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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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Carry on up the Amazon 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...

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A Q-and-A with Cam Rogers

3

Category : writers

If it wasn’t for Cam Rogers, I probably wouldn’t be here.

I don’t mean that he stormed the trenches to rescue me from the Nazis or anything. But without his influence and support I doubt I’d have moved to Melbourne, or be writing this blog right now.

I knew Cam slightly from waaaay back in the day in Brisbane, where we had friends in common in the early-mid 90s goth scene up there. It was a remarkably big scene, though, so we never really got to know each other. Eventually he moved south to Melbourne, as is the norm for creative types in Brisbane, and I left the goth scene in favour of hip-hop and professional wrestling.

Then, years later, his novel The Music of Razors was mentioned in the bibliography of Demon: the Fallen, a White Wolf game I’d worked on, and it spurred me to get back in touch with him. That was, hmmm.. 2003? Yeah, sounds about right. In any case, Cam and I became reacquainted. When he and his then-partner encouraged me to come down to Melbourne for a holiday, I decided it sounded like fun; two weeks later I got back and told everyone in Brisbane I was moving to Melbourne within six months. Which I did.

So Melbourne, you have Cam to thank for that.

Cam’s best known for his dark urban fantasy novel The Music of Razors, which was a moving yet fast-paced story about angels, monsters, innocence and corruption. He’s also dipped his toe into children’s fiction with Nicholas and the Chronoporter, written under the wonderful pen-name of Rowley Monkfish. His follow-up adult novel, Fateless, ended up being shelved for a number of reasons, and recently he’s been focusing on the romantic tragedy Falling, his blog Wait Here For Further Instructions, a new YA project and fingers in a bunch of other pies.

He’s a good friend and a terrific writer, and as a welcome change from me going on and on about editing and narrative and all that sort of clobber, I thought it would be fun to sit down with Cam for a Q&A session.

Let’s start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative area like theatre – or, hell, instead of plumbing, which pays better?

Doing anything other than this feels like failure. It doesn’t make me especially viable as a long-term, team-oriented go-getter with a passion for providing a lifetime of quality customer service. After a while I begin to resent the time any other work takes away from getting a book finished. I imagine all the scenes and chapters that will never be written because I wasn’t at the keyboard. It becomes ‘That’s great. Hi, I’m Cam and you’re murdering my children. How can I help you today?’

I don’t have a choice but to make this work if I really want to be happy. Or bearable to be around.

Are you working on creative projects other than writing?

I’ve got a short stop-motion film in very early pre-production with a friend. It’s only six minutes or so, and we like the concept quite a lot. I’m looking forward to working more on that. Also my agent’s asked that I start submitting film treatments to be shopped around LA, so you never know. I treat this whole thing like a lottery.

Is there something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?

Mainly I want to tell a really good story. If that story can also change somebody’s life, that’s gravy. Books and movies helped me get through my childhood, changed who I am. I decided at a very young age that I wanted to make something that good.

I often think of a lecturer I had at university who would read Samuel Beckett whenever he was feeling down. Beckett is not happy material, but Michael read Beckett because Beckett’s work told him that someone else at some point had felt exactly as he was feeling now. I think that’s part of what art is for: to remind us that we’re not all of us, thankfully, that unique. Sometimes good art is a hug, other times it’s a tough-love slap in the face. Other times it’s a message in a bottle that says ‘I’m one of your tribe.’ There’s a reason we’ve been doing this for as long as there’s been people. When I get emails from people who’ve really taken The Music of Razors to heart, for example, it makes my freaking month.

Are there themes you like to revisit in your work?

I think most writers have themes they’re unconsciously drawn back to. I’ve certainly found a few in my own work, long after it’s seen print, and now I try to pull away from those themes and situations if I see them forming up again. I don’t want to make a habit of repeating myself.

A recurring element I see in your work is that you often focus on the emotions of your characters, not just what they’re feeling but why and how. Is emotion a place you write from or towards?

Well, I think people read stories for people. Not for set-pieces, not for action, not for historical verisimilitude. All that stuff’s great, but what keeps people engaged in a story is truth about other people. And what people feel is a truer hook for me than what they think they’re thinking. Emotion is a condition closer to music. It has that power, that route straight to a person’s core. It’s elemental, it’s spiritual, it’s poetic. It’s also quicker, more powerful and just makes more sense to have a character act from some form of emotional charge than from an A-plus-B-equals-C internal monologue. I mean, they can be intelligent about whatever action they’re taking, but if it means something to them then it’ll mean something to us.

You’re one of the most focused and hard-working writers I know; you keep pushing at your work over and over until it’s done. Can you say something about your work ethic and your process?

I very much learn from people who’ve done it better than me. Knowing where to go next saves so much goddamn time I cannot begin to tell you. By that I mean knowing what’s needed structurally.

Practically, if I’m working a day job then I reserve one day a week where I don’t write at all. That’s my release valve. I go to a gallery, a flick, hang out with friends. A full weekend in one day. The other day is sacrosanct writing time. Wake early, write in bursts, allow regular breaks, stay fresh. When I do take day jobs I try to ensure I get Wednesdays off. That way I never work more than two days at a time, which means I’m not crackling with frustration by Friday which will in turn eat my entire weekend. I also try to get four hours sleep when I get home from work so I can then do two hours writing with a clear head. I also allow myself one day of not doing that for every two or three depending on how I’m feeling energy-wise.

