbourne Literary iPhone app in association with Sutro Media. Her second app in partnership with Sutro, Melbourne Peculiar, was released in May 2012. You can find out more about the apps at www.iwriter.com.au/apps.

Find out more about Narrelle’s work at her website, www.narrellemharris.com, and her blog, www.mortalwords.com.au.

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WordTyrant is Live!

One of the things occupying my time over the past few months was the very interesting experience of helping design and develop an iOS app for writers. For a long time now I have been trying to set myself monthly word targets and track my output, and after using an excel spreadsheet for a year I decided that an app would be much easier and far prettier!

Working with a colleague, we brainstormemd various ideas and after a long period of testing (and few snags) the result is now available to buy. You can visit the WordTyrant site here, and check it out. It’s perfect for NanoWriMo, and until Nov 2 it is only .99c!

It’s unlikely to make a great deal of money for us, but that’s not the point. I think this a great resource for writers and I hope that it helps people get more writing done.

Oh…and a great review can be found here!

 

Wednesday Writers – Gitte Christensen

I first met Gitte through my friend Steve Cameron, but once I realised just how much she had acheived I was amazed that I hadn’t heard her name before. Not only has Gitte made her mark on the Australian scene, she is also hitting some very prestigious US markets and I have her pegged as a big name of the future. I have no doubt that in ten years she will be recognised as an Aussie success story and that I will be able to sit back and nod sagely, having predicted it now! It is always nice to find that people you consider well ahead of you on the writing journey have the same doubts and the same ability to second guess themselves as you do.

The Perils of Second-Guessing

As a low level writer trying to make my mark in the struggletown of publishing, I’m mindful of the fact that I should try my best not to rub editors the wrong way by doing blatantly amateurish things like submitting enthusiastic first drafts and attempting to curry favour with them by inserting cute photos of my cats into manuscripts. Emailing editors who have rejected my masterpieces, either to aggressively question their sanity/right to judge me/literary nous or sobbingly ask them why, why, why didn’t they like my story, is also high on my list of recognised no-nos.

Editors, I’ve been told, remember stuff. Editors, I’ve been told, talk to each other. About writers. The writers they remember. So I try not to be remembered for bad stuff. Which means, of course, that this is NOT a piece about editors. My mamma didn’t raise a fool. No, this post is about a deeper, ongoing psychological problem from which I suffer, a condition it took me a long time to acknowledge and subsequently learn to control. Well, all right, editors do play a small part in my some of my sufferings. But I don’t blame them, honestly. This is my burden, not theirs.

The first part of my problem stems from that fact that I actually read submission guidelines. And not only do I read them, but I strive to abide by them. To the letter. So far, so good, you might think (especially if you’re an editor). Not so, I tell you. Since like many writers, I am blessed/cursed with a plethora of somewhat anal personality traits, if I don’t strictly monitor myself, I can work myself into a particular type of mental twist that is brought on by a severe session of overthinking. The condition is called Compulsive Second-Guessing, and I get it bad. It affects all aspects of my life, but in this post I’ll deal only with how it has shaped my writing life.

You see, the more detailed a publication’s instructions are about content and style, the greater the danger that I will succumb to a bout of CSG. Bearing in mind that editors have memories like elephants, or so I’ve been told, and that I don’t want to be remembered for doing bad stuff, I can start to worry about specifics. I wonder whether my prose might be too poetic for Editor Number One, who often proclaims at great length a preference for plain language. Will hard SF loving Editor Number Two deem my space colonisation epic too soft and soppy? Might Editor Number Three at that notoriously quirky publication find my tale boringly mundane and be annoyed that I had the gall to send it? Could my carefully wrought finale be interpreted as the kind of surprise ending that Editor Number Four so vehemently despises? Will my forest-based tale containing a tiny fly through part for a fairy prove too traumatising for elf-phobic Editor Number Five to think kindly of me? Is there too much blood-letting and screaming for horror-hating Editor Number Six to ever forgive? Will Editor Number Seven, the self proclaimed humour expert, find my jokes flat and publicly mock me? Editor Number Eight comes across as an ailurophobe who will never condone my positive portrayals of felines, and Editor Number Nine’s unmentionable predilections frankly worry me. Finally, it’s a given that Editor Number Ten, who states again and again that only writing of the highest quality should be submitted, will deem my efforts woefully substandard.

Round and round in my head this sort of babble can cycle for ages if left unchecked. Once upon a time, the sad result of my tendency to envisage how editors will react to submissions before I’d even sent them used to be that I continually second-guessed myself into a corner and ended up not sending off very much at all. That is no way to play the professional writing game, where output is everything.

Fortunately, I sold a couple of stories that slipped through my self censorship even though I was certain at the time that they would be rejected, and I gradually came to realise I’d never succeed at writing if I didn’t tackle my penchant for prophesising doomy and gloomy fates for all my stories. I immediately instigated a program of loosening up, which involved obeying submission guidelines to a certain point of obsession, then backing off and throwing caution to the wind. Amazingly, this course of action worked. To my ongoing surprise, I keep selling pieces that I’m certain editors couldn’t possibly be interested in purchasing, and with each of these sales, I better control my egotistical belief that I have the ability to predict how a story will fare before I’ve even submitted it, none of which, as I’ve already mentioned a few times but will emphasise again, is the fault of any editor. Mea culpa completely.

