Category Archives: writing

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

No, The Backstory Isn’t Important

One of the big problems with Suicide Squad is the inordinate amount of time spent on backstories. They gave several minutes of screen time at the beginning of the movie to all the anti-villains getting captured – bearing in mind there are six of them – and filled in more detailed backstory for a couple of them, as well as setting up the plot overall.

Each particular backstory was well thought out, but that many at the beginning of the movie really began to drag. They simply weren’t necessary, and they detracted from the overall story.

All that was needed was for Amanda Wallace to indicate she was putting together a team of bad guys, some of whom have powers. That’s it, that’s all the set-up that’s required. That way, all the fight scenes from the bad guys getting captured can be moved into the body of the movie, where they can be used to further the plot rather than backstory, and be used to give a good surprise. The powers would be an impressive surprise rather than something that was foreshadowed to the point of tediousness.

I am reminded of Fast and Furious 7. Warner, watch it, study it, learn from it, and run free…

Magical Realism Actually Exists

I recently heard an off-hand comment that magical realism was just another term for fantasy, used by people who don’t want to admit they read fantasy. While I agree there are plenty of pretentious people who go through dramatic convolutions order to claim they don’t read genre stories, I don’t think this is the case with magical realism.

The key distinguishing factor of magical realism is that the fantastic elements cannot be proven within the story, whereas in typical fantasy they can be. The main fantasy stories in the general zeitgeist currently are “zombie apocalypse” and “superhero” – both of these are fantasy stories, and for both there is no dispute within the world of the story that the fantastical elements are real. These are a form of alternative universe stories, where the rules are fundamentally different to the rules we accept in the “real” world.

Magical realism, on the other hand, has fantastical elements that are not provable even within the world of the story. For example, in “100 Years of Solitude” Gabriel García Márquez has ghosts, prophetic visions, and people who reportedly live for longer than is realistic, such as a 145 year old brother owner. If they wanted to prove this to the satisfaction of the outside world, they wouldn’t be able to do so. There is a guru in India who claims to be more than two hundred years old, and no-one can really prove that he is or isn’t based on record keeping. In the book there’s a women who ascends into the sky, which would be quite a metaphorical ending for her if it wasn’t written so literally. Again, except for the witnesses all anyone has to go on is hearsay.

Most fantastical elements in magical realism have real-world counterparts, legends or stories which are accepted by some people as true but dismissed by most as fabrications, not because there is any evidence against them but because that’s simply not how we think the world works. But sometimes, the world works in ways that are different to what we expect, and people do experience things that they can’t explain in terms of “the real world”. That doesn’t mean those things have no explanation, of course, but it has to be taken on faith that there is a “reasonable” explanation that is simply unknown.

That is what distinguishes magical realism from other fantasy genres.

Sci-Fi Didn’t Warn Us About This

A lot of predictions have been made in science fiction, some that happened and some that didn’t. There were predictions of humans replacing body-parts, lost or otherwise, with cybernetic machines; there were predictions of regrowing lost body parts; even predictions of people growing clones for use as spare parts. However, I don’t remember any story predicting that body-parts would be simply printed as they’re required.

3D printing breakthrough produces functioning human-scale bone and muscle tissue

From: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

From: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

ITOP tackles the problem of structural integrity by printing a biodegradable plastic structure onto which living cells are applied using a water-based gel ink.

The problem of keeping the cells oxygenated and fed was solved by building microchannels into the structural plastic so nutrients and oxygen can reach all cells.

Tissue printed this way can be kept alive long enough to be implanted into a patient and for the patient’s body to grow necessary blood vessels as the structure dissolves.

So, that’s pretty awesome.

Apparently I missed one:

Not A New Year’s Resolution, Just a Sensible Plan

I’ve been thinking about how to approach my writing in the coming years. My instinct was to draft a New Year’s Resolution for this year of our Lord 2016 along the lines of “write 30,000 words a month” or “get 12 rejection letters” (because you can’t control getting published, but you can control how much you submit).

However… last year I did a Short Story Writing Course, and it drove home something that I had thought was just me, but turns out to be a general thing, namely that the editing process takes a hell of a lot more time than the writing process. I can write a lot of words fast, and generally they’re pretty good, but then there’s the long slow process of editing the first draft, and the second draft, and the third draft….and the fourth draft. And then you get someone else to look at it and they point out a lot of problems you missed, so you rewrite it…

To get to the point in the third paragraph, I needed a goal that included editing and not just writing. So I’ve decided to set a goal of 80 hours each month on my wordsmithing – including writing, editing, submitting, marketing, workshopping, making covers, and everything else. This works out at a bit under four hours every weekday, which seems entirely reasonable, even with three kids and the occasional narco-atrocity.

