Collected work – in progress

I’m in the midst of editing and putting together some of my short stories. My novella is in competition stasis and while I thought I had time to enter it in a slightly later competition for novellas I was wrong. So, because of submission overlap and the fact this second competition is accepting novellas but also collections, I’ve thrown together a bunch of stories.

Just backdating this to my new year’s writing resolutions.

First: tools of the writing trade. Picture may not match actual implements used.

First: tools of the writing trade. Picture may not match actual implements used.

When I say thrown together. I’m being flippant. Yes, it’s a late-ish decision (made in December), but it’s a deliberate process.

What it is, is a good exercise, preparing a collection. It’s about seeing stories as a jigsaw and putting them together to make sense. Not all my stories will fit and they don’t all have to. This competition wants no more than 40,000 words. As I’m going, I won’t submit more than 30,000.

What I’ve found is I’ve written stories of varying length, from 500 words to about 3,000 – so there’s nothing special about word count. Then I write across genres, including literary, horror and speculative and even more experimental fiction – again nothing to indicate ‘this’ collection is all ‘that’. However, it seems there are thematic commonalities and other characteristics running through enough stories to turn them into a coherent anthology.

Turns out my stories are about the individual and communication and sometimes whether the individual even exists. There’s other themes I won’t elaborate on, and thing’s I’m discovering about them too, which helped me find the title, which in turn is dictating the categories they fall into, which are coalescing into three sections or chapters. I’m cautiously optimistic about this. It looks as though there is an inner consistency possessing enough difference (I hope) to make it look like this was always going to be a compilation. (Of course I planned it this way, ahem, over the years I’ve been writing these stories).

It all goes well, I wonder if this business is still available. I won't need peacocks engraved though. (it hurts them).

If it goes well, this business maybe available. I won’t need peacocks engraved though (it hurts them).

I don’t have any advice, except to say if you have a bunch of stuff lying around your hard drive, they are probably worth have a look at to see if collectively they can form a thing. For, me, if nothing else, I’ve learnt more about what comes through in my writing and when lining these stories up, have seen from a new perspective the themes I’m interested in and how they’re expressed across time (each story written at a different point) and through genre. Here’s hoping others will see something in them too.

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X Files: Minor Stories Please

If you’re not all caught up: here be aliens, creatures and spoilers.

Sure, X-Files rebooted with a conspiracy-mythos that links all the worst events in the world to all the biggest public and private organisations and governments…in order to take over America. Right.

Actually no. I’m with Scully here. It’s too much.

But then, I got to thinking. Why just America? The first return episode referenced Julian Assange and a Victorian mystery, so why not a global conspiracy? The kind of corporations that crave that much power do span continents. Corruption in governments means they involve themselves in other nations for all sorts of mayhem. And surely alien tech and DNA means anyone can be a target or victim? Yet, despite Sveta, it’s all about Murica.

How lacking in ambition.

But it always had to be. It’s the FBI, not the CIA. It’s missing persons and weird murders, not alien Bourne. Maybe, instead of reporting back to an age defying Deputy Director Skinner, the X Files should have become the X-Leaks, with our slightly daunted and dented duo holed up somewhere fighting the future.

Or not.

Or, they can be who they always were.

What I preferred and still prefer, it seems, are stories like that of Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster. They play up our heroes foibles, but also don’t dial up the evil secret empire so much as conjure the suburban, or rural idyll, weird. These are stories where Mulder and Scully set aside the baggage of their psychological and medical scars, and revel in local mysteries they don’t yet, and may never, fully comprehend. They work best for me. Plus they are full of call backs I could spend days enumerating.

Just another man bites dog story.

Just another man bites dog story.

In these episodes, Mulder and Scully get to explore both the light and shade. They can be playful, amusing, snarky, competitive and present. Since they’re not dwelling on their personal tragedies, these are reflected in tangential ways, so the story can be more layered, and experimental. Enter Rhys Darby’s tragi-comedy Guy Mann.

Ostensibly, this episode is about rekindling the fire about all we don’t understand in the world, with Mann quoting Hamlet. But it’s not just about Mulder questioning tilting at windmills – this is for all of us. Mann gives us the wonder and Mulder returns to himself. Scully speaks on behalf of all us when she says this is how she likes her Mulder. This is how we like our X Files.

Not a Jackalope

Not a Jackalope

But Were Monster does so much more.

Darby’s Mann (or Everyman) tells us at least part of the story of Minor Literature.

