Category Archives: Charlotte Nash

The first novel, in the flesh :)

20130227_120310

This is going to be a very short post, mostly because I’m in the grips of moving back to my home city, which necessitates driving all over the place, from real estate offices to banks, and outlaying more cash than any sane person would be comfortable with.

BUT! Amidst all this, I got an exciting package: the first copy of my debut novel, Ryders Ridge, in the papery flesh. It looks good. It smells good. It’s difficult to describe how I feel looking at it. Of the story, I am very proud. But seeing it in its final physical form is still amazing. I can remember very distinctly, in 2007 when I’d just decided to take writing seriously, wandering (as I often did) into my local Dymocks in Indooropilly and looking round at all the books on the shelves. Wow, wouldn’t that be cool, I thought. Amazing to think that in just a few weeks, my first book will be on the shelves. 🙂

In other exciting news, Kim Wilkins will launch Ryders Ridge on 9 April at Avid Reader in West End. Tickets are free, but booking required for numbers. Click here if you’d like to come!

Advertisements

On Michael Crichton

I’ve been a Michael Crichton fan for more than twenty years, ever since I got my hands on Jurassic Park in high school. And no matter what I’ve been doing since that time, he keeps cropping up in my attention. I’ve read, with one or two exceptions, every book he wrote. I loved almost every one. I remember where I was when I heard he’d died in 2008. I’ve heard many disparaging things said about him – that his work isn’t serious, that it’s ‘airport fiction’ – I’d dispute them all, but I really don’t care about that now. I loved his stuff, and I want to talk about is two particular places that he influenced my life, and what they meant.

jurassic-parkWhen I was a first-year med student, one of my (probably well-meaning) consultants had a go at Michael Crichton out of the blue one day. I don’t remember what prompted it … something about usefulness of professions. The consultant was indignant that someone who graduated medicine and hadn’t stuck with it. More or less, consultant said, “I mean, he’s not helping anyone.”

At the time, I mumbled the usual non-committal assent of the lowly student. But afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t believe it. The consultant didn’t know how many times I’d read MC’s stories, and other favourite authors’. The enjoyment I’ve had from them, the comfort, and the insight. The consultant may have felt medicine’s way of ‘helping’ is the only, or perhaps the most noble, one, but it isn’t true. Good stories help. They enrich, inspire and prompt discussion. Writing matters. And what this one person wrote is still with me long after his death, and will continue to be so. I wish I could go back to that moment, be braver, and say so. Fortunately, I don’t have to.

Years later, when I too decided not to pursue clinical medicine, I would often hear in my head people like that consultant who looked down on me for my choice. And I was comforted because I knew others, like Crichton, had done the exact same thing before me. When I finally got around to reading his early-career memoir, Travels, I found the med school experience he described eerily similar to my own, even though our medical education was 30 years apart. And it was interesting to me that all his bios imply he’d completed his internship before leaving the profession. Travels made it clear this wasn’t the case, just like me. Another comfort.

Fast forward many years to this week, and I’m in the post-completion of a manuscript turmoil. I know it needs lots of work. Lots of work. And out of the blue, my friend Bek sent me this:

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”crichtonbooks

And who said it? Michael Crichton. And from a writer I’ve admired so much, this was like a removalist that packed away my apprehensions. Yes, it needs work. A lot of work. And it can be done.

Next week, fingers crossed, I’ll be unpacking my long-boxed books in a new apartment. And I’ll be running my fingers over the stained, dog-eared and much-loved pages of Crichton’s books, and thinking about what a profound influence someone I never met had on me, and how special that is. The magic of stories. My friend KimWilkins describes it as an ordinary magic (which is lovely). Just the kind we often need.

Publishing short stories – truths from a serial submitter

Anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m a nerd to the core of my soul, and one of the particular manifestations of that is my love of spreadsheets, graphs and numbers generally.

One of the upsides to this bent is that BAS time is actually fun (I see that look you’re giving me). The other is that I tend to record data on my writing for later analysis and tracking. I’m planning a blog soon using the data I have from the five novel manuscripts I’ve written, but today I wanted to present a few insights about short stories, and more particularly, submitting them to markets.

I’ve been fortunate to have some successes in the short story arena. I consider myself an emerging writer, but I’ve been tracking my short stories since I started trying to have them published. I find it essential – I can’t remember otherwise where they’ve gone, how long ago, and when to re-query. So today I’ve made a preliminary troll through the data and I present three insights that showed themselves.

The spreadsheet gives up her secrets ...

The spreadsheet gives up her secrets …

————-

[Note: The data below is based on 70 submissions (13 different stories to 39 different markets) over about a 3 year period and only represents my experience.]

1. How long does it take to get a response?

Average time for my submissions is just over 6 weeks, but I tend to favour fast-responding markets and I try to match my submissions so I’m not wasting time sending things that market would never go for anyway. Anthologies and competitions take longer, because their reading periods are often months and I tend to submit early. If I remove the anthology and comp submissions, the average response time has been 4.5 weeks. The fastest responding markets (with average times) for me have been: (the aptly named) Lightspeed (3 days), Clarkesworld (5 days), Shimmer (6 days). A few markets have never responded. I have ignored these in my analysis as two have folded since.