It’s all about keeping fuelled and keen. I learned the hard way that grinding myself relentlessly was far, far less productive than taking regular breaks, allowing for time off, and being a little more relaxed in my approach.

You redraft and rewrite a lot, certainly a lot more than me. What’s your approach to a first draft, and where do you go from there?

I try to get at least a thousand words down per day on a first draft, more on days off, and I allow for the fact that the first draft is clay. It’ll be crap. But it’ll be crap I can work with. That’s the really important part: not allowing my internal editor to prevent me from getting that vital first draft. I’m allowed to write things that contradict everything that’s gone before – I’ll just leave a bracketed note to deal with it in the edit. I’ll realise that a scene needs a setup or payoff or even a whole character that I haven’t written. Note it and move on. Clackety-clack.

Getting that first draft slammed out while I’m still in the honeymoon phase with an idea is absolutely vital. Once I’m out of the woods with a craptacular first draft I’m in much better shape than the person ten miles behind who’s still getting it ‘just right’. The first ideas are a pencil sketch, the first draft is a charcoal sketch, the second is my deciding on colours and composition, and the third is when it all gets committed the whole thing to oils. The first two drafts are sketches, not my memorial. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

You’ve written on your blog about the experience of walking away from your second novel, Fateless, which was consuming your life. How did you come to that decision? Can you ever see yourself going back to that book?

Fateless was my highschool sweetheart; we got married early and divorced after eighteen years.

In the end it was meant to be the quick follow-up to The Music of Razors, as it was pretty much done when Razors was released. For reasons I explain in an article on my blog, however, finishing Fateless was downright Sisyphean. I’d worked on it for so long, the complexity of it always staying one length ahead of my developing technical ability making the whole thing interminable, but Sunk Cost Fallacy making sure I didn’t quit – because to quit would be to lose all the time I’d put into that albatross to begin with. It was hell. In the end I had to accept that it would take less time to write something new than to finish that thing. I was lashed to a dead lover and she was dragging me beneath the waves. Had no choice.

And yes, I can see myself going back to it. Like some horrible running gag. But only with a few provisos: 1) I get a huge amount of distance between what was Fateless and the reboot it could be; 2) I ruthlessly apply a simpler vision to it; 3) I structure it classically, excellently and cleanly before I write a word; 4) I slam out this newer, younger draft as fast as I can so that I have something to work with, not something I spend twelve months ‘getting right’.

But if that happens it’s a long way off. I’m still way too close to it.

You’ve written adult fiction and children’s fiction, and now you’re working on a young-adult book. Obviously there are differences in language and subject matter, but are there other differences in the way you approach work for different ages? Have any differences surprised you?

Not really. The idea comes first. Once I have that I tweak it to fit the age group. Kids know when they’re being spoken down to, so I write for them the same way I’d write for anyone else: I try to tell a good story about characters they can identify with and care about. That’s the most important thing. I also try to say a few things along the way, play with ideas, but it’s got to be a good read first and foremost.

For any ‘adult’ element I might have included in a regular novel there’s an age-appropriate equivalent as well, so nobody gets short-changed or condescended to. Murder becomes a punch-up, sex becomes holding hands. That said, though, you can actually have death (even murder if you approach it in a kind of 1940s shadow-on-the-wall off-camera way.) This particular project is the most action-oriented thing I’ve ever written and I’m having a great time with it. Language aside, I’m hoping that by the time I’m done with it it’ll be able to hold its head up alongside more adult material.

What are you currently working on?

Currently I’m finishing the first of what we hope will be a six-book series for middle readers. I’m working on that with Dmetri Kakmi (Mother Land), who’s a fantastic novelist. Which is all I can say about it at this point. I’ve got a novel in second draft stage that I’ll finish once I’m done with the YA book. After that I’m polishing the final draft of the short film script. Then I’m working on film treatments for existing properties that I’ve got and maybe writing something totally new as well. And I’ve got feelers out with a view to possibly getting a graphic novel off the ground, but I’m not certain now’s a good time for it.

After that I’ve got material I’m working up for a third novel, and after that I may (may) finish Fateless once and for all. Maybe. Big maybe.

You can find more of Cam’s writing at Wait Here For Further Instructions, where you can also find extracts and information on The Music of Razors and Nicholas and the Chronoporter.

Follow him on Twitter as @cam_rogers and on Facebook as, well, Cam Rogers.

$100 bill y’all

Category : Uncategorized

I sat down and did my taxes last night, and it turns out I made a whopping $8000 or so from writing last financial year.

That’s not going to set the world on fire, true, but that’s not a bad sum for someone writing on the side while working full-time. Still means I’d need to write about 8 times as much in order to give up my day job, and since 95% of that was for writing freelance case-studies, rather than anything creative, that’s not a hugely appealing prospect.

