Dandelions and the futility of planning

One of the complaints you might hear about being a “plotter” – which is to say a writer who carefully plans a piece and then writes from an outline – is that it sucks all the creativity out of the writing process. If you know what’s going to happen (goes one version of the argument) then where’s the fun in writing it?

Dandelion and subplots make my eyes itch.

Dandelion and subplots make my eyes itch.

I used to believe that. I used to be a “pantser” all the way. My creativity could not be contained by rules and structure and roadmaps, man!

Eventually I figured out that never finishing anything (and also getting lost a lot) is strong correlated with a lack of planning, so I started using outlines more. And lo, I did start finishing things, and so stumbled on the hitherto hidden truth that, you know, outlines can be useful.

The thing is, I never stick to the outline.

Even when it’s very detailed, even when I know precisely what I intend to write and how I intend to finish. I can’t stick to the plan. Something always comes up during the writing process that I never accounted for in the design phase. Whether it’s a small character note or a huge plot development, the unexpected always seems to emerge during the act of writing.

Either because I am by nature inquisitive or because I have the attention span of a golden retriever in a squirrel pen, I have to chase these ideas down. It doesn’t seem to matter that they lead me leagues off course, even when I can see the reefs and shoals a mile away. I can seem to resist pursuing them.

Sometimes it’s a good thing. When I was writing my short story ‘The Nature of Monkey’, I had a definite final scene I was working towards, and reasonable clarity about the scenes I needed to get me there. I had a plan: straightforward plot, a couple of zingy one-liners and bam! Story done!

Instead, the personality of my protagonist, General Monkey, emerged as I wrote – and as I fleshed out his story and began to understand where he’d come from, I suddenly realised that my plot, my conclusion and above all the point of the story I’d planned were all wrong. I rewrote my beginning and reordered the beats, changing what had been something akin to a light-hearted political drama into a somewhat ruthless heist story.

The story was much better for following a side track down a rabbit hole, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors.

(It also ended up with a much better title, which I appreciated. Titles are hard).

It doesn’t always end that well.

Take the novel I’m editing, A Flash of Black Wings. During the writing process, I found I needed a bit of background to explain who a couple of the supporting characters were, so I came up with a little project they were involved in.

As I wrote on, that background detail took on more weight, tying in to other story elements. Over time it expanded to fill the spaces between the plot I started with, so much that it essentially choked out the plan.

(You will have to come up with your own analogy at this point about untended gardens and prolific weeds. It would be too depressing for to me to do it, because when I finish this post I need to go outside and do battle with our overgrown herb beds).

The primary editing I will have to do on the manuscript will be to cut back that subplot so that it takes a supporting role to the main plot. I don’t want to cut it entirely, because it’s a good idea that deserves its own space, but I also can’t let it crowd out my lead character’s story.

I’m not complaining, mind you. There’s enough there to provide a solid backbone to at least two planned sequels. Not bad for a glorified dandelion.

What’s my grand conclusion?

Not sure that I have one, except to repudiate all extremism and affirm my position as a dedicated moderate in the Great Pantser-Plotter Contretemps. I still feel the draw of pure freeform writing just to see where it takes you. I have a healthy respect for the speed and focus that comes of a well-structured outline. But in practice I surely fall somewhere in the middle.

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Late report from Conflux – Winning!

I can’t believe I forgot this in my last Conflux report: I won a prize!

Accepting my winnings at the closing ceremony from MC Sean Williams and convention Chair Leife Shallcross

Accepting my winnings at the closing ceremony from MC Sean Williams and convention Chair Leife Shallcross

Specifically, I took second place in the CSFG/Conflux Short Story Contest, which called for stories up to 4000 words on the theme ‘Red Fire Monkey’.

My story ‘The Nature of Monkey’ was chosen by judges Alan Baxter (Convention Guest of Honour and doyen of the Australian dark fantasy fiction scene) and Robert Porteous (three times previous winner of the convention short story contest) as the first runner-up.

(Remember kids, second comes right after first!)

My hearty congratulations to Pia Van Ravestein for her first place win (‘The Repairer’) and to Pamela Jeffs for her third place (‘Tattoo’).

The story is only available to members of the convention, but anyone who would like to read it should sign up to my newsletter in the next week or so. I’ll be including it as my bonus fiction content for this month only.

What is the nature of monkey? Australians of a certain age will know the answer. Everyone else will have to read the story. Sign up to my newsletter by filling out the form below. I won’t share your contact details with anyone.

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Visiting with the Classics – The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

This month, I’m looking at an author whose work I already love: Philip K Dick aka PKD. The Man in the High Castle is his Hugo Award-winning 1963 alternate history novel, and arguably his most famous work (at least up until Ridley Scott adapted one of his short stories to make Bladerunner in 1982).


I have been passively avoiding this book for the longest time. No idea why. Presumably it has something to do with an aversion to its the alternate history premise – it’s set in the United States after Nazi Germany and Japan won World War Two. I’m not sure whether my aversion is to the premise in general or alternate history stories in general. I have a sneaking suspicion that down deep I don’t really think of them as science fiction. If so, it’s a weird prejudice that I have yet to properly examine. On the evidence of this novel, it’s a flawed bias, because this is a terrific book, and a powerful work of speculative fiction.