2. What’s the success rate?

After 70 submissions, I have 7 stories actually published (or in press). That’s 10% success rate. I have no idea if that’s good or not – I think perhaps it’s not too bad … it’s better than the acceptance rate for some academic journals. The fewest submissions before acceptance was 1 (one story was picked up by the first market I submitted it to). The most is currently on its 14th submission – it may yet have many more. The average is 5 subs per story; 4 if only counting those published.

3. How much is it worth?

There’s two ways of looking at this. The first is: depressingly little. Only 3 of my 7 published stories earned me actual money, and the total is just a shade over $200. When you look at the number of hours invested, that’s really a negligible return. I’m early career though … it’s possible there may be more money in it in the future, but I suspect not that much more. I can remember a well-known sci-fi author at the last AussieCon saying that, during the sci-fi zine hey-day in the 60s and 70s, he could write two stories in a day and sell them both, which earned a fairly tidy income. I suspect those days are long over, even if I could write two stories a day.

The other way of looking at it is investment. Time in craft, time in exposure, not to mention returning an awful lot of pride. I’ve had a few lovely comments come from readers, which was worth every revision-riddled minute. And one submission eventually published was solicited, which was immensely satisfying. Plus … there seems to be some kind of snowball effect happening – 5 of the 7 pubs have been in the last year.

———

No-one would do this for the money, but then I suspect no one does. I’ve heard so many times from more experienced writers that “talent is cheap; persistence is rare”. Good advice. If you have any questions about short story markets, feel free to comment them up – I’m not the most experienced in the game, but willing to wield the spreadsheet’s power to shed some light 🙂

The Next Big Thing

A week ago, Jason Nahrung tagged me to post for The Next Big Thing blog chain. In the 80s, when I was a kid, chain letters came on paper and promised good things for copying them out and passing them on. So in homage to that era, which also brought us Fraggle Rock, She-Ra, The Bangles, Jem, and Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego, I’m delighted that it’s now my turn for this writerly conversation. 🙂 This is how it works — I’ll answer 10 questions about my book, then I’ll tag other writers to do the same next week.

So here we go …

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Ryders Ridge

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

In 2005, I was a medical student on placement in north-west Queensland. A lot of weird stuff happened that I’ve kept on mental file. The right circumstances converted those mental files into the bedrock for this book (see also question 9).

3) What genre does your book fall under?

I call this rural medical romance – rural settings, medical details, romance between the two worlds. 🙂

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmmmm … I don’t visualise characters like this. So, that’s a tough one. I’m more likely to try to shoehorn an actor I like into a role, which is arse-backwards. This is why I’m a writer and not a casting agent. *an hour passes as I “audition” various actors using the power of the interwebz*. Ahem … In the spirit of my first novel, I’m going to say that ideally, the actors shall be awesomely talented and yet undiscovered Australian up-and-comers. 😉 But in the absence of that, let’s have:

  • Mia Wasikowska perhaps for Dr Daniella Bell. I loved her in Jane Eyre.
  • Chris Hemsworth for Mark Walker 😉 If New Zealand can do norse gods in Auckland, I reckon I can cast one for north-west Queensland. Besides, since book 2 will feature Mark’s brother, another Hemsworth could fill in for that role too!
  • Keisha Castle-Hughes could play Jackie beautifully.
  • Matthew Le Nevez could play Dave Cooper.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Promising young doctor Daniella Bell takes a temporary job in remote Ryders Ridge to escape a professional secret and falls in love with a determined cattle station heir.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Ryders Ridge will be published by Hachette Australia in April 2013. I’m not agented at this time. 🙂

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three weeks for the 90,000 word draft. Yes, that’s right. *feels the green glow of dagger eyes everywhere*. Three weeks was my window between two paying jobs, so I treated it as a professional exercise to get it done in that time (for QWC members, I wrote about it for WQ in November 2011). The draft had two structural edits before being ready – all up I think it was around nine weeks work, some full-time and some part-time.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I find myself thinking more about A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors and All Creatures Great and Small because of the medical angle in this story, but brought up to more modern times. Plenty of awesome Australian writers write stories that capture the rural heart of Australia – Fleur McDonald, Rachael Treasure, Mandy Magro, to name just a few. In concept and background, I probably share more in common with Loretta Hill, except that I’m writing with a medical context.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My writing group, the Brisbane floods, and a whole lot of weird (in the original meaning) stuff. I’d been writing seriously for several years and had three manuscripts and a bunch of short stories under my belt. But after the 2011 floods, I went to Sydney to work. I met people there who opened new windows in my world view. When I came back, I was looking for a new direction. We were on our writers’ retreat and were talking about rural romance. I realised I’d had experiences I could write about. Three weeks later, I had the first draft.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

If you like shows set in the medical world like ER, A Country Practice or The Flying Doctors/RFDS, this book is certainly set amidst reasonably realistic medical drama and in a small town, with the spice of secrets, romance, and danger. And if you fancy sitting ringside at a rodeo or campdraft, Ryders Ridge will take you there, and with friends you’d like to know.