Nor, frankly, is paying the $3500 tax debt I’ve racked up as a result of doing this extra work. Does that seem excessive to you? It seems excessive to me. But it turns out that the extra cash pushed me into a different tax rate/HELP repayment bracket, and suddenly I owe the government about half the extra money I made – money, I must point out, that I have already spent.

Yes please more please yes now please YES

So that was a bit of a kick in the pants, and for a few minutes I was thinking that it would be simpler to give this whole writing game away and just edit maths books for the rest of my days. Then, of course, I realised that the easiest way to pay for all this freelance writing tax debt would be to do some more freelance writing. Okay, selling a kidney is probably easier still, but I have to draw a line somewhere.

A better solution would be to sell a thousand copies of both Godheads and Hotel Flamingo in the next 8 months or so. Somehow I don’t see that happening, at least not without some kind of tidal wave of visibility, positive reviews and maybe a knighthood. I did land one review of Hotel Flamingo this week; unfortunately, it wasn’t all that positive. That’s the way of things, and an honest-but-lacklustre review is still a valuable thing, but I do need more reviews and better reviews if sales are going to pick up. (So if any of you readers know of a good review site, or indeed run a good review site, TELL ME.)

Still, while my ebook sales are kind of pants, I’m not that glum about it. It’s not like I write for the money. Well, let me rephrase that – it’s not like I write for the money at the moment. I did back in my White Wolf days, because the money I made from that work pretty much kept me alive in those unemployed times. And I’d like to write for the money some day in the future, when I’ve given away the day job and my career involves turning out a string of popular novels while working from home in my underwear. Right now, though, I’m as close to writing for the love of it – or at least the experience of it – as I’m going to get. It’s refreshing, in its way, and low-stress until you get to the tax debt.

But you can still feel free to give me money. I won’t object.

In other writing news, Arcadia continues apace:

What’s milestoneworthy about this week’s work is that I’ve finished another chapter of the book, and a tricky chapter at that. I will admit that I’m not all that happy with it, but it’s a first draft, and ‘finished’ is more important than ‘happy’ at this stage.

And hell, I even started on the next chapter. So I seem to have some kind of momentum happening. We’ll see if it holds up.

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?

14

Category : writing

Being a professional editor is a lot like having an acquired brain injury. You know that there was a time when grammar and punctuation errors didn’t bother you, but that time has long passed and you can’t actually comprehend what that felt like any more. Now you live in a dismal prison where the bars are built from noun-verb confusion, and no-one around you understands that you can’t enjoy an item on the dinner menu because the restaurant spelt a plural with an apostrophe and now all the food tastes like cardboard and illiteracy. Eventually the only options for escape are self-trepanation, a shooting spree or gimlets for breakfast.

Ahem.

Anyway, I edit and publish books (mostly maths textbooks) for a living, and it beats digging ditches, so I’m not gonna complain too much. But as a result of my job, and of gaining my editing qualification a few years ago (yeah, bitches, I’m diplomaed up in this motherfucker), I see grammar errors everywhere – not just in manuscripts, but in published works that haven’t had the attention they need.

So, in the hopes that it might help you with your work-in-progress, your university essay or your lonely hearts personal ad, here are a bunch of things that make me wince when I see them.

The Oxford comma: Technically the use of the Oxford or serial comma is not wrong, it’s just that it sucks. If you don’t know what it is (and why would you), it’s the use of a final comma before the conjunction in a list of items – e.g. ‘one, two, three, four, and five’. Attitudes differ on the serial comma, with most English and Australian authorities advising it only be used to avoid confusion when the last item includes a conjunction (‘we offer steak, risotto, and fish and chips), and most American authorities advising it be used every time, because apparently they’ve been huffing paint.

For my part, I loathe it; it has an innate stuffiness in it, like an after-dinner speaker at a Rotary club pausing for effect before dropping his last bon mot, or indeed ordering the last item on the menu. It bleeds energy from the sentence, like a speedbump on a suburban street, and dribbles into the eye like birdshit. I don’t even like to use it to avoid ambiguity; I’d rather rewrite the sentence, or at worst replace the final conjunction with an ampersand to cut out an ‘and’.

You can use it if you want to. I guess. But I’ll judge you.

Other comma errors: But while the Oxford comma comes down to a matter of  taste, there are other uses of the comma that are simply incorrect. People tend to use them like pauses in speech, and while that can work sometimes, it’s really not what the little squiggle is used for. Commas lift and separate, like a push-up bra – they chain clauses together, and they break phrases into clauses. They quantify the elements of the sentence and let you move them around as building blocks. They’re not there to mark where you take a breath, and that’s probably the most common way I see them misused

Broken appositives: The other way is when a writer makes a mistake with an appositive phrase. That’s not when you say ‘well done, mate’; it’s a phrase that further defines another, usually like an aside, and marked out with commas – see how I did it with ‘usually like an aside’ – or dashes (see how I did it just then). Or with parentheses, if you’re Stephen King. Appositives are common, but so are mistakes, the most obvious being not separating them from the other phrase. Witness this classic example:

I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse.

I helped my uncle jack off a horse.

