Worldcon/Aussiecon appearances

the darkness withinI’ve scoured the Aussiecon4 program online and come up with these appearances at the convention, at Melbourne’s Convention and Exhibition Centre, for those who might like to catch up (outside of the bar area):

Saturday, Sept 4, 5pm

If anyone has a dusty copy of The Darkness Within lying around they’d like signed (or maybe an anthology such as Dreaming Again), I’ll be in Room 201-02 with pen in hand. (I believe Guest of hHnour Kim Stanley Robinson, amongst others, is also signing at that time.)

Sunday, Sept 5, noon

A reading in Room 215

Sunday, 1pm

Presenting a chat (for teens only) about the evolution of the vampire from Dracula to now, in Room 218.

Sunday, 2pm

I’ll be joining some very cool people indeed to support the anthology Dreaming Again (probably my proudest publishing credit), in Room 211 (keep your eyes, or ears, peeled, as there *might* be an audio version of my story ‘Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn’, available during the con).

Monday, Sept 6, 1pm

Joining a discussion on the taboos in dark fantasy, again with some very cool people, in Room 211.

I’m very happy indeed to be able to support the worldcon through this participation, so I hope some folks can come along to any and all of these: the more input the better :)

Recent viewing: Splice, Cube and Toy Story 3

Splice is a new SF flick from Vincenzo Natali, who directed Cube and has, over at IMDB, an intriguing note about having Neuromancer in development (about time someone did, if it’s Gibson’s awesome yarn).

It follows the travails of two scientists, the couple Clive (Adrien Brody, far geekier than his himbo turn in Predators) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), who create a new critter using animal and human DNA. It starts out really well. A little bit spooky a la Alien, some serious ethical issues being bandied about, the pressure of commercial considerations, ego: a lovely simmering soup of issues that we’re ready for, given the state of bioscience these days.

Then it turns into more a treatise on child-rearing — if you can’t do the time, don’t commit the crime — and then it kind of falls away into a warning about men being little more than dicks with the intelligence enough to get themselves into trouble, the primal drive to re-create, the way that upbringing can also spur a kind of hereditary legacy.

The acting is superb and the special effects stunning without being overstated, though I suspect it would not pay to dwell too long on the actual science represented on-screen. This is extrapolative SF: go with it.

Splice is enjoyable and skates along with some clever notions, but never quite fulfils the promise it carries.

I also watched Cube recently, and found it wonderful in its simplicity. A group of apparently ordinary folks, each bringing something special to the table, find themselves trapped inside a massive cube composed of many, many rooms, some with lethal traps. They have to work together to puzzle their way out before lack of food and water kills them. It’s a spooky premise because there is no prospect of outside intervention or even intention. What follows is a case study of the human rat under pressure, and how the characters, such diverse personalities, react is half the fun.

Toy Story 3 is the surprise movie of the year for me. I went only on the recommendation of a friend, and was swept away by its tight storytelling and enjoyable characterisation. It’s dark stuff, possibly too dark for really young viewers — some of the toys are downright mean and there are some nasty situations. The premise is that a bunch of toys, who have their own life when not under scrutiny by humans, face an uncertain future as their owner, Andy, prepares to go to college. Andy’s grown up, so what is to become of his toys: the attic or the dump? Themes of abandonment, hurt, family are prevalent, and they tug on the heartstrings with surprising power for the third in a series. Take a tissue for the closing scenes.

Kill your darlings aka I’ve got you now, you bastard (I think)

crime scene gifThere’s an axiom in the writing fraternity: Kill your darlings. It might have started with Faulkner or Twain or someone else entirely, but it’s a splendid piece of advice. It’s about not being precious, about letting the text be true to itself and keeping the author’s ego and cleverness the hell out of it. It’s about trimming the fat.

I killed a darling last night. It was the original scene that inspired a short story. It took four days, on and off, to realise it had to go. Four days of staring at a two-thirds finished yarn and wondering how it should end — who was doing what, how should they get what they wanted, who was stopping them, what did it all mean? And the final answer, delivered after numerous endings (amounting to more than 1500 words) had been written and discarded, was that the story had become bigger than that original scene. The pretty prose, the atmosphere, the spiffy dialogue: all surplus to requirements. Gone (or, at least, I confess, some tucked away in the glory box for a possible outing in another, more appropriate story).

And doesn’t it feel good? A bit like dieting like crazy (but, you know, healthily) and finally being able to fit *that* set of clothes.

Funny old game, this writing biz. After not having so much as looked at writing a short story in a couple of years, I’ve knocked over three in the past month with five or six others making wee blots on the drawing board. The first came after a day spent bleeding words over something else: 6000 thousand words downloading in a glorious rush in one day, needing not much more than some tinkering and polishing to reach a state I was happy with. Still haven’t got back to the abandoned idea, and maybe I never will. And since then, two more, squeezed with all the ease and joy of shitting razor blades: a thousand words excised from the overblown second (and I’m still not totally convinced it’s done) and this pesky third one still needing a damn good bit of work to make it shiny. But it’s there — I know how it ends (I’m fairly certain). It makes sense (I think). I’ve got you now, you bastard (I think).

