Big Thoughts

Posts where I grapple with topics such as feminism, politics, life in general, and other complex ideas

Writing Series Works in the Age of the Internet

I picked up the first book in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy from a remainder table when I was fourteen, part of a five-books-for-ten-bucks deal where I deployed my limited teenage resources. Over the years that remainder table introduced me to many books I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise, but Black Sun Rising was one of the few that I still hold onto. Tattered and torn after twenty-seven years of ownership, largely unread after the age of eighteen, but still tucked away on my bookshelf alongside Forgotten Realms novels as a reminder of where my reading tastes used to live and breathe.

I picked up the second book of the Coldfire trilogy three years later, recognizing it by the cover art and the familiar, embossed-gold font. The repeated motif’s are a distinctly nineties approach to fantasy: dark, twisted trees; a blonde warrior with a magic sword and improbably styled hair that suggests fantasy worlds have access to good conditioner; keywords on the cover blurb like Adept, Sorcerer, Devouring, and Darkness.

When True Night Falls is in better shape, its pages a little yellowed with age. Plus, I’m not actually sure I’ve read it. I remember the first book clearly, with its mix of Fantasy and SF tropes, magic derived from an alien energy running through a colonized planet, but I have no recollection about what happens in the second book or how it sets up the third. I think I was waiting to track down the third book before I engaged with the series again.

This sounds perfectly reasonable, here in 2017. Back in 1994, when the internet was still fascinated with getting Coke machines online and Amazon was in its first year of existence, waiting for the third book of a series twice-remaindered in Australia was an act of deranged optimism.

But I was young. I knew nothing about the way publishing worked, or how books found their way to bookstores. I thought my decision to wait for the third book was perfectly sane and reasonable, because the first two books of a trilogy meant the third would show up, eventually.

They were telling a story. The third book was the end of it. That was how things worked.

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I’m spending a lot of time thinking about trilogies and serials and series at the moment, courtesy of my PhD. I went in explicitly looking to better understand the craft side of things. The initial germ of the idea came when I was kicking around a few series ideas, and friends were kicking me volumes of ongoing trilogies or series to critique, and I figured that understanding how series works would allow me to write and critique in a more useful way.

It’s taken about six weeks of reading to realise that it’s virtually impossible to divorce the writing of series from the publishing realities that surround them. I’m not exactly blind to the effects digital technologies have had on the publishing industry – a large part of my gig at the Writers Centre involved talking about the impact and advantages of ebooks – but it’s at its most interesting when we consider the impact that a shifting publishing landscape has on the decisions writers make.

At its simplest, publishing is a system of exchange between three stakeholders. A writer produces intellectual property in the form of a book. A publisher provides the financial capital to produce the book, along with the human resources to handle the the refinement and production of the book. They also leverage a network of promotion and distribution arms that the writer, by themselves, doesn’t have, in order to get the book into the hands of readers craving a particular reading experience that they’re willing to pay money for. When everything goes well, the writer, the publisher, and the reader all feel like they’ve made an even exchange, and everyone goes home with something they want.

The reality was almost never that simple. Economies of scale become part of the equation, because it costs money to store books and it costs money to ship books and it was impossible for any bookstore to carry a copy of every book ever written. Books that didn’t sell enough to justify those costs had a very short shelf-life. Books that weren’t ordered in sufficient qualities to justify keeping them in a warehouse would end up pulped or remaindered, which is how they found their way to a five-for-ten-dollar bin at my local store.

None of this is news, if you’ve got a working idea of publishing, but what’s been interesting me this week is an essay from 1999, Tracing the Adult Series, which appeared in the TechNicalities journal. The author, Maureen Nimmo, talks about the difficulties of tracking series works for adults in library catalogue. There’s one bit that leapt out at me in particular:

Catalogers aren’t the only ones at fault here. Book publishers don’t always give sufficient information within individual books to help. Series information in the books themselves, based on personal observations, is scanty and inconstant…Standard series title pages are rare in this sort of literature. Instead, catalogers are left to glean what series information is available from flyleaves (assuming it isn’t discarded before the book gets to the cataloger) or blurbs printed on the back of the book. There may be nothing on the cover or the title page of the book to alert the readers that the book is part of a series.

This intrigued me to the point where I dragged Friedman’s books off the shelves and looked for the things that overtly identified it as a trilogy. Once you discarded the trade dress, there were only two: all three grouped the books together “The Coldfire Trilogy” in the section up front devoted to the time-honored Also by C.S. Friedman, and the bears The stunning conclusion of the Coldfire trilogy” on the cover. The second book does identify itself as a sequel to the first, but doesn’t actually mention the word Trilogy anywhere else.

This lack of information makes perfect sense in a publishing environment defined by scarcity and limited space. If books have a small sales window and shelf-life, then you absolutely want to have your cake and eat it too. Slapping “Book Two” on the cover is a red flag to anyone picking it up that they’ve missed what’s come before. While you want existing readers to find it, you don’t want to be limited to existing readers when it comes to sales.

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If you planned on writing fantasy in the eighties and nineties, you planned on writing a three-book trilogy. It’s like the structure of Lord of the Rings passed into the genre’s DNA, becoming part of the conventional wisdom shared by writers and readers alike. I didn’t need to be told Friedman’s work was a trilogy when I stumbled across it at the age of fourteen, because I simply assumed that most fantasy stories were told in three parts (It will still be another year before I encountered David Eddings, and my mind was peeled open by the fact you could tell a story in five parts).

And with that knowledge came the patience required to search out parts of the series. The assumption that if I missed the boat on first release, I’d be spending quality time searching for the missing instalments over the new few years. Friedman’s trilogy was one of the few that eluded me in that time. I couldn’t find the third book new, lurking on the bottom shelf of a bookstore I’d never visited before. Nor could I find it second hand, or tucked away in a remainder bin like the first two instalments had been. After a while, it ceased being something I looked for at all, just an unfinished trilogy sitting on my bookshelf, waiting for the day when serendipity finally finished my collection.