Regular readers of my blog* will know that last year I did The Brainery Short Fiction Workshop, and I got quite a lot out of it. Enough that I signed up to The Brainery Online Novel Workshop. My hope is to learn how to recognise when a novel is ready to publish, and how to get it there when it’s not. If you want to join me there’s only three spots left. At the least you’ll get some very decent feedback on your completed manuscript…

* This is just a little note to myself.

A Viable Future

The wealth divide looks like it’s going to keep growing, and if you’re on the wrong side of it you – and your kids – could have a pretty tough life. It’s the age-old battle of the business-owning capitalists trying to increase profits and the working class trying to earn enough to live. A simple way around this is to blend the two – have the workers own the company.

For example, let’s take a factory that manufactures auto parts, and employs a hundred workers. There is constant stress between the workers, who want higher wages, and the owners, who want higher profits. Then a new robotic system is developed that allows the owners to operate with 50 workers instead of 100. This is clearly bad for workers, half of whom will lose their jobs. Maybe they’ll go on strike, maybe they’ll convince the transport union to not do deliveries to the factory…that’s not good for the owners.

Now, if the workers owned a significant portion of the factory that conflict goes away. Maybe instead of pushing for a pay raise they arrange an area for children of the workers to spend time after school so they don’t have to pay for a sitter. They might band together and get cheaper rates on a doctor coming to give them a check-up. They can see that they’ll have to automate their process or be out-competed by other factories, and they check their options. Some might be nearing retirement age, and figure they can live on the dividends of their shares. They might decide that everyone will work part-time so no-one gets laid off, and they can pursue other interests. Maybe they’ll go for broke and keep all 100 employees working full-time and double the output, or expand into a new line of business. The point is that the better the factory does the better the workers do, so there’s no internal conflict. Maybe they’ll make stupid decisions and run the factory into the ground, in which case their business will go to other factories with smarter workers – just the way capitalism intended. If the factory gets fully automated, the workers still get an income because they own shares in the automated profits.

I was pleased and invigorated with hope when I saw this model is actually in play in more than tech companies – Publix is a grocery chain and pharmacy store in America that has apparently got better metrics than Walmart and Kroger. Why is this? Well, a main point that fans of capitalism make is that people will work harder for their own benefit than for another benefit, which is why capitalism > communism. But if someone is on a fixed income they’ve only got an incentive to work hard and smart enough to not get fired, whereas if their income increases based on how well they work because they own part of the company, they’ll put in more effort.

You know it makes sense.

My Work Here Is Done

Official Declaration of Failing NaNoWriMo

Whenever I’ve won I stuck up all those winner’s badges everywhere, so I think it’s fair that this year I announce that I didn’t win.

The “why” is very simple: Too much life, too many kids, and too much course work.

I did learn that all that advice along the lines of “if you are a writer you have to write all the time, if you don’t you’re not a writer!” and “if you don’t feel like writing, do it anyway! If you’ve got other stuff to do, put it on hold and WRITE! If your kid is crying lock them in their bedroom and WRITE!” is just bullshit. You hate your writing, you hate yourself, you hate your life, and, in my case, the stress starts making your muscles do annoyingly painful things.

So, I decided to ditch NaNoWriMo and concentrate on my writing course, looking after my kids and finances, and dealing with some unpleasant shit that is just going to keep piling up. Some of that’s out of the way now, and I’ll be doing the final revision* of my book and publishing the damn thing.

*I hope it’s the final revision – I thought the revision I did three revisions ago would be the final one. We’ll see.

A Reverie On Words

The English language has over 750,000 words in it, so there’s a high chance there is a word for whatever you want to say. Sometimes I come across a concept that I can’t think of the word for, and I wrack my brain and I search Google and, and I pretty much always find the word.

For example, today I wanted something to describe the process of imagining if your life had been different somehow, a mixture of daydream (make up fantasy) and deduce (figure out, understand). To make up a fantasy to understand something. I was dreading having to come up with a word myself (dayducing? ew), but after a long search including five pages of synonyms on and maybe ten searches on Google I finally did this search, and found the word…

Reverie: a state of dreamy meditation or fanciful musing

There’s a word for pretty much everything, and I think that’s beautiful…

Be Original – Or Not, