Thursday, November 25, 2010

Ego boo

Last year I took part in a small film by broadcasting student Max Rowan called Independent Inkwell about small independent presses in Australia. The documentary was show on TVS (Sydney's community TV channel) a couple of months ago, but it's now available for viewing on YouTube. I've embedded the video at the coeur de lion website. It was fun to do and I don't think I come over as too much of an idiot.

Talking real

I've been thinking a lot about dialogue lately. It can be such an economical conveyer of emotion - no need for internal monologue or character description if your character can sum up their reaction or current emotional state in just a few words - and it can force an immediate shift in reader attention - well, I was thinking about that over there but, whoah!, what did he just say???

Of course in the wrong hands it can be at best bland - 'that's a nice digital watch' - and at worst clunky - as in 'do people really talk like that?' Dialogue has to be true to character as well, and I'm working to try to differentiate between the many voices in my head when I put them down on the page. Part of that comes from thinking about the character, what they're like, how they're likely to react and - consequently - what they're going to say. But the best dialogue comes when you as writer take time to listen and give your character space to speak for themselves. That's what happened this morning. My two main protagonists have finally come together in the Kresh novel. What on earth are they going to say to one another and - more importantly - how does the conversation get started? When faced with this kind of situation, I find the best thing to do is not think about it. So I had my blank page beside me but I didn't force anything. I just waited, looked at the newspaper, checked the email. Then I picked up my page to put it away for the day and finally the first exchange came and it was just that sort of left field, true to character set of words that I was waiting for. Now we're ready to talk.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Retro-fit ahead

The Way of The Kresh has a major and minor plot line and I've been methodically working through the major line - following Jeldon in his travels to reclaim his homeworld - for a couple of years now, but this morning major and minor plot lines collided, an event which I approached with a certain amount of excitement and fear. Excitement because I'm closing in on the final section of the story. Fear because 1. I've been writing this story from inside Jeldon's head exclusively for a long time, and 2. it means I have to shift pov to my minor plot line character - disgraced Hegemony pilot Rhys - and show him at a point that is quite far along his personal story without actually having taken that trip with him in any real detail. But so far, I think it's working and it also means I get to comment on Jeldon from an external point of view. The downside is that when I go back to fill in the minor plot line, I may have to retrofit Rhys's actions from this point on.

As a result, all kinds of thoughts about how Rhys got to where he is, not just physically but emotionally and morally, are firing off in my head. There's so much to do and see, talk about and think about for both characters that I'm letting them spark off each other and recording what happens. Good times.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Loving the alien

For a long time now, I've been inside the head of my protagonist in The Way of The Kresh. Jeldon is outwardly very alien - a cross between mollusc, insect and crustacean physiology - but just how alien is the inside of his head? The answer is 'not very' and that's because it's really the only way I can use him to drive a story and still have that story understandable to a human reader. We can all create totally alien characters whose motivations and resulting actions are a complete mystery, but how satisfying would that be as a central feature of a sustained narrative? Not very, I suspect. So Jeldon has emotions and reactions that we can identify with, but those emotions and his personality have been constructed and affected by the society and environment he inhabits. Really what Jeldon is, is a foreigner; someone from another country where they do things differently, but someone who we still have enough points of reference in common with to be basically understandable.

If you want to be grand about the whole thing, you could say the Kresh society in the novel is a way of holding up particular mores that exist in our society for inspection. That's certainly been the case for a lot of SF, but it hasn't been my prime driver. Those societally discursive elements that are emerging as I write are a product of the situational tension I wanted to create for Jeldon early on to make him interesting to readers. That's a pretty cool thing and it seems to be supporting my emerging thesis that if you get the character right and sufficiently complex, a great many other elements of the story will emerge from that.

Your main character has to stand out. There has to be an immediate point of difference for the reader to latch on to. So, the Kresh society is very insular. While it exists within a loose collection of worlds that have trade ties - called the Lenticular - they prefer not to rely on or have much else to do with outsiders. Jeldon is different. He's one of the few Kresh to leave homeworld and travel to other planets. And he's the only Kresh ever to do it on his own. That instantly makes him an oddity in his own society and creates tension between him and others of his kind. It also provides him with opportunities that other Kresh do not have when the shit hits the fan.