The second part of my second-guessing problem was second-guessing what I could write about. This was easier to overcome, however, simply because I grew bored of repeating certain themes and writing bleak, dystopian SF in the same serious tone. I didn’t want to become a one note writer, but I wasn’t sure if I had more range in me. So I experimented with something lighter that I was, naturally, certain would be dismissed as fluff, and that story made it into a ‘best of’ anthology. I tried outright, outrageous humour and scored my first US publication. I started issuing myself with challenges, initially using themed anthologies to loosen up and have fun, and have ventured from the straight and narrow of traditional SF into steampunk, weird, fantasy, mythology, horror and even mashups. My most recent sales feature krakens, Jazz Age vampires and space travelling werewolves, as well as my very first writing love – bleak, SF dystopias. Who would have second-guessed I had it in me?

By now, hard-hearted souls reading this might be sneering at my condition, but excessive second-guessing can be a real problem, believe me. Trying to second-guess editorial preferences has, in the past, definitely hobbled my writing career. Second-guessing what I can and cannot write has in bygone days limited my scope.

But that’s all behind me now. These days, I just put my bottom on my chair, put my fingers to my keyboard, write diversely, produce as many quality stories as possible, submit widely, and, within reason, leave the sorting out of my work to others, a.k.a editors, because honestly, at this potluck stage of my writing career, I simply don’t have a clue when and where I’m going to make that next sale.

All I can do is try my very best not to second-guess whether or not there’s a professional future for me in writing speculative fiction, and simply forge on into the great unknown.

Gitte Christensen was born and raised in Australia, but also lived in Denmark for 12 years before returning to study journalism at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly and other publications, including the anthologies The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution, The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010, Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations and Return of the Dead Men (and Women) Walking. Three more of her stories are scheduled to appear in forthcoming anthologies  (Mark of the Beast: New Legends of the Werewolf  and 100 Lightnings). To escape keyboards, she regularly grabs a tent and a horse and goes trail riding through distant mountains.

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Cricket Gangnam Style

After the Pietersen debacle, I went into this year’s World T20 without any desire to see England win. I certainly wouldn’t claim that KP is without faults, far from it, but the way that ECB handled the situation and the stench of hypocrisy (see David Collier’s recent comments and the fallout, and lack of consequences for him, as an example) and totalitarianism that taints the air around them meant that, for the first time in decades, I approached a global tournament hoping England wouldn’t win. Actually, I should correct that, I was delighted to see India win the fifty over World Cup because I thought Sachin deserved to have a medallion to add to all his other honours. But, this was the first time that I had actively wished England ill, and it was an odd feeling.

I am not a massive T20 fan, but I prefer the international version to the often facile IPL, and I am such a cricket tragic that I will watch any cricket that I can. So, I had to decide what team I was going to pin my hopes of victory on. Used to the emotional rollercoaster that is supporting England, I had to go for a team that had a chance of winning but that had equal ability to excite and disappoint its fans. Like millions of other cricket tragics choosing a second team, I couldn’t go past the West Indies. It wasn’t just memories of past glories and a hope for a revival, it had a great deal to do with their captain, Darren Sammy – a point I will come back to.

On paper, the West Indies looked like a very likely prospect, with some of the most powerful hitters in the game and a mystery spinner the likes of which I am sure George Bailey would trade his entire middle order for. Add that to the fact that many of their players have been commanding big money to play in T20 leagues all over the world and you would think that mix of experience and talent would make them a sure thing. But, as their fans would tell you, the West Indies have flattered to deceive many times over the past twenty years and have given the appearance of being about to turn the corner.

The West Indies guys seemed to really enjoy the favourites tag, but by the semi final I think that most people had written them off. They had only squeaked in via some very exciting super over performances (poor Tim Southee), and while I was hopeful, deep down I didn’t really think that they would be able to beat Australia in a semi final. Yes, Australia are a shadow of their former selves, but bitter experience has taught me never to write them off and they are the sort of team that delight in destroying brilliant but inconsistent opponents by finding the chinks in the armour.

Just like in general life, it was interesting to see how certain narratives had emerged by the semi final, and had become commonly accepted truths to be parroted at every opportunity. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the execrable before the game show on Foxtel before the Grand Final. I think because Australia had just been eliminated that they had given up on caring, but it was woeful television. But right throughout there were a number of things that I continually heard that were either proven wrong by how events unfolded, or were demonstrably false all along.

If you get Gayle out then you will win

There is no doubt that Gayle is a pivotal member of the team and that when he performs the West Indies are extremely hard to beat. It is no wonder that teams celebrate his wicket because he can really hurt you. But, the West Indies batted deeper than any other team in the tournament and I think had more individuals who could turn a match on their own. When Gayle was out cheaply in the final I am sure the Sri Lankans thought that had won the game, but Marlon Samuels played the innings of the tournament and showed how far he has come along.

I’ve been really impressed with Samuels over the past year, he has shown that he is that rarest of creatures, a man who has made some major mistakes and gone off the rails, but has learned from them and come back stronger and better than before. He has played great innings in very form of the game and it was heartening to hear him affirm the primacy of Test cricket in the strongest possible terms.

