My ANZAC Day

This might seem a little late, but after putting up a post on my Facebook site (one that was meant to be about two lines long, but somehow kept going), I started to get some calls, emails, and messages from people who could relate. People whose emotions around ANZAC Day are as complex as mine, if not more so. People who really seemed to connect with what was written

In the end, I think it had a positive impact. And if I can get a bit more positivity out there, then why not? Plus, if it looks like a blog post, reads like a blog post etc. . .well, I figured I better put it up.

It might not be the greatest formatted or grammatically correct piece, but this is one that came from a very personal place. I always have trouble writing this time of year, but this is maybe what I can do. This is how I do therapy – getting the words out to express that which ironically, can’t really be expressed in words.

Here ’tis (link then words):

Most people who know me also know I spent the majority of my adult life in the military. In fact, I’m heading back into a uniformed role soon, which will be . . .interesting . . .after some time away.

It might seem strange then that I rarely feel comfortable sharing or writing about anything about ANZAC day. It’s not that I want to disrespect the day, or that I have anything against it. In fact, I hold out hope that the commemorations of wars, and the constant reminding of the cost they induce might make people think twice about the next time they want to start a conflict.

But I guess the main thing that makes me hesitate is that there are a bunch of complex issues, and bunch more complex emotions surrounding it.

The thing is, ANZAC Day brings a lot of emotions to the fore. I consider myself lucky to have served with some truly extraordinary people, and I’m proud of the achievements of some of them too.

It also reminds me of the time we had just finished an intense period of training, and just before we left the ship to go home for a break leading up to ANZAC Day, a colleague killed themselves on board the ship. Six months later, another followed suit.

It reminds me of the time I was on night shift, and a signal came through notifying us of death of an officer on leave. The name on the signal was a good friend of both mine and my wife’s.

It reminds me of launching helicopters and seaboats simultaneously while executing precision maneuvering, with a stupid grin on my face because I was having so much fun, and meeting all sorts of great people from other countries and other cultures, hearing their perspectives and widening my own view.

It reminds me of the intellect and compassion of some of the best leaders and people I’ve ever come across, and watching their careers soar.

It reminds me of ‘leadership’ personnel who simply allowed their subordinate to fade away and die due to a lack of the same attributes.

The contrasting emotions and experiences of my service seem to be heightened by days like this. And to be honest, I got away reasonably unscarred from my time in the military

I think that’s the bit that I find the most difficult. If this is a complex time for me, and I generally had a pretty good career, how hard must it be for those who still suffer for their time in uniform? How heightened are their emotions? What if I say the wrong thing, or they take something the wrong way? Should I be reaching out to someone? Who? Will my lack of participation be seen as a rejection? But what if I say the wrong thing? What impact will that have on people? Who will it trigger?

I know most of the worries are ridiculous, especially the last couple, but that’s how my brain works

I guess the point of all this is to point out, however; as conflicting as the day is for me, it’s a hundred times more difficult for others. Not only today, but potentially every day of the year, or for some, sporadically at unpredictable times.

Veterans are not the only people who suffer in silence, so maybe it’s a little selfish of me to limit the focus. But still, that is my area. It’s who and what I know, and quite frankly, I don’t want to lose anyone more friends if I can help it.

So this ANZAC Day, whether you are commemorating or not, I would ask of this; try to view veterans outside of personal views on war, or specific wars, outside of politics or election campaigns etc. Remember they are people first. Be kind, be compassionate, and if you come across someone suffering, remember that this is not the only day they suffer. It might just be the only day it’s so close to the surface that you see it.

~Nathan

 

Prologues!

Why am I writing on prologues? Because I LOVE PROLOGUES!

A few years ago, I made a horrible discovery; there are MONSTERS out there! REAL PEOPLE who DON’T READ THE PROLOGUES!

Okay, so they may not be monsters (at least no more than I am for being one of those terrifying people who dog-ears books), but it genuinely was a shock. The concept of skipping a prologue didn’t exist in my mind, and since that time I’ve seen discovered that not only do people skip them, but agents and publishers generally seem to avoid them too.

Now, as a disclaimer, I just want to say that if you are querying, and the guidelines specifically warn against a prologue, or you are aware the person you are querying doesn’t like/want prologues, maybe try and avoid them. Like the plague. Or a Spin Doctors reunion tour.

But in a desperate bid to work out how I can get around this and include my beloved prologues, and hopefully help others that want to do the same, one thing has become clear; people don’t like bad prologues. And the majority seem to fit this category, tainting the rest as well. To get a prologue working, and give it a fighting chance at both submission and first read, the criticisms levelled at them need to be addressed.

