Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Flash Fiction

I love writing flash fiction. It's short, it's fun, it keeps my brain working, and as long as it's writing I can tell myself it's not really procrastination, right? Right? 

Here is a piece of flash fiction I wrote a gazillion years ago. I don't remember the prompt, but I know it had something to do with making a bank robbery fun. And it had to be under 1000 words. 

     Okay, first of all I’d just finished a goliath caramel latte. That’s the size up from big-as-your-head. And all I had to do was deposit the petty cash. That’s how Lara put it: “Taylor, all you have to do is deposit the petty cash,” as though it would only take five minutes, and the place wouldn’t be filled with six hundred people all trying to do the same thing, plus one old man with a jar of five cent pieces he’d been saving since 1986.
     Anyway, the line wasn’t moving at all when I joined it. And then it kept not moving. And when it finally did move, that old man was right in front of me and he had to watch the teller count all his money because he didn’t trust those scales, and he also had some things to say about his medical conditions, bank fees, the government and refugees. And whatever he said about refugees was so startlingly racist that the teller lost count and had to start again. And there was my lunch hour, ticking away.
     I did those things that impatient people do. I looked at my watch. I sighed. I shifted my weight from foot to foot. I grumbled. And I really, really needed to pee.
     The teller’s polite smile was stretched to breaking point by the time the old man finally moved to the side and started buckling up his bag. I was in like Flynn.
     “Hello,” I said.
     In thirty seconds I could be out of here, straight to the toilet, and still have eleven minutes left for lunch.
     “Hello,” I said again, because the teller’s smile was suddenly frozen and her too-much-mascara eyes were fixed on something over my shoulder. “Hello?”
     “Everybody get down, this is a stick-up!”
     I looked at the teller. She looked at me. And then the screens on the counter came up and it was okay for her in her little bulletproof sanctuary, but what about the people still in the queue? What about the racist old man with arthritis and angina? What about me?
     “Everybody get down!” the robber yelled again.
     So we did. The old man was shaky on his legs, and when he was lying beside me breathing heavily he smelled of Fisherman’s Friend and Dencorub.  
     “It’s alright, dear,” he whispered and patted me on the arm. I couldn’t tell him the pained expression on my face was entirely down to my goliath caramel latte. God, what if there were television cameras outside when this ended, and I’d wet myself? Think positive, Taylor, I told myself, maybe he’ll shoot you before that happens.
     Our robber looked like the nervous type. I couldn’t see much apart from his black clothes and balaclava, but I got the impression from the way he waved his shotgun around that he didn’t have a background in baton twirling. He was clearly very new at this. It was my first time as well.
     “Okay,” he said, his voice wavering, “okay, give me all your valuables.”
     In just under thirty seconds he’d gone from armed robber to mugger. That must have stung. He walked along the prone queue, holding out his backpack for watches, wallets, jewelry and bank bags.
     “I’ve already made my deposit,” the racist old man told him when he reached us. “And I don’t carry a wallet.”
     “Everybody carries a wallet!” The robber’s green eyes flicked to me as though I might agree.
     I shrugged.
     “I don’t,” the old man said, turning out the contents of his bag to prove it. A piece of string, his empty jar, a key, a pencil stub and a soiled betting form.
     “How can you gamble if you don’t carry a wallet?” the robber asked, a note of triumph in his voice.
     I sighed. I hadn’t spent twenty minutes waiting behind the old man without realising there was no arguing with him. When the teller had suggested that perhaps he ought to change banks if he was unhappy with the fees, he’d gone off on a tangent about how much he hated her generation and their horrible doof-doof music.
     “I put five dollars on the horses every day,” the old man told him. “Just five, never more than that, and I’ve already been there today. If you were responsible with your finances like me, you wouldn’t be in this position.”
     The robber’s eyes widened.
     “I paid my taxes my whole life,” the old man continued, “and now I’m on the pension. They should bring back capital punishment for people who rob pensioners. And public floggings as well! It might teach you a lesson, young man!”
     The robber’s eyes flicked back to me.
     “Hello,” I said. “I’m not with him. Here’s my watch, and my purse. Are you taking phones as well?”
     “No,” said the robber. “You can keep that.”
     “Thanks,” I said. “My bank bag’s still on the counter. Do you want that? It’s only eighty-seven dollars, but it’d be a waste to leave it.”
     The robber stepped back, leveling the shotgun at me. He eyed the calico bag on the counter. “You get it.”
     Standing up was worse than getting down. My bladder was killing me.
     “Are you alright?” the robber asked.
     “Old knee injury,” I lied.
     The robber’s shoulders sagged. “Look, I didn’t want it to go down like this. There weren’t supposed to be any hostages.”
     “No,” I agreed sympathetically. “Um, if you don’t mind me asking, is this going to take much longer?”
     “I don’t know,” the robber said. “I guess we’ll just have to sit it out.”
     Like hell.
     I handed the robber the bank bag. He took it, and looked at the name on the side. The balaclava shifted upwards as he raised his eyebrows. “Matsimo Martial Arts Academy? You work in the office there?”
     “Actually,” I told him as I delivered a roundhouse kick to the arm holding the shotgun, “I’m a trainer. Black belt.”
     And that’s what happened, officer. 


