character writing

Character (part 1) – Why do you exist?

And we’re finally back with another polemic!

But first, I’m going to talk about my cat.

I haz a Facebook page too.

This is Graeme Riley, Ace of Cats, AKA Rockstar, AKA Station Cat. He’s about 12 years old, and we inherited him from a previous owner who was a massive douchehat. Graeme is fearless, adventurous and an absolute slut for attention and affection. He hangs out at the local train station during the morning and evening rush hours, whoring himself out for pats and snacks. He likes meat, but not as much as he likes chocolate and ice cream. When he purrs the sound gets caught in his throat and turns into a hack. Last month he took it upon himself to wander to the other side of the suburb, leading to a desperate jog during my day off to collect him from a good Samaritan before he decided to play in traffic some more. He’s the greatest cat in the world, and everyone who’s met him adores him.

He’s also a degenerate sex offender who drags towels, knitted items and underwear into the hallway at 2am and rubs his technically-neutered groin against them while yowling in either ecstasy or self-loathing. Sometimes he drags clothing items through the cat door to ravage them in the yard, or across the street, and then ditch them to be found later or lost forever. The beanie I bought last month vanished less than a week later, and I suspect it is buried in his secret fuckpit to be occasionally dug up and screamingly humped in some kind of feline recreation of The Silence of the Lambs.

I bring up this loveable knitwear-rapist because he’s something of a character, and this is the first of a three-part series about what I see as the role of character in fiction, specifically in prose. A lot of these ideas started percolating in my head during the Continuum panel on RPGs and storytelling, where I often found myself saying that strong characters were more important to the experience of play and story than things like rules or plot.

I still stand by that, but I want to mix it in with one of my weird theoretical absolutes about writing and narrative, which on the face of it contradicts what I just said.

Here’s my position statement, which is bound to raise a few hackles:

Characters should exist to serve a narrative, rather than narratives existing to serve a character.

If you’re scratching your head at that, I’m not surprised, because it’s a concept I’m struggling to articulate clearly, particularly if I don’t want to come off as decrying stuff as Bad Wrong Fun.

Let’s try it this way. Characters are a means, rather than an end, and they’re a means to reaching a strong narrative that draws the reader in. But it’s too easy to fall in love with a character, because they’re interesting and multi-faceted and have so much potential, and to forget the fact that that character needs to be part of a story, to face conflict, to be part of a narrative in order to have any point at all.

Pure logic helps us here, because narratives can exist without characters – science gives us many examples, from the creation of an ecosystem to the death of a star – but characters can’t exist without narratives. Sure, you can come up with a character concept, flesh it out with personality and traits and artwork, but without some kind of way of communicating and demonstrating that character, it doesn’t exist in anyone’s head except the creator’s – and if the only point of that communication is ‘hey, here’s this neat character’, no-one’s going to care. You need a context, you need a story, you need a reason to care; you need a what happens next?, and that comes through a narrative.

To take it back to the beginning, I think that a story about Graeme isn’t as interesting as a story involving Graeme, because one’s an anecdote about a cat, and the other is (or at least might be) a narrative about various things, with breadth and body, and a cat eating ice-cream and molesting cardigans in the centre of that narrative, helping it to move forward. I can tell you that he’s a swell cat, and the people at the train station can tell you he’s a swell cat, but until he gets involved in a story, until there’s a point to me describing his frottage-filled friendliness to you, all you’re going to hear is blah blah blah this cat’s great, and that’s fundamentally not that interesting.

This is also why I can’t generally connect with prequels, and even less with fanfic, because those stories are (almost) all about exploring the character above all else, and have a narrative centred around that, where conflict is reduced and where the circular point of reading about the character is just reading about the character. It’s a narrative that points back at the character as its reason to exist, and for me that’s pointing in the wrong direction.

At this point, anyone who knows me or anything about me is thinking: ‘Hang on, you practically worship the character of Batman, so how can you go around saying characters aren’t important?’ (Which I’m not saying, but it’s an understandable misreading.)

My biggest role model. Probably explains a lot.

Well, I could say that serial superhero comics are a different beast to straight prose, one where characters are often more important that the stories they appear in, and perhaps that’s a problem with that genre/medium mix. But that’s a copout (or at least a subject for another time). Better to say that there’s a reason why Batman’s my favourite character – he appears in a lot of stories that are just goddamn fantastic narratives, with themes and pacing and conflict, in which Batman’s successes have to be fought for and in which there’s more to read than just a dude standing on a gargoyle dressed as Dracula.

And see, here’s the thing. I’m not saying characters aren’t important – they’re vital to making a narrative engaging, maybe more vital than anything else. And that’s their function – to get the reader involved in the story, the movie, the game, to make them care about what happens, to keep them immersed in that narrative until the end. Everything else, including (especially including) being interesting for their own sake, is secondary to that. The presence of a good character doesn’t fix a bad narrative – there is no shortage of bad Batman storiesafter all – but a good narrative can be told even through a bland or under-developed character, because the writer has other tools to hook the reader in, and even to make them care about that shaky character

So really, as far as polemics go, this is pretty mild at base: have a reason for a character to be in a narrative, a reason that makes that narrative stronger and more engaging – because if the character isn’t doing that, then what the hell is she/he there for?

