Fairy Tales Are Not For Children – The Original YA

In my previous blog post, I mentioned a bit of pet study area of mine – fairy tales, or rather folklore in general, once being tales of caution, and their potential replacements being the modern ‘dark’ tales. So, what better way to study than to dive in and practice on a blog first, right?

There are essentially three key aspects I want to look at, and all have a bit of disagreement about them. The first is the structure and role of folklore before a certain steamboat-driving mouse made them all kid friendly. That’s what I’m going to look at today.

So. Fairy tales. Colourful, sickly sweet people and clear good and evil. Stories for children. Except as most would know, the originals were a little more . . .grimm.

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“But Nathan, even when they were horrible and brutal, fairy tales were still for children, right?”

Right. But also. . .wrong. In many senses, they were the school of the day. They are, as Grimm Brothers scholar Jack Zipes puts it in one interview, ‘part cautionary tale, part repository of cultural history, part pure entertainment’. Certainly this seems to be a pretty common trait across cultures, but for the sake of simplicity I’ll be sticking with the well known Märchen (German fairy tales) collected by the Grimms. In the case of Märchen, once of their functions was to tech children, and by extension kids are part of the target audience. But to quote Jacob Grimm himself (from Zipes’ book Grimm Legacies):

Have children’s tales really been conceived and invented for children? I don’t believe this at all. . . What we possess . . .is accepted by old and young, and what children do not grasp about them, all that glides away from their minds, they will do so when they are ready to learn it.

I love this quote. It succinctly describes the layers of a story that are understood more and more as a reader grows with it. It tells me that a what child might not yet understand will become apparent to them as they grow. The knowledge is with them, and the comprehension will come. I love it.  But in this series of letters, another section (from T.F. Crane’s The External History of the “Kinder- und Haus-märchen” of the Brothers Grimm) raised a very familiar definition of where Märchen sat in the world:

Märchen were not invented for children alone, but as an intermediate . . .between children and adults, so that both alike can get much out of them, and both apparently be equally fascinated while each is taking delight in something.

This wasn’t from a Grimm, but from Achim von Arnim, a friend of the Grimms and as essential to the publication of Kinder- und Haus-märchen as the brothers themselves.

But this is where I found it interesting. An intermediate between children and adults, enjoyed by all. Without a doubt, that places it clearly in the realm of the YA genre. Now, there are those that argue YA isn’t a genre, but a demographic. To that, I tend to give the same answer as to whether fairy tales are for children. Wrong, but also right. Young Adult are definitely a demographic, and one that books are targeted at. But like Märchen, they have never exclusively been enjoyed by young adults. So the demographic might be the target, but a wider readership is always present. But even then, why can’t a demographic be a genre as well? According to author and literary agent Tina Schwarz as well as David Belbin, a senior lecturer of English at Nottingham Trent University, there are very clear rules involving theme, characters and subject matter. To be honest, both of them give a more definitive definition than most other genres do. Then there’s the adage of genre being nothing more than the shelf labels in a bookstore. Certainly in my local bookstores, I cannot recall coming across one in recent times that didn’t have a ‘young adult’ shelf – usually one of the largest sections in the store!

simpsons.jpeg
Ironically, that corporation owns the Simpsons now. Image: https://knowyourmeme.com

So by either the idea of clearly defined parameters or the bookstore test, YA is very definitely a genre.

But I think its pretty safe to say that the genre in called YA for the demographic it targets, and therefore yes, it’s very definitely a demographic too. But looking both at the Grimm letters and the idea that some stores sell 55% of their YA titles to adults, it’s one that for over 200 years has not been made just for the target demographic.

Put simply, for at least two centuries Young Adult fiction has not been made for Young Adults. So maybe there might be a gap between the term ‘young adult’ as a demographic and the same term being used differently to describe genre?

Another startling similarity contained in both Zipes and Crane’s books are the complaints made against the Grimms by parent, all of which bear a striking resemblance to the complaints against some of the darker YAs of today. Too violent, too degraded, too much adult content.  All the things that get YA books banned from school libraries in certain areas of the world. The similarities continue.

And as the similarities continue, it keeps bringing me back to those two quotes from Grimm and von Arnim indicating that Märchen are for the intermediate, and that children, adults, and anyone in between can enjoy them on a multitude of levels. That when done properly, they are full of layers that deliver ongoing revelations and subtleties.

And, of course because PEOPLE, somewhere someone will be advocating for banning them. Personally I’m with Asimov.

any-book-worth-banning-is-a-book-worth-reading-isaac-20959668

But the biggest take away is that for all the talk that YA is not a genre, it shares an awful lot with a genre that is widely recognised (so much so it was the basis of a certain company sanitising them and making billions by using them to start a revolution of animation in movies), so much so that even the name YA doesn’t even represent the majority of readers at time.

Like the Märchen that preceded them, YA are designed, though perhaps not intentionally, to provide entertainment, cultural history, and cautionary tales. They do this for children, adults, and all in between.

Young adults are a demographic. They might even be the target demographic for the YA genre. But it is still very definitely a genre. There are structures and guidelines that apply as much, if not more, than in any other genre, and the readership is not limited to the namesaked demographic.

