Counting down to Conflux

Conflux 12 aka Red Fire Monkey starts in just over a week, so I’ve been offline dealing with my behind-the-scenes jobs. I just wanted to point out a couple of things:

monkey

Not Red. Not on Fire. Just a Monkey

First, the latest Progress Report has been posted, so if you didn’t receive an email already, you can go to the Conflux site and check it out.

Second, just a reminder that the At the Edge launch will be on Sunday the 2nd of October at midday, and is open to the public (i.e. not just attending members of Conflux).

I’ll be doing a short presentation, the delightful Jo Anderton will do a reading from what I think was one of the best stories in the anthology, and we will draw a prize of a framed print of the book’s beautiful cover art. Then we will all celebrate with pavlova. (If there’s time, I will also do a short reading, but if so it will be very short!)

We would be delighted to have your company on the day!

 

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Conflux launch – At the Edge

I have the pleasure of announcing that I will be hosting the Australian launch (one of them, anyway) of At the Edge (Paper Road Press 2016) at Conflux 12 in a couple of weeks.

at-the-edge_cover_20160423

Conflux is Canberra’s speculative fiction convention, held here over the ACT Labour Day weekend (September 30 – October 3). I’ll be MCing a brief ceremony to celebrate the launch of the anthology, followed by a prize raffle, celebratory pavlova and book signing.

conflux12headerrgb

The raffle prize will be a framed print of the cover art (which, seriously, looks even better in print form) donated by editor Lee Murray. The gold-coin-donation raffle will raise money for the Fan Fund of Australia and New Zealand aka FFANZ, a trans-Tasman support program to help fans from Australia and New Zealand visit each others’ conventions. Dan Rabarts, the other At the Edge editor, is a great evangelist and spokesperson for this fine institution.

I will speak – though not for long. Depending on whether other AtE authors are present, we will have one or two short readings.

And yes, there will be copies of the book for sale. I’ll sign them too, if you want your precious copy despoiled.

And yes, the event will be catered with pavlova. Because nothing better exemplifies the rich cultural links between the Wide Brown Land and the Land of the Long White Cloud than arguments over which one invented the pavlova.

Mmmmmm pavlova

Mmmmmm pavlova

‘At the Edge’ Canberra launch
Conflux 12 (30 September – 3 October 2016)
Novotel Hotel on Northbourne Avenue.
12:00 pm in the Cook Room

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On the lookout for good ideas

Writers are often asked “Where do you get your ideas?”

What's the big idea?

Where do good ideas come from? (And how creepy is this guy?)

(I’m speaking broadly. Nobody ever asks me how I come up with my ideas. That’s the sort of thing people tend to ask someone like Neil Gaiman who, as it turns out, has a pretty good answer).

Today I put some free writing time to good use by planning a few new short stories. That got me thinking about the question at hand, so I decided to lay out some of the ways I go about getting started.

Free association

My most basic story-generating technique is just to write a line of dialogue or a short sentence about a character taking some action. “This is the worst cult I’ve ever been in!” or On his ninth birthday, Sam’s mum took him to the clinic to get him tested for lycanthropy. Occasionally when I do this I have some sort of plot idea to go with the line, Most often I don’t. I just take the line, add another line, and keep typing until characters, settings and plots emerge; from there I think about possible endings and start to work towards the one I like best. I don’t really get stuck with this method because the next line bubbles up from the subconscious mire.

This is a pretty haphazard writing technique. I use it a lot as a warmup exercise; as a story writing method, it’s about as reliable as hitting a hill with a pick and hoping to strike gold. That said, it can lead to interesting material that can easily be turned into a story later, with judicious editing (if not complete rewrites).

Objects and images

This is the big one for me. I love turning curiosities into a narrative: one way is to imagine commonplace objects in an unexpected context (“Why are there fire extinguishers in the fridge?”) and extrapolate from there.

Another is to seek out vivid imagery on the internet. Doing random searches on Pinterest is a great source of inspiration; I have several boards of strange photos and art that could serve as setting details, character portraits or improbable situations in need of narrative explanation.

Overheard conversations

Writers notoriously turn everything into story. Say something weird or incongruous in a writer’s presence, chances are it’s going straight into their back-brain storage unit for later use as dialogue or character building.

More to the point, it’s important for writers to hear how real people talk. The myriad differences in grammar, in tone, in word choice and use of slang are all valuable for all writers to create distinct characters – otherwise you run the risk of all your characters sounding like the same person. In my case, my default characters are sarcastic cynics in love with swearing and adverbs. Ahem.

I don’t tend to do this much – I’m much more inclined to try to shut other people’s conversation out than to eavesdrop – but sometimes a snippet of overheard chitchat is too rich or bizarre to ignore. And the stranger the better – a lot of what people say in casual conversation with friends is deliciously incoherent when taken out of context or partially misheard!

People spotting

This technique, on the other hand, is a particular joy of mine. Any time I need to recharge my writer batteries, the most reliable method in my arsenal is to take a notebook and pen somewhere with heavy passing foot traffic. Picking people at random, I write a quick description (face, hair, outfit, any distinctive features) and then answer questions from a list of general prompts: “Who is that guy?”  “Who hates him and why?”  “What is his job in the shadowy government agency/space station/fantasy village marketplace/shopping mall?” “What does he want more than anything?”

