It's been too long since we've visited fellow artists' precious things: the KSP Residency kept me away from all but the most basic blogging, and since I returned to the day job, the weight of work has been ramping up so that I've had very little time to myself for such things. Thankfully, the skies have cleared (I can't wait to tell you about The 18 Month Plan tm) and we have a chance to get back to business with one of Australian Speculative Fiction's most divine lunatics, the brilliantly unique Adam Browne.
For a start, Adam's more than a writer: he illustrates his own works, and they have titles like Pyrotechnicon: Being a True Account of the Further Adventures of Cyrano de Bergerac Among the States and Empires of the Stars, by Himself (dec'd) (a wonderful confectionery of a book I was proud to read pre-publishing), "Other Stories," and Other Stories, and his latest,The Tame Animals of Saturn. He has a tendency not to appear in major presses: such is often the fate of truly original voices, and Adam is truly original-- if you'd like further proof, my favourite of his short stories involves the soul of Michael Jackson being implanted into an immortal spaceship, and grooming a street urchin to travel the stars with him forever. And that's the easy version of the synopsis.
Spend five minutes at Adam's blog, luxuriate in the writing and drawings, then come back here to enjoy an insight into one of the most intriguing and fascinating writers Australian speculative fiction has ever produced.
I was trying to think of the right book -- I liked this idea and wanted to do it justice - but I was floundering around, looking at my bookshelves, considering this and that - The Dictionary of Angels by Gustave Davidson was one - others by Borges - and so on.
Then I chanced on this - this Puffin edition of Arthur C Clarke's Islands in the Sky. The illustration on the cover was what did it - my Madeline cake; bringing back all the sense impressions of that period of my childhood - the years of absorbing every bit of Clarke's pro space propaganda ... space, where it's clean, where there's none of the mufflement and mess of a suburban family life - where, for Clarke, he would be valued for his intelligence, and not scorned for his sexuality...
I was going to be an astronaut when I grew up... It took me too long to grow out of that.
Growing up should be a feeling of increased power and freedom but often it's the opposite.
Now I still love SF, but I tend to favor the eastern European style, which is all 'wherever you go, there you are' in its themes - the real Frontier is us - that sort of thing- see Solaris, or Upon The Silver Globe - also, from the West, Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora - a masterpiece.
I'm still grateful to Clarke for his heartfelt and lucid writing - he was using SF as a means to an end, in which he sincerely believed - even if I don't believe in the same thing any more, I'm still fond of the man. It was only recently that I realised I used to think of him as a friend. And really, thinking about it, I realise that feeling hasn't gone away.
As part of my recent Residency, I was asked to provide a list of 10 writing tips, to be reproduced in the Centre's newsletter.
What the hey: here they are, for you to argue over.
Know what you want to achieve from each session: it’s easier to get words down if you know where you want your story to go.
Set reasonable targets: don’t try to achieve something that puts you under pressure before you start. Better to set a moderate target and exceed it, than otherwise.
Be disciplined: writing time can be minimal. When you have it, don’t get distracted by other things. When it’s time to write, write and only write.
Be regular: you don’t have to write every day, but try to set aside time on a regular basis. 500 words, once a week is better than zero words every day.
Embrace your weird: nobody thinks like you do. If your narrative starts to deviate, take a chance on your instincts and follow it. You might be tapping into that voice that is uniquely yours.
Tell your story first: turn off your internal editor until the first draft is done. Only edit once you have the narrative written. Never start editing until the story is told.
Forget the marketplace: don’t worry about where the story could be sold until it is complete. There will always be a market, but there’s never been one for unfinished stories.
Ignore your surroundings: if you want to complete stories, train yourself to ignore everything around you while you are working. Whether it is the laundry, your spouse, or a cocktail by the beach, they can all wait until you’re finished your session.
There is no perfect environment: the world is too busy, noisy, and fast-paced to wait until you have the perfect combination of circumstances in which to create. Learn to work while surrounded by noise; while on public transport; on a variety of recording media… whatever it takes to get words down wherever you are, whenever you’re there.
Ignore your muse: the world does not care if you are a precious, fragile creative soul. The world cares only for your completed stories. Be a professional, working artist: fly if you can, grind them out if you have to, but accept that your words are the only currency that counts.
On a whim, I entered a competition for 50-word short stories last week. I didn't win, so I thought you might like a little bonus reading material for your day: here are my entries, for your reading pleasure.