Other than pursuing self-gratification upon unguarded cardigans. For some people that’s an end in itself.

…that’s it for today. Come back next weekend, when I will contradict pretty much everything I just said. Honestly, that’s the plan.

short fiction

Flash fiction – Got the Horn

Shelby puts his hands on his stomach, and with a satisfied smirk says ‘Unicorns. Bitches love unicorns.’

All around the planning meeting table, the guys sit up and take notice. I unbotton my jacket and lean forward, making notes on my iPad.

‘And these are not just your regular fancypants pure-lily-white horsies. These unicorns turn into hot guys. Hot shirtless leg-openers with waxed chests and perfect sideburns and pouty  fucking lips.

‘And they sparkle.’

At which point the collective brains-trust pretty much creams their jeans as one.

Although someone has to pipe up with inconvenient facts. This time it’s Harris from Accounts. ‘Sir, we can’t have them sparkle, it’d be a IP infringement –

‘Shut the fuck up! You asswhore! You dickslut! You pussy vagina girlparts little bitch!’ Shelby always insults men by implying they’re women. To be fair, he also insults women the same way. ‘I’m not fucking being literal here, pissflaps! I don’t care if they sparkle or glow or shine searchlights out of their dickholes! But they’re perfect, and hot, and they stand out in a crowd and make every chick around them wetter than Venice. Maybe their horns appear and they’re made of solid chocolate and smell like cum. Fuck if I know! You geeks can work that out. Screw details, this is The Idea Business!’

You can hear the caps when he says that phrase. It’s trademarked that way.

‘They’re white stallions and unattainable boyfriends in one. This is going to be the new Twilight, the new True Blood, the new… shit, I dunno, whatever bimbos like now. Unicorns are gonna be the new vampires and werewolves and sex machines, the shit the virgins hump their pillows and cut themselves for, and we are going to the ones standing under the money fountain jerking off onto hundred dollar bills. This is a window of opportunity for this studio, and we are gonna bust right through it!’

All of us guys start laughing and high-fiving each other. Shelby’s knocked it out of the park again, come up with something that we all know women will fall over themselves to reach for.

He starts assigning roles, pretty much at random – he’s in The Idea Business, not The Checking Position Descriptions Business.

To Feinberg on my right: ‘You! I want novels! Three to start with, with room for a fourth. No word with more than two syllables, no sentence with more than six words, no personality for the teenage female protagonist. The unicorn boy completes her and she has to give up everything before he finally prongs her with his horn. Lots of making out, no sex until the end, and a villain that’s hotter than the hero. Five percent royalty and a gender-neutral author name. GO!’

To O’Cassidy on my left: ‘You! Movie! Same plot as the book, different writer. Get a chick to direct it. Lots of skin, lots of blood, lots of hot gazing out of the screen. No fatties, no old people, no ethnics. Need at least six major bands for the soundtrack, so sign ’em up before shooting starts. Get the scandal in early! And make sure the girl’s hot but weird, but in a bland way. No freaks!’

He looks at me and says ‘Now, you… wait, who the fuck are you again?’

I clear my throat. ‘Tom Volcheck, sir. I joined last month. Hired from Paramount.’

He shrugs, already bored. ‘Whatever. You’re on transmedia and merchandising! I want webisodes! ARCs! Apps! I want… I dunno, action figures and sexy Halloween costumes and happy meals! Tie-ins and spin-offs! Robots that turn into unicorns and give cars a deep dicking! All that kind of shit!’

Shelby rubs his hands together in anticipation of fat third-quarter profits. ‘Hot fucking unicorn boys. It’s a license to print money that stinks like poontang. Am I right, guys? I’m right!’

We all nod and laugh and congratulate him on his vision, and agree that women will be gagging to dive into stories of unattainable men with deep souls and hard stomachs who are so much better than the lumpy, fallible, human jerks they have to put up with in real life.

I keep taking notes as the meeting continues, and after it wraps we go off to brainstorm ideas. After-work beers are mandatory, and we tell each other how great this is, and we avoid eye contact. And I give as good as I get, and I agree that the bitches will love it, and I wait.

Wait until I get home, when I finally pull this itchy false moustache off, unbind my chest, unstrap the strap-on from my thigh and shower the misogyny off me yet again. Then I dump the contents of the iPad onto the Sisterhood’s secret servers and start disseminating the news to our discussion forums so we can start making plans to stop this before it starts.

The shit of it is, they’re right. I like unicorns. Lots of us do. And part of me would really like to see that movie or read that book, if it was good, if it didn’t just exist to harvest our money while making us feel like shit.

Ah well. Maybe the next company and Ideas Business I infiltrate won’t be such a pile of shitheads. Maybe it’ll be run by women and men with vision and heart who want to share that with an audience that wants something worth caring about.

Or maybe everyone in that scenario is mythical. Like a unicorn.

Still won’t stop me wanting to believe in them, though.

But that’s a thought for another night. Now it’s time for smashing the Patriarchy. Maybe with gin and comic books for dessert.

