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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Grasping the nettle

I’ve been thinking about opportunity.

Like probably every other human activity, getting ahead in the writing game is about two things – putting in the work whenever you can and seizing opportunities whenever they arise.

(The Rio Olympic Games are on in the background as I write this. I’m tempted to make a sporting analogy to illustrate my point, but I’m trying to stay focused so I’ll just supply a picture instead).

Writing. You're competing against yourself and sometimes you are upside-down.

Writing: you’re competing against your personal best, you’re only as good as your last work and sometimes you’re upside-down.

The work is obviously the key part. However you happen to define success, it’s likely you can’t get there without putting in the writing hours. Bum-in-chair time, to put it crudely. Whether or not you subscribe to the ten thousand hours of mindful practice theory of skill mastery, the truth is that it takes a lot of repetitive trial and error effort to get better at writing. More still to get good.

So hard work and persistence are essential, and if life were fair, grinding out the hard yards would be all it takes to get to the top (again, depending on where you perceive “the top” to be). But there’s another part of the equation: luck. You could be a good or even great writer, but if you happen not to be a lucky one, you might never reach that next level.

Since there’s no way to plan for pure, blind, one-in-a-million lottery luck, where you hit the big time through sheer coincidence, I’ll ignore it. If you’ve got that kind of luck, you don’t especially need persistence or talent, right?

Motivational speakers and sports coaches talk about the kind of luck that comes with persistent effort – “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Persistence means staying in the game, improving over time (maybe not at a consistent rate – there are always peaks and troughs of skill development) and staying alert for new opportunities.

Opportunities to learn something new. Opportunities to work with someone new. Opportunities to try a new style or medium. Opportunities to find an new audience.

In the past year or so I’ve volunteered on committees, supported marketing campaigns, helped publish a book, attended workshops, participated in community outreach activities and built a website.

Some of those – not all – have opened doors of various sorts. I’ve met interesting people. I’ve had some good ideas and run with a couple of them. I’ve had conversations that might lead to interesting projects (or they might not).

Along with learning how to be a better writer (and a less prodigious procrastinator), the lesson I am beginning to learn is to walk towards the open doors of opportunity rather than away from them.  On the good days, I’ll even stick my head through to see what’s going on in there.And if I’m paying attention, sooner or later I might find a door leading somewhere irresistible.

If I’m lucky, I’ll know it when I see it.

 

(And yes, this has mostly about me talking myself into doing something scary but cool. Details soon, or if you simply cannot wait to know, you can sign up to my newsletter for a sneak preview).

 

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Defying Doomsday Launch

On Saturday the sixth I had the happy opportunity to attend the Canberra launch of Twelfth Planet Press’ 2016 anthology Defying Doomsday (edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench). Anthologies of short fiction set during and after various apocalypses seem to be in vogue at the moment (I wonder why? Hmm).  What sets Defying Doomsday apart is its protagonists – these are stories about how characters who are disabled or suffer from chronic diseases might navigate the end of the world.

DefyingDoomsday_cover

The stories are typically more upbeat than you might imagine. Disabled characters, when they appear in this sort of fiction at all, are usually presented as fodder for the zombies or just that little bit too slow to make it to high ground before the flood. In Defying Doomsday, they have to cope with the end of access to medicine, support services and food that won’t aggravate their condition.

In these stories, many of the characters have to work that much harder to survive – but as Robert Hoge notes in his introduction, “people with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world…so much of our world is already a not-made-for-us space that disaster may as well have already struck”.

Defying_Doomsday_Launch

K L (Kristy) Evangelista, Rivqa Rafael and Kaaron Warren

It’s one of the Australian anthologies of the year, without a doubt. I highly recommend it (I liked it so much I picked up a paperback to go with my Kickstarter ebook version – and I had a brief blast of book envy seeing someone had brought their Kickstarter-only hardcover copy to the signing!)

Cupcakes (of Doom?)

The best apocalypses have cupcakes

Thanks very much to authors Kristy Evangelista and Rivqa Rafael, along with MC Kaaron Warren, for hosting the event. Double thanks to Kristy for the book cover-themed cupcakes!

And a big shoutout to Harry Hartog Woden, which is fast becoming the book launch venue of choice for Canberra.

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Visiting with the Classics – The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

As planned, I’ve set the Flashbackatron to 1956 for this month’s review of classic science fiction. This time up, we have one of Alfred Bester’s two acknowledged masterworks (the other being The Demolished Man, which I’ve also not read): The Stars My Destination.

Stars_my_destination_masterworks

The Stars My Destination is the story of Gully (Gulliver) Foyle, a no-account starship crewman whose Merchant Marine work evaluation is helpfully provided in the first few pages. Education: None; Skills: None; Merits: None; Recommendations: None; Personnel Comments: “~Has reached a dead end.”

Indeed when the story opens – after a brief prologue recounting solar expansion, imminent conflict and the unexpected development of teleportation by willpower – Gully Foyle finds himself on the brink of death. Having spent for six months clinging to the barely-functioning remains of the destroyed freighter Nomad, surviving by sheer brute determination not to give up, he spies another ship passing close enough to signal for rescue. But instead of bringing him aboard, the Vorga speeds away, leaving Foyle to his fate.