That’s it from me. Now, to the chain part of this process … I tag these writerly friends to follow on next week. You’re it!

On Planning (or, how to avoid writerly pain and suffering)

Sister Sal posed a question about planning last week, and I actually sat down to think about it. At heart, I believe in Goldilocks planning – you can do too much or too little. Do too much, and ailments can include drowning in detail, shoehorning, or pre-writing fatigue. Too little and stories meander, are inconsistent, are poorly structured or are never finished. (At least for me). So achieving the right balance is something I’ve consciously worked on, often borrowing from what I’ve read other writers do. So, here goes.

My planning face. Planning can be loathsome, but writing without planning is worse.

My process for short stories and longer works is really different. And writing and editing are totally different too (not going to touch editing here). I’ll talk about short stories first.

**Note – I mention quite a few stories in this post – some of them are published, the others are mostly in submission processes at the current time.

Short stories. Usually the idea for a short story is small enough that planning is done internally rather than on paper. I find that if I can’t conceive the story in my head, the idea is probably too big for a short and I’m going to end up writing (accidentally) a novella or a novel. If I find myself wanting to pull out paper to get something “straight”, it’s too big. The cusp for too-bigness seems to be around 9-10,000 words, which is good because that’s about the cusp for what’s considered a short story too. For example, ‘The Ship’s Doctor’ (which was 9,000 odd words) I had the concept idea in my head, but once I wrote to first transition, I had to get paper out to just plot out the rest of the events. I will say, however, that that story was structured like a novel (fully formed B/M/E) and most short stories, in contrast, summarise or imply big chunks of that structure.

Ok, so back to planning. Usually I need three things: the situation, the problem and some idea of when/where the resolution will occur (not necessarily how). The situation is broadly the character in their environment (a combo of character/context I guess). Problem and resolution are the two sides of conflict – moving from uncertainty about something to certainty. For example, with ‘The Message’, I knew the story followed Siah, a minor character from an earlier manuscript, in the same post-apocalyptic world, and that he was a near-outcast with a dangerous secret that could get him killed, or, kill everyone around him. The problem was being given a message that he doesn’t want to deliver, and the uncertainty as to why. I knew the story would resolve when Siah reaches the enemy Hold and meets someone else with the same secret. But when I sat down to write, I didn’t really have the in-between bits – I had two metaphorical towers: one the situation/problem, the other the resolution. I wrote to build a bridge between the two, and the exciting evolution of the set-up to enable the ending came with the writing. Similarly for ‘Parvaz’ – I knew the situation was a Roc with a broken wing transformed to human form in the thrall of a Djinn; the problem – he is tempted to kill a woman who comes to his shop, which could expose him; the resolution – he will get some freedom, but the ultimate freedom (flight) will always be out of reach.

I should also say that sometimes the elements (situation/problem/resolution) are not fully formed when I start writing and may get tweaked. But … If I get to the end of the first page without getting some clarity, invariably I get lost and end up with a heap more work (pain and suffering). For example, with ‘Tartarus’, I had the situation/problem easy: ex-honourable military man now in prison and given the chance to fight for release (and a memory wipe), sent to a very alien planet with an unusual squad who could get him killed first. But I didn’t have the resolution. And so I found myself writing and writing, and I got to 9000 words and thought, I better wrap this up. And it sucked. In the end, I had to completely overhaul it once I knew what the resolution was. I purged masses and ended up with a 6200 word story that actually hung together. That resolution part I find is actually critical to drive the conflict when writing (because you have to manoeuvre to get the ending set up), otherwise I’m just feeling around trying to see where the conflict is and it doesn’t work.

So, to Novels/Novellas. Completely different process for me. The idea is bigger and more complex, so it can’t be done in my head and I know it shouldn’t be done as I go because that will only lead to inconsistency and frustration (pain and suffering). But I think the important point for me is that, with the exception of characters, I don’t plan substance, I plan scaffold. I don’t want to know ahead of writing a scene the details of exactly how something happens, I just want to know the boundaries – what needs to happen and any limits. This is an ugly analogy – but I think of it like the shape of the cake tin. When I do get to writing, the actual words are batter that fills the tin. They are the flavour and texture, but without that tin even beautiful prose has no shape; it just goes everywhere and no one gets a cake (or, tasty story).

So, I get an idea. And it might be a setting, it might be a character, it might be a few things. I get the index cards out. I use the cards for two things – characters and scenes. So, one card per character, one scene idea per card (and keep the two separate). So, now, with what I already know I’ll put down some things about the characters (and I usually only do this for the major characters, otherwise it gets unwieldy). I only write bare details too – the stuff that has formed that person as they are in the story (this is scaffold, or cake tin stuff). So, if their parents died young, I put that down. Had a friend betray them? Yes. But I don’t give a crap what their favourite breakfast is, or really what they look like (except where that affects their life) … all that detail is part of the batter.