Which means that just like the broad appeal of movies based of the old German Märchen, YA truly is a genre that can be enjoyed by just about anyone.

 

~Nathan

 

 

 

Untitled Entry – Furious Fiction October 2019

YAY! ANOTHER FURIOUS FICTION DONE AND DUSTED!

Well, it was technically done and dusted about three weeks ago, but I always hold out publishing until the winner is announced JUST in case!

But alas, another month without a mention. Still, its great practice and I’ve enjoyed almost every story I’ve entered.* This month was no exception, though instead of a darker tone I went a little more towards cli-fi this time.

Coincidentally, a member of my writing group wrote a very similar story. Well, it has similar features and mechanisms and a similar ending, though it took a very different route to get there.

But I digress. FF#21! Featured in the birthday card (yay! Happy 21st!) and wrote a story to the following conditions:

1. Must take place in a library or bookstore

2. Must contain SIX of the following words:

BROKEN       MUSIC       AROUND       MECHANICAL       SMELT       GRUBBY       GAME       COFFEE       BEIGE      HANDS       TWELVE       LETTERS       BACKPACK       NAMELESS       COWBOY       OPERATE       CUPID       TRAIN       PUNGENT       UNTOUCHED

. . .and here it is!

*The exception was one that I crafted after analysis of previous winners. I tried to recreate some of the features and styles, and in the end is just didn’t feel ‘me’. I didn’t enjoy writing it, I didn’t enjoy reading it, and I didn’t feel good submitting it. Lesson: I’ll write my own voice and just enjoy it, if anything comes from that its a bonus.

UNTITLED ENTRY – FURIOUS FICTION OCTOBER 2019

Small spots of scar tissue track up my arm, rough like scales of a snake or lizard under my fingertips. Or like a dragon, I think. It’s not far off. Flying away, leaving a trail of fire and destruction, little more than myth to them. . .

Their place seems so small on the screen. Once a ball of blue and green, it’s now covers various shades of yellow, beige and brown. We will change that soon. We will fix what they have broken. It makes me feel sick.

“Glad it’s over?” Jawan’s been around longer, done this before. My scars follow a single line – his seem to cover every vein on his body. Tiny, splotchy marks weave across his skin, pale blemishes where his DNA has been extracted as storage.

I’m silent. He’s my senior, it’s not my place to correct him. But it’s *not* over yet, and the end of this phase will be the hardest part yet. The library is complete, but not the mission. We are yet to execute the necessary steps; though necessity doesn’t make the brutality any easier. An entire planet of species relying on the twelve of us, each giving time and time again to supplement and encode each living species in our very DNA. I am surrounded by the entire body of knowledge of life here, each book a tome filled with all the knowledge of every living thing that has existed here. A library, a lab, and a warehouse all in one.

“Amazing isn’t it. Every creature, every plant, right down to the microbes.”

“Could’ve left the spiders behind,” I mumble before I can stop myself. I wipe sweaty, shaking hands on my uniform. Jawan is silent this time. He’s not stupid, he knows how I feel about this

“It’s ok. We all have something we’re scared of. But the Library would be incomplete without them. We need to record them all.”

All except the humans. I scratch at my arm again and shiver. Jawan knows me, knows what I‘m thinking. Of the twelve I’m the only one who wanted to include them.

“They still have a chance to evolve.”

“Evolution is a lottery.”

“And every lottery gives them a chance. It will be the exact same conditions as last time. They’ll be around again.”

Last time. So casual. He’s already moved on.

“What’s your fear then?” He walks towards the control panel and types in a command.

“Mine?” I hear a sharp inhale and the tap of a button. This is the moment.

“It’s the exact same conditions, Maya. My biggest fear is that they will evolve, they will build empires and kingdoms and civilizations again.”

The brown turns to orange, then an ocean of debris and atmospheric flames.

“My biggest fear? That nothing we have done matters. That we dump them on another untouched planet, and they do the same thing. And in another four billion years, we’ll be doing this all over again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unknown

Okay. . .so variety is the spice of life, right? So when subjects throw me in the deep end by focusing on two topics I have no clue about – poetry and stage drama – what am I to do? Well, in short, the answer is below. I’ve really enjoyed pushing outside my comfort zone, and I hope you enjoy the drama script for Unknown. I tried to get some sci-fi in there. . .but I guess the best way I can describe it is The Lakehouse with less romance and more nonsensical violence.

You may recognise the poems from the ‘Poetry’ section.

UNKNOWN

An Epistolaric and Poetic Drama

by Nathan Phillips

 

Characters:

An Unnamed Corporal – a 22-year-old disheartened soldier communicating via letter to an unknown future.

An Unnamed Refugee – a 47 year old veteran who has lost her home to yet another conflict, and is struggling with the dilemma of what is best for her family. Trades letters and poetry with a historic soldier of the Western Front.

 

 

 

Set 1: The scene opens to An Unnamed Corporal in the trenches of Passchendaele. He is alone, rifle by his side, and is sitting exhausted against the trench wall facing the audience. Upstage is No Man’s Land. It’s dark and raining as he addresses the audience. Lightning reveals the Hearts and Minds poem as background, each flash showing a different verse.