Foyle swears he will live to exact his revenge; the rest of the book follows his system-wide journey to make good on that promise. The plot is (as Bester cheerfully acknowledged) lifted from The Count of Monte Cristo: Foyle dedicates himself wholly to the cause of finding those responsible for his abandonment.

It’s easy to sympathise with the premise; it’s much more difficult to sympathise with Foyle. He is brutish to the point of savagery, illiterate, intemperate, relentlessly single-minded and thoroughly amoral. He manipulates and exploits everyone he meets, using force of personality on some and threats (and more) of violence on others. He assaults, sabotages, rapes and kills in pursuit of his goals. He’s not what you’d call a classic hero.

On the other hand, he is a deeply compelling protagonist. Recognising his own limitations early on, but unwilling in his merciless pursuit of his cause to permit them to limit him, Gully Foyle learns. He develops skills, including social graces, technological knowledge and mastery of various psychic disciplines, most notably personal teleportation (or “jaunte”, as it is called here).

For a book written sixty years ago, Stars holds up surprisingly well. Bester’s canny decision to make his dominant social group impose a retro-Victorian aesthetic both presages aspects of steampunk (oddly making it seem more plausible right now than it was both when it was written and ten years ago) and avoids the usual trap of the instantly-dated future. If some of Foyle’s behaviours are as perplexing as they are repellent, they don’t tend to overshadow the forward momentum of the book. This thing rips along – each chapter presents a completely new setting. The teleportation plot device certainly reduces the likelihood of tedious travel sequences. And the ending, which veers into wildly experimental territory ten to fifteen years before the New Wave of SF kicked off, delivers a resolution that exceeds the writerly commandment to be unpredictable yet inevitable.

Basically it’s great. Certainly deserving of the classic label. The Stars My Destination clearly has influences all over the place. If I were to pick just one, it would be The Tomorrow People, the groovy mid-seventies Thames Television show about evolved teenagers with psychic powers; it also called its teleportation “jaunting”. To this day I can’t hear that word spoken out loud without also hearing the primitive electronic shimmer sound effect that accompanied the primitive electronic shimmer visual effect. Man, when I was eleven that was definitely the best show on television ever. (I would not have predicted that it would spawn not one but *two* sequel series, however).

jauntan-unauthorized-guide-to-the-tomorrow-people-review

The Tomorrow People

But I digress. Gully Foyle is certainly a troubling protagonist, though a striking one with his livid tiger-pattern facial tattoos, disorienting mood swings and brutal cunning. The Stars My Destination is a thrilling, violent revenge thriller and political potboiler with spaceship crashes, prison breaks and gratuitous psychic powers.

I kind of loved it.

 

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Broken routines

The way I figure it, a writer should always be learning. Not just about what cyanide concentration will kill an adult male of average height and weights, or how nuclear cooling rods are supposed to work, or the economic fallout of tulip futures trading in Dutch Golden Age. Those things are all very useful to know, depending on what genre you are writing in and/or whether the power plant you are currently standing in is about to go into meltdown.

What I’m particularly referring to is learning how the writing process works. What enhances creativity? What boosts productivity? What makes a writer want to sit down at a desk for hours at a stretch and produce reams of prose about some made-up, never-existed people, places and times?

Conversely, what things stand in the way of those bursts of productivity? What derails our attempts to build good habits, to instill self-discipline and train our minds to gleaming points of focus?

After several weeks of careful observation and empirical measurements, I can state with some confidence that bathroom renovations are a complete drag.

A protracted renovation, like Macbeth, doth murder sleep.

We’ve had tradies in this month, doing the bathroom, the office and bits of the kitchen.

Some baths have a floor beneath them. Ours was not one.

Some baths have a floor beneath them. Ours was not such a bath.

Apart from the expected disruptions – no baths for the kids, heavy traffic through the cramped downstairs bathroom, the heightened presence of sawdust in the house and the banging and smashing noises native to the building process – renovating is also a massive distraction from writing.

I’ve spent the last three weeks shifting furniture, unpacking bookcases, culling old belongings and assembling new ones, dumping trailer-loads of junk, and now prepping and painting various walls. (And cleaning paint brushes in Canberra’s grim winter climes is exactly as delightful as you’re probably imagining).

I do most of my writing at night. Just lately, 9 pm has been less prime writing time and more of a static fog from which neither light nor memory escapes.

Needless to say the work I’ve been doing falls somewhere short of expectations.

My best solution has been to snatch ten minutes here or a half-hour there to scribble notes – dialogue exchanges, plot points, and sketchy outlines. What I’ve written under these circumstances is mostly too vague and disconnected from my usual process to be useful.

But regular attention has helped keep the processors ticking in the background. When I do get to sit down with a clear head, I’ve had a pretty good idea of what to write. Most days, that’s enough.

What about you? Any tips for working through a broken routine would be very useful. I’ll still be painting walls for a couple more weeks.

 

 

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