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Off the Page

Posted by on Aug 21, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

offthepageIn a story, we can’t cover every single thing that happens. We just don’t have the time, the space, or the reader’s indulgence. If a character is making a coffee, we don’t detail every single action to make that coffee. E.g.

      Bob filled the kettle, put it back on its base, and switched it on. He went to the cupboard, opened the cupboard door, and pulled out his favourite cup. He took out the coffee, unscrewed the lid, opened a drawer, grabbed a fork by accident, put the fork back, rifled through the cutlery until he found a teaspoon, dipped it into the jar of coffee, found the teaspoon too heaped, sifted some of it clear, then unloaded it into the cup.

We’re not even halfway through the coffee-making at this point. It might be how you genuinely make a coffee, but it’s not exactly interesting reading. Usually, we’ll summarise something like this, or maybe even leave it at, ‘Bob made himself a cup of coffee.’ If we include more details than that, it’s generally not for authenticity (in this case), but because we want to draw specific attention to those details, e.g. Bob might heap three sugars into his coffee, implying he’s a sweet tooth.

There’s a lot unwritten in storytelling – stuff the reader doesn’t need to know, or which is prohibitive to detail for the narrative’s development. We can sum up actions succinctly, or summarise large spans of time in a page or two. In Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize), the first half of the book is dedicated to the protagonist’s life through his secondary schooling. Then, in a couple of pages, we follow his marriage, the birth of his kids, his separation, and his life into retirement – forty years whiz by just like that. Consequently, the second half of the book picks up the protagonist’s life from that point.

Summarising large passages of time is a skill in itself, particularly to handle so much information so simply without digressing into exposition. Lots of writers struggle with this aspect of writing – how do you deal with what happens between events? Often, writers set-up the story at a new point, and briefly digress to explain there has been a jump in time. E.g.

      It had been two weeks since Bob’s argument with Gloria.

And, just like that, we’ve jumped forward.

Some writers don’t even bother resetting, but trust in the reader to get up to speed once they resume reading. Stephen King’s Pet Semetary is split into two halves, the second beginning after a tragic event which we never see happen. But through the new setting, the new scenario, you reorient yourself, and whatever dislocation you experience as a reader actually works dramatically, because it’s what the protagonist would be feeling – dislocation, shock, and perhaps even a blur since the actual event took place. Here, the jump is also a narrative device.

As a writer, you need to work out what happens off the page, whether your story works with it occurring off the page, and whether you’ve successfully been able to resume the story. Some writers struggle with this. There are times a scene begins with characters in improbable situations which might be dramatic or exciting or compelling, but wholly contrived. You always need to consider how your characters get to where they are.

For example, we could write a scene where our protagonist rides an elephant from the zoo, but how did he get on that elephant? How did he break the elephant free of its enclosure? How did he break into the zoo? It’s not enough to assume that your reader will take your unspoken word that all this just happened off the page. You need to create and sustain an infallible logic that this could occur (as governed by the laws you have created for the story in your world).

This is a rule screenwriters often flaunt for dramatic effect. How often do you see in a movie a conversation that spans several locations? Characters might be talking whilst driving. Then we cut to their apartment, and they’re continuing this conversation. Visually, it works – it’s a cut that’s instantaneous. Logistically? So they were talking in their car, paused the conversation, parked the car, walked up to their apartment, went into their apartment and sat down, and then resumed their conversation at the exact point they left it off – it just doesn’t happen. On-screen, it can work. In a book? Uh uh.

Some stuff that occurs off the page seems much too important to leave off the page, but writers jump it because they’re more interested in getting to another point of their story, something that offers more excitement for them. There are plenty of stories we read for our various anthologies, where an author has skipped something pivotal and which deserved exploration (in prose), but they’ve deemed unimportant. Sometimes, the best scenes aren’t the ones that are the most explosive, but the journey of how they became explosive.

When you’re writing, think about the things that occur in your story which are not being written about, whether they deserve words, whether they’re being left out for dramatic effect and, if that’s the case, whether you’re doing your story justice when you’re resuming the narrative.

LZ.

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P17 #11 Competition Shortlists

Posted by on Aug 19, 2014 in Busybird, page seventeen | 0 comments

usaf-academy-89617_1280So we are finally at that moment. Page seventeen has finalised its list for Issue 11 and the judges have selected their picks for the competition shortlists.