 

Unnamed Soldier: You write to me of hearts and minds – I’m not sure I have either anymore. Your letters are enough to make me question my sanity, and I’m not sure any of us have the heart to keep fighting.

Some laugh at me, some scowl and say I’ve lost it when I read them your poems. Some weep with me. Maybe I have lost my mind, but you’re the last hope that I have that this all matters. You know what happens, you know if we make any difference to the hell we’ve made of this place.

It might be better if I have lost my mind, if this really is the War to End All Wars. If it is, then you couldn’t be a soldier like us. There would be no need. We would have made a difference and turned the world off fighting forever.

Pause

But I’m cynical, I guess. I can see no-one would want to endure this again, but those that decide, they don’t endure it. How can they understand what it’s like to tread through the shit and the mud of this place? To see the brothers we joined with replaced by kids? To see those kids become men, before more kids replace them again? I don’t want to be replaced! I want to go home and not have any poor bastard take my spot!

Ironic that you already know. Only you can tell me if we made a difference, but if we did, you can’t be real. Or you are lying. If you are real though, it means war still exists and all we’ve done is meaningless.

Pause

I celebrated my nineteenth birthday on the way over here, bile burning through my throat as I heaved over the side of the ship. Davey Harker laughed and told me I should be heaving out behind the pub. He comforted me at the time by telling who’s waiting for him back home. Told him it would be all over by Christmas, and he’d be back to her in no time. He bought it about a year ago.

God, Christmas, the idea of a succulent bit of turkey is torture right now. All we have is this tinned shit, hard as a brick. Not much of a Christmas feast when it comes about.

It’s almost here, and they’re promising again that they’ll end this mess in a few short months. But it’s been too many Christmases since they said it the first time. If they’re right, it’s by luck alone. Even then, it’s hard to believe any of us will make it. Only a handful of us originals remain. The odds of us still being here by then. . .I don’t know.

I know it sounds petty, but I still envy you. Even though I’ve only had one war in my lifetime, – and God I hope it’s the last – you’re with your family. You’ve had them with you the whole time. Every time I read your letters, I yearn for mine. I guess that never changed. Centuries later, are the same, kind of. You still have what I miss. What I may never see again.

But you already know my future, don’t you? It’s the only thing I’ve asked of you, and you haven’t told me yet.

Pause

I just hope that those who do return can convince the rest it isn’t worth it. Not ever again.

 

The background lightens to show the relevant verse of Hearts and Minds as Unnamed Corporal recites it.

Hearts and Minds – Concrete

Concrete 1Concrete 2

 

Set 2: The scene opens to a futuristic, but damaged urban environment. A sunken, broken highway, and bright flashes of an aerial firefight show the verses of Brothers in Arms. The Unnamed Refugee enters Stage Right, crouched and moving to the centre. She stops and addressed the audience.

 

The Unnamed Refugee: There’s a book my grandfather gave me that reminds me of you. ‘We were soldiers once. . .and young’. I accepted more out of grace than interest – it took time to realise what it meant.

You’re right, I have you at a disadvantage. I can look back through the records, see your story, and tell you all about your life. But what is the point? What would I tell you? Do I tell you of how you or your brothers die? Or how about the details of your life? Does telling one infer the other? Should I tell you of the conflicts to come, or let you experience your time with all the genuine surprise, regret, joy, and pain it should entail?

If I could have someone tell me my future, absolve me of making my own decisions, maybe it might be easier. Do I keep going? Stay with my partner and children and hope the battle in the skies above ignore us, or do I take the offer, get back into uniform and fight for them? All the while leaving them abandoned and homeless, wandering through the debris without ever knowing if they’ll see me again. I am old, my reflexes are not what they used to be, and every time we look up another pilot is falling to their death. I might do the same, but it might give my family a future. Just not one with me.

So I understand that you want to know. I want to know as well. But all that I have experienced has led me to a point at which my heart breaks whatever I do. If I already knew what to do and how to react though, it takes the weight of the decision away. And if the fate of my loved ones is no longer a weighty decision, what does that say about me? Does that make me less of a mother? Less of a person?

Pause

I won’t do that to you. I won’t risk taking that true experience of life, no matter how much it irks you. And I know it will, because no soldier likes being kept in the dark. But I know you, and not just because I’ve read you future. We are soldiers, and our decisions have consequences. Should you lose sight of their importance, if I take that responsibility from you, then nothing you do will seem to matter, regardless of the outcome. You will not experiences the moment, but merely pass through it. And we need to experience it, because that’s what lets is hold on to who we are.

That’s what my grandfather’s story was about. The title isn’t a reflection on the past. ‘We were soldiers once’. It’s an identity.

Pause

You will never stop having been soldier. Even if you survive and never put on a uniform again, it will leave its mark. Once a soldier, not always a soldier, but always something different. You write of your brothers, blood or otherwise. That connection you have with them, the one we have, that’s what it’s all based on. Our past informs us. We were soldiers. We can’t change that. Your future will one day become your past – and I won’t ruin that.

The background lightens to show the relevant verse of Brothers in Arms as Unnamed Refugee recites it.