In the end, it wasn’t luck that brought the third book to me. It was stumbling over the first two books tucked away in my own bookshelf, then spending sixty seconds ordering a copy of book three on Amazon.

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There’s a really useful idea in John B. Thompson’s study of the publishing industry, Merchants of Culture, where he takes Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of The Field and applies it to the publishing industry. The Field is…well, lets go with Thompson’s description:

A field is a structured space of social positions which ca be occupied by agents and organisations, and in which the position of any agent or organisation depends on the type and quantity of resources or ‘capital’ they have at their disposal. Any social arena – a business sector, a sphere of education, a domain of sport – can be treated as a field in which agents and organisations are linked together in relations of cooperation, competition, and interdependency. Markets are an important part of some fields, but fields are always more than markets.

Which is really just sociologist for publishing is an enormously complicated network of stakeholders, all of which are linked together in a web of interconnected business relationships. What’s useful about Thompson’s book is the way he takes the concept of the field and breaks down the five kinds of capital at work in publishing.

More importantly, it provides a framework for understanding how the field of publishing has shifted as a result of technology, which makes the study of series considerably more nuanced than I’d first expected.

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I keep circling back to the Coldfire Trilogy when I think about this, and in particular that decade plus period where I couldn’t find the third book. For two books I contributed very little economic capital to the publishers behind the series, picking volumes up second-hand or in remainder. By the time I did actually purchase the third book through Amazon, it was via a sales chain that would have seemed unthinkable when the first volume when to print.

On the other hand, they were a series of books I thought to finish purchasing over a decade after the first two volumes were acquired. It was on the list of things I meant to read one day, if only I could find all the books.

I’d started my thesis with a pretty clear idea that the advent of Amazon and ebooks had led to a big jump in series works, particularly among the indie publishing crowd who talk about series works a kind of default strategy. The Field has its own logic, which affects the way people consciously and subconsciously apply their capital to gain desired effects, and the capacity to have a single bookstore that stocks everything cleans up a lot of issues with series works.

But it’s not just having everything available that’s shifted the field. Trilogies and ongoing series works have always held a kind of value, but it wasn’t until the advent of Amazon and widespread ebook use that the kind of capital they accumulate with readers valuable enough to overcome the costs of keeping the book available. Series works always accumulated social and cultural capital – and publishing has often capitalised upon that capital  – it’s just that they weren’t positioned in a marketplace capable of translating that capital into financial gain in a cost-effective way. The limitations of printing, storage, and distribution worked against the form.

But once the problem of availability is solved, labelling series works as part of a series becomes infinitely more attractive. The search algorithms of Google and Amazon are considerably more nuanced than old library systems. More importantly, the internet opens up the conversation that surrounds books.

At fourteen, I talked about the fantasy novels I loved with a half-dozen friends with similar reading tastes. At forty, I share my reading with blog readers, facebook friends, GoodRead followers, Instagram followers, and a dozen other places. The social capital surrounding a trilogy or series is considerably higher today than it was back in the early nineties. My suspicion is that this shift is one of the reasons why the fast roll-out of a series became a thing in recent years, attempting to capitalise on the conversation and keep the book visible.

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Friedman’s trilogy has been sitting on my couch for two weeks now, ever since I started thinking about all this. At some point, I need to read it. I just don’t know whether that’s going to be during the PhD or after it.

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Poem

It’s 1994 and I’m sitting in a cinema with tears on my cheeks. Gareth has just died and Matthew is at the pulpit, reading W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues as the eulogy for his friend. It wrecks me as few things have wrecked me, in my young life. John Hannah delivers a performance that makes me a fan for life. A fan that will follow him through the third Mummy film and Sliding Doors, professing an affection for both.

Three years later I see Auden’s poem on the page. I’m twenty years old, studying poetry, getting ready to spend two years writing an honours thesis about poetics and space and the city I live in. I’ve been published, as a poet. Performed my work at festivals. I wander the streets with notebooks in my backpack, writing draft after draft, hundreds of poems every year. I embrace the idea of quantity as a means of learning craft. It turns out, that’s not a bad way to learn.

I write some okay poems in those two years. I write a lot of bad ones. They were about girls, mostly. That’s why I started with poetry, why I kept at it for years afterwards. I was young and awkward and funny-looking. I didn’t know how to talk to people at all, let alone the opposite sex.

And I was foolish enough to believe that writing poetry would be my way of forging connection with the world around me. And foolish enough to happy, when that finally worked.


My favourite poem begins from a place of heartbreak and sorrow. Pablo Neruda doesn’t bother trying to hide it; everything is right there in the opening: Tonight I can write the saddest lines. He sets the parameters and everything progresses from there: the night is shattered; the immensity of loss grows larger; the inevitability of change is both a hurt and a solace.

I read Neruda as younger man, long before my heart was even bruised, let alone properly broken. I admired the exquisite longing of his words, back then. I craved the intensity of the feeling.

Years later, after my heart had been properly broken, re-reading Neruda’s poem wasn’t the same. I didn’t crave intensity anymore, could barely handle the feelings that roiled inside me. All I wanted was a release, the promise that the hurt would stop.

I read it again, very recently. It’s brilliance is dimmed, after all these years, but there is no doubt that it still shines.


In his book, Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch outlines a theory that explains poetry better than anyone else I’ve read. Poetry is the language inside language, he says, his analogy inherited from Paul Valery. It’s the language we turn to when words themselves are inadequate to the task.

It’s the language we turn to when I hurt is not enough. When I love, or I grieve, or I feel will not get the job done.

Poetry is the place we turn when words can no longer contain our sentiment, and we need the other elements of language to pick up the slack.

You can tell a good poet from a bad one by their ability to recognise more than this. To acknowledge that poetry conquers the immensity of feeling through more than the recognition of feelings.

A good poet see through the emotions and looks to the feelings, searches for ways to wring more meaning from words through tone and rhythm and language. They create structures, edifices that bolster the words and hold the weight of meaning upright.

