Guest post: The Myriad Curse by Dan Rabarts

I remember a time, he said, trying to make himself sound older and wiser than he really was, when I’d sit down to write and have no idea where to start or how this fragment of time I had scratched out of the universe solely for the purpose of putting words on paper might best be put to use. A lot of this precious time was spent staring at the white, trying to dredge up ideas or characters or even just sentences, in an effort to feel this was something I could do. Then I wrote a novel, and put it in a drawer.

Along came children. Those precious hours I had scratched from the belly fat of Grandfather Time suddenly seemed a long way off, all that effort wasted on a doorstop. So I wrote another novel, or rather three more novels, and put them all in the drawer. It’s quite a big drawer.

Then I found my stride with short stories, and the first story I ever wrote had legs and gave me the kick in the pants I needed to write more. In there somewhere, I wrote another novel, but it was the shorts that kept me moving. That novel’s not in the drawer. Not yet.

Short stories were a lifeline. After all the effort of writing enough dark epic fantasy to sink a pirate ship, and really having no idea what to do with it or how to turn it into an Elixir of Fame and Fortune, in short fiction I had now found a medium I could do something with. Something people wanted to read.

When you find a barrel rolling off the sinking pirate ship, you grab hold, right? Save yourself, you filthy buccaneer.

Morning after morning, night after night, I sank into the couch and lost myself in fragments of lives and worlds, the hopes and fears and mysteries of places and people unseen, just long enough to touch on their world, leave it a little more bruised, a little more broken, like the fingers of a cruel god grazing the hearts of the innocent. Such power I held.

While adrift upon this dark and tempestuous sea I joined forces with another reaper of words, and together we harvested not just our own stories but also those of others, and from this grave union were born two anthologies and a novel, nay a series of novels, brought to life by a pair of characters who refused to be left in a drawer collecting dust.

It goes without saying that I owe where I am right now to Lee Murray, my fellow pirate, to whom I remain eternally grateful, but also to the stories that led me there.

And so I sit here, and I still face a white page. And while that has not changed, everything has changed. Instead of the vast Sea of WhatthefuckshouldIwrite, I now stare into the black, many-faceted spider eyes of the Myriad Curse, and twitch against her ropy bonds. This is utterly more terrifying than the emptiness of Not Having Any Good Ideas. It is the hell of having so many things started, so many stories in the mix, long and short and yet to define themselves, some contracted for delivery, some just taking up room in critical parts of the workings that they need to be vented so other things can breathe, that knowing which to even tackle next is the soul-killer. It robs the will to work on anything, because there are so many things clamouring for attention.

So I do nothing, unless someone is screaming for it. What used to be a spontaneous, creative burning of energy, a determination to scale some indefinable pinnacle, becomes a pressure to meet a deadline. This is not a problem until the moment you realise it’s what you’re doing and that yes of course it’s a fucking problem. What comes next for our dear victim, so afflicted by the curse of scraping against the sharp edges of almost being able to pretend they’re a real writer, with a real shot at success if they just keep at it?

Writer therapy, of course.

Wind back the clock, before The Path of Ra, before The Crooked Mile, before Crucible, before the drawer novels. Before the short films and the attempts at writing screenplays. Before these things, there was poetry that grew out of free writing. Words that were written for no-one but me. Words that fell out of me like cold black stones, wet with what drowned inside me, written while I sat on chittering trains, dark Wellington nights rolling by the rainswept windows. Poems written on coffee breaks, or in bedrooms late at night to the bitter swill of heartache, which I totally understood before I even turned twenty, I swear. If my short stories were fragments of other people’s pain, then my poems were raw splinters of my own. They existed for no other reason than to slake my need to get out what was in.

Late last year Lee and I delivered Teeth of the Wolf, the sequel to Hounds of the Underworld, to our publisher Raw Dog Screaming Press. I’d had a hell of a year, and with wrapping up the novel I was at the end of my creative energies going into the summer break. I had stories I could be working on. I had another novel I needed to complete edits on. But the thought of taking work away with me on holiday was too much. The Myriad Curse grinned down at me, venom gleaming on its fangs. What to do?