Do you write flash fiction? 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Australia Day

Well, it's the 26th here in Australia, which means it's Australia Day. Now I could do a post all about beers and BBQs and blowflies, and then show you this: 

But that would be lazy. 

So, today, a question. Mostly for the foreigners, but anyone can jump on in. 
Have you ever read much Australian literature? 

And do you have a favourite Australian book? 

(Also, please note that these are not all the Australian books ever written. I'm fairly sure we've done more than twelve. Twelve is just the number I had when I got sick of downloading covers.)

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Case of the Missing Parents...

It's annoying. I'm annoyed. 

I picked up another YA book today, only to find that, naturally, the parents are missing. 

In YA fiction, and in MG fiction, too often the parents are AWOL. And I understand why. It's a plot device. You can’t go off and have dangerous adventures if your dad has set your curfew for 8 pm, or if your mum is vetting all your friends. Because in real life, that’s what parents do. In fiction, it just makes them get in the way.

This is why Harry Potter is an orphan, right? And why a boarding school is a perfect setting. Because there are no parents around to worry about what the kids are up to.

Tracking down an evil criminal mastermind, like the Famous Five? Absolutely not. Go and do your homework instead, and your parents will phone the police and have them look into it. 

Looking for the courage to stand up and be a hero? Okay, but first you have to clean your room and take the rubbish out, and don’t forget to be home in time for dinner.

And this is where a lot of YA fiction falls down for me. Because however much teenagers try to live in a bubble with just their friends for company, that’s not the real world. There is a balance between realism and blatant parental neglect, and too often YA leans toward neglect.

And I think this is where books like Twilight actually got something right: divorced parents — a ditzy self-absorbed mother that Bella needs to get away from, and a father who works extended hours of shift work. So okay, in that situation I can buy that Bella can look after herself, and is generally unsupervised. It’s just the rest of the Twilight I have issues with.

Personally, I think this is why dystopia and spec fic work so well for YA. It means we get to throw the usual rules away. In a post-apocalyptic new world, when you’re scavenging for every bite to eat, the kids have to grow up quickly. That whole idea of the sanctity and innocence of childhood, after all, only dates back to the Victorian era, and it’s a very Middle Class idea. Because meanwhile, kids were working themselves to death in factories or mineshafts.

I understand why parents are so often missing in YA fiction — the narrative demands it. But please, give me a reason apart from negligent parenting.

(Except, of course, if you intend your character’s parents to be negligent instead of just oblivious. And in that case, show me the consequences. Because there are always consequences.) 

What tropes in fiction are starting to annoy you? 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

We didn't even have a TV... a random story

I don't think there is such a thing as the storytelling gene. We all tell stories, every day. But some people learn to tell them better than others. If there is a storytelling gene, my father's side didn't have it. Practical people, most of them. My mother's side -- well, born bullshitters, the lot of them. And I mean that as a good thing.

