Cornholed by a thematic devil wombat, and other writerly observations

“If you dance with the Devil Wombat, you get cornholed by the Devil Wombat.”

This is an example of a theme, as espoused by Chuck Wendig over at his blog: there are 25 superb points about the importance of theme to a story, and some have got me totally cracked up. Laughing and learning at the same time: gold. Plus, what’s not to love about a devil wombat?

In other news:

  • From theme to suspense: Ian Irvine, whose website I’ve recommended before due to his insightful advice on the publishing industry, has offered a whole bunch of summaries about building suspense in a story. There’s a bit of crossover, but overall, it’s good stuff.
  • The Australian Horror Writers Association, which fell into something of an open grave this year, looks as if it’s scrambling out, announcing a dedicated page for its mag, Midnight Echo (subs for issue 7, theme of ‘taboos’, open Oct 1 — OMG that’s tomorrow, where has the year gone?) and promising rejuvenation in the new year. The mag is having a subscription drive: you can win stuff.
  • Speaking of zombies, Cam Rogers has expressed his love here. And Chuck McKenzie’s Necroscope is still shambling along nicely, nom nom nom.
  • And Michael Pryor is, for those patient souls looking for almost guilt-free procrastination, has listed a vid of ‘how writers write‘.
  • And then there’s this (reported at the Guardian UK — where, non-writerly, you can listen to the whole new Zola Jesus album, Conatus, but having done so, I think it might be a slow burner, a bit like her Stridulum II which has great tracks but kind of wears all at once…): Amazon’s new line of Kindles, including the Touch and the Fire. Resistance to the juggernaut is becoming futile with the plummeting price point, restrained only by geography, it seems.

  • Good news: Louise Cusack, Zola Jesus — come on down!

    Found out last night that all-round nice person Louise Cusack will have her fantasy series given new e-life by Momentum, Pan Mac’s new e-pub arm. w00t!

    And in further good news, Zola Jesus has a new album out. Only heard the single, Vessel, so far, but it’s a corker. Meanwhile, the moratorium on buying new music means Ladytron and the Jezabels are also in the holding pattern. Jury’s still out on the new Evanescence album before it gets queued…

    And I owe Jay Kristoff a beer for the late-night ROFL his blog about Twitter gave me. (Speaking of blogging, that writer’s crutch or blessing or curse, check out this post from Patrick O’Duffy.) I don’t go on Twitter much, because I’m desktop-bound and I find Twitter to be the equivalent of white noise when FB (The Twitter Mix) is already frustrating the fuck out of me, but I found it curious that the past two times I’ve logged in, it’s to discover what Peter Ball is eating in Rockhampton, a town I once — twice, actually — lived in, both times for just long enough. The old place just hasn’t been the same since Cactus Jack’s closed down. Oops. I forgot this was the good news update. So, Cactus Jack’s is still serving those awesome chicken tenders in Cairns, or at least they were a year ago.

    Do keep an eye out for Lou’s Shadow Through Time, you e-reader types. She totally deserves it!

    And remember: writing fixes everything.

    Vale Sara Douglass

    Australia lost an influential writer today, when the writer known as Sara Douglass died from ovarian cancer. Douglass, 54, was at the sharp end of the Australian industry, the first Australian signed to HarperCollins imprint Voyager, in 1995; her Battleaxe series has won her a legion of fans. Her most recent novel, The Devil’s Diadem, came out earlier this year; a collection of short stories is due out later this year through Ticonderoga Publications.

    Douglass was open about her cancer, and her comments about it and the way our society deals with death made a strong impact on me when she first blogged them. I would highly recommend that post, The Silence of the Dying, to you, and further direct you to Alan Baxter’s response to the news of Douglass’s death, which mirrors my own feelings with simple eloquence.

    Douglass leaves not only lives she has touched and an enviable written legacy, but a message that deserves to be heard.

    An addition…

    Karen Brooks, a long-time friend of Douglass who has recently been treated for cancer herself, posted this beautiful obituary at the Voyager blog that gives some insight into the person behind the name.

