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Checking in again Miss me? Yes, I am back from the freezing wastelands of Iowa, where I finally got to play in snow for the first time, an experience that was super-amazing fun until I realised that snow is really freaking cold. This was after significant amounts of it went down the back of my pants. LEARNING. More importantly for you, my cherubs, is that I am back, I am rested, I...

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Checking in, checking out again Although just at the moment I feel close to it. -- I mean, hi! Here's a lightning fast update on what's happening with me right now. My day job is kicking my butt. A lot. And I'm not being left with a lot of time or energy for much else. That includes Obituarist II: Dead Man's Data - but I am really close to finishing it, I swear. It's about 30-40% longer...

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Burn notice I've kind of got the shits with myself at the moment. Sure, I've been busy. I have a demanding day job, we just moved house and I like to hang out with my friends so that we don't forget each other. But we've reached a point where those stop feeling like reasons and start feeling like excuses, and the thing they're failing to excuse is not writing. Shut up, Batman....

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Moving on up So yeah, we moved. It was a pretty big deal. ...okay, to be specific we moved one train station and we're still in the same suburb. But none of that negates the time, effort, money, beer and stress that went into getting all our stuff in boxes at one end, sticking them on a truck, driving ten blocks and then unloading them all at the other end. Plus furniture. So...

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Games for writers I like games. This comes as no surprise, I know; it's about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I've written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill. Anyway, GenCon (the...

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Checking in again

Category : Uncategorized

Miss me?

Yes, I am back from the freezing wastelands of Iowa, where I finally got to play in snow for the first time, an experience that was super-amazing fun until I realised that snow is really freaking cold. This was after significant amounts of it went down the back of my pants.

LEARNING.

More importantly for you, my cherubs, is that I am back, I am rested, I am full of word ideas and I finished the foundation draft of The Obituarist II while I was away. It’s with my editor and alpha-readers, and if they can give me their notes in the next couple of weeks – notes that hopefully aren’t ‘this story makes no goddamn sense’, a possibility that has been worrying me – then I should be able to revise and improve it in time to put it up online for Christmas.

And once that is done, it’s back into the revisions of Raven’s Blood with a vengeance, possibly pausing only to outline a horror novella idea (provisionally called Sickness Dreaming) that’s been in on my mind of late. I’ll even write a few substantive blog posts. Remember those?

But that all comes later. This week I’m jetlagged, frostbitten and desperately trying to catch up on three weeks of dayjob emails. There will be no further writing this week. I’ve earned that much.

Catch you next weekend. Promise.

Checking in, checking out again

2

Category : Uncategorized

Although just at the moment I feel close to it.

I mean, hi! Here’s a lightning fast update on what’s happening with me right now.

  • My day job is kicking my butt. A lot. And I’m not being left with a lot of time or energy for much else.
  • That includes Obituarist II: Dead Man’s Data – but I am really close to finishing it, I swear. It’s about 30-40% longer than the first one, so I’ve had to adjust for that, but includes more action, more one-liners and a significant amount of more swearing. At least, it does in this foundation draft. My plan was to finish it tonight and send it off to my editor and alpha-readers tomorrow, but I’m going to miss that deadline due to packing; instead, I’ll finish it over the weekend, or possibly while in flight, and email it out then.
  • Packing? In flight? Yes, we’re going away on holiday for a few weeks, where I will hopefully recharge some of the energy I’m been using up over the last month. There’ll be pictures and anecdotes when we’re back – and if I get a chance to hang with any writers, maybe even some interviews.
  • Don’t worry, Ernie’s staying with a neighbour. He’ll have fun.
  • I was thinking hard about submitting Raven’s Blood to Hatchette’s open call for YA manuscripts, but decided against it. It’s still too rough and I need more time with it, and right now I don’t have any time to spare. There’ll be other opportunities.
  • I listened to Night Terrace. You should too. It’s really good!

And with that, it’s off to eat tacos, pack suitcases and maybe get a little bit of writing in before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

Back soon. I promise. Let’s not go so long without talking in future.

Burn notice

1

Category : obituarist, writing

I’ve kind of got the shits with myself at the moment.

Sure, I’ve been busy. I have a demanding day job, we just moved house and I like to hang out with my friends so that we don’t forget each other. But we’ve reached a point where those stop feeling like reasons and start feeling like excuses, and the thing they’re failing to excuse is not writing.

Shut up, Batman. You’re not even my real dad.

(But I wish you were.)

Like many writers, or indeed many folks in general, I am torn between conflicting desires and motivators. For me, those are:

  • Imagination: hey, I have a great idea for a story other humans would like to read
  • Laziness: let’s get drunk and play video games
  • Self-loathing: you will die alone and forgotten and this is probably for the best

And life for me is a path through these desires, like the stages of grief, until #3 defeats #2 and allows #1 to emerge blinking into the sunlight long enough to bang out the wordcount before retreating back to shelter.