All shortlisted short stories and poems will be included in Issue 11 of page seventeen, currently scheduled for release in Melbourne around mid-October. The winners and runners-up of these respective shortlists will be announced on the day. Of the shortlisted images for the cover comp, only one will be utilised as the final cover image for Issue 11, also to be revealed at the launch.

A big thank you to Emilie Collyer, Ashley Capes and Kev Howlett for their roles as judges for 2014. And, of course, thank you to everyone who contributed to our competitions. We’ve never received so many submissions for a single issue across both general and competition submissions. It made the selections an unexpectedly tight race.

So without further adieu, ordered by the contributor’s surname:

Short Story

  • Geraldine Borella – Achilles and the Maple Leaf
  • Joshua Coldwell – Swan Song
  • Ben Grech – Pikes Ridge
  • Anne Hotta – The Taste of Cedars
  • Lois Murphy – Mosquito Bites
  • Maggie Veness – Cicada

Poetry

  • Jude Aquilina – Love Suffers
  • Nadine Cranenburgh – Dustbuster Farewell
  • Kevin Gillam – The Hush
  • Leanne Jaeger – Meat Puppets
  • Rachael Mead – What the Fire Didn’t Touch
  • Loran Steinberg – Moodswings

Cover Image

  • Shane Carey – Brightest Light, Darkest Shadows
  • Shane Carey – Social Common-Tree
  • Shane Carey – Timber, Stone and Cattle Dog
  • Claire Kastelan – Consideration
  • Danielle Tam – Bat-Girl

So now, we approach the end of the marathon that began in April. The launch date for Issue 11 is to be confirmed – expect a mid-October date but details will come to light in coming weeks.

Let us know if you’re excited about the approach of Issue 11 – I know I am!

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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Putting Myself Out There

Posted by on Aug 14, 2014 in Busybird | Comments Off

openmicnightI’ve always been a writer. It’s just part of who I am. For the last few years, however, I’ve been so focused on training for a career in the publishing industry and searching for an entry-level job that I neglected my writing altogether. At the start of this year I realised that I was starting to suffer for it.

Without my creative outlet I was feeling restless and depressed. Needing to get back to writing, I went looking for new inspiration and found it when I attended my first Open Mic Night at Busybird. I just came to watch but was so impressed with the supportive atmosphere that I came away determined to get up and read some time soon.

I had a rough idea for a story but I basically had to start from scratch. I set myself to task and the first couple of weeks were great; I felt fresh and inspired and the story came along well. Then I hit the all too familiar wall. The point where I wanted to rip everything up and start again. I had succumbed to defeat at this point so many times before that I was sure that this story was also destined to join the unfinished pile of stories under my bed.

Yet another Open Mic Night went by and I still wasn’t finished. The doubt had well and truly set in. I was too out of practice. No one would get it anyway. The more I told myself, It’s not right yet, I’ll read next time, the more I knew that I wouldn’t. I gave myself an ultimatum: next time or never. At the eleventh hour I had a breakthrough and finished the story in no time at all. I was ecstatic but I still had to get up and read it.

I was quite nervous at first because I’d never read my work in front of an audience before, but I knew that everyone wanted me to succeed. Blaise called me up and I started reading, my hands shaking just a little. Soon I was so caught up in the story that I forgot my nerves altogether. I had a captive audience and it felt wonderful. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?

Rebecca Courtney
– Assistant Editor.

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A Writing Blog Hop

Posted by on Aug 12, 2014 in Busybird, page seventeen | 0 comments

granite-356369_1920Ah, the blog hop. I’d say it’s a time-honoured practise or other some such malarkey, but blogs aren’t really old enough to claim that kind of institution. So for the time being, let’s just say it’s a bit of harmless fun, and an intermission from page seventeen* and lessons about writing.

I’ve been invited into this chain by Les Zigomanis, who posted his responses to the blog hop’s questions here.

After my turn, two more writers will follow with their responses over the next couple of weeks, so keep an eye on their blogs!

Emilie Collyer is an award winning writer of plays, fiction and poetry. In 2013 her sci-fi play The Good Girl won Best Emerging Writer at Melbourne Fringe and a Green Room nomination. Her new play Once Were Pirates will premiere at Fringe 2014. Her stories have appeared most recently in anthologies: Cosmic Vegetable (USA), Thirteen Stories (AUS), with upcoming stories in Allegory (USA) and Unfettered (AUS). Her short speculative crime fiction has won three prizes at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards (2012 & 2013). Emilie’s first collection A Clean Job and other stories was published with Clan Destine Press in 2013. Website: www.betweenthecracks.net

Luke Thomas is a Queensland writer of short fiction. His work has appeared in [untitled], page seventeen, Award Winning Australian Writing, and the Sleepers Almanac. In 2012, his short story collection, Home Mechanics, was shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards for a Manuscript by an Emerging Author. His website is lukethomas.org.

