Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

July 30, 2012

Checking back in

Filed under: administraviata,news of the day,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 9:41 pm

I am back from a week in Port Macquarie. Did I miss anything? [1] .

July has been a total fizzer when it comes to getting stuff done, if I’m honest. No particular reason – a few unusual things got in the way but the main impediment was sheer slackness compounded by a dip in self-confidence. My crash-or-crash-through attempt to make the competition deadline at the end of June landed in the vicinity of a near-disaster. I made things worse for myself by submitting the resultant mess anyway. Ever since then I’ve felt bad about it – annoyed with myself that I couldn’t make the story come together in time, and somewhat embarrassed at my decision to submit. I have conspicuously failed to write anything much this month. [2]

But no personal failure should go unexamined, so I am taking away two lessons from the whole experience. First of all, it’s clear that I will use any excuse whatsoever to not write. The so-called blow to my ego, caused by submitting what would probably prove to be a reasonably coherent story if I could bring myself to look at it again, cannot be considered a reasonable motivation to do no productive work whatsoever for a month.

Casting my eye over my Steam statistics for some more compelling explanation, I notice that I have played rather a lot of Team Fortress and Tropico in July. Oho. Moreover, as my monthly book count will shortly attest, I did get a fair bit more reading in than I usually do. So, the lure of playing video games and reading books rather than working is strong, is it? Not exactly a revelation, but something that I do need to acknowledge and pay closer attention to. I might need to set myself a curfew or something – no computer games until after 10 pm or 1200 words or something. I’ll think about that one.

The second observation is that I cannot afford to show my work until I am satisfied that it is ready. The obvious risk is that I will resort to gratuitous displays of angst and melodrama at the unmitigated shame of exposing myself as a fraudulent hack, an impulse I need to overcome if I am to make a go of myself as a fraudulent hack or better.

Less obvious but still a compelling argument for the exercise of some discretion was this point raised at a recent CSFG discussion: that professional editors -of whom there are few enough overall and within Australia are a vanishingly small pool – tend to remember your name if you consistently send them crap. I would guess that if an editor feels that reading some or all of your piece has been a waste of their time, they will be less likely to respond favourably to seeing your name on a future submission.

It’s important not to overstate the point – I imagine most editors read a lot of things and don’t commit every detail to memory. But I know that if I were in a position of having to read a slush pile taller than my head, I would not respond with a kind smile to some semi-readable tosh.

There were positives from July too. I submitted a story for publication. The story was as ready as I could make it and works pretty well, I think. Also, I had two holidays, so I can’t really complain about that, can I?

Work in August is going to be insane. Squeezing in any writing at all is going to be a challenge. So that’s pretty much what I got to do now – challenge myself to step up and get my momentum back.

[1] Answer – a decent shower and a critical component in the coffee maker we took with us. A tragic story for another day)

[2] I have spent some time mulling over a couple of new stories, outlining them in my head. I’ve also continued to wrestle with the problematic plot of the novel, but without a decisive breakthrough as yet. I’ve done a couple of reviews and I am beta-reading various bits and pieces written by friends and associates. These things relate to writing without themselves being writing in any meaningful sense.

July 15, 2012

Back to the Island 2.20 – Two for the Road

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — lexifab @ 11:05 pm

Back to the Island 2.20 – Two for the Road

“I don’t believe that parents and kids should work together.” – Christian Shepherd

Summary: The survivors debate what to do with Henry Gale right up to the moment Michael turns into a monster.

The Best Bit: Well, hell, the last thirty seconds are utterly devastating, but it seems a bit of a copout to rate the whole episode according to its punchline. So rewind a little while to the scene where Jack admits to Locke that he was right not to trust Henry’s story. Locke, with a completely straight face, tells him “You did what you thought was right at the time you thought it, Jack”. Which may not have been intended as a devastating smackdown of Jack’s entire attitude, but that’s certainly what it is.

