Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.
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  • December9th

    Some time ago, I was in a room of thirty or so YA writers, editors and other industry people when one writer declared, ‘I know you’ll all agree with me that what makes a good book is a chance for us all to have a massive cry.’ She was rewarded with enthusiastic acclamation and high fives all around – except for me. I was sitting there gobsmacked. Not just by the statement, but by the total and uncritical acceptance of it.

    I understand the pleasure that comes from emotional release like that. So did the Ancient Greeks, and they called it ‘catharsis’. Somewhere along the way, though, the serious nobs forgot that Aristotle et al fully understood that catharsis can come from tragedy or comedy. The purging, the emotional release that comes in those moments of heightened feeling can come from an uproarious laugh as much as it can come from weeping.

    The trouble is, there appears to be a false equation in the ranks of book people. That is, serious subject matter = a text to be taken seriously = a valuable and worthwhile text.

    I call bullshit on that.

    The converse, and generally accepted view, is that books that inspire laughter are lightweight, trivial, not to be taken seriously – therefore not valued. The accepted view appears to be that there’s nothing to be learned from laughter and lifting of spirits and that books that explore defeat and disaster are more worthy than books that end with triumph.

    This stance is standard in literature circles, and YA literature isn’t free of it.

    Bart Simpson once said ‘Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.’ Too easy, in other words. Want to try something difficult? Try writing something that makes readers laugh, that lifts them up, that gets them seeing that the world isn’t thoroughly black, crushing and defeated. If it’s a choice of outlooks between the nihilistic and defeatist Rick Sanchez and the effervescent optimism of Joy from Inside Out, I know which one I’d choose.

    ‘But the world isn’t like that!’ I hear you say. ‘The world is full of despair and crime and horror and so books that reflect that are more true!’ Again, I call bullshit on that. The world is not full of darkness. Darkness is there, but so is hope, love, laughter, mistaken identities, puns, and triumph. An unrelieved rollout of texts that solely concentrate on the darker side of life is a fundamentally dishonest representation of life because, let’s face it, typical everyday lives are far more likely to contain laughter than death.

    So what’s going on here? Why are books full of darkness and despair anointed as more worthy than those that are full of comedy and wit? Why is there a view that ‘resolutions that provide uplift do not necessarily reflect the complexities of life’? It’s simply a matter of siding with convention, I suspect – and, perhaps, a lack of knowledge and understanding of the alternative. For instance, I defy anyone not to see the labyrinthine complexities of life explored, uproariously, in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, with its pointed and insightful commentary on bureaucracy, greed, family relationships, technology and human frailty. Gut-busting, erudite, poignant, eye-opening, dazzling and trenchant all at the same time, it’s an examination of the human condition that leaves you with a smile on your face instead of being crushed.

    Which is apparently not a good thing.

    Perhaps there’s some sort of snobbery at the bottom of it (bottom – heh). Is comedy seen as coarse and common, while other aspects of humanity such as suffering and misery are loftier? Of course comedy has fart jokes, but it can be so much more than that – even if a well timed fart joke is a side splitter.

    I implore you, don’t neglect funny books. I maintain that the best of them are just as important, just as valuable and just as insightful as the best of other books, the ones more traditionally deemed as worthy.

    And, of course, ‘worthy’ ends up as being a synonym for ‘acceptable to study’.

    Some advice here, though. Please, don’t do the reluctant and half-hearted thing and tentatively step into comedy via earnest dark comedies, those already awarded the status of ‘nearly suitable for inclusion in a serious person’s reading list’. Most of them are dire and unlikely to get you laughing out loud. They’re often dealing with a serious subject and using ham-fisted comedy to make a point.

    Spare me.

    Instead, go for something without pretensions. Look for books that are genuinely trying to make you laugh, the wild, the off-beat, the outré and the bizarre. The skill involved in writing this is extraordinary, and the craft is thoroughly worth analysing and appreciating. It could be outright farce, it could be black comedy, it could be satire, it could be parody, it could be romantic comedy, whatever. Look at the writer’s technique in creating the moments of laughter, and you’ll find it’s as rewarding as looking at any downward character spiral.

    Explore the great comic characters, too. What makes them so memorable – and it’s not always because they’re fools or that they’re a clown that cries. Look at Bertie Wooster, look at Harry Flashman, look at Mia Thermopolis. Why do they make us laugh so much? Why are they so memorable? Why do they get us returning to re-read their exploits again and again, even if we know every punchline?