Subtle, but important. Alternatively, writers start the appositive but don’t finish it, so the initial comma is left dangling and the circle is unclosed. This can create a situation where the definition contradicts itself:

Right: Available online, or in bookstores, for $9.95.

Wrong: Available online, or in bookstores for $9.95.

That creates doubt – is it available online for a different price than it is in bookstores?

(Actually, the commas aren’t needed at all in that first one, but it still works for the sake of example.)

Colons and semicolons: You know, I’m not even going to scratch the surface of how these get misused; I’ll be here all night. As you can see from the previous sentence, semicolons link two interdependent clauses, with more distance than a comma but less than a full stop. They’re tricky, I know, but the key thing is that they’re a bridge between clauses, rather than a spot-weld. They’re not full stops; you can turn a semi-colon into a full stop (as my White Wolf editors used to do, much to my chagrin), but that makes the resulting sentence pair bumpy and bitty. Nor are they commas; don’t use them to separate items in a list, unless each item is a sentence in itself.

Now, consider colons: see how the clause after the mark refers back to the clause before the mark. Colons are one-way gates in a sentence, meant to direct and push the reader into the next clause, without the interdependence of a semicolon. Again, they’re not full stops, they’re not commas, and if you’re putting them into dialogue, you may want to listen to yourself talk.

Ellipsis abuse: Two things. First, an ellipsis is three dots. Not four, or five, or twelve. This isn’t up for debate. Secondly, an ellipsis is a gap, an omission, a trailing off… …or a fade-in from silence. Not a comma, not a full stop, not a separating device; ellipses are the loosest and messiest of connectors, which is why teenagers and bad game-fic writers use them to piggyback seven utterly dissociated things into one paragraph and then claim that that’s how people speak. Which, even if true, doesn’t make it good. Even if your character is stopping, starting and pausing throughout their dialogue, don’t just chain every snippet together with ellipses, or it’ll look like your paragraph has chicken pox.

Gerunds aren’t verbs: And finally, the last thing I see all too frequently is writers confusing verbs with gerunds – that is, verbs with ‘ing’ stapled to the end. Gerunds start life as verbs, sure, but after the transplant surgery when the ing is stitched on and a vestigial letter or two is shaved off, the pink and shivering thing left is a noun, or possibly an adjective depending on how you use it. You shiver, you don’t shivering; you write, you don’t writing. But you are shivering, he is writing; the verb is the quiet, semi-visible is/are/was of identity, not the loud and colourful gerund. And it’s cool to use them, but be aware that a sentence with only a gerund, rather than a verb, is a fragment – and without a strong verb, you’re describing a still image of an action, rather than communicating the action itself.

I could go on about other, increasingly rarefied things like pluperfect forms, conjunctions and participles, but this post is already too long and holy fuck I’m even boring myself at this point.

But here’s the most important thing – fuck all of that if necessary (except for the multi-dot ellipsis; that shit’s just wrong and dumb). Grammar is a tool, punctuation is a tool, and a craftsperson needs to know how to use her tools; she also needs to know when to down tools and change the car tyre with a spork rather than a spatula, because seriously, that would look fucking cool.

When you know what you’re doing, you can break the rules, not because you can’t be bothered following them but because you know you can create specific effects by colouring outside the lines. One of the major influences on my writing style was Kathe Koja, whose 1990s horror novels (Bad Brains, Skin, Strange Angels) were a fevered blur of commas, fragments and semi-colons scattered like breadcrumbs across the page; they evoked a desperate energy, a sick momentum that told the reader that things were just too fucked up for her protagonists for the rules of grammar to contain their emotions and their problems.

Such a great, fucked-up book

I mean, hell, I just used the Oxford comma in a line in Arcadia, and I dithered a bit about it, but in the end I kept it because it had a specific effect – the commas overtly chained a string of actions together, the last of which had no connection to the rest; by using a serial comma to add that last element, it drew a connection where none existed and let the reader a little further into the mind of the narrator, who doesn’t draw distinctions between her actions in the same way as the rest of us. Or at least that what I hope it’ll do.

So go nuts. Pull off crazy BMX punctation tricks. Fire ellipses into the eyes of your enemies and steal their wallets as they rub the sand from their sockets. If you can do it, you’re a hero.

If you can’t, though, your editor will eventually be found running naked through the streets with your severed head on a pike. True story. So be careful out there.

Let’s talk about ME for a change

3

Category : linkage, reading

Heya, everyone.

After the last couple of very long posts about writing philosophy and the like, I feel the need to kick back with something light for this mid-week post – and something much easier and quicker to put together. (Although it’s still over 1000 words. I really suck at brevity sometimes.)

So, in no particular order, here’s a bunch of things that I’ve been doing, seeing, reading or planning.

It has pictures! I promise it won’t be boring. Well, not that boring anyway.

Writing

So I said I’d get back to work on Arcadia, and I have – but I haven’t worked very hard on it. Too many other things on my plate in the last couple of weeks.

So here’s the pitiful update to the wordcount tracker:

Less than 1000 words over the course of two weeks. You may feel free to call me a useless dickhole.

Mind you, I did a fair bit of other writing with two long posts here. And neither of those were as long as the extended essay/rant I wrote on my LiveJournal a couple of days ago about – of all things – the upcoming reboot and relaunch of the DC comics superhero universe.