The Worst Bit: Considering what happens at the end of the episode, it seems churlish to complain that Ana Lucia’s “cop who regrets taking the law into her own hands” back story is a bit on the trite side. All the same, in the absence of time to develop some layers of complexity, Ana Lucia ends up coming off as two-dimensional. Her entire backstory arc is: she is hurt, she takes revenge, she regrets it, she goes on a short journey of discovery and she gets over it. It’s more than Shannon and Boone ever got, mind you – at least it’s a complete story.

Also, the worst bit is Ana Lucia’s seedy seduction of Sawyer to get his gun. Not only does it seem out of character for her, she’s not exactly subtle about her plan – Sawyer comes off looking pretty stupid to fall for a chumpish amateur con.

And really, the worst bit of all is the sinking realisation you get as the closing title credits come up that you are never going to learn what the deal with Libby was.

The Mythology: Christian Shepherd returns to play boozy plot enabler, talking Ana Lucia into playing bodyguard (which I assume is his code for “good looking drinking buddy”) for his trip to Sydney. Sawyer’s appearance gives us context – it’s the night that Christian drinks himself to death. This episode also marks the first mention of the “great man” who purportedly leads the Others, although the reference (uttered by Henry Gale) is deceptive.

The Literature: Sawyer is reading the manuscript of Bad Twin, the Lost tie-in novel purportedly written by one of the crash survivors. Jack, a philistine, burns the last few pages to get Sawyer’s attention. Such a dick! In other literature news, Hurley expresses his admiration for the instructive romanticism of the 1989 John Cusack classic Say Anything. I only mention it because I still like that movie.

The Episode: Ana Lucia is the focal character, but she’s more of a plot device than a protagonist in both the Island and flashback sequences. Christian Shepherd swings in and takes over her flashback, making it all about him, in the usual style for that family. On the Island Henry tries to kill her, at least ostensibly out of revenge for her killing of Goodwin, the Others’ infiltrator into the tail section survivor group. In the end of each sequence, she takes a courageous stance route and is immediately punished for it: she decides to return to LA to face the music for her extra-judicial murder, and her plane crashes; she chooses not to kill Henry in cold blood and is shot dead. I don’t think there’s another episode where the spotlight character is such a passenger as Ana Lucia in ‘Two for the Road’.

Locke allows his frustration at the various mysteries of the Island to boil over. He demands that Henry explain why he tried to kill Ana Lucia but did not hurt Locke when he had an opportunity to do so. “Because you’re one of the good ones, John,” replies Henry, before going on to spin a web of enticing fantasies that play right into Locke’s spiritual neediness. Henry had been on his way to bring John in, to introduce him to the man in charge, to reveal the truth of the Island to him. It’s amusing because by this point Locke, appearing to be the only character left who really cares about what’s going on with the Island, is obviously standing in for the audience. And Henry is blatantly taunting him with lies (or at best half-truths) about what’s going on. On top of that there’s a scene with Michael describing the Other’s primitive living conditions, about half of which he’s making up off the top of his head. At this point at least half the audience must be developing the suspicion that the producers are raising a middle finger at them…

‘Two for the Road’ is entirely dedicated to maximising the impact of the shocking ending, in which Michael shoots Ana Lucia and Libby and then himself, to spring Henry Gale from imprisonment. It works, but there’s some blatant manipulation going on. Every scene with Libby is there to remind us how sweet she is, how intriguing is her underexplored past and how invested we have become in her relationship with Hurley. Until bam! Wrong place, wrong time. The ending is a hammer blow, no doubt, but it props up what is otherwise a disappointing episode. Six out of ten, for a flabby, liver-spotted long arm of the law.

July 12, 2012

A Rubicon moment

Filed under: wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:42 pm

I just submitted a short story manuscript accompanied by what I think was a politely optimistic query letter to a publisher.

Not a big deal, you would think, except for one thing. This is a thing which I have never done before. Not once.

That can’t be right, can it? It’s weird even to type it. Surely sometime over the years I’ve bunged something off into the aether on spec. Chanced my arm on a blind throw? Set my works atop the slush pile and retreated in finger-crossed hope?

