They Are Us – an exhibition of words made art

They Are Us exhibition logoIt’s only two weeks until the official opening of the They Are Us ekphrastic art exhibition, and it’s getting exciting!

The exhibition has been a year in the making, combining the talents of 20 Central Highlands writers and the Soldiers Hill Artist Collective.

It’s a follow-on to the Weathering the Future exhibition of 2018. I curated that one as part of the City of Ballarat’s community arts program but this time around SHAC has been in the driving seat and I’ve had only to wrangle the writing side of the event (and that’s no chore at all; these writers rock!).

The idea this time was for the writers to go first, producing flash fiction and poetry on SHAC’s chosen theme of “They Are Us”, and then the artists were randomly given the written work to use as inspiration.

They’ve responded with a range of media, including photography, painting, linocut, woodwork and weaving.

I can’t wait to see what they’ve done!

Kirstyn and I hit 99.9 Voice FM last night with SHAC’s Neale Thompson to talk to The Arts Program about the exhibition, so got to hear how Neale went about the process of translating my 100-odd word story into a coffee table. Terrific stuff! It’ll be great to see it in the flesh (or the red gum, more specifically).

We’ve been fortunate to have the support of the Mercure Ballarat as a gallery space — they’re generous and throw a great launch party, and Radmac Office Choice in Ballarat has supplied foam core board for the mounting of the written work, which has relieved some of the burden on the purse strings.

The exhibition runs February 24 to April 5 with the launch on February 27 at 6.30pm. We’re chuffed to have Reuben Morgan again performing an original piece of music inspired by the theme – his performance at Weathering the Future was amazing – and City of Ballarat councillor Belinda Coates doing the honours. It should be a huge night. All welcome!

Kirstyn McDermott, Jason Nahrung and Neale Thompson spruiking They Are Us at Voice FM’s The Arts Program.


Short stories in the wild

anywhere but earthAnywhere But Earth, Coeur de Lion’s door-stopping anthology of science fiction tales, is now available in digital format. It includes my space vampire story, ‘Messiah on the Rock’. You will notice Adam Browne’s spectacularly inventive novel with the massive title (short version: Pyrotechnicon) is also available.

years best australian fantasy and horror 2011Ticonderoga is shipping the Year’s Best Australian Dark Fantasy and Horror 2011, which includes my (vampire-free) fantasy short story ‘Wraiths, originally published in Winds of Change.

Sure, I’m biased, but these two titles offer very fine tastes of Australian speculative fiction, and I’m quite proud to be in both of them.

Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2010

years best australian fantasy and horrorIt’s great to see that someone has risen to fill the gap (almost) left by Brimstone (horror and dark fantasy) and MirrorDanse (science fiction and fantasy) no longer compiling a year’s ‘best of’ of Australian spec fic. Awards listings have been the best guide to quality Aussie writing in their absence.

But Ticonderoga Publications is releasing a best of: fantasy and horror published in 2010, edited by Talie Helene and Liz Grzyb. It’s the first of an ongoing annual snapshot. The contents have already been released, and now, the recommended reading list. What a superb springboard into an exploration of flights of fancy from Australian pens!

best australian fantasy and horror 2010 contents

RJ Astruc: “Johnny and Babushka”
Peter M Ball: “L’esprit de L’escalier”
Alan Baxter: “The King’s Accord”
Jenny Blackford: “Mirror”
Gitte Christensen: “A Sweet Story”
Matthew Chrulew: “Schubert By Candlelight”
Bill Congreve: “Ghia Likes Food”
Rjurik Davidson: “Lovers In Caeli-Amur”
Felicity Dowker: “After the Jump”
Dale Elvy: “Night Shift”
Jason Fischer: “The School Bus”
Dirk Flinthart: “Walker”
Bob Franklin: “Children’s Story”
Christopher Green: “Where We Go To Be Made Lighter”
Paul Haines: “High Tide At Hot Water Beach”
L.L. Hannett: “Soil From My Fingers”
Stephen Irwin: “Hive”
Gary Kemble: “Feast Or Famine”
Pete Kempshall: “Brave Face”
Tessa Kum: “Acception”
Martin Livings: “Home”
Maxine McArthur: “A Pearling Tale”
Kirstyn McDermott: “She Said”
Andrew McKiernan: “The Memory Of Water”
Ben Peek: “White Crocodile Jazz”
Simon Petrie: “Dark Rendezvous”
Lezli Robyn: “Anne-droid of Green Gables”
Angela Rega: “Slow Cookin’ ”
Angela Slatter: “The Bone Mother”
Angela Slatter & LL Hannett: “The February Dragon”
Grant Stone: “Wood”
Kaaron Warren: “That Girl”
Janeen Webb: “Manifest Destiny”

