Instincts

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Humans are pretty amazing, but we’re pretty much monkeys in shoes.

It probably wouldn’t be good for us to return to the lifestyle our ancestors had. It wasn’t more ‘wholesome’ than what we’ve got now. It was hard, and tragic, and confusing. Infant mortality, famine, predators, insularity, brute strength being the rule of law, vulnerability to the elements – none of those would improve our quality of life.

I do think that we’ve gone too far in the other direction, though, and I see that mostly as the fault of capitalism. You don’t need your house or your skin to be 99.9% free of bacteria, for instance. Most bacteria are benign. Some are beneficial. And while some are harmful, killing off most of them leaves only the strongest alive, which allows them to pass on their genes. It wasn’t science that sold you the idea that you should always be clean enough to perform emergency thoracic surgery on a stranger. It was ads for cleaning products.

I’ve also been spending a lot of time with kids lately, and it’s been pretty liberating. As adults, running is something we do for exercise or in an emergency. Kids run because they like the feeling of running, or because they’re excited to get somewhere. As adults, we ignore things that interest us because we tell ourselves we don’t have time to stop, or we would look weird. Kids want to stop to look at things, feel them, smell them, wonder aloud about them.

And while that can make things tricky when you’re trying to make it somewhere on time, or when what they want to touch is a bit of half-rotted rabbit guts, curiosity is a beautiful part of our nature. It’s kind of sad that the pressure to fit in (and by doing so, stay in the tribe) makes us control that impulse to investigate.

So here’s a poem about the effort we make to set ourselves apart from our history, and convince ourselves we’re somehow superior to other life-forms.

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A favourite topic of our friend Mr Cole (image from Cole’s Funny Picture Book No. 2, 1979 edition).

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Five heroic tropes that should be consigned to the bin

Like every other writer, I like to think that my stories are original. In fact, I’m pretty sure ‘original’ is the word people go to when trying to describe how weird my work is. This month alone, I’ve had characters fly around under their own power, grow twenty-six extra fingers, turn into dolls, get eaten alive by the physical manifestation of sugar cravings, duplicate themselves a dozen times, and fight the evil doppelganger of their dead sister.

But ideas have to come from somewhere. Pull a thread of your favourite story, and you’ll find it’s tangled up with a whole lot of others that inspired it. Tropes are not necessarily cliches; tropes are simply tools we can use to compose a narrative.

Some narratives have more than one main character. Some don’t have any identifiable ‘main’ character at all. Some feature antiheroes. But most stories have a heroic protagonist, which means that there’s a grand number of heroic tropes to choose from when creating them, or when writing their actions and interactions. It’s probably easier to tell fleas apart with the naked eye than it is to define the line between trope and cliche. What makes one person squeal with delight will make another roll their eyes.

That latter category is what we’re going to discuss today. Previously, we’ve talked about character archetypes in general who belong in the bin. The focus today is heroes specifically. I’ll be using ‘hero’ to refer to characters of all genders.

 

5. The Spectator In Their Own Story

Who they are: A passive hero who has the story happen to them, rather than being a dynamic agent in their own adventure.

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I am irrationally, extremely amused by the attribution to Da Vinci; thus, the corny quotivation stays.

Waste: The Spectator gets booted around by fate and by others. They can’t seem to open their mouth or work their legs at critical moments. Deus ex machina feature heavily. The supporting cast is usually more interesting than they are. Child heroes are particularly susceptible. This one overlaps significantly with the Sack of Potatoes from my last Get in the Bin post, and as with the Sack o’ Spuds, I dislike this type of hero because they don’t contribute. Unlike the Sack o’ Spuds, though, it’s their story they’re not contributing to.

Recycling: Even if the character lives in an extremely oppressive situation, they must do something about it. One reason that we still find stories like 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale so compelling is that you feel every bit of the characters’ desire to be free and make their own decisions. The smallest rebellion becomes a great triumph, in those stories. Despite the great risk associated with meeting a certain person at a certain time, or hoarding this or that ration, the characters do it anyway, showing they’ll take that risk to meet their goals.

In life, we sometimes are booted around by circumstances beyond our control. But a hero, as the avatar of the reader within the story, has to be able to make some sort of decision. Even if a character is stuck in jail, and has no intention of trying to break out, they still have agency. They can decide who to talk to or how to feel, whether they want to stir up trouble to create a reputation or stay in line to get out early on good behaviour. The reader should feel the sense that the character is doing the best they can in bad circumstances, instead of just letting things happen.