    And, above all, look at Terry Pratchett. Profound, humane, moving and very, very funny. He makes you laugh, and we need more laughter in this world, after all, not more crying.

    Addendum

    Look, I know and accept that a book can make us cry and make us laugh. That’s not the point of my essay above, so let’s not get into that topic right now, okay? Another time, maybe.

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  • April11th

    Gap Year in Ghost Town (Allen & Unwin August 2017) has a cover! Authors, naturally, are always nervous about how their precious work is going to look, but the very clever Craig Phillips has come up with an absolute winner. I love its combination of spookiness and street smarts, and it captures the smart, creepy and funny tone of the book beautifully.

    Roll on August!

     

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  • February16th

    music notes small

    I like listening to and reading about other writers. I find the process of writing fascinating, and I find the multitude of different approaches empowering. There is no single magical formula for writing. There are a million ways to do it and to do it well.

    Take the business of music while writing. I’ve asked many writers about their aural habits while writing, and the responses are truly varied. Some insist on absolute silence. Some will allow birdsong and other natural noises but nothing else. Some fill the room with heavy metal mayhem until the dust shakes down from the ceiling.

    Me? I can have music, but I prefer it to be music without words. Words, even sung words, can intrude too much, especially if I’m writing dialogue. So instrumental music is fine, classical music can be good, but my favourite is movie music. Film scores can be sensational for nudging the right mood along. Vangelis’s ‘Bladerunner’ soundtrack is excellent if I’m in a futuristic world. ‘Lord of the Rings’ is perfect if I’m doing a battle scene. Erich Korngold’s score for ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ or the Indiana Jones march are terrific for those ‘let’s go adventuring’ moments, while if I’m after epic grandeur, I love Maurice Jarre’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Spooky, creepy moments? Try Bernard Hermann’s ‘Vertigo’ or (if you’re up to it) ‘Psycho’. Romance? I love Max Steiner’s lushness. ‘Casablanca’ is an all time favourite, but when I find I’m thinking of Ingrid Bergman instead of what I’m meant to be writing, I know I need to change the playlist.

     

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  • September19th

    fantasyland5

    If you’ve ever looked at our world with discontent, unhappiness or a feeling of ‘I could do better than that!’ then fantasy writing is for you. In a lifetime of reading Fantasy and half a lifetime writing it, I’ve compiled a number of hints, tips and techniques for novice world-builders. And since I’m not loathe to offer advice, here’s a pick of the best of them.

    • Don’t place your Forest of Terror right next door to your Mountains of Doom alongside your Chasm of Eternal Fear. You can have too much of a good thing.
    • Remember: rivers flow from the mountains to the sea, not the other way around. Tempting though it may be to have water running uphill, the laws of hydrodynamics are fairly well understood and if broken, will have unfortunate consequences for urban sewerage and waste water disposal.
    • Weather happens.
    • Never try to have a capital of the Evil Empire of Doom without a Z, K or X in the name. It just doesn’t work.
    • The Web of Life is really tricky in imaginary worlds. Dragons as your top-level predator play hell with the food chain.
    • Never put anything interesting in the middle of your imaginary world. If your map goes to two pages, you can lose really interesting things in the gutter.
    • Cities are where they are for three reasons: protection, trade routes and ‘lost in the mists of time’. Always handy.
    • ‘Wetlands’ is a more congenial name for ‘swamp’.
    • There’s no reason why the north has to be cold and the south hot. Such an approach is Northern Hemisphere-centric.
    • Remember: you have to stop map-making sometime and start writing.
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  • August13th

     

    One of the other hats I wear is as co-publisher of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In a recent editorial, I wanted to let the writers out there know what we’re looking for. It turned into a statement of principles, the criteria by which we select stories for inclusion.

    Here it is again, for your interest.

    At Aurealis, we want to see:

