Monthly Archives: April 2012

Emerge, learn, transform and roll out

May is nearly upon us, and that means the Emerging Writers’ Festival is again on the horizon!

And once again I’m involved not just as a punter but as a contributor. This time around it’s a really exciting role – I’ll be one of the hosts of the Rabbit Hole event. This is an orchestrated writing push where those involved do their level best to get down 30 000 words in just three days.


There are four teams of up to 20 participants, each led by a coach/cheerleader/host. In Victoria this is the redoubtable Jason Nahrung, in Brisbane it’s the undeniable Peter Ball, in Tasmania it’s the noncanonical Rachel Edwards… and in the rest of the country/world/internet it’s yours truly!

What do I know about pumping out 30k in three days? Well, I’ve got a fair amount of experience in grinding the wordcount from my RPG writing days, where I’d madly lay down 20 000 words in a weekend without stopping to eat or sleep or take in any sustenance other than stimulants. But I’ve also got a lot of experience in dicking around and not writing a goddamn thing, which has its own value – the best teachers are either those who can get things done or know exactly why they can’t/don’t get things done. And I can dish it out from both ends, which looks dirty now that I’ve typed it.

Anyway, I won’t talk too much about this here – part of my involvement is working on blogs and chats about it that get the participants all fired up, so I’ll let you know where to look for that when it’s up.

This event aside, there are a lot of great panels and projects in play at the EWF, as well as a great line-up of new and established writers who are looking to share their knowledge and help their peers. If you’re in Melbourne and have any interest in putting your work out there, this festival is a must.

Check it out and get involved!

Defending the indefensible – let’s talk about adverbs

It’s been ages since I talked about the craft of writing, isn’t it? For months it’s all been about publishing and reading habits and how I’m slaving away on The Obituarist – due out next week, fingers crossed! – and no discussion of the nuts and bolts of writing.

I like talking about that stuff, and I hope other people like reading about it, so I’m going to make an effort to counterbalance the relentless self-promotion and introspective musings with some more thinking about the components of writing. Starting today.

(I’ll also make more of an effort to get back into the Thursday-Sunday posting schedule. It’s been a busy month.)

So, adverbs – threat or menace?

It’s accepted writing dogma that adverbs are generally not very good things, weak tools that seek to lend colour and detail to actions but instead leave text flabby and flaccid. Strong verbs are the way to go, y’all, strong verbs and vivid dialogue that show rather than tell and illustrate the characters and their actions.

And I pretty much agree with all of that. Adverbs definitely tend to be a hallmark of bad writing, and little turns me off a text like a string of qualifiers, especially in dialogue – the one page of a Harry Potter novel I read had an adverb after every single instance of ‘he/she said’ and I put that book down and never came back to it. Because I’m fucking hardcore, yeah.

But working on The Obituarist, which uses a more direct, conversational voice than something like Hotel Flamingo, has led me to draw upon the dreaded adverbs more than I normally would. And as I’m working through revisions and my editor’s notes, looking for things to cut, I find I’m leaving some of them in there because they serve a purpose; they do something right.

So what are the benefits of throwing an adverb into the mix rather than a verb whose mighty biceps bulge like pregnant anacondas? Well, here are a few.

Information density

Here’s the thing about ‘show, don’t tell’ – it takes more wordcount to show. And while usually you go fuck it, pile those letters on, sometimes you want to control the length of a story, maybe for a competition or because you set yourself an artificial threshold for your novella and its tiny little chapters. So you look ways to show without being boring about it, and if you want to pack data into the smallest possible space, adverbs can make a real difference. I could spend 100 words showing you how outrage and food poisoning combine to drive a character’s actions and interactions, or I can say ‘he vomited angrily on her shoes’ and let two words convey pretty much the same information. Which is tempting, ‘cos I’m tired. And on that note…

They make the reader do the heavy lifting

God, readers are lazy fuckers sometimes. They’re all like MAKE ME A MOVIE THAT PLAYS OUT IN MY HEAD MISTER WRITER MAN when all I want to do is drink stout and go to sleep. Make your own goddamn movie, or at least help me out with the soundtrack and special effects. Adverbs are the director’s tools rather than the scriptwriter’s, and used properly they direct the reader to put their own spin on an action, to visualise it in a way that makes sense to them. And if different readers play that out different ways in their mind’s eyes, that’s a good thing. Everyone gets a different movie! And if you end up watching Catwoman that’s your fault, not mine.

Filtering through POV

I kind of have a stick up my arse about strictly following POV – if a book or scene is seen through one character’s perspective (be it 1st or 3rd person), then by Christ it stays wedded to that perspective and never looks inside someone else’s skull or I WILL CUT YOU. Or at least mentally edit your work. Adverbs push meaning to the surface by tying it not just to characters’ actions, but to an external assessment of those actions made by the POV character. Don’t tell me that character #2 is upset, tell me how character #1 interprets her actions as ‘visibly struggling’; that keeps me centred in the right place. And hey, if the POV character turns out to be wrong about those interpretations, that just means the narrator didn’t realise they were unreliable – that’s right, mofos, adverbs be postmodern n’ shit.