Set mainly in a San Francisco in its second decade of Japanese control, the novel is told from the perspective of several loosely-connected characters: Robert Childan, a dealer in authentic American antiquities; Frank Frink, a silverworker who is hiding his Jewish heritage; Juliana Frink (Frank’s ex) who has fled California for the non-occupied Colorado; and Nobusuke Tagomi, the head of the Pacific Trade Mission in San Francisco. It is set against a backdrop of a leadership crisis in Germany, the far-off centre of the world, where the lieutenants of the ailing Chancellor are jockeying for position.

The plot, which lacks the freewheeling looseness (or perhaps subdued chaos) that I normally associate with PKD’s novels, concerns a clandestine meeting between a Swedish business envoy and a retired Japanese admiral, neither of whom is what he seems. A strange subplot concerns a subversive underground novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, by a mysterious author – the eponymous Man – which posits an alternate history where the Axis powers lost the war. That subplot takes on increasing significance as events progress to fraud, betrayal, espionage and assassination.

PKD posits a San Francisco slowly adapting to the Japanese occupation. Its culture is suffused with Asian influences – Japanese customs of gift-giving and formality in interpersonal behaviour  have been embraced, the taxis are pedecabs driven by a Chinese underclass, and a young Japanese business and bureaucrat upper class have supplanted their American predecessors. Most significantly, the majority of characters are obsessed with the I Ching (Book of Changes), consulting it for oracular wisdom at every significant moment. The book doesn’t quite go so far as to assign a streak of cultural fatalism to its cast, reflected in their devotion to a divinatory tool, but there’s definitely a tendency for them to accept the capricious winds of fate. The differences between our history and the fictionalised Allied victory of Grasshopper suggest that PKD’s interest is in how much of history turns on significant moments and events, and that despite the fervent hopes of some of his characters, there’s no such thing as destiny but only the next choice, and the next one and the next.

The book explores racism as expressed through power differentials through a number of characters. Frink’s (illegal) Jewishness is suspected but overlooked until he becomes linked to political events; Childan is a character wildly disoriented and unmoored from his own moral compass, his awkward deference to a young Japanese couple making an attempt to befriend him through into disarray by his inability to reconcile with his racism; Tagomi (easily the most likeable male character) struggles to reconcile his national pride and weary sense of duty with his growing fondness for his new American home. Several characters pass (with varying degrees of success) as members of other nationalities or ethnic groups.

It’s far from the earliest example of alternate history – “What if the South won the Civil War?” stories commenced almost immediately after the guns fell silent – but TMitHC certainly kicked the subgenre’s popularity in the SF field into high gear. Star Trek, Doctor Who and just about every other SF franchise with a whiff of time travel trot out alternate timelines changed by key historical events often enough that it’s no big deal any more. Here’s a surprisingly long list of alt-history/alt-future fiction.

The Man in the High Castle might have supplanted Ubik as my favourite PKD novel (I’m not sure – I’ll have to read them both again). Until now I was iffy on whether I would be interested in the recent television series adapted from the novel. I held off watching until I could read the book – now I have to admit that I’m fascinated (especially if the show expands beyond the unsettling tipping point where the novel finishes).

(Incidentally, I apologise if you are bored by the rather simplistic cover image in this article but (a) this is the cover of the copy that I actually read and (b) most versions of the cover of this book contain WWII-era German and/or Japanese iconography, which I avowedly do not apologise for excluding from my blog).

I write mostly fantasy – urban, weird, secondary-world and sometimes, yes, historical. If you want to keep up with what I’m working on and get a monthly dose of free fiction, sign up to my newsletter. I won’t share your contact details with anyone.

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At the Edge – Interviewed by Angela Slatter

Angela Slatter’s introduction to At the Edge speaks eloquently about both the fine craft and the hard labour needed to create good short stories. She should know – she’s one of Australia’s finest speculative storytellers, and I’m very much looking forward to reading her debut novel Vigil (which in turn is based on an excellent short story) as soon as I can.


For the past few months, Angela has been hosting a series of interviews with the At the Edge authors.

As of today mine went live. Check it out to learn what oddball corner of my head “Seven Excerpts from Season One” popped out of!

(Bonus feature: a terrible author selfie by some idiot with a big nose and no talent for composition)

My monthly newsletter features new fiction, new announcements and – er, other news. For exclusive content not available anywhere else on the internet (often with good reason), sign up here.


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More Reports from Conflux – The Other Three Days

When I wrote up Friday’s activities, I had this crazy idea I’d write a short report from the convention floor every evening.

Didn’t happen. At the end of each day, as soon as I no longer had to be on or responsible for anything, I just melted into a vague fog and passed out. What follows are the few highlights I managed to catch between duties and hasty catch-up chats in the hallways.

(Lots of images below – mind your data limits…)

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