Yeah, not so much. For all that I have been writing constantly for decades, I’ve rarely finished anything to a point that even approaches my own satisfaction. Even on those rare occasions when I do finish something, I’ve never gathered up the temerity to submit it for professional scrutiny, much less the hope of paid recompense. That way lies criticism and rejection, not to mention mockery and scorn and bitter regret. (Welcome to your weekly insight into the sad machinations of my rich inner life, by the way).

Lately I’ve revisited my outlook towards criticism and rejection and decided that, within certain parameters, I don’t give a fuck about them any more. I’ve sat through enough selection panels and tender assessments over the past few years to work out that rejections rarely equate in any meaningful sense to personal criticism. Shortlisting a piles of resumes is probably not that far removed from wading through a slush pile. You’re looking for certain qualities, most of them ostensibly objective comparisons with certain criteria, but some of them almost certainly purely subjective. It doesn’t get much more subjective than “Does this interest me?” after all. That can be an insurmountable barrier to success. On that basis alone, plenty of wholly qualified applicants and completely readable stories undoubtedly get rejected without due consideration.

On the other hand, someone out there might really love what I’m offering and decide to snap it up. You never know what some people will like. I don’t, at any rate. Success is very likely a combination of factors, only one of which – the story itself – is in any way under my control. It’s a very slow form of gambling where the precise degree to which the odds are stacked against you is not immediately clear.

What’s changed for me lately is the realisation that I no longer consider rejection an unendurable torture and assault on my sense of self-worth. If nothing else, a bona fide rejection letter (or email) from a publisher is at least proof that I have overcome any lingering sense of dread at putting myself out there and being laughed at. Unintentionally laughed at, I should say.

Which is not to say, now that I’ve done it, that I don’t need to go have a bit of a sit down to restore my nerves. Ridiculous, I know, but these butterflies in my stomach are trashing the place. I think I’m going to need a nice steadying cup of scalding tea.

Die, butterflies, die. Burn and drown so’s I can start my next story.

Review – Ishtar by Kaaron Warren, Deborah Biancotti and Cat Sparks

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 11:37 am

It’s taken forever – which is to say, more than a week – for me to finish reading Ishtar, an anthology of novellas by three Australian writers about the Assyrian and/or Babylonian goddess of love and war. Not for want of trying though – all three stories are gorgeous pieces of work and I would love to have had the time to read each in a single setting. Alas, too busy even to read, much less write, so it’s taken longer than I supposed that it would to get to this review. As all three writers are Australian women, this will be another entry in my Australian Women Writers Challenge (which I think I must have just about completed by now; I must check and see how many reads-and-reviews I committed to, back in January)

Ishtar is an anthology of three linked novellas from Gilgamesh Press (edited by Amanda Pillar and KV Taylor) about the Babylonian goddess of love and war. The stories, each by a different Australian author, tells a tale of the goddess in a different time period – the ancient world, the modern day, the near future.

Kaaron Warren’s “The Five Loves of Ishtar” is a sumptuous recounting of Ishtar’s mythic origins in Mesopotamia, told through the eyes of generation after generation of the washerwomen who serve her. As the title implies, the story charts her great relationships with men, beginning with the demigod Tammuz and including great rulers like Gilgamesh and Sargon among others. Ishtar is beautiful, passionate and wise, but also murderous and fickle, delighting in war and given to tantrums and spontaneously cruelty; as centuries pass she becomes embittered with humanity and weakened by petty betrayals and boredom. Her slow decline is painted with a certain sad inevitability, though Ishtar herself is hardly a sympathetic character. As she goes, so goes the ancient world, passing through decadence into slumbering myth.

Deborah Biancotti’s “And the Dead shall Outnumber the Living” begins as a straight police procedural set in modern Sydney. Her no-nonsense, professional police detectives might have stepped straight off the set of every Aussie Cop TV Drama of the past 20 years, though their work for the (fictitious) Gender Crimes unit is an uncommon angle. Investigating a series of repulsive killings, they soon figure out that there is a supernatural angle to the murders. Once the real horror of “Dead” begins to become apparent, it builds grim energy towards a monstrous conclusion. Chilling and nasty and absolutely terrific fun.