So yeah, I’m behind schedule on Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data. I was meant to finish it in July, but here it is in late September and I’m only just getting to the point where Kendall Barber [CENSORED CENSORED SECRET REDACTED BUT LORD LEMME TELL YOU IT AIN'T GOOD]. Which is not acceptable.

To fix things, I’m going into what I call BURN MODE, mostly because I like being overdramatic.

Burn mode is when I set myself a specific, easily quantifiable target and then just fucking write it every night that I physically can until I’m done. For Obituarist II, as it was for Obituarist I, that target is one complete chapter of around 1000 words – beginning, middle, end that makes you turn the page to the next instalment. Which is kind of harder than just 1000 words, because everything’s got to be self-contained and wrap up/hook on at the end, and I have to work out an entire, coherent block of plot over my lunch hour, but that also kind of makes it more enjoyable and engaging.

But burn mode is a jealous mistress. If I’m to knock off this story and get it to my editor and alpha readers before heading overseas for this year’s international adventures, I can’t have no distractions. So I’m taking  a break from blogging for about two weeks, and this is my long-winded way of telling you folks that.

It gets the words out of my system. Cut me some slack.

See you when I’m done. But as a parting gift, enjoy this – the first glimpse of the cover of the new book, completed long before it was finished!

ObituaristII-PDuffy

Now get outta my way. I gotta put kerosene in this motherfucker.

Moving on up

Category : story, writing

So yeah, we moved.

It was a pretty big deal.

…okay, to be specific we moved one train station and we’re still in the same suburb. But none of that negates the time, effort, money, beer and stress that went into getting all our stuff in boxes at one end, sticking them on a truck, driving ten blocks and then unloading them all at the other end. Plus furniture.

So apologies for the radio silence; apologies too for being behind schedule on Obituarist II and a number of other things. But the roadblock is now mostly cleared away, there are only a few dozen more boxes of books and artwork to find homes for, and it’s time to get my blog on.

And tonight’s topic is… writing stories in which people move house. Yes, like the time I did a whole blog post about toothache, I’m taking ‘write what you know’ to its most quotidian extremes and then out the other side.

Off the top of my head, then, here are five ways to get story out of a change of address.

Human drama

You don’t have to have explosions or vampires to get a story that’s tense and full of conflict – you just need reasons for people to yell at each other, and moving house gives you plenty of those. The stress of house hunting, house viewing, making applications, dealing with estate agents, emptying your bank accounts, throwing out half of what you own, wishing you could throw out the other stuff, calling movers who never show up, waiting a damn week to get the internet connected… any and all of these can be fodder for a great story about fighting in cars, crying in the shower and having heroin for breakfast. Throw in poor impulse control and a blunt instrument and you’ve got a solid foundation for a crime story; throw in some dick jokes and you have one of the lesser Richard Pryor movies.

What you leave behind

Moving house is never clean; there’s always something that gets lost in the shuffle. What if it was more important, dangerous and/or embarrassing than a pair of socks or whatever was in the oven? How terrible (and storyworthy) if you left behind a door to Narnia or Venus, the Holy Grail, a bagful of severed heads or a body? Or if your wife/friend/housemate did, and this is the first you’ve learned of it? And while losing it is bad enough, the real story comes from what you’ll do to regain access and get it back (or cover it up forever) before the new occupants move in. Especially if things go wrong. (Spoiler: they’d better go wrong.)

Starting afresh

But forget about what you leave behind – think about where you’re going. Sydney, New York, Alpha Centauri… these are places to begin again, to discard the person you used to be and their problems. This can be simple and personal, something that matters to you and only you (much like when I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne). Or you could have the kind of past that follows you from place to place, and you have to do something dramatic and extreme to shrug off that warrant, that horde of evil shadows, that legacy of pirate vampirism that comes of being the last descendent of Captain Dracula. Moving gives you a new status quo – what will you do to maintain it?

New neighbours

It’s not just about where you live, though – it’s who and what lives around you that has a big impact on quality of life. Hopefully the people are nice, hopefully the streets are friendly, hopefully the pub has your favourite beer. It’s always a shame to move to a new neighbourhood and find the gutters choked with alien blood, the drug dealer upstairs constantly bumping 120-decibel dubstep or that the bottle shop only stocks gin and ichor. Or flip it – maybe your new neighbours are great. Better than great. Maybe they want to give you drugs, teach you their language and take you to bed. Maybe that’s when good neighbours become good friends. WHAT A NIGHTMARE.