The fences were electrified. Designed to keep us from the world. Topped by razors. Patrolled by wolves. Governed by black eyes. Grass stopped at their edges. Water refused to flow. Inside, damnation. Outside, gun barrels. I closed my eyes. I gripped the wires. I burned. I climbed. I flew.
Mother calls. We answer, our voices muffled. We strayed from sight, and it is late. Home promises warmth, and rest, and love. We have strayed, and cannot find our way. Mother calls. We answer. The earth is cold. It fills our mouths and eyes. Mother calls, and calls, and calls.
THE ASSASSIN’S BENEDICTION
The bullet changes everything. You hear it before you feel it: a whistle that nature has never produced. Then a punch that turns the world upside down. And she’s gone. Your love. Exorcised. Nothing is ever the same. Your life is a ghost. That is my gift to you. Knowledge.
Last week, I touched upon five people who have had a direct impact upon turning points in my career. This week, I thought it would be interesting to consider another five people who have had an impact: not on specific turning points, this time, but in a more general sense.
Here, then, are five people who are in my writing karass not because they intruded at a specific time or place, but because they diverted the course of my river gently, or persistently, or in ways that cannot be singularly identified.
This one's more whimsical than funny, but I quite like it. After inheriting three teenagers, and growing one naturally (with one more to come), this thumbnail, done during my child-free years, feels rather prescient.
Honestly, if I never have to remind another human being that they have to brush their teeth ever again......
Dr Jones-- Psychiatrist
"Crosses, garlic, running water... although we can't tell if the last one
is because he's a vampire or just because he's a teenager...
Also, don't forget tomorrow night when, just like Billy Connolly or Ronnie Corbett, I have an Evening With!
An Evening with Lee Battersby takes place at Mundaring Library, and will feature me talking about writing as abstract art, the fearlessness of children readers, and possibly dishing out a little of Magrit or Ghost Tracks to prove my point. You can see more details on the Mundaring Library website or book through Eventbrite.
Well, I missed posting last night, because I was out gorging myself on a brilliant Indian dinner at a restaurant with the 2017 KSP Fellows and Residents Group-- the life of a writer is a hard and dismal one, no?-- so I missed posting an update.
They let me out in public, in the company of nice people. It's like they don't even know me.
Needless to say, I'm pushing on, and rediscovering some long-unused writing muscles into the bargain.
I've mentioned before that my day job has a habit of eating my life: it's high-stress, can require me to work extended hours and extended weeks (I have, in the past, worked 21-day weeks), and generally dominates so much of my time and thinking that personal tasks, hobbies, and sometimes the simply act of being just me (as opposed to the team leader, the City representative, the community punching bag...) gets discarded and forgotten.
This goes doubly for writing. By the time I've worked a long day, de-stressed, spent time with my family, and contributed my share to the domestic tasks required just to keep a family of four on the go, I'm in no shape to write. Or if I am, it is simply a damn sight easier to put it down when I reach a problem point than it is to subject myself to working at the task-- if writing isn't a joy, why am I doing it when I have such a short window for joy each day in the first place? As a result, I've slowly become a flabby writer, a lazy writer, a writer who would much rather be doing anything else than working out my skills and maintaining my authorial muscle tone.
Here, I don't have that luxury. I'm here solely for the purpose of writing, and rediscovering a sense of graft and discipline has been a priority.
These last couple of days, I've reached the end of my plot vision-- that small section of narrative that I can see beyond where I stand each morning-- where Ghost Tracks is concerned. The words have not flowed as easily, because I haven't had a clear vision of where they are heading, and I've lost trust in my ability to wing my forward and make everything work. I've had to sharpen my critical faculties, so that I could provide a mentoring session to an aspiring author and give meaningful and useful advice and critique. And I've finished the one short story I had set up, and am having to rediscover how to crash research into a short period of time so that I can get back to the desk and get a word count down.
These are skills I'd let slip, and have had to push myself to rediscover. I've managed to maintain my self-appointed target of 2000 Ghost Tracks words, taking the overall total past 28,000, but it's been hard, and rewarding for that hardness.
I have a tendency to view myself, as a writer, the same way I viewed working as an improvisational comedian: spontaneously drawing upon my creativity and instinctively dipping into a well of material and references quickly enough to skate across any surface. What I had forgotten is that such an approach requires the most stringent, through, and extended preparation: what you see when I fling words out effortlessly is the quick flash of the moment, but it's the two decades of discipline and training that you don't see that enables me to do it.
