How a story is a horse, of course

Writing has been hard work. I’ve had trouble getting from the end of the middle of one story, to its conclusion, which I’ve worked out. And, with my novella, I’ve begun fixing everything I’ve realised is wrong with it, but it takes a while to warm up.

I’m not feeling the mojo, in other words, but I know I don’t have to. The magic of inspiration will happen while I do the work, not if I wait around for it.

Thus, while I while away my weekends and evenings editing, and with my thoughts recently upon Westerns, I thought I would show you how a story is like a horse.

I’ll say that again:

A story is like a horse. Let me show you how

You start with the bones: a plot or idea and perhaps a character or location. There are parts and they will move.

Stories start with the bones.

Stories start with the bones. Write them down.

Then, you start to add the muscle. These are details. There is colour and as a result, there will be movement.

Muscles in stories are attributes, details, things your plot and characters need.

Muscles in stories are attributes, and things your plot and characters need.

But all you have is a horse. It could be a great horse, but actually, it’s just standing there, it will get bored. I will get bored. Art is fine, but it can be better.

Nice horse, I guess. But bored now.

Nice horse, I guess. But bored now.

What make art, horses and stories better is dress ups! Make your story or horse extraordinary. Make your story communicate something individual. Characters should be fully delineated, just like all horses are different.

See that ear? That's personality right there.

See that ear? Those bells? That’s personality right there.

Put more stuff into your story, make your horse interact. Provide motivation, reward and danger.

Fame helps.

Fame and money can motivate, but not usually horses.

Personality can only go so far though. You need your horse – your story – to do something. Plot is action. You made a horse, now you must set it free, or to work, or send the mighty beast into battle. Make something happen to the horse.

Action horses are go, wing commander!

Action horses are go, wing commander!

Now your story horse is galloping, but there needs to be an arc, or trajectory to your horse’s journey. Remember, few horse races are in straight lines. Maybe there will be tragedy, maybe triumph, but whatever happens, there needs to be a conclusion.

Maybe the brave horse joins with the lion to fight off the stupid human who has the horse captive ...

Maybe the brave horse joins with the lion to fight off the stupid human who has the horse captive …#justsaying

Even if your ending is unexpected, whatever you do, don’t decide, right at the end of your tethered horse, it was something else entirely. A story is a story, don’t make into a think piece, personal essay, and don’t end it in a dream.

Your story is a horse, not an upside down octopus rising from the deaths to conquire the world, k?

Your story is a horse, not an upside down octopus rising from the depths to conquer the world, k?

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It’s easy for me to review stuff. I like it, and I think I bring something to each work, or play or film or whatever. However, it’s not the only thing I’m on about, or that this site was meant to be about.

It’s time to go back to first principles. Instead of reviewing works, I’m producing creative responses in some kind of ekphrasis. Initially, I thought about writing stories and perhaps poetry, and posting in response to the kind of things I usually review. And, I was going to do it here. However, I’ve moved this idea to Tumblr, for the immediacy of its feed and requirement for some brevity. There, in a line or paragraph, I can share the translation of my immediate response to whatever the stream happens to throw up, or whatever I can find on the British Library DRM free Flickr site that piques my fancy.

Socrates talks about ekphrasis to Phaedrus thusly:

“You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.
The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive,
but if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.
It is the same with written words; they seem to talk
to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything
about what they say, from a desire to be instructed,
they go on telling you just the same thing forever. Plato: Phaedrus 275d

With its art and photos, text and gifs that move as though they were alive, so far Tumblr has been the perfect medium for this ekphrastic-like dalliance, even if not all of my responses are confined to art, as the strict meaning of the term requires.  It’s been fun.

This is also practice. When I’m asked where I get my ideas or inspiration from, I say something like everywhere and anywhere, but occasionally they flow to me, or I deliberately hunt and pin them down so I can write whatever comes to me in that moment.

Adding thoughtful or hilarious captions dates back eons, as this annotated Egyptian illustration demonstrates. Ah, so funny.