 

 

Brothers in Arms – Pantoum

Brothers eternal, or so we are told

Orders barked at kids, standing awkward in a line

From the day we sign on, until we get old

We are brothers in arms, made so by our time

 

Orders barked at kids, standing awkward in a line

Shrill whistle blows; it’s over the bags

Brothers in arms, made so by our time

Bleeding no more for country or flags

 

Shrill whistle blows; it’s over the bags

Brothers fall and run and fly

Bleeding no more for country or flags

My brothers, in my arms they die

 

Brothers fall and run and fly

From the day we sign on, until we get old

My brothers, in my arms they die

Brothers eternal, or so we are told

 

 

 Set 1, with the verses of Fate in the flashes.

The Unnamed Soldier: I think I’ll call you Atroposthird of the Greek fates, The Inevitable. Don’t be so surprised that I’ve read the classics. Apparently an education doesn’t remove one’s responsibility to catch German bullets. At least, be no more surprised as I am that you won’t tell me my future. My Atropos, who knows my fate but refuses to tell me for fear it will happen anyway. Doesn’t that seem a little contradictory? Just a little self-defeating in the rationale?

The world hasn’t changed so much it seems. To stop a war, we start a war. We’re expected to give our lives to prevent the killing. To preserve our families, we leave them. To keep me hopeful, you refuse to provide the answer I’m so hopeful for. The ironies abound.

You fear I won’t truly experience this life if you tell me, but who would want this life? There is no hope, no future, no point to this bullshit! You can’t take the fucking joy that no longer exists in the depressive bleakness of this life! You keep me ignorant for fear of taking what I lost a long time ago.

Pause

But I do hold out hope for one thing. I wait for the words you send. Ironic, isn’t it? The only hope that remains is for the letter that refuses to give me any, and robs me of any hope for the future.

Pause

I’m sorry. I guess that came out pretty angry. But again, why wouldn’t I be angry? Knowing your reasoning doesn’t make it any less agonising to wonder which bullet will be mine. Accepting my fate doesn’t make me rage at it any less. You write that you know yours. Why can’t I know mine? All I know is that those who never suffer will continue to send us over until one side has nothing left. We’re not here to make a difference or change Europe for any better alternative. You, me, the other side; we’re not here to make a difference, not really. Just to fulfil the egos of King and Kaiser.

You speak of names, places, and ideas unknown to me. Yet you see the same story played out again. And again. Your story is my story, your fight and mine alike.

We may be separated by the centuries, but we’re still part of the same story. Time and time again it plays out, just the names, the details, the justifications differ. No matter when or how it happens though, it all comes out the same.

The Unnamed Soldier reads Fate.

 

 Fate – Glosa (F)

I know that I shall meet my fate,

Somewhere among the clouds above

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

  • William Butler Yeats (1919)

 

I know that I shall meet my fate,

Though it’s not one I highly rate

It’s stranglehold I have long fought

But pull is strong, the leash it taut

And so knowingly I bear the weight;

I know that I shall meet my fate.

 

Somewhere among the clouds above

The powers enact their push and shove

Vying to sit on a higher throne

Than all others they can look down on

The subjects to whom they show no love

Somewhere among the clouds above

 

Those that I fight I do not hate

Reserved for those that do debate

That justify the acts to violent intent

Their moral compass, broken, bent

Sent them out, then sit back and wait

Those that they fight they do not hate

 

Those that I guard I do not love;

Not the values, the families thereof

If guarding can be what it’s called

For those I love would be appalled

The acts conducted for those above

Those that I guard I do not love.

 

 

Set 1, with the verses of Friends Underfoot in the flashes.

The Unnamed Refugee: In truth, it’s hard to see when I stopped being a soldier, or if I did at all. I have a family, I’ve had several careers – yet it all comes back to that. I wear no uniform, and I serve no generals, not like you. But here I am, still surrounded by the thunderous roar of political egos colliding. Again the young take up arms, wear the uniform and consequences alike. In that, I understand your pain, though you choose to hide it. I see your anger and your apathy for what it is. You are still young. You are still a soldier. You are told time and time again it will end if you keep pushing, if you hold on, if you are courageous enough, faithful enough, strong enough. And you don’t want to believe, knowing what it is to be wrong, but you are young enough to still want to believe as well. It is that irony again I guess.

 Pause

It’s hard to see when we stopped being young too. Was there an age? Was it after our first time we saw real combat? When the bombs and the cannons first drowned each other out, each trying to shout louder than the other? The first time we had to drag a bloodied body back to a medic just to see ‘that’ look of helplessness? Was it when my children first played soldiers, and I was gripped with the fear that they might repeat our mistakes, or when we started losing even the ones that came home?

Maybe that’s what it meant; the book. To be young, to be a soldier, once. It means we came home. Those that remained – they are still soldiers, still young in the eyes of anyone who still remembers them. Maybe that is the yearning, the weariness that we feel. Not a tiredness or a desire to be young again, or to be recognised as a soldier, but wearing the burden that comes when those times collide. The hopefulness of youth – the ones my children still wear – watered down by a thankfulness to survive each day. Or a hope that they would not. I know I was not the only one to slip into that dark place, not so much a desire to take action, but holding out that maybe someone in another uniform would do it for me. Maybe if a bomb fell in the right place, I wouldn’t have to fight anymore.

