PeterMBall

Notes From the Brain Jar, or An Argument for Giving Me Unfettered Access To Your Inbox

With GenreCon over, I get to turn my attention to the ignored parts of my writing life that I haven’t yet talked about much. One of these is Notes from the Brain Jar, the more-or-less weekly email newsletter I send out every Wednesday that contains process notes, sneak peaks, thoughts inspired  on recent reading, and the occasionally curated series of links to interesting things.

You can subscribe, if that sounds like your kind of thing, via the sign-up page or just head over to the sidebar on this here site.

You can also check out the archive of previous newsletters. Sometimes I talk about writing or starting a small press. Sometimes I talk about the philosophical problems presented by soup. Sometimes I remind you that I’ve got a new book coming and it would be peachy-keen if you bought it.

On GenreCon 2017 & Taking Off My Convener Hat For A While

My post-con hair frightens me and refuses to be tamed

ONE

I usually roll in here the day after GenreCon and post my thoughts about the conference, but this year I’m caught between either saying too little or too much and so I’ve left it until after I chatted to my boss.

GenreCon 2017 is my fourth go-around with the conference and it’s easily been the biggest, bringing in 240+ writers over the weekend and selling out the State Library venue. That’s a far cry from the 130 writers who showed up for the first conference in Parramatta back in 2012.

I set out to deliver a 2017 conference that would make the best possible argument for keeping GenreCon around when QWC’s management committee and CEO considered their future projects. The result wasn’t a flawlessly run con – no event this size ever will be – but it is definitely the best possible argument I could set forward. 2017 was a year of phenomenal guests, a year where the volunteers of years past solidified into a core team that most attendees will never truly understand how much the conference owes, and the year where the conference (to my knowledge) delivered on all the key points it needed to deliver on.

It’s not a guarantee there will be another – it’s impossible to do that two years out, when working with a non-profit that has a management board, a reduced funding environment, and a small staff – but I feel like the best possible argument has been made with 2017.

TWO

Every GenreCon, we send out invites to a guests because we’re convinced they will show up and kill it. Every year, the guests who elect to come show up and do exactly that, which has the incredibly benefit that it makes us look good simply because we had the common sense to recognise people who were a) smart, b) talented, and c) willing to give generously of their time and experience to help newer writers. A huge amount of thanks go out to this year’s GenreCon Guests: Nalini Singh, Delilah Dawson, Amy Andrews, Angela Slatter, Claire Coleman, Dan Findlay, Emma Viskic, Garth Nix, and Sean Williams.

Thanks also go out to the numerous writers who volunteered to be part of the program, the editors and agents who took pitches at the conference, and to the enormously hard-working volunteer crew who made up the GenreCon Ninja Team. Few people realise just how essential the latter are in making the weekend work, and they aren’t shouted anywhere near the number of drinks they deserve for the hours they put in on behalf of other writers.

THREE

I’ve made three attempts to write this post and deleted all of them, because I keep dancing around a fact that I haven’t been keen to acknowledge in public: if QWC conference runs in 2019, there is a good chance I won’t be able to step into the role of convenor in the same way I’ve worked on the previous four. The end of 2019 when GenreCon would run coincides with the time I’m meant to be delivering my PhD thesis, and I want that thing delivered before my scholarship runs out. My involvement in a 2019 con would be focused, rather than over-arching, with the goal of passing on things I’ve learned over the past five years so that someone else can carry the conference the rest of the way to the finish line.

On one hand, I do not envy them that job. GenreCon is always hard work, and the logistics of putting everything together takes up a huge amount of mental real estate that means it often spills over the hours set aside to work on it. I’ve always been pretty sanguine when that meant giving up other things, but it’s a trade-off that gets harder and harder over time, and it’s made worse by the fact that the con doesn’t end with the con. There’s still the post-game reports that need to be written, the attendee surveys where we figure out what went right and what went wrong. Paperwork and clean-up and conversations and forward planning.

For all that convening GenreCon is a fantastic gig, I doubt I can give up that mental space and still finish writing a thesis. It’s been hard enough to give up that mental space and keep The Birdcage Heart on track for release at the end of the month, despite the fact that many of the stories in the collection were previously published and there’s a minimal amount of work required to get the book over the line.

On the other hand, I do envy them. There are few things I’ve done in my professional life that have been as satisfying as running GenreCon, and especially building it up to the point where hit this year. It was the gig that kept me at QWC for many years, and the gig that brought me back when I resigned as the manager of the Australian Writers Marketplace last year. There is no doubt, when 2019 rolls around, that I will look back and wonder if perhaps I was a little hasty – perhaps it will be less work than I think, or I could just get more done on the thesis in advance…

I plan on ignoring those thoughts, even if part of me will eel a little selfish for choosing to chase after the title of Doctor over working on something that helps two hundred and fifty writers. The temptation to go back and convene “just one more” is always going to be strong, but there’s a danger to sitting in a role like that too long. You become set in your ways right about the time you want someone to come in and look at things in a new way. .