It’s a joyful thing, isn’t it, to take that bare idea — a line of dialogue, a character, a situation — and explore it, tease it out, find out just what it’s all about and if it’s really worth sharing. At least, it is when it’s flowing. Not so much when it’s treacle, an idea that just won’t condense into a usable form. I have pals who hate editing, they find it boring because they already know the story; this is fine, as long as they still do the editing. I enjoy the editing because, whether the story popped out near right or had to be teased and goaded and agonised over, I love watching the raw form take a shape that’s (hopefully) pleasing to the reader’s eye. Even if it means killing your darlings. And maybe, *especially* if it means killing your darlings.

Speaking of short stories…

While I’m banging on about short stories, some folks who can actually write the darn things *really* well are scoring some serious recognition. Check out:

Ticonderoga going large on collections: Lucy Sussex, Felicity Dowker, Sara Douglass and Lezli Robyn slated for future release, with collections from Angela Slatter (one of two from this awesome writer out this year — over-achiever!) and Kaaron Warren being launched in only a few weeks!

Twelfth Planet Press is adding to its enviable catalogue with a collection from Marianne de Pierres.

And Cat Sparks is due to see a hot collection of her shorts entitled The Bride Price on the shelf this year!

These are just some to arrive in my inbox recently; Australia is a hotbed of writing talent at the moment and there are small presses popping up all over the place championing those with the chops. Expect to see plenty of them taking a bow at Aussiecon, where not just collections, but a bunch of drool-worthy anthologies are also slated to be launched.

And now for the long stuff

And while I’m at it, I direct your attention to the Queensland Premier’s literary awards, where spec fic from the likes of Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld makes a big impression in the YA section, and my former workmate and all-round good guy Noel Mengel has been shortlisted in the emerging Queensland author section. w00t!

Afterlife — spirited television

Afterlife tv series

I finally caught up with the 2005-06 British television show Afterlife last night, wrapping up the concluding episodes of the second, final series, and I’m … touched. It’s sublime viewing, elegant and spare and raw, at times uncomfortable and others moving, and not always giving what you might expect but always satisfying.

Robert Bridge is a psychologist who sets out to tear down a medium, Alison Mundy, but finds that debunking her links with the spirit world is harder than he’d expected. Both he and Alison have their own ghosts to contend with over the short, sharp, beautiful 14 episodes, penned by Stephen Volk.

Lesley Sharp is brilliant as brittle Alison, lonely and alcoholic, beset by her ‘gift’, while Andrew Lincoln plays the cool scientist perfectly, revealing tenderness and vulnerability as the series goes on. The acting across the board is sensational, adding to the visceral feel of this beautifully shot, beautifully crafted story.

There are no easy answers, no glamour, no outrageous special effects. It’s simply some of the most effective, affecting television I’ve seen in ages. I can’t believe it took me this long to find it. I suspect last night’s conclusion will haunt me for a very long time.

Tip: don’t go hunting previews for this on YouTube or elsewhere. If you catch one of the segments from the final episode, it will spoil the series.

Bret Easton Ellis and a writerly weekend

american psychoI had to laugh when an audience member got to ask a question of Bret Easton Ellis and opened by telling him that she, like many in the audience, was an inner-city hipster and out here on a Friday night and her students were kinda dumbstruck by that and didn’t even know who he was. I’m glad she’s in touch with her self-categorisation, her calendar and her righteous outrage that the young’uns don’t share her taste in authors. The audience questions were, by and large, infantile and embarrassing, mostly concerned with being twee and trying to suck Ellis’s dick and do drugs with him, not necessarily in that order, which only made me appreciate his performance all the more. And it was a performance, one that reminded me a bit of Lunar Park in which the lead character is called Bret Easton Ellis, the guy who wrote American Psycho, but it’s not really him, is it …

I felt a little more sorry for Alan Brough, conducting the interview at the grand ol’ Athenaeum: this was the last night of Ellis’s Aussie tour and he was really interested, kind of, in deconstructing the whole book tour thing. I think. Ellis was hard to know, based on that performance: charming and assured, happy to ramble regardless of the question, and often reflecting on the evening’s Q&A as though something of a spectator himself. Here’s a writer still living in the shadow of American Psycho, who might possibly only be judged by that book, though I enjoyed his (much later) Lunar Park much more. The Delta Goodrem saga reared its head, a reminder of how shallow our interests are, and how easily Twitter allows us to prove it (really: why would a comment about enjoying a music clip spark such outrage?).

For the writers in the audience, I got this out of it: Ellis says the novel’s evolving, he prefers working on television as a story-telling device, that obsession is a key driver for writers (once a story gets into your head, you have to write it eg his most recent, Imperial Ballrooms).

Slippery, Ellis, but enjoyable and slick and I suspect he gave the inner city hipsters what they wanted (blow and blow job aside).