The biggest criticism I see is that they are just massive, world building info dumps. That’s actually a really easy one to fix. First of all, remember that if a reader is reading your prologue, then that is their first introduction to your writing. Which brings up a couple of questions;

Would you open your first chapter like that?

Would you write a short story that way?

If the answer is no, then its probably not a great idea to open a prologue like that.

I’ve always liked Patrick Rothfuss’ opening to The Name of the Wind for this. It talks of a silence of three parts, and I remember being so fascinated with the concept of dividing the silence (geographically? Component? Orchestrally?) that I was immediately hooked.

Rothfuss still has some issues with his prologue though if I wanted to be supercritical. . .which I do, as it leads nicely to the next point I learned.

fry

People don’t read prologues because they think they don’t matter.

This one, I have to concede, it often right. In the case of Rothfuss, it can be skipped without consequence for the rest of the story.

It also makes it tough to pitch. If people are going to skip it anyway (they don’t yet realise the brilliance of your prologues), then it can’t matter too much or readers who skip it won’t have context for the remainder of the story. But it still needs to be relevant, or it has no purpose and would, therefore, have no reason to remain.

Enter Robert Jordon’s Wheel of Time prologue. It is relevant to the core idea of the entire series, yet it can be skipped without consequence. How? It is it’s own, self-contained short story. Yes, it portrays a critical part of the world’s history, but that is also explained over the course of the series too. But the story of Lews Therin is heartbreaking, epic, and fantastical from the start. It reminds me of the action bit before the credits of detective shows, the part that is usually a murder or the discovery of the body. It sets the mood immediately, it shows parts of what happened that will be shown later anyway as the detectives put the clues together, and the episode could start at the established crime scene just fine. But it doesn’t. The prologue entertains and is relevant, so even though it isn’t essential, it stays.

The third issue relates to the others, but basically comes down to the complaint that prologues are too long and delay the ‘real’ start of the story.

To be honest, I don’t think there is much that can be done for this. It comes down to good writing – if the words don’t serve a purpose, get rid of them. The same goes for prologues. If they go too long, then they need to be given more importance to justify their existence. Which brings us back to the earlier point – if they are too important, and people are going to skip them anyway then the reader is being set up to be confused.

By the time they reach a few thousand words, it may be worth considering them as a chapter instead. Which leads to another option for keeping the prologue;

Call it something else!

The classic example is Harry Potter. That first chapter was apparently meant to be a prologue, and even reading it now it reads like a prologue. But it has enough action and hooks to draw readers in and no one will skip it because it’s called Chapter 1! Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s (Pterry for those in Djelibeybi) Good Omens does the same thing, giving it the less subtle name of ‘Eleven Years Ago’. It might be obvious and simple, but it genuinely seems to get around prologuephobia if the prologue is good enough.

Capture

Which is really the critical part. Prologues may be judged harsher than other components simply for the fact that they are often done in a way that is detrimental to the reading of the story. There are ways around it, but these will only give the prologue a fighting chance. Only one thing is guaranteed; it still needs to be high-quality writing. Don’t suddenly forget the rules, conventions or guidelines just for the prologue. It might seem like a different beast, but in the end, they are often the first words people see (except the monsters who skip prologues). Make them quality, and make them work to ensure the reader turns to the next page. Then make the turn the next one. And the next one. And so on. Until they’ve read all the way to the end, without even realising they have read, and finished, the prologue.

~ Nathan

Pitching!

Bit more of a personal update today, as I’ve neglected the blogging for a couple of weeks now.

Basically, I’ve been a bit quiet with the writing due to work picking up somewhat (as in, the other work. The one that enables many wonderful things like eating, but tends to put a halt on the writing at times), but yesterday was a bit exciting/terrifying.

I put in my first pitch for 2019.

What makes it terrifying? Well, first of all it happens to be a novella, aimed at about 20k words. Now, I tend to write quick and long – getting to 20k isn’t an issue. But containing a story withing 20k? Could be a challenge.

It’s also part of a series written by other authors. I know I shouldn’t stress over this, (especially since it’s just at the pitch stage) but if successful, I really want to make sure I write something that is up to the standard of the others. It’s that whole ‘not wanting to let the team down’ thing.

There are other concerns too, such as making sure the plot is fine, whether the worldbuilding will fit, etc, but these are all ‘if successful’ concerns.