I think 2017 was a pretty good year for my run to end on. It may not have been a perfect conference – no event of this size ever will be – but it feels like it was the best possible conference I could run and it hit all the goals I wanted it to hit.

Thanks to everyone who made that happen, this year and in all the years prior. You lot are fucking awesome.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

This week is all GenreCon, all the time. Pretty much everything else takes a backseat to getting the whole thing launched on Friday and running over the weekend, which means my checkins will be pretty sparse this week and next.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I’m about halfway through Caliban’s War, the second book of The Expanse, which I picked up after going through the first book at a pretty steady clip. I love the TV version adapted from James S. A. Corey’s books, but it’s definitely one of those series where the books are the better format. Reading this and the Game of Thrones books in relatively close succession has been really useful, as I can start seeing how they both do the big, sprawling conflict with multiple stakeholders.

What action do I need to take?

Schedule breaks that are meaningful, rather than just collapsing in a heap. This week is kinda constant and it takes conscious effort to keep myself from checking email and checking hashtags for potential problems with the con, and it’s hard to set aside that impulse and get away from the conference.

Coming November 30: The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales

I’ve dropped hints about this on Facebook and the mailing list over the last week, but now that the details are up in the major ebook stores it’s time to make it official: my first short story collection, The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales, will be released in ebook on the 30th of November (with a print edition following in 2018).

PRE-ORDERS ARE AVAILABLE NOW

Rat descends a staircase that never ends, following the rules laid out by his guidebook.

Copenhagen is invaded by angry merfolk piloting war-machines crafted from old shipwrecks.

A musician with a grudge upsets the delicate balance of a very unusual seaside town.

The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales collects twelve weird and unusual fantasy tales from Peter M Ball. Within these pages you’ll meet an executioner tasked with killing a man who cannot be killed, a young man with a birdcage where his year should be, and a frustrated public servant trying to deal with an unruly wizard determined to prove his powers.

You’ll watch a relationship unravel as a young man’s former lovers are revealed to be creatures of myth, reminisce with the residents of a city overrun with giant thorns, and visit Isla Tortuga’s last, great house of ill repute where no-one is exactly what they seem on the surface.

Often strange, always magical, these stories will take you on a journey through love, joy, and sorrow.

The Shortcut Only Works When You’re The First to Find It

A thing I’ve been thinking about this week.

It’s tempting to say there are no shortcuts to becoming a published writer. The default published writers tend to give is simple: write a lot, keep improving your craft, submit a lot, keep going. This is how many of us got our start, and its how many of us keep our careers going, year after year.

It’s tempting to say there are no shortcuts, but it isn’t exactly true. Every now and then people do find a work-around to the old ways of getting published. They wrote a novel and published it to their blog, only to have it picked up by a publisher. They launched their backlist as ebooks after years of being rejected, and suddenly they had a massive career.

There are people who fanfic on Wattpad that got picked up, or they cultivated a project on social media, or they podcasted their story, or they did an early iteration of crowd-funding. There are dozens of stories about people who found their way around traditional publishing’s gatekeepers, and those stories tend to get repeated in every news article or review that springs up around their work.

None of these things are necessarily shortcuts, as they still require work and effort. They just took a different path to publishing, because publishing likes it when authors show up who can write, possess and audience, and come with a ready-made marketing hook. These people get talked about because their path into traditional publishing were exceptions to the rule. They are news because they remarkable, usually because they’re the early adopters who took a chance just to see what would happen.

The first person to capture an audience by blogging their novel was doing something unique; the hundredth person to do it will find that the shortcut was only faster because it was so rarely used. The thousandth person is basically throwing a penny into a wishing well and hoping it pays off. We’ve seen this trick before, and unless you’re doing it better, it’s not going to be the same.

Even if you possess the same level of skill and talent, it’s almost impossible to recreate that success by taking the same path the trailblazer followed. The more a path gets used, the greater the diminishing returns for the work put in.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

We’re two weeks out from GenreCon, so creative goals are largely taking a back seat to con management, answering last-minute questions, and whatever minor Brain Jar/Writing tasks I’m fitting around the edges. My main focus this week is making progress on the thesis chapter, and setting aside two hours a day to do some serious reading and annotating as I scan the key texts for quotes I need.

What’s inspiring me this week?

One of the projects I’ve got planned for 2019 or so involves writing in the late Victorian era, right up at the end of Victoria’s reign. I keep putting this one off because I can’t picture it in my head, reverting to Jane Ausen-esque regency trappings whenever I start putting the story together simply because I’ve got a lot more reference points for lie in the 1830s than I do life in 1901.

I mentioned this to my partner and she immediately started looking for stories and shows that would start to fill that gap, and this week we sat down to watch The Paradise – a BBC adaptation of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames that moves the story over to England. The first season is an incredible amount of fun, visually spectacular and very sweet, although the second season embraces a kind of absurdity that only makes sense within the context of the show what with everyone engaging in elaborate plots.

