No Friend But the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani

I recently finished reading No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. I previously mentioned Behrouz last year in the nothing here newsletter when he won one of the most prestigious literary awards in Australia. He’s a refugee who was trapped in Australia’s offshore refugee prison for years, and is still stranded on Manus Island even now. He wrote reportage about Manus and this entire novel via text message on a phone he wasn’t even supposed to have in the prison. The logistics behind the writing, translating, and editing of this book alone demonstrate Boochani’s drive to get this story out into the world, and we should be thankful for that, because it’s a story that needs to be told.

The story starts with his first attempt at crossing the ocean and continues on from there (ironically/sadly if this first boat hadn’t sunk he might have been able to settle in Australia because with his second attempt he arrived just a few days after the fucked up “no one coming by boat will ever be allowed to set foot on Australian soil, regardless of the validity of their status as refugees” law was passed). It’s poetic while remaining grounded in the systematic horrors of the prison and the situation all the refugees find themselves in. It’s an important read for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that governments all over the world are taking inspiration from Australia’s offshore detention regime, and as time goes on, and climate and ecological pressures cause more people to need to flee their homes and homelands, we will see more countries establishing similarly barbaric prisons – sorry, “processing centres” – cropping up all over the world. These refugees will find themselves locked up in prisons like the one at Manus Island for the simple “crime” of seeking asylum.

I want to see every politician who has served since the (fabricated) child overboard “scandal”, and hasn’t publicly condemned Australia’s refugee policies, be locked up in Manus Prison, indefinitely. I want their wealth taken from them, I want their exorbitant fucking pensions stripped from them and used to provide all our tortured refugees the kinds of lives they deserve here (and the therapy they will no doubt need after all that we have inflicted on them).

The book opens with a long introduction from the translator, and one of the (unrelated) things from it that really caught my eye was this:

His use of metaphors related to wolves is exceptional and haunting … I once heard that in Iran when a sheepdog fights off a wolf to defend its flock it aims for the jugular. In most cases the wolves are too strong and ferocious for the dogs. But there are times when the sheepdog manages to lock its jaws around the wolf’s throat and remains clamped onto it until the wolf can’t withstand the pressure anymore; the dog persists until the wolf submits. The sheepdog emerges from the victory with an extraordinary self-realisation – the experience transforms the dog, the encounter empowers it. The sheepdog develops a new sense of self beyond self-confidence – it re-identifies as a wolf. The shepherds know the dangers of this phenomenon; they know that when a dog’s identity morphs in this way it is no longer controllable. They put it down.

Dying Culture

There was a chunk from a recent Technoccult newsletter that I had considered sharing in nothing here. It would have been too large a quote, especially after I had a chance to add whatever commentary to it I felt necessary. But it’s still something I want to talk about, so… blog post.

Writing in Technoccult, Damien Williams says:

The majority of the people who want to pin [mass shootings] as “Mental Illness” are just out to reinforce all the structurally ableist notions we have about mentally ill people, including the fact that it makes it, once again, the personal “failings” of a single individual, rather than the systemic, cultural failures that incite, inspire, reinforce, and encourage these men toward these actions. Our attitudes towards violence, and about who a “valid recipient” of that violence is. Our attitudes about who “really deserves” what—food, shelter, cultural resources, access to another person’s body—and what is or isn’t okay to do about either a) someone “taking” what they “don’t deserve” or b) not being “given” what we “do deserve.”

If you are raised and trained, every day, by, let’s call it 85% of the people and cultural products you consume, much of which has built directly into it a disincentive to take seriously any opposing position, then is it reasonable to mark as “mental illness” the following of that education to one of its logical conclusions? And, if so, then doesn’t that make the whole culture sick?

Because I think, quite seriously, the whole culture might be sick.

And I think, looking back, there is a crux, a particular point of inflection, when every piece of pre- and peri-millennial possibility—every attitude or technological hope, each mythic future potentiality— feels like it was inverted at its moment of highest vulnerability, right as the Millennium™ was waking up… And i think, if we’re honest, it feels like we’ve never fully recovered.

Like we’ve just gotten progressively meaner, and harder, and more afraid, and more paranoid, and more spitefully willing to fuck ourselves into oblivion to prove some kind of point.