In becoming human Mann is thrown into the experience of deterritorialization, which is the eradication of social, political, or cultural practices from their native places and populations. Separated from his community, out of his native habitat, our creature becomes something new. Then, in his new form, he experiences reterritorialization. He is catapulted through his new human innateness, into language and awareness, but also into a modern capitalist system, where he is a success in the reverse of Kafka’s creature in Metamorphoses.  The socio-politico-economic system presents no barriers to his new Darwinian ability to BS, which I bet Kafka, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their interpretation of Kafka, don’t address. But success, like much of everything about being human, is difficult. Mann realises this despair and adopts Doggou. In struggling with his identity he turns to a ‘witch doctor’ for medication and a dose of the talking cure. Mann, alone, cannot come to terms with his transformation.

Deterritorialization is described by Deleuze as the “impossibility of not writing.” It is tied up with issues of finding a voice within a language that is both alien and familiar.

Mann doesn’t write but speak. As the only member of his species who has experienced what he has gone through he finds what he needs in saying things he only half understands. He is both alien and familiar in this way.

language is more important here as it refer to this notion of revolutionary becoming that involves one or several people to create continuously a resistance against the standard…

Mann’s resistance to his new humanness becomes physical, when he becomes violent, and emotional when he rails at the alarm clock, but is ultimately best served by his becoming, which is actually, a returning, to what he was before. He might always have to resist the transformation into human. However I suspect, in communicating with Mulder, he has shed what held him back.

Of course this episode is Minor Literature in the sense that Guy Mann’s story is from a minority (of one) and Mann demonstrates through his new language abilities in English, the theory that a minority constructs within a major language. Mann certainly does that, with his pixelbitz, saying things he barely comprehends.

Yet, it is also minor in that Mann’s story is not the central mystery.  In fact, his story will never be told to anyone beyond Mulder. It is a murder mystery. Scully caught the murderer, and that’s the only point for the FBI. And she’s right, it is a see one serial killer, seen them all, central narrative.

My point is these major stories of murders and global conspiracies have their place in the X Files, but we want the Minor Literature. We want to believe, as Mulder does, in the minor stories, fairy tales, myths, the rumours, and in the places on maps where it says, Here Be Jackalopes.

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Stick together and defend

Seldom do Aussie pub rock anthems get recognition for their assistance in solving writing dilemmas, but this changes here. By the way that’s not a sentence I’d ever thought I’d have to come up with, but there you go, writing is strange like that.

We know that ideas come from anywhere. Like today, when I was driving home after work, my randomly generating #commutemusic selected Run to Paradise by the Choir Boys. (Ok yes, I’m embarrassed to admit the song even came up, but am especially surprised at being inspired by it. It’s not like it’s Flame Trees – an oddly moving song about nostalgia for the kind of bygone, blokey small town/industrial Straya that I personally couldn’t escape fast enough as a teen, but the song still gets me every time.)

However, I digress.

What I was saying is, who knew anything even remotely inspired could come from Choir Boys circa 1987 – then or now? Follow the link and be startled too.

No, that’s another digression.

Rather than skipping through Paradise,  I was musing on my NaNoWriMo project for the nth time. This afternoon, it was regarding Sonia Orchard’s advice on ensuring each chapter’s conflict turned around something different. That’s when it happened.

Here's an emu. Something, something Straya.

Here’s an emu. Not my best caption, but today’s inspiration was all about the novel draft. 

Hold My Head Up

Orchard suggested, quite usefully, that each chapter’s major problem should be uniquely driven. For example, jealousy in one chapter, but not in the others. What occurred to me while absently humming along, is that my literary-horror-but-not manuscript is yet to reveal what it’s about. But I think I’ve got it now. It’s about grief.

This was a handy and important breakthrough, but it wasn’t the BIG breakthrough.

Open Your Eyes Up

The response to Orchard’s advice wasn’t in this realisation about grief, but in realising how I can apply and work with the concept of or schema for the seven (or five) stages of grief. It’s a theory I can use while not actually really believing grief works exactly like stages. Each chapter can feature, at the base of the conflict: shock or denial, guilt and, acceptance etc. That was the BIG idea.

Depiction of Australian fauna as stand in for commentary on culture, colonialism and class. K?

Depiction of Australian fauna as stand in for commentary on culture and class. K?

Why’d I let ’em slip away

Well, I didn’t let this idea slip away. Songs can be useful mnemonic devices. If slightly judgy and sexist, yet catchy songs like Run to Paradise, are stuck in your head like they are mine, then they may assist in recalling the notions that pop out of nowhere as you mumble along to them, when unable to stop to write them down or otherwise record them.