The house from hell

Horror stories get it – new places to live always come with secrets. Dangerous secrets, like gates and doors that change you, corridors that grow longer and abandon you between dimensions, or maybe just a shitload of ghosts. Moving in means getting caught up in the baggage of your new address – and no matter it seemed during that ten-minute inspection, it’s going to have a hidden drawback. Maybe there’s a briefcase of stolen money buried in the basement, maybe the One True Grail Knight’s mail still gets delivered there… maybe it’s just asbestos in the walls. Hell, maybe it’s built on top of a forgotten graveyard  - it’s a cliché, sure, but then again there’s a golf course built on the cemetery of a 19th century insane asylum not ten minutes from my place. So now you’re stuck with angry ghosts. Or bones getting stuck in your plumbing.

Rightio, that’ll do. Time to walk the dog, climb the stairs, shove a box of assorted connection leads to one side and call it a night.

And if you’re moving house this weekend, best of luck.

Games for writers

2

Category : games

I like games.

This comes as no surprise, I know; it’s about as shocking as learning that I like comics, beer or swearing. But I like games a lot, and I’ve written before about how roleplaying games (as well as story-telling games like Storium) can contain lessons relevant to writers as well as to 9th-level wizards looking to master cloudkill.

Anyway, GenCon (the annual giant gamer nerd-prom) was last weekend, and to mark it there’s been an RPGaDay hashtag and commentary program doing the rounds. (I’ve been posting notes on my Google + account, if that is a thing that might interest you.) Games have been on my mind, but so has writing – and it occurred to me that while I’ve made general comments about games (specifically RPGs) being good resources for writers, I’ve not ever spelled out which games might help with that.

WAIT NO LONGER

Here, then, are five games that set out to do very particular things and help create or facilitate very particular kinds of stories, and that do that in a way that can directly translate into key lessons for writers. You should check them out – they’re smart, they’re fun, they’re generally pretty cheap and they can do good things for your brain and your words.

Spark

Spark is a toolkit for creating and running games that focus on a core set of themes. Players and GM collaborate on outlining a world/setting and three broad themes (Beliefs), such as ‘Everyone has a price’ or ‘You are your culture’, that are expressed through it and its various factions. Characters have their own Beliefs that align with or challenge those setting Beliefs, along with a handful of broad stats and skills.

Play revolves around collaboratively setting up scenes with three components – a Platform (situation), a Tilt (something that pushes PCs to engage with the situation) and a Question (what is to be solved/discovered). The aim is to create a Question that challenges a setting Belief and that pushes the PCs into conflict – with factions, with each other and with their own Beliefs – in order to follow their own agendas.

Writing lesson: Stories have subtext, subtext is driven by theme, and theme can be embedded in every scene and external plot driver. Push characters to question those beliefs, and to engage directly with theme, and you can create rich, complex stories.

My Life With Master

The default setting of My Life With Master is 19th-century Europe, where a scheming Master sends his twisted minions out to prey upon local villagers for unspeakable purposes – and you play the minions, forced and cajoled into escalating monstrousness. Characters have only two stats, Self-Loathing (how much you hate yourself for obeying your Master) and Weariness (the degree to which you’re given up resisting), along with a pair of unique, non-numerical strengths and weaknesses.

Play has a specific rhythm that builds up inexorably over time. The Master applies increasing emotional pressure on his minions, forcing them to terrorise the villagers – but also giving them opportunities to make connections and friends. The stakes escalate and the minions do worse and worse things to those they wish to love until one of them overcomes control and stands up to the Master. Which doesn’t guarantee a happy ending, mind you.

Writing lesson: Internal conflicts can as powerful as external ones, especially if that conflict turns into action. A character who doesn’t want to do something but has to do it anyway, who tries to free themselves from control (whether they succeed or fail), can be fascinating.

Monsterhearts

Based on the Apocalypse World system, Monsterhearts trims that down and sexes it up to create a game about supernatural powers and teenage passions. Players choose a ‘playbook’ for a particular archetype, from vampire and werewolf to clique leader or misunderstood teen, and quickly finetune it with abilities and benefits. They then connect characters together with ‘Strings’, knots of emotional connection to help them influence (or be influenced by) each other.

What happens in a game of Monsterhearts? Teenagers fall in love, have sex, meddle with the occult and end up doing terrible things in the name of desire. To get what they want – each other – PCs have to use up their Strings and create new ones. Anything meaningful requires a roll, and failure (and sometimes success) enacts a heavy price. And at some point, PCs are bound to lose control and lash out at those around them, possibly supernaturally, only to regret it later.

Writing lesson: Desire, fear, love, hate, passion… these things can be as much of a plot driver as any kind of external situation or control. Characters who act from emotion push stories forward, as much with their mistakes as their successes, and you can find great drama in the aftermath.

Fiasco

I’ve talked about Fiasco before, but that’s because it’s great – a toolkit for making Coen Brothers/Breaking Bad/plan-gone-wrong stories in almost any genre. Using a ‘playset’ of ideas based on a broad story or setting concept, such as ‘small town news channel’ or ’1930s transatlantic ocean liner’, players quickly sketch out characters, their relationships and three or more elements attached to those relationships – a Place, an Object and a Need.