 

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What are you working on at the moment?

As usual, there are several pieces I’m working on at the moment. With my most recent batch I’ve gone back to speculative fiction, something I revisit from time to time. I’ve got three separate short stories in progress: one is a limbo-esque piece where the main characters aren’t sure if they’re dead or alive; another combines vampires with human trafficking themes; and the third is a straightforward thriller with a fantasy setting.

How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?

The tricky thing there is that I hop between genres a lot. The current batch is fantasy-flavour, but many of the stories I wrote in the months beforehand were more realist and often centred around unlikely or dysfunctional romances. In a few months I’ll probably be playing with something entirely different.

If I have a particular signature that works across anything I write, it’s probably the short, sharp endings. I hate writing neat endings. There’s always a beginning that rises from an ending, or something happening that might have repercussions beyond the natural ending point of that particular story. So I’m always trying to perfect an open-yet-satisfying way of concluding stories.

Why do you write what you write?

I veer towards what interests me at the time. Usually a story I write has an idea or concept acting as its lynchpin, whether that idea is overt or hidden. It might be a theory on the function of dreams, or the debate on rehabilitation v incarceration for prisoners (although I’m usually more open-ended rather than spruiking one side of the debate). Or it might just be what a certain kind of person would do in a particular situation. I’ve always got something new to explore that keeps my motivation up and pushes me to make the new fiction different from my earlier works.

What’s your writing process, and how does it work?

My fetish is whiteboards. I have a large one just above my computer and an A4-size board I can carry around the house. Once I have an idea I often sketch out plot points, character relationships or priorities on the board as a brainstorming process. I don’t plan everything right down to the smallest detail, as some adjustments always develop during the actual writing process.

The writing itself is usually in short bursts. I’ll often have a couple of pieces open at once for the original draft, so I can hop between projects when I need time to think about the direction one of them will take. I always need a break of at least a couple of days before re-drafting or editing, so that I can view everything with fresh eyes. There could be several redrafts and rounds of editing before I’m happy with the end result.

 

*             *             *

 

Feel free to have a go at the questions yourselves, and be sure to keep an eye on Emilie and Luke’s blogs for their responses. After all, every writer has their own particular fingerprint and way or working with ideas.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

* For anyone hungry for P17 news, be sure to watch this space next Tuesday, 19 August, when we’ll announce our 2014 competition shortlists!

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Self-Imposing Deadlines

Posted by on Aug 7, 2014 in Busybird | 0 comments

deadlinesBefore you begin a short story, an article, a book (or whatever the case might be), you may have a general idea how long your work will be, but you can never be sure. Stories can take on a life of their own. The idea that was meant to be a short story may become a novella; the novella may blow out into a book. You just never know.

Compounding the issue is how haphazardly we may work. Two hours on a weekend, thirty minutes on Monday because we were late putting the kids to bed, nothing on Tuesday because somebody dropped in, Wednesday we just don’t feel like it, fifteen minutes on Thursday … and where are we again? Although regular readers to this blog will appreciate how stringently we impress the need for routine, for some, that may be difficult, and once inertia sets in, it may become impossible.

So we’re writing this thing and we have no idea how long it’ll be, and we’re writing it in fits and spurts, often needing to waste time reacquainting ourselves with material once we’ve spent too long from it. Before we know it, though, those gaps between writing grow increasingly distant, and it seems too much of a bother to return to it at all.

The problem is where’s the imperative to finish? Other things in our life have consequences if we don’t see them through: we need to get to our jobs and do our work or we’re fired; kids need to be fed or they starve; the house needs to be taken care of or it becomes a sty, but if we don’t finish writing our story? Big deal. The world won’t end. Life will go on. There’s always tomorrow.

Next thing we know it’s five years later and we’re still plodding along on that novel we wanted to write.

How many of you can identify with this scenario?

What we need to do is impose deadlines on ourselves – deadlines that’ll motivate us to write every day and ensure we finish what we’ve started.

The easiest way to do this is to scour the submission calls. If you’re a member of your state’s Writers Centre, they will include opportunities for submissions and competitions in their regular media. If you can’t afford to join your state’s Writers Centre, you can sign up for the Queensland Writers Centre weekly e-newsletter, which is free of charge. A useful link very much worth bookmarking also is the Australian Writers’ Resource competition page. This lists all the competitions running this year and into next year.