At this stage, I’ll start writing ideas for scenes, one per card. Not in order, just ideas for things that could happen. I *try* to express them so they capture what conflict/uncertainty the scene serves (so, ‘Daniella discovers the truth about Jamie’s father’, rather than ‘Daniella works in the clinic’) and I only ever write a single line. It’s not the time for details. Cake tin only. It’s an iterative process – you think of scene ideas, sometimes that generates character ideas, or arc ideas. I will often keep a separate piece of paper for brief notes about the arc – where the story will eventually end up and what the mid-point crisis might be, and the ‘darkest hour’ (second transition). But often these things evolve from the scene planning – I don’t have to get there first. When I’m getting a good stack of scene ideas (about 40 maybe), I sit on the floor and start putting them into three areas – beginning, middle, end. And then again, within those, I move them around to a rough order. And more ideas will come, so I write them down and fill gaps with them, and move them around.

Our last writerly retreat – three of us working with index cards on the floor. Am I using a dressing gown belt and scarf to separate beginning/middle/end? Yes I am.

I stop this process once the arc seems bedded, that is, when there’s a good number of scene cards (60+), and the initial problem (first trans), mid-point crisis, darkest hour (second trans) and resolution point are present. Then I move to the actual writing, and macro-planning moves to micro-planning. I will only ever plan details for 3-6 scenes in advance (perhaps setting, who’s present, and broadly what will occur. That’s as far as it goes). This is because the writing of the story generates little details, nuances, and connectedness (objects, sentiments or themes) that you need to be able to carry through.

Too much rigid planning in advance can stop that process because it tends to make me want to ignore those ‘consequences of the storytelling’ details, which are actually what makes the story good. For example, The Q Line was a constant shoehorn effort to make it into a story it wasn’t, and it sucked. The Butterfly Blade was written with the process above (not on index cards, but the same idea) and it was actually more enjoyable to write. Same with Razor’s Ridge. Plus, the process allows me to write very fast and very clean because I always know the path ahead. Not what I’m going to see, but the path at least. I can also be incredibly precise about how much I can write in a timeframe.

So then with a few details down, I write the scenes – and often, things occur in the writing that planning brain couldn’t generate. New characters can crop up, unexpected conflicts, etc., which all seem to come organically from how the story is being told. Then, I can go back to the scene cards and tweak them with those details in mind if required. I write from beginning to end. I do not skip scenes, ever. The first draft is complete (but not the last).

Of course, all this doesn’t avoid editing. But it does make it easier. And some projects seem to form more easily than others. The Butterfly Blade, ‘The Ship’s Doctor’, ‘Jack’, ‘Deep Deck 9’, ‘Parvaz’ and ‘The Two Boys’ were written nearly fully formed – very little changed in them structurally in subsequent edits. Then again, Razor’s Ridge, ‘The Message’, and ‘The Seven-forty from Paraburdoo’ had big structural changes despite planning. Painful edits. But that’s just different stories I guess, and I’ll be interested to see in another 5 years if I’m still using the same process.

An awesome adventure of sci-fi, Sydney trains, and Indiana Jones (and a little muse about e-books)

Bek and I have spent the last two days at the fabulous RWA conference, where the impacts of digital publishing are discussed as much as anywhere. Among the bonuses oft cited is “instant gratification” – the ability to go from covet to cover in one click. That phrase has been spoken many times in my presence these last few months, but for some reason today (maybe because of my gallivanting to Sydney last week), this story came to mind.

Last year, after the Brisbane floods, I spent a few months working in Sydney. It was, at times, pretty lonely. The loss of home was especially felt (I blogged about it here), and books were pretty important. I was living in Chatswood, where a massive Borders closed its doors, and, in the dregs of the store (which steadily resembled The Nothing eating Fantasia), I found books 1 and 3 of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy. I figured I’d find book 2 later. But I was so engrossed in the story, I unexpectedly finished book 1 (Forty Signs of Rain) late one afternoon.

And I had to know what came next. Right then.

At least, as “right then” as was possible for someone without an e-reader. A quick trip to all the local bookstores revealed the horrible truth – no one had book 2 (Fifty Degrees Below). The closest I got was Dymocks, who had a copy in their city story. But I was in Chatswood. It was half an hour before closing. And I was a 20 minute train ride away. A single second assembled all my mental power into one thought:

I can make it.

I ran. Up the long hill from Westfield, past Gloria Jeans and the buskers, and down the stairs in twos. Punched out a ticket with adrenaline-fuelled precision. Slammed through the station gates and up the stairs. The train was on the platform. If I missed it, the next would be too late. I would miss the store, and the next chapter in the story.

I can make it.

Doors were closing. That gap was the width of opportunity and I chucked everything at it. A real tunnel vision moment. I certainly didn’t stand clear … but then this was Sydney. No QR rules there. And, miracle of miracles, I scraped through, pulling up dramatically to avoid collecting the opposite doors. I was pretty chuffed. I was Indiana Jones of the city! I rode all the way into the city, lowering my heart-rate and mapping the path to the store. A well-timed light change got me there with minutes to spare. Another two minutes and I owned the book, and was heading back to the train, risking life and limb by reading it while crossing roads.