Cat Sparks’ “The Sleeping and the Dead” is set several decades after an apocalypse that has left the world a MadMaxian wasteland. Into a fortified fertility clinic, Dr Anna endures rather than enjoys the company of a psychopathic cult of nuns as she vainly administers IVF treatments to crowds of despairing women. It’s a bleak, hopeless situation that only takes a turn for the worse when some men wander out of the desert with news that sets Anna on a quest into the figurative underworld. A metaphorical retelling of the Ishtar legend which becomes rather less metaphorical as it progressesm, “Sleeping” contains some graphic, striking imagery. No review would be complete without mention of the evocative description of the nuns as “Necromaidens. Fallout wraiths. Praising absent gods for their blisters as well as their dreams” It’s a grim, unsympathetic world where morality has worn almost to dust, with an ending that strikes just the right note of slim, ambiguous hope.

Ishtar showcases three writers with very different strengths working to similar ends. Warren applies an obvious love of research to evoke a rich sense of place and mood; Biancotti’s command of dialogue and pacing delivers the feel of the breathtaking acceleration and sudden loss of control of a high powered sports car; Sparks’ showers her story in riches of imagery, metaphor and tone to create as bleak a future as any I’ve seen. All three stand on their own. Together, Ishtar is an beautiful and rewarding collection.

July 4, 2012

Back to the Island 2.18 – S.O.S

Filed under: back to the island,reviewage — lexifab @ 12:01 am

Back to the Island 2.18 – S.O.S

“That man doesn’t know the difference between an errand and a fool’s errand” – Rose Nadler

Summary: Bernard formulates a bold plan to get everyone rescued without consulting Rose, which is just plain dumb-headed.

The Best Bit: The flashback jumps across several points in Rose and Bernard’s lives together, from the night they met up until the day they board Oceanic 815. The first is their mildly argumentative but sweet first meeting, the third is Significant and the fourth establishes that Rose met Locke in his wheelchair and so is one of the only people to figure out that the Island cures people. But it’s the second scene, in which Bernard’s romantic proposal to Rose at Niagara Falls is only slightly derailed when she tell him she’s dying of cancer, that rules this episode. Both actors are wonderful – L. Scott Caldwell always plays Rose with knowing dignity, but in this scene she is just heartbreaking, radiating poise and acceptance but showing the tiniest of cracks in her composure at causing Bernard distress. And Sam Anderson’s Bernard is sweet and stoic in response. Splendid acting (and tonally a nice counterpoint to the grumpy spat they are having on the Island).

The Worst Bit: There’s nothing too terrible, so I will pick on the gratuitous scene in which Kate and Jack, who have been avoiding each other over the past few episodes, are stuck together face to face in one of Rousseau’s rope traps. Their ironic acknowledgement of the uncomfortable eroticism of the situation does not do quite enough work to disguise the heavy-handedness of them being forced to confront their raging sexual attraction. Maybe we should just blame this one on the Island, which is not always subtle about getting what it wants? Nah. (Fortunately in subsequent episodes Sawyer will take this ham-fisted ‘caught in a net’ metaphor and run it hilariously into the ground).

The Mythology: The Significant flashback scene sees Bernard hijacking their Australian honeymoon to take Rose to see the grotesquely-named ‘Isaac of Uluru’, a somewhat risible outback faith healer. (As portrayed by Wayne ‘Scorpius from Farscape’ Pygram, Isaac amazingly emerges from his stupid story function with some dignity). Isaac’s healing powers are based, he claims, on pockets of energy which may be “geological or magnetic or both” (sic). He then tells Rose that she needs to find her place somewhere else – meaning the Island, though he doesn’t appear to know that. By now we know that there are strange magnetic things going on beneath the Swan Station. What does it all mean? Does the Island have some kind of magic healing energy?

