Talking Touchstones

Today I’m over at Leife Shallcross’ blog, talking about inspirational touchstones.

Leife’s running a rather excellent series of posts with Australian speculative writers, talking about where their inspiration to write began and how their story touchstones have influenced their writing over the years. The essays are thoughtful explorations of those resonant aspects of our lives that move and guide us, to which we return time after time to replenish our creative wells and forge new connections.

Naturally, I took the opportunity to talk about a television program I’m rather fond of.

Legitimately terrifying

I heartily recommend the other essays in Leife’s Touchstones series, which are themselves inspiring and provocative, unlike my lowbrow response.

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My Life with Newsletters

When I was in primary school, one of my mates – I want to say his name was Scott, but I think I’m misremembering – had a newsletter.

Heeeeey, wait a minute Mister Postman

As best I can recall, it being a very long time ago, it was basically a schoolyard gossip rag full of anecdotes, jokes, and rumours (fabricated, in all likelihood) concerning teachers and students. He filled spare space with word searches and hard-to-comprehend song lyrics (which he may or may not have researched). He wrote it by hand and got his mum to run copies off on her office Gestetner.

Badly smudged, shakily laid out and riddled with libels. One look and I was smitten. With the concept, if not the execution.

My high school foray into print journalism, along with my besties Chris and Evan, was the legendary absurdist comedy magazine “APG”, which stood for something different each issue. APG was laid out in high-tech Apple IIe dot-matrix splendour and run off at the considerable expense of 10 cents per page on the school library photocopier. Jam-packed with faux news, weird in-jokes, sketch comedy scripts and an oddly popular soap opera parody, it was a beloved institution to its audience – as many as a dozen of our school friends – for its enduring run of six or so issues.

(Obviously we were mostly writing it to amuse ourselves, but by all accounts it was pretty entertaining material. There’s a very strong possibility that my career as a humourist peaked when I was sixteen. Certainly I’ll never again have so receptive an audience as I did in those days).

I told that story to tell this one.

Received wisdom for the modern author is that you have to have a mailing list (yes, that’s seven different links to essays on the subject) to help build and maintain your audience. It makes sense – if a reader is sufficiently informed, entertained or intrigued enough by your writing to give you their email address, you want to do everything you can to keep them around long enough to buy your next book.

Upon hearing that even modestly successful authors can find themselves in possession of unmanageably large lists of email addresses, I decided to get on the front foot. If there’s a pinnacle of accomplishment plausibly within my grasp, “modestly successful” probably covers it.

Call me gullible if you must, but it made enough sense to me that I duly set up a Mailchimp account.

Mailchimp is an online marketing service that manages email lists and distributes bulk communications without getting caught in spam filters. It’s just one of several such tools – other low-cost options include AWeber, Constant Contact and Active Campaign, but there are dozens of these things. I picked the one with the cartoon ape mascot.

Through various online mechanisms, ranging from the static signup form at the right side of this page or the bottom of this post, through to harder marketing techniques like competitions, free giveaways or paid advertising, Mailchimp collects the email address of potential readers and holds them ready for the moment when you have something to say.

The newsletter is the basic unit of currency for communicating with a mailing list.

Oh boy. When I figured that out, the old quasi-journalistic instincts kicked straight in.

It required a tremendous act of will not to immediately turn my regular author newsletter into a madcap recreation of my high school glory days. I’m not entirely sure I achieved it.

I think I’ve managed to curb the impulse to go the Full Gonzo. Where news appears, it’s by and large accurate. References to my peers and associates will not, under ordinary circumstances, attract lawsuits. There appear no pictures of amusing lewd vegetables.

Should you feel moved to sign up to my newsletter, every six weeks or so an email will appear in your inbox. It will typically include brief comments on what I’m working on, directions to any upcoming fiction publications, and perhaps a wry observation about current events, possibly containing a joke or two. An amateurish illustration is not out of the question.

It will also contain free fiction. Sometimes quite a lot of it, depending on what I’ve been up to. It may be a complete flash fiction piece, part or the whole of a short story, or an excerpt from a novel. When it’s not one of those, it will be the latest part of my YA fantasy adventure series Orphans’ Moon.

I like to think I’m offering good value in exchange for that email address.

But if you disagree, I can always resurrect the crowd-pleasing soap opera comedy. I’m not above pandering.

If you’ve read this far, you might as well seal the deal.
I personally guarantee your life will be marginally improved
or at least not made significantly worse for having read my newsletter
which you can obtain by signing up here:

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Where Do You Get Your Ideas? – Part 1 of X

Today I am writing a short story because a couple of days ago, when our writing group met, I made a smart-arse comment about tenses and now I have to back it up.

Never underestimate the motivational power of backing yourself into a corner.

Uh oh

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The Longhand Experiment

Writing is hard, per my frequent reprise. Sometimes it helps to mix up the process.

I do most of my writing on the desktop PC in my study. Picture me there with headphones blocking out everything but a playlist of 70’s and 80’s college rock, a neglected mug of tea close at hand and the keyboard cheerfully clattering away for a few seconds at a time before another eleven minute pause for thought.

One problem with this arrangement is that I have ready access to the internet, which accounts for many of those eleven minute pauses (and then some). As the Facebook meme goes, “Writing is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet”. I fall short of that implied standard a lot.