I loved that book, and today I imagine, with an e-reader I could have had it within a few seconds, instead of a heart-pumping thirty minutes. But the thing is, I love the story of how I got the book just as much as the story within it. It was an adventure only possible because instant gratification wasn’t. And maybe we need a little more of that 🙂

The writer’s persona – does it matter?

Often when you pick up a new author (or, more preferably, their book ;)) you don’t know anything about them beyond the carefully-agonised-over bio (which might make them sound fabulously witty, fabulously whacky, or fabulously normal) and perhaps a mug-shot. And so you come to the text without any author persona pre-colouring the page. This is how I’ve done most of my reading; I was never particularly interested in the person behind the text. I always read for the story.

But I’ve had a couple of experiences that make me wonder about how much that author persona can affect the reader’s experience of the text.***

The first was at the Brisbane Writers Festival a few years ago when I saw John Ajvide Lindqvist on a panel. I’d never heard of him before, but he was funny and engaging and I liked him as a person. I immediately bought his book (Let the Right One In), and long before it was made into a movie or I knew anything about it otherwise, it was one of my favourite books. It remains there today. Another author whose launch I went to a few years ago was lovely, and I still have a positive vibe about their book, even though I didn’t actually like it. Which is a bit odd.

Flash-forward a couple of years and I was at AussieCon and eagerly went to a panel with fantasy/urban fantasy authors. I had my finger on that purchase trigger again. And I was actually taken aback at how poorly presented two of the newish authors on the panel were, both in actual dress/grooming and in speaking. I know people roll out of bed and straggle into cons in trackies and T-shirts, but they’re usually in the audience. Alright, I don’t remember actual tracksuits, but I do remember ungroomed, untidily dressed and timid. I can certainly understand finding that kind of situation daunting; but for me, it didn’t matter how much those authors flashed the covers of their books – I just wasn’t interested. Persona said boring … so the product was boring. And this was despite them already having impressive sales. I can’t even remember their names now.

Now, I might be being unfair – after all JAL was a stand-up comedian for a number of years. He was used to being in front of a crowd and making them love him. But that’s not really the point. I think that the author persona can be so powerful an influence (at least on me) that maybe it’s best left a secret if there’s a chance you’re going to make a bad impression on the audience. Tricky though … if you don’t turn up at all, the audience doesn’t even see you. Maybe the best thing is just to make sure you’ve bothered to dress properly – including brushed hair – and fake enthusiasm if you need too. That might have been enough for me.

***Here I’m not including cases where you already know about the book from the rumour mill; that seems to quash the persona influence for me.

How Prometheus could have sucked less without changing the plot (or, why I’d like to rip Ridley Scott a new one)

***Warning – ranting ahead, and a few swears (in case the title didn’t give that away …)

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you probably eagerly anticipated Prometheus this year. I mean, hell, the trailer was awesome. It had Charlize. And lots of uber-in-space goodness. And it was part of the Alien franchise, in a prologue-y, know-it’s-going-to-muck-with-cannon way, but that was alright. Reloads are part of the fun of modern cinema. I lowered my expectations, though. That’s wise. And I did a little rotten tomatoes check – just the percentage, no reviews. 74% I think I recall … so, not as good as The Avengers, but supposedly still good.

So now I say, you suck, rotten tomatoes. I’ve lost faith in you. I should have learned after the cinema-going disaster that was True Grit (90-friggin percent my arse for unintelligible dialogue). Because Prometheus sucked the big one. I’m not even going to touch the plot – somewhat because it’s easy to criticise (and much of sci-fi plot sounds stupid when critiqued), but mostly because it wasn’t the problem. I’ll even say I enjoyed the clever integration of the original Alien style sets with our less-monochrome screened vision of the future. But that’s not enough to feel like Prometheus was anything like a good film.

So here’s my Pareto problems with the movie, and how they could have been fixed. They can even keep the gratuitous special effects.

1.  The unbelievably sucky characters – Part I. Ok, so this problem falls into two parts – the ensemble cast (this point) and the main protagonists. It should be pretty easy to see from the first two (excellent) Alien films that the secondary characters all knew each other in some capacity before the film began. In Alien, they were a ship’s crew. In Aliens, a colonial marine unit. Why does this matter? Because in the screenplay, relationships are assumed established. We don’t have to see very much interaction to get a flavour of how these people work together, what they think of each other, who is in command, and existing frictions. What happens in Prometheus? The whole crew apparently doesn’t know each other (except for the main protagonists) until the defrost out of cryo. Not only is this logically difficult to believe, but it forces the screenplay to try and develop these characters and, importantly, their relationships from scratch. Which means shitty scenes like Charlize giving them a ‘briefing’ (which gets taken over by Guy Pearce in bad make-up anyway), no sense of command (Charlize tries to make us think she has some, but evidence is to the contrary). It also means totally irrational rushing off into the foreign planet, which does nothing to create tension because there’s no command structure to defy (as well as being completely fricking illogical). I don’t care if random, strange people working together was the vibe they were going for – it didn’t work and that’s all that matters.