Not subtle, I know, but flash fiction is not the place for subtlety. Not my flash fiction, anyway.

This is another Chuck Wendig flash challenge response. He called for stories involving unicorns, which reminded me of Gail Simone’s comments on Twitter this month about female comics readers being seen as myths, like unicorns, despite being a real and growing market. Add to that a lot of recent RPG forum talk about sexism, and this kind of came into my head this afternoon.

It’s not big or clever, but it gave me a chance to say dickslut and make a little fun of Twilight, so there’s good and bad.

Now, I know there was supposed to be a post on character on Sunday night, but it wasn’t coming together, and I didn’t want to make a half-arsed post. Well, an even more half-arsed post – I’d be down to a sixteenth of a buttock and three pubes. So I was going to post that tonight, but then this idea came up, and I thought I’d get it down first.

Now that that’s there, character on Sunday. With digressions about Batman and feline frottage.


3 x 3

In this mid-week update, three things, one of which also has three things in it.

How Does I Read?

I’ve had feedback here, and on Twitter, that my last post seemed a bit too confrontational and absolute. Some readers felt that I was making very definite statements that any form of backstory was bad, no exceptions, and if you like backstory or want to explore it in your work I was saying you’re a bad person, yes, I mean you, right there, drinking coffee in your underwear while reading the internet, I hate you SO MUCH.

His eyes, they follow you around the room, and then call you a twat.

Well, if that’s the message that came across, I’m sorry about that. These posts and mini-essays are more theoretical polemics than anything else, and such things lend themselves to a bit of blood and thunder in the authorial voice in order to gain attention. After all, if Warren Ellis has taught us anything, it’s that a beard full of whiskey dregs can provide an ecosystem for an entire family of wrens an aggressive writing style can garner a legion of fans. Plus, well, it’s more fun to write in definites than in maybes and sometimeses.

But still, I’m going to work on that, and try to get these ideas out in a way that doesn’t alienate readers or nearly spur fistfights on social media. Honest.

Who Do You Read?

But of course, the internet’s not a vast echo chamber where you can only hear my voice commanding you to burn your Mercedes Lackey novels, thundering over and over until bloody grey wax trickles from your ear canals to pool on your trembling shoulders.

Not yet, anyway.

There are other writer blogging, tweeting and generally pontificating out there, and I’m curious to hear about who else y’all read on a (semi)regular basis. Who’s out there, laying down the wisdom and gaining an audience, and how do I steal their vital essences?

Here are three of my must-reads, who you (obviously) must read if you aren’t already.

Chuck Wendig: I know, I namedrop Chuck all the goddamn time, I must want his little Wendibabies or something. (In truth, he only has the one, and it would be inconvenient to take it off his hands.) But the reason I do that is because Chuck is a terrific writer, and more importantly a terrific blogger who uses his thinkspace Terrible Minds to pump out new, interesting, thought-provoking stuff nearly every single goddamn day. I wish I had his energy. Or his sweet glands.

Cameron Rogers: A great writer, an excellent blogger and a good friend, the author of The Music of Razors and someone who writes from the gut every time he sits at the computer. Cam blogs every week at Wait Here For Further Instructions and has been putting together a great series on the need for creative people to make connections and work together, not out of shallow networking but from friendship and for shared energy and visibility. Smart, high-level stuff.

Foz Meadows: I met Foz when she worked in my day-job office last year, then realised she was a talented writer and whip-smart blogger, even if she had the temerity to argue with me in the comments to my last post. She’s been writing some excellent stuff this year about representations of and assumptions about gender in fantasy and young-adult fiction at her blog, Shattersnipe, and it’s really worth a read.

What about you? Who are your three writer-bloggers everyone should read?

Why Don’t They Read?

Hotel Flamingo and Godheads have each sold precisely fuck-all copies this month, despite a half-price sale at Smashwords – they’re still doing better (and making me a better royalty) there than at Amazon, but that’s not saying much.

I’m not dispirited about this, really, but I can’t say I’m particularly happy about it either. I’ve tweeted and blogged and social-mediaed about these books, and I really think they’re worth reading, but that only goes so far. There are three things I need, and I’m hoping you can help.

Sales-site reviews: More reviews on SM and Amazon would help, especially for Godheads. If you’ve read either book and liked them, post a quick review on either site, or preferably on both.

Other-site reviews: I’m submitting them out for reviews here and there, but it’s proving tricky to find the right sites. Do you know of any sites that review ebooks? Send me recommendations and details!

Word of mouth: More than anything else, this is key – if you liked these books, tell someone else about them, especially if that someone doesn’t know me or already follow me here or on LJ/Twitter. Honest word of mouth recommendations make a huge difference, as does every $2.99 sale.

I’m not looking to make a fortune on these books; hell, I’m not really trying to break even on them. But they’re books more people could enjoy, I think, and I’d like to make that happen.

As always, details of both Godheads and Hotel Flamingo can be found on the Books page here, if you want more details or want to direct people this way.

Next weekend, the start of a three-part series on character, filled with the usual blustery statements and controversy. But I may put a photo of a kitten in the background, just to keep everyone happy.

