Getting crafty at the biennale

Photographic exhibit by Vanessa Brady

Photographic exhibit by Vanessa Brady

Wendouree circuit of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale has been achieved — with added craft!

First stop was breakfast at one of our favourite cafes, Eclectic Tastes, which is hosting a small group exhibit. Then:

  • chic French cafe Eau Verte for Nina O’Brien’s black and whites of kids being kids;
  • road kill at the Wendouree Performing Arts Centre — a few victims were missing (an aside: there are a couple of wonderful works by Aboriginal artists — curse me for not getting proper details — in the foyer, a feature of which is a hanging Marc Rogerson sculpture reflected in mirrors);
  • wildlife and landscapes on canvas at the Lake View Hotel (a woman with blurred face in a forest, kind of Blair Witchy, was my pick) — sadly, still running on the big brekkie so couldn’t snaffle a $15 lunch special;
  • Oodles of wunnerful black and whites ’80s concert photos by Jeremy Bannister, including — gasp — Sisters of Mercy! at Racers (hard to get up close to, though, in the busy cafe);
  • cool landscapes set against star fields by Matt Thomson at the Ballaarat Yacht Club (old spelling of Ballarat reflects the club’s founding in 1877);
  • close-ups of flowers at the Statuary Pavilion at the Botanic Gardens;
  • and finally, probably the day’s highlight, rural landscapes from Vanessa Brady on show at the Robert Clark Conservatory in the gardens. Brady also has some wildlife pictures, and also in the conservatory are sculptures by Kim Percy.

    A morning well spent, with plenty of variation and an admirable matching in most instances of theme to venue.

    Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage

    Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage

    Also in the Botanic Gardens is the Adam Lindsay Gordon Craft Cottage, a store run by the Crafts Council of Ballarat occupying the relocated home of the intriguing poet (1833-1870). A wide selection of handmade giftware is on offer, including exquisite timber pepper grinders and cute door stoppers.

    The biennale runs until 20 September 2015. The cottage is open daily September-mid June, otherwise at weekends and public and school holidays.

  • GenreCon — worth doing all over again

    genrecon logo

    So we’re back home, and now that the work has been caught up on — well, kind of — it’s worth reflecting on the good oil that came from GenreCon in Sydney this weekend.

    Twas an intimate gathering of writers from across the spectrum of crime, romance and spec fic — a melding of minds, techniques, loves and aspirations. And there were agents and publishers (Hachette, HarperVoyager, Momentum, Xoum, Clan Destine, Dark Prints … to name a few) with an interest in those genres. There were international guests Ginger Clark and Sarah Wendell and Joe Abercrombie:

    Ginger let us know about the tough times in publishing and how agents are stepping up to fill the gaps left by publishers, in terms of editing, marketing, production … the line is blurring, the publishers cash-strapped and unable to offer the full suite of resources that has, in the past, made them such a powerful cog in the publishing wheel.

    Sarah addressed author platform — the pros and cons of various social media, the importance of politeness — be a person, she said; converse, don’t declare.

    And Joe: he’s a damn funny, easy-going fantasy writer who seems just a touch bemused to be selling oodles, but highly appreciative, to be sure. It’s all about getting down and dirty with the characters for him; gritty realism over shiny heroics, though he admits there’s room for both, and more, in fantasy’s huge field.

    There was pitching for those with something to pitch — a 70 per cent hit rate for call backs shows some serious quality in the offing, and of the 30 per cent that dipped out, there was a praise for the pitch, even if the actual book didn’t hit that particular agent or publisher’s want list.

    The panels were compelling, ranging from industry to craft to workshop topics — Peter M Ball’s business model for writers gave me pause for thought.

    LA Larkin described plot as skeleton, characters as flesh and mood as blood: I like that, as you might expect.

    There was an awesome debate between planners and pantsers: there was a symbolic glass of water, and a smooch, some of the best insults since Monty Python …

    There was catching up and meeting social media pals, making some new friendships and reinforcing some existing ones. It was relaxed but draining. There was morning and afternoon tea and lunch as well, all of which enhanced the social aspect of the event.

