Monday, May 28, 2012

What makes a good book trailer?

I'm presenting at a panel for the upcoming Continuum 8 SF convention, and the title of my panel is 'Book Trailers: what makes a good one, what doesn't work and why.'

Now I have many opinions on the subject, but I'd really love to hear from everyone else before I try to make a list of the do's and dont's. So please, leave comments below about your ideas, or better yet, link to your favourite (or least favourite) examples.



About me.

Monday, May 21, 2012

twelve and a half writing rules to break

So this image has been appearing in my social media feeds recently. Perhaps I am just sick of these kind of 'handy help in a poster' posts, but this one just pushed me over the edge. If you honestly think that writing has a failsafe twelve-step program, you need to find a new hobby. Of course, having said that, if these somehow work for you, then please ignore the following.

There is an unspoken irony in this tautology that is meant to be clever. (Note: all tautologies sound clever but are actually pretentious. I'm looking at you Mr. 'art is not what art is not' Joseph Kosuth) But enough about conceptual art -- back to irony. So great, you are now writing every day, but what if instead of getting better at the writing bit, you are only getting better at the every day bit. Quantity is not quality. I find not writing for a few days builds up some anxious momentum that can lead to better writing when I do get around to it. But more on this in rule 3.

As John Baldessari once famously wrote over and over again in a piece of video art (okay, I can't escape art references.. I teach the damn subject) 'I will not make any boring art' He did this until the tape ran out (or perhaps it was the ink in his pen -- I forget which came first) The point is, sometimes the desire to not be boring is in itself, boring. I love 'The Wire' because of all the interesting things that happen, but I love 'Treme' just as much for all the things that don't. Let a scene, a chapter, a character even, have their moments of boredom. That is life, and writing should tell us about life, right? Besides, boring bits make the action scenes so much more exciting.

Please. Kill me. If I wanted routine i'd have never left my job frying chips and dim sims in my home town. Routine is for people so afraid that they might loose their ability to create that they try to trap it and tame it with lists and routine. Your creativity is not a wild animal to tame. Fucking relax. You don't need to write every day, and you certainly don't need to have a routine to do it as if writing was a Japanese tea ceremony. Magritte worked in a suit and tie treating his painting like an office job, but Basquiat worked naked, leaving foot prints across his canvases as he scrambled to find his stash of drugs. Moral of the story: do what makes you feel good. (but more on morals when we get to rule 8)

And nor do paintings have to follow the rule of thirds, or have a balance of complimentary and contrasting colours to be aesthetically pleasing.. but it helps (fuck it, i'm sticking with the art analogies) Sure, poetry does not have to rhyme, but just like Picasso learned to paint figurative work before he invented Cubism, it is better to learn the form before re-inventing it. I have never read a rhyming poem that I thought would be better written in free verse. The opposite however, is not true. If you are one of those people who write poetry and feel the need to defend its lack of cinquains, clerihews or spenserian stanzas, then ask yourself first if you even know what those fucking words mean. And before I forget about our old friend irony, isn't it ironic that we are being told to break formal rules in our art by a poster telling proclaiming the importance of following rules. 

Whoa there. This is where Mr. advice poster steps over the line. Now its not just telling me how to write, but how to make friends? Fuck you poster. Stereotypes exist. There I've said it, and some of them are good friends of mine. Embrace stereotypes, and use them as you use words: to first convey meaning, then to challenge it. Avoiding stereotypes seems like such a hipster thing to do. And there we have old irony again, hand in hand with hypocrisy, reminding us that our favourite stereotype to mock in memes started as a reaction against being labeled. How quickly we become what we despise. And sorry, all you self hating hipsters, your favourite movie has at least three stereotypes in it, and you both love and identify with them. Oh, what's that? you would rather refer to them as "archetypes" as if that is acceptable, but stereotypes are not? Next we will find that passive voice is not to be used, ever. (see what I did there?) Embrace stereotypes just like artists embraced nude women. Sometimes, like Picasso, literally. (Typical womanising artist -- sheesh)

All the time. Really? And I suppose in this magical land I also hang out with artists and take time off from work to rally with the 99% on wall street while I eat organic apples and post about how we have lost touch with what's important in the world on my new ipad. Sorry, I will leave the hipsters alone now. Sure i'd love to read all the time. And if someone can make a machine to either double the amount of time in a day, or double me so I can make someone else do all the work while I get back to War and Peace, then i'll happily sign up to this rule. Besides, what if, like me, you happen to think that print is dead and audio books are the future? Does it count as reading if i'd rather listen to Roy Dotrice pretend to be both Jaime Lanister and Arya Stark? But I am getting too snarky. I do think that writers need to love story telling, just ease up on the form they have to be in. (also, for the record, I think GRR Martin spends at least as much time watching American football as he does read. Personally i'd rather him do neither and finish his series)