    Stormlord Rising, Snow Crash, Kraken, The Broken Ones, Phoenix Rising: one of these things is not like the others

    Recent reading:

    stormlord rising by glenda larke

    Glenda Larke’s Stormlord Rising, book 2 of the Watergivers series, and quite superb. Just like book 1, The Last Stormlord (reviewed here). In which Larke beautifully uses landscape to sculpt her cultures, right down to the vernacular. Gives religion a thumping, stage-manages her rather large cast very well, manages to cause her characters a few headaches along the way as well. I was particularly chuffed at how book 2 feels quite self contained, while still managing to provide plenty of reasons to read book 3. Which I will do, very shortly.

    snow crash by neal stephenson

    Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Fair to say that this, along with William Gibson’s Neuromancer (gushed about here), is a core plank of cyberpunk? Still holds up, after all these years, even if no one has bothered to fix that bothersome literal role/roll model. Coolest pizza delivery peeps evah! Will soon be lining up for his massive Reamde — wish me luck.

    kraken by china mieville

    Kraken, what passes for a romp in the land of far-too-talented China Mieville. A little cloudy in its cleverness in places — inky, one could say — as a vibrantly realised magical London (nice nod to a previous short story concerning cartography, too) and uber-clever dialogue as cults and other interested parties are caught up in the tentacles of a plot to bring about apocalypse. Evolutionary stuff!

    the broken ones by stephen irwin

    The Broken Ones, in which Stephen M Irwin gives Brissie a haunted makeover while trashing the place. Occult conspiracies, a tenacious detective and true chills. It’s Irwin’s second novel and, IMHO, shows the maturation of a mighty promising talent. I’ve burbled on about this one over at ASiF. I’m quite looking forward to Irwin’s next book.

    phoenix rising

    And then there’s Phoenix Rising, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. Sadly, a few factors combined to hobble my reading of this one, the first in a series. I say sadly because I was, despite the steampunk lingerie on the cover, really quite keen, thanks to the combination of a Kiwi heroine and rather spiffy dialogue. But then there’s the solo attack in Antarctica carried out in thigh-high boots and a fur coat, the willy nilly distribution of literal and spelling errors, the (non-authorial) disconcerting use of American spelling in a story about a Commonwealth agency in Victorian London: I do hope the new world order of international publishing isn’t all about the lowest common denominator (that’s you, America, or rather, it’s not ‘u’). It certainly isn’t about proofreading, is it? Anyway, maybe it was my flu making me more ornery than usual, but I just couldn’t wade through the glibness and clumsiness. I’ll keep it on hand for another shot, because I really do like that librarian, sorry, archivist, on the cover sipping tea.

    The Waterboys and Fred Vargas: say again?

    A French detective on the trail of a vampire killer. Two Aussie blokes stealing water from a bunch of fascists. The connect, I hasten to add before tries to have me committed or at least reports me to Archery Australia for drawing a particularly long bow, is between the quote marks.

    Yep, dialogue.

    the waterboys by peter docker

    The Waterboys is Peter Docker’s second novel, and it’s a beauty. The Western Australian writer, who also has the acting string on his bow, has delivered a beautiful depiction of an Australia that never was but might’ve been/should’ve been/might yet be/never could be. It deals with a white bloke who’s in tight with the Countrymen: at their core, indigenous Aussies of Western Australia who forged an amazingly enlightened understanding with English colonists. Part alternate history, part science fiction, part fantasy, the rendering of landscape and spirituality is stunning. You can read a full review of Docker’s dystopian/eutopian vision at ASiF.

    One of the elements that really struck me about the book was the dialogue. It’s as sparse as that desert country, but it’s steeped in character and personality. As such, it complements the prose very well indeed. There’s very little information relayed, either, just the bare bones, because the story is not about explanation — it’s about acceptance. What will be, will be, already is, already has been: time is a very different fish to our Western linear or even circular understanding.

    For a novellist to convey so much information about story and character through virtual stillness is a hell of a feat.

    an uncertain place by fred vargas

    Fred Vargas, French crime writer extraordinaire, is at the other end of the scale, to some extent. I read her An Uncertain Place a little while ago because of the presence of vampires in the text — the crime under investigation relates to the generational damage caused by a family feud in the way back when, with an outbreak of ‘vampirism’ and the resulting bloodshed that followed. So, no fangs, but lots of chinwagging.