recommended reading list, australian fantasy and horror 2010

Deborah Biancotti, ‘Home Turf’ Baggage
Jenny Blackford, ‘Adam’ Kaleidotrope #9
Simon Brown, ‘Sweep’ Sprawl
Mary Elizabeth Burroughs, ‘The Flinchfield Dance’ Black Static #17
Steve Cameron, ‘Ghost Of The Heart’ Festive Fear
Stephanie Campisi, ‘Seven’ Scenes From The Second Storey
Matthew Chrulew, ‘The Nullabor Wave’ World’s Next Door
Bill Congreve, ‘The Traps of Tumut’ Souls Along The Meridian
Rjurik Davidson, ‘The Cinema Of Coming Attractions’ The Library of Forgotten Books
Stephen Dedman, ‘For Those In Peril On The Sea’ Haunted Legends
Felicity Dowker, ‘From Little Things’ Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #43
——— ‘The House On Juniper Road’ Worlds Next Door
——— ‘Bread And Circuses’ Scary Kisses
Will Elliott, ‘Dhayban’ Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Mark Farrugia, ‘A Bag Full Of Arrows’ Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #48
Jason Fischer, ‘The House Of Nameless’ Writers of the Future Vol. xxvi
Bob Franklin, ‘Take The Free Tour’ Under Stones
Christopher Green, ‘Jumbuck’ Aurealis #44
Paul Haines, ‘Her Gallant Needs’ Sprawl
Lisa L Hannett, ‘Singing Breath Into The Dead’ Music For Another World
——— ‘Commonplace Sacrifices’ On Spec
——— Tiny Drops’ Midnight Echo #4
Richard Harland, ‘Shakti’ Tales of the Talisman
——— ‘The Fear’ Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Narrelle M Harris, ‘The Truth About Brains’ Best New Zombie Tales: Volume 2
Robert Hood, ‘Wasting Matilda’ The Mammoth Book Of The Zombie Apocalypse
George Ivanoff, ‘Trees’ Short & Scary
Trent Jamieson, ‘The Driver’s Assistant’ Ticon4
Pete Kempshall, ‘Dead Letter Drop’ Close Encounters of the Urban Kind
——— ‘Signature Walk’ Sprawl
Martin Livings, ‘Lollo’ Close Encounters of the Urban Kind
Penelope Love, ‘Border Crossing’ Belong
Geoffrey Maloney & Andrew Bakery, ‘Sleeping Dogs’ Midnight Echo #4
Tracie McBride, ‘Lest We Forget’ (audio) Spectrum Collection
Kirstyn McDermott, ‘Monsters Among Us’ Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Andrew J McKiernan, ‘All The Clowns In Clown Town’; Macabre: A Journey Through Australia’s Darkest Fears
Simon Petrie, ‘Running Lizard’ Rare Unsigned Copy: tales of Rocketry, Ineptitude, and Giant Mutant Vegetables
Michael Radburn, ‘They Own The Night’ Festive Fear
Janeen Samuel, ‘My Brother Quentin’ Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #44
Angela Slatter, ‘A Porcelain Soul’ Sourdough and other stories
——— ‘Gallowberries’ Sourdough and other stories
——— ‘The Dead Ones Don’t Hurt You’ The Girl With No Hands and other tales
Cat Sparks, ‘All the Love in the World’ Sprawl
Grant Stone, ‘Dead Air’ (poem) Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #46
Lucy Sussex, ‘Albert & Victoria/Slow Dreams’ Baggage
Anna Tambour, ‘Gnawer Of The Moon Seeks Summit Of Paradise’ Sprawl
Kaaron Warren, ‘Sins Of The Ancestors’ Dead Sea Fruit
——— ‘The Coral Gatherer’ Dead Sea Fruit
——— ‘Hive Of Glass’ Baggage
David Witteveen, ‘Perfect Skin’ Cthulhu’s Dark Cults

Reasons to write short stories

I’ve written two short stories this year. This is big news here at the coffee pot, because short stories aren’t really my thing. They’re tricky suckers, so tight and concise and punchy; no rambling, multi-plotted story with an epic cast of characters here. I envy those who can do them well, and who can do them consistently and frequently. It sucks that shorts, mostly, don’t pay that well. It sucks that the short story struggles for acceptance in the broader community.

But why the flurry over here (two does not a flurry make, granted, but I’m counting the wee outbreak from last year as well) where the long form is by far the norm? I think it’s possibly, partly, mostly, procrastination, but it’s good procrastination. Sure, I’m not working on a novel — pick one, the hard drive’s littered with carcasses and infants — but I am writing.

And that’s one of the beauties of shorts — they’re short. The procrastination will only last so long (I promise).