And I'm back in full rage mode. Make lists? seriously. This is meant to help? I took my senior art class to visit an actual artist working in her studio, and her biggest piece of advice to the kids was to get out of the habit of making their art folios into shopping lists of their favourite things. This artist (Katie Lee if anyone cares to have a look) also teaches at university, and she said the first thing she has to do is train new students out of the habit of approaching art like a fucking Sound of Music song. (my words, not hers) I don't need any notes or lists about life that I can't find faster on the internet. Wasn't the internet invented to keep lists. I do need to often write down plot points and story ideas, but i'd quickly forget these important things if I was always trying to keep record of what words I liked. Here is another word I like. Anal. As in, retentive, of course.  

This is a trap. By saying a story doesn't have to have a moral, sounds like you should stop worrying if your story has meaning. I agree that you should not set out to write something that proves a certain point (actually, why the hell not, I think it is actually what I did to be honest) but I don't see that there is anything wrong in looking at a story you have written and seeing that it does, in fact, mean something after all. This is kind of the point right? If your characters are not making choices based on their intrinsic morals coming up against the extrinsic forces of nature, and if those choices don't lead to outcomes and consequences that have a lasting effect, then what the fuck are you writing for? As far as I can tell from the wiki on the subject, a moral = lesson. And whilst I don't necessarily want to learn what every writer thinks the meaning of life is when I listen to one of their books, if I don't learn something interesting by the end of act one, i'm out.

Get a fucking smart phone and stop shoving stationary down my throat.

I think facebook, twitter as well as all the blogs in the blogswamp, have adequately proven the idea that posting about doing the dishes or what you ate for dinner kills fairies. And if this rule means for me to actually insert such activities into my WIP, then doesn't this contradict rule 2? Please make sure to put the bit about all the walks and gardening your protagonist gets up to on the back cover of your novel so I know not to read it.

This is the thinking that leads to poems that don't rhyme. By all means try something new, like inventing a new narrative perspective where your story is told in future tenths from an omnipresent narrator who sees only backward in time yet only speaks in italian even though the story is set in London. Oh, and he is a ghost. Or what about mixing up the flow of time more directly. 'Tarantino it.' Have the end at the beginning and the beginning half way through. Then end with the boring bit about the un-stereotypical stereotypes breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, explaining all the bits of the plot we missed. Or you could, you kno, learn how to write. 

Because heroes are like, so last century, right? I mean, if I was to remake Star Wars (one day I plan to re make Star Wars, just FYI) then i'd totally have the entire thing shown from Darth Vader's POV. You know, I'd make him like the central character you see; have us follow how he was born and came into his power then turned to the dark-side. It would really show a post modern take on the complexity of pre-determined destiny. Also i'd have him kill lots of children just to remind you that liking a main character makes you such a stereotypical audience member. I'd call my awesome new take on the 'other side' of the story something cool like 'The Phantom Presence' and it would totally not suck. 

Half of this 0.5 rule was the only thing worth reading at all. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Make good art

Even if you're not a fan of Gaiman's writing (seriously, you should be -- when are they going to make Good Omens into a movie?) this graduation address to some art students is a must watch. Wait for the end where he passes on some advice he received from another writer yet failed to follow. This is important.


Thursday, May 17, 2012


Last weekend was mother's day, and for the last few years it has been a day my wife and I take more seriously than we ever did before. Cancer knocked on our door in 2010, and since then my wife has been through an operation, radiology, and is still on a cocktail of drugs designed to limit the big 'C's return.

Last year, while I was in the deep pit of my last big edit, Sara responded to an open call for submissions of personal stories from Breast Cancer survivors. She started to write, and with no fanfare at all, sent in her piece to the publisher. Then, months later, she found out her story was to appear in the anthology.

And with Sara's permission, here it is for you all to read. 

Sara McKenzie

You are going to be honest. Starkly. There is no point putting on the rose coloured glasses that everyone wants you to. Over the past year you have been hurt more than you care to remember. The pain is palpable, real, sometimes a shout but most of the time an insipid whisper that never leaves your head, like the Wiggles’ songs that your son wants played over and over again.


Dr Doctor: It feels harmless. But I always like to get a second opinion anyway.
You: Okay. So you don’t think anything’s wrong?
Dr Doctor: No, that’s the most harmless breast lump I have ever felt in my life.

You don’t really feel relief but your force yourself to. You make an appointment with the breast surgeon believing that there is nothing wrong but you had better make sure. When you enter the building, your stomach turns and you realise that nothing will ever be the same again. There is nothing overt that tells you this and you don’t know why. Is it intuition? Is it your imagination? Is it even real?


Dr Surgeon is a middle aged woman whose smile is constant and genuine. She apologises for the wait and her terribly cold hands. You see the city stretch out before you in the window behind her and feel the smog encroaching on the building.