When verbs can’t do it alone

‘He ran half-heartedly after her’ is something very different from ‘he walked/jogged/ambled/macarenaed after her’ because it adds an emotional component to the physical, it adds meaning to the movement; it throws the verb into a whole new light that makes you interpret it completely differently. If we were German we’d probably have a word that means exactly this, and it would be a little bit creepy that it happened often enough to be hardwired into our language, but instead we speak English and we have a vast buzzing swarm of qualifiers that allow us to undercut, deconstruct or completely reverse the meaning of our verbs in exciting and unpredicable ways.

Adjectives need love too

To be honest I tend to slap adverbs onto adjectives more than I do verbs. Probably because adjectives annoy me; they just sit there, static, defining a noun that isn’t in motion. Verbs are more exciting, and adding an adverb to an adjective implies a verb that just happened or could happen or that got us to the point where we’re looking at this noun now. Smell the excitement. I especially like incongruous pairings like ‘suddenly-moist’, ‘brazenly chaste’ or ‘grotesquely beautiful’ that set the reader a puzzle they have to pull apart to understand and that cause me to ignore the standard rule that you don’t stick a hyphen after an ‘-ly’ qualifier.

Having said all that, I’m still pretty harsh on adverbs. If all they do is emphasise things – like the ‘pretty’ in that last sentence, or the dozens that litter this post – then they’re up for culling in any MS I edit (and should be in any I write, if I’m disciplined, which I ain’t). But by giving writers a way to recontextualise actions and details, by making stories something that needs a little more thought to unpack, they have can have real power. We can only pray that we use that power wisely SEE WHAT I DID THERE.

…man, I really have to get out of this sudden all-caps habit.

So anyway, what are your thoughts on adverbs? Devil’s tools or wordage of the gods? And would you like to see more posts like this, or should I focus more on rants and relentless self-promotion? (There’ll be more of that next week, never fear.) Leave a comment or six and let me know.


A very short blog update

I finished the draft of The Obituarist.

I feel that this gives me the right to slack off, hang out and play Mass Effect 3 for the rest of the day, rather than writing any more about anything.

Will be back in a few days.

And on the third day he blogged again in accordance with the Scriptures

***insert gross sneezing noises***

Oh, hello there. Don’t mind me, I’m just plague-ridden and exhausted. You know, when I was younger (and not that much younger either) I’d use the Easter weekend as a chance to party as hard as I possibly could and hit up a string of raves, festivals, house parties and BBQs before collapsing on Monday and sleeping for 20 hours.

Now, at age 41, I’ve spent the four-day weekend writing, cleaning and sniffling. Goodbye, rock and roll.

But hey, I’m getting stuff done, which is good. The Obituarist continues apace and I’m on target to finish this draft by next weekend, at which point it goes out to the editor and for feedback from my readers. Plus I have a line on a designer to approach regarding the cover, which I’ll do during the review/editing window. All of which makes me feel super-organised and not at all like a shut-in drinking bad coffee and wearing trackpants all day.

I’ve also been out to some Comedy Festival shows; you can see my reviews of Tessa Waters, Dingo & Wolf and Daniel Burt on The Pun, along with reviews of many other shows. I also saw Damian Callinan, who was terrific, and would recommend The Peer Revue except that it’s already finished its run.

I don’t have much else to talk about at the moment, but rather than cut things short right there, I wanted to drop a few links to other blogs, events and postings that are worth your time and eyeballs.

  • Cat Valente posted this amazing essay about reactions to Christopher Priest’s criticism of this year’s Clarke Award nominees and how different (and loathsome) those reactions might have been if a woman had written the exact same thing. It’s a fantastic post that uses a lot of genuine examples of the negative reactions women draw just from being female on the Internet, so naturally a bunch of the comments are that she’s wrong and that never happens and men have it just as hard and YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID ‘COS BITCHES AIN’T SHIT and so forth. But not that many of the comments, thankfully. Anyway, it’s a really strong piece and I think it’s worth reading and considering even if you disagree with her premise or conclusions.
  • Kirstyn McDermott has written a piece in partial response to Cat Valente’s essay that is also well worth a read, where she talks about her own experiences of feminism and internet responses to women with opinions.
  • And speaking of blogging about feminism and writing, Foz Meadows continues to impress with her essays, including this pair about default narrative sexism in fantasy worlds and how that then interacts with sexism within wider geek circles.
  • Former Queenslander Jason Nahrung vents some spleen over the axing of the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards – not the worst thing Campbell Newman will probably do to my former home, but certainly one a lot of writers find immediately upsetting. Jason also has some good news, though, in that a group of writers, booksellers and artslovers are trying to get an alternative set of awards up and running – more info here.
  • Like many others, Jay Kristoff saw The Hunger Games recently (I haven’t, but I’ve got to be different), and he has some thoughts on the rating it received and how we look at sex and violence in stories for/about teenagers. Jay also thinks a lot about steampunk – not surprising, given the nature of his soon-to-be-released novel Stormdancer – and has put down some interesting thoughts about the evolution of the subgenre over at the blog Steamed.
  • Alan Baxter is also talking about The Hunger Games (jeez, I’m really falling behind here), in this case the novel and what he sees as flaws in both the story and the way some adults think about YA fiction. Alan also has a new e-novella out called The Darkest Shade of Grey, which you should all investigate and perhaps buy for the low price of $1.99.
  • And another thing Alan is involved with is Thirteen O’Clock, a new collaborative blog about horror news and reviews. He and fellow editors/writers Felicity Dowker and Andrew McKiernan are doing their best to cover a lot of new and independent books and projects, from both Australia and overseas, and if you’re interested in horror fiction it’s well worth a look.
  • News out this week is a set of Gallup survey stats showing that people are actually reading far more now – and reading more books at that – than they did 25 or 50 years ago. Which gives me hope.
  • And in closing, Text From Dog wins the entire Internet.

