Writing is so fucking easy

I don’t know what I’m thinking, putting the words “easy” “hard” and “fucking” so prominently on my blog. Given that, when I check my stats, the phrase most commonly googled to hit my site is “my head hurts”, perhaps it could work well in my favour to have all that profanity for search engines to crawl over.

I’ve been sitting here this morning writing. Ooh, feels so good! The whole Mount Doom thing has gone away, and thank you for all of your concerned Sam-like comments (though I should stress I was never seriously worried… was I?). All I can say is, when you’re lying in the gutter, even the kerb can seem a long way up.

As always, the only way to solve any writing problem is to write. That’s it. The only solution you’ll ever need, forever and ever, amen. Sometimes it feels like you’re stuck outside the story, and it’s all going on in there but you just can’t get in. Your characters are partying down, listening to doof-doof music (which you can hear faintly), possibly wearing tropicana-coloured eighties clothes, and drinking their vodka with red lemonade; all the while laughing at you. While you’re outside and it’s dark and cold and drizzling slightly but in a miserable way, not in a nice way. Like, it’s getting in your shoes. And you know you could get into the damn party if only you knew the secret password.

Well, the secret password is any combination of words as long as there are 500. If you can write 500 words, even if they are absolute shite, you will be in the party. I’m not saying that the party-goers will necessarily behave when you get in (and they may insist on keeping their turquoise bubble skirts on), but at least you’re in and you can start trying to boss them around.

Warning: they don’t always behave.

Writing is so fucking hard

Honestly, why do I put myself through this over and over again? I have notes, I have a desk, I have child-free time. But all I want to do is drink tea and eat those blueberry muffins I made with Astrid this morning. The stupid thing is that actual writing is not as exhausting as sitting here psyching myself up to write. Actual writing is fun, challenging in its complexities at times, and at other times almost easy. But the getting started feels as though I’m dragging my sorry arse up a steep hill. I am sooo tired of that steep hill, which shall henceforth be known as Mount Doom. I have been in the foothills of Mount Doom numerous times–at least 20–and I would’ve thought by now that it would get easier. It doesn’t. And there’s no Sam here to help me carry my ring (ie. my arse; it wasn’t some turgid metaphor for the burden of my art {pronoucned “ahrt”}). I am so over this job. I am so going out to retrain in podiatry or something.

Right after I eat a muffin.

And the winner is…

One of the reasons I came to New Zealand was to research location, atmosphere, ideas etc for my fantasy novel idea. Certainly, it has provided me with pages and pages of random descriptions and fragments in my notebook (though, damn me, why do I never know the names of trees?). I truly thought that while here, my heart would settle on my fantasy story.

I didn’t bet on the sheep.

You may remember that I have been working on both the fantasy novel and a Kimberley Freeman novel for a few weeks. We did a farmstay back near the glaciers a few nights ago that really changed everything. As I was sitting out on the front deck, looking at the mountains and the horses and the sheep, it was as though a vein opened up in my imagination and all the images started pouring out. I tightly plotted the first few chapters and then decided I actually had to write something, and I’ve been adding little bits ever since. Then, today, I had a little nap while my daughter slept, and woke up with a prologue complete in my head: and I love it. So Field of Clouds wins, and I will save my Mad King for later in the year.

I think one of the problems is that I need to do so much research for the fantasy novel. It sounds mad: fantasy should be just made up, right? But it’s not. Good fantasy gives you the feeling that the world was already there, that it already existed before the hapless writer’s imagination wandered into it. I’m very keen to learn much more about seventh-century England, so that I can build that world with such detail and care: so that it feels real to me, before I go about pushing my poor galley slaves… er… characters around in it.

So, in some ways, I will still be working on both. While I go on my uber-fun journey via 1920s Glasgow, to midlands Tasmania in world war two, to present-day London and New York; I will diligently be reading the book on Anglo-Saxon weapons that my bestie bought me for my birthday, learning about daily life in the seventh century (studiously ignoring the truth about dental care), and maybe even drawing… wait for it… a map!

My first goal is to make good use of my time in February, to get a big chunk done before semester starts at uni. Wish me luck, and watch this space.

Vampires in Volvos

One thing I love about being on holidays is catching up on my reading, and I’m finally doing Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which I’m enjoying very much. The things that I’m liking most are (a) the atmosphere of the rainy peninsula town, (b) the clumsy lead character, and (c) the fact that the sexy vampire love interest drives a Volvo. I don’t know if this is some kind of mad irony–what with Volvo being widely considered as the safest car in the world–but I get a giggle every time that silver Volvo shows up because I used to drive one.

Not a vampire... honest

Not a vampire... honest

I have a feeling Bella is going to need more than SRS, ABS, and SIPS to save her (edited to add: I was right, and thank God she finally showed some spine and savvy in the last few chapters: saved the book). Sadly I sold the Volvo (or the Wolvo as we fondly called it) to my brother-in-law earlier this year and bought a distinctly undead-inappropriate Subaru Outback. Getting rid of the Volvo did, however, alleviate some of the problems we were having teaching my daughter the right word for a certain part of her anatomy.

I can certainly see why these books have been so popular, though they are not without their problems–both in execution and in ideology. But it is so very rare to just open a book, start reading, and not be tempted to put it down. That is an enormous skill in itself. Despite the glorious view over Queenstown that we have from our apartment, I have barely looked up all evening.

Postcard from Middle Earth

Ruins of a great castle or something...

Ruins of a great castle or something...

One question that is asked repeatedly, of me and of Australian fantasy in particular, is why Australian fantasy fiction is largely so European and so medieval. Putting aside the fact that Australian fantasy is vibrant and diverse (short fiction, for instance, rarely follows the “epic” fantasy model; and increasingly Asian images and themes are making their way into our fantasy fiction), the answer to this question is relatively simple: Australian epic fantasy fiction, like most fantasy fiction, is influenced/derived from Tolkien. So the whole genre has rather embraced its secondary nature, as Stephanie Trigg pointed out so eloquently to me at a conference.

This means, of course, that Australian fantasy is incongruously unAustralian. Our big names are loose in the European medieval playground with the world’s other big names in fantasy. Few people question US writers doing this: at least they are in the correct hemisphere. And yet…

Here I am in the South Island of New Zealand, where Rivendell and Pelennor Fields are marked on the road map along with Queenstown and Aoraki. Here I am in Middle Earth, and all I had to do was cross the Tasman. At every turn, I can see why Peter Jackson wanted to set his epic movie adaptation of Tolkien here. It is breathtakingly spectacular, and has an ancient dampness about it that is perfectly suited to the fantasy imagination; more suited, in my opinion, than Europe itself.

Now I’m not doing the typical thing here of claiming New Zealand as an outpost of Australia (though I do have plinty of rillies in NZ–hillo, you lot!). But at least I can claim to be in the correct hemisphere for once. If Middle Earth is in the antipodes, then the question of antipodean fantasy fiction can simply dissolve; and we can all get on with what we love writing and reading best, without having to conform to a national paradigm of “suitable” literature.

Just who is Hexebart, anyway?

For those of you who’ve read my novel The Autumn Castle, the name Hexebart will be familiar. She’s an old witch who lives in a well in fairyland. Her name is German for “witch-beard”. Why have I adopted it as a username? I do not know. It’s certainly not over-identification with the character: thanks to the wonders of modern cosmetic intervention, I have far less facial hair. I guess I just liked her and one day, when I am a billionaire and drive a Jaguar, I may have a personalised plate with her name on it. Besides, who knows? Perhaps I will come to resemble Hexebart as I grow older. One thing you can’t fight is dem damn wrinkles’n’shit.

But I am thinking, now, about the predisposition some authors have to over-identify with their characters. I shan’t name names and piss off influential people who write vampire/sexy-fairy stories (a few of you will know precisely to whom I refer), but there are quite a few “Mary-Sue” characters out there in SF land (and probably in other genres, but what would I know? If Peter Carey has done a Mary-Sue I’m hardly likely to read it). What is a Mary-Sue? Essentially, it’s a fictional character who is a leeetle too much like a wish-fulfilment version of the author, usually delivered without irony, and obvious to everybody except the author him or herself. I have read quite a few Mary-Sues in my time, both published and unpublished, and they still make me squirm. You don’t want to make your reader squirm, people!

So, to keep you busy while I’m off in the land of the long white cloud (though I will endeavour to drop in at least once or twice), why not take a Mary-Sue Litmus Test for the characters in your current project? Did you pass? Or perhaps you want to post comments about some of the Mary-Sues you have read over the years (please, keep it nice).

By the way, if you’ve never posted before, WordPress will ask me to moderate your first comment and that might take a couple of days, depending on my internet access in NZ.

What are you waiting for? Mary-Sue me!

Don’t fear the future of art

Okay, this is more about music and gaming than writing, but by now you’ve figured out that I’m really interested in the way that technology is changing our relationship to art (most interesting fact so far this year: the #1 Amazon.com CD for this year was also available free as a digital download… explain that one, naysayers).

This BBC article provoked some anxious responses on a music forum, about the possibility that gaming was overtaking music in popularity as an art form and so on with various doomsday scenarios in which we all become soulless bots. Ambient musician Deepspace (aka Mr My Husband) posted this considered and very clever response, so he is, in fact, my guest blog for today.

This is a vastly fascinating issue to me- I don’t really see it as negative either, especially in regards to music. I’ve played games since I was a kid, and my family plays games now, and I’ve noticed the massive change in society’s perception of games very recently, as recent as a couple of years ago, mainly through some pivotal games, such as the mmo’s, GTA, guitar hero and the emergence of the wii. They’re going to loom large on our cultural horizon for a while folks.

If you’re concerned for music’s sake though, you should probably stop now.
Music is one of the most cherished parts of any game designer’s ideology and, just for an example, music plays a massive part in those games I mentioned. We have new classical music, being written for a massive audience, and being played by massive ‘game soundtrack’ orchestras around the world. The fact that kids playing a game like Oblivion (to pluck one game out of the void) while listening to Jeremy Soule’s soundtrack music, is brilliant. They’re hearing something that is usually distinctly out of the listening habits of young people. Or take EVE online, which uses hundreds of ambient pieces by Jon Hallur. Since when have young kids gone bonkers over music that sounds like non-top 40, and sounds more like Debussy, Vaughan Williams or the Bladerunner soundtrack? Never. Also, the Grand Theft Auto series brings stacks of music (including Steve Roach) to a massive audience. Spore features Brian Eno and Saul Stokes. Music for games has come a long, long way from the bleeps of pac-man (as cool as those bleeps were). And this music is going into their heads. The fact that they’re creating wonderful associations to the music is a bonus.

The fact that some bands are now releasing albums on Guitar Hero (as much as I despise that game) shows that people want to be more active in their response to music: so they are merely pressing buttons to the rhythm, and trying to get a score- but they are still enjoying the music… When people dance to music, they’re just shaking their butt, so why is this worse? But why are they doing it? I think people stay indoors a lot more these days, and where in the past they would go out and nod their head (or their butt) to a live band in a club, (let’s hope they don’t stop completely) now they’re doing it in their living room. While I cringe at the thought of doing this, Gen Y’s seem perfectly comfortable in doing this.

I see gaming as the ultimate form of opera. This may seem like a whacko observation, but opera came along in the 17th century and brought together music, staging, literature, costumes etc into a cohesive whole. Gaming is bring together graphic art, music, literature, lifestyle, movies, sport, interactivity (i’ve probably left out some others) into something amazing. It kind of had to happen- it’s the next step beyond the linear delivery of the movie or the book. Not that it will replace those, as people don’t want all of their senses to be engaged all the time. As for music disappearing….there’s not a chance it ever will. Music is something we will always do, and it actually prospers in the face of adversity.