Dr Surgeon: How old is your son?
You: Fourteen months.
Dr Surgeon: How beautiful. You can bring him in, you know. We don’t mind at all.
You: Thanks.
Dr Surgeon: Are you still breastfeeding?
You: Yes.

She feels the lump. The fact that it hurts is a good sign that there is nothing wrong, she says. She tries to aspirate it to see if it is a cyst. Then she sends you for a biopsy. It is a simple procedure just to make sure but it seems fine.

You: If there is something wrong, what will it be?

You are hoping there are other options other than cancer. She answers you but her words are muddy and dull and don’t tell you anything. You hold onto the word fine. You run it through your mind. This time you believe it.


Radiologist: It looks like just a cyst.
You: Oh, good.

Enter Doctor.

Doctor: Let’s take the biopsy.
You: He said it was a cyst – can you just drain it?
Doctor: No. It doesn’t look bad, though.

You hold onto the shock as the needle clicks your flesh and pretend you are fine. You don’t want the doctor to know that the jolt upset you. He is tall, sniffly and has the, ‘God awful lurgy that is going around’. You try not to breathe in his spittle. He sends you off for your mammogram.

The radiologist squeezes your breasts into pancakes, stretching and pulling them between the hard plastic panels. Meat in a sandwich. You marvel at how flat your breasts have become since breastfeeding. She tells you that they are still full of tissue unlike the elderly. You suddenly fear what will happen when you get old. She looks at the screens.

Radiologist: Any history of breast cancer? You: No.

This is a routine question, you tell yourself. Your breast bleeds profusely on the way home. You can feel it seeping through your bra on the tram. Nothing feels right but they have all seemed to think nothing is wrong. When you get home you tell your husband it will all be fine. The look in his eyes tells you that he doesn’t really believe you.

You watch as your fourteen-month-old runs and rolls on the grass, laughing. He cuddles you and kisses you and you hold him tight and smell his hair. That night, he lies close in the darkness, feeding, drawing comfort from your heartbeat. Neither he nor you know that this is one of only a few more times he will be allowed to do this.


It is the day of your results. You are heading out the door.

Husband: Should I come with you this afternoon?
You: No, there is no point taking time off work, there is nothing wrong.
Husband: Are you sure I shouldn’t come?
You: Yeah. All you’ll be doing is taking time off to hear her say that I am fine.

You kiss them goodbye. Confident. But there are cracks.


When you step into her office, you know immediately. She doesn’t say anything and her smile is just as wide but there seems to be a dull look in her eyes, like someone has painted a film of grey over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Dr Surgeon starts talking about your scan and holds it up to the window. Her words bumble and jump and you are listening intently, not wanting to miss a word and not at all because all you can think is: Why isn’t she telling me there is nothing wrong? If there is nothing wrong wouldn’t she have said it as soon as I walked in?

And then . . .

Dr Surgeon: So, I am going to turn your life upside down a bit now.

You feel the tears spill messily down your face.

You cover your mouth.

You knew this was coming but her words stab at you anyway.

You: Am I going to die?
Dr Surgeon: No.

Dr Surgeon hands you a book called ‘Early Breast Cancer’ and a website that she likes. She tells you to go home and absorb the information and come back for another appointment after further tests to discuss the next step. She looks genuinely sad but leaves you with the secretary anyway.

You feel there should be something more.

Isn’t there more to say? Can’t she take the pain and shock away? You know that she has done this many times and that the drama has worn off, that her real expertise is in the operating room and in a funny way you are shocked, resentful and thankful at the same time. You pay your fee quickly, trying to hold in the flood, trying to stay calm.

You hear the words mammogram, MRI, ultrasound. You know your life has changed and that every fear you ever had is living in your body now. You are sick. You have cancer. You have a husband and a son.

You feel betrayed.

You have felt this many times but this time it is your body that has betrayed you. The grief overwhelms you. It is time to say goodbye to everything that was. The future is scary, wild, quiet and sad.


The day of your mammogram, your husband comes with you. He holds your hand in the waiting room and you try to joke about the shows on the medical TV channel. You are scared. And when they inject you with the blue fluid, they tell you that you cannot breast feed for forty-eight hours.

You didn’t know this but the night before when you were nursing your baby to sleep, you closed your eyes and breathed in every moment of it, thinking that this could be your last chance to hold him in this way.

You were right.


Your sister rings you every day. You can feel her choking back the tears. You know your mother cries when she is away from you. Her face is crumpled with worry, her mind filled with all the possible darkness that could ensue.

Over the next few days you cry. You worry about whether you should get a mastectomy or a lumpectomy. You want to hurry up and get the cancer cut out of you. You want a clear answer from someone, anyone, but it is all up to you.