Adding thoughtful or hilarious captions to art dates back aeons, as this annotated Egyptian illustration demonstrates. Ah, just so funny guys.

As well as fun and practice, it’s just a quick escape from opinion and the urge to review, since everyone who can click like or ‘write something nice’ thinks they are reviewers now. And they are most certainly not.

I’ve railed at this before, here . Saying something is good, or bad and revealing the plot is not a review. Not even close. Yet, this kind of expression has muddied the interweb waters so almost every one of few those who can actually offer a considered critique is stained and stuck too.  So, while I will continue to review and reflect on things here (including Doctor Who), I will use Tumblr to regularly remind myself that not all my responses to stuff in the world need to be analytical.

Analysis and creativity fight it out for the 'write' to party.

Analysis and Creativity blow their own horns in a trumpet duel for the ‘write’ to party.




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Examining writing rules

Sometimes when you learn a lesson, it really takes. Sometimes a lesson becomes a code or a creed to live by or write by and thus become a part of you. I’ve had a lot of writing advisors, some were actual teachers, and lecturers, and others were found via books or online or just in life. Most recently, I happened upon useful advice from Chuck Palahniuk via Tumblr (truth can be found anywhere). Much advice I ignored, while some I embraced whole heartedly.

Having your writing rules questioned feels like seeing a tiny speck of light for the supermassive nova that might be exploding your chances of publication, for the first time.

Having your writing rules questioned is like seeing a tiny speck of light for the supernova of wrongness it could be, for the first time. It might be the thing exploding your chances of publication. Or not.

What is difficult is having these lessons challenged and learning how to defend them. Writing advice is everywhere and it’s cheap, so it’s interesting to find people actively asking for advice and questioning it when given. It’s good, because it makes me examine why I follow some rules and it gets me to consider whether I still should. It makes me question whether what I learned ten years ago is still relevant for what I’m writing now. It gets me to consider changing styles or whether I have evolved enough.

It’s also a nice mental workout having to explain why I follow certain rules. Like why I only use said or says for dialogue, and never ‘declaimed breezily’ or ‘heaved thunderously,’ for instance.

My main defence is my advice offered to others is about what has worked so far for me. It’s about what editors have preferred and what readers have picked up on (negatively or positively). Everyone else can take or leave it.

Amid all this, I’ve found I’m quite attached to my rules. I’m more rigid in my thinking about certain stylistic questions than I would prefer to be. I am more certain about what I think is good or bad about any given piece of writing than I was before. I think it’s good I’ve gained confidence about having and standing by my opinions, but I worry that I’m not being as creatively flexible in my thinking as I need to be.

Ideas, rules, grammar, inspiration, spare socks, overheard conversations are crushed in the dual pulverisers until stories come out.

Ideas, rules, spare socks, grammar, tools, inspiration, and overheard conversations are milled in the dual pulverisers until stories come out,  silky smooth, fully formed, and read for publication.

Ah, the eternal flux capacitor that is my mind, always switching between conductors and dielectrics, and never quite doing what it is meant to do at the right time.

After all, following rules won’t always get you everywhere. Writers, or any kind of artists need to ignore them, break them, and publicly defy them as well, sometimes.

On the other hand, it took a bloody long time to learn and master all the grammar and other rules this messed up language requires, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to abandon all of them now (deliberately).  Unless reasons.

What I’m trying to say is: however you’ve developed your writing rules or style, it might hurt a bit to brush them off and see if they still work, but, as Socrates almost certainly never quite said, unexamined rules are not worth following.

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Review: Pipe Dream’s Dirt Bike Magic

There are some non-conventional film makers producing remarkably shot and better plotted films than three-quarters of Hollywood right now.

Echoing the colour and spectacle of Luc Besson’s atmospheric The Big Blue, coupled with 60s surf movies, while also recalling some of the tension and exuberance of the 1993 classic Airborne, but without the flannelette, 90s dialogue, skateboards, Seth Green and Jack Black roles, Defy Convention’s Pipe Dream is a little bit of dirt bike magic.