It's the discipline and training I've let slip.
So this past week has been good for me. I've been forced to work, and then work beyond where lazy habit has taken me. And I have no excuses, no reason to turn away when things get difficult. I am serving an obligation, one I gave to the Centre, and to Luscious, and to myself: to be a writer, in the most professional, productive sense of the word. I'm in fight camp, and it's fantastic.
The next trick, of course, will be to maintain this discipline when I get back to the World, and that self-same stressful job that lurks just beyond next weekend with its smile full of sharp teeth. But for now the writing is the right type of work, the kind where you know the pain in your muscles is because you're building muscle mass, and you're going to come out of it the other side lean, and hard, and buff as fuck.
Anybody who thinks numbers aren't beautiful has never been a writer. As much as I have a love of mathematics (much like I have a love of boxing: I'm not much cop at anything beyond the basics, but by God, I love what the form can do), it's the rise in pure numbers that gets my authorial mind smiling.
Let me show you. As of the close of business today:
6700 words on Ghost Tracks, taking the text from 17,500 to a shade over 24,100.
3000 words on Song of the Water, equalling 1 complete short story, taking the proposed collection to, in a beautiful piece of symmetry, a shade over 24,100.
300 words on The Ballad of Arthur Williams.
Equalling 10,000 words since I arrived here.
See? Isn't lovely? Doesn't that make you smile? Because it make me grin like a freaking loon.
The other thing that made me smile like a loon today was my family deciding I needed to be taken out for dinner, and driving all the way here to pick me up and take me out. I'm loving this small taste of the life I want to live-- writing full-time; advancing projects on a daily basis; drinking up the solitary, reflective life of an artist-- but it means nothing without the love and support of those I love, and I've been missing them terribly. Everything I do, everything I sacrifice, everything I undertake: without them, it's ashes.
It's a small thing: a meal together, some laughs and togetherness. But it gives me the motivation to keep going and do them proud.
A simple day, today. After the social butterflying and story completion of yesterday, it was time for a return to the word mines, and an attempt to get some serious traction on Ghost Tracks.
Having spent the last 4 days staring out at the same view, I decided to pack up my computer and head into the nearby town of Midland to write, just for the change of scenery. It worked: I managed 2500 words, and shaped up the next part of the narrative, so that the next day or two of writing should come as easily as today's.
That represents an important turning point for me: I'm not a plotter, which means that I rarely have more than a general sense of where I'm going in the short term. I usually know where I want to end up-- I have the ending of this novel all sewn up, for example-- but the details of the journey are often only discovered very shortly before the characters find out. In loose terms, my writing comes to me in three stages:
The big picture:I've got a story to tell. I know how it begins ( A boy derails a ghost train, and has to travel to the ghost world to make amends). I know how it ends (Oh, it's so good. It's so great. You didn't think I'd actually tell you here, did you? ;) ). I know the overarching reason behind the narrative (There's this [REDACTED] named [REDACTED] , and s/he wants to [REDACTED] by[REDACTED] a [REDACTED]). And that's pretty much it.
The lilypads:like a frog trying to cross the Great Lakes, I know where I'm sitting. I can see maybe one, maybe two actions ahead. I know the lake is freaking enormous. I'm trusting that there are enough lilypads to get me across. before this morning, I'd written roughly a third of the novel. Paul, my protagonist, and Aoife, his sidekick, had escaped the first major set piece of the story, and had reached a surprise location. I know I want them to reach a completely different location by the time the novel turns towards the climax. How they get there, not so much.
The details: all the fun bits to write, like dialogue, and new characters, and the bricks that make the wall that make the tower. Two days ago, did I know there would be a monster? And a family of abandoned children who lived in a cubby house they'd built from their memories? And that the monster would prove to be not a monster at all, but possibly the biggest victim in the whole book? Nope, nope, and uh-uh. But this is the fun thing, for me: the discoveries I make along the way. the surprises and magical moments where my subconscious tape me on the shoulder, and says "Hey, Rocky..."
And as we all know, the fun lies in the fact that it's never a rabbit.
Yesterday, one of my junior interrogators asked me whether I wrote books so that I could read exactly the kinds of books I wanted to read. And the answer is yes, because I experience the excitement and wonder that a reader does, at pretty much exactly the same time. If I planned everything out, I'd already know, and what would be the point of writing it out?