Walk in the light

I don’t know what my lesson is here. It could be that it’s unwise to dismiss naff 80s rock when considering solutions to creative impasses. It could raise questions about exactly when depictions of the working class disappeared from Australian music and the literary landscape. It could be about how a writer can both appreciate pub rock ballads of longing and beer epitomised by the likes of Cold Chisel while also loathing beer and deploring most of the culture that revolves around it.

Furthermore, it could be about how I can manage to hold all this in my head while also pondering whether Minor Literature could work as a theoretical framework through which to appreciate the latest X Files episodes, and whether to write about my self-imposed sketch book art project I’m managing to simultaneously avoid and continue.

Or it’s none of these things, and I’m on a fool’s errand, but don’t you worry ’bout me any more. Probably, in thinking about this, I did it just for fun…and if any of this is true, it could never be wrong.

In terms of writing solutions though, the Choir Boys would say: you’ll tell me, this is paradise. 

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Doctor Who: reports from afar

Hot on the heels of the news of Steven Moffat leaving after 2017, with Chris Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, there are now reports that Peter Capaldi could depart as well. Some are calling it a fresh start with a new producer in Chibnall,  and it might be.

Scully: You're not gonna tell me you think it's that Mexican goat sucker thing. Mulder: El Chupacabra? No, they got four fangs, not two, and they suck goats, hence the name.

Chart of my surprise that there is still stuff to write about re Doctor Who.

The thing is, if I were taking over a story as complex and with such a long history, and with such (ahem) enthusiastic fans as Who, I would keep some old hands around. I would do this for reassurance, inspiration, and some smattering of continuity. Writing, and overseeing the writing of others, is difficult at any time, let alone with the added pressure of  settling into a new office, trying to please BBC bean counters, and the public with a new Time Lord, new look, and possible new everything else.

Sometimes, a clean slate is freedom, but other times it’s the terror of the blank page. A scary yawning pit of nothing from which a writer needs to pull something magic. Without Capaldi and possibly the new companion, it will be a big blank page/pit/slate. You get the idea.

Also, just because David Tennant left when Russell T Davies departed, doesn’t mean ipso facto that Capaldi must leave with Moffat. It’s not a thing. Actors are not the possessions of producers or script writers. It smacks of change for change’s sake when *story* should be the impetus of change. Or personal choice. It’s also possible that Chibnall could audition a dozen potentials and still select Capaldi as The Doctor. It might be a choice he may not be prepared to make as a newbie.

Timey Whimey Inflection Points

Insert first plot point at O, add new characters along dotted lines (in both directions), and churn out stories. 

I’m not against change, and this program explores it ad infinitum, but it feels like Capaldi is just warming up. He’s given some great performances over this most recent series. His iteration of The Doctor  struggled a bit to find his way, but the mojo is working now, and one more season doesn’t quite seem enough, (also given it is also a long way off, time wise).  I get that this may change in another 14 episodes though. So ok, give the new producer a choice, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks with someone familiar.

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X Files: X marks the writer

I was always a fan of X Files. At the risk of revealing my age, some series were often enjoyed communally. It was virtually the only thing we all agreed on as  bunch of undergrads, lapping up the ongoing trials and tribulations of FBI’s most basementy duo, Mulder and Scully. It wasn’t just Moonlighting, but with monsters. It was so much more.

Scully: You're not gonna tell me you think it's that Mexican goat sucker thing. Mulder: El Chupacabra? No, they got four fangs, not two, and they suck goats, hence the name.

Mulder: El Chupacabra? No, they got four fangs, not two, and they suck goats, hence the name.

The first film was pretty good. The second film a let down. I’m hoping for some return to form with the new series which appears soon, but not soon enough, in Australia.

Back in the 90s though, we were unwittingly learning things about narrative, American folklore and history, film history, and office relationships, as we marvelled at their technology and their vast resources. We can laugh at the hair cuts and phones now, but the theme music remains visceral.

X Files has a lot to say about writing and writers. I think because the writers of X Files, (including Chris Carter), like all writers, must tap what is most familiar to them after everything else.

That everything else though is pretty wide, and includes, but is not limited to, imitating TV shows like Cops, taking inspiration from texts such as Frankenstein as well as 1930s comics in Post Modern Prometheus, as well as good old-fashioned ghost stories, but at Christmas.  Some episodes about writing and writers, even have documentaries about them.