A good poet works magic with all the diligence of a stage magician, utterly aware of how they’re directing the audience’s attention in order to pull off their trick.

And when they’re done, you don’t see the training. You don’t see the smoke or the mirrors or anything but the trick they want you to see.


It takes effort to love poetry. Books are hard to track down, and skew towards the classics. You spend more time reading the poets of yesterday than you do the poets of tomorrow. You trawl second-hand stores, breathing in the smell of dust and cellulous and lignin.

You find other poets and talk to them, because they talk about poetry in ways that other people do not. ­


My second favourite poem begins from a place of warning. Alice Walker states it clearly:

Do not give you heart
to someone who eats hearts
who finds heartmeat
delicious.

I read that poem for the first time just before the end of a relationship. Right before my heart was properly wrecked, like a car driven over the edge of a cliff and left to burn in the chasm below.

That opening sucked my breath away, left me trembling as it dawned on me that things in my life were not good. The rest of the poem barely mattered, although I found myself reading it again and again as the years went by. Slowly, I saw the other verses, building to more than heartbreak.

Years later, it occurred to me that I had more in common with the carnivore in Walker’s poem than I ever had with the victim.


At twenty, I would have told you that I wrote poetry to meet women, and it would have been true enough that I would not feel like I liar. It’s easier to retreat behind true statements, even if they aren’t the whole of the story.

At thirty, I would have told you I didn’t write poetry anymore, and that people are reluctant to let you stop. For years after I gave up writing verse, people would introduce me using poetry alongside my name: this is Peter; he’s a poet. Poetry stained my life the way ink stains the fingers, and it proved even harder to scrub free.

Today, I sit on my couch and gather books around me. I re-read Auden, and Neruda, and Walker, and other poems I loved almost as much as those three. I think about the years I devoted to writing verse, pursing poetry with a dogged persistence I’ve never truly brought to any other form of writing.

Not because I wanted to meet women, or because I loved the poetry itself. Not because of the attention, although I craved that for a while. Not because I thrilled at the magic of poetry, or enjoyed the diligent study of form and structure that came with it.

Our motivations for doing anything are far more complex than any of that. I wrote poetry for all those reasons. I wrote poetry for none of them.

I wrote because I wanted to be heard and the discovery that I could be was heady as drinking my first glass of wine. I wrote poetry because I craved connection, and was not good at establishing it in any other way. I wrote poetry because it presented me with opportunities, gave me a way of navigating a writing degree that wasn’t quite sure how to handle my proclivity for writing fantasy, connected me with other writers I could not connect with any other way.

I wrote poetry, drew what I needed from it.

Then, I stopped. Acknowledged that I wasn’t a poet, not in any way that counted.

I regret nothing about that decision.

It’s one of the few I can say that about, with any degree of surety.


What I love about Neruda’s poem is this: there is nothing special about heartbreak and longing. We all want. We are all denied. Even before your heart is wrecked, you know what is coming. There is nothing interesting in the longing.

But we want it to be special. We want our pain to be unlike any other. We want to be unique. For the world to acknowledge that we hurt like no-one has ever hurt before.

That feeling is there, in Neruda’s work. For years, I adored that recognition, blind to the obvious irony.


It’s 2016 and I’m sitting on my couch, watching youtube. I’ve searched for John Hannah and Funeral Blues, revisiting the moment I first truly fell for poetry. I’m not crying, this time. The room is brightly lit. Hannah is still magnificent, and so are Auden’s words, but they don’t feel the same at thirty-nine as they did at seventeen.

What gets me, this time, are the words before the poem, the acknowledgement of poetry’s necessity. Matthew describes his friend through other people’s eyes, then turns to his own feelings: Unfortunately, he says, there, I run out of words.

There, I run out of words.

For nineteen years now, the words have been there. I make my living articulating things, making them pretty and comprehensible, arranging things so words do what I want them to do.

And I know that it will not last. It cannot last. Words have been adequate for the situations I find myself in, but there are situations coming where they will fail me. I have both parents. I’ve lost no-one close to me. The day will come when those are no longer true. A day when I need words to be there, and they will not bend to my will.

When that happens, it’s comforting to think that poetry will be waiting for me, ready to fill the gaps. And John Hannah, reading Auden, will no doubt make me weep again.

melbourne-parks

Flight

It’s not that I’m afraid of flying. I am okay with being in the air. I like airports, and I like planes, and I like being in transit. There is a freedom to being between places, with little to do but wait. I read a lot, on planes, with a speed that I will never manage on the ground.

Nor, as the old joke suggests, am I afraid of the landing if things go wrong, although I do think about it as we taxi down the runway. I close my eyes and picture the moment of impact. Or, rather, a moment of impact, as I expect the image in my head bears no relationship to the reality of connecting with the ground. In my imagination the human body is like a squishy china vase, tipped from the edge of a table and allowed to hit the floor. In my imagination we do not squish, but shatter. We disintegrate on impact, reduced to wet, pink shards that scatter and take considerably effort to clean up.

But I am okay with that ending. It seems messy, but very quick.

What bothers me is falling. The helpless moments as I tumble, watching the inevitable rush towards me. What bothers me are those terrifying seconds when the end is coming and panic seems a perfectly sane response, because there is nothing at all I can do to stop me and the ground from connecting. There is time to think, as you fall. To realise what will come.

And it’s this that keeps me awake, the night before I fly. The terrible, awful but what if that is still less likely than being hit by a car.

It’s eight in the morning. I’m flying to Melbourne. I’ve already been awake for far too many hours.

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The friends I love keep moving to Melbourne, and so I go down to visit. Rarely, at first, when I was young and broke. Now I am heading down for my second visit in six weeks. Melbourne has become an old friend, filled with old friends. Filled with people I trust with secrets, and hurts, and slices of my history, in ways that I can never trust the people I see every week.

When I tell friends at home that I am going to Melbourne, they ask the usual questions: what are you going to do? What are you going to see?