I’m not saying we should all become game music designers either, but I think the palette of acceptable sounds, for the new audience, has increased massively, and is bigger than ever.

Hmm. Makes me want to go out and write for games. Anybody understand that particular career path?

Your grade 5 teacher wasn’t qualified to teach creative writing

Okay, perhaps that’s a little harsh. Perhaps your grade 5 teacher went on to win the Miles Franklin. But in general terms, you need to be careful of those things you learned a long time ago at school. I am always surprised and amused by the resistance I meet in some creative writing classes, from students who still hold firm to what they were taught when they were nine. It’s really quite sweet… until a sentence gets hurt. Here are the most common grade-5isms you need to shake.

Vary speaker attributions. I remember doing this one in class, where we all had to suggest a different word to use rather than “said”. The blackboard was duly covered in lists of words: asked and replied, whispered and shouted, laughed and ejaculated (I contributed that one because I’d read it somewhere; I wonder if my teacher was giggling on the inside). But in fiction, there is no better word than said. Said is as invisible as the quotation marks around your dialogue. Sure, you can vary it from time to time: it’s a verb, after all, and it’s nice to pop a fresh one in if you want to¬† show off. But too many variations make it difficult for the reader to follow the dialogue. If you really want to achieve variety, pare back the speaker attributions and slot in some tasty little beats of atmosphere or description instead.

Don’t put a comma before “and”. Pah! The serial comma is a beautiful thing: clear, bright, and sparkling (there’s one! right there!) It creates lightning-flash clarity in sentences that try slyly to mislead. Use it, love it, and don’t feel a moment’s guilt.

Vary your sentence openings. This little gem is responsible for a billion mangled sentences, twisted on their syntactical spines so that they are looking at their own arses. “Closing the door behind him with an ominous thud, he inched down the dark hallway to the candlelit back room.” There is SO much wrong with this sentence. (1) he can’t close the door and inch all the way down the hall to the back room at the same time unless he has Mr Tickle arms; (2) because the subordinate clause has moved to the front of the sentence and we’re trained to read through subordinate clauses to get to the “meat” of the sentence, the ominous thud loses its impact; and (3) it sounds clunky and amateurish. “He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud, and inched down the hallway…” is just fine. If you want to break it up a bit, add a tasty beat: “He closed the door behind him with an ominous thud. The sound rattled through the silent house. He inched…” and so on. But avoid contortions; be kind to your sentences and they will repay you with years of good service.

Intensify your sentences with adverbs. I remember writing lists of adverbs on the blackboard too, but adverbs can be the enemy of tight sentences. Good verbs are the key to good sentences, and piling on the adverbs tends to undermine good verbs in two ways. First, because adverbs make you lazy. “She hit him violently.” Adverb indicating violence? Check. My work here is done. NOT SO FAST! Change the verb instead. “She gut-punched him”. Much better. Second, adverbs are often unnecessary additions to a sentence, and dilute the value of your good verb. “She moaned mournfully.” Erk! Caveat: adverbs work best if they are unexpected or beautiful or rhythmic. I’m actually pretty fond of them; but I always aim to use them prudently, carefully, and lovingly.

If you are a grade 5 teacher by any chance, pass it on.

Is that my imagination in your corporation? I do apologise.

I have Kate Eltham over at Electric Alphabet to thank for directing me to this marvellous article in the London Review of Books about video games. Gaming doesn’t get much serious attention in the mainstream media, although it’s hugedy-huge. Many of you already know that I am one of the 13 million or so World of Warcraft players worldwide (how on earth can that be considered a marginal cultural practice?) and so it’s refreshing to see serious attention being paid to gaming.

