Friday flash fiction – October Music

October Music

Every Halloween, Bernie Flinders plays music to quiet her ghosts.

When the evening’s stream of costumed children dissipates to a trickle, she snuffs the candles in the jack-o’-lanterns, sets the remnant candy in a bowl on the porch, and walks into the backyard with her pitted ’75 Fender and a Marshall amp big enough to sit on.

They come, and she plays.

Great-Aunt Joan arrives first, every time. She was a nurse in Korea; she died in ’52 when an ammunition truck caught fire and rolled right into her ward. They never met in life. Bernie’s mother used to show her old photos of Joanie in her uniform with her hundred-watt smile and a ukulele. She always told the story of the night the call came through about Joanie, while she was in her fourteenth hour of labour. Baby Bernice arrived ten minutes later.

Joan flashes her teeth when Bernie plays a little laid-back bluegrass, and then she’s gone for another year.

Bernie doesn’t know why it has to be Halloween. Crinkling leaves dance around her feet and she purses her lips to keep the dust out.

Ambrose, her father, appears on the stoop, whistling a tune she can’t quite remember. He’s whittling the skin off a pumpkin to make the same Dracula face he’s always done. Jutting from his pocket is the pawn ticket he was taking in to recoup with his winnings from the track, the day he was hit by the midtown express bus.

Bernie’s been plucking away at “Classical Gas” for about forty years now, and maybe she’s just about got it. When the song tumbles from her gnarled and calloused fingers like a spring rain, Ambrose sets down his carving tools and fades away.

Skye’s always the hardest. Here she comes now, with her flannel shirt, the skirt with buckles and studs and the two hundred dollar pair of tights that came pre-laddered. What was magnetic under a spotlight looks too small now. Her skin is just a little too white, her lips are just a little too blue, and the take-no-crap butch goddess hair is matted to her scalp. All these Halloweens, Skye’s never said a word. Bernie can’t ask her: “Did you drive your tour van off that bridge by accident or not?”

All she can do is play “Come as You Are” until that secret tiny smirk cracks the bland teenage disdain, and her daughter leaves her again.

Bernie doesn’t know why it has to be Halloween. Maybe that’s the one day she can’t avoid thinking about them.

It rains cold and hard on her last Halloween. Bernie drags her kit out under the weathered gazebo. She drapes the Marshall with a tarpaulin, weighs it down with garden pavers dislodged by spreading tree roots.

She waits, but the ghosts don’t come. Who can blame them? So she plays for herself, letting her fingers find their rhythm and claw melodies from the night, from the past, from memory. She plays until the Fender slips from her grasp with a splash.

And they tell her the rehearsal’s done. It’s time to join the band onstage.

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A word about Fridays

Starting this week, I am going to post a short-short story here every Friday morning.

Have a read of this

This is a mental health measure. I get too many ideas I’m convinced should be turned into stories. When I don’t do anything with them, they gnaw at me and demand the attention I should be paying to something else. When I succumb and write them, they end up somewhere in the vicinity of ten thousand words (or forty to fifty pages in a book, probably more for an e-reader).

Frankly, I need to rebuild the habit of writing shorter works. I need to get some distracting little ideas out of my head. And I want to regularly reinforce my delusional view that writing can be fun. Plus I really can’t overlook the satisfying dopamine hit that comes with finishing something.

So once a week, for the foreseeable future (which is to say, when I either get a pressing deadline or I get the urge out of my system), I will post a new very short story – less than five hundred words, probably – up here.

They will probably be safe for work. Other than that, who can say? I won’t know what the story will be until it wakes me up at three in the morning and demands to be written.

If this is your first time here, welcome. I have a newsletter that comes out every six *cough* eight weeks or so. It includes announcements, sneak peaks of what I’m working on, a free adventure fiction serial, and the ever-looming threat of a comic strip or song lyrics. If you liked this, you might like that too, in which case you can sign up here:


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GenreCon 2017, for your consideration

My first choice for a speculative fiction convention with a heavy writers’ stream is my local, Conflux. I’ll probably talk about that from time to time.

But for those of us who can’t make it to Canberra in October (as indeed, I can’t this year), allow me to propose my very-close-second choice: Brisbane’s GenreCon 2017.

As the name suggests, GenreCon steps back from one literary ghetto to embrace all the big ones at once: speculative, crime, romance, and probably others I’m forgetting. The cross-pollination of ideas and approaches to fiction is eye-opening and well worth it, especially if, like me, you mostly tend to stick to one patch of the territory.

I’ve only been to one GenreCon, back in 2013, which I believe was the second time it was run. Every year since, I’ve regretted not being able to make it. That first one was such a blast. First of all, the guests are top notch: the year I went, Chuck Wendig was one of the guests of honour. Chuck is one of my writer heroes – it was partly his relentless and hilariously crass blogging about writing that pushed me off the fence and made me start writing again. Getting to meet him in person was a rare treat. That was also the year I kind of fell in love with the passion and humour of Anita Heiss, who is an amazing speaker.