It’s also without the dirt.

I have all sorts of reasons not to be any kind of fan of motorcycles in any form, yet I concede this short film is nothing short of beautiful, and that is not just because of the location but also because of what that bike does.

My idea of a two wheeled stunt: wearing a dress while riding.

My idea of a two-wheeled stunt: wearing a dress while riding.

While some articles focus on the ‘stunt’ by Australian Robbie Maddison, and others dismiss this short film as a ‘video release‘, Pipe Dream is cinematic in scope and could be likened to an individualistic Baraka, but with a linear narrative. The soundscape adds further nuance, with nature at first melding with the sound of the bike, and then contrasting to it, before music takes over.

This 1890s biker chick salutes you Robbie Maddison.

This 1890s hardcore biker chick salutes you Robbie Maddison.

Pipe Dream could be interpreted as commentary on the human capacity to overcome limitations, or the role of machines and technology in mediating humanity’s complex relationship with nature and tradition. Or it’s just a trick film. Whichever.

Maddison makes stunning use of the location – Tahiti – while director Deven Stephens gets visually creative, using multiple camera angles, from on the bike, to above looking directly down, and at ocean level, as well as slow motion to and cuts to emphasise the drama.

What ever Pipe Dream is: reckless stunt flick, personal video, well budgeted advertorial, what ever, it is also art.


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Skirting the edges

Despite living in the ‘city on the bay’ I haven’t been to any sort of beach for about eight years. Recently though, I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend at Mornington Peninsular.  Apart from one day trip to Sorrento, I hadn’t visited the area before. I found it had its own special allure, the local town’s beach houses were marooned in seas of twisted and impenetrable clumps of coastal tea tree, which made the area feel more isolated than it was. The only sign of habitation were the power lines, looped between each home, and which rattled in the high winds at night. This competed with the creaking branches of the trees and the slightly more distant surf crashing into the cliffs.

Cape Schank, Mornington Pensula

Cape Schank, Mornington 

PeninsulaIf a winter beach getaway was not sufficiently Australian Gothic, upon arrival (just after dusk) a storm rolled in, with wind pushing rain in from one direction, and lightning from the other direction. The house, thusly poised on a narrow peninsula between two contending coastlines, and two storms, felt like the ends of the earth, rather than just an hour from Melbourne.

The dark wood of coastal tea tree.

The dark wood of coastal tea tree.

This was different to the beaches of my youth, which were genuinely remote, un-patrolled and scorching in the intensity of summer. There were rock pools with blue ringed octopus. Or, in some coves, the allure of the water was mitigated by the course, unrefined grit that in a few thousand years would become sand. Feet sank, as such substances can’t support weight and I either had to swim out deeper and float, or constantly move in the shallows, so not to be sucked in further.

Another edge, with the wire fence a flimsy attempt to keep the regrowth safe from us.

Another edge, with the wire fence a flimsy attempt to keep the regrown fauna safe from us.

This is all well and good, but my brief holiday, or my youth, are not what I’m writing about.

My point is about edges. This entire humongous continent I live on, has about 97% of its population congregating on the edge of it. Or, as AD Hope puts it in the poem, simply called Australia:

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pollulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Bit harsh, I guess, but still, accurate about the timidity.

But it’s not just Australia. Humans love edges. Personal physical edges, psychological ones, as well as natural world ones. Edges are where conflict occurs, where energies are exchanged and where the new emerges out of the worn and broken down.

 We don’t get beaches without wind and water wearing rocks away into grains of sand. We don’t see records of endurance achieved without humans pushing their minds and bodies to the edge. Similarly, we don’t see much art that hasn’t somehow pushed its creator, or its audience. It’s not just madness, but also emotional edges and spiritual crises that I’m talking about.

So we go to beaches as an analogue of all the edges we have experienced or want to experience. We stand on the shore where the water meets land to see things mix and collide, to see things destroyed, to see the sea, moment by moment, in changing light, be the agent of change we should be in our own lives.

