Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

What Good is Speculative Fiction?

 

RANT ALERT.

Last weekend, a good friend (during one of his frequent diatribes) looked me in the eye and said, “I’d prefer to read a good biography, because novels in the end are just fantasy, they’re not real and they don’t offer anything helpful.” In the context of his diatribe, he meant that fiction does no one any good except to switch their brain off for a while (as if that wasn’t worth something in itself). To be fair to my friend, he’d obviously forgotten what I write — he wasn’t attacking me, he was just being … honest … and a little oblivious…

Back in February, during coffee with another close mate of mine, he politely asked me how my writing was going and with glazed eyes and fixed smile he endured a couple of minutes of me telling him. It’s been obvious for several years that he just doesn’t “get” why I’m pursuing writing fiction. When I mentioned that I’d once tried to write a self-help book, he perked up and said, “Yeah? Would you concentrate on something worthwhile like that?”

Worthwhile, huh? Sigh…

So. Of course I’m a little irritated. But I’m also stirred to think through what good is speculative fiction? Am I wasting my time by the hours I spend writing it? Reading it? (Watching it?)

Ian Welke (author of The Whisperer in Dissonance) recently wrote:

John Shirley has been one of my favorites ever since his “Song Called Youth” trilogy came out in the 80s. “A Song Called Youth,” helped save me from depression then. Before I read it, I was depressed and angry. After I read it, I was still pretty much depressed and angry, but I at least felt like someone saw things the same way, and felt not so alone.

I want to say here that this nails one of the major “advantages” great sf/fantasy/horror (fiction) has over self-help or biographies — namely that teenagers actually read it!

Many many people have said similar things to me over the past few decades, about how a story has improved the quality of their life, gotten them through a hard time, helped them see the universe in a different light. Ian’s written comment here (used with permission) puts it beautifully.

Fiction also fleshes out values, concepts, ethical dilemmas, life stage issues and so on and so on. In ways that enable the reader to engage at a wholistic (right brain) level. And yes, I added a “w” to “holistic” — I meant to.  

In fiction, people get to do things we don’t have time to do in real life, namely focus 100% on the problem that’s confronting them. This can be enormously helpful to process our own painful feelings, tough decisions and general stresses.

Fiction can inspire the positive in us. Star Wars A New Hope inspired me at 11 years old to make my life significant, to affect the world. Grandiose at 11, sure. Thirty-whatever years later, I find I’ve worked hard to be of service to others and to refine myself to be the best me I can be. This yearning was captured and inspired by a “religious conversion” at 16, but it started at age 11 with a science-fantasy epic…and I believe God was behind me watching that movie too.

Rant over. Final word: fiction rocks.

…Maybe I should have written this as a story…

Ronald Malfi: 5 Questions & a Statement

  

I have to admit, I’d never read or heard of Ronald Malfi before picking up the Kindle edition of Cradle Lake.

But I’m bloody glad I have now.

I’ve just finished the novel and thoroughly enjoyed it. Great fiction should not only thrill you, it should take you inside a character’s personal problems with empathy. And thrill you. Cradle Lake does both. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work into the future.

I caught up with Ronald recently and assailed him with five questions and a statement…

PETE:  What did you read, growing up?

RONALD: I read everything I could get my hands on. Genre didn’t matter, the author didn’t matter. When I was about eleven, I found a box of old books in my grandparent’s rec room and spent the summer reading everything from Reader’s Digest condensed novels to Lolita by Nabokov. I cut my teeth on Stephen King with his fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon, and later discovered the wonderful prose of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the rest of the Lost Generation.

PETE:  Tell us about Cradle Lake: what was its genesis? What are you most proud of in it?

RONALD: Cradle Lake started out as a subplot that was ultimately excised from my novel, Floating Staircase. I really liked the relationship between the husband and wife, and their back story with the miscarriages and the wife’s subsequent depression, but it didn’t really fit with the themes of Staircase. So I cut it out and worked on it as a separate project, which quickly took on a life of its own. My wife was pregnant at the time of writing it, so my mind was already a mess with fears of becoming a father for the first time, and all the things that could go wrong in pregnancy. I’m most proud of the relationship between the two characters, how the husband has become so obsessive about taking care of his wife that he loses sight as to whether he’s actually helping her or hurting her.