    Vargas is also a practitioner of sparse, in that the contemporary world is barely sketched. Paris? Pshaw. The inspector’s office? Well, there’s a cat on the photocopier, and it’s a very cool cat; it made me smile to read about it.

    I didn’t much enjoy the book — it is an English translation from the French but I don’t think that was a factor — for a couple of reasons, primarily the personality of the chief detective — kind of beige, really, and there’s a sacre bleu comment for Vargas fans — and way too many coincidences propping up the investigation.

    But two things I did enjoy: one, the way that little pieces of information, in this case mostly historical anecdotes about men eating unlikely things, kept cycling through the text, sometimes with different metaphorical impact. Tasty.

    And secondly, and this is where the bow string twangs even if the arrow goes adrift, the boldness of the dialogue, not just in execution but in display. I had to stop reading at one stage and flip back, because I realised that in the space of some three pages of almost pure dialogue, there were barely any dialogue tags. Admittedly, it was a one-on-one conversation, so keeping up wasn’t that big a task, but still … Obviously, Vargas has nailed her characters in their speech, to be able to pull that off.

    The upshot of the two works, and the reason for sharing, is that it made me think of all the nodding and gesturing and sighing and godawful stage directions I throw around in my manuscripts to try to keep the identity of the speaker clear.

    And then here are these two very different writers, both saying more with less, and saying it with a distinctive voice.

    I hear what they’re saying.

    Dickabram bridge’s 125th anniversary and the water that’s flowed under

    dickabram bridge at mivaThe Dickabram bridge at Miva is an unusual piece of architecture: massive pylons, that arch midway, the timber decking that rattles with every passing vehicle. It’s unusual historically, too, being one of few remaining joint rail and road bridges in the country — a famous other one, with arch, is the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

    The Dickabram bridge opened 125 years ago and made a massive change to its corner of Queensland. My great-great-grandfather recalls the strife and inconvenience of having to ferry produce across the Mary River in the days before the bridge. The delay in getting to market could be costly.

    How do I know about my ancestor’s travails as a primary producer at the turn of the last century? Because he left a memoir. The written word: you’ve got to love the insight into history it can provide, with all due care for its jaundiced eye.

    There was plenty of history at Miva at the weekend: oral, written, steam-driven.

    This spot on the map, little more than a couple of houses now — vacant blocks where the railway station and the shop used to be, but the QCWA Hall where I went to Sunday School is still standing and looking smart — had a massive population boost at the weekend. Caravan city. Music. Hubbub. All to mark the anniversary of the local landmark.

    The governor, Penelope Wensley, was there and all, amongst a bevy of politicians. She gave a good speech from the back of the truck that served as a stage: gentle humour and a mention of YouTube, evidence of decent research about the mighty span and the way life was back then, right down to the ghost of the bloke they say might, or might not, have been entombed in a concrete pylon. And she gave acknowledgement of the indigenous people, too: elsewhere, a few snapshots of Kanakas and Aborigines, if you cared to look on an otherwise white colonial day.

    On the stage with the governor was Will Nahrung, one of the chief organisers, a rellie as you’d gather by the name, a bloke who used to deliver groceries to our farm from the back of a big flat-bed truck, once upon a time. He still lives just up the road from the bridge, right next to that vacant space where the family store once stood.

    My uncle, Lex Kunst, was among the singers — country all the way, as you might expect when you’re surrounded by cane fields and paddocks dotted with beef and dairy cattle. Another relative, Don Nahrung, was among the exhibitors showing off machinery of yore: massive chainsaws and a steam engine, old vehicles and more pumps than you could point a dipstick at; one mob had a wall of electric fences.

    Up the hill there’s a cemetery containing my great-great-grandfather’s bones, and on another nearby hill there are the stumps of the house where he and his family and descendants lived, my dad and his brother and sister included. Maybe it was those stumps. Maybe it was that ridge. Maybe it was that fig tree. Landscape and memory not quite meeting. They left in 1949; back at the celebration, we saw a picture of the truck laden with their furniture crossing the Dickabram bridge.