Here’s my justification, in answer to those whispered accusations of neglect from those aforementioned bits and pieces of novel:

1. Shorts are short. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and not just a pair of knobbly knees sticking out either!

a. Because short stories don’t have a lot of room, they help hone craft. They demand that extraneous matter be discarded. They require a singular devotion to the point of the exercise, without cluttering up the place with overblown description, secondary characters, waffling dialogue, and so forth.

b. Short, theoretically, means they don’t take as long as a novel to write. Some might gestate for ages, but in the actual writing, more often than not, a short should fall out of the oven a whole lot quicker than a novel. Bask in that warm glow of accomplishment. Just think: beginning, middle and The End in just a day, or two, or a week, maybe a month… However long it takes to get it shiny, do then take the next step: send it out to a market. And, if the factors align, score an acceptance. The warm glow is now a roaring fire complete with wine and chocolate.

My short stories are infrequent visitors, so I like to send them to a home made of bricks and mortar. Or dead trees, if you want to be strictly accurate. It might not enjoy the accessibility (and, arguably, the exposure) of a half-decent online mag, but it does look good on my shelf. Ego stroking is important in the depths of discouragement and narrative black holes, when the decision to sit at a keyboard making up stuff seems a stoopid career choice compared to, oh, watching telly, going to the pub and otherwise doing “real” stuff.

c. Because they’re short, you can play. Try different voices, different tenses, different structures. And when they don’t work, you don’t have to spend six months changing it all back to third person, past tense. Shorts are a great sandbox; raking it over and starting again doesn’t hurt quite so much.

d. Sometimes, short is just the right length. How long is a great story? It’s as long as it needs to be. Sometimes, that means short. If you can get your point across in 1000, 3000, 8000 words, then go for it. Don’t waffle. Don’t wander. If it needs 160,000, well, that’s fine, too. You can pretty much always tell when a TV show has been extended halfway through the first season; likewise, a written story can suffer from over-reaching.

e. We now interrupt this program with a news flash … There are times when you hear about an anthology and the theme or the title just zaps you: pow! Instant idea! Run with it. The novel, or whatever other project you’re suddenly neglecting, can wait — it’s only a short break, ain’t it. You don’t wait for those lightning bolts to strike twice. And even if you do miss out on getting into that title, well, maybe you can send the story somewhere else. Anything that gets you enthusiastic about writing must be good.

2. Shorts are fashionable. There are lots of markets for shorts, both in print and online (look at and duotrope as starting points for spec fic markets). It means you probably won’t have to wait too long to hear if the baby has found a home. You’d think the commuter set would be lovin’ the shorts, especially when delivered on a wee screen. They should. Everyone should. Because of point 4 (below). But first, there’s another fashion statement to consider:

3. Shorts look cool. Not as cool as a fez, perhaps, but cool, nonetheless, when they’re racked up on a CV. You don’t need them to get a contract for your novel — hey, everyone has a story to tell about how they cracked that first book deal, and not all of them involve a razzle dazzle set of short credits — but it can’t help, can it? To show that you’ve been writing, learning, engaging with the market and the writing community.

4. Shorts can punch above their weight. Oh, how a good short story can leave you gasping. I must’ve been only knee high to a grass hopper when I first read Arthur C Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” and I still hark back to that final line as one of the best ever. A short is an idea, so very sharp, and when it hits the spot — intellectually or emotionally — it really digs in. I’ve heard it said that a short story makes a great movie while a good book makes a great TV series. Sounds about right.

5. Shorts can value-add. So you’ve got a novel in the works, but that character is a bit of a mystery. Whack him or her or it into a short and see how they fare. It might not go any further, or you might end up with not only some revelation for your long work, but a neat little tie-in. Back story might not fit in a novel, but it might make a handy piece of cross-promotion — if it stands alone as a great little yarn. Fans of the novel will love the extra info, and other readers might gain a yen for finding out more about the world and its characters.

6. Take a short break. Hit the wall in the novel? Even better, finished the first draft? Take a break, go on a literary holiday and write a short. Or two. Explore a new world, a new voice, a new style. Revel in writing something fresh that isn’t the novel. It’s a working holiday and, at the end, you may even have a souvenir acceptance to show for it. Refreshed and ego-stroked, it’s back to the big game. And who knows? That short might, down the track, grow into a novel of its own, now that you’ve planted the seed.

I’m sure there are other reasons to write shorts, other than the sheer love of the form — feel free to share. But I think I’ve procrastinated enough. Writing about writing shorts is probably taking it a step too far. I should probably go write something. But something short or something long? Hmm. I’ll have a coffee and think about it…

Devil Dolls and Duplicates

devil dolls and duplicates

It’s official enough to shout about … check out this spooky little book cover! Devil Dolls and Duplicates in Australian Horror — a collection of short stories about, um, devilish dolls and doppelgangers of all makes put together by Anthony Ferguson — is due out in February through Equilibrium Books (who are taking pre-orders).