The fix – The film had three starts: 1) man-alien seeding primeval Earth with basic DNA building blocks, 2) Main protagonists in the cave finding star pics (you know, the Stargate bit), and 3) creepy android man on the ship. We didn’t need no.2 – that information could have been worked in later. We needed to start with the crew, just out of cryo, eagerly watching the surveying bots as they mapped the tunnels on the planet and prepping gear to go in. This gives opportunity to show their existing relationships (after all, this is a big mission and it would make sense they should know each other), tensions, specialties etc. The creepy android character stuff could be worked into this scene in flashbacks (potentially creepier in not being shown in full – ‘Hey, what did you do for 2 years’ *flash* *flash* … oooh, creepy). Then, we can have some genuine tension when there’s a dispute about when they’ll go in, who’ll go, and what they’ll take. Also, some young Guy Pierce company propaganda could be inserted – on the wall, in manuals, in computer boot processes (somewhere) to help that issue (see below). Flow on scenes could be altered to fit the new set-up. Not a huge amount would need to change.

2.  The unbelievably sucky characters – Part II. I didn’t believe the two main characters – I didn’t believe in them as scientists, or as a couple. The male character (their names were so memorable) was a bad-attitude poster boy (whose disinterest in the whole malarchy is palpable) and I wanted a whole cheer squad when his sorry arse was toasted fairly early on [not soon enough]. The female character was bland and the faith foundation for her science jarred with the whole franchise. Was Ridley reaching into the rebooted Clash of the Titans for inspiration? (over which I’ll take the original, stop-motion version any day). But I’m straying.

The fix: Different casting might help, but I reckon one of them needs to go. Choose one main protagonist. Loose the gratuitous sex scene, ffs. The sexual overtones again at odds with the franchise, and feels base (like The Fly II or Alien 4 [which I pretend doesn’t exist]) – horror for horror’s sake. Instead, could we have the android doing some freaky in-test-tube stuff? (which would have some nice circularity with the android/human dynamic that runs through all the franchise, including with Bishop in Aliens – after all, the android in Prometheus doesn’t really seem to find anything out before he starts experimenting. Weird.). Or something other than *oooh, the stupid non-science-y scientist character spawned the aliens after all*. FFS.

3. Lots of stuff chucked in and unrealised. A bunch of threads seemed to get a start in this film and weren’t carried, well, anywhere. Charlize Theron’s character, for example. So much potential. Almost no use. The intriguing depths of the android’s character – especially the boundary to his humanness. WTF Weyland was doing on the ship, really. Patrick Wilson’s 10 s cameo as the female protagonist’s father. Now, I know probably a sequel is coming, but that’s no excuse for fucking around with subthreads that have no place in this short arc.

The fix: Fixing the first point above would open up space to expand at least one descent subthread, because we don’t have to muck around trying to establish all those relationships with the viewer (especially because, let’s face it, they all die anyway).

4. Lack of realism. I know it’s sci-fi. I know. But look at Aliens. When Hicks gets sprayed with acid, it takes him out of the action. Out of it. And when Ripley runs around, you hear the effort in her breathing. She’s sweaty. She’s tired; cranky. There are no bras. What do we have in Prometheus? A female lead sans emotional swings, who cavorts around a Tough Mudder style obstacle course with a fresh abdominal wound, very occasionally grabbing her middle to remind us of said injury. JHC. If I wasn’t already rolling my eyes (and I was) that did it.

The fix: Refer to point 2. Or, if you want to cheat, at least put in some kind of fast-healing technology. It’s the future, FFS. I don’t believe it when they’ve got an automated surgical unit (which doesn’t administer anaesthetic, FFS) that still uses 2012 era surgical staples.

5. Guy Pearce made to look like an old person. One of the things that shitted me the most was why a film would cast a young person as an old person, and then make them up. Ok, you want a celebrity, but why a young one? The problem: even with the make-up, they still look like they have a 40-year-old body, tops!! Oh, I’m so old (yet my body is spritely). Now, I know that the reason for this is that some associated promo material had Guy as the young Weyland spruiking the company, but that’s not an excuse in my book. Look at Captain America, where they managed to make Chris Evans look scrawny and weak. The Curious Case of Brad Pitt (I think that’s the correct title), did a better job.

The fix: Cast an actual old actor and save on make-up. Or, trade a few seconds of that ghastily overdone ooooh-android-discovering-the-alien-maps special effects to make Guy Pearce look scrawny and weak.

*****Rant truncated*****

Sigh. There are many ways to fix poorly told stories. These are mine, and I acknowledge they could be refined if I saw the film again. But I simply won’t pay to do so. Is this highly personal? Sure. Tell me how you’d fix it.

On Genesis … and Persistence

Contradiction is a quality I find oddly comforting … when nothing else is sure, you can rely on exceptions, polar opposites, and conflict. Something about that is right; it fits with the natural order**. So it is with short stories – how they get created (the lighting visit of Genesis), and how they get out into the world (the long haul with Persistence). And this is about one story in particular – my doomed salvage captain story, ‘Deep Deck 9’, which has just been accepted for publication at Luna Station Quarterly. (Huzzah!)

