Aurealis #122, edited by Stephen Higgins, is an enjoyable instalment of Australia’s leading speculative fiction magazine.
This issue comprises three stories, an editorial, a bit of historical literary criticism, a short interview with Victoria Schwab, and a lengthy section of reviews—a substantial amount of content for the relatively low price.
Here, I’ll only be commenting, spoiler-free, on the fiction. My current approach is to past the contents into my bullet journal and use a coloured highlighter to assign my opinion of the story. Red highlight is a bad rating, no highlight is a readable one, while yellow indicates good and green indicates fantastic.
The three stories in #122 are all science fiction.
Getting Home by P.K. Torrens follows a homesick scientist studying a medical mystery concerning aliens on a planet of what is probably Proxima Centauri. Overshadowing her work is an unreasonable, to say the least, military commander. The mystery is intriguing, the viewpoint character a bit miserable but still engaging, and the stakes are involving enough to make it a compelling read. If I were to complain, it would be that the military commander is a little one-note. That said, not intolerably so or beyond the reasonable bounds of human character. I gave it a yellow highlight, but with green around the edges.
Serine by Shan Drury is a space opera. Seline and her pseudo-AI sidekick investigate a structure in orbit around an out-of-the-way planet. Likable characters and amusing dialogue make for an enjoyable read, and there is ample suspense and surprise from the investigation. This is another one that got the yellow highlight but tinged with green.
Tigers of Mars by Conor DiViesti involves a traumatized veteran of a future war undergoing an unconventional therapy while juggling guilt and altered relationships. It’s well-written and has thematic depth but, for some reason I can’t pinpoint, I didn’t engage with it. However, I still judge it worth a solid yellow highlight. Good, but not to my taste.
It’s been a bit more than a week since I decided on a one-month ban on writing or reading books and watching videos on how to write. The idea was to use my scheduled writing time to read fiction in hopes of refilling a dry creative well.
How’s it going?
I haven’t written. (Unless you count blogging, as I’ve done an uncharacteristic number of blog posts—which might make me the writing equivalent of people who declare themselves vegans while eating dairy, eggs, and fish.)
I have read. I’m concentrating on short stories, and I’ve polished off two-and-a-half anthologies and a science fiction magazine. Not exactly War and Peace but not bad for reading crammed into an hour or two per day.
At first, weirdly, I felt terrible writing cravings. As non-productive as I’ve been lately, I’ve always been quietly trying in the background—often writing thousands of words per week that just don’t see the light of day. So, I guess I missed the desperate trying. I also felt guilty—my inner self-hating bastard kept presenting a lack of desperate trying as laziness or quitting. I got over it.
After that, I passed through a brief phase of severely editing everything I read. Assuming that was the writing craving sublimating.
It took most of the week for me to settle into recreational reading and just enjoy it as reading. Very nice to have that pleasure back in my life.
In terms of results, reading has inspired a couple of story ideas, dutifully recorded for later. I think that’s a good sign.
As I say, I’ve been blogging again. Mostly reviews of what I’m reading, yes, but I’ve been echoing the reviews to Good Reads and Amazon, so it feels like good writerly citizenship.
Nothing huge, earth-shaking, or epiphany-laden. But I’m happy with it.
Prehistoric is a collection of thirteen science fiction short stories edited by SJ Larsson, themed around humans and dinosaurs coming into contact in generally bloody ways. Overall, it’s not a bad collection. I admit to a fondness for dinosaur stories, and there are some good ones, here.
People who aren’t prone to dinosaurs, military science fiction, or monster stories might find themselves struggling. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a greater variety of dinosaurs, as T-rex, various raptors, and ankylosaurs tend to repeat throughout. And some of the stories don’t do fantastic service to the inclusion or depiction of female characters, in my opinion (though some do).
My present system for quick-reviewing short story collections is to copy and paste the contents page into my bullet journal and use coloured highlighters on title and author to indicate my feelings about a particular story. Red is bad. No highlight stands for a story that’s readable, neither bad nor good. Yellow is good. Green is fantastic.
Using that system, Prehistoric earned no red or green from me. The tally stands at:
I view that as a ration justifying the purchase price.