Yes, that’s the one with Batman. You may have noticed that I am a guy with Opinions About Batman.

Anyway, I find I’m more comfortable talking about that sort of thing – both bitterness and nerdiness – over on LJ than here, where I want to keep the focus on what I create (and think about creating) more than what I do for fun. Or rage.

In any case, there’s some 2300 words there about how grumpy I am that they’re giving Superman shoulderpads and a plastic suit; read at your peril.

Reading

Continuing on the supers bent, I’m reading Grant Morrison’s Supergods, his treatise on the superhero concept and how it reflects core drives and elements of the human condition.

It’s interesting stuff, hampered a little by a lack of focus – or more precisely a focus spread across three or four separate works. There’s a history of the superhero comics industry and genre, an autobiography of Morrison, a discussion of his philosophies about superheroes and society, some material on chaos magic and use of magical thinking, and at one point a 14-page essay on which is the best Batman movie. (He liked The Dark Knight, but then again so did the rest of us.)

I’m enjoying it, certainly, but I think I was expecting more. Perhaps unjustifiably. It’d be intriguing to see what readers with less knowledge of comics history, and of Morrison’s body of work, make of it.

I’ve also been reading a comics series called Scalped, and holy shit you guys, this is some great stuff. It’s a crime comic set on an Indian reservation ruled by corrupt tribal elders and plagued by drink, drugs and general hopelessness. Then along comes a shitkicker former resident called Dashiell Bad Horse – surely the best name any character anywhere has ever had – to stir up trouble, largely against his will, but in part because he just can’t help himself.

This is violent, hardboiled grindhouse crime that is at the same time clever and layered. Writer Jason Aaron brings a grounded, merciless edge to everything, writing about bloody fistfights and meth lab raids while simultaneously exploring themes of family, spirituality and the weight of history. Artist RM Guera fleshes that out with moody, rough-edged pencils and a controlled colour palette that occasionally opens out to show the liberating (or suffocating) landscapes and expanses of the reservation.

Really enjoying this stuff. Read it if you like to see people yell motherfucker while getting their head broken open, but still want to feel like you’re partaking of something with intellect and merit.

Watching

I’m very bad at watching TV, which I know sounds weird. I can’t be arsed watching it on my own; I have to have someone there with me to share the experience, or else I get bored and wander off to do something more interactive like read, play video games or bitch about comics on the internet.

Anyway, watching the new Doctor Who series – and by that I mean the Eccleston one – is high on my to-do list. I also want to check out Leverage, which I hear is really good, and Bored to Death. And I’m just waiting for the second season of Community to come out on DVD so that I can grab it straight away.

Anything else I should be checking out?

Listening

I’ve been more or less obsessed with two albums for the last 3 months – My Chemical Romance’s Danger Days and Los Campesinos!’ Romance is Boring.


       

 This seems to imply that I am in fact a 22-year-old art school student, rather than a 40-year-old editor and writer.

Ah well.

Anyway, these albums are awesome, but I’m no music journalist so I’ll leave it at that.

Other Stuff

Cameron Rogers posted some extraordinarily kind things about me and this site last week, which was hugely flattering. I rather love his statement that I write ‘like an eloquent, furious Soviet’. I’m not 100% sure what it means, but it sounds fucking boss. I’m contemplating returning the favour with some kind of interview or Q&A with Cam in the next week or two. We shall see.

I’m taking a week off from the day job, in order to avoid going mad and stabbing someone after five straight months of editing maths textbooks. During that time I plan to ride a few bike trails, work on Arcadia (and get more done), and write an article for Inscribe, Darebin Council’s quarterly journal on local writing and writers. That won’t come out until November (silly print media), but it’s hugely flattering to be asked to contribute.

I might also put together some more free fiction for the site and for Smashwords. We’ll see how time shakes out.

Your Turn

So, what’s happening? What are you reading, watching, playing, attending or having inappropriate relations with? Comment now, don’t be shy.

And stay tuned for Sunday, where I talk about a subject dear to my heart – grammar and punctuation. You have been warned.

Character (part 3) – Action!

3

Category : character, writing

And so at last we come to the end of my essays/diatribes/polemics on character. And there was much rejoicing!

Well, actually I received a number of kind words about the last instalment, so the self-deprecating thing is probably a bit silly. I’ll try to cut back on that.

But yes, this is the last thought that occurred to me way back at Continuum when talking about storytelling and roleplaying. And I think it’s the most important thought, the one that (for me) sums up the core notion of how characters operate in narrative, how they can be used to communicate that narrative to the reader, and what makes a character engaging and interesting rather than just flat and dull. It’s not an original thought, it’s one I’ve seen said many times before, so this is me joining the chorus rather than dropping some knowledge on you out of a clear blue sky – but still, it’s a notion that bears repeating and discussing many times over in different groups.

Here it comes. You ready?

Character is action.

Whew. Glad I finally got that off my chest.

Character is not what you are, what you look like, how you dress or what you think – character (in the sense of fictional characters within a narrative) is what you do. Character is not about nouns, and it’s sure as hell not about adjectives. It’s about verbs.