In short, pretty sure that makes them good concerns to have. If they become real, then it means I have a book on the way, which would be an amazing opportunity to get my work out there and make a debut as a ‘real’ author.

And that would awesome.

As a side note, this is why I love perspective. It changes everything if you let it.

Six Things I Learnt From Writing Experimental Literature

If you’re first question is something along the lines of “What the heck is experimental literature?” then you’re on the same level I was six months ago. That question was quickly expanded with “and how the heck am I going to pass this class?”

For context, this was my second subject in a Master of Letters. Not only was the thought of this abstract style of writing ridiculously intimidating, but if I didn’t get it right (or at least good enough), then I would be failing the class. I was well outside my comfort zone, and even on completion of the subject, I don’t think I’ll be heading back to the world of experimental literature anytime soon.

But in my short time in that experimental head-space, there were plenty of lessons on writing that were transferable back to genre fiction. Back to my happy place. It might never be published, but the learning that is possible is absolutely beneficial.

But experimental literature: I was terrified. In my head, this was the interpretive dance of writing*. But as it turns out, it isn’t as scary or confusing at it sounds. The Write Practice website breaks it down pretty simply; it comes down to innovation and uniqueness, along with deliberate breaking of rules and conventions. Things like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Ulysses push into experimental fiction, though there are many stranger examples out there that break the rules.

However breaking the rules isn’t as simple as ‘do whatever’. Its about breaking them for a specific purpose and to achieve or draw out an effect. Therefore, there is an innate requirement to know the rules well enough to take on the challenge of writing around them. Which is point one.

1. Know the ‘why’ of rules before you break them.

 

Time must go forward. Don’t have too many POV characters. thgir ot tfel daer tsum sdroW (sorry, that made my eyes bleed too). All ‘rules’ of writing. These rules exist for good reason though; timelines generally make a promise, then ratchet tension towards a payoff, too many POV charachters leads to confusion, and the left to right structure of text give us a common understanding of how a book is meant to be read (at least in English). Break these rules, and unless you counter these issues, your writing will be weaker for it.

By knowing the reason for the rules though, we can compensate with other elements or use it to advantage. For example, I wanted to go backwards in time for my story, so I had one forwards thread, ran another backwards from the climax, then had the conclusions coincide. It may not have been perfect, but it showed me a way to achieve abstract linear progression – which is absolutely transferable to genre fiction.

The same goes for POV characters and presentation . Knowing the confusion of too many POV characters and the rejection of a standard presentation conventions give you the ability to control or counter the effect.

For genre, I probably won’t be doing any of these specific things – but it showed me ways to maintain tight control over my work, which I can hopefully exploit to great effect.

2. Planning is important, even if you’re not a planner.

I know. Writing in your own process and to your own way is important. But understand I naturally sit right up the pantser end of the spectrum and usually I don’t know the words until its already on the page.

But innovation doesn’t come from doing what we have always done. Write the way you’ve always written, and you will probably get what you’ve always gotten. In experimental literature, that is exactly what you don’t want.

For me, it became vital because I needed to change voice, tone, theme, and direction of time in each component – but I also needed them to be recognisably the same character. It was about exploring the vastly different aspects of a grieving, traumatised narrator. What they showed the outside world, and what they felt internally. I also had to write about a similar character with similar experiences, and keep the two distinct.

I don’t think I could have done that on the fly.

I needed to plan, even if just writing key relationships or words that would identify events and people. I needed to keep a thread of continuity while writing wildly different voices and styles.

What I also learned from this though is that planning is definitely not my style. It was exhausting and time consuming. It was also necessary, and taught me that at times, a touch of planning may be difficult, but can have a dramatic and positive effect on my writing.

In short, if your natural writing style isn’t getting you where you need, don’t be afraid to try something different.

3. Experimental Literature is unlikely to be your Big Break.

Counterpoint? Mentioned earlier, James Joyce’s Ulysses. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas. These are unique novels that arguably have not been replicated in style and structure before or since. Not everyone would call them entirely experimental, but they are exceptions the rules of good storytelling, and are yet fascinating reads that have enjoyed enduring success.

They are also very difficult for many people to read. I enjoyed them, but they made my brain wrinkle and left me in a wandering haze after finishing them.

Experimental literature rarely leads directly to sales or deals. Searching for them, and finding very little by comparison to other genres, made this abundantly clear. But I don’t think that’s it’s purpose. Plenty of famous writers have written dabbled in the art, including names such as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf (though called ‘modernist’ at the time . . and she did a little more than ‘dabble’).