Players then take turns to create scenes, either framing one around their character or deciding on the outcomes, and assigning white/black (good/bad) dice around the table. At the midpoint, players roll dice to introduce a twist and then continue. While the Place and Object play important roles, it’s the Need (and the Relationship connected to it) that drive play to the bitter, tally-up-your-dice-and-roll-’em, most-of-you-are-fucked-now end.

Writing lesson: Some pundits say there are only 20 stories, or 12, or seven, or three. But if you want to get really reductive, there’s only one – what will you do to get what you want? Boil everything down to that one question, then write up from there, and you get a gut-punch narrative.

Microscope

While all those other games are about character, Microscope is something completely different – a game about history and the big picture. Players choose a concept, such as ‘an ancient empire rises and falls’, pick a beginning and an end for the timeline, and collaborate on setting and tone elements like ‘magic exists’, ‘magic doesn’t exist’, ‘aliens’, ‘robots’ or whatever. No character creation; no GM.

Players then take turns to create sub-Periods within the timeline, to populate Periods with key Events or to suggest Scenes for Events. You can jump around in time freely, adding Periods at any point. Once some groundwork is laid, players can zoom in to play out a Scene in detail or discuss an event, picking out specific elements (Legacies) to colour and influence the next round of establishment, until you can stitch a convincing narrative line from the timeline’s start to its end.

Writing lesson: Not everything is about character, and some stories are bigger than people. But if you pick a point and zoom in, you can crystallise all that scope into something we can connect to, something with a face, and through that create something grand that feels convincing.

In other news, we have an apartment, we move at the end of the week, we’re packing and spending all the money we can spare on the process.

Good times. Good times.

Please send bourbon and all your drugs.

Carry on up the Amazon

1

Category : publishing

I’ve been thinking a lot about Amazon lately.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about them since the end of July, when I did my end-of-financial year tally of ebook sales. I have two sale/publication channels – Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), who fairly obviously handle Amazon (and nothing else), and Smashwords, who convert manuscripts into a variety of formats and act as a distributor to 14 other outlets, from Barnes and Noble and the Kobo store to libraries and subscription services like Oyster and Scribd.

Saying which channel is ‘better’ is difficult. While you might think that its breadth made Smashwords the much more valuable channel, especially as their royalty terms are also better, I sell more ebooks through Amazon – although I actually make less money in the process, because Amazon’s royalty terms aren’t as good. Since starting this whole ebook racket caper program in 2010, I’ve sold 182 ebooks and and made $317.25 from Smashwords, and sold 219 ebooks and made $253.38 from Amazon.

(If you find those numbers pathetically/depressingly low, imagine how I feel.)

That spread of numbers is uneven, just to make things more complicated. Smashwords was a lot more financially viable a few years ago, then fell off sharply in 2012 and 2013, to the point where I sold just one ebook through them in the 13-14 year and made only 82 cents from it. Meanwhile, Amazon sales have stayed reasonably consistent, especially for The Obituarist, which has been about twice as successful on Amazon as on all other channels/sites combined.

From my POV, the clearest reading of this is that Smashwords was a strong platform at the start, but its value has significantly dropped as the Kindle (both device and tablet-app) has cemented its stranglehold on the ebook reader market. It still has its uses – I have seven short stories on there that I can’t put on the Kindle Store because they’re free – but it looks to be on the down-cycle while Amazon stays firm.

Which has made me start thinking about the potential benefits of going Amazon-exclusive, both with my stubby little backlist and with The Obituarist II (I’m behind schedule but it’s coming along, I swear to god). Sticking an ebook in the KDP Select program means it’s exclusive to Amazon for 90 days (more if you renew) and can’t be sold on other platforms or in other formats. In exchange you get to make the book free for five days, which brings in no money but can greatly increase its visibility on charts and for browsing, and possibly take advantage of other discounts that still generate some royalties. The book also goes into the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited programs; when readers access the book for free and read a certain amount of it, you get a share of funds from a monthly pool that Amazon maintains. How big a share? That depends on Amazon’s arcane accounting, but various accounts have it somewhere between sweet-fuck-all and maybe-two-bucks-per-read. Which is still more than I’m getting right now, frankly.

So yeah, KDP exclusivity has been on my mind. There are definite drawbacks, particularly the worry of cutting out my Nook/Kobo/iBooks audience – but then again, if that audience is smaller (and shrinking), perhaps that’s outweighed by the possibility of stronger Kindle sales, higher Amazon visibility and a share of the lending fund. Assuming that fund is actually going to pay anything worth a damn, and Kindle Unlimited isn’t going to be the failure some observers are predicting.

Should I try to expand my reading community? Should I focus on cementing the income from the one I have? How can I make enough money to pay my rent? These are questions that any indie ebook creator really needs to consider at some point.