There were points when every member of the West Indies team stood and performed, they were far from a one man team. You could argue that Australia depended more on their openers, or Sri Lanka on Jayawardene than the West Indies did on Gayle.

That the West Indies bowling was too weak, and they’d have to win with the bat

Given that they struggled in the lead up matches, this was an understandable mistake to make. Even in the semi final when the West Indies killed Australia’s chase of a mammoth total before it could even begin with a wonderful bowling performance, they let things slide when complacency crept in. It would have been very hard to lose even with Bailey playing out of his skin, but better teams than the West Indies have learnt you take your foot of Australia’s throat at your peril. However, the game was pretty much won when what might have been seen as the weak link in their attack (a humble leg spinner in this age of mystery spinners!) took two key wickets, and early.

But, their bowling attack peaked at the right time, and what may not have seemed like a massive total in the final proved more than enough. They may have won the semi final with the bat, but without taking anything away from Samuels, they won the final with the ball.

That most West Indian players are mercenaries and don’t really care

One of my pet hates with the West Indies was watching some of the younger players who had received a share of the Stanford millions wearing their finger thick gold chains and swaggering around like they were Viv Richards. The great West Indies teams of the 70s/80s/90s earnt the right to be arrogant, but what had these new guys done, really? When it counted they were not to be seen, and it was hard not to think that the appearance of being cool was more important to them than winning.

But, watching Chris Gayle bat with a side strain against Australia, or Darren Sammy abusing a fielder who had been sloppy, you could see this was a team who desperately wanted to win, who wanted to live up to the legends of the past. They did care, and it was obvious in everything they did. And yes, they swaggered and were far cooler than I will ever be. But, they backed it up with performances that really mattered.

That Darren Sammy didn’t deserve his place in the team, let alone the captaincy

I’ve always rated Darren Sammy very highly. He is exactly the sort of cricketer I like, someone whom may not have as much natural ability as the superstars, but who always puts in maximum effort and gives his all for the team. But, he has been the subject of an incredible amount of vitriol from fans around the Caribbean. Part of this is because of the inter island rivalries mean that people will always react harshly to real or imagined slights against players from their own country, and Sammy was seen by many to be stopping a more deserving player from finding a place. But, I think that another part of it was that he is not a glamorous, swashbuckling player. He bowls tidy medium pace, and the only thing exciting about him is his ability to hit a long ball.

But he brings other qualities to this team, qualities that I think have been lacking for too long and have been a big part of the decline in West Indies cricket. There has been no shortage of exciting players, players who have all the talent in the world and the sort of charisma that makes them incredible to watch. But, Sammy brings a discipline and work ethic that really impressed me, and something else – the ability to subjugate his own ego in service to the team. He seemed to understand that real leadership is servant leadership, not the desire for personal glory. In this he showed that his constant references to Christ were not mere lip service, but a sign of a genuine faith that shaped the way he lived. You listened to his interviews, especially after winning the final, and he refused to take all the credit or even lash out at his critics. That must have been a huge temptation but instead he dwelt on the positives and expressed the same wish as so many back in the Caribbean have been expressing for decades, that this win might be a step towards reclaiming the glory the West Indies once possessed.

Jarrod Kimber expressed it really well in this article, and this paragraph sums it up nicely

Sammy has heard all of this. He’s just a nice guy. You could imagine him at a friend’s party, being holed up in the corner by someone who is telling him he should step down because he isn’t good enough. Every day he plays for West Indies, he simply does his best. Sometimes it is not good enough, but you can see how much he tries, see how much he wants it, and see that he is trying to build something for the islands and cricket team he loves.

So, I was glad to see him shine in this tournament. His captaincy was as good as, if not better than, any of the other captains, he didn’t seem scared to try new things or back his hunches (like getting Samuels to bowl the Super overs, something that nearly backfired). It is often said that team spirit “an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory” but the West Indies were obviously enjoying their cricket the whole way through the tournament (how many times did we hear Gangnam Style?) and they looked genuinely happy to be playing under Sammy’s leadership. Plus, he contributed some vital spells with the ball, and some very important cameos with the bat.

He is definitely more suited to this format than to Test cricket, but I hope that this will buy him some more time to shape the side in his image, and perhaps take his game to the next level. He is the sort of leader that the West Indies need as they try and take this victory and keep the momentum going. They have all the pieces in place now, a good leader, a terrifying opening batsman, some young guns in the form of their life, a true mystery spinner and even some pace reserves. There is no reason why they can’t move up the ranking in all the formats and I would love to see Sammy leading them onwards and upwards.

That Sri Lanka were destined to win this one

I have to admit that I have never been a fan of Sri Lanka as a team, even though Sangakkara is one of my all time favourite players. They just seemed to constantly skirt very close to the boundaries of what I consider fair play, whether it was Ranatunga’s gamesmanship or bowling wides to deny opposition players a century (I want to stress that this was never my opinion of Sri Lankans as a whole!). I also don’t rate Jayawardene as highly as a batsman as so many seem to do. Sure, he has as amazing average and looks wonderful when he bats, but the difference between his home and away records means that he falls short of true greatness (as opposed to Sangakkara who has played some amazing overseas knocks).