I think this is where is became apparent that I wasn’t writing this piece to develop into something I could submit. It was purely about improving my understanding of craft, and in doing so informing and improving me next piece. And the one after that. And all the ones after that.

4. It doesn’t have to be complicated

This goes back to the interpretive dance thing. I thought it had to be this deep, complex, intertwining, multiple interpretation thing that needed metaphors and imagery all through it.

As a result I wrote nothing for twelve weeks, and spiralled into convincing myself I couldn’t do this. I was moments away from pulling out of the subject and giving up.

Instead, I told myself to get back to the start, and go with the basics to at least get something down. I reduced the scope to two simple factors- make each piece an epistle and go as deep into stream of consciousness as possible, it all fell into place. It didn’t stay that way, but it evolved from simplicity. The result might be rich and complex (I hope?), but the process doesn’t have to be. The same goes for writing genre fiction too. Sometimes a beautiful, multi-faceted, and heart-wrenching story can come from the simplest of premises. Not mine, which all seem to end in tragedy, but you know, someone else’s might.

5. Experimental isn’t just about avoiding accepted devices – it’s about using them differently

I don’t care what anything was designed to do. I care about what it can do

Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13

This line, from the movie Apollo 13, is one of my favourites. It also really nails the key lesson experimental literature taught me.

It’s not always about doing something strange, wonderful and weird. It’s about pushing the boundaries of how different devices can be used, how different effects can be achieved in different ways.

I’s about stepping out of the how you have been told you should write, and learning what you can write.

A great example is one of my favourites, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones WHo Walk Away from Omelas– this is a story without a plot and without a protagonist, yet it manages to engage on a personal and emotional level. It essentially does it by pushing how much setting and narration can evoke that response from the reader, using these elements beyond what they would normally be limited to. The result is nothing short of amazing (and I probably reference it waaaay too much as it’s my favourite short story EVER).

6. Experiment!

This is pretty self-explanatory, but to it took an embarrassingly long time for me to realise it.

Experimental literature is an experiment! It’s there to try different ways of doing things! It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to work. It’s like the Edison quote – he never failed to invent a lightbulb, he just discovered thousands of ways it didn’t work. The same goes for experimental literature. You cannot fail as long as you try something new. You just learn what works, and what doesn’t. Learning what doesn’t work saves you making the same mistake in ignorance when it really counts.

This, I think, is the most important lesson I learnt from writing experimental literature, even if it was only for a few months.

You cannot fail in experimenting. You can only gain experience and knowledge. And the more of that you gain, the better you will be at your own genre. Even if I failed the subject, no words are wasted.

You won’t get rich, you probably won’t get a publisher or an agent out of it. But you will get better, and that, I think, is a benefit for which it is worth giving experimental literature a go.

And if you want to know – yes I passed. *Woot*

~Nathan

*Anyone who has seen one of those dancing pot plants from the 90’s now knows all my dance moves, and extrapolating from that can probably gauge with a reasonably high degree of accuracy my ability to both understand and enact interpretive dance.

Top 5 Tips I’ve Received As A Newbie (so far)

I’ve been writing for eight years now. In writer terms, that could mean eight books for the lucky/hardworking types (these two aspects seem to go hand in hand), or it could mean half way through a first draft (which in no way indicates lack of work). In short, time does not always equal experience, and for that reason I’ll be considering myself a newbie for some time to come.

One of the great things about being new though, is that the writing community will bend over backwards to try and help out. Its my favourite aspect of the community – no matter whether established, direct competition, genres apart or starting brand new, people are always willing to help by giving whatever advice they can.

Because of that, I’ve been lucky enough to get some great advice that had given me the drive and ability to keep going. Here’s some of the most useful I’ve received to date.

1) VOLUNTEER FOR EVERYTHING!

volunteer
Image: https://www.pinterest.com.au

This one takes a bit of common sense, as each person has their own limitations; but if it’s within your capability, DO IT!

When I first received this advice, I thought it was limited to festivals and conventions. So that was all I volunteered for, and I made some great networking connections including into my writing group. There are also a bunch of other benefits like face time with industry professionals, workshops and so on. But there are other situations in which volunteering has it’s benefits.

Such as when an internship came up at an independent publishers. I wasn’t going to apply, and then I remembered this advice and figured, why not? So I went for it.

I didn’t get the internship. But I did get a chance to go through the slush pile for them, which then led to getting the internship twelve months later before it was even offered to anyone else. I also managed to get on the judging panel for Aurealis awards though the same theory – might as well volunteer if it’s within capability.