Bliss Kitten says OBEY.

You see? Flawless. No-one can hate me now.

character story writing

Never tell me the odds… er, backstory

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that fictional characters are most interesting when they’re doing something.

And yet, there is a school of thought that says that a character needs backstory and background, and that a character who’s already done something is more interesting.

This school is wrong. This school is teaching that the Earth is flat, that 2 + 2 = ham and that Blade Trinity was a better film than Blade 2. (For god’s sake, people, Blade 2 had Ron Perlman and Blade Trinity had Triple-fucking-H. What are you huffing?) This school needs its teaching license revoked, and then the school buildings razed to the ground.

Entirely made of awesome
Entirely made of dicks


Anyway, having talked a bit about why backstory is bad for narrative, I’d like to move on to why it’s bad for characters in general. This comes, in part, from the Continuum panel on roleplaying and storytelling that I was on last month, where I ended talking a lot about how character influences play and shapes story, and about how the actions of characters in play is what drives a game. That left me thinking afterwards about character and how to portray it, and I’m going to write about that next weekend. This post is a bridge, taking us from the negativity of last week to the positivity of next week over the broad river of moderately-negative-but-not-that-much-honest. Well, okay, it’s pretty negative, but that’s just because I like writing the word ‘fuck’.

There are two reasons why backstory is poisonous for characters. First, it’s because backstory exists outside the narrative, as I ranted about last time. Events that happen before the current narrative can’t be experienced by the reader as part of that narrative – you either summarise them, which is boring (‘That was the week I saved the President and was awarded the Medal of Honour for a fourth time, Ginger!’), or you set up a second narrative stream to play them out, which pulls the reader from the narrative they actually want to explore (‘Before we defuse the bomb, let’s have a flashback to how I graduated from bomb defusing college!’). Both of these are tell-not-show errors, because you’re not demonstrating character within the narrative, you’re writing directly at the reader and dumping the information in their heads. And that’s boring.

The second reason, which is subtler, is that backstories don’t have conflict, and conflict – the need to meet and overcome obstacles to reach goals – is what drives stories. Backstories shunt conflict offstage so that those obstacles have already been overcome (or failed, I guess, though that’s vanishingly rare) before the narrative starts. And perhaps that’s one of the main reasons why gamers love backstory so much – it’s a way of setting up interesting conflicts for your character, with none of the uncertainty of whether they’ll actually have to work to overcome those problems. Same for writers, I think – working through a conflict can be hard and demands a strong development of character and story. It’s much easier to have them worked out ahead of time and present them to the reader, forgetting that what’s actually interesting about a conflict is the process of working through it, rather than the actual outcome. That’s why failure can make for a strong narrative, because exploring the process of that failure is way more readable than just learning about another success after the fact.

I’m not saying that every character should be a tyro, novice, farmboy or 1st-level adventurer (pick whichever description you like). Experienced characters are interesting because they carry with them the weight of authority and confidence, and can justify the skills and abilities they possess by dint of that experience. But they, like the farmboy, are starting this story at the beginning.

I'm cooler than the hero. That's my fucking backstory.

Look at one of genre’s most beloved characters, Han Solo – there’s an experienced character that shows off his skills and background from the moment he appears on screen, without the need to stop and tell us about how he learned them. When elements of his background come up, they’re story rather than backstory – he gets hunted by Jabba the Hutt and sold out by Lando Calrissian (shit, sorry, spoiler warning) within the narrative, rather than flashing back to the events or describing them in detail to other characters.  No, those conflicts got referenced briefly in story to create new conflicts that drove the current story – and then, I imagine, they got described in intricate and tedious detail in prequel novels that fans read out of duty. That’s what backstory leads to – prequel novels and fanfic. AND NO-ONE NEEDS THAT.

So how do you portray interesting, engaging, experienced characters without delving into (or ‘revealing’) backstory? Let’s talk about that next weekend.

If you agree, disagree, or want to tell me how awesome Han Solo and Hutt Girls Gone Wild was, get in there and leave a comment.

And if you want a double dose of me being opinionated out of all proportion to any intellectual authority I might possess, head on over to today’s LiveJournal post, where I talk at great and tedious length about Captain America comics, of all things.


Unimportant title

As per last week, I promised a lighter-weight mid-week update at this time.

Well, the update is to say that our home internet has gone down for reasons unknown, so I can’t make a mid-week post after all. (And maybe not a weekend one if we can’t get it fixed.)

Kinda meta, huh?

EDIT TO ADD: The internets are back! Hurrah!

But I’m still not going to make a proper post, since I haven’t spent any time thinking about what to write because the internet was down.

That’s pretty crap, I know. Sorry. If it happens again you can kick my arse for it.

story writing

Story now

Before I left Brisbane to move to Melbourne, I worked for about a year for a human resources subdivision of the state government. I worked with a bunch of people that were largely anonymous, a few that were fun to have a drink with, a racist slag and a gormless twat.

This post’s about the twat. And about writing. (Mostly writing.)