But, when you read articles like this ( and you should read it, one of the best cricket articles you will ever read – I mean it. Go. Now. Read.), and realise how much a victory would mean to the people of Sri Lanka, it is hard not to feel a degree of sympathy for the Sri Lankan cricketers, who have been perpetual bridesmaids. That article really opened my eyes, and may me think about things I hadn’t before – the mark of good writing. If they had won it wouldn’t have been unwelcome, but I always felt that West Indies cricket needed this win more, that yet another disappointment would have further marginalised cricket in the Caribbean as more youth drifted away to basketball or cricket. Sri Lanka losing is not going to dent the popularity of cricket there, especially if financial scandals and corruption haven’t been able to.

This win, and the style it was achieved in, means that there is a new generation of West Indies heroes to inspire young people to pick up bat and ball. Perhaps they haven’t reached the peaks of achievement that their forebears did, and may never do so. But, this West Indian team saw the destiny that was waiting for them and, unlike so many teams over the past twenty years, reached out and seized it and refused to be pushed aside. Listening to Gayle after the semi final, you saw the arrogance sportsmen need, the belief that if they played the game they were capable of then no one would be able to stop them. And they were right. Sri Lanka were never going to win.

Well done, West Indies and congratulations on your win. For the sake of cricket as a whole may it be only the first of many.

Wednesday Writers: Deborah Biancotti

Today’s Wednesday Writer is posted a little later than I would like, as I have been home sick (insert sympathetic noises here). Fortunately, it is well worth the wait! Deborah Biancotti is one of the most exciting voices in Aussie Spec Fic, and whose writing is gaining more and more recognition both here and abroad. As most of my readers (and anyone who has been forced to listen to me talk at length about the subject) would know, I am a huge fan of anything superhero, and my ears perked up at the rave reviews of Deb’s super hero book Bad Power (MAKE SURE YOU CHECK IT OUT!). After that, how could I not invite her to Wedensday Writers? In this fabulous post, she talks about the influences from her childhood that still speak in her writing, something I can certainly identify with.

How Everything I Understand about Humanity came from watching M*A*S*H

I recently realised that George Orwell was right.

Not about the way the world ends, necessarily, but another thing he said. In his 1946 essay, “Why I write”, Orwell comments that for a writer:

“His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in – at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own – but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape*.”

* Oh, and (sic) on the whole ‘he’ and ‘his’ thing.

I’ve discovered that the rhythms of my life can be attributed to the nascent ideas I had as a child riding my bike, spinning in circles, and watching “M*A*S*H”, “Doctor Who” and “Starsky and Hutch”. (My parents also, foolishly, perhaps, allowed me to watch “I, Claudius”, thereby shaping my early taste for horror.)

But that most of all, I realised – while watching M*A*S*H from the beginning this year with a willing friend – that I have no new themes.

Rather, what I have is an exploration of themes with a proven longevity.

What was important to me at age nine is still important, and what I keep finding in the world or putting out into the world are simply the variations on what was established for me then.

Everything important to me now is in part important because it has been important for so long. If you see what I mean.

And so, herewithin, please find a list of some of the most cogent themes of M*A*S*H as they appear in my head.

1. Crazy In the Army aka Authority is Nuts:

My hippy parents might have instilled my anti-authoritarian streak, but M*A*S*H cemented it. M*A*S*H celebrated the outsider, adored the slouching smart-arse and revered the practical joker. M*A*S*H made ‘power’ look like another word for ‘corrupt’. M*A*S*H implied that any human organisation was bound for failure. Largely because it relied on humans.

“You think you’re real smart. But you’re not smart; you’re dumb. Very dumb. But you’ve met your match in me.” – Colonel Samuel Flagg, Army Intelligence or CIA/CIC/CID, depending; occasionally code named ‘Queen Victoria’.

“You’re what Freud would call Spooky.” – Major Sidney Freeman, Psychiatrist

2. Hell is other people:

An extension on the above, the lesson here was ‘you can’t rely on other people’. Well, you can rely on some people, but those people better be your friends. Because the REST of them, well…

M*A*S*H taught me a lot about friendship and loyalty. It also taught me about clannishness and individuality. It taught me to foster those things, as a matter of fact, because there’ll be times when that’s all you have.

“If I didn’t hate violence, I’d kick you.” – Major Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan

“We couldn’t help but notice that you came for the poker game and stayed two weeks.” – Captain B.J. Hunnicut

3. Life is absurd, and absurd is funny:

The army changes its rules often enough that you will be caught if you try to rely on those rules. The army rules are absurd, anyhow, & you’d be a fool to rely on them. But if you try, you can hold onto your sense of humour in the face of the madness. And you can survive. Maybe not win, but winning is not the purpose.

Survival is the purpose.

Of course, when it comes to life, nobody gets out alive, and the bitter-sweetness of this kind of lesson was something else M*A*S*H excelled at.

“How could I be in Korea? More importantly, why is this chicken outfit crossing the road?” – Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

“Not so easy to play the clown when you have to run the circus, is it?” – Major Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan

4. To be sane in an insane world, is stupid:

M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons not counting the original movie of the same name (which is uncannily horrific to watch if you were a fan of the show first). It lasted eight years longer than the Korean War itself, which it attempted to document.