Well, yes, clearly it does, because Rose is cured of her terminal cancer more or less upon arrival and Locke, who was paralysed and manages to get himself horribly wounded every other episode or so, can walk. So the question becomes, what does that even mean?

Oh, and when Jack demands Walt back, Michael shows up instead, which proves that if nothing else the Others have a sense of humour.

The Literature: Nothing. Henry might have finished The Brothers Karamazov by now.

The Episode: A sweet story about a touching relationship that endures every kind of setback and challenge, “S.O.S.” avoids descending into saccharine hell. Rose and Bernard are allowed to be prickly, grumpy, uncommunicative and sometimes belittling, but at the same time they are utterly devoted to each other. It’s not the most important or original lesson that Lost ever attempts to impart, but it’s not a bad thing to centre once in a while on two characters who don’t much care what goes on as long as they have each other.

Rose says something rather provocative to Bernard at one point, which is to the effect that he always wants to do something, rather than accept the situation and let things be. That’s an interesting narrative dynamic. Jack (seen here making the impatient and probably insane decision to trade ‘Henry Gale’ back to the Others if they will return Walt) is a man of action – a decider, shall we say – while Sawyer, who is not all that broken up to be left out of the action this week, is more of a Let It Be kinda guy. Lost might have been a very different series (though probably not one with as many exciting shootouts) if that had been the core conflict in the first couple of seasons.

“S.O.S.” is fine, though the structure pops a seam here and there. Rose and Bernard are unusual audience-proxy characters, inasmuch as they don’t actually care overly about the dramatic situations. They just want to live their lives on the Island and stay out of trouble. It’s nice that they get the spotlight long enough to let us know what the normal people are up to. A slightly creaky eight, or two hands clasped in unconscious abiding affection.

July 2, 2012

False start

Filed under: wordsmithery — lexifab @ 10:52 pm

On the occasion of my 42nd birthday at the end of last week, how do you suppose I spent the evening? Did I:

a) Spend a mesmerising evening of fine dining and sparkling conversation with my beloved spouse?

b) Kick off my mid-life crisis with an amphetamine binge and an exchange of gunfire with the cops chasing my stolen sports car? or

c) Knuckle down with about eight cups of tea and the third draft of a short story due for submission by midnight?

To give you some clues, I don’t like the taste of meth and I’m pretty sure my wife isn’t speaking to me [1].

The deadline for the short story competition for this year’s Conflux 8 spec fic convention was midnight last Friday. I hammered out yet another draft of the short story I’ve been writing for two weeks now. I managed to write the last scene, run a spell-check and formatting pass and hit ‘Send’ pretty much right on the cutoff time.

I began to regret it almost immediately.

It’s not my best work. It can’t be, because it’s not actually finished. There’s a story there, I’m pretty sure. There are characters in conflict and a situation that shapes and drives the characters and a world where that situation can logically take place. But the pieces are not all there. There are details missing from the manuscript which are necessary for the story to make sense. The characters need more flesh to make their desires clearer and their decisions understandable. I am fairly sure I forgot to set a minor plot element up at the start of the story and I certainly didn’t follow through on all the ones I did set up. There are problems, let’s just say. And this isn’t one of those false-modest “Oh it’s not very good, I’ve lost all confidence, it’s just some rubbish I threw together, feelfreetoadmiremeanyway” lines of bullshit [3]. I worked hard on the story, used every spare minute I had to make it as good as I could, and I did not succeed beyond technically hitting the deadline.

Details, details. The point is – ouch. I now think that having submitted the story before it was ready – even though there was no time left to correct the problems – was a mistake. I feel unprofessional and, honestly, I think I end up looking like a bit of a dork, even if only to myself (and all five of you reading this). And even though I harbour no serious delusions about the imminence of a professional writing career, I certainly won’t do myself any favours by showing my arse within professional spheres. Conflux may not the biggest speculative fiction convention in the country, but it’s run from within my local community of writers and it is generally well-regarded. Cocking up in public is usually a poor move – doubly so when the audience is comprised of your everyday peers.