So the twat – I’d tell you his name, but I’ve forgotten it – wasn’t exactly unlikeable (unlike the racist slag), but he was a world-class shirker. We worked in two-week blocks; by the end of every second Wednesday, paperwork had to be processed and records updated so that people would get paid properly and on time. And every second Wednesday, there would be some reason why he couldn’t get things done, or couldn’t come in to work. He had the flu. His car broke down. He had to work on a special project. He peaked, frankly, the day where he faked hysterical blindness by 10am, saying that oh god he couldn’t SEE and had to go to the hospital. We went through his desk that afternoon and found months worth of unfinished jobs that the rest of the team had to rush through, and we heard through the grapevine that once out of the building, his vision was miraculously restored and he went to the pool instead.

You might think that he would have been fired after this event, but that’s not how the QLD public service worked at that time.

Anyway, despite all this, the twat was likeable enough, and one day we got to chatting about books and writing. He said he’d quite like to write a book someday, and that he’d read about what needed to be involved – premise, character, hooks, revelation of backstory etc. It was like hearing a parrot rattle off the Cliff Notes version of McKee’s Story, with no understanding that writing involved not just these mechanical elements, but also some skill, some imagination, and the dedication to sit down and actually write without calling in sick with a phantom pregnancy or something. I smiled, nodded, and eventually fucked the hell out of there and moved south.

However, one thing stuck with me from that interaction – the phrase ‘revelation of backstory’, and the notion that this was a necessary part of any work of fiction. Because it immediately pissed me off, and it still pisses me off. Which leads me into the actual point of today’s post.

Backstory sucks. There, I said it. And more than that, the presumption that backstory is somehow vital and necessary to a story, to the point where ‘revelation of backstory’ is something to be planned and meted out over the course of a novel, is something that makes me want to smash library windows. Genre is terribly prone to the narrative kudzu of backstory, usually in the variant form called ‘exposition’, but it can strike anywhere. And like a weed, it needs to be purged with fire.

Story is what’s happening now; what your characters are doing, what they want, where they’re going, how they’ll get there. Whether written in present or past tense, the story is the immediate moment of your narrative. It moves, it carries, it changes, and the reader goes with it. Backstory, on the other hand – the revelation of what the characters did before this point and what made them this way – is about what happened before and outside the story. It’s the past past tense, the stuff that’s gone before, and when you stick that into the story, you hit pause on your narrative and cut a hole in it that bleeds out energy and pace. Story goes forward; backstory stops, pulls you out, and robs you of interest in getting back into the flow again.

There are exceptions, of course, and stories that exist primarily as a way of exploring backstory, such as Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons (perhaps his finest SF book). Those work because they embed the backstory within the narrative, rather than outside it. It’s also important to distinguish here between backstory and mystery. Backstories exist to illuminate or inform story; mysteries exist to be solved/explored as part of the story. Backstory is external to story; mystery is internal to story. Stories where the characters bring history to light, or investigate and solve mysteries that involve their history, are fine because that’s what the story is about.

Of course, it’s normal for a writer to feel that a character’s motivation and past are important, and that they need to be demonstrated. And these things are important, and should be demonstrated – in the story itself. A character’s actions and personality reflect and demonstrate who they are and where they come from far more than any infodump or flashback to three years earlier or their seminal childhood events. Backstory doesn’t do this; it doesn’t move things along, but provides justification and explanation of the narrative. And that sounds positive, but the narrative doesn’t need to be justified or explained, it needs to be experienced. It needs to move, not stop and ruminate on how it got here in the first place.

One of the decisions I made right at the start of Arcadia – my novel-in-progress, or more accurately in-stasis at the moment, but I plan to fix that – was to eschew backstory and its staggered revelation. The primary character’s upbringing and childhood are hugely important to her, and absolutely propel her into the start of the novel – but then that history ends, and the story is about what she does now and the mistakes she makes. Arcadia is about runaways, but Gwen is running towards something, not away from something, and her past is touched on only when the narrative actually brushes up against it, and even then only briefly. The other main character, Pious, is definitely running from something, but I made it something he couldn’t communicate effectively; all we get to see is Gwen’s assumptions about it, and how she uses those assumptions to make decisions in the immediate moment. Usually very bad decisions, because I’m kind of a prick to my characters.

In the end, every word you spend on developing a character’s or situation’s backstory is a word you’re not spending on the actual character or situation. Every word that doesn’t push the story along actually holds it back, and the supposed depth it offers is an optical illusion. When things happen, when people change, when the story rolls relentlessly down an unpredictable track – that’s when the reader learns why they care about where things are going, and stop thinking about the freeze-frame glimpses of what went before.

That’s the truth. Strike me hysterically blind if I’m wrong.


Knuckling down a bit

Let us be honest; I am not the most reliable of people. Oh, I’ve got your back if you’re in trouble, and I meet most of my deadlines at work, but I forget things, I’m bad with dates/names/financial details, I get distracted easily and I pretty much suck at making regular commitments.

Case in point, this new blog.

The reality of blogging, especially blogging about writing, especially especially blogging about writing because you want people to go out and spend modest amounts of money on your work, is that you have to produce posts worth reading, and you have to produce them pretty often. I could go into a bit of a rant about that, and I might just do that another day, but let’s take it as a given that I need to be pumping out the wordcount fairly regularly and move on.