My mum grew up several hours outside of a town called Winton which is famous for... hmm, I don't know. It's West, anyway. And it's flat, and it's isolated, and I've never been there. It's the sort of place, I suspect, where if you can't entertain yourself, you go crazy.  And there was no TV. So on her side of the family there were a lot of card games (I learned to cheat at Canasta at a very young age), a lot of cuppas, a lot of reminiscing, and a lot of storytelling. 

Also, a surprising number of stories about dinosaurs. Really. Western Queensland is full of them. One story my mother tells is of a neighbour who discovered a massive fossil, marked the spot to come back to later, and never found it again. It's massive, desolate country out there. My grandfather wasn't so careless. In 1962 he found, and remembered, Lark Quarry, a story that began 95 million years ago. 

When we moved to New Guinea when I was a kid, we didn't have a TV either. What we had was a bunch of kids from different backgrounds, a lot of free time, and our imaginations. So we played. 

What is playing but physical storytelling? 

We played Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians (that was an alien concept for some of the local kids) and, our favourite, Star Wars. Never having actually seen Star Wars though, we really had no idea what we were doing. It was weird. This massive cultural phenomenon that we were aware of, but only in the most vague terms. Had my sister Kath and her best friend Catherine known more of the details, they never would have given a plum role like Han Solo to me. I think I got it because I already had a Chewie -- the neighbourhood dog, Oplika Spot. He was the same dog who later bit me by accident when I got stuck in the middle of a fight he was having with two other dogs that barrelled into our yard. I still have the scars. 

"It's not Oplika's fault!" I screamed as my mother rushed me upstairs, blood everywhere. "He didn't mean it!" 

The people of New Guinea are born storytellers, every single one of them. Oplika Spot and I used to roam the neighbourhood, scrounging food, and we spent a lot of time at Diane's house. Diane was older than me. During the day when she was at school and her parents were at work, her grandma used to cook over a fire in the backyard. Oplika Spot and I used to hang out with her, and listen to all her stories. At that point I didn't know much Tok Pisin, and she couldn't speak much English, but sometimes the language barrier is no barrier at all. The rhythms of a story are the same in any language, and so are smiles and actions. Although, looking back, I'm not sure Diane's grandma ever really understood what a Death Star was and why it was imperative it be destroyed. 

Once in New Guinea, we got broken into. Well, twice, actually, but I slept through the first time. My dad was away the second time, so my mum phoned my dad's boss, and he phoned mine security. We didn't work for the mines, but they were kind of the only option. You didn't phone the police. Sometimes they left the phone off the hook. Sometimes they let people out of the lockup if they were from the same tribe. And once my dad and his friend Animal got arrested for being drunk and disorderly, but the police let them go because they threatened to tear the jail down. So not the most competent law enforcement in the world. 

Anyway, my dad's boss came around with his houseboy Yupepi -- 

(I was telling this story once to a friend of mine, and she said, "Wait, you had houseboys?" and that was the first time it occurred to me that we sounded like the British in India or something. But I was five. It's not cultural imperialism when you're five. It's friendship. I loved our houseboy Nick. He was my best friend. Apart from Oplika Spot.) 

--and Mum showed them where the men tried to get in. My dad's boss took a look around while Yupepi, armed with a machete, headed off into the bush after the burglars. 

"I hope mine security doesn't pick Yupepi up," my dad's boss said, envisioning the paperwork. 

"I hope Yupepi doesn't catch them," my mum said, envisioning the blood bath. 

I'm not sure why they broke in to our house anyway. We didn't even have anything much worth stealing. We didn't even have a TV. 

So that's how stories happen. They can take you from family to dinosaurs to Papua New Guinea and to TVs and back again. We all tell stories and we all listen to stories, even if sometimes we don't recognise their value. And not every story has to have a point. Mine didn't, but it was fun to tell and I hope you liked it. We're all storytellers, every day, it's just some of us are trying to reach a wider audience. 


Do you come from a line of storytellers and born bullshitters, or are you the odd one out? 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

So, speaking of sex and YA...