The answers are mundane: couches; friend’s cats; cups of tea and cups of coffee; board games and train lines that will get me from lounge room to lounge room. The occasionally café, in the city, when the logistics of getting around make it easier to meet somewhere central instead of visiting a friend’s home.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was younger, the appeal of Melbourne was the city. The book shops, the lane-ways, the novelty of a city with a population to support the weird and the niche. I grew up on the Gold Coast, dreaming of places like this: art galleries and theatre and comedy and books. When you grow up young and arty, in Queensland, Melbourne feels like an obligation. It’s the place you run to, first chance you get, in order to find your people. It’s a place where you feel like you belong, instead of fighting for space.

I thought it was inevitable once, and the lure of the city is still there. “When are you coming down?” Friends ask me, and I used to have an answer.

“One day,” I’d tell them. “When my job working with writers is done.”

But I’m done with that job now, and Brisbane keeps me still. Keeps me by dint of a mortgage and new gig; by dint of friendships that filled the gaps after older friends moved away; by dint of its familiarity, the feeling of home when I walk down the street, but also its ability to surprise me when I remember to pay attention.

These days, when I’m in Melbourne, I think of the bits of Brisbane I love. I think of the trees on the side of the road in Adelaide street, which I had not noticed for the first decade I lived in Brisbane. I think of my café where the owners know me, and the bookstore where they know my tastes. I think of my routines, and my small flat, and my train line.

And I think, you now, I’m happy there. Happier than I thought I could be, once upon a time.

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The first time we flew to Melbourne, we took an early flight. I was not a morning person back then, and I was not comfortable on a plane. Fear made me irritable, when combined with the lack of sleep. I loathed the cabin crew for being too perky. I loathed the short, painless flight because I was stuck in a window seat. I hadn’t yet learned the pleasure of being in-transit. I didn’t read, and I didn’t write. I just sat and brooded and killed the time. Felt the pressurised steel shell around me and imagined them peeling away, folding back like the lid of a sardine cane before you shake the contents free.

I pulled down the window blind so I wouldn’t look at the ground anymore. Tried not to picture ten thousand empty meters I’d need to fall through in order to reach the ground. Tried not to do my back-of-the-envelope mathematics: terminal velocity averages out at 60 meters per second; that’s a whole lot of seconds to live through on the way down.

We did not crash. We landed in Melbourne. I went to my hotel room and removed my shoes, made fists with my toes just like Die Hard taught me.

There was no-one I knew in Melbourne back then, except for the friends who were travelling with me.

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An incomplete list of things in Melbourne that have, at times, been used to convince me it’s a good place to live: the bookstore on Collins Streets; trams; The Maltese Falcon; the Azteca Hot Chocolate at San Churro, before the chain spread across Australia and you could get their hot chocolate everywhere; Minotaur Books; All Star Comics; the cocktails at the Americano bar, where one doesn’t so much order as suggest a flavour profile and let an expert do their job.

An incomplete list of things in Melbourne that actually tempt me to move: walking across the Yarra on the William’s Street Bridge; jacket weather; scarf weather; the presence of deciduous trees and a regular Call of C’Thulhu game; the baked beans I used to order, in this café down in Brighton, which were smoky and thick and served with crusty bread, even if the coffee that came with them wasn’t the coffee that Melbourne boasts about.

In truth, if I go, it will be none of these things that does it. The friends who truly want me to move don’t bother selling the city. I’m a writer, and not the wildly successful kind, which means I don’t have money. The books and the cocktails and the cafes are extravagances, easily afforded on a holiday but too unlike my ordinarily life.

The friends who want me to move simply sit me on a couch and give me a cup of tea and proceed to talk about things. They remind me of who they are, and how they haven’t changed, and exactly why I miss them.

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I told a friend about my fear of falling, once. About the empty seconds where the air whistles in your ears, giving you time to think about what’s waiting below.

“At thirty-thousand feet,” they said, “you’re probably not going to be conscious. They pressurise the cabins ’cause there’s not enough oxygen. I think you’d pass out for some of it.”

I don’t know if they were right about that. I prefer to not know for sure. Any second I don’t have to be thinking sounds good, when I am falling.

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I made plans to move to Melbourne once. I had the date, and the budget, and nothing left to loose. Brisbane had not been good to me, after being good fro a very long time. My heart was broken, and other parts of me joined it.,I felt the lure of being somewhere else, where the past didn’t dog my footsteps. And so I set my sights on Melbourne and hoped that it would change things. I would move there, and I would find myself. I would move there, and I would belong. I would move there, and if I was wrong, it did not matter how I landed. Breaking matters less, when you think you’re already broken.

I recruited friends to move down with me, sold them on the city and set their plans in motion. Their plans went through, and mine did not. I got a job, and my heart scabbed over. I figured it for a short-term thing, that the job would end and I would move. Instead, I stayed. Bought a flat. Worked at my job. Looked at the things that broke me, and tried to fix them, one by one. It’s slow work, gluing yourself together. It’s never as fast as you’d like.

Now, it’s six years later. It’s eight AM and I am flying, sitting in a window seat with a notebook, a novel, and a weekend with friends ahead of me. The cabin crew do the seat-belt demonstration. We taxi down the runway. I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, feel the lurch as we take off and the plane begins its ascent.

We rise, and we are flying. Me and a plane full of people. There is space underneath me. More space with each passing second. And I’m not so afraid of falling now, although the fear’s still there. I open my eyes and I keep breathing, watch the seat-belt sign and wait for the moment when tray-tables can be lowered and my writing time has started

I should write about Melbourne, I think. I should write about flying.

Then I pick up my book and start reading, because the seat belt sign is illuminated and none of things can happen until it has been switched off.

xander

Beard

I was thirty-nine years old when I saw my father’s beard for the first time. It happened quite by accident – he’d gone to the barber, asked for a close shave, and the beard he’d worn since I was a baby suddenly became this close-cropped fuzz covering the lower third of his face. Still a beard, if you wanted to get technical with the definition, but thirty-nine years is a considerable length of time to go without seeing a man’s chin. Its sudden appearance, as a visible entity behind the hair, made it a thing people commented on when they saw him.