 

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Detective noir, sunny side up

Regular readers will remember that in 2016-2017, I hired a writing studio in the suburbs. It was pretty awesome working in a place that was designed for writing. I got a lot of great work done there – later drafts of Anomalies, early drafts of The Celestial Kris and a good portion of Treasure. When I finished, I was asked to write about my time there.

Never one to approach the assignment in a straightforward manner, I climbed atop Weirdness – my trusty steed – and galloped into the sunset.

I’m guessing that’s why, in these nine months since submitting it, I haven’t heard from the National Trust about publishing this piece anywhere. But not to worry! You can read it here instead. As a wide-eyed, excitable, book-loving young woman whose biggest substance dependence is chocolate, I chose to write in the genre that most accurately captures my voice.

Thaaaat’s right! Hard-boiled detective noir!

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It’s tough, the writing business.

If you ain’t got the head for it, you end up like bad home-made pasta: bitter, droopy, cut to pieces and lying in the trash. And that’s before you get addicted to whiskey and cigarettes and permanently mis-adjusted Venetian blinds.

Hell, my first day at the academy, the old wise-head down front told it to us like a smack right in the kisser: ninety-nine per cent of us didn’t have the guts to make it in the big fishpond. I reckon most of us wanted to tell him to go kiss a duck. Not me, mind you. I was a doll with a lot of moxie. In third year, one of the higher-ups took me under her wing. Real cool dame. She gave me a list of leads – fellowships, residencies. That’s how I ended up at the Fern.

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Freshbloods

Well, everyone, the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival is in full swing and I am loving what I’ve seen so far. Here are some of the best things I’ve learned this week!

Be stubborn… Submit again, write something new, take courses, apply for grants, enter contests, wipe the mud off your poor ego when you get rejected, submit again, write something new.

… but flexible. If a lot of people are making the same suggestions – a scene doesn’t work, a character is annoying, a word doesn’t fit the world of the story – they’re probably right. Especially if you’ve come to them as a sensitivity reader.

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Three top tips for writing sci-fi and fantasy

Today is the first day of the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival! And tomorrow, I’m heading to one of their masterclasses: Speculative Fiction. I’ll hear what some of Australia’s best spec writers have to share about worldbuilding, creating nonhuman characters, and marketing science fiction and fantasy!

So I thought today I’d briefly share a few things I know already about writing these genres, since that’s mainly what I do. For those of my readers not familiar with this world of geekdom:

  • Speculative fiction (spec) is science fiction, fantasy and all their subgenres, because they speculate about worlds and times where things are possible that aren’t in our world.
  • SF/F or SFF is short for science fiction and fantasy.
  • ‘Hard’ sci-fi is that which is grounded solidly in what science can already do or has found – think ‘Gravity’, ‘The Martian’, etc.
  • High fantasy is your sprawling epics in imaginary worlds. Low fantasy is when fantastical things intrude into our world. Urban fantasy is similar to low: it’s when werewolf truckers and bartending witches and vampire AA meetings exist alongside the rest of us.
  • Steampunk, which we’ve discussed before, is in a weird boundary zone. It often involves magic, and is more often based on past technologies or discoveries than current ones. I tend to put it with SF, because the one thing all steampunk stories tend to have in common is, well, steam. Without machines, it’s not steampunk – and without meaningful social commentary, it’s not steampunk either. Stories with a steampunk aesthetic but no steam and no punk might be called gaslamp fantasy, clockpunk or something else, depending on what elements do appear in the story.

I’ve discussed this before, mainly in Parts 1 and 2 of my wishlist of things I’d like to see more in fantasy. Today’s focus is more on what I’ve learned as a reader and writer of SFF.

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1. Make the spec elements essential to the story.

This would seem an obvious one, but it’s surprising how often aspiring writers trip up on it. The imagined elements must play a key role. If the magic or the mutants could be cut out with no harm to the character development, plot or message, they’re only so much window dressing – and what’s more, window dressing of a style that plenty of people dislike.