This year’s guests look every bit as amazing – Delilah Dawson and Nalini Singh for the international guests, and a slew of big Australian names – Sean Williams and Angela Slatter from the speculative pond, Amy Andrews repping for romance, and Emma Viskic for crime.

If you are a working genre fiction author or aspire to be one, I can’t recommend GenreCon enough. Peter M. Ball and the whole GenreCon team put on a good, focused con that really digs into professional techniques, writing skills and the business side of things.

If I recall correctly they run two parallel streams of panels and workshops, which means you are only ever in the position of having to agonise over two options at a time – but agonise you will, because the program is always, always dripping with that good juice. Choosing which sessions to attend and which to forego is brutal: it will help with that resilience thing writers are always talking about needing.

(Pro tip I learned at GenreCon: If you have any contact with the publishing industry as part of your writing career, you owe it to yourself to attend Alex Adsett’s workshops on publishing contracts. Seriously. If you plan to avoid being screwed over by an unfair deal at any point in the future, Alex is a very good person to know).

(Pro tip I confidently predict about this year’s GenreCon: Delilah Dawson’s pre-convention seminar on How to Write Sex and Violence will be equal parts hilarious and horrifying, because damn, she knows how to write some great sex and violence).

I still don’t know if I can go to GenreCon this year, and it hurts to think I might miss out. If you’re on the fence about attending, let me know and I can definitely give you a push in the right direction.


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The juggling act

Now that my almost-midyear birthday is out of the way, I’ve been taking stock of where I’m up to. Normally that would mean reviewing the goals I set for myself at the start of the year and seeing how comprehensively I’ve missed them.

Only – and this is a strange break from my usual habits – I don’t seem to have set any. Or at least, none that I declared publicly in the hopes of keeping myself accountable. I assume I just overlooked it because I was only holidays in January. Oh well.

Would six hands make this easier?

Rest assured, if I had set up a collection of writing targets, most of them would remain unblemished by the sweaty taint of accomplishment at this point. I’m pretty great at starting new projects, but I’m a little less renowned for completing them.

The trouble arises from the fact that I’m also pretty terrible at abandoning things. My great intention to Do All the Things shifts uncomfortably from noble ambition to mounting chaos.

Picture a tragic romantic figure stricken with the curse of lycanthropy, only instead of transforming into a savage wolf beneath the  silver gaze of the full moon, he becomes a pack of drunken howler monkeys in a typewriter repair shop.

For a less wild example, picture a juggler working with the standard three balls. Listen, I’m not especially dexterous, and I can juggle three balls (thanks to a weird obsessive stint in high school when I picked up a collection of skills which have since served me not at all in the long march of life). Three balls is regulation, and it doesn’t take much practice to get okay at it.

Adding a ball is pretty hard. The rhythm is different, your hands need to describe tighter circles and there’s just generally more to keep track of. It takes a bit more skill, which means more practice and more focus – but you can get there pretty quickly with dedicated effort. For a while there in high school, it mattered enough to me – for some reason – to make that effort, and so I could juggle four balls.

Now add a fifth ball. Or clubs instead of balls. Or a juggling partner. Each new variation adds complexity and new skills to master. Failure rates skyrocket. Progress grinds to a halt.

You can see where I’m going with this. I was that clownish juggler in a sitcom, frantically adding balls and clubs and the occasional chainsaw to my panicky act. Building towards the hilarious moment when everything comes crashing down, or I accidentally sever something.

This year has not been the one to break the pattern. I recently sat down and counted up all my open projects, including incomplete novels, serial stories and short stories, novel manuscripts I’ve agreed to review for other people, blog projects, contests and markets I want or have committed to writing for, and various other writing-relating obligations.

There’s 27 of them.

Twenty. Seven.

“Oh,” I thought when I finished the tally. “What the hell is wrong with me? Why can I never just finish something?”

Two days later, after reading an article with several writing prompts attached, I started writing a new short story – and suddenly I had my answer. To nobody’s surprise, that answer is “Near-inhumanly poor impulse control.”

Strangely, the moment gave me pause.

I had been struggling with motivation to sit down and write, as I periodically do. The sudden cold weather and a few exhausting weeks at my day job didn’t help, but I now recognise there was more to it. I had inadvertently piled so much on my own plate that I didn’t know where to start. And not knowing where to start invariably meant one of two things – either I didn’t start anywhere, or I started something new.

So for the moment my efforts have a new focus – getting some of the balls out of the air. Winding the act down to something manageable and perhaps just a little less disorderly. Soberly considering the colourful array of balls looping above my head, and working out which ones I can put down, which ones I can throw out into the audience, and which ones I just have to toss over my shoulder.

Finishing my stuff.

Finishing stuff, and trying not to think about what it would be like to throw an egg and a bowling ball into the mix.

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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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