This is a harsher lesson than the one on absurdism, above. M*A*S*H taught that it’s crazy to try to be sane, but that there’s something sublime in the attempt. To lose is inevitable, but not to try is to … quit.

M*A*S*H, of course, borrowed this theme from Joseph Heller’s CATCH-22 (which was nearly called CATCH-18 at the time, did you know that?), along with Hawkeye’s red dressing gown, which was a staple in Heller’s book.

Failure, then, is more respectable than quitting.

Probably because it’s funnier.

“War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.” – Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

“In my short stay here, I’ve seen textbook examples of neuroses, psychoses, voyeurism, fetishism, and a few ‘isms’ I’ve never even heard of. The people here are mad, quite mad, all of them. They are impossible people in an impossible place doing impossible work.” – An observer at the M*A*S*H 4077th unit.

5. In a war between discipline and tom-foolery, discipline will never win:

Some of the lessons I learned from M*A*S*H were detrimental to my ability to fit in with groups of people. Like, people with no sense of humour. I have always distrusted those people. Unfortunately, several of those people run institutions I’ve been involved in, willingly or otherwise.

For example, banks.

“Without discipline the Army would just be a bunch of guys wearing the same colour clothing.”  – Major Frank ‘Ferret Face’ Burns

“Freud said that there is a link between anger and wit. Anger turned inward is depression.  Anger turned sideways is Hawkeye.”  – Major Sidney Freedman, Psychiatrist

6. It is noble to be good at your job:

Let me just say, of all the lessons I learned in the lap of M*A*S*H, this was the most misleading. That said, the expertise of such characters as Hawkeye, Trapper and B.J. must have been truly mighty. Because those guys would’ve been jerks to work with.

Funny jerks, of course.

“I just don’t know why they’re shooting at us.  All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread.  Transplant the American dream.  Freedom.  Achievement.  Hyperacidity.  Affluence.  Flatulence. Technology.  Tension.  The inalienable right to an early coronary sitting at your desk while plotting to stab your boss in the back.”  – Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

“Boy seeing the way you guys work with the wounded, the way you deal with burned up legs, ripped up bellies. Makes me proud every time I throw up.” 
- Corporal Maxwell Q. Klinger

7. Together, we are stronger, sort of:

My favourite M*A*S*H moments are the moments between the under-utilised Major Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan and Captain Benjamin Franklin Pierce. The Lady & the Tramp, I call these two. When they’re called to the front or when they’re forced to operate on a soldier in an evacuated camp, they rally together in spite of vast moral differences.

This is a favourite teaching of M*A*S*H, that despite the bickering and belligerence, the accusations and recriminations, we can all come together when we need each other.

M*A*S*H is a lot like family that way.

“Klinger, get back here as fast as you can. We want a few minutes before the party to beat the daylights out of you.” – Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

“Who left the dead minnows in my pocket?” – Major Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan

8. Your friends will give you the toughest lessons:

Note that moral righteousness is largely the preserve of women in the pretend-fifties. Still, it doesn’t mean women are bad at it. Just means nobody else wanted the job.

“How *dare* you stand there and act like your brand of suffering is worse than anybody else’s. That’s the only way you can justify treating us like dirt. Let me tell you something, sad sack, if the worst thing that’s happened to you is your pretty little wife has to help pay the bills for awhile, don’t come to me for sympathy. Maybe you *do* have the most to lose but that’s only because you *got* the most.” – Major Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan

“You blow another kiss, Pierce, and those lips will never walk again.” – Colonel Sherman T. Potter

9. There’s us and there’s them, and some of them are us:

Note that in S01E01, the friend who had volunteered to watch all 11 years of M*A*S*H with me, commented, “It’s a bad sign when the only black actor in the show is called Spearchucker.” He was wrong, of course. There was another black actor. Her name was Ginger & she had barely any lines.

Also: Spearchucker disappeared not many episodes later.

Also: my friend was ignoring the entry of a white female character called Nurse Dish, whose role in the show was to be available to be auctioned off in order to raise funds for the education of the Korean ‘house boy’ … oh, let’s stop there.

Okay, so in fact M*A*S*H won’t win any modern awards for addressing issues of racism, although it sure did try. It tried the way us white people try. Which is to say, we assume we know the issues & then we feel kinda good about trying to address those issues in ways that are, well, frankly, occasionally patronising & exclusionary.

Actors of colour are rarely seen unless they’re there to Make a Point (like when ‘Larry Fishburne’, so credited, arrives to deliver somewhat less than 5 lines of dialogue about his commander, who has a habit of sending the black soldiers into the most dangerous situations).

And Issues of gender in ‘this man’s army’ are given even less air time than issues of racism. (Note: I have made this assertion entirely qualitatively. Which is to say, without actually counting.)

The most positive spin we can give this theme – given that my supple young mind didn’t register the racism & sexism at the time, & took away only the positive ideas of what the show was *trying* to achieve, in its flawed way – is that there’s evil & it’s worth uniting against evil, regardless of race, colour or creed. When we feel like it.