Jose Chung: Agent Mulder, this book will be written, and it will only benefit if you will explain something to me.
Mulder: What’s that?
Jose Chung: What really happened to those kids on that night?
Mulder: How the hell should I know?

In a single episode, The Cigarette Smoking Man, was revealed to be a writer. He was eventually a successful one, and was prepared to quit everything on the basis of one manuscript acceptance. Ah, naivety. His innocence about the nature of the industry was heart breaking, considering his deep knowledge and cynicism about the world he worked in. It was painful to watch his enthusiasm founder when he wanted a say on illustrations and found out after the fact his story, based on parts of his experiences, had been changed. It hurt him (and me) that others considered the publication trash. In his back story, this sinister man was presented as a cold assassin, but also as a vulnerable artist wanting to break free from his life. The lesson is, if you want to humanise your villain, show your villain as a writer:)

X Files can also present a failed writer as a weirdly magnetic psychic stalker beguiled by Scully, who gets to poetically narrate his own episode as the investigators become novelised. This vague and threatening character embodies the notion that writing is literally bleeding your heart on the page.

X marks the battle of wits that often defines episodes.

X marks the sparring between characters that often defines episodes.

There is also Hollywood AD, where the X Files is made into a film.  It is hilarious, full of insider jokes (like the headstone for Alan Smithee).

Wayne Federman: It’s actually… It’s a writer-slash-producer.

Mulder: Well, that’s actually just a hindrance-slash-pain-in-the-neck.

In this episode, the evidence in contention is a bowl purported to have recorded the voice of Jesus in its grooves when made, but the episode is really how the most serious of stories can be turned into a farce or are actually forgeries, through writing.

Of course, not every tale is so direct about writing and writers. In Bad Blood, our heroes relate their version of events to each other before reporting to Deputy Director Skinner.

Mulder: I did not overreact, Ronnie Strickland was a vampire!

Scully: Where’s your proof?

Mulder: You’re my proof! You were there! Okay, now you’re scaring me. I want to hear exactly what you’re going to tell Skinner.

Scully: Oh, you want our stories straight.

Mulder: No, no, I didn’t say that! I just want to hear it the way you saw it.

It demonstrates how different perspective changes the same story, while also showing how each thinks of the other and their work. It’s a handy trick, as it gives depth to what could be a simple event. Also, it’s a great lesson, in that it shows good writers know their characters and how they see the world, themselves and each other, no matter if they are telling the story, or are immersed in it.

Mulder: That is … essentially, exactly the way it happened.

Scully: Essentially.

[Fade to black]

Mulder V/O: Except for the part about the buck teeth.

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Doctor Who: Moffat and Chibnall, looking back

I woke to the news that Steven Moffat is leaving Doctor Who after this year. Hmm, I want to say. Hmmm. I will miss the complexity of his plots and his use of time. It is, after all, a program featuring time travel. I will miss some of the humour too and energy and the pathos of his references to past episodes. Characters such as River Song and the Paternoster Gang are highlights of his tenure, even if under deployed.

More than the above, for a writer, Moffat has a lot to say about story telling and that’s helpful. Sometimes it’s didactic and obviously so (see the latest Sherlock episode for that) and other times more nuanced. Thus, I have enjoyed most of what he did with Who, even if with some reservations.

What’s more concerning to me, is the gigantic gap between now and the next episode, which is at Christmas. Christmas. That feels like the 24 year night we saw this Christmas just gone. What is happening now is that Moffat’s writing the next series to air in 2017. As will the next episode of Sherlock. If anyone spots him outside, or away from a screen, can they shoo him back to somewhere appropriate and lock him away? Regardless of what people may think of his abilities, the writing just needs to get done.

Chris Chibnall will be taking over in 2018. Apart from creating Broadchurch (and Gracepoint) he has written the episodes: The Magician’s Apprentice, The Power of Three, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, the double hander Cold Blood and The Hungry Earth, and 42.

42 was a stand out of the Martha era. It was highly structured, which helped ratchet up the tension, what with time running out during a crash with weird murders to solve. Both The Doctor and Martha get plenty of action as well as emotional highs and lows that cement what they mean to each other. It was disciplined writing to reveal The Doctor terrified and Martha getting to be a medic, rather than a sad cakes.

Currently dancing to celebrate publication!. Woo hoo.  Getting on down, baby.

No doubt some are celebrating the news Steven Moffat will leave Who after series 10. 