Submission and competition opportunities will come with their own requirements – themes and/or genres, word counts, and deadlines. See which opportunity fits what you’re writing, and strive for that deadline. Keep a spreadsheet of where you want to submit, when the deadline is, and – if they advertise it (not all do) – when they announce their acceptances or winners. Regiment this part of your life exactly as you would any other. Writing is no longer amorphous. You have something real to aim for – a time you want your work finished, a maximum word count to write to, and a place to submit the finished piece.

Doing this has a domino effect. It gets you into the practice of aiming to finish something by a set time; in achieving that you have to set daily limits you need to meet (e.g. writing half an hour a day); and it gets you in the habit of submitting.

And, best of all, you might be published or win a competition, too.

LZ.

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Storytelling

Posted by on Aug 5, 2014 in Busybird, page seventeen | 0 comments

man-69283_1920Recently I read an article in The Griffith Review by Maria Tumarkin on storytelling; you can currently read the article online here. It’s mostly a wide analysis of ‘storytelling’ as a cultural bed stone and how its current sense of cultural importance might be misguided. (It should be pointed out that Tumarkin is mostly talking about non-fiction narratives.)

She takes a criticism made by Eugenia Williamson against the radio show This American Life – ‘its preference for pathos over tragedy’ – and applies it more widely: ‘Actually, I think it might just be true of this cultural moment more broadly.’

To be fair, is this anything new? Our scepticism of the potential subjectivity of media is nothing new – thousands of years ago, tyrannical monarchs were telling their subjects only what they wanted to hear. We’re simply much more sensitive to the possibility of biased or incomplete stories now than when a king was telling us that the heinous barbarians over the border kicked puppies and didn’t eat their greens and thus must be destroyed.

It’s interesting, though, to take a step back and see how rigorously the practise of storytelling has been applied to every facet of our lives – sometimes subconsciously, and other times with a very specific and deliberate purpose. The calculated approach of ‘human interest stories’, designed to elicit specific emotions from an audience, is a far cry from the oft-cited example of Primo Levi compulsively telling strangers about his experiences in Auschwitz (an example Tumarkin uses as well).

So the key question here is: why? Why is it that we are so fascinated with storytelling, and addicted to it as a form of expression? Why do we tell our stories and our anecdotes to friends and family – did I tell you what I saw at the supermarket the other day? – while also applying the same principles to discussions on matters such as climate change and far-off wars? Why has ‘storytelling’ in this sense endured for so long and become such an ingrained characteristic to our mental state and to our culture?

A common and pessimistic reflex here is to cite ‘herd mentality’ or Nietzsche’s ‘slave morality’ to state that the common people need their data easily digestible – and simplified. But seriously, I think we’re past that way of thinking now. People aren’t stupid as a whole.

Here’s my theory: the practise of storytelling is so prevalent because of one impulse we have. And that is to teach. Our anecdotes about seeing a pregnant woman smoking or a kid refuse to give up his seat on the train is often punctuated by decrying the situation, making it clear that this is the wrong thing to do. Article writers seek to instruct readers on an issue, topic or scenario. Fiction writers devise an entire scenario of their own choosing, and use it as a platform to explore various topics, stories or character archetypes.

Personally, I’m first and foremost a fiction storyteller and believe that the first concern of fiction should always be audience engagement and entertainment. To me, fiction is specifically required to be entertaining before being informative – otherwise it’s missed the point of being fiction in the first place. But while I create a story, my impulse to teach is there in the background, whether I’m aware of it or not. It’s driving me to arrange everything in a sequence so that the consequences of actions can be explored, or to share what the likely outcome of a particular action might be. It’s driving me to explore the mindset of my central or leading characters, to see what makes them tick and present the data to an audience, like a lab teacher taking apart a brain in front of a class of students.

Even fiction writers with none of these objectives could be said to have something in their lesson plan – even if it’s just sharing a piece of themselves, so that the audience can gain some understanding of the writer.

When viewed in this lens, Tumarkin is saying that the lesson plan is flawed when it comes to larger issues – that our reliance on pathos and narrative structures dilutes the lesson until it is meaningless. Here, we can take a step back and see that storytelling is just an extension of our primal need to impart lessons and share our experiences. It’s the same as a mature animal instructing its offspring on survival skills – or the medieval king trying to instruct his subjects on the right way to view the world (flawed as that view may be). The difference is that the method of imparting these lessons has grown more sophisticated (and, to an extent, regimented) with the evolution of humanity and its sense of culture.