Genesis, you see, is flashy thing. He’s animal power. Fast. Overpowering. You know instantly whether you’re attracted to what he’s got. He’s often noisy, and insistent. But you have to take care, because he has no investment.

Now, I’m never usually interested in how writers get their ideas; it seems a banal question. The world is full of stories. Genesis is always flashing about. But sometimes, … well, sometimes he gets you going with not very much. You see, in 2008, I went to see Burn After Reading. I remember two things from that movie – ‘The Chair’ (and, oh lord, you know what I mean) – and the end, where the agents describe all the shenanigans of the past 90 mins as a clusterfuck. There it was. Genesis. I wanted that word in my story, and I wanted it now. Nothing more complicated.

It took only a few minutes to generate the premise … what could be worse than knowing you were going to die because of a crap job you didn’t want to take, and more, that you weren’t sure even your death would end it? My voice settled in the head of a captain about to burn up on re-entry. Genesis left me while I wrote (always a quick exit).

And then, I had to wait for Persistence.

You see, that was 2008. In the four years since, the story got edited, beta-read, edited again (a few times). And then it went out into markets. My submission tracker (spreadsheet I use to keep straight all the works I’ve got out in the world) tells me it’s been rejected seven times – and I know it was a few more than that – the story is older than the tracker itself. Persistence has been my man through this time. He’s the steady one, the one without ego that calmly writes ‘Rejected’ and copies the title to the next line, ready to submit again. He reminds me that there is another day, and another, and that steps come one at a time.

So Persistence is the one who gets you home, but you never begin without Genesis. I am glad for them both: the surprise and the follow-through. And now, with the help of both, my story is going into the world. 🙂 [‘Deep Deck 9’ is out 1 June]

**Neal Stephenson said it better in The Diamond Age.

Flash-off! #1 – Da Results

Today’s first ever Flash-off! was fast and fun, though with a lot less spandex than anticipated. Thanks to sister Meg who gave us the theme MONSTERS. We had one hour to turn that into a story under 1000 words.  Here are the results from first round battlers Char and Bek. 🙂

=======================

Charlotte’s Story (727 words):

The One You Feed

Sometimes, betrayals are innocuous things. Your friend tells your secret when they promised not. You hate them for it, but real damage is slight, so the elders say. No one takes slights of word seriously here, where a boy is born with two selves. When every day until the age of fifteen is focussed on refining the good self and shunning the monstrous self, until that day, at rite of passage, when the boy enters the stadium and slays his dark self so the good will become adult.

For Garrick, that day is today. I am nervous. His twin-self crosses the red dust, far beneath the rising seats. A sheer wall separates him from the watchers, and above is a ring of archers. He enters a twin, two boys the same, but only one will leave. And if the monster is the victor, then none will. I could lose this friend today.

But no one thinks the worst will happen; it almost never does. Boys are trained in how to protect their good selves, how to nurture them with learning. Their fathers pass the wisdom of their own battles; those with fathers, at least. I finger the stones behind my back, wondering if I can still feel regret about that. I wait, but none comes. No, then. I am cured of it.

Garrick, both of him, makes his bows. No one can tell which is the good self and which is the monster; that will come only with victory. But I can tell. I know him well.

They each take an edged weapon from their belts, and step away into the dust, as if they are just to spar. Expectation is oddly dim here; the crowd almost look bored. Good, that is good. They think they know Garrick well. They know he is the son of the highest elder, the most educated, the most dedicated. Destined for greatness. This is almost a formality; his monstrous self should be so weak from neglect, the battle will be over quickly.

The first blows fall metal on metal. Good-Garrick and monster-Garrick circle and clash. Dust rises, cloaking their skin, sticking to sweat. They are soon both red-dust boys, no skin to be seen, and only the metal edges glint through the fray. Then, there is a stumble. One Garrick goes down; the crowd leans forward. The other Garrick does not hesitate; he drives the point of the blade through the downed Garrick’s chest. The downed Garrick jerks around the blade, curled like a spider on its back, then is still.

My heart fights my breath for space in my throat. My skin drums with the noise from the stands. The victor Garrick stands before the applause, a red-skinned version of the Garrick who walked in. He closes his eyes and raises his palms, salute to the elders. The archers relax. Then, Garrick retrieves his sword and strides towards the exit.

No elder moves. They maintain applause, standing now, tears on some faces. Pride, I believe, for they see the good-Garrick leave. Passed through the rite, and now to be a man. This is the great moment for them.

For them.

I do not stay to witness more but descend to the arena level on the seldom-used stair. Garrick is waiting in the tunnel, and he brings his eyes up from the dust. We look at each other, with our black irises reflecting the torchlight. Garrick, so dusty no one can see the evil marks. Me, with the control I learned from my father, how to use my mind not to show the marks. Monsters, both.

This is the great moment.

I offer the eye lenses he will need to stay concealed. Garrick nods his thanks. He has learned well in all our lessons, proved himself capable of skill and concealment, even from his good-self. And the good-self never realised another could teach his monster just as well. My pride burns my eyes when he leaves.