    At the anniversary bash, the Queensland sun beat down and the dust rose underfoot. A local hall association sold $2 soft drinks, tea and coffee, and $6 burgers, and around the riverbank park the conversation was all about the years gone by, the weather, the good-sized crowd. The day, and the people, too, passed all too quickly, all caught somewhere between the then and the now.

    And down below, the river, mud-brown and languid, flowed on.

    Art and artifact and market value

    Alan Baxter shows a pretty cool head on the issue of the .99c prince for e-books, and his post also touches on another issue that’s been banging around since a writers’ group discussion a month ago: what’s my price?

    This comment from Alan really hit a nerve with me:

    I love getting contributor’s copies of books I have stories in, because I’m a vain fucker and like to point to the brag shelf and say to people, “Yes, I have work in all those anthologies. And those are my novels. Ahaha.” Shut up, I need validation.

    Validation. Yes indeed. Because I too like my trophy book, however vain that may sound. Because when the doubt sets in, as it frequently does, it’s comforting to look at a shelf of published works and say, well, those editors all thought my work was okay. So, maybe I should turn the TV off and press on with this yarn.

    The thing is, who are those editors? What kind of benchmark are they setting? Is that anthology something I’m proud to have on my CV, or is it just a another centimetre of paper adding weight to the shelf?

    It all comes down to what the writer wants. And how much they value their work.

    I’m inclined to agree with Cat Sparks, who wrote earlier this year in WQ magazine that, for someone who wants to show they’re serious about their writing, one byline in one well-respected title is worth more than 20 in no-name nil-visibility publications.

    Your CV — your bibliography — is an indicator of the kind of writer you are: quirky, top-shelf, developing, esoteric …

    There’s a market for any story, I suspect. There seems to be no shortage of cowboys roaming the internet range, offering to publish your finely crafted yarn in return for ‘exposure’. Not even a contributor’s copy, but they might offer you a discount to buy your own. These outfits strike me as being particularly predatory, using their contributors not only as material but as a primary market as well.

    Of course, there isn’t a lot of money in publishing at the bottom end of the scale. There’s probably an argument at the moment that there’s not a lot of money at any end of the scale, except for those few exceptional sellers who help finance the rest.

    One pay scale that, anecdotally, seems to be increasingly common is the royalty share. It’s nice of the publisher to count you in in the profits, even nicer if that’s in addition to an up-front payment and/or a contributor’s copy, but I wouldn’t be holding my breath waiting for the cash to roll in. Take a look at the formula being used to calculate the royalty, the lifespan of the contract, the likely sales of the antho … It is at least a gesture and it does encourage the contributors to help market the antho.

    And then there markets that offer no payment, but contributor copies. I don’t mind this tier at all. It’s honest and it’s contractually clean, and it shows respect for the contributors. It’s your story; of course you want to see what we’ve done with it. Here, show your friends …

    And hey, if you can get someone to actually pay you money for your work, a token payment or otherwise, all the better. That’s a serious benchmark. That’s a sign of commitment and professionalism (you hope).

    Some anthologies just sound so cool, you want to be in them. Some magazines have serious cache. Some themes stretch your boundaries, challenge your abilities. Some are published for good causes. Some have ace editors. All good reasons to submit, regardless of the pay packet.

    It’s fairly common to hear a writer squee, not so much about being in an antho, but about who else is in it. Yeah, there’s a buzz, rubbing shoulders with your role models.

    I suspect, too, that your requirements from a market might be more generous if you’re prolific and able to pepper the groovy anthos at all levels of the food chain.

    If you’re like me, and squeezing out a short story is akin to pulling a length of barbed wire in one ear and out the other, then you probably want to make those sales count.

    Me, I like the pretty, even more than I care about the money, in some ways. Money is good, but money goes away. That book, it lingers. I like a book that looks good, that has an editor who tries to get the best out of my story and a publisher who thinks enough of my work to, at the very least, give me my trophy for effort: my contributor’s copy. In the flesh. On the shelf.

    And then, the art

    You might notice that the word ‘art’ is contained within ‘artifact’. In the case of books, that’s not the spurious segue it might at first appear to be. Part of my love of physical books is the art: the cover, most obviously, but the stock, the font, the layout, the feel, the comfort … It’s the same reason I still by CDs as my first option.

    carrotLee Battersby has been exploring not so much the physical art of the artifact, but the actual art of the story. I liked his take on it, as illustrated by a carrot — yes indeed! — very much, and added my two bobs’ worth at his invitation.