Today was a good day, with excitement, and danger, and really cool things. Tomorrow? Who knows? But half the fun is getting there.
As much as I'm a died-in-blood-on-the-wool-of-the-lamb-that-lay-down-with-the-lion atheist, I've always had a bit of a leaning towards the fictional cult of Bokononism that Kurt Vonnegut espoused in my favourite of his novels, Cat's Cradle. It's a harmless creed of self-gratification, based around the tenet that you should believe the lies that make you happiest, and discard those fabricated, societal lies-- say, for example, family, government, or honour-- that cause you misery or harm.
My birth family imploded badly during the 1980s -- and my own growth has shown me what a flawed, deeply unhappy accidental grouping it was -- so the novel struck a cord when I first read it. Of particular attraction, and something I've held to ever since, was the notion of the karass-- a group of people linked by common affect or circumstance, for good or ill, even if they do not know it. The girl to whom I lost my virginity: part of my karass. The doctor who killed my first wife: likewise. The teacher who first noted my talent for writing and helped turn me away from the military and towards a life in the arts: you get the idea.
It is not the link forged by societal expectation that counts. It is the link forged by the effect upon my journey that is the strongest.
So what does all this post-pop-psychology-posturing have to do with anything?
One of the main tasks associated with my current KSP writing residency is to provide a mentoring session to an aspiring artist. I don't mentor as often as I used to. As I get older and my career gets more complicated, I find myself less and less sure about what I have to offer others, outside of straight writing advice. I'm less of an example, and more of an example of mistakes to avoid......
However, it does strike me as a timely opportunity to acknowledge five people who have provided important turning points in my career. Whether they know it or not, and whether they want it or not, they are-- inextricably-- members of my writing karass
It was a day of achievement today: after kissing Luscious goodbye (there are advantages to undertaking a residency within driving distance of home- a visit from your wonderful wife is one of them), I embarked upon my first engagement of the fortnight-- a forty-five minute interview by the participants of the KSP Press Club, led by my old pal and fellow author Melinda Tognini.
My press desk. How cool is that?
For an hour I was grilled by a merciless team of flint-eyed investigate reporters about my literary influences, whether ideas drawn from real life or fiction are more worthy, and exactly which iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy was my favourite (What can I say? Two comic book geeks in a room: we bonded...)
Don't let those adorable smiles fool you. Gimlet-eyed journalistic assassins, one and all!
One of my greatest joys as a writer is working with kids-- with so many other, easier forms of entertainment available to them, you know that any kids who takes the time and effort to become involved in literature is there because s/he absolutely loves the stuff. That passion is palpable, and the questions and interests they reveal are usually fearless, and incredibly insightful. This was no different, and in the end, I had to be gently reminded that everybody had other things to get on with today, or I'd still be there, now. And still comparing Yondu Udonta to Charlie 27, and explaining how chicken's eyes work. It was that kind of session...
Once I'd reluctantly retreated to my cabin, I turned my attention to Song of the Water. There's a point in every story where you can feel that the narrative has reached the final turn, and is beginning to sniff out the end. I hit that point with this story late yesterday, and was able to bring it in to a conclusion at a slice over 3000 words. It was my only writing of the day, so to be able to conclude something was reward for not moving on to more Ghost Tracks words. Tomorrow. In the meantime, there was just enough time to get the first words down on the next story, and a character I've been fascinated with for years.
From pages recovered from a fire in the office of Colonel Bull, Governor, Melbourne Gaol, 24 May 1892. They called me mad, and I called me mad, and damn us, we were all correct. The Ballad of Albert Williams will focus on the compelling Frederick Bailey Deeming. One day I will write a biography of the man, but for now, tomorrow will involve furthering the action of Ghost Tracks, and diving into my research materials to thread out the narrative of this alluring lunatic.
Until then, a completed story means beery reward and boxing videos: time for me to explore the career of The Prince, Naseem Hamed.
Okay, so they're storming the castle, and the defenders are pouring hot.... oil?.... and there's a drunk guy.... and he wants a cold.... oil?......
You know, sometimes, I look back at these scratchings made ten or more years ago, and I think "Wow, I could have made something of myself, if I'd just pushed at it. I can see where it all could have fit together." And sometimes, well...... this.
No. I have no idea what I was thinking. I really, really don't.