I had my own brush with facial hair when I was twenty-two. It should be noted that I didn’t inherit my father’s propensity for thick, chin-hiding facial hair. Mine grows in patches, leaves broad swathes of the cheek unaffected. When I did grow a beard, at the suggestion of a woman I was dating, it mostly grew underneath my chin rather than on it.

I was not suited to facial hair, but I kept the beard until the end of that particular relationship, and I have never enjoyed the act of shaving quite as much as I did the day we finally broke up.


I would tell you my father, without a beard, does not look my father, but there are so many lies in that statement that it bears only the faintest whiff of truth. He doesn’t look like my father, with his chin visible, but the man sitting in the lounge chair with the freshly short beard was already so different from the father of my memories.

My father is in his sixties. He’s had a heart bypass, takes a series of meds for Parkinson’s disease and problems with his blood. He’s thinner than I can ever remember him being. He has trouble standing and moving, has trouble speaking at a volume the rest of us can hear. He’s not dying, specifically, but he has reached the point where the inevitability of death is always right there.  There is no longer any way to pretend that he will not be gone, one day.

The father in my memory isn’t a big man, but he is vital; a man who is strong and omnicompetent, underneath the omnipresent beard. He’s a man who surfed and played squash, all through my childhood; a man who built coffee tables and fishponds and canoes in his garage; a man who read The Hobbit to the kids in his classroom, and sang while he played guitar,

An ex-girlfriend once met my father and compared him to a dwarf. “He’s the kind of man you expect to fighting goblins with an axe and a beer,” she said.

And he was, back then, before illness started taking from him. He already had the beard.


There was a time, when I was younger, that people insisted the only difference between my father and I was the beard. Once, when I was seven or eight, a teacher actually put me in a fake beard to test the theory. These are the kinds of things that happen when you’re raised by teachers, and the people responsible for your education are also your parent’s friends.

It was assumed, perhaps, that the beard was inevitable. That one day I would grow one and the transformation would be complete. Instead, if I skip shaving in the morning it’s unlikely people will notice. If I skip shaving three days in a row, I start to develop the first hints of stubble.

There are men who can grow facial hair, and those who cannot. My father is the former, and I am not.


It shouldn’t be a surprise when your parents grow older. It’s right there, in stories. In television shows and films. Time marches on and people get older.Your parents become different people than you remember from your childhood.

Stories try to prepare you for that reality, but somehow, it’s not enough. Somehow, it’s still a surprise when you see your father’s chin, and it’s something that keeps bugging you long after his beard has grown back. Warned is not the same as prepared. It’s not the same thing as ready

And you adapt. You get to know the man who exists now, who is not the man you remember. And it is sad, sometimes. And happier, sometimes. And different, always different, even on the days you catch a glimpse of the father you remember in the man you talk to now.

You learn to embrace the duality. The man who is still your father, but is not the father of your childhood memories. The man who has become someone else, as everyone always does.


When I shave in the morning, I study my face. I notice the first grey hairs and the wrinkles around my eyes, the little patches of stubble that I missed yesterday because I still don’t shave with anything resembling a level of competence. It took me years to learn the very basics: shave with the direction of the hair; use shaving cream to soften the hair before you apply the razor; start with the cheeks and leave the chin for last.

It feels absurd that this is something that I still need to figure out, but it is. I do not shave well, and I cannot grow a beard. Not really.

So, instead, I study my chin. Try to imagine what it would be like, if I suddenly grew one of those beards I covet.

And somehow, I can’t quite make that image work. At worst, I can picture another patchy goatee, itchy and horribly uncomfortable. At best, I picture the rest of my life spent clean-shaven and comfortable.

Neither feels like much of a victory. Not today. Not right now.

So I rinse my face and get on with my day, rubbing my thumb over my face in search of the stubble I missed this morning in the hopes that I will finally – finally! – be completely clean-shaven when I leave the house.

Beardless

 

Dear Culture: Please Make Up Your Fucking Mind About What You Want Art to Be

No government ever lost an election by attacking the arts. It is, after all, the part of our culture where most people assume there is some combination of high levels of entitlement and low levels of actual work. This is the legacy of centuries of magical thinking when it comes to the art, associating the creation of artworks with genius or the muse.

No-one cares when the arts get less. In Australia, in particular, it’s right up there with attacking refugees, young people, and the unemployed as a safe tactic for the right and the left alike.

The last few years have been bad for the Australian arts sector. Not just in terms of the visible stuff: cuts to funding, attacks on the nature of copyright, a general hostility from the sitting government towards all things creative and its creation of a discretionary slush fund that is poorly managed and generally there to buy votes; no, the invisible stuff has been even worse.

When you cut funding, without notice, the way the government did last year, there are knock-on effects. The cuts happened, and the Australia Council responded, just as everyone was putting in four-year funding applications for funds that were no longer there. Hundreds and hundreds of organisational hours lost, then work that needed to be redone under the new model.

More work, because the increased competition means more competitive applications, which means the hundreds of organisational hours that were just spent now need to be re-spent getting a new application together.

The disruption is immense.

So, yeah, it’s a bad time to be an artist in Australia.

Today, ArtsHub released a list of organisations that had been de-funded in the latest round. 62 arts organisations in total. Approximately one-third of the applicants, and I doubt this is anywhere near the full list.

None of these organisations are 100% reliant on funding to operate, but the lack of funding will definitely mean that a bunch of them are going to close. Particularly those on the smaller end.

But the names are an abstraction. It’s easy to overlook the actual cost.

It’s easy to look at some of the literary journals on that list – Meanjin; Express Media; Griffith Review – and think, well, who cares? No-one reads that shit. Two of those three are big, literary magazines. Express Media, too, except it deals exclusively with writers under 25.