“Nobody can get the truth out of me because even I don’t know what it is. I keep myself in a constant state of utter confusion.” – Colonel Samuel Flagg, Army Intelligence or CIA/CIC/CID, depending; occasionally code named ‘Queen Victoria’

“They said, ‘join the army and see the world’, so here I am in Korea, removing Chinese metal from an American soldier in a Turkish bath. How are you doing, giggles?” – Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

10. But you can never crush my spirit:

Someone once told me M*A*S*H glorified war. If I may be permitted to quote Colonel Potter: horse hockey!

The theme of M*A*S*H is not war, it is what people do in the face of war, in the face of chaos and injustice. Because that’s what the fictional Korean war of M*A*S*H really is. It’s not being fought in any kind of recognisable, real Korea. It’s Babel.

The army might bomb you, starve you, hobble you, and appal you. But if you can ridicule them, you still win.

MASH taught that the last thing you should ever surrender is yourself.

“But know this. You can cut me off from the civilised world. You can incarcerate me with two moronic cellmates. You can torture me with your thrice daily swill, but you cannot break the spirit of a Winchester. My voice shall be heard from this wilderness and I shall be delivered from this fetid and festering sewer.” – Major Charles Emerson Wincheshter III

“I don’t think this place is turning out to be that great an experience for me. I mean I work under terrible pressure and everything and there’s a lot of death and destruction and stuff but outside of that I don’t think I’m really getting much out of it.” – Corporal Walter Eugene ‘Radar’ O’Reilly

11. At the heart of comedy is sadness sublimated:

I love sublimation, it is my favourite Freudian invention*. M*A*S*H was working the idea that the toughest messages can be delivered through comedy from its early days, although it grew into more of a political vehicle later on. M*A*S*H, through its ‘theatre of war’, was examining the very issues of humanity: what does it mean, to be human? What is a human? And, why?

These questions form the basis of so much fiction writing. And, I would assert, they comprise the single most crucial underpinning in speculative fiction.

(* Yes, I am kind of accusing Freud of making stuff up.)

“There are so many things I was sure I’d have in my life by now. Every birthday reminds me of what’s still not there. This just turned out to be another day in the middle of nowhere.” 
- Major Margaret ‘Hotlips’ Houlihan

“Sometimes I hate myself for being here. But sometimes in the midst of all this insanity, the smallest thing can make my being here seems worthwhile. Maybe the best answer I have for you is that you look for good wherever you can find it.” – Captain Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce

And in conclusion, let me just say:

M*A*S*H exists in my memory as one of my earliest passions. And to remember it, I had clearly put aside all the racism & sexism of the early seventies and held onto only one message: that humanity, in the face of untold evil, is awesome.

I learned respect for the thwarted expressions of a captive humanity and contempt for worthless authority. I learned the power of loyalty. I learned about injustice and the aching need of life to live, unauthorised and undaunted.

This is why I think I can write about the themes of M*A*S*H with such conviction. They’re my themes. I’ve been living them for thirty years.

Sometimes, to my detriment.

—–

George Orwell, Why I Write (1946), http://www.netcharles.com/orwell/essays/why-i-write.htm

M*A*S*H quotes sourced variously from such lists as:

http://www.quotegarden.com/mash.html

http://mash.wikia.com/wiki/

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068098/quotes

http://epguides.com/mash/guide.shtml

and my imperfect memory.

—–

Deborah Biancotti is a Sydney-based author with an anti-authoritarian streak. Her books, BAD POWER and A BOOK OF ENDINGS, are available from Twelfth Planet Press.

http://deborahbiancotti.net

Newsflesh Review

Just as an example of the trouble that conversations at the bar during conventions can get you into, you can read a conversational review of the Newsflesh trilogy that I was recently involved in. As you will see, I am rather naive at times!

And, how cool is it that we are all so connected now thanks to the wonders of the internet that the author found our review, read it and commented on it on Twitter?! I love the future.

 

Wednesday Writers: Sean Williams

Sean Williams is undoubtedly one of Australian spec fic’s most succesful exports, having made the transition from national to international success. Whether it is creating his own worlds, successfully collaborating with other writers or playing in existing universes, he has consistently shown his incredible talent. To go along with that, he has the reputation of being the nicest guy in Aussie spec fic, and I have to say that my experience of him bears this out.

In today’s Wednesday Writer we get a look at the passion that burns beneath that mild mannered exterior, and it may fog up your monitor!

This Literary Affair: A Love Letter

For my true love, on the occasion of our anniversary:

What a joyous thing it is to love, and how wondrous to have loved so long.

When I look back at myself as I was at the beginning–inasmuch as that is possible; haven’t we both changed in so many ways?–I wonder if I would alter a single thing, were I to know what lay ahead. Understand me when I say this: my passion would have been undimmed, as it is undimmed now. I would never have turned my back on you, for doing so I knew even then was not a possibility I could seriously entertain. But perhaps I would have been more circumspect, more protective of my thin skin, more wary of the pitfalls ahead. All lovers can be cruel. To give oneself utterly is to snatch at a spinning sword, and then to juggle with it.

It seems both amusing and sad to me in retrospect how long we danced around each other. Where would we be now had I not nursed my crush for so many years? I was little more than a child then, I admit. I could but dream of you, for you seemed to me a distant and unattainable thing, a mountain so high that even to think of the summit was to lose my breath. Still, I yearned to be swept away by you. And you? I do not know that you even noticed me. In that lack of regard I found fuel for all my uncertainties. On that bonfire I cast all the letters I wrote you, telling you of the future we might share.