I don’t know how to fight an illness of the collective cultural consciousness. I know how to promote the culture I want to catch on—the plays, the comics, the TV, the music, the illustrations, the films, the poetry, the paintings, the stories and essays. I know how to spread those far and wide and shout about them from the rooftops. But I don’t know how to heal or carve out the hate, the fear, the nihilism, the frustrated and entitled rage that says “It’s All Their Fault And You Should Kill Them.”

When I’m just one person, who writes and talks. When I’m not wealthy and my rooftops aren’t that high and my voice and lungs are, quite frankly, tired from shouting. When I don’t even know anymore whose ear to whisper in, or whose eye to catch that might actually be able to do some good at a broader and deeper reach than I have. Is it you? I kind of hope so.

If you’re reading this, you can do this, and I really hope you will. Promote culture you want to see. Build communities of compassion and exploration of the possibilities of what we can do and how we can live. Be loud, be brave, be ready.

Because we need each other now, as much as or more than ever.

And after I put that in our shared newsletter doc, Austin pointed me at this piece by Darren Allen:

What passes for culture is not culture — the wild — but cultivation — domestication; the covering of the unnatural inner life of men and women with superficially stimulating effects, dead knowledge divested of its living core and the economically and socially profitable pretense of art:

To be cultivated means: to hide from oneself how wretched and base one is, how rapacious in going for what one wants, how insatiable in heaping it up, how shameless and selfish in enjoying it.

Culture is dead, for the same reasons that nature is. Everything that can be said about the death of nature, everything we know about why it is happening — the insensitivity, cowardice and greed that lead to its destruction — along with everything we know about the effects of an unnatural life on human beings — the confusion, misery and corruption that result from being estranged from the wild; all this applies to culture also. Culture is supposed, like nature, to produce true human beings. That is its purpose — or can be said to be. Really nature and culture have no purpose, they are ends to themselves; there is no ‘why’ to them, yet this is the inevitable result of their ‘what’ — the genius of mankind which, because nature and culture are dead, is dead also.

Look around you now at the stunted men and women in your town — good people sometimes, even brimming with potential, but so drastically reduced; limited, cut-off from life, half-dead and, in many cases, quite insane. Look at how many geniuses surround you — real human geniuses I mean, not the fantastic automatons that can win fifty games of chess simultaneously or play the piano with their feet; I mean miraculously beautiful and utterly unique people, able to ‘hit the mark that no-one can see’. Not too many of those. They are as easy to find as eagles and tigers, and for much the same reason. There is no habitat for them, no sustenance, no society that recognises them, no ecosystem for them to fit into. The entire point of education, work, law, politics and the propaganda of the world is to destroy — or at best ignore — them. When they do appear, they seem like eagles and tigers — terrifying, out of place or a cause for titillating excitement. Freaks.

Culture may be dependent on nature, which is to say, on an expiring wasteland, it may be forced into unnatural channels, like this machine you are reading these words on, and it may be at its last gasp. But — it only takes two of us to nourish it. Two people can keep the flame lit. I don’t mean passing on book recommendations and sending copper disks into time-capsules, I mean passing on the spirit of mankind, the instinct that seeks above all its own uniqueness, or genius. It only takes two people to love that, to recognise its reflection in great art and wild nature and to be courageous enough to make sacrifices for it — to suffer for it — for culture to live. And those two people are me, and thee.

I’ve been reading a lot of Mark Fisher lately. Largely that’s because I’m slowly going through the massive tome that is K-Punk, but also I’ve read Capitalist Realism and The Eerie and the Weird recently, and the cultural sickness/death that Damien and Darren talk about is definitely something both explicitly and implicitly detailed in Fisher’s writing. Following the history of late 20th Century pop and dance music he can expertly detail the cultural shifts away from the new, the futuristic, the forward-looking, and the political, and (being Mark Fisher) he ties this into the neoliberal “End of History” – this flattening of culture in music, film, etc, as the broader sociopolitical culture insists that we have reached our peak.

And it’s hard to argue. You don’t need to look too far to see the cultural saturation of nostalgia and pastiche. From our politics (though, really, that’s fauxstalgia), to T-shirt designs on Instagram littered with imagery from 80s and 90s cinema, to some of the biggest shows of the moment – The Walking Dead (a “prestige” rehash of all the zombie stories we’ve already seen), and Stranger Things (pure, weaponised 80s nostalgia). Hell, Lovecraft is a perfect example of this. I think there’s plenty of great stuff coming out of Lovecraft-response fiction (Providence, The Ballad of Black Tom, A Song for Quiet, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, etc), and plenty of people are doing interesting things around Lovecraft and philosophy, but this is still a widespread (sub/counter-)cultural obsession with stories that were written 90 years ago.