Sometimes whole stories can come from a few minutes’ noodling about the possibilities of a passer-by you paid attention to for less than three seconds.

Obviously, that timing is important – the trick with this is to not stare at people like a weirdo. You need to extrapolate huge amounts of information from the briefest of glances.

I use information in the loosest sense, of course – what you’re doing is plumbing the depths of your own unconscious assumptions, biases and experience of personality and human behaviour. Ideally doing this will also help you to become aware of some of your own prejudices.

At worst, doing this exercise at your favourite cafe may result in your story’s villains all resembling thinly-disguised hipster baristas.

Bad science

I’m not much of a scientist and by extension not particularly a science fiction writer. What I lack in academic discipline – which is almost everything – I make up for in curiosity and a boundless ability to leap to implausible conclusions. These may not be especially useful traits when it comes to establishing credibility in research conferences or internet debates, but the provide fertile grounds for story generation.

I follow any number of popular science and technology commentators, trawling for the newest shiny breakthroughs. I’m very fond of translating my flimsy grasp of scientific discoveries and technological advances into mystical thinking, crackpot fringe theories or futuristic technologies functionally indistinguishable from magic.

I’m a bit like the internet in that respect.

(This isn’t always true, mind you. On the occasions when I am moved to write actual science fiction, I do undertake whatever research is necessary. As long as there’s no maths required, I can usually at least colour inside the lines. I just don’t do it much because I am an indifferent researcher at best).

Bananas high concept

Finally, there’s the thing that probably most people imagine when they ask speculative authors – again, not me – about their ideas: the crazy high concept. That is, that succinctly stated premise that tells you more or less everything you need to know about the story, irrespective of characters: “What if the live dinosaurs in a theme park get loose?” or “What if a guy lives his whole life in a reality TV show” or “What if a tornado sucks a bunch of sharks out of the ocean and drops them on obnoxious C-grade actors?” (High concept and low-brow are not mutually exclusive terms)

I have a couple of stories like this – “What if everyone constantly hears their own film score incidental music?” and “What would ghost hunting TV be like if ghosts and monsters were real?” – but coming up with high concept ideas is not my usual creative mode.

If there’s a way to plan for these weird gems of ideas, I don’t know it. Where do they come from?  Cartoon lightbulbs appearing above your head? Unannounced muse arrivals? Chemical misfires in the brain? Or mind-control lasers from secret Illuminati satellites?

Probably that last one.

 

Are you defiantly resisting your natural instincts to flee from these unseemly theories and blasphemous revelations? Do you want to know more, despite your better judgment and the unheeded pleas of your reptile brain? Then why not sign up for my newsletter?

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The Editing Hat

I’ve started editing my novel. That’s why I’m writing a blog post right now.

One does not don the editing hat gleefully

One does not don the editing hat with glee [1]

However, rather than allow this post to become one of my infamous meditations on procrastination – a sure sign that I’m supposed to be working on something with a deadline – I’ll try to stick to the topic in the title.

I finished writing the first draft of A Flash of Black Wings with an absurd last-minute flourish on the 31st of December last year. (Go on, see if you can guess my self-imposed deadline). I promptly put it away to “give myself some distance from the piece” and “work on other projects.”

Eight months is probably enough distance by any sensible measure, so this week I dug out the manuscript to start editing it.

I am not a natural editor. I’ve been assured by a number of peers that such creatures exist. One writer, whose sanity I had not previously been given cause to question, told me that she cannot wait to finish getting through the draft so she can get to the editing phase, which she improbably defines as “the fun part”. This alien attitude instills disbelief and terror in me, as with all right-thinking people.

Still, the evidence suggesting my first drafts are not, in fact, shining golden pomegranates of stellar literary merit is beginning to look incontrovertible. A bit of nip and tuck and the odd spot of polishing couldn’t hurt, right? Give it a quick run-through to clear out the adverbs and make sure I haven’t changed any characters’ names halfway through.

(Spoiler: I did that to at least two characters)

So I’ve started a reread, taking notes as I go. To give me-last-year some credit, the first few chapters hang together well – bright character moments, some cool action and a decent plot setup. They do the important work of not making me weep with shame and regret, at the very least.

The feeling doesn’t last long. I get partway into the fifth chapter when I start to detect the scorched oil scent of gears grinding. That’s where the phantom subplot first shows its face. Where it starts hinting at the lumbering chaos it will inflict on the later chapters. I remember where it’s going. I remember how it drags my central conflict into a dark alley where it beats it into thematic incoherence, breaking several characters along the way.

Now I know I’m in a fight.

Time to roll up my sleeves, spit on my hands and start splashing some red ink on this MS. Five chapters down. Twelve to go.

[1] Consumer warning: Stock picture does not resemble author [2]
[2] Stock picture’s faint air of grudging resentment resembles author.

 

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Mentioned in dispatches

While the received wisdom is that writers should never respond to reviews, I feel obliged to draw your attention to the write-up of At the Edge by the esteemed Haralambi Markov over at Tor.com.

I freely admit I am singling this review out mainly because I have now been mentioned by name at Tor.com, which is an achievement I didn’t realise was on my bucket list.

(Thanks to my sterling associate Doctor Clam and the ninja marketing squad of At the Edge authors for pointing the review out)

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