But then, on Saturday night, the Failboat sailed right up the Amazon and beached itself.

 That’s when the ‘Amazon Books Team’ sent me and every other KDP-using self-publisher a long email that… I mean… it’s hard to describe it without getting embarrassed on their behalf, you know? It’s like they tried to send someone private dickpics but accidentally CC’d their entire mailing list. And had a really ugly dick to boot.

But basically, they begged me to email the CEO of Hatchette and abuse him for not discounting his ebooks more. And gave me his email address and some possible talking

Seriously. I mean it. You can read the whole facepalm-inducing thing right here if you don’t believe me.

Someone got paid to write that pile of wank. Someone got paid to organise sending it to every email address they had. And then they had to go home and make eye contact with their loved ones. Poor bastards.

As you may be gathering, I don’t have much respect for Amazon as a result of this. Their ongoing battle with Hatchette is messy and unprofessional, but until this point it’s been a fight between two corporations doing corporate things – shitty things for any Hatchette-published authors caught up in it, absolutely, but not super-relevant to those of us outside it. (Even if some authors wanted the rest of us to pick one side or another.) Trying to co-opt uninvolved writers, uninvolved clients and customers – as Chuck Wendig put it, ‘asking the serfs to pick up sharpened shovels and become knights for the realm’ – just opens up a whole new world of desperation, sleaze and fail. (Especially since some self-pub authors are taking the bait and sending the Hatchette CEO grumpy emails, to which he’s responding far more politely than those schmucks deserve.)

Fortunately, most people are shaking their damn heads about all this. And the books themselves are calling for a time out. So the fail boat may yet be pulled off the rocks before Amazon drowns.

In any event, the upshot for all this from my point of view is that I spent weeks considering the KDP Select option, trying to weigh up the pros and cons, and composing the first half of this post to get my thoughts in order. Then this turd-in-the-bedsheets email arrived in my inbox and made me think that the last thing I wanted was to ally myself more tightly with jerks who willingly misrepresent George Orwell while asking me to be an unpaid author for their standover business.

So. You know. Take the time to think things through, kids. That’s the moral of the story.

In other news, our landlord had kicked us out and we have four weeks to find a new place and move in.

Hooray! Excitement! Panic!

So my priorities for the rest of the month are finding houses, looking at houses, applying for houses, applying for different houses and eventually packing everything and putting it in a different house.

Given this, blog updates are likely to be sporadic. As is progress on the two books on my to-write list. Will see how I go.

Signal boost – Snapshot 2014

Category : writers

Hi folks,

Tonight, rather than talk about myself and writing, I’d rather talk about other folks, who are in turn talking to other, different folks about writing.

Lemme back it up.

Back in 2005, Australian SF author Ben Peek decided to interview 40-odd Aussie spec-fic writers . It was a pretty interesting glimpse – one might even say a snapshot – of the local scene, its opportunities and how people were working towards them.

There have been several more snapshots since then, and this week is seeing the newest – nine years later, spread across a dozen-or-so blogs and talking to nearly 200 writers, published and emerging, novel and short fiction, print and ebook. Some questions are consistent across the board, some are unique to each writer; some folks are replying succinctly, some at length.

If you’re at all interested in local spec-fic – SF, fantasy, horror, whatever – then you should really click around the following blogs and check out some (or all) of the interviews as they progress over the next week:

(Full disclosure – I’m one of the interviewees, and you can find my bit on Jason Nahrung’s blog. But it’s pretty much the same stuff I always talk about here, so you can also skip it without guilt if so inclined.)

And that’s enough out of me this week.

Framed

Category : writing

Scene framing: Threat or menace? Messiah or Antichrist? Floorwax or dessert topping?

…well, I thought it was funny.

Here’s a simpler question: What the hell is scene framing?

Scene framing is a term thrown around a lot in gaming these days, and it’s the simple act of setting a scene for play, ideally play that is immediately interesting. Here’s one description from the Story Games Codex:

 At its most basic, Scene Framing means focusing play on only the interesting events within the narrative of the game, deciding what occurrences are too mundane to waste time describing and which entail enough conflict to play out in detail.

That seems so basic an idea that it hardly needs to be spelled out, but I’ve sat through enough three-hour-long rolling-on-the-random-shopping-result table sessions to tell you that it’s a learned rather than an innate skill. Sometimes we feel that we have to include boring or unengaging details for the sake of realism, or verisimilitude, or because one guy really likes rolling on that goddamn table-generation table. And the end result is that while the game might feel more realistic (spoiler: it never does), it doesn’t become interesting, because those two words are not the same.

But scene framing isn’t a skill unique to gaming; it’s a natural part of writing fiction – and again, it’s a learned skill that not all writers have mastered. Too many books start with a description of the weather; too many chapters only exist to get the characters over to the next chapter, where stuff actually happens. And I say this as someone who’s written about weather and written too many bits that are just there to bridge to the next bit.