(Chuck Wendig, of course, has written on the topic of writerly blogging, much as he writes every fucking day like clockwork on his annoyingly excellent blog Terrible Minds. But I’m pretty sure Chuck steals the adrenaline glands of medical cadavers and sucks them down like pimentos. No other fucking explanation for his prodigious output.)

The problem with that, of course, is the one-two punch of thinking up things worth saying and writing them down a couple of times a week, if not more. It’s not exactly digging ditches, but it’s time and energy I don’t always have, what with work and wedding prep and socialising and a personal life and, oh yeah, occasionally writing something other than blog posts. But, of course, if it was easy and convenient, it wouldn’t be worth doing, which is also what I tell myself about writing in the first place.

So I’m going to commit – well, let’s be honest, attempt to commit, or at least consider attempting to commit – to a regular twice-a-week schedule on this thing. Sunday nights will be post-something-substantive night, with a good 700-1000 words of fiction, essays, or just reasonably interesting blogging about something or other. Then Wednesday/Thursday will be a more lightweight, waffly kind of night where I just post something minor like stray thoughts, fragments of works-in-progress, links to other blogs, pathetic pimping of my work or administrivia (like this one).

Is there much point to telling you this? Well, hopefully it’ll prevent anyone getting too hopeful for constant updates; they might wear their index finger out with constant fruitless clicks on the Refresh button in their browser, and I’d hate to have that on my conscience. And more to the point, it nails me down a bit, so that I’ll feel more driven to produce stuff on schedule – or at least whine guiltily and find excuses when I don’t. Which is a very attractive trait of mine, according to all my ex-girlfriends – as, apparently, is my tendency to lie about what my ex-girlfriends say about me.

Whoa. Meta.

Oh, and speaking of pathetic pimping of my own works, Smashwords is having their annual Summer/Winter sale, and both my ebooks – Hotel Flamingo and Godheads – are on sale for the rest of July for just $1.50. Just use the coupon code SSW50 at checkout.

Come on, they’re a buck-fifty. At that price you could buy three or four copies and give them away as gifts. Albeit slightly underwhelming gifts if the recipients don’t own ereaders.

short fiction

Flash flash flash

Okay, enough pondering, let’s read a short story with the word ‘fuck’ in it.

This was meant to be written for one of Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenges back at the start of June, where he asked people to write a story inspired by this image:

I didn’t get my act/ideas in gear fast enough to be part of that, but it stuck in my mind, so I’ve been fiddling with a story in my few idle moments. And here it is.

For sale, baby heads, never worn

One dozen kewpie doll heads for sale.

One dozen kewpie doll torsos for sale.

Two dozen kewpie doll arms for sale.

Two dozen kewpie doll legs for sale.

‘The ones who buy the legs are fucking sickos,’ Jeanette tells me. ‘The heads, they get bid on by Goths and arts students and teenagers who want to surprise their mother when she opens her jewellery box. The arms and torsos mostly go to doll collectors who need them for repairs. But the guys who bid on the legs? Fucking perverts, every last one. Those legs will end up in a permanently sticky jar under the bed, only to be discovered when CSI finally bag and tag them along with all the other evidence.’


‘I don’t see why you don’t just sell, you know, the dolls. Intact and undismembered. That way people could actually use them.’

‘And that’s why you’ll never make a fortune on eBay,’ she says. ‘There’s no money in selling them whole. Who the hell wants to give their kid a kewpie doll? But you separate them into pieces and you get some interest, because there are people who just want the arms or the heads and don’t want the hassle of pulling them apart themselves. That’s my customer base – weirdoes that have creative (or disgusting) ideas but are too lazy or busy to do the basic legwork.’

Her workshop (which is what Jeanette calls her garage) backs her up. We sit in a corner pulling the heads and limbs off the dolls she’d bought for next to nothing, sorting them into piles and sticking them with all the other racks and boxes and baskets of disassembled geegaws and widgets. Toaster handles. Typewriter keys. Smurf feet. Dozens of collections of bits, waiting to be sold in online auctions.

‘The future is piecemeal,’ she says. ‘We’ll assemble our houses and jobs and lives from collections of stuff, buying one bit at a time and sticking it into place. Drive cars made from recycled parts, listen to mix tapes made from bits of other mix tapes, leftover pieces of other people’s lives coming back to us. Like bottles in the surf. But, y’know, cooler.’

She talks like this a lot. And yeah, she’s a little bit crazy. But she might also be right. And she’s definitely beautiful. And I’m kind of in love with her, so I hang on her every word and pull the hands off old alarm clocks for her just so I can hang around.

I know it’s pathetic. But it’s who I am, and what I can hope for. So I come by and hang out every day, and help her disassemble and sort things that used to be whole, and wait for her to realise that I’m the guy for her.

I’ve been waiting a while. Every time I come over, I try to work my courage up to tell her how I feel, and every time I lose my nerve and just disassemble old Atari joysticks without pay instead.

But not today. Finally, after months, I just think fuck it and lunge in to kiss her while she’s writing up an auction for a set of five ‘ESCAPE’ buttons prised off computer keyboards (surprisingly popular items).