PETE:  Exactly what’s engaged me the most in this novel. Where are you heading next in your writing?

RONALD: In May, my novel December Park will be released. It’s a coming-of-age novel about five teenagers growing up in the nineties who vow to stop a killer that’s murdering children in their hometown. It’s marketed as a thriller, but I feel it works just as well as a mainstream novel about childhood, friendship, and growing up. I’m very excited for this book to come out; it’s very personal to me.

PETE:   What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

RONALD: This is a tough question. Advice is a tough thing, particularly in this business, where there is no sure way to success and everyone’s experiences are different. There is one constant, though: to succeed as a writer, you must read and you must write. Every day.

PETE: What are you “into” (reading/watching) at the moment that you think the whole world should be into also?

RONALD: I don’t watch a lot of TV, though when I do, I enjoy independent films, genre and otherwise. I have very little interest in what Hollywood is doing. As for reading, I continue to read everything I can get my hands on. I’ve recently read John Fowles’s The Collector and Herman Koch’s The Dinner, which was fantastic. I prefer fiction that challenges the reader, that is artful in its presentation and eschews the familiar tropes of specific genres. That said, I find myself reading horror fiction less and less nowadays, as much of it is formulaic and disappointing.

PETE: What are your thoughts on this statement?  “Every character, no matter how noble/depraved/deranged/outrageous, reveals something of the author who created them.”

RONALD: By virtue of the craft, the author will always bring something of himself to the work he creates, to include the characters, but I think it’s presumptuous and somewhat simplistic to assume an author will either deliberately or subconsciously invite his own personal traits into these characters. Some authors do indeed use their characters as a pulpit to pronounce their own convictions, but I don’t think that’s most authors. I think it’s just the opposite—a good author will create real characters with real views about life that may or may not be completely in contradiction with the author’s.

***

Cradle Lake is available in paperback and ebook.

You can visit http://ronmalfi.com/ for more about Ronald’s other novels.

***

MORE 5 QUESTIONS POSTS:

From the mouths of … teenage fiction readers…

 

So we had three 14 year old guys (friends of Youngest Son) staying over last night for New Year’s. (The pyrotechnics are a whole other story.)

Over a brunch of hotdogs, the boys started talking about the Hunger Games books and films. My wife asked, “What’s better the books or the films?” Two boys shrugged. After thinking for a moment, the other (not my son, who sadly doesn’t read much) said this, quite seriously:

“Well. In the book, you can skip straight to the actual Hunger Games. In the film, you have to sit through an hour and ten minutes of crap first. So the book’s definitely better.”

I think this is instructive for writers, particularly writers of young adult ficiton and particularly authors seeking male readers under 30. As Montgomery Burns once said, “Get to the bloody point!”

Whatchoo think?

Sharon M Johnston: 5 Questions & a Statement

 

“Someone will die so I can live. I’ve come to terms with that.”

So opens SLEEPER, a new YA novel by Sharon M Johnston. I am 39% through the e-book as I write this and loving it (I only review and interview authors whose works I genuinely enjoy).

I recently caught up with Sharon via Facebook and fired 5 questions and a statement at her. Here are her responses…

PETE: Sleeper is excellent. What’s the main concept for the novel and where did it come from??

SHARON: Oh, to share the true answer to that would be giving away the twist at the end. It’s like a bomb goes off. What I can say is that I write speculative fiction and this is that in the truest essence. I speculated about two certain people were to meet and built the whole plot to allow these two people to meet and then the fall out from this meeting: “What if this person meet this person?”

Discussing it in non-cryptic terms, it’s about a girl, Mishca, who has a heart-transplant and then weird things start happening: constant nightmares, new superhuman abilities and seeing things that make her think she’s crazy. At the same time, altering facing death on the operating table, she decides to try and track down her birth parents. She tries hard to fight her freakiness and focus on her new boyfriend, Ryder. But that all falls apart when she goes to university and gets a bad case of love-at-first-sight with her university professor.