The other reason why Kresh - other than Jeldon - don't travel off-world alone is that the Kresh share an empathic link with each other. There is an underlying worldmind, not a hivemind - they're not telepathic, but an underlying emotional patterning which is comforting to Kresh. They always know what the emotional temperature of their surroundings are, how they are viewed by others, how their words are received. Being somehow outside of that makes them uncomfortable. Not Jeldon. So he's considered strange. But that element of his psychic make up means that when the human-backed Hegemony invade homeworld and begin to systematically mutilate Kresh, removing the hood which provides this empathic link, then where most Kresh are unable to cope and commit suicide, Jeldon is already hardened to the loss, although that's not to say it doesn't deeply affect him.

One might think that would make Jeldon more attractive to his fellow Kresh. Here's someone that can keep it together when terrible things happen. But to keep the ball in the air and keep that dramatic tension going for Jeldon, Kresh have a deep mistrust of any physical deformity or injury among their kind. Those who are disabled by injury or birth are euthenased. Although Jeldon can still function even without his empathic hood, he is now seen as an outcast, someone that should be executed if they do not have the decency to commit suicide. This element of the novel, which was really just put in to create dramatic tension for Jeldon has assumed wider proportions within the story now, given the widespread acts of the Hegemony. Hating the disabled is okay within the framework of Kresh society (I know it's not really okay but we have to respect other cultures, don't we?), but when an external force comes in and disables the majority of the population, that framework must change or the society will fail. So a relatively simple character element has become one of the main conundrums of the story which must be resolved through the action. Everything's connected - which is how it should be.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


I've been working off and on (more off really) on a particular story since 2004 and I haven't really brought it home yet. 'The Superficial Contact of Two Bodies' is a far future tale of love, betrayal, death, redemption and the end of the universe. I haven't been able to finish it to my satisfaction (not yet) but I love it, because I think it has the potential to juggle a lot of different elements - a satsifying science fictional universe, an interesting and at times exciting plot line, and at the centre a complex and very human character. The title is taken from a quotation, as a lot of my titles are, and is a cynical reference to love, which - hopefully - through the frame of the story, can be seen to be ironic. Clearly I'm not giving up on it, mainly because of the human character aspect. Paul Haines is a friend and also a writer whom I greatly admire, not least because his blisteringly honest work shows characters that are fully-fledged three-dimensional people. They are neither good or bad, but both and neither. They encapsulate contradictions and demonstrate that for all we'd like to believe, we are not - when it really comes down to it - rational creatures. That's something I believe in deeply and something that I want to see in my own work, because it's what excites me and what I think excites a reader. To be presented with a tale where the protagonist appears wholly real, and to partake in their most secret moments is an exciting thing. So work continues.

I also read a lot of unpublished stories from writers when I'm reading for anthologies, as well as reading a lot of independent press stuff through my reviewing work. A lot of these stories don't (IMHO) spend enough energy in investing their characters with real life and complexity. Writing's a difficult craft and there are lots of things to think about. Does the plot make sense, how's the pacing, is this going to hold reader interest, how's my dialogue, etc. But I believe if authors took time to really think about their characters and invest them with as much living, breathing reality as they possibly could, then a lot of the other elements of story would flow naturally from that investment. In a way it's like saddling up the right horse and letting it pull the cart as it will, rather than focusing too much on an aspect of the cart, the wheels, the seat etc. and then grabbing a nondescript horse out of the stable and sticking them together. If your character is as real as you can make them then the world around them becomes real by how they interact with it. The plot starts to make sense because your character's actions must make sense to them. They speak realistically because that is how your character speaks.

My story will only work when I get the character exactly right. When he lives and breathes and acts in my created world. He's waiting for me to finish that story. I know that because he already has a life.