And she recoils. Not in a disgusted way, but in a disappointed way, which is a lot worse.

Then she has to goddamn explain herself.

‘I go to the movies with Dave. I run my business with Solomon. I sleep with Donell. I read Takashi my poetry. I cry on Lukas’ shoulder. And I talk to you about my ideas. None of you can be everything I want, because no-one is ever everything that someone else wants. People will understand that one day, and we’ll live in clouds of piecemeal relationships, focusing on people when they matter and ignoring them when they don’t. Flitting like butterflies. But, y’know, cooler.’

Jeannette puts her hand on my chest and smiles, like she doesn’t want to hurt me, like she knows it’s not my fault that I’m not advanced (or crazy) enough to understand what she thinks we should be. Like her choices are always someone else’s problem.

‘You get to be a piece of my life,’ she says, ‘same as the other men I know. That’s all I can offer you. And you have to decide if that’s enough.’

Is it enough? I think about it.

No. No, it’s not.

…and yet, I nod my head and give her a little smile and say sorry.

Because even if it’s not enough, it’s enough for now. She might change her mind. I might grow on her.

Or I might just bump off all those other guys.

One by one.


But that’s a plan for another day. Today, there are baby heads to sort. And names to remember.

The current plan, by the way, is to write flash fiction here and there when I get inspired, until I have nine good stories. Then I’ll put them together into a 99c ebook, provisionally entitled Nine Flash Nine, and whack it up for sale. Low effort and cost from my end, and a chance to see what sales of short work might be like at that bottom end of the market.

More on that when it pans out.

genre writing

Genre (part 3) – Let’s you and him not fight for a change

And for one last shake of this ragged and bloody bone before moving on to different topics, let’s talk about literary fiction. Specifically those works held up as ‘literary’ by critics and readers, rather than ‘mainstream’, which basically means books you can buy in Kmart. And let’s talk about why they’re much less of an enemy to genre fiction than genre fiction’s fans are to themselves.

One thing I saw that saddened me while on the genre panel at Continuum was the attitude from a few audience members about how literary fiction was pretentious and boring and not as good/smart/fun/whatever as genre fiction. I had kind of hoped we were finally getting away from that kind of chip-on-the-shoulder defensive nonsense, but I’m not surprised that it’s as thick on the ground as it ever was.

Genre fandom, or even just genre appreciation, can become a form of tribalism, of personal identification, and part of tribalism is the defensive stance against things from other tribes. You sometimes see it within subgroups of a tribe, such as a comics fan who’ll read anything Marvel but never touches DC (or vice versa), but you see a lot more of it against the real invaders, the true tribal outsiders that dare to be popular and critically acclaimed despite not having any cyborgs or elven princesses in them.

I’ve heard genre readers say, in all seriousness, that people only read literary fiction because they want to look intelligent, or because they want to impress girls, or because they have no imagination. That literary fiction is all about middle-class women having affairs and worrying about the drapes, or about liberal white guilt, or just artwanky fucking about with postmodernism and footnotes. (Although they usually shut up about the footnotes when you mention Terry Pratchett.) Above all, they moan that literary fiction doesn’t have enough story, enough ideas, enough fun.

Even if this were true – and I defy anyone to come away from Wonder Boys or The Dumas Club or The Solitudes and complain about the lack of ideas/story/fun in those books, to name but a few – it’s a claim that relies on circular definitions. It presupposes that the point of a text is to deliver readily accessible things like ‘ideas’ and ‘story’, which are the things that genre texts (from all genres) focus on, so that a text that delivers less of those things (or just does so in a less immediate and explicit fashion) is thus a failure, as though those are the only reasons to read a book, or see a film. Identity politics and tribalism; if you’re not with us, you’re against us. If you like this, you have to hate that. If you don’t like this fun thing, you must hate all fun things, and you’re not the one who gets to define ‘fun’ because you’re not in the Fun Tribe. Fucking funoclast.

And then there’s the claim – at best silly, at worst wilfully pernicious – that ‘literary’ fiction is a genre. If that was the case, then we could draw lines of meaningful similarity within any two works in that genre cluster. So what’s the link between Middlesex and Trainspotting? Between The Corrections and The Shadow of the Wind? Between The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Love in the Time of Cholera? What are the common themes, common tropes, common conventions? Or is this just the drive to break up every group into tribes, to validate one’s own personal identification with a boundary to say ‘well, everyone else does it too’, to reduce everything to different colours of soccer jerseys rather than consider the possibility of different sports?

The most you can say about literary fiction (or genre-less fiction or whatever you want to call) it is that it tends (tends) to be work that focuses on underlying themes rather than overt plot or distinctive elements – that it’s about what things mean, rather than which things happen. But what those things are, and what they mean, and why that meaning matters, changes from writer to writer, book to book, even reader to reader. There’s no shared agenda or set of elements; just the desire to create this story, this way, this time. The same desire genre writers have. The same desire every writer has.