I’m not sure where exactly the idea came from. I like letting my mind wander and thinking of weird things. For example, my story Karma, which was runner up in the Australian Literary Review’s short story contest (which I’m now turning into a novel) came from the thought “What if there were people responsible for delivering Karma?”

PETE: I love “What if” questions… Do you or have you ever written for family members? If so, what was their response?

SHARON: I wrote my Basics of Life anthology short story GROWTH for my dad. He never read it as it was about his terminal cancer diagnosis and it was published after he died. I’m coauthoring a novel that I’m writing at the moment that’s based on a concept I came up with for my son. He has epilepsy and in the story the seizures are more like a superpower. He loves the concept and I’m excited for when he’ll get to read it.

PETE: That must be truly cool for your son. So, who have been the most influential writers in your world?

SHARON: Holly Black has definitely had a huge impact on me. Her Curse Workers series helped me find my preferred writing style and understand writing from a male POV. Angela Slatter has been somewhat of a mentor to me, and edited SLEEPER (as well as coming up with the book name and series title!). She’s not only a fantastic writer, but a giving person who has helped me understand the industry and how to improve my characterisation.

PETE: What habits have served you well as a writer?

SHARON: I use alpha readers when I write and I have found that that most effective way to combat writers block and pump out words (yes, Stacey Nash, I’m getting that next chapter finished soon). I used to write regularly at the beach when my husband was a lifeguard. That’s a habit I miss as it was great to be unplugged and focused on the words. I also write multiple stories at once. This may sound odd, but it ensure that I don’t lose an idea. Quite often I get to 20K and then return to my main WIP. Then I use an alpha reader to help me whip the rest out.

PETE: How much of yourself is in your characters?

SHARON: That really varies. Like a lot of authors, my first character, Mishca, has a lot of my traits. But there’s virtually nothing of me in Justin (Karma) or Jenna (novel I’m currently querying. I have one character that is more of me than Mishca, which is Kaylee. She’s in a WIP which is kinda-of autobiographical. I’m trying something different with a retelling of my senior year as though that’s when my dad got his terminal cancer diagnosis. It’s a bit odd, like a faux-memoir. But writing is about experimenting.

PETE: Please respond to this statement: Australian horror-fantasy-sf writers need to write Australian stories set in Australia.

SHARON: …

1. Because if we don’t, who will?

2. Because the readers around the world are thinking more globally and want to know about places beyond the US/UK boarders.

3. Because Australia is kick-arse interesting and needs to be shared.

4. Because we have a unique culture that fascinates people in other countries.

***

SLEEPER is available on Kindle and will soon be available on Nook and Kobo. Watch Sharon’s FB profile or website for news. Goodreads reviews here.

About the Author:

Sharon is a writer from Mackay in Queensland, Australia who has short stories published in anthologies and was also runner-up in the Australian Literary Review’s Young Adult short story contest with KARMA. By day she is a public relations executive and by night she writes weird fiction and soulful contemporaries while her husband, two sons and cat are fast asleep.

***

MORE 5 QUESTIONS POSTS:

What’s in the Cupboard? (August 2013)

… in which I take three words from my Word Box and use them in a short piece of creative writing.

The words:

  • stout
  • kobold (ghoul)
  • cavalier

And now the writing:

“I wouldn’t worry,” Charles yawned and shuffled closer to the fireplace.

Casting about for something with which to defend them, Wilma could not believe Charles’ cavalier attitude. And at a time like this! Kobolds to the left of them. Stout little mini-trolls to the right. She snatched up a poker and brandished its glowing red end with a flourish.

“I guess it’s up to me, then,” she said.

 

 

What’s in the Cupboard? (July)

 

Already missed my deadline for last month. No excuse. Shabby shabby blogger…

Okay. Time to write. The rules: I take 3 random words from my Word Box (a box in which I throw post it notes and index cards with cool words I hear/read) and work them into a paragraph. Good for the creative juices, good for developing the vocabulary. This is a lot like taking random ingredients from the cupboard and combining them into a workable meal.