The bigger problem is what to do when I find myself with writing time when I’m away from home. When I was on holidays I carried my iPad with me and wrote in the Notes app. I found it a productive approach when I had predictable writing time but I’m less keen to carry a tablet with me for everyday use.

My notebook pages do not look like this

So I went old school. I’m writing a story in longhand. At first I had a dedicated notebook, but after I filled it up I started using the back half of my journal. The story is now spread across three separate books. Here’s a thing: I have no idea how long the story is. The longer I write it, the more the story expands – and I’ve been writing it for more than two years now.

(For reference, this is the story I’ve codenamed Chrysanthemum. It’s a fantasy story, loosely mashing together a murder mystery with unionising monsters in a quasi-Chinese setting. It started with a single idea of a magistrate investigating an inn in a notorious mountain pass and has broadened into politics, family drama and a strange buddy cop romance. With monsters.)

Chrysanthemum: much easier to look at than type or say.

Without a doubt, the method has affected the content.

When I work on Chrysanthemum, I usually only have ten or twenty minutes to spare. I tend to write it in bursts of between one to four pages, which means anything from two to seven hundred words in a session. I rarely read back more than a page, unless I need to check a character name. And I wrote down the ending I had in mind, but I lost the piece of paper more than a year ago, so I only vaguely know where I’m going. Other than that there’s no plan.

I think I will finish the first draft in the next few days. Will it feel like I’m reading someone else’s story? Probably – and I’m not sure I’ll be very kind to it. My expectations about what I will find are:

  • Repetition of core concepts like the protagonist’s beliefs and some of the setting details. The disjointed writing method means that in order to orient myself in the work, I frequently reiterate the story elements of which I am certain.
  • Bloated writing: whether it’s sprawling action scenes with loving descriptions of skull fractures, long passages of introspective self-doubt, expositional world building, or tedious philosophical arguments I haven’t bothered to think through beforehand, I suspect there’s a lot of fluff I need to edit out.
  • Continuity errors: I know I gave my key antagonist a name at some point, but I don’t remember it and mostly I’ve referred to him by his relationship with another character. Likewise, I am pretty sure that my descriptions of the physical setting, the characters and the legal code that sits behind some of the politics will all prove wildly inconsistent if not contradictory.

The next challenge will be getting it all into an editable form. It’s not feasible to edit the story across three books, even if I had left enough space at the margins for notes. (I didn’t). The thought of transcribing what is likely a more than ten thousand word piece is daunting. I may take the opportunity to experiment with dictation software, though from what I’ve heard, attempts to get accurate voice-to-text translations of fantasy terms is an uphill battle.

It’s been an interesting experiment. I don’t know whether what I’ll have at the end of all that work is a coherent story, or a satisfying one. I don’t know how long it is. I don’t know if the characters work, or if the world makes any sense. I don’t know if I can face typing the word Chrysanthemum ever again.

It’s kind of exciting.

My apologies to regular readers for the lack of updates in March.
My April newsletter will contain the final part of Orphans’ Moon,
which you can read by signing up here:

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Ditmar Awards open for nominations

It’s awards season!

The 2017 Australian SF Awards, aka the Ditmars, are open for nominations until midnight on the 19th of March 2017. Any eligible person – being anyone active in Australian SF, fantasy and/or horror fandom, or a member of the Natcon (Continuum 13) – can nominate works to appear on the shortlist in a range of categories. The winners will be voted on by members of the current or previous national SF convention.

(The rules are here, if you’re curious about whether you are eligible to nominate).

Works published in 2016 by an Australian author or artist are eligible to be nominated. I encourage anyone who qualifies as active in Australian fandom – the bar to entry is pretty low – to grab a copy of the online nomination form and submit their favourite works from last year.

If your memory is anything like mine, you won’t remember three-quarters of what you read last year, so luckily there is a handy list of (possibly) every work of fiction and piece of art eligible to be nominated: 2017 Ditmar eligibility list.

I won’t blow my own trumpet, except to note that stories of mine do appear on the list. What I will mention are some of the stories I read from last year I’d recommend:

Best Novel: The one qualifying novel I read was The Sleeping Life by Andrea K Host, but I also bought An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, The Grief Hole by Kaaron Warren, Squid’s Grief by D K Mok and Vigil by Angela Slatter in my to-read pile. If I read faster I might have a bigger range of choices.

Best Novella: I commend to your attention ‘A Strange Loop’ by T R Napper, ‘Forfeit’ by Andrea K Host, and ‘Unmagical Boy Story’ by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Can’t go wrong with any of those.

Best Short Story: There’s far too many to choose from but ‘A Strong Urge to Fly’ by Alan Baxter, ‘Breathing’ by Leife Shallcross, ‘Lust, Entrapment, and the Matter Transmitter: a Case Study’ by Sean Williams, ‘Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart’ by Samantha Murray, ‘Street Furniture’ by Jo Anderton, ‘The Baby Eaters’ by Ian McHugh, ‘The Doll Beautician’ by Kaaron Warren, ‘The Leaves No Longer Fall’ by Jodi Cleghorn, ‘The Planetary Survey’ by Tom Dullemond, and ‘Two Somebodies Go Hunting’ by Rivqa Rafael are all very good stories.

I’ll leave the other categories as an exercise for the reader – though I note that my mate Tim Napper is eligible for Best New Talent and he is a talented sonuvabitch so I guess I’ll probably vote for him).

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