The stand-out story of the collection is Alan Baxter’s Jeremiah’s Puzzle, which I won’t spoil but does have a T-rex action set-piece that would be splendid committed to film. (I’m thinking very natural Doctor Who adaptation.)
Also in the upper range of the good category:
Operation: Severn, William Meikle Extinction, Rich Restucci Closure, Tim Waggoner
Others getting the yellow highlighter of general goodness:
Apex, Jeff Brackett The First Man On Earth, Geoff Jones Lost Island, David Wood Mantle, Rick Chesler
As I say, the remaining stories were not at all bad. I count “readable” as praise of any story’s chief virtue rather than damning faint praise. For a between-Jurassic-Park-movies fix of human on dinosaur survival of the fittest clashes, Prehistoric fits the bill well
The first thing I read after deciding to put writing aside for a month of revivifying recreational reading was The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Thirteen, edited by Jonathan Strahan.
According to the introduction, this is the final volume in this anthology series. Colour me sad. This has been my favourite of the annual “best of” anthologies. I can and will follow Jonathan Strahan to his subsequent projects, but I’ll miss this one.
The anthology is exactly what it says on the tin: a collection of 29 stories published during 2018 gathered into one volume. My tl:dr review would be: it’s excellent; read it.
My longer review won’t be too much more substantial. I didn’t have time to take mountains of notes and deliver a vast, sweeping report. I just transferred the contents list to my bullet journal and, as I read, I left a highlighted the title of a good story in yellow and a great story in green. If the story were just fine, but not that special, it stayed unhighlighted. No stories ended up warranting a possible red highlight for actual badness, happily.
How did the anthology go?
Technically, three of the stories I rated as “fine” left me cold. I didn’t finish them. Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to red highlight them. They were clearly well-executed short stories. They weren’t “bad”—just not to my taste.
Even so, it seems to me that 69% of stories in a volume being good to great is a solid hit rate, and the rest were, I stress again, nevertheless overwhelmingly an enjoyable read. I’d account myself very satisfied, overall.
Naming names, I would say the outstanding fantasy story in the collection is Garth Nix’s The Staff in the Stone. It was a really engaging high fantasy that crammed an awful lot of what’s good about that genre into a small space.
The outstanding science fiction story, for me, was Simone Heller’s utterly brilliant When We Were Starless, which was brilliantly written, sad, and hopeful.
Special mention for transcending categories of goodness has to go to Ursula LeGuin’s short Earthsea story, Firelight—which was wonderful and sad for many reasons.
Other recipients of the green highlight of general greatness were:
Mother Tongues, S. Qiouyi Lu
The Woman Who Destroyed Us, S. L. Huang
A Brief and Fearful Star, Carmen Maria Machado
Field Biology of the Wee Fairies, Naomi Kritzer
A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies, Alix E. Harrow
Okay, Glory, Elizabeth Bear
The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society, T. Kingfisher
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again, Zen Cho
Nine Last Days on Planet Earth, Daryl Gregory
All of that said, I can only repeat my earlier summary that the anthology was a splendid year’s best, well worth the reading and your recreational dollar.
Of all the writing advice out there, top three are probably writers write, writers read, and show, don’t tell.
Well, I do write. Normally, I say this with my fingers crossed while thinking: Hey, academic writing counts. I’m just coming off my BA Sociology honours year and the first six months of my PhD candidature, both of which involve reading and writing a lot.
But, let’s face it, writers write and writers read are talking about the fiction or non-fiction that you love to write or read, in my case the speculative genres—fantasy, science fiction, horror. Those I’ve not been doing so well with, and haven’t been for some time.
I try to write, constantly, but it’s been increasingly a slog. I read so sporadically that rounding the amount down to zero doesn’t do much injustice to the actual number.
What do I read when I’m not reading academic material? Books and blogs on writing. What do I watch in spare moments? YouTube videos on writing.
Last week, I sat down with a problematic story I’m halfway through writing, determined to fix its plot before continuing. This was the third time I’d done that with this story. I’d broken it down into scenes, rearranged them, brainstormed alternatives, created and recreated the characters. I suddenly realized I had more than 6000 words of notes on what I’d estimated would be a 6000-word story… and, well, it struck me.