Now, I am no more qualified than the next person for these roles. But following this advice and putting my hand up in the slim hope of getting through is slowly building my writing resume, and it ties in nicely with my studies into creative writing as well. By the time I submit my novel, I’m hoping that gives some kind to boost to my chances of a successful application. That was certainly the intent, though as always, it still comes back to the writing. But every bit helps.

2) PUBLISH THE RIGHT MANUSCRIPT FIRST

right wrong

This might seem a little odd, and I was sceptical at first, but I’ve heard it from a number of different sources now, enough that I’ve adjusted my own writing schedule quite significantly because of it.

The best way this was described to me was that your first manuscript is your journey from being a beginner to mastery. You want your first novel to be all mastery. Some people, and certainly I was one until a couple years ago, focus so much on their first manuscript that they neglect others. If the only reason you are doing this is because it’s your first, you may be neglected a better story that you now have the skills to do right from the start.

Basically, it’s saying if your first manuscript’s greatest virtue is that it is one giant darling, then kill it. It’s the wrong manuscript to be working on.

(Note: don’t actually kill it, put it away for later. Darlings can be still be resurrected!)

Of course, after some editing and rewriting, there’s no reason your first novel can’t be all mastery. It may well be that your first novel is the best one to establish your brand and launch your career. But it is not obliged to be. Don’t put off writing a great book because you’re focused on fixing your first one.

3) WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW (kind of)

write what.PNG

“I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could” – Ursula K Le Guin

I mean, this isn’t a direct bit of advice to me, but one I was directed to by a mentor, and one in which Le Guin seems to ooze sincerity, sarcasm, and individuality all at once. She claims never to have broken the rule of write what you know. But she also rightly points out that you are not limited by your direct experience. If you have imagined your world or your story, you know it better than anyone.

It was also pointed out in the Writing Excuses podcast during one of their ‘what writers get wrong about <stereotype>’ that experiences are translatable across situations. The statement referred to straight authors writing gay protagonists, specifically those that are hiding their sexuality, and it went something like this: “I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, but I do know what it’s like to have a secret”.

It doesn’t mean the author knows exactly what their character would be experiencing. But by bringing that details of the fear, the longing to share, anything else that ties into the keeping of secrets, the author can bring a genuine shared experience. Its a small detail that can really bring a character with aspects you may not know particularly well to life, without any inappropriate appropriation.

4) DON’T BE AFRAID TO WRITE ACROSS DIFFERENT GENRES

happy sad
Image: https://www.ebay.com/

This is a pretty recent bit of advice. The question was raised on a Q&A segment of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast and I was lucky enough to get a great answer from A. L. Tait her own experience with this question. Basically she recalled how she sat on the idea that became her best-selling Mapmaker Chronicles series for about six months because it wasn’t her genre or demographic, or so she believed at the time.

After some questions regarding whether she had a children’s book in her, she finally put the proverbial pen to paper, and safe to say she’s made a decent career out it ever since.

This is a particularly troublesome one for me. I love speculative fiction. Fantasy is my happy place. But so often I find myself writing passionately in the general fiction space, and it is in this field I get the best responses from beta readers and crowds.

I don’t know the full extent this advice will have yet, but I think there needs to be some serious exploring of other genres, and I think there is much merit to this advice. Writing is rarely about limiting ourselves. Why limit ourselves to just one genre?

5) TELL YOUR READER EVERYTHING. THEY NEED TO KNOW AND WILL NEVER KNOW IF YOU DON’T TELL THEM

Yep, genuine advice I received through an online writing group.

Thankfully by this time I had enough experience to know this was bad advice. BUT it did teach me something very important – not all advice is good, and it’s pretty critical to be able to spot bad advice.

One of the best ways to do this is simply diversify the data. In this particular example, I had six readers. Three were generic ‘good stuff, liked this part, not that bit’ critiques. Very vague, and not particular useful. Two were great, both identifying similar beats that didn’t really hit the mark, some clunky dialogue and some world-building issues.

I used these two as they came from independent sources and still came up with similar issues. In cases like that, its a good sign there is a genuine fix needed.

The last one ordered me to write about the building material on the floor, what time of say it was exactly, more detail on tattoos, more detail on. . .well, everything. He did not expect readers to think for themselves.

It was bad advice. But it was also some of the best advice, because not only did it teach me that it is ok to ignore advice sometimes, but it also allowed me to use one of my favourite memes:

wrong

~ Nathan