In an early draft of one of my stories, the heroine’s hydrokinesis was this. Sure, she could use it to make her life more convenient – she could wring out her hair and clothes pretty fast – but it didn’t help her solve any major problems. Eventually, though, a problem presented itself that could not be solved any other way but with her powers. Now it’s one of my, and my beta readers’, favourite scenes.

Spec elements should never be included just to raise the coolness factor – especially because spec has huge potential to make a political statement when done right. That has been a part of science fiction from the beginning, and perhaps fantasy too, considering its roots in fairytales and mythology, which often have a moral at their core. Mary Shelley wrote about the need to face the moral consequences of scientific experimentation. HG Wells’ titular Time Machine wasn’t used for fun adventures: rather, it showed the horrors of a world where unequal distribution of wealth and labour had caused humanity to evolve into two new species of dumb little puddings and the subterranean carnivorous gorillas that preyed on them.

So be sure to ask yourself why you need this story to be the genre that it is, and give yourself a well-argued answer.

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Five writing tips to confuse and undermine budding creatives

A glorious morning to you all from me, very famous writer Annaliese Famouswriter!

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Here I am, polishing off my next bestseller in the supermarket.

Just a quick post this morning before I have brunch with Martin Scorsese, fly to London and give my lecture at the Very Famous Writers’ Festival to promote my thirty-ninth novel, My Publisher Has an Excellent Marketing Team.

My agent tells me that her interns’ interns, who manage the gushing torrent of fan emails I get every day, have been reading a lot of correspondence from aspiring writers asking for advice from their favourite novelist. Aww! I really don’t know what to tell you guys. My success was a combination of luck, a natural talent with words, and the sheer bloody-minded persistence to hone my skills for years. Most of you will probably never sell one novel, never mind fifty-two squintillion – and that’s okay! The world needs its baristas and sewage farmers too. You can’t all be famous writer Annaliese Famouswriter. Writing as a hobby is totally valid and definitely as artistically satisfying as gigantic commercial and critical success.

In fact, your unloved and unpublished story is probably more meaningful and legitimate than what I have to do. God! I’m so busy living out my lifelong dream, meeting deadlines, being interviewed on national TV… it’s overwhelming. Where you’re at now – those days of poverty, rejection, insecurity, anxiety – those are the best days of your writing life. Some days, I wish I was just like you.

Then the doorbell of my Tesla SpaceHouse plays the theme tune to the film adaptation of my first novel, and I have to go and sign off on another delivery of Funko Pops of every character in my oeuvre.

Sorry – what was I talking about?

Oh, right – advice.

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A few things I do to help the environment

Having just finished writing my essays for the semester, it’s time to get back into Grandest Bookshop. So for World Environment Day, before I go and walk the dogs in this rare winter sunshine, I’m here to share a few simple things I do to help the planet and the local environment. You might be able to do them too!

  1. Plastic bags. 

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I’m not perfect. I don’t always remember my reusable shopping bags – sometimes you have to pick up a few things at the shop that you don’t anticipate when you leave the house.

But I take reusable ones when I can. I refuse plastic when I can at smaller outlets – they do try to foist them on you to display their brand. I reuse the plastic bags at home if I can; reusing is the step before recycling, which you can do at many supermarkets nowadays. I’m sure you know all the grim facts as well as I do.

If you’ve got an absolutely grotty plastic bag covered in some kind of fridge slime or what-have-you that you cannot reuse or recycle, at least tie it in a knot before you pop it in the bin so it can’t catch the breeze, fly away from the tip and end up in the sea.

 

2. No dryer.

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We don’t have a clothes dryer at my house. None!

A clothes dryer has a pretty massive appetite for energy, so we don’t use one. Now, I know this won’t be possible in all climates and regions, but it was pretty easy for us to adjust to having no dryer! In summer, we use the line outside. In winter, we have a couple of clothes racks indoors, and the clothes dry in the indoor heat or the sun through the windows. It works brilliantly.

If we want something dried within an hour or so in winter, we pop it on the heaters. We have a special heating system, though. We burn wood, which we mostly get from huge fallen trees and branches in the forest around our place, in our specialised firebox which heats a water jacket. The water is pumped all through the house to metal panels on the walls. Clothes draped over the toasty panels dry off pretty soon.

I realise this is not possible for everyone – but you might come up with an equally innovative solution that doesn’t involve a dryer.

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