Pause

My family would never have been, never suffered, and I would have been a soldier, and young, forever.

Pause

But I’m not. I am no longer young nor a soldier, yet here I am again. This time fighting to flee with my family, to keep them from danger. It’s the hardest part – resisting the instinctive pull of returning to uniform, believing I could make a difference, but instead staying with those that matter and getting them to a safe place.

I’m not fighting to advance this time, but to let others retreat, to run, to find somewhere we can start a safe life. Somewhere the fight won’t follow me this time. Like it won’t follow you.

I want you to write back again, I really do. I want to read of the pain, joy, tears and laughter your life could have entailed. I want to tell you how you helped me choose family over the fighting. But in the end, it’s your fate that has influenced mine. I can’t tell you how much it hurts knowing you will never receive this letter. I know if I go back, I will die in service yet achieve nothing.

Pause

So I will tell you, finally and with futility, that your fight, your death – it did mean something. It saved me from giving in again to war.

You are young, and you are a soldier. May you know peace, and see your friends again, as you remain so forever.

 

Lights fade to black.

The Unnamed Refugee reads Friends Underfoot.

 

 

Friends Underfoot – Triversen

The mud and sludge

and blood and crunch

of frost and friend underfoot.

 

Merry Christmas

I say as I pass

leaving them forever.

 

Advancing always,

the General’s needs

and his will done.

 

Still, we go forwards,

– volunteered or fated? –

until we’re gone.

 

To end all wars is

a noble aim but what

ends alongside?

 

There is no more mud

sludge, or blood

for frost or friends underfoot.

 

Curtains.

 

 

My Happy Place of Darkness Rising

The long weekend in Canberra is fantastic for two reasons;

  1. Umm. . . long weekend? Of course it’s fantastic?
  2. Conflux! The Canberra Speculative Fiction Convention for writers!

And I promise that at some point this will talk specifically about Conflux. BUT –  there is not a world that exists in which the renowned Jane Friedman was going to blog about the ‘surprising’ success of darker narratives, and I wasn’t going to jump on that like a frustrated, angry demon onto the unsuspecting soul of they who summoned (and hence controls) it the second the chance arose.

Now, the specific example used in the article is the posthumously published memoir When Breath Becomes Air. I haven’t read it, but from the Friedman article, it has a dark narrative and the reader knows the result from the outset (‘posthumously published’ kind of gives it away). Yet the book was a success. Why? According to the panel Friedman was quoting:

  1. It was immersive
  2. It gave a unique perspective most won’t be able to appreciate (hopefully) in their normal lives

Even though my world is firmly on the fiction side of things, this actually sounded very similar to some of the expressions of ‘dark’ fiction at Conflux earlier this month (see? Told you I’d get back to Conflux!)

One thing I want to make clear though is that dark does not equal grimdark. When I say I write dark fantasy, there is often the assumption I mean grimdark, but as much as I enjoy reading some of it, it isn’t the limitation of ‘dark’ reading, as demonstrated by the memoir. In fact, defining ‘dark’ is something that came up on the panel and in following conversations quite a bit.

But first – which panel? Who was on it? What am I talking about?!

Well, as implied it was a panel on Dark Fiction. What it is, why people read it, and other pretty general ideas of dark fiction. It was my first panel I’ve moderated for or been on, so naturally I was a little excited (and intimidated) to have Kaaron Warron, Aaron Dries, Paul Mannering and Joseph Ashley Smith on the panel. All award winning authors, and to paraphrase Aaron’s tagline – nice people, writing about bad, bad things.

But back to definitions. Dark is tough. Is it an add on to other genres? Dark fantasy, a dark memoir, a dark take on an old favorite – they’re all an add-in. But then we’ve already discussed grimdark, and horror is certainly within the realm of ‘dark’.

It’s tough, and not something I can probably nut out in one session and a blog post. But the general idea was that for something to be ‘dark’, there has to be an element of taking people out of their comfort zone with no promise to return. Maybe there is a happy-ish ending, but it’s not exactly a happily ever after. Or maybe the bad guy wins, or the hero becomes a villain in their own right, and there is either no-one left to save the world – or no-one left to save. It isn’t definitive, and is probably a bit too narrow in focus and broad in application, but it works as a starting point. Throughout the story, if there is a genuine belief the story will not turn out happy – genuine belief, not suspension of belief while knowing full well the ending has to turn out fine – then maybe that’s enough to call it ‘dark’.

One thing I found really interesting though, and that relates very much with the comments on When Breath Becomes Air was what makes ‘dark’ work.

There were two answers that seemed to be agreed upon. The first was that dark works when it’s explored as part of the whole spectrum of a character. As in, no-one likes a purely evil bad guy – they generally want a bad guy they can relate to or understand. Writing dark doesn’t necessarily mean horrible people doing horrible things because all they know is horrible. To get people invested, it was important to have rounded characters exploring, and getting sucked into, their darker traits, and immersing readers in that experience. Just like the memoir, the immersion was the critical part in making it work, not just the ‘how dark can you go’ aspect.