(Or maybe I’m being too harsh with that last example. I think there is value in revisiting products from the past if you can do it without nostalgia – do it with a critical eye and a sense of creating something worthwhile. I think that’s why the Lovecraft response works – he was “just” a pulp writer at the time, and was thus largely overlooked, so there still remains facets of his work worth interrogating.

So, rehashing and referencing some of the biggest cultural products of a previous era (*ahem* Stranger Things and Spielberg) can feel creatively bankrupt, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go back to the overlooked and under-valued works from that same era. It’s like looking to the past and seeing what could have been – where could our culture be now if something different had risen to the top? What might we be creating and consuming today if things had gone differently?)

I was saying just the other day that I can’t remember the last time I was shocked by a novel that was truly new. I know the truly new is out there, but it’s coming from writers and artists who are marginalised and are having to release their work on their own or through minor markets. So much of what’s released today fits into that comfortable zone  – the same but different. And I don’t know how much of this is purely down to marketing having warped all our minds. It might be reductive, but the best elevator pitch is “It’s like X, but Y!”, and this has trickled down into how we talk about art, and undoubtedly how we think about the art we’re creating. (I’m not immune to this. As original and personal as I like to think my work is, it’s not hard to draw comparisons).

But recently I’ve found a few shards of the new. I’ve come across the writing of Elytron Frass (in Creeper and elsewhere), which is weird and fucked-up, and mind-bending in the best sort of way. And I found the music of MY DISCO, who simply need to be seen live to be comprehended (links here and here). And in the space of gaming there are countless talented developers creating truly bizarre and/or deeply personal works of art – The Cat Lady comes to mind, which I recently started and found stunning in its sense of singular purpose in the way it explores depression, suicide, and responsibility through the lens of a nightmarish afterlife. I plan to return to it soon and write about it in more detail – that’s how impressed I was.

With any of these examples I could be reductive if I wanted to, and draw comparisons to other works or other artists, but for obvious reasons (it’s right there in the word) this simply diminishes the work, flattening them into something palatable instead of letting them stand on their own weird feet. I need to avoid this impulse. If a work of art deserves nothing but comparison, then make comparisons, but if it contains that spark of the new and the weird, let it be.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not even sure of the question. But I agree with Damien that our culture is sick. Our precarious worklives, the way our agency and freedoms are slowly being stripped away from us due to “threats” of “terrorism” and the ubiquity of surveillance apparatus, the flood of social/media outrage keeping us agitated – all of it works to ensure that we are too tired and/or depressed to create or consume anything that is truly new. We need the familiar because it is all we have the energy to digest.

But both Damien and Darren end on a positive note – a call to community. And if you read the nothing here newsletter you know I’m all about community too – it’s happening slowly, but we’re definitely building a network of interesting thinkers and creators through the newsletter and through Oh Nothing Press.

There’s still a chance that we can cure the culture in our own worlds and lives – start interesting conversations, suggest interesting art and philosophy that can help change our thinking, avoid social media and the mainstream and the homogeneous culture it’s trying to shove down our throats. Share the things you love, and challenge yourself to create things that might be different – different to what you might normally do, different to what your peers are doing. Simply make an effort. We can’t all be the eagle-tiger geniuses who can reinvigorate a dying culture, but we can be the sorts of people on the look-out – we can be searching and scouring for something to break through the malaise so that when it comes we can embrace it.

We need to understand our cultural history, yes, but we can’t get lost in it. We can’t lose ourselves in endlessly rehashing old milieus. We need to strive for something more than that.

The Ascent to Godhood, by JY Yang

(I had to trim some reviews out of the nothing here newsletter to get it to send, so here’s this.)

The Ascent to Godhood

With The Ascent to Godhood, JY Yang continues weaving together the disparate threads of the Tensorate world. Instead of a simple, linear series, these books slots together like a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece illuminating more of the whole.

Not only is each beautifully written, filled with unique worldbuilding, and populated with fully fleshed-out characters, but with each Yang has pushed themselves to explore different narrative styles to great effect.

I hardly read fantasy, but I love these books.

Square Eyes, by Anna Mill and Luke Jones

(I had to trim some reviews out of the nothing here newsletter to get it to send, so here’s this.)

Square EyesI was put onto this comic thanks to the About Buildings + Cities podcast, and the series they did on Katushiro Otomo’s Akira. For the final episode of that series, Luke and his co-host, George Gingell, also had Anna Mill on, and they talked a bit about Square Eyes, and the influence of Otomo on Mill’s art. (You may have also seen it mentioned in Orbital Operations, because we can’t go one issue without referring back to the President of the Republic of Newsletters.)

The Akira comparisons aren’t obvious or immediate, but that hardly matters because Mill’s art is phenomenal. The characters, clothing, buildings, and assorted ephemera of city life are exquisitely rendered, and the colours almost glow on the page, soft but vivid at the same time.

The story concerns a software designer/engineer/superstar who has dropped off the grid for a few months, forcibly interred at a sort of digital detox facility. The book starts with her return to the city, desperate to be reconnected to the digital realm. The digital and physical facades of the city are shown subtly, the ways the digital has come to usurp the real (similar to my upcoming Repo Virtual). As Fin tries to regain her memories and her old life, we see images of overlaid memory and reality, blurring together in hallucinatory moments, multiple layers of art pressed down on one another as the disparate bleeds together. And in one section we see Fin and her friend George navigate parts of the city hidden from the digital realm in a way that could only be done in comics.

I’m not entirely sure what I think of the story, but artistically and aesthetically, Square Eyes is unparalleled. Just the lettering alone is fantastic, and I hope other letterers take notice of what they’ve done here. This style won’t suit every project, but with a setting like this, where layers of reality are laid one atop the other, the see-through word balloons add another subtle layer to the whole project.

Nothing Here Newsletter

If the updates here on the website are too infrequent for your tastes, then your best bet is to sign up for the Nothing Here newsletter, which I run with some friends of mine. I think of it as something like a podcast in text form – we share a bunch of interesting links and recommendations, with room for a little conversational back and forth.

If you’re here at this website, then you already know who I am, but let me introduce the rest of the nothinghere team:

We occasionally have guests on board to talk about their projects, interests, et ceteras, and we also have a paid subscription tier for bonus letters – more in-depth reviews, short fiction, weird essays, and other miscellanea. Sign up below, or if you visit this link you can hit the “Let me Read It First” button to get a taste of what it is we do every fortnight.

The Process – Character Sheets

The first thing you might notice about this post is that I specifically called it “Character Sheets” and not “Characters” or “Characterisation”. Here we’re still talking about the outlining/planning phase of a novel, following on from the last Process post. I’m going to explain my process for fleshing out a character, but obviously these characters will grow, change, and evolve throughout the process of writing the book. One day I’ll probably try and talk about that process, but it’s much more organic/instinctual than this first stage, so we’ll just have to wait and see. (If nothing else, I could certainly provide examples of how some of my characters were utterly changed in the process of writing a book – for instance, there are 2 big examples of this in Repo Virtual.)

To start with, I will just say that I first put these character sheets together after trawling through Chuck Wendig’s blog for writing advice. I would link to the individual posts in question, except this was approximately 4 years ago (in the lead-up to writing Killing Gravity, actually), so I’ve lost the specific links. But, just to be clear – this is me distilling some advice that came from Chuck Wendig. If you ever need more writing advice than the (admittedly rare) advice I give here, Chuck’s blog should be your first port of call. Also, because I pieced my character sheet together from 2 or 3 of Chuck’s blog posts, it might seem like some sections overlap and/or are redundant. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but I find the overlapping can help. It might help you realise that the character is particularly one-minded, or it might help you realise that the character has multiple different fears/goals/whatevers going on at once. The redundancies are deliberate, and occasionally useful. (But, as ever with writing advice, YMMV. Feel free to alter the character sheet to suit your own style/needs).

As I said up top, we’re still in the planning phases of the novel when we begin putting these character sheets together. At this point you should know how many characters are in your story, and have a vague idea of what they need to do/how they need to interact with your main character. This early on, it could be easy to see them as puzzle pieces (with the plot/story being the puzzle you’re trying to solve), so with the character sheets we’re trying to learn more about these characters, flesh them out, and let them become real people (for whatever value of “real” you want/are able to apply to them).

Character Sheet

The character sheet is basically just a list of questions that will help you to think about who these people both in relation to the story you’re trying to tell and external to it. Some of your answers will prove important and enlightening, and will almost certainly end up becoming focal in your story, other answers will never make it onto the page, but will help you to think about these characters as real people.

Let’s begin.