My creative well is probably a bit of a wreck. No fiction to replenish it and way overstuffed with all that writing advice that judges, rejudges, and damns every word, sentence, and paragraph as it emerges. Stories begin to drag themselves out of me only to be clubbed to death by my inner how-to-write monster. I’m all knowledge and no art.
So, I’m going to try to readjust my balance. No fiction writing for a month. No drawing from the dry well. No reading how-to-write books or blogs and no how-to-write videos until further notice. I’m keeping my scheduled writing time, but I’m using it for recreational reading.
Hopefully, in a month (or two if I deem it advisable to go again), I’ll see a little glitter of water down in the creative well and feel happy to send down a bucket.
My blogging pace has become so glacial I feel I ought to begin each post with an apology. Sorry! Still, no matter how I plan and organise, life keeps intruding—the last few months, intruding with a vengeance.
My writing experienced a burst of activity a couple of months ago when I completed a rough novel outline for a fantasy novel. The outline has been sitting in a Dropbox folder, largely ignored, while I juggled other things.
As my writing time evaporated, I turned to micro-activities that supported writing but could be fit into tiny temporal cracks: freewriting and other exercises, and reading/watching how-to articles/videos. Lately, I’ve been re-reading fiction favourites and analysing writing techniques. Small, doable stuff.
Of necessity, study has received the lion’s share of my non-chaos-juggling hours. I’m working towards a sociology PhD on the topic of violence. I’m at the literature review stage, which means lots of reading–some of it, given my topic–not entirely pleasant. Briefly, I had some trouble working out quite how I wanted the literature review to be structured, but I believe I’m past that, now.
It says something about how hard I’m finding it to fit writing into my schedule that I’m looking forward to really knuckling down and writing the literature review, as I fully intend to count it as writing.
Late to Bullet Journals
I gather bullet journals are old news among both productive and creative types. They’re entirely new to me, however. If you are like me, they’re a productivity tool designed to help plan and execute the millions of things we all have to do more or less constantly these days. The basics are here if you need them.
I started one because the aforementioned life-of-chaos had smashed all my other planning strategies and left me with a mess of things I had to get done fairly quickly. Desperate research turned up bullet journals, and I’ve given it a try.
Sort of given it a try. I’ve violated what seem to be two cherished standards for the genre. Firstly, I’ve eschewed a paper journal and ink for a Scrivener project. It’s just what I prefer; sorry purists. Secondly… well, an awful lot of madly creative people keep bullet journals, and most of the examples I’ve seen online look like the Book of Kells. Mine doesn’t. Adding beauty to my bullet journal is a rabbit hole I can’t afford to fall down, so I’m not even trying. But that’s OK. Ugly but functional is more or less my brand.
That said, bullet journaling has worked for me. It’s helped me organise, get a few things on track that were derailed-adjacent, and got me thinking about reaching for more (and more ambitious) goals. I’ll continue to trial it for a few months to get a proper feel, but I’m optimistic.
Happy Easter to all. I took a day from the long weekend to just kick back and dawdle through some plot and character stuff for my novel. Nothing hard or intense. Just art for art’s sake. It was pretty restorative.
I like to think this proves I’m not all about the crazy systematic organisation I hint at here from time to time. Often, like today, I just open my novel’s Scrivener project, create a folder to play in, and try something new I’ve read about or seen or YouTube, and consider it a win if throws up one or two things I can transfer to my plot, setting, or character folders.
What I went with today wasn’t even as directed as that. I borrowed from a video from Ellen Brock’s YouTube channel and just wrote up a synopsis of the novel based on what I already know, to get it all in one place where I could see what was missing.
The activity took a while, as I didn’t hurry. In the end, it showed me I was short on characters and arcs–I had a surprising number of potential scenes, but very little connective tissue.
So, I picked a goal and suitable arc for one of the secondary characters that bound together and motivated a number of scenes. I also created a new secondary character, a friend for the protagonist but one whose arc unintentionally torpedoes the protagonist’s main goal and propels him into the climax.
Once I plugged the new material into the bare synopsis, it spruced things up quite a bit, and was deeply satisfying.