Or, perhaps I would have thought to think of the ocean like this, instead of watching the open-mouthed joy of a staffy galloping up and down the shallows of the foreshore in the freezing wind, ignoring his human.

However, I challenge anyone to not find some worthy experience where the ocean kisses the land, or indeed, something worth knowing at any edge. I came away from what I thought was the edge of my life a few years ago with my life, despite the pain I experienced, while the kindness of medical people was learned anew.

I admit to feeling some triumph at successfully, if slowly, negotiating the seemingly endless vegetation covered dunes to reach a view of the wild ocean from a natural cliff top amphitheatre on the Bass Strait side of the peninsula. That was my physical edge pushed into a new achievement.

Perhaps, there will be some edge I can reach in my writing. Somehow, I will push myself to examine the themes and concerns of my stories with a more deft and decisive touch.

The below is one of my favourite poems, for the line about the ‘edges of his joy’ but also because it contrasts those who experience with those who describe, as well as those who, ahem, seek to mansplain to girls like the anonymous heroine of this poem, and those who just seem to know.

I think, when we make the journey to an edge, it behoves to be still for a moment, take it in, and listen like the orange tree.


The Orange Tree

John Shaw Neilson

The young girl stood beside me. I
 Saw not what her young eyes could see:
 - A light, she said, not of the sky
 Lives somewhere in the Orange Tree.

 - Is it, I said, of east or west?
 The heart beat of a luminous boy
 Who with his faltering flute confessed
 Only the edges of his joy?

 - Was he, I said, home to the blue
 In a mad escapade of Spring
 Ere he could make a fond adieu
 To his love in the blossoming?

 - Listen! The young girl said. There calls
 No voice, no music beats on me;
 But it is almost sound: it falls
 This evening on the Orange Tree.

 - Does he, I said, so fear the Spring
 Ere the white sap too far can climb?
 See in the full gold evening
 All happenings of the olden time?

 Is he so goaded by the green?
 Does the compulsion of the dew
 Make him unknowable but keen
 Asking with beauty of the blue?

 - Listen! The young girl said. For all
 Your hapless talk you fail to see
 There is a light, a step, a call,
 This evening on the Orange Tree.

 - Is it, I said, a waste of love
 Imperishably old in pain,
 Moving as an affrighted dove
 Under the sunlight or the rain?

 Is it a fluttering heart that gave
 Too willingly and was reviled?
 Is it the stammering at a grave,
 The last word of a little child?

 - Silence! The young girl said. Oh why,
 Why will you talk to weary me?
 Plague me no longer now, for I
 Am listening like the Orange Tree.
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One book counts

Author Tanith Lee passed away earlier this year. It was only then that I realised what an amazing catalogue of work she produced. I have said elsewhere that I still have a copy of her Castle of Dark. It left a profound impression in my young mind when I found it. It was lyrical and mysterious with duelling perspectives that kept me enthralled. And, it was complete in itself.

Sometimes I am curiously incurious. I read the her book, loved it and never found or read another thing by Lee since. This is contrasted to reading all the hard back Asimov novels our library had, everything Douglas Adams wrote, the Little House on the Prairie series,  Magician (and the rest of them) and years before the entire shelves of The Three Investigators my teacher owned.

However, unlike so many books Asimov included, Castle of Dark left a lasting mark on my imagination. Perhaps, it was all I needed at the time.

There are other lone titles I’ve read that I remember more fondly than a slew of books by the same author, such as I Heard the Owl Call My Name and of course, To Kill A Mockingbird. In time, others will come back to me.


The below is what was posted on Lee’s site at her passing.

Tanith Lee: “Though we come and go, and pass into the shadows, where we leave behind us stories told – on paper, on the wings of butterflies, on the wind, on the hearts of others – there we are remembered, there we work magic and great change – passing on the fire like a torch – forever and forever. Till the sky falls, and all things are flawless and need no words at all.”