My family gift me with writing notebooks every year. I made sure I had one with me all the time while we were away. I would beat the Myriad Curse, even if just for a few weeks. I would wind back the clock. I set myself a simple enough challenge: Write every day. Something new. Complete nothing. Write free, for myself alone. Start a new story, but run out of time in the day? Leave it. Tomorrow, write free. Whatever comes. Poems, maybe, for sure, but there are no rules. Some days, a couple of lines, some days, three or four pages. Some of it meant nothing, some of it hurt, some of it was the sun and the rain of being far from the day job and surrounded by people who love me. It wasn’t the subconsciously sculpted meanderings of twenty years ago, and it wasn’t without its precious, jagged scars, but it did what it needed to.

It broke the Myriad Curse.

Reminded me, in the end, that they’re all just words, sentences, and that not everything we write needs to be finished. Literature is, well, littered with the ruins of our abandoned children, built on their bones. They are the wreckage driven before the storm, which some bastard pirate ship is surfing.

Free writing is the antivirus. Plagued by so many projects you can’t focus? Write more. Write nothing in as many words as you need to say it. Write up a storm. Because at the centre of every storm there’s an eye. That calm is where we find our peace, even when it’s screaming at us from all sides, staring us down with its glassy dead eyes and glittery fangs. The curse is the storm is the sea, and we can beat it by playing its own game against it. All order came out of chaos, so maybe sometimes we just need a little more chaos in our lives. Write free, write for you and you alone.

I remember a time, he said, when the white page was the enemy, the tyrant, the curse. That will never change. What defines us is how we face it down.

——

Dan Rabarts is an award-winning short fiction author and editor, recipient of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best New Talent in 2014. His science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in numerous venues around the world, including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, StarShipSofa and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Together with Lee Murray, he co-edited the anthologies Baby Teeth – Bite-sized Tales of Terror, winner of the 2014 SJV for Best Collected Work and the 2014 Australian Shadows Award for Best Edited Work, and At The Edge, a collection of Antipodean dark fiction, which won the SJV for Best Edited Work in 2017. His novella Tipuna Tapu won the Paul Haines Award for Long Fiction as part of the Australian Shadows Awards in 2017. Hounds of the Underworld, Book 1 of the crime/horror series The Path of Ra, co-written with Lee Murray and published by Raw Dog Screaming Press (2017), is his first novel. Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.

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Guest post: Reverse Planning… or Turning Problems into Questions by Andi Buchanan

I’ve never been a planner. I start with good intentions, with complex spreadsheets or specialist software, with colour coding schemes and books on story structure. I go into the first draft with a clear picture of what I want to write… and three chapters in it all falls apart.

I’ve just finished the first draft of a space opera novel, which I’m calling Shattered Stars for now, until I can think of a better title. I pushed myself a bit further with the planning this time; I downloaded the free trial of Scapple and it helped a lot. I knew the names and main features of the alien races, and I knew the main event or topic of each section of the book and who the main players were. It helped a lot.

The novel is still a mess. I’ve come to terms with the fact I’m not a planner. I don’t plan in detail and nor do I write careful slow drafts; I wrote the first 50 000 words of this novel as part of NaNoWriMo in November and the rest in December. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to plan more effectively, but that’s not going to happen just because I will it to be so. I need to write that first draft to understand my characters, to figure out what happens and how it all fits together. And the process is inevitably going to be tangled.

So this time, rather than wishing I could plan better, I’ve started thinking about how I can most effectively use this first draft to ensure the best possible second draft. To accept that there are going to be major problems with the first draft, but not carry them through into subsequent drafts.

Here’s the situation now: my timelines are a disaster: I don’t know how old my protagonist is – and I haven’t worked out if her orphan granddaughter could even have been born or if she’s too young for it all to make sense. At least one of my alien races changes its name midway through, and although I have the physical features of each race mostly worked out, I have no idea how to distinguish between individuals – are they different sizes or different colours – and is that colour of their skin or their hair… or their scales or feathers? What are the possible variations? I only worked out who the main antagonist was about 3/4 of the way through, so I need to ensure their behaviour is consistent without giving everything away. There’s a section I think might reinforce stereotypes about a group of people in a way I definitely don’t want to perpetuate.

And that’s about two percent of it.