0. Initial Log-Line

I call this one number 0, because I don’t always use it. The idea here is to write a very brief log-line for the character. Think of this as the back cover blurb or film trailer narration of this character’s story. This is always going to be easiest/most obvious for your protagonist/s. For this reason I recommend starting with your biggest characters and making your way down. (You’ll probably want to do a character sheet for every main and secondary character. You can skip the tertiary characters though – the ones who only appear in a scene and don’t have an arc.)

Example from Repo Virtual: JD hustles with the best of them, taking any work he can to help support his mother. Working as a repo man, JD repossesses rare loot in the game worlds and expensive belongings in the real. But when he takes a job that’s too good to be true, he finds himself in possession of the world’s first true strong AI… and a target for corporate and terrorist groups that seek to use the AI for their own ends.

1. What do they want?
2. What do they need?

(Yes, I’m going to use singular they. Deal with it. If you’re at this blog you should already know I’m all about the singular they.)

I’m pairing these two together, because they can interact with each other in interesting ways. Sometimes what the character wants will parallel with what they need, other times the two will stand at opposition. Sometimes it will be what the character wants that drives them through the story, and not what they need, other times vice versa.

For example, maybe your character wants to achieve world domination, so what they need to do is distract the other characters long enough for their plan to come to fruition. World domination is the bigger desire, but I wouldn’t call it a need.

Another character might need to find a cure for the nanomachine virus that’s slowly tearing apart their mother’s body, but all they want is to be able to stop, relax, and drink a cup of tea. The cure is the need that will drive them forward, but the desire for rest could throw an interesting monkey wrench into the works.

3. What do they fear?

This doesn’t have to be the character’s “greatest fear”, or something obvious like heights, spiders, or clowns. It can be that, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, I don’t necessarily have one of those big fears, but I sure as hell have a bunch of weird, subtle fears and other psychological quirks.

So someone might fear leaving or losing their children. This seems obvious. But someone else might fear disappointing their children if they return home without enough food/money/whatever, and so they’ll stay away from their children for longer.

Someone might fear going bald. Someone might fear their boss. Someone might fear fucking up – someone might fear fucking up so badly that they never try in the first place and are thus a complete fuck up.

What I’m trying to say here is: think beyond the obvious phobias and use this as an opportunity to delve into the psychology of your characters.

4. Win/Lose/Draw

Simply: what are the win, lose, and draw conditions for this character?

This is one of those sections that can seem redundant. If you already know what the characters wants and needs, then you already have a good idea of what their Win and Lose look like. So, if you’re talking about your main protagonist, the most interesting part will probably be the Draw – what concessions are they willing to make if they can’t Win, but refuse to Lose? Or, if you’re talking about side characters or villains, the Lose condition might be their fate if they’re standing in the way of your hero. Consider this brainstorming for how your characters might end up at the closing of your story.

5. Goals & Barriers

What are the character’s goals, and what barriers stand in their way?

Again, the goals part of this can seem obvious – it’s going to be their Win condition, and it’s probably going to be their need or want. Where it gets interesting is when you start to consider the barriers that stand in their way. This could be mundane, or as weird as you want to make it. You’ll probably get the most bang for your buck if the barrier to one character’s goal is something a different character does to achieve their goal. Tension between characters is conflict, and conflict is what fuels great storytelling.

6. What choices must they make?

This one can be really interesting. Every character in your story needs to make decisions – whether that’s the initial decision that gets them wrapped up in the happenings of the story, or a bad decision that puts everyone in danger, or a tough decision at the end of the story to sacrifice something in order to save something bigger. Depending on the character they might have difficult decisions to make the whole way through the plot, or for a smaller character they might only get one. Either way though, if a character isn’t making a decision, then they’re probably being dragged along by the plot, which can feel really unsatisfying to a reader.

7. Character’s Problem
8. Character’s Solution

This is the bit where I’m going to start paraphrasing Chuck, because he already distilled these ideas down really well, and I found them super useful.

The Character’s Problem is why they find themselves in the story. For example, John McClane’s problem isn’t the terrorists, it’s his failing marriage. Without that failing marriage, he wouldn’t be in LA trying to patch things up with his wife, and he wouldn’t get caught up in the whole situation. The terrorists aren’t a character’s problem, they’re a plot problem.

The Character’s Solution is not your solution. It’s how the character thinks they’re going to solve their problem. Hint: The character can be wrong about their solution. In the gap between the Problem and the Solution is where the conflict lives. And what did I say about conflict before?