    1. Good writing. By this, we mean more than a simple facility with written English. Even though this is important, it should be a given, a basic expectation of any submission. Rather, we enjoy apposite language, sentences with flexibility and rhythm, dialogue that is alive with character and intonation, complexity of construction and stark simplicity used in the right times and places.
    2. This is hard to define, and has much to do with Point 1, above. Your story should sound individual and alive through its narrative point of view.
    3. Your main character should be engaging. That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, there are a million different ways to make your main character engaging. You just have to choose the right one and implement it deftly.
    4. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your central premise needs to be wildly new, although this is desirable. A fresh take on a well-established concept is good. Quirky, idiosyncratic characters are also useful in upping your originality quotient.
    5. Be economical with your story.
    6. Quick movement into the heart of the story. We are a short story journal, which means you don’t have unlimited space to work with. This can be a challenge in Fantasy and SF, where world-building and background detail is important, but do your best. Don’t linger too long in the set-up. You’ll lose us.
    7. Hard SF. We don’t get enough of these sort of stories.
    8. Humour – but it has to be really
    9. Think about your characters. Are you making unwarranted assumptions about dominant cultures? Are you overlooking possibilities?
    10. The X Factor. It could be freshness, it could be the unexpected, it could be something shocking, it could be something that makes us grin or wince or sit up straight after the first paragraph. We can’t tell you what the X factor is, exactly, but we know it when we see it. Including it is a good thing.
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  • May10th

    violette in the forest

    Lesson 1:  Never Trust a Wolf.

    People like David Attenborough would have you believe that wolves are harmless creatures, wonderful examples of nature at its finest – strong, noble, dignified.  Well, he’s wrong.  Fairy Tales have taught me that wolves are evil, nasty and cunning beasts who will stop at nothing to devour you whole.  Not only will they give you false directions while you’re wandering in the woods, they will even dress up in women’s clothes in order to deceive you.  If there isn’t a brave woodcutter nearby, you’re history.Henry on the wolf's back

    And, needless to say, you don’t want to be a harmless old grandmother when a wolf needs your nightie…  According to fairy tales, senior citizens the world over must be shaking in their beds dreading the knock that signals the wolf at the door.  Fairy tales show us again and again the sheer cunning of these canines as they manage to get inside and then, it’s goodnight Granny.

    And that’s not to mention the plight of those who choose to build their houses out of straw or sticks …  Fairy tales demonstrate over and over that these harmless home dwellers are persecuted not just by an ordinary wolf, but by a Big Bad Wolf.  And why?  Is it just because they construct their houses out of substandard building materials?  Is it because they don’t have the necessary council planning permits? No.  It’s simply because those inside these flimsy houses taste so good, especially roasted in a nice hot oven and served with plenty of apple sauce and crackling …

    But I digress.  Fairy tales have taught me: never trust a wolf.

     

    Lesson 2:  Learn to tell the difference between a wolf and your granny. 

    It might sound obvious, but this may be a vital survival step one day.

     

    Lesson 3:  Names are important.

    Fairy tales showed me just how important names really are.  For instance, if a character’s name happens to be something like Rumplestiltskin, you can bet your bottom dollar that he’s not going to be the romantic hero played by Leonardo di Caprio in a soon to be released big budget motion picture based on the fairy tale of the same name.  Or then again, he might, depending on what you think of Leonardo di Caprio.  Whatever, a name like Rumplestiltskin would be like someone today calling their baby SnortyBottomFartyBreath and expecting them to grow up a well adjusted and rounded human being.The forest

    In fairy tales if your name is Jack, forget about having a dull life.  I feel sorry for those males in fairy tales who happened to be called Jack, and all they wanted was to have a nice quiet life and grow up and become an accountant.  Fat chance.  Every Jack in a fairy tale is destined to become a Giant Killer, or to Be Nimble, or to grow enormous bean stalks and steal treasure, or to be Jack Frost, Jack Be Nimble or one half of Jack and Jill.

    Let’s face it.  If you’re a Jack in a fairy tale, you’re going to wind up an action hero whether you like it or not.  When there’s Careers Counselling at Fairy Tale School, they don’t even bother with Jacks.  They’re just pointed at the door marked Danger, Fame and Fortune and that’s that.  If you’re a Jack, don’t even think about doing a traineeship at Target.  Jack’s are glory bound, no questions asked.

    And you have to be lucky with names in fairy tales, too.  Look at Snow White and Rose Red.  A bit unimaginative, don’t you think?  It’s like calling your dog Mud Brown.  But anyway I’m glad they didn’t have any younger brothers and sisters.  What would they have ended up as?  Sky Blue?  Tree Green?  Butter Yellow?  Blush Pink?  They’d start to sound like they should be in a paint colour chart not a fairy tale.

    Whatever, Fairy Tales have shown me that names are important.

     

    Lesson 4.  Take Care of Your Feet.

    You never know.  They could be your ticket to marrying the Prince and living happily ever after, which sounds like a pretty good gig if you can get it, as long as he allows you your personal space with plenty of room to grow as a human being.

    A note: the glorious illustrations above are by Virginia Frances Sterrett who died tragically young and really deserves to be better known.

     

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  • January20th

    fantasy-735265_1280

    After a recent trip to the chemist I’ve become convinced that the pharmaceutical industry has hundreds of Fantasy writers working for it.

    I’m not sure if this has been a deliberate policy of recruiting down-at-heel Fantasy writers whose last trilogy was cut short after Book 2 or if hordes of canny Fantasy writers have seen an opportunity to ply their craft in an area of untold riches, but there is little doubt that the language of Fantasy is everywhere you look in over-the-counter medications.

    What I’m talking about is the names of these preparations. Some might think that these names are nicely sciencey, but to the veteran Fantasy reader the effect is entirely different. Running an eye along the shelves, one is immediately transported to far off, mystical realms where larger-than-life characters wield powers far beyond mortal ken and converse in eldritch tones while consulting ancient scrolls that speak of doom and great deeds.

    Consider Zantac, for instance. It may be the name of a useful anti-heartburn medication, but it could equally be the name of a sorcerer of great power, but one with a fatal weakness that will turn him to dark and malignant plotting.

    Voltaren is a handy cream for bruises and muscle pain, but it sounds as if it could be the name of Zantac’s mortal enemy, a venerable mage of great power who is troubled by actions in his past that were prophesied by a wise woman of whom he took insufficient notice, the fool.

    Once started in this mode, it’s easy to detect the hand of the Fantasy writer. Below, I’ve listed some pharmaceutical items the names of which would be perfectly at home in a major fantasy series. See what you think.

    • Allerfexo. A bard, and possible comic relief. Known for his ribald versification, and is likely to have his head cut off after offending some noble or other.
    • Mylanta. Possibly a place name, a far-off land of beauty and many lakes, ruled by a queen who is both just and fair.
    • Gaviscon. Rugged, but internally tortured, main character. Stolid, taciturn, loyal. Not dull, though.
    • Flixonase. Companion to the rugged, but internally tortured, main character. Humorous. Possibly plays the flute. Borderline annoying.
    • Hirudoid. A warrior tribe in a distant land – ‘the fierce and unrelenting Hirudoid’.
    • Claratyne. Another place name, possibly in the mountains and featuring many towers. ‘To see the spires of Claratyne is to see the heights of creation.’
    • Telfast. An innkeeper. Wears an apron. Fat.
    • Lamisil. A sorceress of formidable power, the dread Lady Lamisil. She has a notable laugh that probably drives men mad.
    • Finalgon. A lesser wizard. Appears once in the story and then is never heard of again.
    • Zovirax. Evil. Wizard, warrior, doesn’t matter – is simply evil. Bound to be, with a Z and an X in his/her name.
    • Vosol. A soldier. Brave, loyal, accompanies the main character into dangerous territory and dies for his trouble.
    • Alcon. Possibly a city – ‘brawling, bustling, breathtaking Alcon’. Possibly a thief – ‘nimble-fingered Alcon, to whom no lock is barred. Possibly a river – ‘swift and deep the mighty Alcon ran, league to league, through forest and mountain, from the plains to the sea, unmatched in its breadth and wetness’.
    • Savlon. A city. Not a very interesting one.
    • Coloxyl. A villainous duke. Oily, ingratiating, sinister, and sports a sensational goatee.
    • Dulcolax. Another villainous duke? Not as villainous as Coloxyl. Good with money, though.
    • Sorbolene. ‘Ah, Sorbolene, fair Sorbolene, the fey and star-eyed elven queen!/She makes this world both kind and clean, does hygienic Sorbolene!’ Or similar.
    • Imodium. Another city, most likely with a fortress that will be besieged by the ravening hordes of evil. Has impressive walls.
    • Combantrin. The dark and doom-wracked warrior overlord, Combantrin both stalks his fate and fears it. Whatever that means.

    See what I mean? Over-the-counter medications abound with names that could have been ripped straight from the pages of Fantasy novels. The alternative explanation is, as I’ve suggested, that Fantasy writers have found a neat sideline, a way to make some bread-and-butter money through their stock in trade – inventing names. Is it any wonder that wandering around today’s chemist is like entering a grand, epic, sweeping tale of good versus evil, where fast magics are unleashed and brave goatherds are revealed to be the rightful heir to the throne after his or her courageous and self-sacrificing deeds.

    Thank you Big Pharma.