    As usual with conventions, the hotel didn’t quite come to grips with the bar situation, but the staff were wonderful and, from this outsiders’ viewpoint, apart from the race day madness in the bar, all went to plan.

    Martin Livings launched his collection, Living with the Dead, as part of an Australian Horror Writers Association presentation, one of four by various genre groups.

    The opening night cocktail party was a hoot of an ice breaker, and it sounded as if we’d missed out by skipping the banquet and a presentation of romance titles, one featuring a platypus that created quite the stir.

    The good news: plans are afoot for GenreCon 2013, to be held in Brisbane. The calendar is richer for it.

  • In the aftermath of GenreCon, Conflux 9 — Canberra’s science fiction and fantasy convention, also the natcon for 2013 — has announced a pitching opportunity with Voyager’s Deonie Fiford. This is in addition to already announced opportunities with Angry Robot’s Marc Gascoigne. Noice. I’m really looking forward to getting back to Conflux, which has never failed to entertain.
  • 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.

  • 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.

    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.

    Writing round-up

    Writing: it’s easy, right? Take a couple of weeks, knock out that yarn that’s been banging around in your noggin’ ever since you read that thriller on your Gold Coast holiday back in whenever and reckoned, hell yes, once I’ve done the important stuff in my life, I’ll write a book and that’ll be luvly.

    Here’s a Facebook post from Ian Irvine about his new yarn:

    I’ve done 10 hard drafts of Vengeance, plus written more than 80 background docs on story planning, character creation and analysis, world-building and story analysis documents. And spent something like 2,800 hours on it thus far.

    Ian also has a handy bunch of info on his website: the truth about publishing, writing tips, marketing tips … well worth a long, slow read, possibly with note-taking.

    Meanwhile, I’ve had a ‘yes indeedy’ with a solid chuckle thanks to Patrick O’Duffy’s post about, mostly, punctuation that riles him. E.g.,

    (The Oxford comma) bleeds energy from the sentence like a speedbump on a suburban street, and dribbles into the eye like birdshit

    After the rain

    And finally, but most definitely not least, a minor crow moment. As you might have gathered from Ian’s post, sometimes, the yarns take time. They take iterations. They take hair-pulling and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This one here (well, you can’t see it, but trust me, it’s here, the recalcitrant bugger) has been a burr under my saddle for more than a week now, little more than a page or six of incoherent, barely related scenes, ideas, descriptions, dialogue lines … Damn it, just write yourself, why don’t you? Who are you and what do you want? It’s still not telling me. But it’s all very worthwhile when you get a mention in dispatches such as at this review of After the Rain* over at ASiF (where I have been known to drop the occasional review, myself).

    Also pleasing is the mention of Robert Hoge’s ‘The Shadow on the City of My Sky’, a gorgeous story that I saw when we were critique buddies way back when, and am very pleased to see in print and being deservedly praised. Peter Ball’s ‘Visitors’ was another of my favourites from that anthology; I’m glad it got tapped here, too. Peter’s work is awesome: check it out.

    So, the lesson from today’s internet surfing/procrastination is this: work hard, mind the punctuation, do your best and hope someone appreciates the end result.

    * I’m judging collections and anthologies for the Aurealis Awards this year, but After the Rain is not up for consideration due to its publisher being involved in the awards. So I can say with a clear conscience that the antho, regardless of my story being in it, is very solid indeed.

    Up the critique without a paddle

    texas chainsaw massacreTo be critiqued or not to be critiqued: that is the question.

    Or at least, it has been lately: two of my crit group have blogged on the subject. Lamellae offers a five-post selection of pros and cons; Ellen Gregory ponders the ramifications of a recent going-over of the first chapter of a new work in progress.

    It’s a bold move, submitting such raw copy to a crit group. After all, the group is looking for problems, and damn but they will find them! The question is, how relevant are they for a still unformed work? The issue for the writer is, what are they looking for from the critique — world building and character weaknesses, perhaps? Does this feel like the right place to start this story? The worst thing is to allow the feedback to derail the work (unless, of course, it’s really that dire; sometimes, you need someone to tell you to ditch stuff, even stuff you love, because it just doesn’t fit — ah, my darlings, dead on the cutting room floor). All those drops of red blood, I mean ink, coming from the marked-up pages aren’t necessarily a death sentence. But yeah, watch your adverbs as you progress, sort out that character’s motivations, make the magic system a bit more transparent … take those informed opinions on board and you might save yourself a bucket-load of rewriting later.

    A crit group is invaluable, to my mind, as long as it is a group of peers who will, constructively and respectfully, push you to be the best storyteller you can be. It’s easier if that respect extends to the genres in which you work; my experience in workshops with mixed genres has not been as fruitful as those where everyone came in with a base understanding of how the supernatural ‘works’, or at least were open to the concept. In much the same way that I struggled to care about the minutiae of X and Y’s relationship: when does something happen? Mind you, the uninitiated can be great for spotting logic holes and areas that have been glossed over because of an assumption of what the reader will already know the tropes.

    There’s a skill in not only giving critique but receiving it. Thick skin helps. A preparedness to take on board the advice, in hand with an instinct to know what is relevant and what isn’t. Different critiquers have different strengths: some are great at logic and story, others at character and motivation, others again at grammar. A group with a mix of strengths is very handy for getting that story as tight as it can be.

    The simple fact is, that the author is, more often than not, a terrible editor of their own work. They know the story, but not necessarily the one that’s on the page. They have blind spots, to both story and to prose. There are two tricks for better self-editing: one is to read the work aloud, the other is to print it out in different fonts for each edit. Both help to highlight poor construction and break down the haze of familiarity. I always edit on paper, once I’m at that stage.

    And I rely on my crit group to save me from myself. And hope that, in return, I can also offer some useful advice. Politely, constructively and respectfully.

    On commentary writerly

    typewriter keys

    Blogs, blogs, blogs. Who can keep up with them? Nicole Murphy has some of the sting out of the Google Reader task by assembling a fine collection of recent blog posts about the craft and recent headlining happenings, both with a focus on spec fic.

    Further afield, The Creative Penn and Jay Kristoff both target steampunk in all its dubious glory but undoubtable fun, with Penn featuring Phoenix Rising, which sits on my to-read shelf, and Jay offering an ongoing history and commentary of the movement.

    Terribleminds offers irreverently good ways to make your characters interesting — pain is the primary method — and Patrick O’Duffy (who shares my love of Batman, bless) also puts characters through their paces. Make’em work, make’em hurt could be a motto.

    It’s great fun going through these blogs — am I hurting my characters enough has been at the forefront of my mind — because anything that makes you reassess your work has got be to be beneficial. A fresh approach, a new understanding of process, a way to break out of the comfort zone: all helpful and, indeed, necessary for the writer looking to develop. But at the end of the day, all the reading (blogs AND raw material — you know, actual books ‘n’ stuff) in the world ain’t gonna amount to more than interesting conversation at the bar if you ain’t writing.

    The winter’s day of our discontent

    flowers in sunshine

    It was one of those glorious winter days when it actually feels like spring: cherry blossoms beside the path, birds all a’flitter, wattle in bloom, sun just a touch too warm and bright coming through the leaves … It was a joy to be outside.

    It was the kind of day that makes it all the harder to turn one’s back to the window and take up, yet again, the keyboard. Not for the first time, I found myself asking, why am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be driving to Dromana for lunch or picnicking in the park or trying to find someone’s dog to take for a walk? A simple beer garden would do justice to a day like this. Some rhythm n blues by the bay, hell yes.

    But here I am in my imaginary world, a world that no one else might ever get to see.

    Why writers write is one of those topics that surfaces every so often, often followed closely by the observation that most folks believe that they can write: I’d like to write a book one day. Or, as Dmetri Kakmi confronted in a recent blog post, ‘I might be a bit of a writer myself’.

    jack nicholson in the shining

    All work and no play . . .