It’s easy to look at the small theatres and dance companies and think, well, if you can’t find an audience…

It’s easy to look at the bigger things – Brisbane Writers Festival, State Galleries – and think, well, they’ll find funding elsewhere, ’cause the audience is there…

But, honestly, all that is bullshit. New artists need spaces to explore their work, so they can develop and find their audience. Big events and institutions need funding so they can take a chance on newer works and artists, which may not get a look in when keeping the lights on is the main priority and established artists are a bigger draw.

This is not going to get better. I don’t expect this election to be fought on arts policy, although it would be nice if people did actually give enough of a shit to realise it’s a thing worth fighting.

This is a sideline, to the main problem.

If you want the arts to be treated like a business, you have to FIX THE GODDAMN SOCIETAL PERCEPTION THAT IT ISN’T.

You have to stop treating artists like creative weirdos, inspired by genius and the muse.

You have to build in facilities that help artists build their businesses like a business, and support them the same way you support other businesses like manufacturing, mining, or sport..

You have to stop telling artists that the creation of work is a gift, and they should not feel like they out to get paid, and you have to tell the culture around them the same thing.

You have to stop attacking copyright and suggesting shit like fifteen years of copyright, then you’re done, even as the entire system of how artist make money shifts to make life+seventy-five years an increasingly valuable thing.

You have to fix the cultural entitlement around the arts, which says, this exists, therefore I can have it for free. You have to make it clear that creators deliver value, and deserve to be compensated, even if it isn’t under the models that have been around for the last few years.

Stop telling artists this thing you’ve created has value, but we do not want to compensate you for it. If you want us to embrace arts as capitalism, treat us like any other fucking capitalist and pay us for our services. 

Basically, motherfuckers, you cannot have it both ways. The arts can be a cultural gift, or they can be fucking commerce.

Honestly, I do not care which. I just want you to make up your fucking minds.

Anger

Some days, you wake up incredibly angry at your country. You sit in your bed and you read the news on the your phone and you’re just, like, fuck, really? This is who we’ve chosen to become as a fucking nation?

I don’t like that anger. Not because I feel any particular sense of patriotism, but because I believe that we are facing complex problems in the world and I recognise the need for complex solutions. I want to look at all sides of the argument and figure out, really, where seemingly stupid political decisions are coming from, so at least I can be sure they’re a bad idea. I like to believe, on the whole, in government. In the ability of the assembled political leaders of the day to come together, find a compromise, and lead the goddamn country.

I do not get that luxury, these days.

In the last week alone, I’ve sat through incredible ongoing abuses of asylum seekers perpetuated in my name by the Australian government; I’ve sat through broadside attacks on the industry I love, by the productivity commissions, which proposes shit so absurd that I’m not worried about it being implemented, but I am worried about they’re hoping to grab as they back down from the blatant overreach; I’ve sat through the details of the new Australian budget, which basically continues the trend of the last three years when it says hey, young people, FUCK YOU.

I mean, unemployment as an internship scheme? FUCK THAT SHIT. The solution to the problems with Mutual Obligation was not making that shit FUCKING WORSE.

Seriously, god-fucking-damn it, FUCK THAT SHIT TO HELL.

I’m not even a young person, these days. I do not have kids. It’s not going to affect me. But it makes me incredibly angry. Because you give up things that matter by increments, ceding ground inch by inch, and it feels like the things I always appreciated about my country are working their way towards the end of the plank.

I want to understand where the decisions are coming from, even if I don’t agree with them, but politics in Australia has become extraordinarily bad at that on both ends of the political spectrum.

It may be time to start digging out my Herd CDs and start taking their lyrics much more seriously.

It’s Complicated

Nothing is easy. Everything is complicated. And no, you’re probably not imagining it: things are more complicated than they used to be.

Take writing. In the old days, before the internet, answering how do I become a writer was easy. There was the work, and there were publishers, and you did the work until you found a publisher and that was how your book went into the world.

You, as the author, did not have to have a one-on-one relationship with your readers. The book-stores had that, with the folks in their local area, and you had a one-on-one relationship with your agent, your publisher, or the reps from your distributor.

Today? It’s complicated. You can go with the traditional publishers, or you can work the proliferation of small presses that are springing up, or you can publish your book on your own and have access to distribution models that make self-publishing effective.

Choices.

Lots of choices.

And none of them are simple. They ask you to factor in how you work and what you want to work on and what your long term goals are and what’s your business plan before the useful answers even begin to show up on the radar.

And yet, people still seem to think it should be easy. They set forth to argue that traditional publishing is the one true path, or that indie publishing is the best choice for authors, or…fuck, I don’t know, whatever their preferred catechism is when it comes to writing and publishing.

We all have them. I have them. You see them seeping through into this blog every day, but I will opening admit that I know fuck all and my articles of faith, when it comes to writing, are exactly that.

Thing is: in writing, we have it easy.

Things that are more complicated than they used to be, when you first heard about them: feminism; equality; every strand of politics and economics.

Because, like writing, we used to focus on the one story. The equivalent of write a good book, find a publisher, get it out there. You’ll hear them echoed in the speeches of politicians: this is the way the family unit should be; this is how relationships should be; this is who belong here, in our country, and this is who should not; this is how you should be an adult; this is how you should earn a living and be a productive member of the capitalist culture that surrounds you.

We have old, worn-in stories about the way we live in the world that people are trying to change. And it’s not easy. If dismantling the patriarchy were easy, the first wave feminists would have done it and gone out for waffles after.

But making that kind of change, especially if you’re the kind of person who has benefited from those old, worn-in stories? It means you need to get comfortable with the idea that things are complex. That no-one is going to come out with an easy answer, any time soon.

You need to get comfortable with the idea that one story, one way of doing things, isn’t going to cut it.

You need to get comfortable with your own discomfort, ’cause complexity ain’t exactly easy to embrace; we are, after all, a path of least resistance kind of species.