This post–one of a series connecting my research side (sociology) to my fiction writing side (a high fantasy novel presently entitled Remnant Magic)–discusses ways that sociology’s identity theory can help with character creation. Using identity theory can make characters, arcs, and conflict more complex and root them more organically in how humans interact with each other and society.
What Was Bugging Me
Lately, I’ve been feeling the gravitational pull of the vast mass of writing I’m not doing. I’ve been busy getting the PhD and associated research up and running, so I don’t (entirely) begrudge my lack of writing, and yet… I’m never not aware of it, either.
You often hear at the start of a PhD that you need to treat it as your job. Schedule it. Do the hours. Don’t procrastinate. It’s good advice. But it got me thinking that a lot of people write with a full-time job—the PhD is a good excuse but not an iron-clad one. So, while I was scheduling, I scheduled some writing time and decided I would use it to write my first novel.
Early on, I was brainstorming my protagonist’s motives/stakes, as described across a number of videos presented by writer Rachael Stephen on her YouTube channel.
What did my protagonist want or need?
My novel idea had come to me as a character fragment, so I knew, roughly. He’d been expected to be very successful during his adolescence, but hadn’t been—and he found himself an adult without ability, success, or prospects. The novel follows his efforts to find out what went wrong. That makes for a clear enough character goal, but I wanted to brainstorm a few more wants/needs to apply towards subplots and gave it a red hot go.
Nothing I brainstormed had any kind of personal or narrative specificity. Sure, he might want to go to the Moon; he might want anything at this point. Though I’d done a little worldbuilding, I didn’t know enough about him or his place in the world to constrain his choices, making the products of my brainstorming too random to be useful. Clearly, I needed more worldbuilding. I just wasn’t ready to go full-Tolkien, yet. I asked myself, what was the least amount of my world I could build to yield the most information about what my protagonist wanted? It occurred to me identity theory—which is fairly central to my PhD research—suggested a helpful answer.
A (Very) Brief Summary of Identity Theory
Identity theory is a substantial collection of ideas about how individuals become who they are as they interact under the influence of society and how those interactions go on to shape society in return. The theory belongs to the sociological perspective known as symbolic interactionism, which originated in the early twentieth century with theorists such as Charles Cooley, George Mead, and Herbert Blumer.
Cooley shared the idea of the “looking glass self”—who we are was the product of how we believed we were seen by the people who mattered to us and how we responded to the feelings our beliefs aroused in us, such as pride or shame.
Mead saw society as a constantly evolving structure comprising solutions to group problems. The self was a product of interaction within society. As the self allowed an individual to understand and adapt to how others saw them, it was a necessary tool for the cooperation which, in solving shared problems, created society. As it’s often put, society creates self creates society.
Blumer gathered these and other views into a perspective he formalised and named symbolic interactionism. The name reflected his assertion that society was made up of interaction, and interaction was guided by shared meanings—symbols. Individuals assembled those symbols into a self. Consider how people informed by feminism or notions of chivalry might differently see the meaning of a woman approaching a closed door—and how the consequent behaviour of each would reflect who they are and who society expects them to be. Over time, social interaction changed shared meanings, expectations, and behaviours, and, collectively, the society made up of those things, which shaped the selves coming into being in that society in new ways. For Blumer, because society and the self caused each other, neither had greater meaning or importance than the other.
Identity theory, developed by Sheldon Stryker, took this base and formalised it even further, intending to make all these ideas more useful in making theories about how society and human interaction worked. Stryker positioned his theory in something he called structural symbolic interactionism, which assumed that society and the self weren’t equal—society came first. People were born into societies, and their identities developed within structures of power, economics, and every kind of inequality. These structures differentiated society such that people couldn’t be said to interact “within society”. Rather, they interacted within the relatively small social groups to which they had access, within roles defined by those group—limiting the change that could be worked through interaction.
According to identity theory:
Each of us has a self made up of multiple identities, roughly at least one identity for each social group to which we belong—we might be any or all of a Student, a Parent, a Worker, a Patient, or countless others.
Our social groups are made up of roles—positions within the group associated with a set of expectations and meanings—a Worker must value punctuality, honesty, hierarchy, the will of customers, and behave accordingly.
An identity is just a set of role expectations, and associated meanings, that we’ve taken into our self.
Each of our identities has a quality called salience—how significant it is to us generally and in any given situation.