So if you want to up your scene framing game, or even dare to tango with its grumpy cousin ‘aggressive scene framing’ (which just means leaving more stuff out), here are a few tips that make sense to me as a reader, writer and filthy roleplayer.

Start as close to the action as possible

The ‘action’ meaning the conflict, the drama, the tension that gets people reading, whether it’s a fistfight or an argument or a hurricane hitting your house. ‘Start the story at the start’ is a common enough writing adage, and it applies within the bits of story too. Open the chapter right before the first punch hits, or perhaps just after it lands; push the reader as far as you can to the heart of things, rather than making them walk up the garden path and quarrel with their elderly aunt before she snaps and goes the knuckle. You don’t have to start in medias res, although that’s a great way to snap right into the thick of it – but the closer you can cut, the greater the urgency, the stronger the hook to the reader.

But maybe not too close

The thing is… context matters. It doesn’t always matter as much as we think it does – but sometimes it’s important. Readers are smart and can work things out for themselves, but put too much work on their shoulders and it starts to become annoying. You don’t want to drop the reader into the guts of a scene and have them say ‘Who’s that guy? Why is he being chased by mummies?’. Actually, scratch that – what you don’t want is for them to say ‘Why do I care that that guy’s being chased by mummies?’ and then stop reading. When you trust a writer, you have faith that the answers will come after the hook; until that faith comes, you need to bait the line and frame the framing. Give some scenes a little background to fill in the situation, a little breathing room to develop tension, then crack that tension like it was Rama-ho-tep’s sundried fibula.

And maybe not all the time

A movie that is just supercuts of all the best fight scenes of all time sounds amazing, and would be great to watch for ten minutes, but after a while you’re going to zone out. Similarly, a story where every scene is BANG! CONFLICT! IMMEDIATE CONSEQUENCES! BRIGHT LIGHTS! SUGAR! would wear out its welcome pretty quick and leave the reader feeling like they’re trapped inside a cement mixer full of typewriter keys. Every scene should matter, but not every scene needs to revolve around the core action – again, breathing room, time between OMG moments to slow the pulse and recover your strength. Use the scenes that aren’t about conflict to connect characters to each other, the setting and the story – those connections are the stakes that then become important when the yelling starts.

Everybody in the frame

One of the trickiest things for game masters when framing a scene is making sure that every player is involved – they’re both the actors and the audience, and they need to be engaged both as story participants and spectators. It’s easier when you’re the only one calling the shots; you don’t have to worry about entertaining your characters, just making their lives miserable interesting. But you still have to make sure they’re involved in the scene; few things are more obvious than when a character doesn’t belong in this bit of the story or have anything to do. When you frame a scene, don’t just think about what’s happening, think about who it’s happening to – give everyone a reason to be there and something to do, even if it’s just to run away and get out of the scene as quickly as they can.

Ride the rhythm

A story is like a sine wave – peaks and troughs, highs and lows. Well, it’s usually more like a jagged EKG readout from a heart patient that’s swallowed too many pills, but the principle is the same. You build up to points of tension, you come down to bleed that tension off and then you build up again. Effective scene framing is about starting things in the upward curve – maybe just after the bottom, maybe just before the top – and ending things in the downward curve. Don’t end a scene at a higher point than it starts, or it’s exhausting; don’t end it lower than it begins, or it’s dull; don’t jump right across the curve or it’s bewildering. Your story has its own waveform, its own rhythm – listen to it, get the beat and move with it, rather than trying to fight it or push it into a shape that doesn’t fit.

Did I say ‘tips’? That last one is a bit vague for a tip. But I’ve crossed the 100o-word rubicon and I don’t have space to explain how to build a text-stethoscope for listening to your story’s heartbeat. Maybe next time.

Moving day (weekend) (week) (fortnight)

Category : Uncategorized

Like any writer worth his/her salt, I work in a garret.

Well, a back room in our house, anyway. It’s reasonably garret-y.

But the time came to expand my study into a larger office, one that would accommodate more shelves and an extra desk. And that time came, and went, and came back again, until two weeks ago we decided ‘okay, time to move furniture this afternoon’!

…it took longer than an afternoon.

Possibly because this was my workspace, the place where the magic happens:

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It contained the normal things you would expect on a writer’s desk: papers, more papers, Post-it notes, index cards, bits of Lego, dice, pens, photographs, coffee cups, toast crumbs, character sheets, thermal gloves, assorted cables for devices I no longer own, CDs for albums I long ago converted to MP3, vitamins, cufflinks, a really big thesaurus, poker chips, clothes pegs painted to look like Batman and Wonder Woman, tax records and dust.

So much dust.

Anyway, most of that material got put somewhere for safekeeping…

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…while the rest of it moved about four metres down the hall.