The problem with planning at the start was that I didn’t know enough to ask the questions I needed to. But now I have the baseline. And I’ve started making a list of questions like this:
How old is my protagonist?
What were the names and professions of her children?
What’s a timeline of the significant events that happened in the five years before the story opens?
What type of cuisine does my protagonist check out every time she arrives on a new space station?
How did my secondary character obtain his false identity?
What developmental stages would the grandchild have hit at this point?
Is Earth habitable yet? How many people live there and what are their motivations for doing so?

I collected about forty of these questions before beginning a read through, and they’ve increased a lot as I work my way through chapter by chapter. Some only need one word answers, others need thought and research. I’ve also created a corresponding spreadsheet for each sentient species that collects data like physical appearance, what they breathe, system(s) of government, how culturally homogeneous they are, and so on. And I’m finding I can answer these questions in a way I could never fill in character sheets from scratch. Then it felt like I was picking random details; now I both have the background to base this information on, and know that this information is relevant to the story I’m telling.

I’ve added something else as well. While I was finishing the first draft, I was struggling a bit with why to care about the novel – I think that always happens at some point in a first draft, but I was feeling it particularly strongly this time. In a whine to my critique group, I managed to not only rubber duck the main problem, but to work out a possible solution. There are lots of things about it I find interesting or fun to write. But compared to other longer works I’ve written, there’s little that I truly care about, or find particularly meaningful to me. It touched on them, because I don’t think you can write a creative work of this length without something of your interests or your values coming through.

So I’ve added two more questions:
What is unique, interesting, or unusual about this novel?
and
Why is this novel important to me?

And in doing so I’ve realised that I do care about this novel, but that in constructing plot twists and alien species, I hadn’t focused enough on those aspects. That’s fine, for a first draft, but now I’m keeping the answers to these questions on hand as I move towards the second draft.
Maybe this will bridge the planning/pantsing gap. I hope so. It’s working for me thus far. Maybe it won’t be the solution I’ve hoped though, and I think that’s ok too. I’ve learned that as my writing evolves, changes, improves but not in a steady upwards curve but with ups and downs along the way, so does my writing process. This is just part of that.

—-

Andi C. Buchanan is a writer, editor, and part-time space lobster based near Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Their work is published or forthcoming in Apex, Kaleidotrope, Glittership, and more. Andi also edits Capricious magazine, creates websites as part of DragonByte and likes cheese, dinosaurs, and good disability representation in SFF. Their website is at http://andicbuchanan.org/.

Links:
This Other World (novella): https://www.amazon.com/This-Other-World-C-Buchanan-ebook/dp/B01J1B0B3Y
Capricious: Gender Diverse Pronouns special issue: http://www.capricioussf.org/issue-9-gender-diverse-pronouns/

Guest post: Point of view and language by Naomi Aoki

As a Romance Writer, my preferred method of crafting stories is to write them in third-person limited/dual point of view. I like being able to convey both sides of the story as a relationship between the two main characters develops. Occasionally one of the secondary characters will get a word in and give their opinion on proceedings, but there needs to be a darn good reason for them doing so – or they are just too damn noisy.

In saying that, my characters can get rather vocal while I’m drafting, shouting out their wishes and desires until I write it down, sometimes it’s even contrary to how I thought the story should go… but it is their story to tell… and I’m getting side-tracked.

But, in my current WIP, my preferred method of storytelling is not the one I’m using. Instead it’s being written in third-person/single point of view, for two reasons.

Firstly, I like to challenge myself to try different ways of writing something, because if you aren’t learning through making mistakes, your writing won’t improve – can’t.
Secondly, it’s the only way this story could be told, effectively. It’s definitely a challenge and throwing up questions about how I handle all sorts of issues within the story narrative that might not have been thought of if I’d continued with a dual point of view.

So why? And how is it challenging?

The why is easy, or at least for me – and other writers may have chosen to stick with dual point of view or even switched to first-person narrative – with the story being a historical romance set between two people of vastly different cultures and around an often over looked conflict. I suppose being bookended by the Boer War and World War I, it is easily done, but it is also interesting in that during the short duration of The Boxer Rebellion in 1900, nations who would soon be fighting against each other, fought alongside each other on Chinese soil… then again European Nations, probably not that surprising and I’m getting side-tracked again. I didn’t think I could do the Chinese side of the story justice if I tried to write it in dual point of view, and so made the decision to write the story from the point of view of the British character.