Whenever someone says I have an easy answer, punch them in the throat and run. Odds are, they’re trying to sell you something. Or win an election.

 

 

Dopamine Hits and a Dopier Me

Facebook

The side-effect of Facebook is clicking on things. This works to the site’s advantage, since it’s a tool for sharing information, collating recommendations from friends that come loaded with a kind of social authority. There are interesting posts I’ve read purely because they were linked to on Facebook. Stuff I’d never find on my own, or even consider searching for it.

There are people who find their way here, most days, in much the same way.

This is one of the reasons I go to Facebook. Why it replaces my carefully curated RSS feeds, some days, when I’m feeling particularly lazy.

Yesterday I found myself hovering over a link where a poster took Australian gossip magazines to task for their portrayal of two local celebrities. An automatic reaction on my part – if there is a link, and it’s vaguely interesting, then I’m inclined to click on it. Facebook isn’t inherently interesting in and of itself; it’s at it’s best when there is conversation. Interaction. Connection with others. It cannot be consumed passively in a way that is satisfying for me.

But I have no interest in the local magazines, or the celebrities in question. I had no interest in joining the conversation. I was clicking it ’cause it was there, ’cause a conversation was happening and I didn’t want to be left out.

This bothers me about Facebook. It’s not just the things shared on my feed by friends – their advertising algorithm has become too good, able to play to my darker impulses and deliver me things I’m willing to click upon. Links that take me to content mills where a simple list-post is split over fifteen goddamn pages, each of them filled with advertising and little that’s truly worth reading.

Facebook is smarter than I am, now. The signal to noise is high. Not yet unbearable, but I can see that day coming. Facebook has become a place of habitual behaviour. It’s a place I visit because it’s a habit, more than any particular desire to be there. It’s a steady stream of little pleasures that come from connection, and snark, and Pavlovian rewards systems.

Facebook’s particular genius is reading who I am at the moment, and catering to those desires. It’s all about the little hit, the micro-reward, the dopamine economy. But my usage is dropping. Still registering in the hours of time there, every week, but it’s in the single-digits when it started in the double.

Facebook’s failure, in the end, will be the gulf that’s generated – the moments where I think, when did I become this guy? How do I stop this? 

My threshold for being the guy who clicks gets lower every week.

 

Coping

It’s a dreary kind of morning here in Brisbane and 2015 is almost done, ready to be laid to rest with singing and dancing and libations with friends. Unless you’re me. I shall celebrate the end of the year in the same way I wish to kick of 2016: lying in my bed, notebook on my lap, scribbling words and pondering what will come my way in the future.

For once, I find myself very fond of the passing year. It’s been forever since I looked back over twelve months and felt myself at peace with everything that happened – usually, at this time of year, I am waging desperate war with an internal monologue of frustration and horror about the lack of…well, everything. Playing endless games of if only I had done this better and if only hadn’t fucked that up. 

I spent my life incredibly angry.

I am probably understating this a little. My greatest fantasy, for the last five or six years, was giving up the illusion that I was coping. Being free to lash out at the world and give voice to the enormous, yawning heart of frustration that hollowed me out and ready to just fuck shit up. I could conceive of no response to the world that did not involve screaming or punching. They were my go-to response to any problem, big or small.

Fight Club made a whole lot of sense to me. If you had told me there was a place I could go where someone would beat the crap out of me, I would have bought in. In a fucking heart beat.

But you cannot go through live screaming and punching things in a civilized world, so I taught myself not to. And because I could not express my rage at the outside world, I turned it against myself. If I could just stop pretending everything was okay, I told myself. If I could stop pretending to cope. If I could just lay down and let the world beat one me, everything would be okay.

Anger turned inward is a pretty shitty way to live your life. It’s the kind of response to problems that basically creates new problems. It’s a slippery goddamn slope, is what I’m saying, and I slid.

But I coped. Or pretended to cope. I’m not sure there’s a difference between the two, when you get right down to it. And perhaps I didn’t cope as well as I assumed, based on conversations I’ve had with people in recent months, but I coped well enough for horseshoes. I came off as an angry person, rather than someone who was basically looking for an excuse to flip out and start swinging at everyone in my immediate vicinity like a mad fucker.

I tried things to fix it. Went to doctor’s with symptoms. Went to psychologist. Wrote things, ’cause in my head, writing things is pretty much the solution to everything. Threw myself into the day job and took what self-esteem I could from what I was doing there.

None of it really worked, not for more than a few weeks. It’s hard to offload that level of anger, once it’s become your constant companion, because the anger is all that’s getting you through.

And the fear of not-coping kept me moving and kept a façade of sanity in place. I knew there was no amount of anger that could fix things, regardless of where I directed it, because I couldn’t articulate the problems. So I grit my teeth and coaxed myself into action and – incredibly – managed to convince myself that this is how every single person in the world lived their life. That we were all just pretending to cope because that was what is expected of us, while secretly falling apart inside.

We were all malfunctioning machines that no-one bothered fixing.

And despite the fact that I know better, there is a part of me that just assumed this is what I deserved ’cause I had the temerity to say, well, I want to be a writer. Anger makes you stupid in so many ways, and I was stupid in all of them.

In this respect, 2015 has been an enormous relief, because it turns out I actually am an a malfunctioning machine. Five or six years of sleep apnea symptoms finally added up to a diagnosis and the beginning of treatment, and it’s incredible how that’s affected my outlook in the last six months of the year.

Yes, the apnea is a thing that’s going to be with me for…well, ever, to some extent. Yes, there is still frustration and disappointments and things I wish I had done better. Yes, there is still end of year malaise and weeks where I do nothing and anger, so much goddamn anger, but they aren’t all-consuming. They are parts of my life, not the entirety of it.

In 2015, I stopped coping. There is no better thing that could have happened in my year.

And yet, I am surrounded by people for whom this year has been horrible. Kick in the teeth after kick in the teeth. The kind of year that sounds, by all accounts, exactly like the kind of year I’ve had for the last five or six.