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Lessons from rejection

Where I have the most experience as a creative writer is in the submission rejection process. No, no need to get all sympathetic and tut tut. It’s true and it maybe true for a while yet, for a myriad of reasons. On the bright side it indicates I’m still sending stuff out there.

And that’s a good thing.

Anyway, in my previous post I mentioned good and bad submission rejections.

To misquote Tolstoy, all acceptances are happy, but each rejection is its own thing, but can be loosely grouped, as follows.

The Quickie

A quick rejection is ripping off a band-aid. It’s surgical and there’s some wincing, but no deep pain. It speaks to no fuss editors who know immediately what they want and, more importantly, don’t want. They’re not overly helpful, except for my own quest to identify where my writing might fit. Clearly, it’s not with these types, but with this sort of rejection, it’s just a matter of moving on. There’ll be no feedback and probably not even an email if they use Submittable or another online form. Sometimes these rejections are within minutes of a submission, other times a few days.

No, don't tell me, you've shut down the publication and I have to find information about this blindfolded?

No, don’t tell me. You’ve shut down the publication and I have to find information about this blindfolded with the help of doves and a peacock?

The Complicatio 

The complicated submission process begins with an email that is sent to a publication that promises a response within several months. Those months go by and nothing. After a further wait, a tentative email inquiry gets a response about how it was missed entirely or how their initial email response went astray. Either way, there’s some kind of fractured email trail, and a long wait. It’s more annoying if they don’t want you to submit the story elsewhere during this torturous experience that still mostly ends in rejection. Always check the email address, always check your spam folder.

Eternal Silencio

This leads me to the radio silent submissions. You send your piece off, all happy and excited and then…nothing. Forever. There is never a response. Sometimes it’s because the publication is defunct but never let anyone know, by say de-activating their web presence/or disabling their email accounts.

Then some guidelines state publications will never inform you of rejection – only of acceptance – which is fine, I guess. Other times, it’s just that something in their submission app or email went wrong and secondary requests also fail. After this, I tend to think it’s the universe sending me a message and that message is: move on. But please, if you are closing your publication down, or even resting it for a bit, put a notice up.

The Beneficio

The good rejection is one that is delivered with time limits the publisher imposes, and may offer helpful feedback, or even encouragement. Most of all it feels personalised, even it isn’t so very particular.

The best way to identify a good rejection is how you feel upon its arrival. If you feel disappointed but also uplifted, or encouraged to keep writing then that is a good rejection. I have had a few of these, sometimes from competitions, where apparently my work has placed well but just missed out.

The not this,  but

Other good rejections indicate they think I can write but want something different, rather than I what I sent them, which is more than fine. Or they think what I sent was good but will be more appropriate next time.

It might be difficult to believe, but sometimes a considered, kindly and appreciative rejection can work (almost but not quite) as much wonder to soothe the soul of a writer as an acceptance.

Yeah, we've heard that all submissions were of a very high quality song before dude and it does make us tired.

Yeah, heard that ‘all submissions were of a very high quality, but’ song before dude and it makes me tired.

Via Negativa

The bad rejection is one by rote. It is probably worse than no response. I understand why formulaic emails are issued. They are often sent all at once to groups of writers because editors and readers are under time and cost pressures. Publications and competitions are flooded with stories and queries and begging letters. Yet, somehow the phrase that indicates everyone’s submission was of a high calibre is dispiriting. It’s essentially meaningless, because at least one person’s work was better and it’s worse when it’s sometimes difficult to tell why.

La Devastatio 

However, the very worst rejection is the public announcement of the winner or successful submission, timed to correspond with a launch gig or party that was never mentioned and you find this out later, even as you still wait at home for any kind of notification at all.

When the email of your rejection comes, perhaps a couple of days after this aforementioned celebration, whatever it’s tone, this missive just feels like the universe is grinding your face in the post-party detritus of someone else’s success. I respectfully say to these institutions, publications and competitions, please let authors know of the sequence of events regarding announcements so we can prepare.

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