9. Limitations
10. Complications

More pure, uncut Chuck. Limitations are internal to the character – a character trait or personal flaw that might help or hinder them (whether or not this trait appears to be positive). Complications are external.

I was going to try and keep rehashing, but instead I spent a couple of minutes looking through the Terrible Minds archive, and found the post. (This is definitely one of the two or three posts I originally used, so you’ll likely find value in reading through it.)

To quote:

A limitation is generally internal — meaning, it’s something within the character that exists as part of their nature. This limitation hobbles them in some way, altering their problem/solution dichotomy (which we could ostensibly call “the mission”).

Remember how I was talking about Dexter’s “code of honor?” I consider this a limitation to his character — we the audience would perceive that as a strength but to Dexter, it’s also a limitation. It puts a limit on his role as a serial killer and thus creates not only a deeper character, but also offers new plot angles and opportunities for tension.

Limitations are traits of the character’s that get in her way — they might be flaws or frailties but they can just as easily be positive traits that make trouble for the character and the plot.

Complications tend to be external — they are entanglements outside the character that complicate their lives. These can be more character-based or more plot-based depending on which aspect of the story you’re working. John McClane’s job is a character complication — he’s married more to the job than he is to his wife, which is what leads to the problem, which demands a solution, which opens the door for conflict. And the conflict is further complicated by his intensely cop-flavored demeanor, because he just can’t let this thing go. He throws himself into danger again and again not just because his wife is in the building, but because this is who he is. Shoeless and largely alone, all he is is pure, unmitigated yippie-kay-ay cowboy copper.

(And of course the rub is, a character’s limitations and complications are also the things that may help them succeed in their mission even while still causing them grave disorder.)

11. Physical description

We keep this at the end, because now that you have a good idea of who this person is, you can think about what they look like. Don’t go with your default – think about who they are, and think about how different physical characteristics can reinforce, counter, or add nuance to who they are as a character. If your default, or your first-instinct, is white, cis-male, and able-bodied, ask yourself if they really need to be that, or could your work be improved by diverging from the first thing your brain reaches for? But, also remain sensitive to the real people who could be affected by your depiction of a character who might be outside your own experience. If you write a non-white character that is steeped in harmful stereotypes, then you’re really not doing anyone any favours. (For more on this, check out Writing the Other. If I lived in North America I would certainly look to get involved in some of their workshops, but if nothing else the WtO ebook is a great starting point.)

As an aside: you should be thinking about diversity before you get to this point, but this is a good place to solidify your thoughts. Also, remember, you can change things as you go! The longer you wait, the more revising it will take to get an altered character to a point where they feel natural, but if it’s going to make for a better character or story, it’ll be worth the effort.

12. Revised log-line.

The idea here is that you can re-write your initial log-line now that you have a better idea about the character. After everything you’ve done to develop them into a person, how does this description change? While I often skip the initial log-line, this one is too useful to skip.

A good way to think about this is to write the blurb or the film trailer narration for the story that this person is the hero of – even, or especially, if this character isn’t your main character. What story do they think they’re in, and how can you and your protagonist fuck that up for them?

So there you go – a (long-ish) distillation of some Wendig Wisdom (you can have that for free, Chuck). Sure, I’ve published a couple of books, but to get to the point where I could write something good enough to find publication, I had to learn from somewhere. If you want to take your writing seriously, you should be reading a lot, but also don’t be afraid to buy some writing books, or delve into a blog like Chuck’s. There’s no shame in needing help. And there’s also no shame in taking only the advice you need and jettisoning the rest. It’s your writing, your practice, your creativity. Do what you need to build it and maintain it.

REPO VIRTUAL Cover Reveal

Repo Virtual cover - art/design by Christine Foltzer
Repo Virtual cover – art/design by Christine Foltzer

The cover for Repo Virtual was recently revealed over at the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog. I say a little at the link, and there’s also a blurb for the book (I don’t think it’ll be the back cover blurb, but it’s how I pitched the book to my editor at Tor.com Publishing), so have a look at the link if you want more information.

The book isn’t out until April 2020, but already someone on twitter told me they preordered it, which is fantastic. Soon enough I’m hoping I can talk about a preorder incentive package I’m trying to put together. More details here as soon as I have them.

And a big thank you to Warren Ellis for the fantastic blurb. Not only did he find time to read it in his #1000mphclub schedule, but he got back to me in no time at all – which makes me think that even for a 100k word novel, I’ve written something quick and compelling.