The other part was looking at things from a different perspective, and getting people to still relate to it. It isn’t uncommon for the real word to describe doing things that would usually be frowned upon as indulging ourselves. Well, characters in dark fiction definitely indulge in things they probably shouldn’t. Or at least, they experience the world with a different perspective to the average person. That’s where on a technical level, there are key differences between When Breath Becomes Air and dark fiction. There is no indulgence when it comes to the horribleness brings the darkness to the memoir – lung cancer. But it is still a unique perspective that most don’t experience, and certainly most don’t want to. Dark fiction does a similar thing except instead of following tragedy, it looks more at the ‘what if’. What if something went wrong? What if someone gave in to the indulgences? What if someone took a calculated risk, and it all went pear shaped beyond recovery? Looking at the perspective of the character that screwed up, the one who thinks they’re just misunderstood, and doesn’t realise they are destroying everything they touch? Or they do realise it, but are so emotionally invested in what they do that it becomes purposeful? Or, one of my favourites, they make assumptions that are perfectly reasonable, but ultimately wrong with disastrous consequences?

That’s the perspectives that we don’t always see in other stories. Sure, we do sometimes, but I think this was the biggest point I got from the panel – ‘dark’ isn’t about being shocking or horrible (though the elements are certainly welcome in some stories and sub-genres). Its about immersing the reader in the exploration of another aspect of the spectrum of identity. Its about giving a perspective that might not otherwise be shared, and in that respect I have a theory; that dark stories are there to teach us in a way that nothing does anymore.

Now, bear with me here and I’ll go into more detail in a later post. One of the reasons I wanted to run the dark fiction panel was to help with my university studies. I have a creative artefact and exegesis to write next year and if all goes well, a PhD to start the year after that. And I want to start looking closer at dark fiction and its role in the world. My theory, which I want to question and test in various ways to find my focus for the research years, is that there is a hole where fairy tales and folklore used to be. I remember as a kid listening to First Nations Elders coming and telling us stories of the Dreaming – stories that taught, and stories about consequences. Some had happy endings. Others had consequences and punishments that lasted an eternity. Similarly, fairy tales used to have mixed endings before Disney. I’m sure I don’t need to go into detail about some of the darker narratives they used to have, used to teach children what not to do. Folklore from all cultures followed a remarkably similar trend.

And that trend often leads to a unique perspective, an immersive experience, and a lesson of what not to do. The immersion and perspective makes it real to the reader/listener. The consequences are therefore just as real to them, and guide them away from the Big Bad Wolf or the Vengeful Witch.

I think that role has been diminished, and there is a bit of a vacuum. Not entirely on either front, but enough that something needs to fill the gap of cautionary tales. Now, dark narratives in non-fiction don’t do that. When a dark narrative occurs in real life, as it did with When Breath Becomes Air, it is nothing short of a tragedy. For fiction however, a narrative is an imagination; a possibility or a metaphor. It immerses us in that character and tell us about what we still have control over. If we are greedy, if we are willfully ignorant, if we indulge in the darker parts of our identities, then this is a what might happen.

There is certainly a place for dark fiction that doesn’t take the cautionary approach. Splattergore or just adrenaline-filled action with a speculative twist – these have their place (and according to Freidman, high concepts aren’t the selling point they used to be, with straight-forward entertainment proving a winner when it comes to sales), but this is what really takes me to my happy place. Dark stories that explore dark indulgences. Willful ignorance, characters caught unawares by their own assumptions and prejudices, or simply taking a different perspective and smashing it together with the ‘normal’ world. They’re the dark narratives I like, and the ones I hope are rising along with the rest. They are my happy place, and they are where (if all goes well), I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next few years.

~Nathan

Going with the Flow-State

My mad, crazy fortnight of conventions, seminars, workshops and book launches had finally ended.

After a little bit of rest . . .them much more rest. . .I went through my notes and have started collating them into some sensical set of blog posts. I’m going to go in a bit of reverse order though, and start with the most recent event – a Sam Hawke Special.

Rather than a play by play of the workshop though, I’m going to go over one of the most helpful parts Sam spoke about – Flow State.

The workshop itself was specific to NaNoWriMo however much of the advice was pretty applicable elsewhere – from generating ideas to getting a schedule together, building the character relationships to world-building. But getting into Flow State (essentially a psychological term for being ‘in the zone’) is a technique that is all about maximising the results of a shortened time to write. In a way, its kind of like intervals at the gym – getting a higher effort in a shortened time to get more of an output overall.

Some of you may be well and truly accustomed to flow state, but for me it was something of a revelation – the culmination of many individual bits of advice I had received, but brought together and codified in a meaningful and understandable way.

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Pretty close to my actual face when I hit flow state Image: https://meme.xyz

Flow state will change a little for everyone, and like anything, there are some people it just won’t work for. If you’re writing in snatched time, then getting set up might take more time than you actually have, or the elements that help might not be available while in the car at school pick up. But if you have twenty minutes or so, I recommend giving it a shot. My first attempt resulted in 4000k not in one hit, but in several ‘flow state’ efforts in a single day. They weren’t trash words either, but a solid basis for a short story.