Now good-Garrick lies dead in the dust. The elders will be slack, not bothering to clean the body of the assumed monster-self. They will not find the unmarred skin.

You see, some betrayals are innocuous, but others are not. Words can cut as deep as a sword, and bring death when spoken wrong. The good-Garrick told my secret and so the monster has his chance.

================

Rebekah’s Story (995 words):

Jenny Mackillop had a secret.

Even though she was only thirteen, she knew about the world. She read about what the world was really like in the history books, saw it on television. Only the shows on television were pretend.  She was old enough to know that. The news was real. But the news was boring and hard to watch. Her dad always told her not to bother him when he watched the headlines. That was okay, because she liked to read more than watch television. She had a whole pile from the library, history books that told of the horrors of the past and the monsters that dressed like men and women. They looked regular, just like her parents.

Then one day, Jenny realised she could recognise monsters. It was in the eyes, she realised. The way they looked at you, with glossy eyes that you could almost stare right into their brain to see the rotting flesh that lay there.

This is why Jenny knew her neighbour, Mr Hill, was a monster.  She told her very best friend, Elaine.

“Oh yeah?” Elaine had asked, sitting on her bed, flicking through the latest Cosmopolitan magazine. “What drugs have you been taking?”

“I’m being serious.” Jenny had tried to explain how she knew, but the words had come out wrong. She couldn’t explain how she knew when Mr Hill had yelled at her when she’d accidently thrown her Frisbee into his yard. She had seen into his eyes and saw they were deep and black, spiralling down into some horrible pit that wasn’t human.

Elaine had just rolled her eyes and continued to read her magazine. Jenny hadn’t talked about it again. She just watched Mr Hill. She bought some binoculars and watched him when she got home from school. Did her homework, ate dinner, then watched him some more. She started a log. Mr Hill lived alone. He was an old, nasty man who swore at any kid who dared step on his lawn. He drank beer with his microwave dinner and watched Deal or No Deal every night.

Then the pets in the neighbourhood started to disappear.

Reward posters went up. Jenny watched Mr Hill, making sure she noted any changes in his behaviour. She followed him on the weekend when he went to the local store, where he bought his milk and bread. He’d stay an extra five minutes to complain to the storekeeper about the rising prices and how politicians were crooks and bastards.

Then Bobby Henderson went missing. Jenny watched Bobby’s mum and dad on the news, asking for their little boy back.

Jenny decided it was time to act. She wasn’t sure what kind of monster Mr Hill was, but she knew what would kill him. She decided to wait until Saturday night, the only night Mr Hill drove his rattling Cortina to the local pub to play the pokies.

Saturday night came and she gathered her weapons of choice, tucking it into her schoolbag.

She crept down the stairs and out the back door. The wooden fence was short and she climbed over it easily enough. She crept to the backdoor and gave it an experimental pull. It was locked, but she expected that. Putting a tea towel over the window above the handle, she broke it with her elbow. She stuck her arm in and unlocked the door. Stepping inside, she stopped to clean up the glass, relocking the door.

The house smelt like stale air freshener and burnt hair inside. Jenny began to look around for signs of dead animals.

Or Bobby.

She came to a door that led down into the basement and squinted into the darkness.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” she whispered. She pulled a flashlight and clicked it on, but couldn’t see anything except filing cabinets and benches with tools on them. Jenny figured Mr Hill had already eaten Bobby then.

She went upstairs and found the bedroom. Poking around, she didn’t find anything to confirm her suspicions, but that didn’t matter. Because she’d seen his eyes and she knew. She’d seen the nasty thing he was and she, Jenny Mackillop was a Monster Slayer.

She found the wardrobe, a big, wooden thing and climbed in. Popped earphones in her ears and played some music. She only had to wait now.

It was nearly eleven o’clock when Mr Hill came home. She turned off her iPod and listened to him downstairs, rattling around the kitchen. Then the stairs squeaked as he came upstairs. She heard the old pipe in the house run as he had a shower down the hall. Heard him complain to himself as he hopped into bed.

Jenny smiled to herself.

Mr Hill was possibly the dumbest monster she’d ever met.

She waited until it was nearly midnight. The time when monsters were their most vulnerable. Then she opened the door gently and crept out. Pulled out her weapon and pulled the trigger a few times. The water-squirter spilt the liquid everywhere, stinking up the room. She made sure she was near the bedroom door before she called out to Mr Hill. It was one last chance. He blinked at her in confusion, the room lit by a half moon outside.

“What are you doing?” he cried, getting out to the bed. He paused when he smelt the gasoline. “What have you done, you stupid girl?”

“Where’s Bobby?” Jenny aimed the water-squirter at Mr Hill. “Tell me and I won’t kill you.”

“Have you lost your mind?” Mr Hill got to his feet. “I’m calling your parents right now.”

“No you’re not.” Jenny pulled the cigarette lighter from her pocket. No point in asking about Bobby anymore. She knew Mr Hill had eaten him. She could see it on his face. Her thumb flicked the wheel . Mr Hill started screaming. Jenny bent over, igniting the wet carpet. She stepped outside the room, pulling it shut behind her.