The strength of our ties to a social group, the importance of their judgements of us, the severity of the costs to us if we lose face in front of them, add up to our commitment to that group—identities associated with high commitment tend to have the strongest salience.
Our identities are organised into a salience hierarchy, high to low—a high salience identity has a greater chance of shaping our behaviour than a lower salience one.
Our self still comes into existence through our perception of our social interactions. But that self is made up of a number of identities, each created by our performance of roles that satisfy the expectations of particular social groups. When we enter a social situation, we judge what’s going on using the meanings and expectations of the identities in our salience hierarchy, the most salient identity is chosen, and our behaviour in the situation proceeds accordingly.
Someone happening upon a child crying by the side of the road will understand the situation and respond differently depending on the identity which has the most salience to them at that moment. A parent might nurture. A police officer might investigate or bring the child into the system. A bully might push them over and walk on laughing. If their self boasted all three identities, then their commitment to the social group behind each one would create a salience hierarchy, and the most salient identity would win the day.
Applying All That To Creating Characters
So, there I was, trying to work out the minimum worldbuilding I could do situate my protagonist in his world enough that I could work out what motivates him.
Identity theory is helpful here because what an individual wants and how that shapes what they do is the key concern of the theory. The answer it provides is also pretty simple. What does my protagonist want? Well, to what social groups does your protagonist belong? What roles exist within those groups? To which groups are they most committed through important social ties and severe consequences if they fail to meet role expectations?
With those questions in mind, I went to my worldbuilding documents in Scrivener and determined what social groups were implied in what I’d already come up with. For example, my protagonist belonged to an organised group of magic-users. I developed that group in more detail, including roles and expectations associated with various factions. I brainstormed groups in broader society that would support or oppose the magic-users or any of their factions. That led to the creation of various political, religious, and socioeconomic groups, and their factions, roles, and expectations. I refrained from too much detail, at this stage—just enough to give me a basic understanding.
I returned to my character brainstorming. What did my main character want? I’d thought he wanted to know what went wrong with his adolescence. But that desire grew from his high commitment to the social group that had expected great things of him and rejected him when great things hadn’t materialised. What he really wanted was to earn his way back into that high commitment group. Since they weren’t, strictly, worth his time, the fact that he wanted this so badly at the start of the novel implied his character arc—an internal shift from believing he’s no one if he’s rejected by that group to a realisation that he belongs to a better group now, and that group deserves his loyalty.
Narratively, identity theory suggests I should create scenes that diminish his ties with the first group and increase his ties to the second group (and the consequences if he loses face before them). And I will, going forward.
At the same time, I was now able to establish other identities residing in the protagonist’s self. His father is problematic in the plot, and so “son” will have salience in a number of scenes—and shedding his commitment to that identity will also be crucial to the outcome. He also has identities associated with religion and with a group of outcasts. Each of those identities suggested smaller arcs shifting his levels of commitment and shuffling his salience hierarchy.
He’s become a more complex character than he might otherwise have been, as he now has a range of identities that might be the most salient in any of the situations he encounters. While I’d have arrived in a similar place by writing up a character biography or resume, this method was more systematic and, in my opinion, produced a clearer and more intentional sense of the relationships between aspects of his character and their relationships to his position within different areas of his world.
Protagonist vs Antagonist, Protagonist vs Protagonist
I applied the same process to my antagonist, with similar results.
In doing so, I noted that conflict between the antagonist and protagonist could be found in their commitment to incompatible social groups, or to roles within individual groups that had incompatible role expectations. For example, the antagonist’s highest commitment is to a role within a group that values ends over means, while the protagonist belongs to one that most highly values good works in pursuit of duty. In shared situations were those identities are salient to each of them, conflict is inevitable.
The same applies to a single character and internal conflict. When the identities in a character’s salience hierarchy are associated with incompatible role expectations, then situations invoking those identities will put the character in conflict with themselves. Reconciling those incompatibilities or shedding one of the identities becomes the basis for a character arc.
I can only hope any of that proves useful. I found it so, and it’s enough, really, if I’ve only managed to contribute something to my own process. But I put it here, just in case. Do let me know if you find it a helpful perspective.