And the how… well let’s just say it would be rude to assume everyone in the world spoke English or had universal translators at hand. So, the challenge was how to show the reactions, the beliefs and the cultural situation of the Chinese character without doing just that and to also show the developing relationship between the two main characters.

I mean, he could remain silent, the British character being constantly confused or through the wishy-washy- hand-wavy ways of giving a small insight into what is happening with their interactions. Again, I didn’t want to do that. It felt like I would be either trying to white-wash the whole thing or come across very dismissive of the Chinese character.
Instead I chose to incorporate the Chinese Language – Mandarin – into the story, whenever he couldn’t express something with the limited English he did know. I never thought when I decided to learn Chinese four years ago that I would be using it to write love scenes… but I have and I think the story is richer for it.

What it has meant is that I now have a draft manuscript littered with Chinese sentences I need to double check the grammar for or hunt out better ways of expressing it; sentences in brackets waiting to be translated and ones which I’ve put into it, but forgot to put the English translation beside it and I can’t remember exactly how I wanted to word it in English. Whoops. Sometimes I end up spending hours translating from one language to the other… minutes that flow past quick because it’s a lot of fun doing it or at least to me it is.

Naomi Aoki would love to runaway to Japan or China and live there for a few years… but she can’t. Instead she goes there in her books, hoping to drag the reader into a world they’ve never been to before. Historical. Contemporary. Time offers no constraint to the stories she writes, happily dabbling in both so long as there is a happy ending.
Find her on Twitter and Pinterest

Guest post: Never Say Never by Darusha Wehm

Ten years ago I wrote the book that would become Self Made, the first in the Andersson Dexter cyberpunk detective series. Ten years is a long time as a writer. Ten years is also a long time when you’re writing about near future technology*. Things change. I change. It’s the way of things.

After Self Made, I wrote two more books in that series, the third of which was published in 2012. That’s five years ago. Not as long as ten, but still a lifetime as a writer. In those five years, I’ve had readers ask when the next book will be out. I’d always answered, “I don’t have any plans for another one, but never say never.”

It’s not that I was tired of those characters, or the subgenre, or the story. It was more like I thought I’d gone everywhere that I wanted to in that world. I thought the interesting part of their story was done, and we all just needed to carry on.

But the last year has been… interesting. I was in between projects and feeling at a loose end as a writer, and also thinking a lot about the toll that resistance and protest can take on people. At some point in there I remembered that trying to make a lasting change on the world was where I’d left those characters in the Dex series. And maybe the work they were embarking on was more interesting that I’d really thought.

Reader, I wrote that next book.

I was right to say never say never. The world had changed; I had changed, and come to a place as a writer and human where I did want to go back and revisit those old, familiar faces. I enjoyed coming to that world with new skills and ideas, new understanding about those characters and new understanding about myself.

I’ve always said of my old work that if I wrote it now I’d do it differently, but that I have no desire to go back and change it. And one of the joys of returning to this old series was being able to write that work and those people the way I do it now, without losing what made the older books what they are.

* I’m honoured to have had the unique experience of trading copies of my books (in which I describe characters with implanted chips in their hands that do things like unlock their apartments) in exchange for receiving a chip implanted in my own hand just like the ones I wrote about.

Darusha writes speculative fiction and poetry as M. Darusha Wehm and mainstream work as Darusha Wehm, and is the author of ten published novels, several poems and many short stories. Originally from Canada, Darusha currently lives in Wellington, New Zealand after spending the past several years sailing around the Pacific.

Previously Reciprocity by Lee Murray

Guest Post – Reciprocity by Lee Murray

Imagine a writer, hunched and shrunken at their desk, toiling alone in the semi-darkness, the ground around their feet littered with balled up yellow legal paper. It’s not so hard to conjure because, at its core, writing is a solitary business. Words on a page. Pages into chapters. Eventually, our industrious scribe has the first draft of a short story, or a series of poems, or even a full-length book. They emerge, sallow and blinking, into the light.

