Tag Archives: fiction

In the Supermarket (2014)

In the supermarket things are getting restless.

People shuffle in the queue for the self-scan machines, glaring passively, harrumphing at no one in particular, but pointedly and with feeling.

At the self-scan machines things are little better. Toes are tapped at tardy assistants. Red lights blink. Calm mechanical voices ask for items to be added or removed from the bagging area. Shrill human voices imprecate.

There is a man – short and sullen, overladen with fruit – who cannot pay for his rockmelon. An assistant finds it for him. It is under M, because it is a melon.

‘I have complained about this before. It is a rockmelon. It belongs under R.’

‘Not much I can do about it sorry.’

‘There is. You can record my complaint. I want to make an official complaint.’

Together they look to the complaints counter. It is oppressed by the crowd that has gathered there. Its defenders are inadequate, soon to be overwhelmed.

The assistant shrugs.

The sullen vegetarian snarls, his teeth clacking and his eyes all a-spark.

‘I’ve complained about this before. It’s not good enough. It’s a waste of your time and mine.’

The assistant shrugs.

The vegetarian’s eyes bulge. Veins rise on his neck, at his temples.

‘Excuse me,’ says a tall woman. Her body is a work of art, and a canvas. Lean and pretty. Coloured inks on her arms, her thigh, her décolletage. ‘There’s three machines not working.’

Red lights are blinking over the three machines.

‘Just a minute,’ the assistant says.

From somewhere in aisle three there’s a predatory howl.

The queue for the machines surges.

A display of produce crashes to the ground, shattering glass and spilling preserves and spreads marked down for quick sale.

At check-out number seven there’s a young girl’s scream.

At the complaints counter the splintering of wood and a panicked cry.

A fist in thrown.

Teeth spill, skipping across the polished floor.

A head strikes a counter with a wet crack.

There’s the smell of blood and violence in the air.

The vegetarian leaps upon the assistant, bears him to the ground where others rush in with boots and stomping feet for them both.

Someone tries to climb the bread aisle, to safety, but the whole thing topples and they fall into the surging mob.

Men are vaulting the complaints counter, clawing at their victims, bursting throats between their teeth.

I take my receipt and the goods I’ve purchased. I step away, through the automatic doors, past the buskers splintering their guitars against each other, past the collisions and chaos of the car park, to my car.

Best to get home. The kids will be wanting their dinner.

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Fact in Fiction

This morning something happened to me which was so trite and clichéd I would have been embarrassed to have written it.

Just near my house a car sped through an intersection, the passenger door swung open and a woman inside half flung herself out screaming “Help me please! Somebody help me!”. The car pulled over and I went to help, and interrupted an apparent situation of domestic violence. I convinced the driver to let the lady out of the car and he drove off. For her part, once she was out of the car, she wanted nothing from me but to get away and offers of hospitality or kindness or further assistance were declined. She went on her way and I had the sense that the situation was unresolved. I warned her he could easily come back, and sure enough when she was half a block away he did. There was no more violence and he spoke to her briefly before driving off again and she walked away. I called the police but they couldn’t do much without her reporting the incident or making a complaint against him.

I post this here because once the adrenaline had died down and my head was returning to normality my first reaction was: there’s a story in this.

Perhaps that is the life of the writer: that all the events we observe become fodder for our craft, grist for our mill.

My next reaction though was that it was too unrealistic – too clichéd! Are we supposed to believe our narrator just happens to be at that intersection, at that time? Are we supposed to believe the antagonist just drives off? That the ‘damsel’ rejects her rescuer as quickly as she rejected her attacker? And what kind of ending does this story provide. In the denouement does she return to the abusive relationship? Is the climactic intervention of our protagonist entirely pointless, merely a temporary disruption to the status quo?

It occurred to me that if this tale were to make good fiction it would need some serious amendments and revisions – perhaps some heavy re-writes.

So what role does fact have in fiction? and how beholden are we as creators of fiction to fact?

China Mieville populates his world with living cacti, scarab-headed beauties and trans-dimensional spider-gods, they move amid forests of frozen lightning, clouds of gaseous rock and cities polluted by thaumaturgic effluent, and yet they work because there are some facts that make them relatable. People are greedy and kind and nasty and brutal and selfless and contradictory, exactly as we know them to be. They behave factually in the most fictitious setting. Lord of the Rings works for the same reason (though despite Tolkein’s objections it is easier to read as a bucolic allegory of post-industrialism). Star Wars likewise: inter-stellar travel, alien races and an inexplicable Force (midichlorians be damned – The Force should not have to be explained) but amidst that a relatable human story (boy meets girl, boy likes girl, girl likes smuggler, Wookie misses out on a medal, boy is trained by a muppet backpack, boy and girl are siblings… the usual).