(You could also, if you’re feeling mean (and I often do), argue that it’s a field of writing where the bar of quality set a bit higher than in popular/genre fiction, where too often bad writing gets excused because the story has great ideas or a really cool vampire. Sure, there are shitty literary works – I can’t comprehend how Ian McEwan gets sales, let along awards – but fantasy can’t be snooty about good and bad when Cum-Drunk Sluts of Gor gets a bye ‘cos it has swords in it. But I’m not going to argue that. I’ll be good.)

Shit. All I’m doing is ranting now, I admit it (and for like 1000 words). I’m not saying anything useful because this kind of antagonism just fills me with antagonism in return. And it pisses me off, but more than that it makes me sad, because genre fiction can be smart and well-crafted and inspiring and, yes, fun, and I want to see its readers exalt those elements and revel in them, to proselytise (without being creepy) about how enjoyable their favourite book/show/movie/text is and draw other readers/viewers in to share that joy.

And every time they – we – descend into this let’s-you-and-him-fight tribalist bullshit we do ourselves, and those works we love, a disservice. Maybe if we knock off the identity politics, talk about what matters to us, and stop insulting those with the temerity to like something different, we could all start having a better time.

Well, everyone but me. I have blog posts to write, and I’m so good at being a sweary smartarse, after all.

On that note, I’m done talking about genre and its value for the moment. I may come back to the topic some day, but not for a while.

Next time – no more than 2-3 days, I promise – I’ll whack up some flash fiction, talk about some kind of regular schedule, maybe tinker with the theme some more and say ‘fuck’ a couple of times. Get excited.

genre writing

Genre (part 2) – Let the burial commence

(Sorry for taking so long to get this post written; real life has required much of my precious time and sobriety of late. I’ve been editing a tonne of maths books, spending a weekend playing World of Warcraft in Adelaide, and right now I’m on the Sunshine Coast attending a conference. Okay, technically, lying in my hotel room bed half-pissed after attending a conference. So, you know, I have a pile of excuses. It’s not laziness. Well, not just laziness.)

Okay, so I said last time that while genre is flawed, and a blunt instrument, that it still serves as a function as a filter and a way to guide decisions about what to read/view next.

But the thing about blunt instruments is that they’re clumsy and imprecise, they leave scratches on the furniture when you drop them, and they leave dents in your baby’s head when you clamp down to pull him/her into the world. And yes, I’m aware this metaphor is no longer working.

The thing is, when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, or at least a thumb – and when your primary classification and filtering tool is genre, everything starts to get assessed by what boundary it falls within and what label it should attract. And the notion that something doesn’t fall within a boundary, or crosses a boundary, becomes discomforting and less acceptable.

The desire to rigidly codify genres is something I see a lot, along with statements like ‘well, that’s not really science fiction then’, or ‘I prefer to call that ‘science fantasy’’, or ‘Twilight’s not proper horror because the vampires sparkle and it’s all about girls and feelings’. And that’s just confining things to the big three nerd genres; bring in other genres, like romance or crime, and whole new subgenres like ‘paranormal romance’ get invented to prevent nerd germs cross-pollinating and ruining the sacred purity of a construct invented to make it easier to sell books in stores.

Add to this the personal identification some people make with a set of boundaries: ‘I only read science-fiction’, ‘I don’t read horror novels’, ‘We eliminated all the Twilight fans from our fan group during a series of bloody purges.’ And if it seems like I’m picking on people who don’t like Twilight, well, I don’t like Twilight either, but let’s pillory the books (and those who like them) because they’re appalling fuckingly written, not because they bridged the gap between romance and horror and made purists of both genres feel like they weren’t in charge of the label any more.

Genre doesn’t benefit from being a tight codification of rigid rules; all that does is put iron rules in place for marketers and cover designers, who need to know the right proportion of rockets to swords to vampires for the artist. For the rest of us, who above all else (and this can be argued, but I have to keep believing it) want to read good stories, genre labels are more useful when they’re broad; genre boundaries are more useful when they’re porous.

I’m going to quote commenter David from the last post:

We need to stop thinking in Boolean terms, and instead think in terms of fuzzy set theory.

Take Star Wars.

It has spaceships and robots and laser battles. It also has magic. But it has more sci fi characteristics than it has fantasy characteristics, so it gets shelved in the sci fi genre.

Genre is about clusters of similarities, rather than exclusive boxes.

(If you thrill to the thought of me repeating your words to make my arguments better than I could, well, leave a comment! And possibly pursue some kind of therapy.)

Close clusters of meaningful connections make for a more useful concept of genre than rigid definitions inside prescriptive boundaries. That’s a mission statement. So is the fact that, as a writer and a reader, I want genres to include lots of different things, so that I can read and write fun stories without needing to define where they belong and what subgeneric (is that a word?) group they need to be relegated to.

Because, in the end, the story is the thing – the story and the way it’s told. Everything else is distraction.

One more post about genre is on the cards – hopefully written faster and more coherently than this one – then maybe some new flash fiction in the coming days. Blogging regularly is tricky, because I only have a limited supply of wisdom, and usually I use it up by thinking ‘Actually, I’ve had enough to drink now, I should just go home’. But I’ll try to keep some in reserve for you guys. Promise.