If I had a wish for the coming year, it’s this: may you find people who understand what’s going on with you. May you find people who make the coping easier. May you find the thing that helps you feel a little less broken. May people appreciate you for the brave, bad-ass mother-fucker you are for just keeping on every goddamn day and resisting the urge to harm or be harmed.

May the things that have the potential to pass, pass. May you find tools for dealing with the things that are going to stay with you, regardless of what they are.

May there be music and books and art that soothes your soul, and friends who are there to hold you up when you cannot stand on your own.

May things get better, if they can, and may they get no worse if better is not an option.

Happy new year, you beautiful mother-fuckers. See you all tomorrow.

Genre, Gender, and GenreCon

So, after GenreCon, the inimitable Kat of BookThingo posted this online:

Conference programmers note: This is what an all-women writers’ panel looks like! #aww2015 #GCoz

A photo posted by Kat (@bookthingo) on

The image is from the final plenary of GenreCon the weekend, when we had all seven of our special guests on-stage. It’s a sessions where a question from the audience generated a particularly frank discussion of gender, genre, and the impact of both on a writing career (particularly in SF).

That conversation was cut short, largely because we were running out of time. I hated doing it, but it had to be done due to the constraints of our agreement with the venue, and I apologise to all the people who had follow-up questions they didn’t get to ask.

But it has me brooding on the topic a bit. And I tend to talk about the things I brood about here.

Now, at this point I will acknowledge that I am going to talk about this as a white man chock-full of privilege, which means the statistical odds of saying something stupid on this topic start high and get higher the longer I talk. But, since it came up…

Well, here we go.

I got asked a few times, over the weekend, if we realised we’d assembled seven women as our guests. The official answer from the conference is no, we didn’t. We just assembled some awesome writers and they happened to be female, both because it’s true and because I enjoyed the irony of that logic being deployed in this instance.

But the truth is the conversation did come up in the initial stages of the conference. It went something like this:

Other Person: Do we need a dude on the list somewhere?
Me: No. We do not.

We’ve had the equivalent of that conversation every year that GenreCon’s run, because we strive to be conscious of all manner of representation at the conference and its program. It’s not a question that happens in isolation, either. It’s one of a myriad of such questions we ask ourselves: Do we have the genre balance right? Do we have an adequate balance of experienced authors versus new authors on the program? Are we representing traditional and indie published authors? Do we have representatives from big six publishers and small press? Do we have a mix of digital first and print?

There are a lot of interests at work in the conference and we try to make sure that none of them are under-represented.

Even so, I will be the first to acknowledge that there are some things that bug me, when you look at the history of the conference overall. I am painfully aware that while we’ve had Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books as a guest – and let me stress, she is a fantastic con guest and we were blessed to have her – we’ve never had an international romance author at the conference.

I’m acutely aware that I have blind spots with regards to sub-genres, which means I tend to look for crime-writers who do work in the hard-boiled detective line or authors of regency romance first, since that’s my preferred reading material in those particular genres.

I’m aware that our guest lists have been predominately white, that we’ve got a habit of putting indie/self-published authors on panels that are predominately about indie and self-publishing, and that we had a lot of male international guests in our first two years.

Every time I sit down to assemble a guest list, these things are on my mind. Part of the brief for GenreCon has always been about breaking authors out of the terrain where they keep having the same conversations because of the genre they write in. To combat that tendency for romance authors to be programmed to discuss romance, while the SF writers are over discussing sci-fi and fantasy.

The writers we invite are smart. They have useful things to say to all writers. And it’s absolutely criminal that they are rarely given the option of saying it outside their genre.

It’s why we never deploy genre within the program at all, except as the broad church that unites the disparate genres represented at the conference.

This can be hard to wrap your head around, if you’ve never seen GenreCon up close. We get a lot of panel and workshop pitches from people that revolve around writing the thriller or horror or fantasy, and even when they sound phenomenal, we say no. If it sounds really good, we say  please, pitch something about character or plot or tension, something that will be accessible and useful to everyone, regardless of what they’re writing.

‘Cause if you pitch something genre specific, I have to say no.

Not because I don’t think that people shouldn’t talk about their genres, but because there should be spaces where they can talk about other things instead, and the spaces where you can talk about a particular genre are already kind of plentiful.

Which brings me to the point I’m brooding on, a bit: I’ve taken that approach when it comes to gender as well, despite my belief that it’s an important conversation to have. I’m always thrilled when the inequity of representation in genre comes up in plenaries and keynotes, but its not been on the radar to program a panel about gender and writing.

Within the scope of the conference, I’d rather address the issue of diversity by ensuring a diversity of voices are represented, over and over again, to the best of GenreCon’s ability. I’d rather acknowledge blind-spots as I discover them and find people who can help me navigate them in a meaningful way, rather than just hoping I get it right.

And yet, I feel conflicted about that. Its’ easy to become complicit in silencing discussion, even with the best of intentions.

My gut still tells me the most advantageous thing for the conference to do is have all our representatives talking about writing, not being a female writer, but there are moments I question that logic to make sure we’re adopting it for the right reasons.

The advantage of GenreCon is that there’s a year to puzzle this particular issue out, before we start seriously tackling the issues of what goes on the 2017 program. I’ve already got a master list of topics we’d like to explore that grows, over the next twelve months, as I read and talk to other writers and generally consult with people about ways to tackle the tricky things.

More importantly, I’ve got a year of eavesdropping on professional writer’s conversations at festivals and events, listening to what they actually talk about when they get together, which has always been the initial guiding post for topics worth addressing

It’s a luxury few events of this kind get, and I’m bloody grateful it exists, because it allows for the kinds of shifts in thinking that are invaluable. If we were doing GenreCon yearly, I’d need to have a guest list for 2016 ready to go now. I’d be hip-dip in the initial programming thoughts in a matter of weeks, responding fast rather than thinking things through.

I may not get things right, but I’ll be damned if we don’t try.