    Twelfth Planet Press seeks novels

    Alisa Krasnostein (recently profiled over at Locus) has announced that her Twelfth Planet Press will be opening its doors to novels in January. The press has made a major impact on the Australian publishing landscape; this is an exciting development!

    There have been a number of new doors opening for manuscript submissions lately. Bring it on!

    Publishing’s dark clouds and silver linings

    I side-swiped the .99c price point for ebooks in last night’s snark, and it’s something that does concern. Fortunately, I found this morning that someone else (that would be Patrick O’Duffy) has freshly minted what I was going to say. And more besides.

    I’ve come across so many people with Kindles who only use them to download free books – and then almost never read them, because it turns out they don’t want to read Moby Dick, they just want to feel like they own the book

    O’Duffy also links to a discussion at Terrible Minds about the pros and cons of the .99c price tag and how it can be used as a marketing tool.

    For my bit, I can understand trying to make a swag through throughput, but I can’t help wondering what pricing a book at less than a cup of coffee says about the product. I realise that you can by dross from a mainstream publisher priced at over $20; that in books, quality is in the eye of the beholder; that you can find favourite authors languishing in the remainder bin for the price of an espresso. But don’t you just want to save them from that? Don’t you say, oh man, that is worth so much more!

    Thing is, books aren’t like tables and chairs; they aren’t purely functional products. They’re art, and nowhere more than in the art world does the adage that, something is worth what someone is prepared to pay for it, hold true. For me, a book is worth a damn sight more than .99c (especially one that I myself have spent months and years honing), but I guess if I was e-reading and saw something I liked in that particular bargain bin, I’d be saying ‘score’ and downloading it.

    So I’m not preaching or even protesting, really; just conflicted.

    O’Duffy has also linked to two items that caught my eye arising out of the Edinburgh Book Festival but I hadn’t got around to pondering. One, a dire prediction from Ewan Morrison about the future of publishing (to my mind, a dire future for publishing is a future without editors), and the other, an analysis of the uncertain times from Lloyd Shepherd.

    An example from Morrison:

    The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

    And from Shepherd:

    So where does this sense of authors being squeezed come from? It could simply be a sign that publishing, as an industry, is becoming more commercial, more competitive, more efficient. You may not like that. You probably don’t. There is a profound queasiness which breaks out at the conjunction of art and business. But the pressure is definitely there.

    I’m quite tired, already, of the ‘death of the book’ scenario. We’re talking semantics, splitting hairs between paper and pixels, and I think that people such as myself who prefer the reading mode of a paper book will always be catered for, though perhaps at a price. As e-books, with their non-tree and space-saving advantages and the extra functionality that comes with being essentially a website (see, I learned something at Bookcamp), fill the middle ground now occupied by mass market paperbacks, paper books are likely to become objects of desire: beautiful stories beautifully packaged.

    I’m not even that concerned by the rumoured death of the author. The industry has always been a crap shoot, in which some crap sells gazillions and some truly talented writers get crapped upon, languishing inside their niche of true believers. If anything, e-publishing means more crap to sift through now that the established publishing filters are being broken down — new filters will arise — but those niche talents will have a more accessible audience. At least, those who can harness the potential of the new publishing reality, whatever that turns out to be.

    Dymocks joins the POD bandwagon

    I saw this headline on a blog post tonight: Dymocks announces game-changing publishing operation set to benefit most writers.

    Wow, I thought, can this mean that Dymocks has finally dropped its opposition to parallel import restrictions? Can I rejoin the ranks of Dymocks’ Booklovers?

    No, and no. (Yes, those two things are related.)

    The gushing headline in fact refers to the recent announcement that Dymocks is launching a printing service for print and e-books, called D Publishing. It’s due to start operation in October, which is probably when we’ll get a look at their cost scale.

    Reading between the lines, it sounds like most every other print-on-demand printer in the market. You pay them money, they print your book (in paper and/or pixels). The more you pay, the more they do for you. I can only assume it’s being hailed as ‘game-changing’ because Dymocks already has its chain of stores dangling the carrot of possibly stocking books printed using their imprint. More on that later.