Anyway, it was a good springboard into the weekend, spent in front of a wood fire not far from a rather windy, rainy, weed-strewn beach on Phillip Island, where the coffee pot ran hot and the ideas dribbled onto the keyboard in chaotic fashion. Today was largely a wash, spent mostly on the couch with a book, but that’s important too: downtime, a chance for the noggin to relax and kick things around behind the scenes, and guilt-free, despite the sound of two other keyboards tap-tap-tapping and word counts being bandied around like some kind of auction. All in all, a very pleasant, writerly weekend, a fine priming for a week of words (I hope!).

The ‘adobe’ method of story writing

muddy boot
We’ve all got our own way of doing things — a little idiosyncrasy when it comes to putting that story, whether long or short, on the page. There are the planners who meticulously account for every scene and every nuance before even putting pen to page. And on the other side of the coin, there’s the chaos merchants, who take the character or the situation and just run with it. Usually I fall somewhere in the middle, using that first, seductive scene to lily-pad my way across the pond from beginning to end, with just a few key scenes in mind, and almost always the final scene, drawing me on. But lately, and maybe it’s a comment about my frame of my mind, I’ve been using what I call the adobe method (nothing to do with a certain software firm, rest assured), so named (however inaccurately) because it amounts to throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.

While it sure is fun mixing the stuff and flinging it willy nilly, the end result is far from pretty. There’s a lot of wastage, and it can be hard to get it out from under the nails. It amounts to taking a character or two, and just letting them run with it: a mud fight of scenes and characters, often contradictory, some even overlaying previous scenes like a big stack of pancakes with different toppings. Somewhere in there, I hope a story starts to emerge. That some connections might emerge that suggest there’s actually some kind of structure in there.

I’ve found a handy tool to help with this process, whether an 8000 word short story made up of vignettes or what will eventually be a novel. Simon Haynes as kindly made his yWriter free on his website, and while I’m using about a tenth of its features, it sure is an easy way of keeping track of the swirling scenes. Being able to drag and drop scenes is so much easier than cutting and pasting inside a Word file, and being able to see them all on the one screen helps the patterns emerge — much easier than my former method of keeping a spreadsheet. There’s an automatic word count, as well. And once the order is in place, one click exports the piece as an rtf with scene breaks in place — neat. For the adobe story builder, it’s a damn fine fit.

The Jezabels – oh my

A concert review from a workmate sent me trawling the interwebs for further info on Sydney outfit The Jezabels and what a rewarding trawl that was. Based on the tunes available at their MySpace, they’re quite remarkable, due in equal measure to some delightful arrangements (think an Interpol or Arcade Fire base but more urgency) and the Kate-Bush/Martha Davis-on-barbed-wire vocals of Hayley Mary. They’ve got two EPs under their belt — an album should be huge — and they’re touring like mad things; one suspects this kind of percussion and singing should fire live.

Android Lust — the Human Animal

android lust album the human animal

The latest offering from Android Lust, Shikhee’s one-woman outfit fleshed out with a whole bunch of studio and live performance talent, is a slick affair. The edges of in-your-face album The Dividing have been filed off, but there’s plenty of sting in the lyrics and rewarding musicianship to boot.

The Human Animal opens with Intimate Stranger, with a NIN-like build of ominous synths and whispered male vocals, then Shikhee’s trademark siren call kicks in and the song evolves into a synth-laden rocker. The song title is perhaps indicative of what follows: a meditative though not necessarily quiet exploration of the base impulses of the human animal.

There’s an ongoing theme of obsession, lust, self-abasement, love gone awry — nothing new there for this artist — all humming along on the industrial beat with some superb touches: highlights from guitars and violin, heartbeat bass, and some captivating changes of pace.

What gives her music a real edge is her distinctive vocal style — the raw need is obvious, whether in earthy, rasping lows or that soaring, nail-scratching high — and canny phrasing. Saint Over is a good example — fuzz guitar and clever key changes, and a winning lyric: “Tried to show my concern while I thought
About my cat and my laundry”.

It’s not all industrial blur: check the strut and swing of God in the Hole, for instance, and the percussive drive of It’s On You, the quiet keys on the introspective 1minute30 The Return, the jazzy strut and drum break of A New Heaven.

There’s no filler here, each song distinctive within itself, yet fitting the overall feel of the album making it truly cohesive. Suspicions about a remix of God in the Hole closing out the album are laid to rest: it’s a sublime re-imagining, transforming a marching beat to a dirge and putting extra emphasis on the words. Nice.

The Human Animal shows further development, maturation perhaps (it *has* been four years since her last album), of an artist exploring the inner and outer self. It’s an album that triggers the urge to go back and load the stacker with the albums to date — this is the fourth studio LP — to track the ongoing journey of a remarkable talent.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People: that’d be today. And a time to think about those ugly questions such as health divides, sexual and substance abuse, unequal opportunities, exploitation … in between bitching about the iPhone reception being dodgy and the latte being bitter.

Drive-by Q&A at Angela Slatter’s place

egyptian god ThothAngela Slatter, who has a rather nice short story in the running for a Ditmar (see the finalists here — only a couple of weeks till the winners are announced at Dudcon!), has kindly posted a Q&A with me as part of her ongoing drive-by series. There is talk of fetishes, Dracula and doughnuts — I’m particularly chuffed to see a picture of Thoth on the page (that’s him above!)!