Now, of course, when I talk about ‘action’, I don’t just mean dudes jumping sideways through a door in slow-motion while firing two guns at once, although goddamn I love shit like that. (Face/Off was on TV last night, and if you don’t like John Woo movies you don’t have a soul.) I mean any kind of situation where the character acts upon her external environment and attempts to change it in some way. The leadup to that action, the process of it, the fallout from it, the internal changes that cause and follow the act… that all embeds character into a narrative and into the head of a reader more than anything else a writer can do.

What’s action in this context? Well, here’s a non-exhaustive list of examples.

I like to imagine that he's shooting the director of 'The Wicker Man'

Making decisions: It can be finally mustering up the courage to hit on a girl in a bar or sacrificing yourself (or someone else) to the Balrog to let the rest of the party escape. The act of making a decision – and then following through with it – is pretty much the most fundamental unit of character-revealing action. A decision has a why and a how, a before and after; it’s the first domino from which a narrative thread cascades.

Making bad decisions: Honestly, there’s little I love more than when characters do the wrong thing, especially when they choose to do it, especially especially when they know it’s the wrong thing but they do it anyway. Our failures do at least as much to define us as our successes, and the consequences of failure usually make for a more gripping narrative.

Engaging in conflict: Decisions and actions can be made without opposition, sure, but they’re not as exciting as actions that put one character in conflict with another. At the end of the scene, someone will get what they want and someone won’t – which means you get to demonstrate what each character wants and what they’ll do (or won’t do) to get it. Win or lose, character pulses out of conflict.

Falling in love: Or falling out of love. Choosing to give a kidney to your brother – or not to. Emotional acts aren’t as obvious and flashy as fight scenes and car chases, but they’re more likely to speak to a reader’s own experiences and desires – and despite being low-key, they’re also more likely to cause direct changes to the behaviour and actions of other characters throughout the narrative. You shoot a guy, he’s out of the story, but if you break his heart he can still be there until the last chapter.

Reacting to situations: There’s a stated truism that proactive characters are better than reactive ones, and there’s a wisdom to that, but nonetheless the way characters react in situations that they don’t control communicates at least as much as the way they operate when they’re in charge. There’s an urgency to scenes where characters are in danger, where they have to act in order to get out of trouble, and perhaps have to do things that aren’t optimal or morally/emotionally comfortable. We are most ourselves when we panic.

Straight-up kicking a motherfucker in the face: And sometimes action really does mean a fight, at least in those narratives where it’s appropriate. (I might have enjoyed Jane Eyre more if it had car chases and karate, but I’m prepared to be in the minority there.) Why you fight, what you fight, how you fight, how you feel before/during/afterwards – these are all incredibly effective, visceral points of character definition. A powerfully-written single-page fight scene will communicate more about your character than ten pages of description and dialogue. This is one reason why superhero comics have endured for 70 years – because they demonstrate characters through action, conflict and cool fight scenes, and that combination can hook almost anyone.

These, on the other hand, are not examples of action:

Dialogue: Yes, talking is an action. But it’s not action that impacts the narrative, so much as it is the mechanism through which one character attempts to act upon another. Dialogue can provide a context for action, and it can accentuate character through voice and mannerism, but that doesn’t do as much to impart character as action. If a character says one thing and does another (or does nothing at all), the reader will base their impression of the character on what they do, not what they say. If you want the character to be a hypocrite, that works – but if you don’t, then actions speak louder than words.

Narration: Narrative voice is dialogue written into the fabric of reality. It’s hugely important to narrative, and it’s something I focus on a lot – but in the end, it’s the character (or the author) talking to the reader and shaping the context of the narrative. You still have to have things happen within that context to impart character, and you still have to marry the voice of the character with their actions.

Backstory: Oh christ, not this again. But I bang on about it for a reason. Actions in the story happen within the current narrative, while actions in the backstory happen outside the narrative. They’re already finished, and telling us about them is another situation where you’re talking to the reader, not demonstrating through action. If your character’s backstory is that he’s a great ninja assassin, but he never flips out in the narrative and kills people, he’s just that guy on the internet who claims to be a martial arts master but is actually a 14-year-old dressed in acne and a dirty Megadeth T-shirt.

Really boring actions: Okay, sure, choosing what to wear is a decision, and turning left rather than right in the dungeon is an action. Technically. But if the action in and of itself is not enough to interest the reader, the fact that the character makes it is unlikely to make it any more interesting, or communicate anything meaningful about the character. These kind of innocuous acts and mundane decisions are the packing foam of prose, at best, and just tedious layering of colour at worst.

Thinking, sensing, emoting or being: I got in trouble in a lit class once for saying that a David Malouf novella needed more action. I didn’t mean that it needed more tits and explosions (although that would have helped), but that the narrator spent the whole book watching, thinking, feeling emotions, and then never doing anything about what he saw/thought/felt. This is the trap that bad literary fiction falls into – that it’s all about internal states, but never pushes those internal states onto the external context of the narrative. Which is boring. If your character spends most of their time watching and thinking, but not doing anything based on that knowledge, start again. If most of your sentences use identity verbs like ‘is’ and ‘am’, rather than strong verbs that push the narrative forward, start again. If your character hurts and loves in a vacuum, let them explosively decompress and start again.