But I digress. What is flow state is covered – but how is it achieved, apart from those magical times it just seems to happen? Much of it is advice that is found in bits and pieces, and codifying it to an actual process made it much easier for me.

First and foremost, the task must be something you enjoy. Which, being writers, should be easy. Love writing? Tick. Done.

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I have a very particular type of writing I enjoy – definitely not a psychopath though. . .I think. . .Image: https://memegenerator.net

Right. So the next couple elements are also pretty straight forward when it comes to writing, especially during NaNo. A clear goal and immediate (or at least easily accessible) feedback. In this case, that’s wordcount and again NaNo is pretty well suited to this.

It does pose a little more an issue with less tangible goals, and for people who tend towards pantsing (i.e. me) it really does mean setting some kind of immediate planning. Not much, but if you can set even a basic goal like ‘get character out of hole’, then the story itself becomes that immediate feedback. If you can line up all the obstacles, and set a place in the story you want to get to, then that’s enough.

The other part of flow-state is a bit more precise, but its a good element in the sense that it makes for a real easy selection – get some white noise. Not necessarily oceans or TV static, but if music (which is my go-to), then something without words. No distractions is in there too, and for someone who loves music (i.e. me), there have been plenty of occasions that leave me singing an offkey rendition of ‘Hello‘ (metal version of course) rather than writing. It influences the writing too, usually in a good way, but that can just as easily be done with a movie soundtrack or something more of a classical genre.

The last factor we spoke of was one of the most difficult for me. Relating again to goals, and making the challenging, but not causing you to struggle. I’ve always aimed for the beyond reach goals, whether in my career, my personal life, or my writing. Its one of those ‘if you aim high and fall short, better than not aiming for anything at all’ kind of mentalities. But for flow state, that isn’t helpful. For motivation in writing a 120k manuscript? Fantastic. For getting into a flow state for a single session? Less so.

I think the short story side of things really helped though in my most recent attempt. I didn’t have much of an idea, and my challenge was to get the basic structure down. Challenging when I don’t have an idea, but achievable in a session. 4000 words later, I had far more than than.

The last one was not an immediate relation to flow state, but one that in general will help, and I think in general is a good idea; don’t neglect your health. I’m a firm believer that physical and mental health and wellbeing are absolutely related, and hitting flow state will benefit from both. It isn’t as easy as saying ‘look after yourself!’ but I know I’m not alone in letting the stress and self induced anxiety of the word count pressure interfere with a good headspace, or take any motivation for eating well/staying fit.

What this part means to me, is not to let the pressure of reaching flow state (or getting the words down) become counterproductive. Some stress is healthy – it lets us know something is wrong and needs corrective action. But too much gets in the way of the end goal, and that is not what is needed.

Self care is a topic that I see many more qualified people speak on, so I think I’ve probably rambled close to too long on that topic, but I cannot stress how important it is.

Otherwise though, because I can’t think of a natural end to this post, and I love puns, I guess I’ll leave with the summery of getting into flow state; that is, to set up challenging but achievable goals, remove distractions, set up the Mozart, and. . .go with the flow!

 

The Sociality (real word. . .maybe) of an Outgoing Introvert

Alright. Its been a big week and a half, with more to come, so if I don’t write it down now I can guarantee it’s going to escape from my head and disappear into the ether!

It might seem exhausting – and I am exhausted – and this fortnight has really tested the introvert in me. I’m not a massive introvert, and every test I seem to do had me pretty much in the middle of any intro/extrovert scale. But I have very limited social batteries, so as the schedule unfolded, it was always going to test me. I’m also very outgoing, and enjoy social events. As long as they’re the right ones. With the right people. And can fit into my social rationing. Which I wasn’t sure these could all do. But thats enough about me, more about the events of the last fortnight!

First of all, there was a Friday night with Will Kostakis for the launch of Monuments. I made sure I was totally professional – and arrived a few minutes late, but that was ok as it meant I walked in to something along the lines of “. . .and that was what led to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lawyers sending me a cease and desist.” (not verbatim). Considering this was soon followed by, ‘There were a few angry phone calls from the head of Channel Nine after that.”

Not what I expected. Over the rest of the night we had some great stories about his grandmother, some heartbreaking ones about his best friend who passes away in school (seriously, I don’t get emotional much, but the way Will tells it may have had a couple of tears threatening to break free), and we even discussed the book a bit.

I won’t go too far into it, but put it this way; Will wanted a lighter, more fun story. So he had a kid who’s best friend didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and who had some pretty terrible family news right at the start. Fun times! Also, that’s my kind of story.

No spoilers, but its one of those YA books that might have a target demographic, but there are really no barriers to us older folk enjoying and appreciating it too. It is layered, it is fun, and like Will, it jumps between hilarity and joviality, and some really deep ideas as well. The guy really understands ‘theme’, and that’s something I always appreciate. I really enjoyed Monuments, and I’m looking forward to Rebel Gods, the second book of the duology.