I’ve always believed that knowing your own motivations is important in growing and developing as a writer and as a voice. Without being lost in the downward spiral of vague questions like ‘why am I a writer?’, knowing why you’re telling a story is often one of the best ways to clarify how it should be told, and what should be focused on. It’s about knowing what you want to share, and why you want to share it. Use that information to your advantage, as both a way to develop your voice, your style and the types of stories you tell – because I agree with Tumarkin insofar that a one-size-fits-all narrative approach shouldn’t be applied universally.

To be a storyteller is to be a teacher of sorts. But the assumption of that role should not come with any sense of self-importance or superiority. Everyone’s a teacher. We just have different things to teach, and to share. Be comfortable with that, and embrace your ability to do so – even if the lessons are entirely fictional. It doesn’t matter. Something of substance can still be shared if the method of storytelling fits the story.

Beau Hillier | Editor, page seventeen

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Where to Now?

Posted by on Jul 31, 2014 in Busybird | Comments Off

fogYou’re stuck. No, not stuck. That’s writer’s block. You’re just not sure where to go. Should your protagonist fight with their partner in the next scene? Or maybe they should go out for a drink with friends. That’s sounds hopeful. No, wait, better yet, maybe they go out alone, and have a chance encounter with somebody who tempts them. No, no, maybe the fight should come first. Damnit, there’s just so many options.

Maybe mapping out the story will work. Hang on …

    • protagonist is unhappy with partner, so they … they …

Hmmm, back to the original problem. Maybe mapping out each alternative is the way to go …

    • they fight
    • the protagonist’s partner breaks down
    • the protagonist storms out and, um … um …

That didn’t work. Let’s see what happens with another of the alternatives.

    • the protagonist goes out with friends
    • friends have conflicting opinions – some say the partner’s no good, others say to give the partner a chance and talk it out
    • the protagonist is confused and, um, um …

Okay. That wasn’t so good either. Let’s try the last alternative …

    • the protagonist goes out to a strange bar
    • the protagonist has a few drinks, talks to the bartender
    • a stranger approaches, tempts them and, um … um …

All your possibilities are equally weighted, and all of them just as equally taper away. You’re not feeling it, the path that you’re meant to be on. Everything disappears into a haze. It’s so frustrating! You know what happens well after that point, but just don’t know how to get there.

You bandy ideas around with friends, and they come up with some suggestions that fire your imagination. Yes, there are definite possibilities there. But once you sit down to write and pound out a few words, there’s just more haze. These suggestions don’t seem very good, after all. It’s back to plodding around.

A walk will do wonders – get away from the pressure of trying to find the words and ideas that get you back into your story. Some of your best ideas have come while walking, and then you’ve been impatient to get home and get stuck into it. But now, the same thing happens that happened when you talked to your friends. Possibilities that shot like flares in your head fade into nothing once you try to follow them.

Where to now? Where to?

As writers we all have our own techniques that serve us best. Some of us outline stories meticulously before we ever begin to write. Others write instinctively. Some fall in between. There’s no right or wrong way, there’s only the way that works for you.

Yet at one point or another, we can all reach a point where we’re unsure where to go next, and all our methods only confuse us more – usually wearying us of our story and the passion to write it. This is often when stories are abandoned: when there seems no clear way through, and we grow sick of looking.

There does remain one last avenue, though.

Writing.

Sometimes, you just need to sit down and write those scenes you’re unsure about and see where they take you. Writing is a much more exhaustive exploration than any of the methods mentioned earlier, and can alert you to cracks which just might be your way through to where you want to get to. Find a crack and possibly find your way into a whole new world.

Of course, it mightn’t work out. You might write hundreds – or even thousands – of words that ultimately go nowhere. You might do this for several vague ideas for no reward. But sometimes, you have to. That’s all it comes down to. You have to write simply to find out for yourself whether something is going to work or not, because no other method is going to truly and unequivocally answer that question for you.

Think about that next time you’re unsure where to go.

LZ.

 
Postscript: If you ever write something substantial (let’s say over 100 words) and it doesn’t work out, don’t delete it for all eternity. Cut it out and stick it in a separate file, which you can call ‘Extracts’ or ‘Excerpts’ or ‘Excisions’ or whatever. But collate those passages that don’t work. You never know, you might use them again, or they might give you an idea for a different project later on.

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