Book launch – The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau by David Dufty

I had the very great pleasure today of attending a book launch by my colleague and former CSFG President David Dufty. Unusually for my circles, the launch was for a work of historical non-fiction, concerning Australia’s involvement in the Allies’ wartime code-breaking efforts against the Japanese, and was held at the Australian War Memorial.

The book’s full name gives a pretty clear picture of what to expect. The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau: how Australia’s signals-intelligence network helped win the Pacific War.

I recall when David first started talking openly about writing this book, probably three or four years ago now. He was very excited to learn of a whole untold story of the war, and of a contribution overshadowed in particular by the more widely-known story of Bletchley Park and its famous (and famously eccentric) code-breaking maths geniuses.

If there’s one thing I know about David, it’s that when he gets an idea stuck in his head he flattens his ears and chases it down every possible rabbit hole. He all but disappeared off the speculation fiction radar while he researched and wrote Code-Breakers.

And now, after years of tireless research, interviews and dogged investigation, he’s produced a hefty account of the history of Brisbane’s Central Bureau and the men and women who worked there.

I’m hardly a war buff, but I am excited to learn something new about a part of Australia’s modern history which until recently was intentionally kept under wraps. As David puts it in his prologue:

During the post-war decades, they were all bound by the Official Secrets Act and forbidden from telling anyone what they had done during the war. They did not participate in annual ANZAC Day marches for 30 years. For decades, there was no official acknowledgment of their vital contribution to the war effort.

I’m pleased for David to have completed this impressive work. No doubt it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to telling this story, but knowing David’s attention to detail, I’m confident it’s an excellent account and as comprehensive as possible, so many years after the fact. I’m looking forward to digging into it as soon as I can.

David Dufty with Gordon Gibson, one of the surviving intelligence officers of the Central Bureau

The Secret Code-Breakers of the Central Bureau is available from Scribe Books in hardcover or for ebook format from Amazon and iBooks.

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Good news washes the bad away

I had some good news this week.

Get lucky?

It’s the sort of good news that comes with contracts, so forgive my intentional vagueness. Until the ink is dry, it would not only be unprofessional to furnish details, but more critically would be jinxing myself something fierce.

But the news contrasts nicely with several weeks worth of…not bad news, exactly, but disappointing news. Setbacks. Annoyance. A few rolls of the dice in my writing life went against me. Nothing serious or even particularly significant in the long term, but they fell in quick enough succession to bring me down a little.

It took the unexpected arrival of the good news for me to recognise that I was in that slump I mentioned yesterday.

The good news did me a solid. The good news punched well above its weight class. The good news got me back in the game again.

It’s not precisely the case that I need validation to keep going – my brain never stops making up stories for very long, so eventually I write them down just to make them go away. But if it’s been a while between ego boosts – a thumbs up, a sincere “I liked that thing you wrote”, the acknowledgment of peers – I tend to forget just how much they can lift me.

So yeah, a bout of good luck is never unwelcome. (Neither is a thumbs up, just quietly). And it’s timely to remind myself of that thing that golfer said that time: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Ahem. Getting to work now.

(And yes, when I can say something official, I will come back with a less hazy declaration)

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Climbing out of the mire

Here’s how it goes: you ride high for a while, then you hit a slump. You lose a bit of pace, you don’t even notice you’re not moving forward any more. And then you’re up to your hips in mud, you’re not going anywhere and you start to wonder if you’ll ever remember how your feet are supposed to work.

Careless in our summer clothes splashing around in the muck and the mire

I’m very much a famine and feast kind of writer. When I write, it tends to be in bursts of atom-splitting energy, followed by long fallout lulls.

Most of my self-improvement efforts are directed at trying to build more steady, sustainable work habits that are sustainable in the long term, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t recognise it’s an uphill battle. I’m in a long-term battle with myself, and the side that champions lying on the couch and reading a stack of comics always has the upper hand.

In a sense, wrestling with my innate sense of laziness is part of my process. On the other hand, I’m sure there are healthier processes out there. I’m up for exploring new ways of getting to my mountain.

I’ve been in one of those slumps for a couple of weeks now. Ironically it started almost immediately after my week off. I got some disappointing news – some of it personal, some of it writing related, none of it all that significant – and had a few heavy days at work. I was tired, so I took a few nights off writing. I finished a good book [1], started another good book, watched some TV, played some video games.

Wrote a little here and there but it didn’t add up to much. You know how it goes. It was a slump. I wanted to write, but not enough to get up and actually write.

Lately I’ve seen a challenge kicking around – I want to credit it to Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press, but I’ve seen it elsewhere as well – of writing a hundred words a day for a hundred days. A hundred words is nothing, really – ten or so minutes of work at most. But the catch here is, if you miss a day, you have to restart the counter.

It’s a challenge that appeals to my sense of stubbornness, which might not always be a match for my laziness, but is nevertheless a force to be reckoned with. Artificial deadlines and meaningless milestones look like pretty stupid motivational forces when viewed from the outside, but they are remarkably effective at engaging my attention.

So in the spirit of kicking myself back into gear, I’m taking the challenge. One hundred words a day of new writing – a short story, an editorial rewrite, a blog post, or a couple of other creative tasks I’ve just decided will also qualify – for one hundred days.

Starting today.


[1] The Fisherman by John Langan – lovely slow-burn horror novel with surprisingly little gore or violence but a lovely mounting sense of wrongness and dread, and quite a lot of talk about fishing. I can’t recommend it highly enough, even for indifferent fishers like me.

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Sir Julius Vogel Awards

I’m very pleased to hear this evening that At the Edge just swept New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards, presented at the Lexicon convention in Taupo.

Award winning!

The plaudits for At the Edge itself included Best Collected Work (awarded to editors Lee Murray and Dan Rabarts and publisher Marie Hodgkinson), Best Short Story (awarded to A J Fitzwater for Splintr), and Best Professional Artwork (awarded to Emma Weakley for her cover).

Fellow AtE authors were recognised: Octavia Cade for Best Novella/Novelette (The Convergence of Fairy Tales) and Eileen Mueller as Best New Talent.

To top it all off, editor Lee Murray not only won an award for services to science fiction, fantasy and horror but also picked up the Best Novel award for her monster thriller Into the Mist (which is great, you should read it).

Congratulations to everyone involved. I was very proud to be in great company for At the Edge, and I’m pleased but not at all surprised to see it clean up the SJV’s.

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Lessons from a writing holiday

I’ve just indulged in a rare pleasure. I took a week off work to concentrate on my writing.

A whole week. I can still scarcely believe it. What a luxury! What a perfect holiday!

I accomplished so much in the past week. But – and this is weird – not what I actually intended to accomplish.

The plan had been to throw myself hard at the outline of my novel-in-progress, A Flash of Black Wings. I finished the first draft of the novel back in December, and ever since I’ve been pondering what I need to do to fix it. (Yeah, it needs fixing).

My piecemeal attempts to patch this plot thread or that mishmash climax haven’t been working. I decided the only way to really deal with the problem was to dedicate some serious time to pulling the whole plot apart and reconstructing it from the ground up, which I knew would not be a simple or quick job. So I took advantage of a rare quiet period at work, and made plans to spend a week on developing a new outline.

Yeah. It didn’t happen.

In the last few weeks leading up to the writing holiday were supposed to clear the decks. If I could just do all those little jobs that have accumulated over the last year or so, I’d have a clean run at revising the manuscript. Turns out I’ve gravely underestimated two things – how much work the manuscript needs, and how many of those little jobs have piled up.

A lot, in both cases. Before the week off even started, I abandoned the plan.

New plan! I focused on the cleanup. I transcribed notes, I edited stories, I caught up on a bunch of critiques, I sent out submissions, I sent some disgracefully overdue emails, I brainstormed story ideas and I outlined. Boy did I outline. I wrote detailed notes covering an entire novel’s worth of stories in a frenzied blur over the course of one morning. Over the course of the next morning I broke two stories worth of those notes into scenes. And for good measure I sketched out two extra stories.

Lucky I got a lot done in the first two mornings because the rest of the weeks was badly broken up with various unexpected distractions. C’est la vie.

I didn’t quite achieve what I hoped to this week. (When do I ever?) On the other hand I learned a few things I should have figured out a while back.

Sprints – I made a conscious effort this week to try short, focused work sessions. 20-25 minute sprints tackling one task, followed by a short break. To the surprise of probably nobody, this variation of the Pomodoro Technique turns out to be highly productive. When I don’t have to try to keep a whole project in mind at once, I get stuff done. In the course of two mornings, I cranked out more solid, useful prep work than I have in the last three months.

Preparation – Which brings me to the second should-have-been-unsurprising revelation, which is that I write more when I don’t have to think about what’s coming next. I like being a discovery writer, which is to say one who writes a story to see what happens next. But when I write that way, I’m slow. Ssllooooooooww.

On the other hand, when I have an outline in front of me – or even just a few notes to remind myself about the ending I’m aiming at – I write much faster. What’s more, I write better – fewer filler words, cleaner scenes, more developed characters and better pacing. So the big lesson for myself is this – always have at least 10 thousand words worth of outlines on hand, waiting to be written.

I like shorts – The big revelation that came to me this week is that I still don’t know how to write a novel. Or to be more precise, I don’t yet know how I write novels. It’s still too big, too intimidating, and I don’t yet understand the shape of long-form writing. My sweet spot appears to short stories between 5 and 12 thousand words. I wouldn’t say I’m great at them, not yet, but I’ve got a grasp on how the moving parts fit together and I know what I need to work on to get better.

It occurs to me that I don’t need to rush into being a novelist. Many writers – maybe most of them – take several attempts before they produce a decent novel. I’ve completed three novel-length manuscripts in my life. I can see for myself I’m getting better with each one. I can see there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Planning – I’m taking these three lessons and revising my goals for the year. Stronger planning, more focused writing sessions, and more short stories. I’m not abandoning the novel, but it’s no good letting the epic scale of the work it needs stop me from having fun.

Fun – Oh yeah. I had fun this week.

The writing’s better when it’s fun.

Gotta remember that.

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