Alright, that’s enough out of me for the night. Next update should hopefully just say FINISHED in eleventy-hundred-point type above a picture of a coffin.

I just flew in from New Zealand and boy are my arms tired

Hiya folks,

I’m back from New Zealand! It was a very busy business trip that involved stops in Auckland and Wellington, long drives on both windy mountain roads and endless grubby motorways and many, many meetings with teachers and authors. It was really productive, and it’s going to have a significant effect on what I do for my day job over the next year or two.

Which, of course, isn’t what this blog is about. So let’s move on.

The downside of spending all week working is that I had very little time or energy to work on The Obituarist, and as a result the release date on that is going to slip. With the other things I have to do this month – more on that in a bit – I’m just not going to have time to do more than a chapter a night, and this draft is still only at the halfway mark, so I need another two weeks minimum to finish it and then at least two more weeks to get it edited and take in comments from my crack team of Alpha Readers. So it’s looking like the end of April (if not later) before it’s ready for release.

Am I making excuses for myself? Um. Maybe a bit, yeah. If I really, really knuckled down on this book and did nothing else in my free time I could get it ready sooner. But I don’t want to do that, because it wouldn’t be much fun and because I don’t think the book would benefit by being rushed like that. Still, I should be trying to turn this around faster, and I will do what I can to speed things up, such as focusing on it over the 4-day Easter weekend. And getting a cover organised sooner rather than later.

So what am I doing this month? Going to the Comedy Festival, naturally. Not just because I like going out and laughing at things that are funny, although that’s a super-huge part of it. But I’ll also be writing reviews for The Pun – half-a-dozen shows at this point, and possibly more as time goes on. I’ll link to URLs once they’re written and up, which will be of little interest to readers outside Melbourne, I know.


I like writing reviews because it gets me out of my comfort zone and gets me writing in a different mode, and to a tight wordcount to boot. (I also like the free tickets, let’s be honest.) However, while in previous years I’ve also written mini-reviews of every show I’ve seen and posted them to LiveJournal, this year I’ll probably confine myself just to the Pun pieces. That’s partly so I can keep focused on The Obituarist – see, work ethic! – but also because of some conversations I had last year about reviewing and about comedy. There’s a critical vocabulary about comedy and its construction that I don’t as yet fully understand, and until I can really pull apart and analyse an act in depth, I think I’d provide a better service by writing a small number of reviews and giving each of them full attention than a large number of weaker reviews.

Gosh, so serious.

Plus, you know, I’ll be going to shows a lot because N. works at the Festival and I want to see my wife. She’s lovely.

The other thing that happened in NZ was that I got to give my new Kindle a heavy workout, burning through a large number of ebooks on flights and long car rides. That was excellent for a number of reasons, in particular the chance to see how different authors and publishers format ebooks and the way they use headings, different font sizes, bookmarks and other tools to make a more easily/usefully navigable text.

I also saw how easy it is for odd formatting errors and hiccups to creep into even the most professional of ebooks – blocks of text in the wrong font, strange indents, italics being interpreted as headings rather than emphasis and lots of other artefacts of the conversion process that sneak through because someone hasn’t gone through the finished file line by line. (Which, incidentally, would be easier if Kindle Store authors got free access to download their own titles rather than having to pay for them.)

So anyway, what I’m getting at is that as part of publishing The Obituarist, I’ll be doing heavy passes through all my existing ebooks (both on the Kindle Store and Smashwords) and more than likely uploading new versions of all of them that improve the layout and correct any formatting errors. Which will give me something to do while my readers kick the shit out of this draft.

Now, off to have a drink and see a show! And then to come home and finish another chapter.

Nose to the grindstone. Nose or arse. My promise to you.