And the 3 words are … (drumroll please):

  • ciliated (having cilia – Latin for eyelashes – slender protuberances that project from the much larger cell body)
  • teredo (a kind of woodworm)
  • clot

…Bloody hell. Deep breath. Okay…

I ran my finger along the wood of the starboard bulkhead. Miniature bore holes pocked the planks here and there, evidence of teredos. My finger stopped at one hole that had been filled with a resin, clotted like a scab. I leaned close. The resin was ciliated in places where something grew. Mold? Or something much much worse?

And now for your challenge: last month’s words were:

  • flounce
  • pleat
  • scabrous

What can you make of them?

 

Hooks

What makes you pick up a book and consider it? The cover art? A friend’s recommendation? The title?

Whatever it is, you probably pick it up, scan the blurb on the back then flick open the first page. If you’re like me, that’s possibly the make or break moment for the book. Like what you read in the first twenty seconds or so and you’re more likely to buy it (or borrow it if you’re standing in the library).

As an author, I’m endebted to writing buddy and editor Davidh Digman for introducing me to the 25 word test. In other words, if the the first 25 words catch the editor’s eye and hook them, they’ll persist…just like the browser in the bookstore. So those first words are vital to the success of a short story, a book, a series even. Consider these beginnings and let me know how they affect you …

“It was a bright, sunny day. Not, you might have thought, the sort of day for hunting ghosts.” (The Dark, James Herbert … I just love that play on “It was a dark and stormy night”!)

“All nights should be so dark, all winters so warm, all headlights so dazzling. The van jacked, stalled and quit on a drift, and the homicide team got out, militia officers cut from a pattern of short arms and low brows” (Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith).

“The man with the rubber boots stepped into the elevator behind me, but I didn’t see him at first. I smelled him though –” (The Street Lawyer, John Grisham).

“There should have been a dark whisper in the wind. Or maybe a deep chill in the bone. Something. An ethereal song only Elizabeth or I could hear. A tightness in the air. Some textbook premonition. There are misfortunes we almost expect in life — what happened to my parents, for example — and then there are other dark moments, moments of sudden violence, that alter everything. There was my life before the tragedy. There is my life now. The two have painfully little in common.” (Tell No One, Harlan Coben … Ok, so that’s a lot more than 25 words but that’s because the prose just pushes me along to the end of the first paragraph, and at that end I nod my head in appreciation…and have to force myself to put the book aside and pick up the next from my desk!)

“The loading dock smelled of turned milk, and the storeowner’s breath of beer and cheese. The odors of white people, Junior Inspector Keung Yeng thought.” (Illegal, Pete Aldin and Kevin Ikenberry … ok, self-indulgent, but I’m bloody proud of this opening that got us published in Andromeda Spaceways.)

“When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world. And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.” (Patient Zero, Jonathan Mayberry).

“I know there’s something wrong the moment I see the dead girl standing in the Wintergarden food court. She shouldn’t be there. Or I shouldn’t.” (Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson).

[Similar to the one above, but no less hook-y]: “Had the man in front of her not already been dead, Chess probably would have tried to kill him. Damn ghosts.” (Unholy Ghosts, Stacia Kane).

What’s in the Cupboard? (May)

 

New “segment” … or thread perhaps. This ain’t television after all.

I plan each month to complete a post where I take 3 random words from my Word Box (more on that in a mo’) and work them into a paragraph. Good for the creative juices, good for developing the vocabulary. This is a lot like taking random ingredients from the cupboard and combining them into a workable meal.

The Word Box? I have a box in which I throw post it notes and index cards with cool words I hear/read. From this box, this morning I have drawn the following words and will endeavour to first-draft a paragraph using them (correctly if possible):

  • flounce
  • pleat
  • scabrous

The corpse reached for him in a desperate flounce that was one part spasmic dance, three parts animal savagery. He flinched from the bars, stepped out of reach and studied the deader: it had once been a him, now shirtless, floral tie knotted too tight around the turkey neck, pleated suit pants brown with undefinable muck, skin scabrous and wet with body fluids. The only question, he thought trying to get a look behind the corpse, is if the fluids were its own or someone else’s.