How immature, and how poignant–to move beyond terror and self-doubt one must first abandon one’s self, and how hard that is when there are alternatives on all sides. Shallow, seductive things beat their butterfly wings against the lashes of every would-be lover, but I soon lost my appetite for them. I grew weary of disappointment when their promises turned to ashes. Only one could satisfy me, I knew–the one that I feared the most, for failure would destroy me. Without you, I knew even then, I would be as nothing. In that desperation–a word hardly strong enough to convey the sense of destiny passing me by–I found strength. And so I made my first, tentative approaches, feeble, guarded things at the start, growing more confident when my failures did not somehow mean my death, until you at last turned your eyes upon me, and our love affair truly began.

What an affair it was! Possession is no antidote to obsession: you consumed me, and I consumed you in return. Inseparable, we tangled together in an existence that felt as correct as I had always imagined, yet at the same time delicious depraved in its carnality. We could stop at any moment–so at least I told myself–but we never once did. The doubting glances of others deterred me not. You only mattered. You only, and the glorious life we would have together. Our dreams were boundless, not tempered in any way by reality. Only the nature of love itself could provide a much needed check.

Time changes all things, even passion. Familiarity, maturity, security–these daggers have stilled many a beating heart. And hot blood must be stilled, for passion is not enough. One cannot feast forever. Sooner or later one must leave the table and pay the servants.

I cannot lie and say, therefore, that our time has been entirely without blemish. Disillusionment–the banishing of dreams, by realizing those dreams or by realizing that they will remain eternally unachievable–pulls the chariot of heartbreak, and hatred closely follows. There were moments–yes, I will confess this–when it seemed that I had made entirely the wrong choice, and that turning my back to you might be better for us both. I tell myself in these darkest hours that one can only try so hard to secure your affections. One can only sacrifice so much. Each time that treacherous voice whispered: if I had anything left to sacrifice, then that meant I had never given myself wholly to you, and that if I hadn’t given myself wholly to you by now, then I never would. Better for us both to abandon the pretence and return to the butterflies. I would become as them, frivolous and weightless, my footsteps as soft as snowflakes. Leaving not the slightest mark. I would keep my dreams to myself, and in them alone, and the memories of our brief union, perhaps I would find some bitter succor.

Such is the reasoning of a fool, and I recognized the source of that foolishness for what it was: fear, again, of taking responsibility for what I had myself created, the bad as well as the good. Fear of change. Fear of growth. I had reached out to you, and in time you reached back, but our love-making did not end there. We have done so much more than touch hands. We have danced and we have fought like tigers. We have lived.

And now twenty-three years have passed, and I see no end to our dancing and fighting. Our dreams will pass and be renewed like the tide, tugged by the gravity of a radiant moon. You will be hard sometimes, seemingly without heart at all, although I know that not to be true, and I will be lazy, or take you for granted, or forget that you must be nurture d; you will dismiss my efforts one day only to shower me with affection the next; I will dream of a butterfly life when I am weighted by the anchor of your demands, but then I will look down and see that the anchor is made of gold, and that I was the one who fastened it.

In my heart and every waking moment of my life, I am yours, until words fail me.

Sean Williams is the award-winning, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of over thirty-five novels, eighty short stories, and the odd odd poem. He writes science fiction, fantasy and horror for adults, young adults and children, and enjoys the occasional franchise, too, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. His latest book is Troubletwisters: The Monster, co-written with Garth Nix.

Wednesday Writers: Charles Tan

If you pay any attention to the spec fic scene, it is not hard to find people who work hard to promote their own work. After all, it makes sense right? You need to get your name out there! But, it doesn’t take long before you realise that the real strength of the spec fic community lies in those who spend as much time, if not more, promoting the work of other people and making sure that the acheivements of others are publicised and recognised, and that a word of encouragement is never far away. If I had to point to someone who embodies that idea, then Charles Tan would be a pretty good start. Because he is so quick to praise or promote others, it is easy to overlook his own significant acheivements but there is a reason for the universally high regard in which he is held, and it is great to welcome him here today.

“What are you reading?”

Junot Diaz visited the Philippines last year, and he mentioned that sometimes, writers can congregate, and never bring up the subject of what they’re currently reading (he, of course, said it more eloquently than I did).  And I think it’s an important point to bring up.

Why do we write? Because we’re readers. I think it’s important to remember that, more so when we’re swamped with deadlines and work.

And let’s not be snobbish about it. We have permission to read what we want; we could be rereading a favorite book; it could be a nonfiction title that’s unrelated to the research of the story we’re currently working on; it could even be the much-maligned Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey.

Because on the opposite end of the spectrum, we have writers who do not read. In my personal experience, I have come across aspiring short story writers who do not read short stories. To their credit, they will mention novels and comics that they’ve read. I just question that if they love those mediums so much, why did they consider writing short fiction in the first place? Because novels, comics, and short stories each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and while there is an overlap in the skills necessary to write them, there are also nuances in one form that’s not present in the other.