Alright. That’s enough of a checklist of dos and donts; I’m starting to feel like Robert McKee up in here.

Let us end, as usual, by referring to Batman to bring the point home.

Is this Batman?

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night.

No, it’s not. It’s half a description; it’s not even the shell of a character. You have to complete it by adding action:

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and fights crime to protect others.

The difference is plain – and so is the fact that if you keep the setup but change the action, you get an entirely different character:

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and robs banks for thrills.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and spies on women as they shower.

Billionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a gunman when he was a child. Now he dresses in a black costume every night and pays prostitutes to poop on his chest.

(Batman, I’m really sorry about this. Please forgive me.)

He's disappointed with me. I can tell.

If character is an equation, action is the operation and the equals sign that leads to the result. If character is a Frankenstein monster, action is the lightning that turns it into a roaring monster rather than a collection of hooker parts gathering dust in the lab.

Characters move. Characters change. Characters do things. And when they’re not acting, they’re just a pile of nouns squatting on the page, waiting for a verb to make them live.

Make the nouns dance.

 

Sorry for not getting a Thursday update in this week, by the way. Stuff crept up on me and took up all my time. Hopefully this extra-long post (1800 words, for fuck’s sake) has made it up to anyone who was let down by my silence.

What shall I talk about next weekend? Not sure, to be honest. But I think it’s time to give this constant banging on about narrative and writing philosophy (and Batman) a short rest and talk about something else for a post or three. Will think it over.

As always, if you’ve got feedback, suggestions, praise, angry rebuttals or recipes for potato qorma, please go crazy in the comments. I need validation, guys.

Character (part 2) – Pick up the gun

Category : character, writing

Ah good, you’re back. Some of you, anyway. Sorry about the delay; I was held up first by post-Mexican-banquet indigestion, then by post-platelet-donation disorientation. My life, it is a carnival.

So anyway, last weekend I said that character is secondary to narrative – or, more precisely, that it’s more important that characters exist to convey narrative than it is for narratives exist to convey character.

Let’s now simultaneously reinforce and refute that statement with a linked pair of polemics, drawing once again on our two examples, Batman (the Caped Crusader) and Graeme Riley (the Feline Frottagist).

First, a further riff on last week’s ideas.

The demands of a strong narrative shape character.

Or, less obliquely, that characters can do whatever is required to make an engaging and satisfying narrative, even if it doesn’t seem at first glance to gel with what’s been established for that character so far.

A lot of authors talk about characters writing themselves, and shying away from doing things that they don’t want to do, and books needing to be rewritten to fit their needs. And I get some of that, and will sorta-kinda agree with it later in this post, but the notion that ‘characters write themselves’ is just abject silliness. Leave your manuscript alone for a couple of months, mid-scene, and when you come back to the PC/iPad/notebook, those characters will still be where you left them, no text magically appearing to tell you what they got up to.

What authors mean, of course, is that the character is so well-defined that some actions no longer feel in-character, and in order to continue writing the story, they can’t have the character do what was originally plotted/planned without going against that definition. The character is too strong, the writer too bound by what’s gone before, and the narrative must back up and be rerouted around the mighty sequoia that is the protagonist.

Yeah, I don’t agree with that.

Greg Stolze famously called the gaming version of this the Gamer Nuremberg Defence – ‘but it’s what my character would do!’ It’s a copout in gaming and it’s a copout in writing, because characters are created, not born, and any limitations or constraints on their behaviour are also creations. If your character won’t do that, what you mean is that you don’t want to write your character doing that. And okay, sure, don’t do what you don’t want to do, but don’t blame your character for your decisions – and if your refusal to write your character that way makes the story or narrative weaker, that’s on your head too.

Here’s the truth – any character can do anything, if you want them to. The genius can do something stupid. The good man can cheat and lie. The hardened criminal can reform and find a better purpose. The friendly cat who greets commuters at the train station can steal and sodomise stray laundry. The question is not ‘Will this character do this?’, because that the answer to that lies with the author, not the character – the question is ‘Will this character do this and still remain believable and convincing?’ And okay, the answer to that lies with the author too, but it’s expressed through the character.

Let me demonstrate this further using my greatest area of expertise – Batman. (Sure, I could have finished that degree in physics, but this is way more important.) As we know, Batman hates guns, never uses guns, would sooner die than pick up a gun because his parents were shot dead by a guy with a gun.

It’s ironclad logic: BATMAN = NO GUNS.

So here are some picture of Batman using guns, as published by DC Comics.

MIND = BLOWN.

If one of the longest-standing, most constantly depicted and defined characters in 20th-and-21st century fiction and pop culture can act against type to make a better narrative, your character can do the same, and so can any other character. Characters are vast, they contain multitudes, and more importantly they’re not real and they do what they’re told/written to do.

And yet.

Let’s turn that statement around and go the other way.

The demands of a strong character shape narrative.