Torturing the One You Love

 

Someone recently asked me — not what I write, but what I write about. I didn’t have a ready answer. I think I mumbled something about the abuse of power and people solving mysteries to save lives. But that really didn’t cut it. And upon reflection, it didn’t cover more than about 50% of my story-telling.

The question has been niggling at me for several days but I finally got the answer while I was making my morning coffee today. (Ah, Coffee, will your assistance never end?). Here’s my answer…

I write about

the way

the world/the universe/life

tortures/torments/dumps on/oppresses

individual human beings as well as members of other species

and about these individuals finding the strength/desperation/compulsion/honor to rise above it

 

This insight into my own motivation (which says a lot about the way I view the world/universe/life, I know)reminded me of something someone else said a few months ago. (Sorry, all you someones). They said that writing good fiction necessitates torturing your main character. Trent Jamieson actually wrote on his Facebook status a couple of days ago: I’m never happier than when I am beating the shit out of one of my characters. (I can’t believe I’m quoting Facebook statuses now!).

It’s a sad but true reality of spec fiction, action and thriller writers that we create these characters we love and make their lives absolutely miserable. We bankrupt them. We kill their lovers and sons and parents. We get them fired. We send hordes of demonic lizards to eat their grandmother and torch their village. We make them reach for solutions that cost them dearly, only to find those solutions don’t work. These heroes finally find their Answer … and the Answer has catastrophic consequences.

We afflict them with boils. We have a criminal shoot their parents dead outside the opera. We overrun their world with zombies. We get their wife held hostage with orders not to tell the FBI but the FBI find out anyway and stick their dirty noses in. We put a bomb on their bus that will detonate if the speed drops below 50 mph…then we put roadworks in their way. We give them the choice between being a superhero and having the woman they love.

Because if we don’t do these things, our writing is boring as bat guano.

If your own project is lacking pace or tension or pizzaz, maybe you need to turn up the heat on your main characters, or on someone they care for.

Returning to the central theme of Pete Aldin’s writing — sure, it’s not original, but the pain of my characters and the lengths to which they’ll go to push through it and be/create/find something better…this is what facinates me in ordinary people in the real world and it facinates me in fiction. And making those things shine/pulse/inspire is what I’ll keep reaching for in my writing.

No Time to Write?

 

It seems to me that the biggest block to us authors completing projects  isn’t writer’s block or procrastination; it’s actually the time factor.

As in “I don’t have the time to write.”

Hmm, “I don’t have time” is one way to express the issue. But I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. I’d prefer to express the problem like this:

 

I haven’t yet organised my time and/or valued my own writing talents enough to make space in my life to write.

You think that’s cruel? Simplistic? Well, feel free to discuss it in the comments below. (I said discuss it, not flame me). But for the moment, I’m going to go with that phrasing as the real problem.

When you make the decision to pursue your writing as a vocation, it definitely complicates life. You put flowers into a vase already full of water, some water will spill. Our time is limited to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, etc. And there’s lots of stuff that can fill it. Some of it is necessary. A lot of it is non-negotiable. (E.g. If you have kids or a partner, they need your attention. If you want to eat, you’re going to have to work to earn $$ for groceries.)

But there’s other “stuff” (horrible, lazy word, but I like it)…stuff which is negotiable and stuff which might have to  move the hell over and let us write.

What complicates your life?

As a life coach, I used to facilitate a short workshop entitled Less is More. In that workshop, we talked about “complicators” – things that drain our energy or clutter our lives or distract us from what we truly value and desire. Complicators are not just things that thieve our time, but things that steal our energy as well. Energy we writers could spend writing.

Complicators usually fall under one (or more!) of the following categories:

1) Shoulds – These represent the ideals and expectations of others for our lives. Some sources of shoulds include our peer group, our parents, our workplace, our neighbourhood or some media-driven ideal.