Conversely “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” opened this week. If I type ‘Abraham’ into Google the auto-search function has ‘Abraham Lincoln’ as top suggestion, and ‘Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter’ second. Here the setting is ostensibly (in that Steam-punk / Alt-history way) a factual one. Real historical figures at a real point in history, acting out a plot of pure fiction. To what extent then do the writers owe us a ‘factual’ Lincoln. I suspect to no extent whatsoever.

And what then of the cases on the indistinct borders of these realms. What of the ‘based on an extraordinary true story films/ Films like ‘The Blindside‘ for instance, which presents the story of Sandra Bullock pulling Michael Oher out of ghetto-crack-oblivion, teaching him to play football, giving him Kathy Bates to lift his GPA and basically providing him with professional sporting success. A great story of heart-warming selflessness and triumph over adversity. To what extent did this film owe us such facts as Michael Oher’s recognised success in football pre-existing the intervention of Sandra Bullock’s character (he had achieved all-state selection and was rated 5th best lineman prospect in the country a year before he met Leigh Anne Tuohy), or that he lifted his GPA by taking online courses through Brigham Young University; scoring As in English to replace the Ds and Fs he was awarded in school?

Is the story not better if he comes into her care hopeless and becomes exceptional? Doesn’t that work better as a narrative arc? Isn’t it better fiction if his sudden success can be traced to a single inspirational speech rather than a montage of repetitive training? I think undoubtedly so.

So perhaps I will use my experience for a short story. It will be ridiculously over the top and require a great suspension of disbelief… and you will know those are the factual bits.

As TVTropes point out, reality is unrealistic, and as a famous Australian children’s author once said: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn”.


My first publication

I’ve just had my short story “A Choice of Kings” accepted by “Dark Edifice”, a new Australian Speculative Fiction magazine. It’s a non-professional market, but it’s a publication!

Their website is http://darkedifice.webs.com/magazine. Edition #1 is available for free now. My story will be appearing in edition #2 in July or August.

Some of you may have read the story on my blog already but I’ve removed it from there and put a link to Dark Edifice instead.

It’d be great if you could support this new magazine, and in turn support emerging and established Australian writers. They’re also on FB: http://www.facebook.com/DarkEdificeMagazine.

I’m going to to pop some proverbial champagne.


Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.


Rejection

…is an inevitable part of the aspiring author’s life. I recognise this. Rationally I acknowledge it. In a sense I am glad that it is as common as it is; it means that when (not if) I am successful in a submission I will know its worth.

Often when the rejection comes through it is a cursory note, or a proforma e-mail, or some other sort of standard ‘thank you but unfortunately…’ kind of response. That’s fair enough too. I imagine that the slush-pile of any publication accepting unsolicited submission doesn’t really allow for a detailed analysis of the story’s strengths and weaknesses. There are other support services for that after all.

One of my submissions, to an Australian Fantasy / Spec-fic magazine (now gone digital) was an exception.

I submitted my short story “The Green Monkeys” and was unsuccessful. The reader’s response I got was:

“While this story is competently written and has a cute title there is little new going on in what is essentially short fantasy adventure story. I was constantly nagged by the lack of explanation as to why a young man in a medieval-esque Ireland would call a goblin a monkey. This is “classic” story telling without a good zing in the tail to grab attention.”

My initial reaction was, of course, disappointment. That’s natural. If I wasn’t disappointed I might as well give up I reckon. With a bit of distance though I can’t really argue too much with the comments.

  • “competently written” … well could be worse I suppose. ‘competent’ still seems workmanlike and uninspired, but it’s better than incompetent.
  • “cute title”… I’m not sure what is meant by “cute”, but if the title has attracted attention then its served its purpose, so not too unhappy with this.
  • “nagged by lack of explanation”… I think it’s always a difficult balance to strike with Fantasy (or invented worlds generally) between plotting and exposition. In other forms of fiction I might say “1943 in France…”, or “she was an African-American living in the deep south…” and the reader will bring so much knowledge that it’s unnecessary to explain the connotations of those settings / characters. This is not true of Fantasy. Often the reader will bring very little knowledge to the author’s world, especially in a short story. The flip-side of this is that the reader doesn’t want to get bogged down in characters telling each other what they already know for the sake of the reader. The “as you know…” conversation might pass muster on CSI, but I doubt it’s my path to publication.
  • “classic” story telling … that sounds really nice, except for the tone imparted by the quote marks over ‘classic’
  • “without a good zing” … and that sums it up really I reckon.

So that’s what I’m taking away from this rejection: got to make it zing, got to grab attention.

It’s not enough to be competent, cute, or a classic story. It’s got to have something which sets it apart for the reader from all the other competent classic story-telling in the slush-pile.

Now all I need to do is figure out how to make my stories ‘zing’.

Easy as that huh?