Lanchester makes so many interesting points, but the ones that really stood out for me were about gamer creativity: “the most interesting thing about… games,” he writes, “is what is done with them by the user.” He doesn’t specifically reference WoW in his article, but I have always appreciated the “sandbox” potential of the game. One of the best nights of play I had was not the night I critted over 6K in Gruul’s Lair and picked up epic drops; but the night my husband and I, set loose in a beta-test version of the Lich King expansion, rode our horses across every inch of the new continent of Northrend. Just exploring, looking around, appreciating the graphics, soaking up the atmosphere. It felt like we actually went on a journey (and not nearly so expensive as real travel, plus the kids were asleep and not bored or vomiting on us).

But, more importantly, the relationship players have with their characters or “toons” in WoW can actually be a creative one. From the moment you choose their race, class, and faction, you are taking part in a process of character development. Then, as you spend time with them over many many (many) hours of game play, you can become quite invested in them, their journeys, their histories (in-game and, for some people especially those on “role-play” servers, outside-of-game), even getting a sense of what they will or won’t do. There was a recent kerfuffle on the WoW forums when a player took offence at a quest that involved torture, essentially arguing that his toon wouldn’t do it. For the purposes of this blog post, I bravely posted a forum thread about how players felt about their toons’ personalities, and found that quite a few players do seem invested imaginatively with them: they are creatively engaged with the game through the narratives, both in-game and imagined, of their characters.

But Lanchester asks, am I playing with my character as if she is a puppet (in much the same way I pull the strings of the characters in my novels), or is Blizzard Entertainment playing me as if I am the puppet? Is the sense of creating a character real or “just some horrible corporate simulacrum”? He suggests that “nothing within a world so fully made by a corporation can be truly creative.” But isn’t that to believe that corporations are gigantic, money-hungry, power-wielding monoliths against which we are powerless? They’re not and we’re not. In fact, gaming corporations tend to be staffed by gamers who are creative; I’m sure most of them would revel in the knowledge that the end users were also getting that juicy feeling that we all recognise: when our imaginations are firing up, and our possibilities are multiplying.

Say your farewellz…

Best piece of news for the New Year, imho, is that those vile Slutz… er… Bratz* dolls have to be pulled from shelves as of February. I would love to be able to tell you that the reason for this welcome measure is that toy sellers finally realised that it was wrong to sell dolls that (a) are marketed to little girls but look like pornstars, or (b) are made by Chinese workers on US51 cents an hour working 77 hours plus a week. But, in fact, it was a jealous Barbie who got them in the end (pictures dolly scrag fight: Barbie would win, she’s gristly). Mattel sued the makers, claiming that the genius who designed them was working for them at the time.

The Bratz legacy, sadly, will live on. In the last few years, little girls have been marketed to in a way that naturalises early sexualisation. Last time I went into Target, for instance, they were selling bras for 7-year-old girls. WTF? Then there’s all those toys and film characters aimed at little girls that just look slutty. Case in point, the young ladies below: Tinkerbell and her besties. Is it just me, or do they all look like they’re gagging for it?

Come on, boys!

Come on, boyz!

Now, I’m not an expert on this stuff (please don’t ask me to comment on Bill Henson… all right, I will: “euw, creepy”). But I do have a beautiful little daughter and I’m really feeling the weight of responsibility in having to help her negotiate her way through this world. I’d love her to think that what matters is her fierce cleverness, but I feel like one little fish swimming against a tsunami. And I think about my son, too, and what warped ideas he’ll get about girls and women and what they do and don’t want.

The solution might be to go live in a commune somewhere with no television and lots of hemp clothes. But that wouldn’t prepare children for life either. I am telling you, being a parent is hard enough (tonight, Astrid realised she was tall enough to turn her bedroom light back on; when I turned it off and told her to go back to be she said, “No, Mummy, I don’t want to go to bed.” She is both too tall and too articulate for a 2 year old). How am I supposed to make her eat her greens, teach her to read & write, and help her identify and deconstruct cynical marketing strategies at a hundred paces? Easy answer: corporations who see children as their market should just get frigging consciences. Is that too much to ask?

* Why isn’t there a law against mis-spelling words on children’s products? Why, why, why?