“I’ve finished my manuscript!!”
“Really? That’s so great. Go you!”
“I’m going to fire it off to Big-Five & Co Publishers, right now.”
We try not to cringe. “Um sorry, no, it’s not publishable yet.”
They frown. “Of course, it is. I spent all of November on it. I got an excellence in [insert high school writing course] and I’ve done all this hard work!”
“You’re absolutely sure there are no plot holes, character inconsistencies, and you haven’t tied everything up with an unsatisfying act of god ending?”
“Not that I can see. And anyway, it won’t matter if I decide to self-publish, will it?”

Since of late their only sustenance has been a diet of coffee and Tim Tams and the state of their fingernails suggests a severe lack of Vitamin D, we ignore the implication that self-published works don’t matter, and say gently, “Even if the traditional route isn’t for you, your name will be on the cover. Surely, you’ll want to be able to stand behind the work? You’ll want it to be the very best it can be?”
Their face falls, shoulders slump, and they nod. “Well, what am I supposed to do then? I spent all my holidays working on this. It’s not like I can afford thousands of dollars for editing.”
We try not to splutter, because commissioning editors have lives too, and slush piles that have been waiting so long they have melted into lakes. So when an editor comes across work with structural issues, a surfeit of exclamation marks, annoying TAB indents, space bar-spacebar-spacebar-spacebar, it’s hardly surprising that they might bypass those works in favour of titles with less onerous editing requirements.”

Of course, it’s possible our determined writer has a story which is destined to be bigger than Hobbits. Possible, but unlikely. These days, if writers want their work to stand out in the squizillions of titles out there, they can’t afford not to get it edited. Still, living in self-inflicted solitude for the last [month/year/decade], our writer is a fragile creature – in fact, they look set to burst into tears at any minute, so we must tread carefully.

“Maybe you could join a writing community?” we suggest.
Our would-be writer fiddles with a paperclip. “Ugh, people!” they wail.
“Do you want to improve your writing or not?”
Quiet mumbling.
“Look, it doesn’t have to be a major professional group, although there are some fantastic societies out there, all running amazing programmes for their members. Informative, educational, current. There’s the HWA, SpecFicNZ, AHWA…”
The writer rolls their eyes.
“Okay, so start small with a writing buddy, or a few local writers who meet over coffee, or sign up to an online writers’ network. People who are writing in your genre—”
“But I’m not ready for anyone to read my writing yet!”
We smile.
“Sure, you could decide to join to get your work critiqued or mentored. You might tap into the group’s knowledge of markets and publishers and what that weird ‘option’ clause is all about. You could also meet at the bar on a Friday evening and moan about the lack of funding opportunities for [insert your genre here]. All excellent reasons for joining a group, but there’s something else. Another reason for joining…”
Our imaginary writer taps their foot. They’ve been sequestered for some time, and their patience is wearing thin.
“Because you’ll be able to reciprocate,” we say.
“What?”
“Look, lots of writers join groups in order to get their work critiqued, but they forget the other side of the equation. Reciprocating in kind. Because reading, and critiquing other work in your genre is one of the quickest ways to improve your skills.”
Our writer’s forehead wrinkles dubiously.
“Think about it,” we say, warming to our theme, “if you can recognise a gaping plot hole, a character inconsistency, a weird POV switch, tense and tension issues, adverbs ad nauseum, or a lame ending that wouldn’t convince a six-year-old in someone else’s writing, and if you can suggest fixes for those issues, then you’ll have gained valuable techniques for polishing your own work.”
Our writer’s eyes grow wide. “I get to read other people’s work before anyone else has seen it?”
“Yes, and you—”
“Point out all the flaws? Pick it to pieces?”
“Well, that’s not exactly—”
“And mark it up with red pen?”
:You’re missing the point: at the end of it, you’ll have a whole heap of skills you can apply to editing your own manuscript, and, if you’ve taken care not to stomp all over someone’s else’s baby – being sure to commend, recommend and trying not to offend ‒ then there’s a chance you’ll come out of it with a bunch of supportive like-minded writer colleagues, who’ll be just as invested in your book as you are, and can help you to promote it on release day.”
Our writer giggles. They haven’t slept in a while. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“So, you’ll join a writers’ group?”
“Yes, but later; I’m due for another Tim Tam.” Then they disappear in a puff of blue smoke.