In tarot, the Wheel of Fortune card (glance to your left) is a reminder that we’re all bound to a wheel that never stops turning. On top today, bereft tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow… who knows? Change is the only constant.
The wheel has spun wildly for me all year. In some respects, it’s been one of the worst years I can recall. The whole world has seemed deranged at times, but there have also been some hard-to-bear personal catastrophes. Yet, I also finished my BA Honours (Sociology) halfway through the year with a killer grade that reflected hard work and the support of an awesome advisor and lecturers. Towards the end of the year, I was also accepted into JCU’s PhD program starting (very soon) in 2019. What’s more, I was awarded a really generous scholarship.
Oddly, given some of the stuff that’s been going on, as I look back on the year, it’s the lack of writing progress that stings. I keep trying to establish a routine, improve my skills, level up—and I keep sacrificing writing to my other priorities and remaining, frustratingly, fairly static in the skills department. And, apart from a close call or two early in the year, no sales!
As I embark on my PhD research, it seems clear I’m going to have to master the whole competing priorities thing once and for all if my writing is to stand a chance. Based on history, if I were my writing right now, I’d be feeling a wee bit nervous.
Still, positive thinking types are fond of telling us that giving up is the only failure, so I’m thinking not giving up is step one. So that’s the first thing on my 2019 to-do list, and I’ve ticked it off.
For many years, I’ve focused on short stories because I suspected they were friendlier to a time-poor schedule. Also, I’ve felt I needed to crack short fiction before really trying a novel. I begin to suspect neither of those things is true—and if I don’t make a serious effort to produce a novel soon, I never will, and that would be a sizable deathbed regret. Memento mori, and all that. So, I decided on a concrete goal:
In 2019 I will write the first draft of a novel.
For accountability, I’ll post here a little more often, writing about what happens the goal (and the PhD research, and life) come into contact with the aforementioned Wheel. (Don’t think about roadkill. Don’t think about road kill. Dang.)
I’m well-overdue to touch base with my blogging. It feels like days to me, it must be said, and yet it’s getting on for fourth months. I’ve lost a blogging season! So, back when the year was young, I banged on about embracing organisation. How’d that go?
Middling. What I gained on the swings I lost on the roundabouts. My uni work—researching and writing up a thesis for my honours year in sociology, which completes at the end of this semester—stayed organised and has gone according to plan. It’s taken some hard work, with more yet to come. This semester, most of the assessment happens close to the end, right when the thesis itself is due, so it’s been a lot like sprinting towards the mountain to be sure you’re there when the avalanche hits.
But the positive side is that I’m currently ten thousand or so words into the thesis and on schedule.
My fiction writing did less well. At first, I observed the writing schedule and managed to write one short story of 8,000ish words and was glad to have done so. After that, I needed to borrow time for uni deadlines, mostly, and the odd life crisis, and as things proceeded, it became easier to give up the blocked out writing time. (Which, as an explanatory note, included time put aside to update this blog.)
I don’t entirely hold it against myself. I do have obligations to meet and the time has to come from somewhere. I’m the only one who suffers when I don’t write and that makes writing the natural target when time is short. But I do feel… I want to say a wistful pang, but it feels more like that time I tried to pass a gallstone the size of a golf ball.
Still, it’s not all red ink in the writing ledger. It’s important to remind yourself of that, I think. I’ve written 10,000 words of the thesis. That constitutes a substantial chunk of an entirely unfamiliar genre of non-fiction writing. That’s also included taking feedback from my thesis supervisor and rewriting. The aforementioned 8,000ish SF story may only be partway to my original fiction writing goal, but it’s not nothing. There’s still another 5,000 words of the thesis to be written, and 6,000 words of additional assessment split between an essay and script for a presentation summarising my research. Research itself is a transferable skill for writers, as is the discipline of sitting in the chair and producing words to a deadline.
I’ve also been nibbling around the edges of writing. Reading articles and blog posts on the craft and business side of things, and listening to my favourite podcasts, such as Writing Excuses. I’ve jotted down a few notes and ideas. It’s not enough to quiet the bellowing of my “wistful pang”, but it’s something.
The lesson, I suppose, is to organise, and do your best, yet recognise that there will always be trade-offs. And I can still hope to do better.