This is the truth of characters ‘writing themselves’ – a strong, engaging character imprints and expresses themselves in everything they do. You can tell characters what to do, and they’ll do it, but the personality and flavour you’ve given will dictate how and why they do that – and, more importantly, how they change after that act and how the narrative changes with them.

Everything has fallout. Everything has consequences. And exploring the ramifications of a character going against type and changing under pressure can provide tense, powerful writing. For a character to go against type/definition does not refute that definition, it throws it into contrast – and the lengths they go to before going against type, the way they finally go about doing so, and the consequences of that action afterwards all shape and define the flow of the narrative.

(And as a callback and aside, this is one of the reasons I dislike backstory – because it can overdefine a character and make it more difficult to change and question that character as the narrative progresses.)

For me, that’s the most gripping way that character and narrative intertwine – the degree to which you can build a narrative from choices, rather than from expectations. Grant Morrison didn’t think ‘Batman hates guns, so he can’t shoot Darkseid with the god-killer bullet’; he thought ‘Batman hates guns, so when he shoots Darkseid with the god-killer bullet it will be even more significant and say even more about the character’. (Well, I’m sure he thought something like that, although he would have thought it in a Scottish accent.)

This isn’t about about ‘plot-focused’ versus ‘character-focused’, because those things are inextricably linked. It’s saying that if characters are (among other things) tools used to express narrative, then they are Swiss Army knives, not mallets; they can be used in any number of ways, rather than inflexibly pounding a narrative in only one way, one purpose, one aspect. Strong characters have power; strong characters are maybe the most important element of an engaging narrative. But strong characters are bamboo, not oak trees; they bend under pressure and then snap back, rather than standing firm in the face of story and either tearing in half or stopping the flow dead.

Characters that can change and be changed by the narrative are interesting; characters that have to be preserved, that can’t do the wrong thing, and that don’t allow the writer or reader to explore them through question and contrast are lifeless and bland.

Make your characters dance. The dance is the story; the dancer is how you tell it.

That’s what, ~1100 words on something you could sum up in a paragraph? My work here is done. Next Sunday, the last thought I have on character (for the moment).

And come back in a couple of days to chew the fat on various things and see whether I was talking utter shit when I said I was going to get back to work on Arcadia.

Et in Arcadia ego

1

Category : arcadia

I talk a lot about writing, but for all that I have precious little in my personal library of Literary Achievements. Two short self-published ebooks, a double handful of short stories, and a pile of RPG sourcebooks about vampires, demons, pirates and robots made of human fat. And yet I feel entitled to get up here and tell people – many of whom are far harder-working and more productive authors than I am – how they should be approaching character, backstory, narrative and a bunch of other things I understand more in idiosyncratic theory than in practice

In so many ways, I’m writing cheques my arse can’t cash, to mangle metaphors and needlessly drop ‘arse’ into the middle of a sentence.

But I’m not content to just rest on my underdeveloped laurels and talk smack. Although god, that does sound like fun, and Robert McKee makes a living from it.

So let’s talk about what I’m actually writing. And, more to the point, what I’ve been failing to write.

Which is Arcadia, my novel-in-progress. Or more precisely my novel-in-stasis, given that I’ve barely written a word of it all year.

This scene does not appear in my novel. Sorry.

I won’t talk about the book itself tonight – instead, let’s talk about my failure to stick with it. I started on it two years ago, and at first I had a good head of steam going. Then inertia set in, and distractions, and travel, and work, and blah blah excuses blah blah. The blunt truth is that I’m not one of those writers who finds immense joy and satisfaction in writing, and can’t wait to jump into it every day. For me, writing isn’t all that interesting, certainly not as interesting as thinking about writing for a while and then playing video games or going to the pub to talk about all the writing I’m not doing while getting pissed. It’s not pulling teeth, but it’s not fun either, and so I don’t stick with it.

But I want to stick with Arcadia. It’s a good story, and I think I can tell it well and make it worth the reading. It’s a theme and a set of characters that I want to explore. And last year my brother loudly told his girlfriend that I would never finish it, because I never finish anything. Which is fairly accurate, and hey, I love my brother, but man, fuck that dude. Fuck him right in the ear.

So launching tonight is a new a weekly segment I like to call Arcadiawatch, if only because See if Patrick’s a Lazy Dickhole is unwieldy.

Here’s a handy dandy readout, stolen from the good folks at Writertopia, which shows where I am and how far I have to go. (Long-time readers of my LJ may realise that this count hasn’t barely fuckin’ moved in like ever, and the reason for that is that I ain’t written shit since March.)

As you can see, quite a way to go. But I can get there if I keep plugging away, even if it’s just to produce a couple of thousand words each week. And then I’ll whack the update at the end of my Wednesday-Thursday night blog post.

If the readout doesn’t change from one week to the next, anyone who notices gets a prize!

The prize is the right to call me a lazy dickhole in the comments and me to shamefacedly agree. It’s not that great a prize, I know, but come on, you gotta admit that it sounds a little bit fun.

Next time – character, plot, how the badger got his stripes and more stories about my cat. And Batman. But not together. That’d be weird.

Like those women who write novels about cats that solve crimes, and then give the cat co-author credit.

I still have nightmares about working in Borders. That’s part of the reason why.