I’m not talking about the obligation to do good to other people, to care, to contribute. I am talking about unnecessary and unreasonable baggage other people pile on us, because they either have a selfish agenda for us or they have some lack of something in themselves which we wind up compensating for.

While struggling to carry your own shopping bags from the car, you wouldn’t add the burden of your neighbours’ bags at the same time. But we do something similar when we accept “you should”  messages without question.

What examples from your life come to mind when you hear this? _______________________________

 

2) Put-Upon Duties – these are specifically the negative form of responsibilities. I adhere to the belief that to be adult means to embrace responsibility and some sense of duty (as a parent, citizen or employee for example). However – like shouldsput-upon duties are the result of someone else deciding what we should do for them. They are dealt to us without consideration for our feelings and freedom to choose. These things are one-way streets. It’s wonderful to give to others without desire for compensation. But things become complicators when you actively resent them, or they drain your energy and rob you of precious time spent on your genuine responsibilities and passions.

What examples come to mind when you hear this? _______________________________

 

3) Unnecessary routines & tasks – There exist in our lives routines and tasks that are completely unnecessary and yet we maintain them unquestioningly (eg. ironing underwear; making the kids’ school sandwiches every morning instead of once a week and freezing them). Alternatively, it might be in the way that we do them: haphazardly, multi-tasking when single-tasking is more appropriate, settling for the familiar way when a more efficient way is available.

What examples come to mind when you hear this? _______________________________

 

4) HabitsWe all know what a habit is. Let’s consider three that some may  consider to be complicators – the Mañana Syndrome, the Hoarding Habit and the CCs Jingle.

i)                     Mañana Syndrome – the habit of putting things off until tomorrow (with the unspoken hope that tomorrow will never come for those things). “Why do today what you can leave until tomorrow?” One of the effects of this is the accumulation of unfinished tasks that start can clutter our thought space, our workspace or even our relationships.

ii)                   Hoarding Habit – “You never know when I might need that!” A cluttered world means a cluttered mind.

iii)                  CCs Jingle – remember the commercial for these flavoursome corn chips?  “You can’t say no!” [CCs, feel free to send the sponsorship cheque whenever you’d like].

Many people have extreme trouble in using that word: “no”. They have trouble saying no to corn chips, to people who ask them to “do a small favour”, their children’s demands for chocolate in the supermarket … and a host of unreasonable expectations. This desire to say “Yes” to all requests may be based in a sincere desire to benefit others. One of the problems with it however is that the person saying yes has lost the time and energy to comfortably look after their own needs and goals…Balance is needed! You’re going to come to a limit anyway, why not limit yourself to less “yes, I will do that for you” and more “Bugger off please, I need to write my novel”?

Which of the three habits discussed could be a complicator in your life? Is there a different habit you know of?  ___________________________________________________________________

 

5) DUMB Goals – Perhaps you are familiar with the concept of SMART goals? It’s a widely used framework used to assess, refine and improve goals for maximum outcome. It teaches us that unless goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timeframed, they probably won’t come to pass.

Despite this simple idea, occasionally we persist with a goal that actually fits within a different framework: DUMB.

  • Discordant (out of tune with who we are and the way we operate).
  • Unspecified (a goal too unclear in our own minds to even aim at).
  • Mood-driven (the goal we desire one day and despise the next).
  • Beyond control (the unrealistic desire to change things that we actually can’t).

Maybe the reason why you struggle to impress others in your work role is that it’s simply not your vocational “fit” – that’d be a D on the DUMB profile.  Perhaps the goal would be better achieved over a year, while we expect it to be complete in a month. Perhaps it is a flight of the imagination that never can actually be reached. Perhaps it’s the general pressure on oneself to be “better” without breaking it down it specific objectives which can be tackled one at a time.

What examples come to mind when you hear this? _______________________________

I would love to hear your thoughts on the above and any results your own reflection on these questions. Of course, I’m also interested in polite debate.

Read it. Reflect. And take your own life seriously, dammit!

 …Here endeth the lesson…