At night your husband holds you while you cry and say that you don’t want to move forward, that you can’t do any of it. You can feel him breaking inside, feel his mind in despair … He tries to stay strong for you but you know him well enough to know that he is feeling the same grief. This is like death for all of you.

You are operated on, bruised, tired. You have a CAT scan, a full body bone scan, meet your oncologist for the first time. He tells you to be real, that even though your cancer was caught early that you are young and that it is oestrogen positive and that the tumour was over two centimetres so something has to be done. As your denial starts to shred away, he strikes the final blow:


Oncologist: There is no good news at the oncologist.


You feel stupid and small. You had hoped that cutting it out and having radiation therapy would be enough. Suddenly it is a lot more real.

People don’t like your sadness, your fear.

Person 1, 5 and 7: Be positive.
Person 2: The glass is half full.
Person 3: At least you have your family to help you out.
Person 4: Try to think positively
Person 6: You will be okay.

Friends disappear, some stay. People have advice; give you books on natural therapies. Apparently beetroot juice works wonders. You read about a farmer who developed a vitamin cure for cancer. Too much phosphorus in the soil causes cancer, he says. The doctors are ignoring the facts. On the internet people pedal miracles and you wonder why the medical profession exists at all. You hear countless stories of friends and family members of other people who have had cancer. They were all always worse off than you, they all battled it with a smile, they all stayed strong and so very positive and never had a down day.

You want a t-shirt that says:

Just because I am sad and scared
does not mean that I am being
negative; it does not mean that
I think that I am going to die.

You always were an atheist. This experience hasn’t made you find God. You now know for certain that He doesn’t exist.

You are going to be honest. You hear stories of inspiration, of strength, of lives changing for the better, of rebirths of awakenings after cancer.

You have to be honest and say what you feel.

If someone asked you if you could go back in time and change it, would you? You know many would say no, that they have found something deep inside themselves, that they have learnt so much. You feel ungrateful when you say, Yes, you would change it; you would wish it had never happened.

You would tell them that in every photo you look at you think about whether it was before breast cancer or after it. You would explain that your mind is filled with grief every day and that you never stop thinking about it. You would tell them that even though they cut out the cancer, there is no going back, ever, and that this is enough to break your heart a million times over. You would tell them that trying to be strong only makes you weaker and that you have started to learn to relent to the pain inside you and have let it find its own place to live – somewhere where you can watch it, somewhere where you can see it every day but where you don’t have to visit. You would tell them that you are sad, that it hurts, that it kills you a little every time you think about the possibility of it coming back. You would tell them also, though, that even though you would make that period of your life disappear if you had a chance, that there is still a voice inside of you that holds on. It holds on because it has to. Somewhere inside you there is also a hope that tries to survive and that even though it is not a lot, it is enough to live by.


You walk through the buildings, your feet splashing the rain water that has soaked the pavement. You look sad, pensive. The camera pans up in a swooshing motion up to the sky, moving over the city and the river. There is a film of smog but the sun is shining on the roof tops.


Please head over to Busy Bird Publishing, buy a copy of the anthology and support a worthy cause.


Friday, May 4, 2012

My first interview

head over to Milkbar mag and have a look at my first interview.

I just wish I'd worn a wizard hat for the photo.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Amazon support

I don't know about you, but one of the highlights of my life is calling the support desk of whatever modern service happens to have failed. Phone, internet, insurance -- whatever the problem you can be assured that a) you will be on hold and b) your problems might be fixed within 5-10 working days.

So when I emailed Amazon the other day, my expectations were low.

My problem was deceptively simple. My book was appearing on amazon in two very different places. The kindle version looked like this.

And was relatively easy to find via a search of "The Dragon and the Crow". But I have a print version too, and that was not so easy to come across. Not only was it hard to find, but all those lovely reviews people have been writing did not appear for the print copy. 

You see, I was missing a very important little box, one that I see on nearly every other book  on amazon. I tried to find a way to add this myself, to link the versions and consolidate my book, but due to the fact that it was my publisher who actually put it on Amazon, my author tools were limited.

So I did what I thought was the last futile gesture of our modern age. I emailed the support desk.

And within 12 hours, this is what my book looked like on Amazon.

Notice the all important inclusion of the format linking box? This is important. Now the reviews and ratings are all linked together, and searching for one version directs you to both.

So the point of all this is to not be afraid to ask for help, even if it is from a huge multinational company. 


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Soldier, part two.

Last year, I made a post about an old friend. He died in Afghanistan and even though I had lost contact, the news still hit me, as did the memorial service I went to.

Today, the Age newspaper, released part two of a commeorative video on the soldiers who have died in the war. "The Fallen, part 2" focuses on Brett Wood, my old friend, and if you have a moment, please have a look.

My original post about Brett is here.