I was travelling the interwebs this evening as my alter ego, and I happened to find this post on a review site called Reviews by Jessewave. (Warning: probably NSFW as the site reviews male/male romance. Sometimes with pictures!) And it raises a very valid argument: why is violence okay in YA fiction but not sex? 

The post is specifically about YA Romance, a genre I don't read, but I think it applies to all YA. And I actually think that most of the comments answered the question. It's not that authors are overlooking the fact that kids are having sex, it's because if they write a scene where they show underage characters having sex, are they in fact committing a crime? It's something that I wouldn't like to risk, and a publisher sure as hell wouldn't. 

Violence, you can do. You can push that envelope as far as you like. Sex, no. And maybe that's a double standard, and maybe it's even hypocritical, but I think we have to draw the line somewhere, and I think it's safer that it's drawn where it is right now: at eighteen, when you magically realise you have tingly feelings, right? 


The poster at Jessewave raises the very valid point that sex shouldn't be hidden away like something shameful, and that is so, so true. But make no mistake: you can write a story where kids have sex. Because -- shock, horror -- kids are doing that in real life, and it's stupid to pretend that it doesn't happen. In fact, I'm planning a book at the moment where sex is a central theme. But there will not be any actual sex scenes. You'll see my characters talk about, think about, lie about it and brag about it, but you won't see it. 

And I think that's the difference. That's where we drawn the line. And that's where it needs to be drawn, not to prevent the exploitation of fictional child characters, but to prevent the titillation of predators. 

Where do you guys stand on this? 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

There's probably a fancy word for when you do this...

Okay, so one of my most favourite things ever in writing is misdirection. A writerly sleight of hand that has the reader looking the wrong way when you pull that rabbit out of your hat. Or, in this case, that plot bunny out of your page. 

Here's a technique I attempted for SWUP, or "Slightly Weird Untitled Project". At least I'm calling it a technique. It may be a cheap gimmick. But here it is anyway. 


      I learned to write. 
     The Captain took my fingers and curled them around the pencil. He smelled of aftershave and steam. A tiny patch of bristles had escaped the scratch of his razor and hid under the ledge of his jaw line. He was warm. He closed his fingers over mine and together we pushed the pencil over the paper. The graphite scraped and crumbled. We left a thick black scar on the paper, cutting through a film of grey dust.
     The Captain laughed. “Too hard, Ryan!”  
     The first time they made me write with a pencil, my hand hurt. My hand, and my arm, and my shoulder and my back. Wasn’t right to sit like this, hunched over a desk, the Captain leaning over me while I made scratches on paper with my frozen claw hand. The Captain showed me how to flex my hand between scratches. 
     “That’s good work, Ryan,” the Captain told me. He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed with his fingers, and for the first time ever I didn’t flinch away. 
     I looked at my writing. I didn’t know it yet, but I would soon. 
     At Home we used to draw pictures with burnt sticks on the side of the sheds down near the wharf, and then the rain would come and wash them away, or the salt air and the sun would chew at them until they faded into nothing. We used to draw on us, sometimes. Link cut lines in his arm like someone showed him once, and rubbed charcoal in them so the lines stayed there forever. 
     “That means me,” Link said, but he had to tell me. “It will mean me forever.”
     The clever thing with writing is that it tells you itself. Writing is a way of looking at some lines and knowing what they say, what they said in the beginning and what they will say forever. If you understand writing, the old man at the T-House told me, you can understand everything, even things that men wrote down a long time ago, men who are dead now. 
     Understanding writing is the same as listening to ghosts. 
     “You boys keep practicing,” the Captain said. He lifted his hand from my shoulder. “I’ll be back soon.”
     The door of our room squealed shut, and the latch rattled as it wormed into place. 
     I hunched over my writing. 
     The fan in the ceiling said click click click rattle over and over again. 
     “He likes you more,” Mitchell said. 
     “Does not.” My voice was hollow. Empty, like the dry rustle of dead palm fronds in the wind. It knew it was telling a lie. 
     “Does.” Mitchell made an up-down-up-down line on his paper. “That’s an M.” 