I’m really proud of this book, and can’t wait for it to be out in the world… riding that zeitgeist wave alongside the folk at CDPR.

American War, by Omar El Akkad

American War Cover ArtAmerican War by Omar El Akkad was the Restricted.Academy Book Club pick for January, and I didn’t give my thoughts on the book in the newsletter at the time, but it has been on my mind often in the time since. Sometimes you put a book down and instantly forget that you’d ever read it, other times they linger for months or years.

American War tells the story of a Second Civil War taking place approximately 50 years in the future, across an America altered by rising sea levels, climate change, and related political upheaval. The war is being fought over fossil fuels – the people of the Free Southern State are determined to continue burning them in a stubborn and suicidal show of defiance against the north and the march of progress/ecological catastrophe. But American War doesn’t take a big, broad view of the conflict, rather it follows Sarat Chestnut from her childhood until her death, and in doing so shows us refugee camps, resistance groups, radicalisation, torture, murder, and the many ways that war can crush people until all that remains is hate. Despite that scope, in a lot of ways it’s a small and slow story – made up of detailed glimpses of events both mundane and life-altering.

El Akkad is doing a lot of interesting things with this book. I want to say that he’s both retelling the Civil War and combining it with the War on Terror, but I’m not sure the first part of that is entirely true. One of the things a few of us in the Book Club were iffy on was the complete lack of discussion about race in a book about southerners fighting a Second Civil War. American War was first published in early 2017, which means it was likely written in 2015 (or earlier), so perhaps it’s just an unfortunate side effect of when it was written, but reading it today, post-Charlottesville (and post- so much else), the lack of racial context seems like a glaring oversight. As a writer, I understand that sometimes you might leave something out of a story because you want people to be able to read it without being reminded of their own past trauma. For instance, most of Void Black Shadow is set in a prison, but I knew from the start I wasn’t going to explicitly detail sexual assault (which, come to think of it, El Akkad also avoided in the refugee camp section of the book when real life tells us that it would have been rife with it). Avoiding sexual assault is one thing, but leaving racism out of a second civil war is almost like taking the white supremacist viewpoint on the first civil war at face value – that it was “about state’s rights” not slavery. (If you haven’t listened to the Uncivil podcast, I highly recommend it. They do a fantastic job of deconstructing the Southern mythology surrounding the Civil War.) So I get it, but it was an odd choice. Even so, El Akkad is doing so much with this book, and almost all of it is great, so that omission isn’t a dealbreaker.

Transporting a war that looks an awful lot like the War on Terror into the American context is a huge task, and El Akkad does it so well that I didn’t even realise that’s what he was doing until I read some of the review blurbs. It should have been obvious, but I was so caught up in the texture of the world he was creating that I got lost inside it.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the way it instills empathy in you for people even as they’re preparing to do horrifying things. There was one point in the book (fairly late in the piece, to be fair) where I began to wonder if the suffering being inflicted on Sarat was beginning to get gratuitous, but it’s not at all. It’s El Akkad taking us by the hand and guiding us through her life of constant hurt so that we can truly understand her.

I can’t help but draw parallels to my own work (because I’m a writer and/so I’m self-involved), but at the end of Void Black Shadow Mars does something huge and heinous, but the only way I could make it work was to give the situation a sense of immediacy and desperation. She did it because she was certain it was the only way to save her friend. But I think that’s part of why the ending to American War works so well – there’s no immediacy, there’s just the pit inside Sarat that can only be filled with other people’s pain.

So it’s a book not without its issues, but it is also so big (yet intimate) and compelling, multi-layered, beautifully written, and expertly constructed. I highly recommend it.

Supanova, April 2019

Supanova Authors, April 2019
Left to right:Me, Alan Baxter, Jodi McAlister, Paige Belfield, Lynette Noni, Victoria/V.E. Schwab, Rachael Craw, Marlee Jane Ward.

This is the main gang that I had the pleasure of touring with for Supanova in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast.

On the GC, Alan, Lynette, and I also got to share a stage with these two:

Writing Action PanelJames and Marc Lindsay, who I toured with at a previous Supanova, and who are always good value. It was a great panel, talking all about writing action scenes, and I had a great chat to the brothers after the panel too.

I had planned to write more, but some bastard infected me with con crud, and 2.5 weeks later I’m still not feeling 100%. I will however say that Alan Baxter joined us on the Nothing Here newsletter, where he and m1k3y went into some detail about writing martial arts action scenes (Alan being a kung fu instructor as well as a writer of dark tales).