    I’m not quite sure how another POD provider in the market is going to ‘benefit most writers’. It will certainly benefit the oodles of frustrated writers who are pursuing self-publishing, by giving them another choice of printer — note that, for example, Lightning Source has now opened an Australian office, offering easy access to UK and US markets. So maybe there’ll be some cost competition for the likes of Sid Harta and Zeus to consider.

    Dymocks is also talking about opening up its Booklovers community as a kind of communal feedback service on works in progress: that’s a cool element for sparking ongoing discussion about the WIP. I’d advocate thick skin, as with any critique group, and a solid sense of self-belief before flinging the baby into what could be either a piranha pool or a flock of sheep, or simply a big puddle of meh.

    Printing is probably the easiest part of publishing these days, whether on an order-by-order basis or a whole swag of copies for you to hock from your car boot.And we’re seeing a stack of niche small presses opening up, operating of a variety of models: advances, royalty share, sheer old-style vanity.

    Dymocks is, like many existing printing firms, layering its services with editing and design services — presumably there’ll be a sliding scale there, too, and if it results in less hideous computer-generated, unreadable and plain ugly self-produced book covers, hooray. A text relatively free of typos and literals would be pleasant, too (this includes you, lazy and tight-fisted major publishers).

    And for the self-publishing author, there’s the big hurdle — distribution — which is where Dymocks, with 17 per cent of the market, does carry a big carrot.

    Dymocks is talking about, undoubtedly for a price, offering the option of using their imprint and accessing their sales channels. This is particularly good news for those who want paper copies, especially with Aussie distributors doing it tough.

    There’s been something of a massive exhalation of relief thanks to e-publishing meaning no requirement to trudge satchels of books from book store to book store with a pleading expression and the incomprehension engendered by that bookselling chestnut, right of return. But e-publishing is only one segment, and it’s a growth industry: the interwebs are filled with e-chaff. Having product readily available is one thing; having people know that it’s available is another entirely. Convincing them to buy it, well, that’s the key, isn’t it.

    Book buyers haven’t quite discarded their love of bricks and mortar shops just yet. And e-books still don’t have the cache of the printed product, especially when they’re marked at .99c.

    Other advantages of going with an Australian-based company, rather than, say, or Smashwords, are paperwork and postage. My understanding is that you can avoid a whole lot of, for example, American tax documentation by going local, and anything that makes it easier to set up the business and then run it must be a good thing. And having the books printed in Australia means domestic customers save cash and time on postage. Access to overseas outlets means saving for customers in those markets, too (cf the Lightning Source comment).

    It’s an interesting move from Dymocks, now enjoying a Borders-less market, and a wise move to shore up that vertical integration thing they talk about in economics classes. The company has seen an opening that it’s well placed to exploit. The stats definitely show there are plenty of punters out there willing to throw their money at the great lottery of self-publishing.

    It will be interesting to see how Dymocks structure their operation: will there be separate imprints reflecting the level of money spent, for instance — Dymocks Deluxe: guaranteed copy edited/proofread/structually sound?

    The thing that struck me, back in the great PIR battle of 2009, was that Dymocks and their economic rationalist allies didn’t really care about books at all. They cared about product and price. Where that product came from didn’t matter a jot, as long as it could be obtained cheaply. There was a profound disrespect for Australian content and ignorance of the role of self-generated literature in a given society.

    So the cynic in me takes claims of some kind of altruism towards Australian authors on Dymocks’ behalf with a grain of salt.

    I hasten to add, however, that on an individual store basis, that does not necessarily hold true. I know of stores in Melbourne and Brisbane where the local managers have been extremely supportive of writers within their community.

    The beauty of being the printer, regardless of the extra services offered, is that you take no risk. It is very much a service “driven by the author”, as Dymocks CEO Don Grover says. That means the author ponies up the money; the printer doesn’t have to filter a slush pile, pay for editing and design, whatever marketing they can find the spare change for. There’s no advance to pay, such as they are these days.

    So, well played, Dymocks, and welcome to the new publishing landscape, where even the word “publisher” is up for grabs in these so-very interesting days.