What action do I need to take?

Self-care. And not the do-something-relaxing-and-take-care-of-yourself kind, but the somewhat harder lets-be-realistic-about-whats-fucking-you-up-and-manage-boundaries kind, since the combination of con-running, press launching, and upcoming PhD confirmation have moved me over from stressed to the kind of prolonged anxiety that means I’m spending about 70% of my waking hours in a state of fight-or-flight.

Old School

I am still one of those people who follows blogs through an RSS reader, setting aside a portion of my day to process a whacking great chunk of data from around the internet. My feeds are pretty carefully curated and sorted into categories, so I can narrow my focus down to writing advice, say, or SF Authors, or weird science stories that are likely to inspire stories. I still lament the loss of google reader and the google dashboard homepage which used to kick off every day with my email, feed, and project notepad laid out before me.

My feee contains approximately 200 post a day. On average, I read about twenty of them in detail, or open them up and save them in a file to process later when I’ve got the time. Some of those links find their way into social media feeds, some of them prompt discussion here or in my new email newsletter where I bang on about behind-the-scenes stuff, and some are just things that look interesting.

It is the nearest thing to sitting down and opening a newspaper every morning that I can think of in this day and age, and its already an archaic habit.

I didn’t even realise RSS feeds were a thing until my late thirties.

On Signatures, Land Lines, and The Things that Become Anachronisms

I spent the weekend going through page-proofs of stories I wrote a decade ago, and one of the things that struck me were plot elements that seem anachronistic to me ten years later. The main culprit was Briar Day, which features two ex-lovers talking on the phone will all manner of chaotic things have them trapped in their respective houses.

2007 wasn’t that long ago, but it was still an age where smart-phones were just coming to prominence, logging on to social media still seemed like a shiny, new experience, and you could still set a story where getting news from a 6:00 PM report on TV seemed more logical than anything else. All the communication takes place through landlines, with no chance of knowing who is calling before you answer, and the story’s engagement with the more toxic elements of masculinity seems quaint given the rise of MRAs, GamerGate, and everything else in the years since it first saw publication.

Twelve hours after finishing the proofs – and talking myself out of rewriting the story simply because it all seemed so old-fashioned to me now – I woke up to the news that Mastercard is starting to phase out signatures as a form of credit card security.

It’s weird to think that signatures are going the way of landline phones, but it makes all kinds of sense. Signatures are a tool of a bygone age, in terms of maintaining security, and I can’t remember the last time I actually saw my signature checked when using a credit card.

Things move on.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I’m fleshing out my notes on the first chapter of the thesis exegesis, refining the first act of the thesis novella, and doing a deep dive on the planning for a Brain Jar project, Hell Track, where I try revising the current plan and locking things down the how-and-why of all the character actors.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I’ve been continuing my reading of the hardboiled detective cannon over the last week, picking up Mickey Spillane’s first novel, I, The Jury. The book’s copy draws a connection between Spillane’s Mike Hammer and current character’s like Jack Reacher, and there’s definitely something too that. On the other hand, it’s a book that’s incredibly problematic in its depictions of psychology and pretty much anyone who isn’t white, male, and a cop; that’s the kind of thing that gets me interested in seeing how it can be updated and subverted in other works.

What action do I need to take?

I’m rolling through the to-do list for getting Brain Jar Press off the ground and realised that I’ve been shuffling the question of a web presence down the list several times. Part of me is contemplating just keeping it as a landing page here, on my site, as an interim measure, but it will mean investigating plugins since they’re not a default option with my WordPress theme.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

This week I’m revising the first 5,000 words of my thesis novella, do the paperwork for the American tax system that will allow me to get Brain Jar’s books into a bunch of the sales systems, setting up the options that will allow me to sell books here on the site, and putting together a plan for the first chapter of the theory side of my thesis.

What’s inspiring me this week?

I’m doing a lot of novella reading at the moment, nailing down the structure now that my brain seems to default to a 50,000 words narrative instead of 25,000. This week’s was Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers On Bone, which is a really nice blend of hardboiled detective tropes and the weirder end of Lovecraft’s cannon. The voice and the metaphors in this one are great, and I can see why a bunch of friends rave about Khaw’s work.

Incidentally, it’s currently available as part of an ebook four-pack with three over Lovecraftian themed novellas from Tor.com. I’ve read Agents of Dreamland already, ’cause Kiernan is one of my must-buy authors and the book is outstanding, and I’m halfway through The Ballad of Black Tom and enjoying it immensely.

What action do I need to take?

Man, so many things. I sat down yesterday morning and put together a list of 34 things that need to be done before the end of October just so I don’t miss something. The biggest task is going through all my bookshelves and sorting out books that can go into storage, books that are going into storage as “unread,” and books that are definitely staying in the apartment as I start making room for my significant other to move in. A lot of the choices are about figuring out what research/reference books I’ll need when, based on the projects planned over the next year or two.