Check out this quality list of tried and true yarns, which includes an early story of mine about one way to make the most of a clone. The title says it all, really:

Marcus Clarke: Human Repetends
Wynne Whiteford: Automaton
Van Ikin: And Eve Was Drawn from the Rib of Adam
Michael Wilding: This is for You
Stephen Dedman: A Single Shadow
Jason Franks: The Third Sigil
Jay Caselberg: Porcelain
Sean Williams: The Girl Thing
Chuck McKenzie: Confessions of a Pod Person
Lee Battersby: The Divergence Tree
Rick Kennett: Excerpt from In Quinns Paddock
Lucy Sussex: La Sentinelle
Jason Nahrung: Spare Parts
Robert Hood: Regolith
Kaaron Warren: Doll Money
Andrew J McKiernan: Calliope – A Steam Romance
Tracie McBride: Last Chance to See
Martin Livings: Blessed are the Dead that the Rain Falls Upon
B Michael Radburn: The Guardian
Daniel I Russell: Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem
Christopher Elston: Hugo – Man of a Thousand Faces

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!

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.

Recent reading

I’ve been trying to keep up with the pile of ‘to read’ books, and struggling. The pile never seems to go down! But here’s some recent ones I’ve ticked off:

I finally got to Magic Dirt, a collection of shorts from over-achieving Australian Sean Williams. There are a bunch of lovely stories here, most with a preface from the author about how they came to be. Two of my favourites are ‘Passing the Bone’, a gorgeous take on the zombie story, and ‘White Christmas’, a very different approach to the apocalypse. There a goodly number of SF stories, some concerned with Williams’ ongoing fascination with the idea of just how humanity might cope with the distances of space, and other post-human conundrums, and one that isn’t spec fic at all.

Note: There is also a superb Aussie rock band called Magic Dirt.

And for something completely different, I rolled Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk. This was a delightfully quick read, the story of the eponymous Rant being told through the accounts of those around him, documentary style. It’s cleverly done and the characters are drawn with considerable relish and appeal, and I much enjoyed the dystopia that the alternative history provides with all its Ballard-lite car crashing and diurnal/nocturnal divide. I didn’t quite go for the final conceit of just what was happening here (it belongs to a certain plot device that I always have trouble getting my head around), but didn’t mind so much, the ride had been so enjoyable.

  • Check out Chuck’s writing tips
  • Over on the non-fiction shelf, there’s A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits, by Carol and Dinah Mack. This survey of, well, the title says it all, really, was going pretty well as it discussed fey folk of water, mountain, forest and soforth. It sets out each entity by description, then a little story about them, and then a section on disarming and dispelling them: identify, case study, coping technique. But the guide loses traction with a few of its inclusions, the spirits being so specific (such as St Anthony’s demons) and so powerful (such as Kabhanda and several deities) that the guide’s ‘disarming and dispelling’ section is rendered irrelevant, there being neither disarming nor dispelling available (it might as well have been renamed ‘put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye’). The inclusion of psychological entities such as Freud’s Id and Jung’s Shadow seemed a step too far. Still, as an introductory guide to mythology, not bad, and the introduction to the role of spirits within each domain gave cause for reflection.

    On a similar theme, there’s Anthony Finlay’s Demons: The Devil, Possession and Exorcism, the author being a former Catholic priest who offers up a history of Christianity’s relationship with Satan and his minions and the Church’s changing attitude to possession and Satan. It’s a good starting point for an overview of how Satan came to his position within Christian dogma, Finlay showing a lovely balance between logic and faith as he charts the course in conversational, approachable prose. There’s some discussion of the role of evil in the world and Christianity’s loss of ground to materialism and atheism and other alternative viewpoints. Finlay cites historic cases of possession, introduces pop culture portrayals through the likes of The Exorcist, but doesn’t reveal too much detail about his own experiences. I suspect this book is aimed at readers from within the Church, but I found the basic history and information to be thought-provoking.<p
    Here's a fitting sign-off:

    ticonderoga lives!

    Ticonderoga is a small press in Western Australia that has done some brilliant stuff in recent years, anthologies and collections mostly. It went on a wee hiatus but now it’s back with an online presence at You’ll find short fiction and book reviews there; it’s worth keeping an eye on.

    Dreaming Again

    Dreaming Again

    And in other online news, the HorrorScope has provided a recommended list of the year’s best dark fiction. Good to see so many from Dreaming Again included, and very good to see my story, Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn, among that number. A friend described it as a “melancholy vampire story” – I like that 🙂