This process took two weeks.

In my defence, I also assembled a bunch of furniture in the process. And broke-and-then-fixed the internet. And discovered that you shouldn’t mix tequila and major painkillers.

Oh, what an adventure that was.

But! I’m happy to report that I’m in the new office, along with my wife and our dog. All the shoes are lined up neatly, all the graphic novels and D&D sourcebooks are in a neat Ikea-grid, a new office chair that won’t break my spine is being picked out…

…and I’m back to the writing. Of course.

(PS For this, and for other reasons that mostly involve Real Life and me being crap, The Obituarist II is behind schedule.)

(At least try to look slightly shocked.)

 

 

A Q-and-A with Jason Nahrung

Category : writers

It’s been aaaaaaaages since I’ve had another writer on here to discuss their work and their process – blame me and a year of just wanting to talk about myself. But I’m shrugging that off, I hope, and so it’s a good time to start getting a few other perspectives on things.

And who better to start with than Jason Nahrung, whose profile has become bigger and brighter in the couple of years since I was introduced to him by one of several mutual friends. Jason and I both followed a similar arc of movement down the country, starting in rural Queensland, living in Brisbane (and hitting its goth clubs) and then drifting down to Melbourne to follow our writerly dreams – but then he kept going, moving recently to Ballarat along with his partner, award-winning author Kirstyn McDermott. There are other key differences between Jason and I, too – he works a lot harder than I do, his work focuses more on traditional Gothic themes, he’s really strongly engaged with the Australian genre writing and publishing scene, and he has much longer hair.

So I thought it would cool to talk to him about these things. Well, other than the hair.

red_couchI always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of regular job that pays better?

Well, I DO have a regular job that pays better. That’s why I can afford to spend inordinate amounts of time transferring those stories reeling through my mind on to the page. The idea of making any kind of living from writing fiction seems unlikely; I don’t buy lottery tickets, either.

So, indeed, why writing?

Simply, I can’t help myself. The stories are there, they demand to be written. I think some of them are worth sharing. What’s more, I enjoy the art of seeing intangibles made real on the page, and the thought of them becoming intangible again – and something new – in the mind of a reader. It’s am amazing process!

I can’t play music, I can’t draw, I’m no good at woodwork or anything like that. But since I was a young tyke, the words and I have got along passingly well. I give thanks to having had parents and teachers who’ve encouraged my reading, and by extension, writing – the two have gone hand-in-hand for me as long as I can remember.

It took me a long time to consider my stories were worth the attempted selling, if not just the telling. It still feels a little precocious, to be honest. Every – any – sale comes as something of a surprise to me. A pleasant one. There’s a definite thrill in finding that someone likes your stories enough to pay to read them, or indeed, to publish them in the first place. That’s a kind of benchmark for me: is this yarn good enough that someone will pay me for it?

But yeah, we’re not talking sheep stations here. A bottle of wine will do.

When I think of your work, two recurring things leap out at me, and the first is the emphasis on the Gothic – both in the literary and the cultural sense. What draws you to that theme, and what keeps you coming back?

That’s a question I keep coming back to as well!

I love the Gothic mode – it’s probably a function of a love affair with Hammer Horror movies, the impact that Bram Stoker’s Dracula had on me as an adolescent, a social awkwardness that found its comfort zone in the smoke machines and atmospheric beats of Brisbane goth clubs.

Dracula had a profound influence: its sexuality, its mystery, its isolation. I grew up on a farm, so isolation was something I was used to, and my grandfather told me of the wrongs done to Aborigines and Kanakas, so that Gothic trope of the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present might also have struck a chord. The sexuality and sensuality, well, what teenage boy wouldn’t react to that? Plus I’ve always had a thing for myths and legends – they were amongst my earliest readings – and the supernatural has always had appeal; perhaps it was the appeal of the exotic in the midst of ultra conservatism …

Discovering the gothic subculture and its music – especially the music, which is what I found first – as a country kid was eye opening. I think it was the romanticism, the otherworldliness … they appeal to me still. I feel I belong there, that it makes sense: outsiders, cynics, a certain fatalism. I love the variations within the subculture, the evolution of style as well as the more traditional fashions.

I keep tapping that vein in my writing because it fits, I guess: my themes, my atmosphere.

The other recurring element is this very strong sense of place, and local place at that. Salvage is a ghost story set on a Queensland island; Blood and Dust is a vampire story set in the Queensland outback. What is it about the Australian landscape (or even the Queensland landscape) that makes it so suitable for horror stories?

salvage cover webIt’s interesting you’ve pegged Salvage as a ghost story – to my mind, it’s more of an homage to Carmilla, although the heroine is definitely haunted by an event, rather than a spirit. It’s set on an island off the Queensland coast, an amalgamation of Bribie and Fraser islands customised to the needs of the story – primarily isolation.