    The post was an eloquent and passionate defence of writing as art, or at the very least, vocation. In it, he posits that writers write because if they don’t, they’ll die. I get that. I tried to stop. I couldn’t. The voices just wouldn’t leave me alone, and my ego wouldn’t let them lie still on the page: I just wanted to share. Sorry about that. But hey, there’s always room for one more outback vampire story, right? RIGHT?

    Louise Cusack has offered some insight into what drives writers: why they use this medium to express themselves, to find a sense of belonging, to explore their world . . .

    Which leads to, why do we write what we write? These days, there is a real sense that writing can be a business: churn out the product, score big with throughput. McDonald’s for the literarily inclined. Hey, it’s a market: go for it. Not many jobs allow you to indulge your super spy / princess bride / secret life from home in your pyjamas and get paid for it.

    My only caveat there: at least learn the trade craft. I expect my plumber to know his tools; I expect my authors to know theirs. The art / industry grey area does not excuse ignorance: take a grammar course FFS.

    So, do we write the stories that so attracted us to reading in the first place? I know that a large part of what motivated me to seek publication of my writing was my perception of an absence of the stories I liked to read, set in my own country. Why did all these wonderful adventures have to happen in England or America? Why didn’t these people speak my language? Why did I have to translate their idiom to enjoy stories such as these? Snow at Christmas: WTF? Snow: WTF? (I have since experienced snow. I can see the attraction, but still: WTF?)

    dr frankenstein and his monster

    It's alive! Mouhahaha!

    I suspect many writers — the ones who see the craft as art or vocation, not just a money-spinner (and good luck with that) — get over that, grow bored with that little pond and go diving out into the wider ocean of possibilities. New genres, cross-genres; new platforms. New voice, new style, new terrain.

    They choose challenge over comfort, for both themselves and their readers. They’ve probably got something to say, and are seeking new ways to say it.

    Of course, finding a publisher who will want to take the risk on their talent spreading their wings, threatening to erode that almost mythical beast known as ‘the readership’ (you know it; it demands on pain of excommunication from its hip pocket the next book right now damnit!) … economic rationalism vs art. E-publishing to the rescue?

    There’s also a certain masochism in the writing game: parties missed, friends and family neglected, sunshine lost. All for the sake of the art. Or the job, if you think of it like that. The two probably aren’t mutually exclusive, but there might be some compromise in there. I don’t think anyone should be neglecting friends and family, not for art and not for job. Life’s too short. That’s the discipline, to not only write the work, but to not write the work. To make time for the important people who also deserve our attention.


    Not tonight, darling. I have to, um, write.

    So why write? It’s a largely anti-social and self-absorbed way to make a crust — if you’re lucky. It is, contrary to popular supermarket aisle opinion, not easy to deliver a well-crafted read: writing, editing, publishing, marketing.

    Bottom line: writing is fun. Taking that intangible inner life and transferring it onto the page for others to share and transfer into their own inner life (the creation of multiverses). Arranging and rearranging the words into the ideal form, so that the form itself is pleasing as well as the world so created. Playing god with the benefit of a backspace key. And all the richness of language, a global pool of knowledge and culture, to draw from. And I mentioned the pyjamas, right? Right.

    It’s worth missing a few days of sunshine. The question remains, though: how many? Maybe until it ceases to be fun. Maybe, that depends on some personal formula of discipline, external commitments, expectation and pragmatism.

    And maybe that comes down to who we write for. To what we want to receive from our writing: a few hours of distraction or escape; a pat on the back — from anyone; a pat on the back from someone we admire; filthy lucre; a warm inner glow. All of the above. Louise says,

    Many writers have gone to their graves without ever having published a book, perhaps never having shown their work to another soul, which sounds terrible and tragic, and it would be if they’d tortured themselves about that. But that only matters if the showboat part of us is the important part. What if the thing that counts most is the creation of the story, the liberation of the characters from whatever pocket of imagination they’ve been hiding in, out onto the page or the screen?

    There’s probably some analogy about trees falling in forests and stories unread in there somewhere, but it’s a nice day. The kind that provokes rambling, not just in the outdoors but on the page as well (so it seems). So I might go smell the roses. I’ll call it research, or recuperation, or downtime or somesuch.