But here's the part I want you to notice: 

     The Captain took my fingers and curled them around the pencil. He smelled of aftershave and steam. A tiny patch of bristles had escaped the scratch of his razor and hid under the ledge of his jaw line. He was warm. He closed his fingers over mine and together we pushed the pencil over the paper.

What I did here, or what I attempted, was to try and describe the Captain the same way I would describe a character in a romance: the tiny detail of the bristles, the way he smells, his warmth, and his closeness. This is an intimate moment between the Captain and Ryan, and, even if Ryan hasn't realised it, I wanted it to be creepy since Ryan is a teen and the Captain is an adult. 

And here: 

     “He likes you more,” Mitchell said. 
    “Does not.” My voice was hollow. Empty, like the dry rustle of dead palm fronds in the wind. It knew it was telling a lie. 
     “Does.” Mitchell made an up-down-up-down line on his paper. “That’s an M.” 

See the implications there? Mitchell and Ryan mightn't have't picked up on it yet, but you have, right? Except it's a misdirect. I wanted the reader to be uneasy about the Captain, right up until the end. I want his motivations to be hidden, so you go along looking at that creepy closeness while I try and get this damn bunny to appear in my other hand. There is probably a word for this technique, and probably a gazillion better examples of it too, but I figured I'd share my attempt. 

What's your favourite way to mislead a reader? 

Friday, January 4, 2013

My reading wishlist for 2013

Here is my reading wishlist for 2013.

Most of this relates to YA, because that seems to be mostly what I read. It also seems that YA is where certain trends are more apparent. 

Things I would like to see more of:

Dystopia. You know what? Dystopia might not even be trendy in 2013, but as far as I’m concerned you can never have too many nightmarish visions of near-future society. It’s a sickness, I’m sure, but I love the way that a good dystopia (would that make it a utopia?) holds up a dark mirror to our everyday society.

Normal characters. No psychics, mystical powers, super strength or ancient prophecies, thanks. I’d like to see more normal people, thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who become heroic through the strengths they already possessed.

Strong narratives and character growth. A lot of what I've been reading lately seems to be action scene + action scene + action scene. Which is great, but show me more of your characters, please. Show me what makes them tick, not just what situations they react to. 


Things I’d like to see less of:

The love triangle. Just for once, I’d like to see some teens with the ability to think beyond their hormones. Please. It’s actually become such a staple of YA fiction that it’s almost offensive: do we really believe that teens can only think about what boy or girl they want to be with, or do we just believe they’re incapable of reading anything without a Dramatic Love Triangle? If you’re going to put in a love triangle, at least mix it up a bit. Here’s one I prepared earlier: Girl likes Boy 1. Boy 1 likes Boy 2. Boy 2 hates everyone. Actually, that’s more of an open-ended rectangle, isn’t it? Let’s get geometrically creative this year.

The paranormal. I have nothing against this per se, it’s just a flooded market at the moment. You can’t turn around in a book store without stumbling into vampires, fallen angels and eldritch creatures. Throw in a love triangle, and I’m totally over it.  No. No more for a while, please. I'll wait until the floodwaters receded before I take another dabble. 

What about you? What are you sick of, and what can't you ever get enough of? 

And, you guys, if you find any awesome books, make sure you let me know! Yeah, even if they're full of vampires...

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Try again tomorrow, 2013

How impractical is it to make all those resolutions start on the one day of the year that you're almost guaranteed to wake up late, hungover, and with cold pizza in the fridge? 

I'm going back to bed. 

Here are some of the writing resolutions I made anyway: 

I want to get at least 2 books published by my pseudonym this year. Should be fairly easy since I have one currently under contract. 

I want to be more organised and focussed about blogging - ha! 

I want to actually finish something under my name, and start querying agents. Which means first I have to plot something, right? And, you know, stick with it. I'll chase down those pesky plot bunnies when I can move again. 

Meanwhile, here is some soothing music: 

I'm gonna start the New Year on January 2. 

What are your writing resolutions? 


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