Thanks to Ineke for having me on board! It’s always a great (if tiring) weekend, and I really love nothing more than talking with readers and my fellow writers.

The Process – Outlining

Recently I’ve been thinking about writing the first draft of my next project long-hand. The quote from Joe Hill at the bottom of this post put the idea in my head, and it was reinforced when Austin (of Oh Nothing Press and the Nothing Here Newsletter) told me about how much he’s enjoying the process of hand-writing the Zero Draft of his next project.

I’ve hand-written long-form work before. My first novel (a middle grade book inspired by The Invisibles, but which ended up looking more like Harry Potter by way of William S. Burroughs) was written by hand, and that came to around 50,000 words. But if I do it right, my next book will be closer to 90k. That is a lot of notebook pages, a lot of hand cramps.

But there’s definitely merit to it. You do feel freer working by hand, you can add notes and comments and all the rest into the margins of your page which just works and feels better than using comments in MS Word. The main place where it falls apart though, is in moving text around. Say you write a paragraph, and then decide you actually want to shift that around? It’s possible, but in my experience it means a lot of long arrows scratched into page margins, and much flipping between pages when it comes time to type it all up.

So, while I’m still not sure about hand-writing the draft, one thing I am all about is outlining by hand.

Because when you’re in the outlining phase of a project is when you are (and need to feel) freest. (Damn, that word looks weird, doesn’t it?) This is the time in the process when you want to be interrupting yourself, crossing things out, underlining, writing in different colours, adding asterisks and break-out boxes and quotes and ephemera. This is the part in the process when being stuck inside a rigid program is most likely to restrict your thinking and creativity. This is the ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ phase of the process, and by definition that means you need to get messy.

Now I’m going to let you in on a secret – I do all this twice. You see, the messy outlining is great for brainstorming and the aspect of pure creation, but the outline is a document with a very specific purpose. The outline is your blueprint, and a blueprint has no value if you can’t read it. There is nothing worse than knowing you solved a narrative problem already, and being completely unable to find the solution amongst all your inky mess.

So what I do is this: I start writing my outline in my ‘proper’ project notebook, and the moment things start to get vague – the moment a word like “somehow” creeps into my head – I put the ‘proper’ notebook aside and pick up a scratchpad. This is where the real mess happens, this is the land of chicken scratch handwriting, crossed out words and paragraphs, underlining, asterisking, and an almost conversational back-and-forth that would possibly sound unhinged if I was doing it out-loud instead of in the privacy of my notebook.

Sidenote: Have you heard of Rubber Duck debugging? Even if you haven’t, it’s something you’ve done; it’s something we all do. When you need help sorting a problem out, sometimes the best thing to do is explain it all to another person. Rubber Duck debugging is when you replace that person with an inanimate object – because most of the time it’s the process of explaining the problem that helps you solve it, rather than any reaction/feedback/help from the person who’s acting as your sounding board. All this is to say that sometimes when I get stuck, I just start automatic writing, having the conversation with myself on the page. It either fixes the problem, or I know I need to let the ideas keep composting before coming back to it later.

Once the free-wheeling mess has helped me get past the block or solve the problem, I write “my findings” into the proper notebook – a clean version of the part that I just hashed out on the page. So for every notebook page, there is probably 1-2 pages of handwritten mess that informed it.

So there you go – a look at part of my process. Let’s call this The Two Notebook Method of brainstorming, outlining, and generally making a mess.

I might make The Process an ongoing (but irregular) series. You’ll get more Process talk on the Nothing Here Newsletter. If you want to know why I call it “The Process”, then you probably want to listen to this episode of Reply All. Part Two of The Process (if and when I get around to writing it up) will cover Character Creation because I have a great little sheet I pieced together from Chuck Wendig’s blog that I’d love to share.

And as a little bonus – here’s the very first page of notes I put together when I started outlining Static Ruin. (To be completely honest, I can’t remember if this was before I after I pitched it to Tor. I always had a vague idea of what the third book would be, so this could have been after the pitch.) You’ll see me brainstorming for titles, and you’ll see a conversation between Mars and her father which never made it into the book.

“Does a star feel guilt for all the worlds it holds in its thrall? Does a supernova feel guilt when it explodes?”

Honestly, if I ever get back to the VoidWitch Universe, I’ll probably resurrect that line.