Well, of course they did: they were imaginary.

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows). Her recent works include the Taine McKenna military thriller series, and Hounds of the Underworld (Raw Dog Screaming Press) a supernatural crime-noir co-written with Dan Rabarts. She lives with her family in New Zealand, where she conjures up stories from an office overlooking a cow paddock.

Hounds of the Underworld: https://www.amazon.com/Hounds-Underworld-Path-Dan-Rabarts/dp/1935738968

Writing posts

So I’m aware this blog has lately been just movie reviews and the odd craft update. I’m planning to take my fiction a little more seriously and have already started putting short fiction out for consideration in publications. I’m also seriously considering getting into self publishing my work. Taking things more seriously has meant me going to a few conferences this year and meeting some amazing writers.

I recently wrapped up another month of writing like crazy. I did NaNoWriMo, which is my second time officially competing in November, but I have also done a couple of ‘camp Nano’s where you do it ‘off season’. It’s good fun and it works for me to have that incentive. Now I have one short novella to finish up and then a world of editing before me. So not a ton of time to craft blog posts or indeed watch many of my 500 list movies.

But, some of my amazing writer friends have books coming out soon, or have books already on the market which you might be interested in. So I’ve decided that for the next few months I’ll have some guest posts on the blog. The specifications for content I’ve given the authors is pretty vague: around 1000 words, about writing, or your creative process, something you’ve learned or anything really.

Anyway dear readers, I hope that you enjoy what’s to come!

Related: if you’re an author and would like to participate please get in touch, I have a pretty great line up, but if I can push this out another month or so I’m happy to.

Writing when you’re out of ideas

How do you write when you’re not sure how to start, or if you have the will to write but no ideas?

Or… if you just need to get out of a rut and do some actual writing instead of procrastinating (say, by writing blog posts?)

I have some tips. These are all things that have 100% worked for me at some point. Please add your own in the comments, if you have ’em

– Free writing. This is pure, stream of consciousness word vomit. I like using 750 words but you can do it on paper or just in a word document or whatever. No critics allowed, just write whatever you’re thinking for five, ten minutes. It clears the clutter out of your brain.

– Go somewhere with almost no other stimulus. It could be a study, the library, a cafe … I’ve had the best luck writing in transit, when stuck on a plane or train. I’m guessing you don’t want to just go around buying flights just so you can write but intentionally trapping yourself on a flight without a book or magazine, but with a notebook and two pens can be very motivating. Long train rides are good too, I used to get stuff done in between Wellington and Paraparaumu when I caught the train out there.

– Go somewhere with lots of stimulus. This is for the ideas sparking side of things. I’ve had particular luck with museums. I just wander, follow my nose, try not to plan what I’m doing but go where things look interesting. Sometimes little weird ideas will pop into my head like ‘what if hedgehogs were super intelligent’ or ‘a statue with memory’ or whatever. Note ’em down. If you get struck by one idea in particular, most rooms in museums have a bench you can perch on and scribble away. Art galleries, beaches, forests, anywhere you can people watch are also good.

– Sit in your usual writing space and put on ambient music. This is probably something you’ve read a thousand times before but that’s because it works. My preferred ambient sound generator is noisli but there’s a tonne of other sites and apps that do the same thing. If white noise doesn’t work for you, try a playlist of songs you know very well and that you find comforting. Early Leonard Cohen and Alt -J is my preferred basis for a writing soundtrack.

– Try another form of creation. This works best if you have another hobby; something like painting, sewing, handcrafts etc. I’ve found that if I have trouble writing, spending and hour or so on patchwork can free up my mind. Like the act of making one thing puts my brain in the mood or space for creating words as well.

Some shorter ones to try:

– take a long bath and don’t take a book in with you
– watch an inspiring movie or Ted talk about chasing your dreams
– take a nap (seriously, just after a nap is my best writing time)
– break your routine; get up early and write, or write in your lunch break instead of reading
– brainstorm: mindmap on paper or out loud with a friend
– track down a book or list online of writing/story prompts and go for it

…and that’s all I can think of right now. Have you got any to add?