Isolation is the one thing Australia has plenty of – the tyranny of distance was coined for this country, not just in its distance from other countries and particularly the European motherlands of many of its early colonisers, but also within it: those tracts of land sparsely inhabited and in places barely habitable.

For those not used to the bush, it’s a pretty alien place, and even for those who are used to it, it contains perils. It’s an unforgiving landscape made up of extremes: fire, flood, drought.

The other thing Australia has going for it is a massive range of landscapes –  beach, red heart, rainforest and alps; small towns, big cities –  that can not only make for interesting backdrops but work as a sympathetic mirror for the characters’ emotional state, or contrast it. It’s nice at times to have some utterly bizarre event occur in the brightest, hottest sunshine, rather than in the middle of darkest night or at the height of a storm. I particularly enjoyed doing that in Salvage, where my vampire is trapped on a subtropical island, and my heroine is fighting off depression in what for most people is an idyllic seaside location – where people go to get away from their troubles.

As well as your novels and novellas, you’ve written an awful lot of short stories. Last year you were part of the judging panel for the Aurealis Awards, specifically for the Best SF Short Fiction Award. What’s the SF/F/H short fiction landscape like in Australia at the moment, from both a reader’s and a writer’s perspective?

I don’t think 20-odd is an awful lot compared to some, but thanks!

I’ve been fortunate to have had exposure in recent years to a lot of quality writing due to judging the awards, in both collections and anthologies and the science fiction short stories category, and the one thing that really comes through is the way our writers are fearless genre blenders. It’s not unusual to see stories entered in more than one category, for instance: SF, fantasy, horror.

And we’ve got some beautiful stylists, too, telling affecting stories: a starting point, but no means all, could be Joanne Anderton, Thoraiya Dyer, Angie Rega, Cat Sparks, Angela Slatter, Lisa L Hannett, Kaaron Warren, Kirstyn McDermott …

In writing terms, we appear to have a flourishing local market for spec fic, with the likes of FableCroft and Ticonderoga putting out regular anthologies; mags such as Midnight Echo, SQ, Dimension6 and veteran Aurealis exploring the digital realm; plus some hungry new small presses such as IFWG and Cohesion making their mark. Then you’ve got Twelfth Planet Press’s Twelve Planets (now 13!) collection series, one of the most exciting projects around, actively encouraging some of our best women writers to produce work that, certainly in some instances, otherwise might have struggled to find a market, due to awkward subject matter or sheer length.

At least digital, and to a lesser extent POD, publishing makes it easier to get longer shorts and novella-length work out there, at a time when 5,000 words, or fewer, seems to be becoming the most sought-after length.

And thanks to the interwebs, overseas markets are more accessible now, too.

You’ve worked with a number of independent Australian publishers, such as Twelfth Planet Press, Xoum and Clan Destine Press. What’s that experience been like for you? What are the positives, and are there any negatives?

My relationship with Clan Destine is just starting – they’re bringing out my vampire duology Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke – but so far, it has felt very similar to my experience with the other two: flexibility, dialogue, professionalism, passion. When a small press picks you up, you know they’ve made a decision to expend reasonably sparse resources on you, so they’re not just throwing your work at the wall to see if it sticks – they’re convinced, they’re committed.

The downside is, those limited resources, both financial and labour, usually present through difficulties in distribution to bricks-and-mortar shops, and in pursuing publicity, particularly in mainstream media where boutique, especially genre, publishers might have less traction.

You grew up in country Queensland, lived in Brisbane and then in Melbourne, and now you’re living in Ballarat. Is it just wanderlust that keeps you moving? How has it been to go from a big city to a much smaller one? Surely it gets cold out there. I’d be frightened.

Everyone who heard Kirstyn and I were moving to Ballarat told us how cold it was, but no one mentioned the wind! Luckily, Ballarat is a well-established town with suitable warm places for artists to gather –we’ve just got to get around to meeting some to gather with!

But to answer the question, I’ve moved originally as job opportunities presented themselves, moving to increasingly large population centres until I hit Brisbane. Then I met Kirstyn, who was in Melbourne, and so I moved to the chilly south. We headed west last year because house prices were way out of our reach in Melbourne, and Ballarat is close enough that I can still pop in for work, or an event, without it being too onerous a commute.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve got Blood and Dust and The Big Smoke with Clan Destine now heading toward publication, and an old outback occult yarn still waiting to be knocked into shape. I’ve also got a few short stories on the go, primarily what promises to be a suite of yarns set in Brisbane around the year 2100, when the risen sea has surged past the dykes and wreaked some watery havoc  –  the first, ‘Watermarks’, was recently published in Cosmos, and I’m exceedingly chuffed about that.

watermarks---cover-page

You can find out more about Jason’s work, stories and books at his website; you can also follow him on Twitter at @JNahrung.