Alright. Then came Thursday. First of all; another delivery! Alan Baxter’s Manifest Recall. Action, grit, more action, more grit, and rising heart rates. Think Bourne Identity, Taken, and throw in the peanut gallery (the princes) from Stardust. I don’t think I need to wax lyrical about how much I enjoy Alan’s writing. He writes dark. Its my kind of thing. Hence; loved it, along with Served Cold, which I’m getting through as well.

Thursday Part II (or technically Part I, since it came first. . .but anyway): a seminar on the Future of Warfare through the lens of Science Fiction. It was a work thing. My boss let me go to see a bunch of Science Fiction authors. . .during work hours. . .and paid me to do it. . .

I may have become a little too cynical over time, but this didn’t seem right. It was too good to be true. Paid to go see Scalzi, Birmingham, Sparks and more. But it wasn’t a trick, a trap, or a joke at all! Work even put on decent coffee and food (I nearly got stuck with Nescafe decaf – but luckily we found the real coffee before I had to ingest)!

What followed was a lot of talk on diversity of opinion, how MilSF combines the overarching tech and operatic themes normally associated with it, and drills down into how it impacts the individuals that have to live in that world. It was as much about what the future military landscape might look like as it was looking at future threats, as it was looking at how that impacted people’s every day. lives. As Jack Dann said (possibly quoted someone else . .not sure), “Futurists predict the creation of a birth control pill. Writers explore how that changes the behaviors of teenagers at the Drive-In”.

We looked at different cultural approaches, looked at the structures that endured from the last few centuries, and how they might hold up – or not hold up – in the upcoming years. It was great.

So, after a new book, attending a book launch, and being paid to go see international and local Sci Fi legends, that might make enough for the fortnight, right?

Wrong.

CONFLUX 15!! WOOT!!

This is only my second Conflux, but its kind of where my introduction to the writing community began, and I’ve always been involved with the people who run and attend the convention. I was mad keen to go this year, even dragged along a friend, and we both seemed to get a lot out of it. Well, some more than others as my friend Tim went THREE FOR THREE WITH PITCHING! It’s always great to see success, and I think that’s why I like Conflux so much. Its all about celebrating the success of authors, and its why I’m super excited to be on the committee for Conflux 16 – Visions of Time.

In 2020. . .

Get it? VISIONS of time?

Okay, so when you’re finished groaning, just know that I never regret a pun.

But onto Conflux 15 itself. I was nervous as anything for my first panel. Each introduction of each guest – Kaaron Waren, Aaron Davies, Paul Mannering, and Joseph Ashley-Smith – started with ‘Award winning author. . .’. And then there’s me. No awards, no novels out, and pretty intimidated! Luckily, they are all lovely, and we had a great chat about what brings out the best of dark fiction, and how to avoid the gore-for-gore’s-sake if that’s not what we’re after, and how to make it meaningful.

Discussions ensued on research tools, specific topics like submarines in sci fi, editing, Austen’s influence on spec fic, all under the threatening cane of Dr Russell Kirkpatrick (aka Insane Map Boy) to ensure we were properly motivated (NOTE: Russell didn’t cane anyone, and gave us lollies at the end. But his Headmaster act was hilarious).

Then there are the outside-of-panels-and-workshops aspects. Hanging out and having a coffee or cider (depending on time and temperature of day) with a bunch of authors that *shock horror* are actually just great people, not limited to embossed names on a cover, was hugely encouraging.

BUT WAIT . . .

I’m writing this up now, and it’s a really brief and does not do justice to these events. At some point, I’ll be collating notes and getting something more sensical out.

But before that, I have a session with Sam Hawke, of City of Lies and 2018 Aurealis Winner fame. Its tonight, and I’m not sure I’ll be recharged enough to get the most out of it, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.

And if you’re wondering why its so rambling at the moment, and why there might be some radio silence in the near future – I managed to get something together that I didn’t hate for Furious Fiction among the Confluxing, submitted a Uni assignment early just before that (I know, WHO AM I?!), and have my major creative artefact due by the end of this week.

In short, my writer brain will be switching off at some point. Its been great, but it is exhausting both socially and mentally. I was meant to have a writing retreat in there too, but unfortunately wasn’t able to make it.

With everything coming up, even though some was very short notice, the question that stuck at the back of my mind was can I do this full time? It might seem presumptuous – I need to finish and publish some books first. Even if I do, going full time is a high bar to set.

But the point is that if I achieve my goal of being a full time writer – if I am able to hand on heart say that I have achieved my dreams – will I be able to maintain the sometimes hectic schedule of writing, learning, attending conventions, hitting deadlines, reading both for fun and to keep up with the industry, editing, running seminars or workshops? Or will I ‘make it’ only to find I can’t actually do the thing?

Well, the first bit of good news for myself is that the schedule of the last two weeks is not a sustained effort even for the most successful authors out there. The other good news is that I’ve loved every minute of it. A retreat I was unable to attend and workshop yet to come aside, I have had a blast over the last fortnight. Even if my social batteries are drained. Even if I’m exhausted. It was all worth it, and rate the experience five starts, would go again.  The last couple of hectic weeks have only confirmed that this is exactly where I want to be and how I would more than happily spend the rest of my life.

~Nathan