It sounds like such a basic concept, yet it’s one of the most overlooked fundamentals. The Creative Writing program of the university I attended, for example, lacked reading classes and was focused on writing workshops. Which mostly meant that your growth as a writer depended on what you read during your personal time. I can understand the logic of the administrators and students: we can read anytime, but we won’t always have opportunities for writing workshops (assuming you value them). Hence reading becomes undervalued, not just because it’s free, but because of the perceived opportunity costs.

I won’t lie: in the past few months, my reading has dropped. I can cite several excuses: work fatigue, the looming to-be-read-pile for the amateur book reviewer, short story deadlines, an anthology to edit and market, podcasts to edit, eBooks to design, etc. But at the end of the day, those are just excuses, just like the excuses we might cite for not actually writing. So it becomes important to set aside time to read, to remember the reason why we became writers in the first place, and to learn from what we read.

You know who reads a lot of short stories? Editors and slush readers. They set aside time to read. And sometimes, a lot of what they read is horrible. Yet they persevere, and set an uncompromising schedule. Now not every editor or slush reader is also a writer; nor does it mean that those that do overlap make for great writers. But slush readers/writers mention how their writing has significantly improved after reading a lot of slush; they notice what makes a story work and how it can falter or succeed. There is, of course, the cognitive dissonance between knowing what to write and actually doing it, but at least they’re one step closer to realizing that ideal.

And at the end of the day, if you ask me for writing advice, perhaps the one, universal truism (since everyone’s process is unique and different) that I can offer is to read, and that’s true whether you’re a new writer or a veteran. To quote one of my favorite short story writers, Lisa L. Hannett:

“Read.

Read a lot.

Read more.

Read even more.

And, most importantly, read critically.

Read like writers.”

From a practical point of view, the only thing that I’d add to that is to read—and understand—your contract. We’re readers after all, and it’s important to exercise that skill, especially when our rights are concerned. And while there might be legal jargon that we might miss out, there’s also a lot that we can glean by reading and not simply signing on the dotted line.

So, let me ask you: what are you reading?

I’m nearly done with After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford.

Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology. His fiction has appeared in publications like The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and the Philippine Speculative Fiction series. He designs eBooks for Twelth Planet Press and blogs at Bibliophile Stalker and SF Signal.

Tales of the Shadowmen 9 TOC Announced!

Very excited to announce that my story Diplomatic Freeze will appear in the latest of the Tales of the Shadowmen series, La Vie En Noir. As usual, it is a very strong line up and I am thrilled see my name alongside the people below:

TOC:
Matthew Baugh: Tournament of the Treasure starring Steve Costigan, Townsend Harper, The Black Coats.
Nicholas Boving: Wings of Fear starring Harry Dickson, Bulldog Drummond.
Robert Darvel: The Man With the Double Heart starring The Nyctalope.
Visions of the Nyctalope (illustrated portfolio)
Matthew Dennion: The Treasure of Everlasting Life starring Allan Quatermain, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, The Black Coats.
Win Scott Eckert: Violet’s Lament starring Sir Percy Blakeney’s daughter, Countess Nadine Carody, The Black Coats.
Martin Gately: Wolf at the Door of Time starring Doctor Omega, Moses Nebogipfel, The Nyctalope.
Travis Hiltz: What Lurks in Romney Marsh? starring Doctor Omega, Doctor Syn.
Paul Hugli: As Time Goes By… starring Doctor Omega, Rick Blaine.
Rick Lai: Gods of the Underworld starring The Black Coats, Vautrin, Doctor Lerne.
Jean-Marc Lofficier: Dad starring Glinda.
Nigel Malcolm: To Dust and Ashes, in its Heat Consuming starring Harry Dickson, Professor Quatermass.
David McDonald: Diplomatic Freeze starring Flashman’s son, The Nyctalope’s father, The People of the Pole.
Christofer Nigro: Death of a Dream starring The Phantom of the Opera, The Black Coats, The Domino Lady.
John Peel: The Benevolent Burglar starring Maigret, J.G. Reeder, The Saint.
Neil Penswick: The Conspiracy of Silence starring Fantômas.
Pete Rawlik: Professor Peaslee Plays Paris starring Pr. Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, Hercule Flambeau, The Black Coats.
Joshua Reynolds: Nestor Burma Goes West starring Nestor Burma, Jim Anthony, Irma Vep.
Frank Schildiner: The True Cost of Doing Business starring Mr. Big, The Black Coats.
Bradley H. Sinor: The Silence starring Michel Ardan, Colonel Moran, John Carter.
Michel Stéphan: Vampire in the Fist starring Irma Vep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If Edith Piaf liked to sing about la vie en rose, this volume of Tales of the Shadowmen, the first and only international anthology devoted to paying homage to the world’s most fantastic heroes and villains, is dedicated to la vie en noir, the darker side of life.

And what could be darker than the sinister brotherhood of criminals known as the Black Coats and their legendary treasure, a malignant self-aware entity that is the embodiment of greed and avarice?

You will also find gathered here stories about the evil Fantômas and the mysterious Yellow Shadow, the crafty Doctor Cornelius and the megalomaniacal Sun Koh, the ruthless Irma Vep and the frightful Bride of Frankenstein; in these pages, you will read tales of creatures and zombies, and things from otherworldly reals, and likely gasp at the most monstrous couple of parents ever imagined…