On the one hand, my dignity and (so far nonexistent) professional reputation are safe because the competition is blind-judged by a panel of three extremely experienced and knowledgable notables. Any chance that my flawed effort might unaccountably appeal to one is reduced to the infinitesimal by virtue of two other sets of eyes. Ones presumably less impaired by crazy-blinkers. To fool one judge into thinking it is a work of other than pure drivel is circumstance; to fool three would be a sign of the imminent collapse of reality as we understand it.

On the other hand, it’s an underwhelming feeling to know that I have presented myself in a less than adequate light.

I contemplated requesting to withdraw the story from consideration. Today I received a very polite form acceptance email from the slush wrangler, so I have begun to wonder if it is now too late to back out. I am undecided. Part of me wants to pull the story and improve it for another competition or submission for sale. But the other option is to let it stand, held in escrow until the competition ends in September [4] as a bit of a reminder to myself to keep at least one eye on my long term goals.

 

[1] Not really [2]

[2] Meth tastes great. Kinda minty.

[3] You’ll all know when I’m doing that. It’s not hard to spot. I give you permission to slap me when I do it.

[4] Competition guidelines include no simultaneous submission i.e. to other contests or publications because the prize requires first publication rights.

 

Review – Debris by Jo Anderton (Books of 2012 – June)

Books of 2012 – June: Well, June was a bit of a crash to earth after the more impressive reading stack of the preceding few months. I finished reading just two books: Kaaron Warren’s Mistification and Joanne Anderton’s Debris. Since I already reviewed Mistification, I’ll just go ahead and review Debris right here. Jo Anderton is a Sydney writer, so count this as another entry in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jo Anderton’s Debris (Angry Robot Publishing 2010) is the meaty riches-to-rags fantasy tale of Tanyana, a celebrated architect on the verge of completing her great masterpiece, a vast statue known as Grandeur. Tanyana has a powerful talent for controlling pions, mystical quasi-subatomic particles that can be manipulated to create anything from solid objects, complex utility systems and thumping great works of triumphalist architecture. Just as she is about to put the finishing touches on her great work, though, something goes wrong, and Tanyana falls, literally and figuratively. Gravely injured and disgraced, she also loses her ability to perceive and control pions, and becomes useless to the society that once feted her. The only role left for her is as a lowly collector of debris, the destructive waste by-product of pion-bound systems.

Debris is the story of Tanyana’s struggle to find her way in a class that she once barely acknowledged, but of course there’s more going on than just a simple exploration of the underclass of a magically-advanced society. Tanyana’s need to understand what has happened to her is an excellent device for exploring the possibilities of this world of pion-binding and debris-collecting. Something is interfering with the fabric of reality and she is of course connected to it more closely than she realises. Her climactic insights into the nature of her reality are satisfying, if darker than I was expecting.

Thankfully Debris avoided my early fear that this was going to be a pretty-but-dull variant on the “chosen one who will bring balance to the Force” trope. Tanyana’s special, but not in the tedious fated-by-prophecy sense. She’s feisty and self-assured, but both qualities take an understandable dent when Grandeur falls, and she gets herself into all sorts of trouble through wilful denial of some of the realities of her situation. She’s powerful, but mostly because she’s smart and determined, and even so she can’t magically overcome her social ruin.

If I have a complaint, it’s that Debris is clearly only the first part of Tanyana’s story. By its conclusion she understands more or less what has happened to her, and makes a suitably world-changing decision but she has yet to confront her sinister tormentors and their quislings. Nevertheless, Debris finishes with the work of rebuilding Tanyana’s life – and the arcs of every single supporting character – only half-completed. But now that I look at the title page, it says ‘Book One of the Veiled Worlds Trilogy’ right there. So I guess I can stop complaining. Fortunately the second volume Suited is due for imminent release to soothe my mild disappointment.

(Ooh, actually, I have another complaint of sorts, which is that the beautiful and arresting cover of Debris features the young female protagonist looking cool and powerful and not dressed in ridiculous boob-accentuating fantasy attire – hooray! The sequel, alas, apparently does not.)

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