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  • December21st

    A couple of weeks ago, martianI was asked in to 774 ABC Melbourne for Raf Epstein’s monthly ‘Read with Raf’ book club, to chat about ‘The Martian’. I’d sent in a review based on my blog piece and Raf enjoyed it enough to want more. Raf, Alicia Sometimes and I had a good twenty, twenty-five minutes discussing, analysing and exploring Andy Weir’s book, as well as taking responses from the public via phone and text. We also broadened the discussion into the whole world of Science Fiction and its appeal. Good fun all round.

    Here’s a podcast of the session.

     

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  • November12th

    dystopiasAh, definitions, definitions, definitions! It’s always the way with genre fiction that we have to grapple with definitions and borders and ruling in and ruling out. It’s funny how mainstream fiction doesn’t get all het up about things like, but that’s an issue for another day.

    This selection of ten superb Australian YA fiction titles is probably more of a grab bag than the last few I’ve done (see here and here) but that’s the nature of the beast. I’m possibly conflating two sub-genres here but they go together so naturally, and there are so many overlaps and titles on the border but I’m happy to live with this. The grand tradition of the End of the World novel and the grand tradition of the post-apocalyptic Dystopian novel are well represented in Australian YA fiction, with standout series like John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began opus, but I’m spreading the net wide and I hope to introduce some titles that you might be unaware of, or titles that have been unjustly neglected.

    In short, if you like The Hunger Games or Divergent or The Maze Runner you might like to try these sensational books.

    For more on each of them, follow the hyperlinks.

     

    CBD – John Heffernan (2000). Twenty-third century Sydney is in ruins, and long hidden stories might point the way to escape from an oppressive society. Dark and absorbing.

    My Sister Sif – Ruth Park (1986). Is the world ending or is it just in really bad shape? ClifFi ahead of its time. Lyrical and dreamlike.

    Taronga – Victor Kelleher (1986). It helps to survive in a post-apocalyptic world if you can talk to and befriend animals. Groundbreaking and iconic.

    The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf – Ambelin Kwaymullina (2013). Post-apocalyptic mind powers, repressive dictatorship, hidden secrets to be uncovered, rebels and underground resistance. What’s not to like? Punchy and refreshing.

    Originator – Claire Carmichael (1998). Plagues have decimated the world and society is rigidly stratified, and our heroes are rebels. Pacey and challenging.

    Shade’s Children – Garth Nix (1997). In an unhappy future where no adults exist 14-year-olds are harvested for their parts, which is pretty dystopic. Grim and clever.

    Waiting for the End of the WorldLee Harding (1983). In the chaos following the collapse of society, fleeing to the hills to escape the rising tyranny looks like a solution. Gritty and thoughtful.

    The Lake at the End of the World – Caroline MacDonald (1988). In a post-nuclear holocaust world survival is complicated by the entrenched beliefs of cults. Farseeing and moving.

    Chasing the Valley – Skye Melki-Wegner (2013). Power struggles in a dystopic world full of clever magic and esoteric technology. Lively and original.

    Obernewtyn – Isobelle Carmody (1987). After the apocalypse outcasts and misfits struggle for freedom. Intense and compelling.

     

    As usual, modesty forbids me including my end of the worlder, Blackout (2000), but if you’d like to see what happens to society when all electricity stops, I’m not going to stand in your way :-).

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  • October23rd

    fantasy-covers

    In singling out High Fantasy, I’m really genre splitting here and trying to show that Fantasy is a vast and varied offering, with all sorts of subtleties, approaches and flavours that non-genre readers are perhaps unaware of. By High Fantasy, I mean the full on Tolkienesque epic, complete with fully imagined secondary world, lots of magic and rampant adventure. Australia has a great tradition of writing YA High Fantasy. Here are some recommendations that range over the years right up until today, some obvious choices, some less well known. Some of that is, naturally, are the first books of series. For more on each title, follow the links.

    1. The Starthorn Tree – Kate Forsyth. Foretellings and escapes.
    2. Sabriel – Garth Nix. The bells and the dead.
    3. A Dark Winter – Dave Luckett. Battles and empires.
    4. The Green Prince – Sophie Masson. Prophecies and the sea.
    5. Foundling – David Cornish. Costumes and grotesquerie.
    6. The Singer of All Songs –Kate Constable. Journeys and enchantments.
    7. The Ruins of Gorlan – John Flanagan. Exile and treachery
    8. Eon – Alison Goodman. Dragons and gender fluidity.
    9. The Book of Lies – James Moloney. Truth and magic.
    10. Finnikin of the Rock – Melina Marchetta. Curses and friendships
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