For me, I was less interested in Cold Blood and Hungry Earth, although it set up Rory’s death theme. It was a little of the taste of Midnight, with humans visiting their fear and cruelty on ‘outsiders’. Cruelty again featured with Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which features the whimsical (Rory’s Dad Brian Williams, The Doctor and Tricey). But it again demonstrates the lengths people go to, to protect themselves. Amy’s attitudes are revealing and funny, and she gets stuff to do, which is also good.

The Magician’s Apprentice had  much going on. It shows Chibnall knows his back stories, with plenty of references to Old Who, but it was a bit….messy. The castle with The Doctor on a tank playing guitar is unnecessarily torturous for a set up for a joke. Meanwhile, the high lights were Missy and Clara’s interactions, which looking back, didn’t happen nearly enough in Clara’s entire arc.

Amy Pond: There was a time, there were years when I couldn’t live without you. Um, when just the whole every day thing would drive me crazy. But since you dropped us back here, since you gave us this hiatus, you know, we’ve built a life. And I don’t know if we can have both.

The Power of Three is from a different perspective, showing how The Doctor drops in and out of lives. This time he stays and The Doctor tries (and fails) to live ‘normally.’ Between Brian’s whimsy, The Doctor’s eccentricities, and Kate Stewart’s deadpan humour (raven’s of death) there was plenty to show balancing every day life with adventures with a time travelling alien are near impossible. It was also the Pond’s farewell to this life. The Doctor’s speech about ‘flaring and fading’ and Brian’s approval are important in this regard.

Even other ravens are uneasy about facing Ashildir's Justice Death Sentence Raven.

Batteries low on Kate Stewart’s Ravens of death? That could have helped Clara.

Probably, 42 and Power of Three are Chibnall’s best efforts, with Magician very close too. If he writes more for Kate Stewart to do, that will be great.

With Broadchurch, Chibnall controls a complex plot with many players with contrasting and conflicting motives. And he still manages to illicit emotional responses. Broadchurch was a small dose program for me. There were times I could only watch five minutes before I had to walk away and look at cats. Setting and the camera work were important to the atmosphere, so I’ll expect all of this and more in his iteration of Who.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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Shelf Life: Poppy by Drusilla Modjeska

The Stella Awards have initiated #stellaspark to fund raise for their literary prize, but also to get people talking about their favourite books by Australian women. I selected Poppy: A Life by Drusilla Modjeska, for exactly the reasons I tweeted. It was moving and powerful and is a useful guide for writers tackling stories where a gap in the evidence needs to be bridged. But Poppy is worth more than a quick tweet to me.

Found this, and I thought it apt.

Found this, and I thought it apt.

It was a book I invested a lot of time in for a Master’s thesis that was, for complicated reasons, never submitted. Those reasons were not to do with the topic or this text though. I remain full of praise for this story. It’s a novel and a biography; it’s an introspective and reflexive examination of what it takes to know another, even a close relative.

Poppy’s story leads the narrator, Lalage, along the threads of a life lived between faith and reason, between bad mother and good mother, between myth and history, mad and sane, imagination and reality. In her own mother, she found the perfect and yet most difficult subject for a text. I’m getting to know that feeling.

Not Poppy. A bad model for a story, or the perfect one?

Not Poppy. A bad model for a story, or the perfect one?

In researching the biography of Poppy, Lalage is driven to invention, so she can write the life of a woman whose secrets are bound up in family, in the myths families tell themselves, in memory and, in the beliefs they adopt and the actions they take. From the silence that Poppy used as a weapon, has been born the story that is true even if it didn’t happen, to quote One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. In turn, the story of Poppy also becomes the story of how myths are adopted and remade.

The story that unfolds resists neat categories. Poppy’s silence forces the narrator to recreate her mother in the form of a novel by going beyond history. Just as the mother adopted the myth of Ariadne, so too, Lalage followed the threads of fact and imagination in order to find meaning and provide meaning for others.

While I (like many writers doing PhDs) remain interested in history as the source of story, these days I’m more interested in the myth making and the remaking of myth by protagonists and by authors. I’m also interested in what characters don’t say. Silence is important in my novella for instance. A central character doesn’t tell her own story so she can tell a different, and perhaps, more important one. And I’ve only just realised this as I’m writing. #headdesk

Kinda explains itself.

Kinda explains itself.

This goes back to the Wheeler Centre Taming the Beast workshop too. Sonia Orchard recommended going back to the novels we love for help with the problems in our own manuscripts. It’s sound advice and I’ve attempted this before. Now though, I think I do need Poppy again, to see Lalage working to create something from the scraps leftover from a life, and to see how Drusilla Modjeska produces something profound and universal, from this personal search.

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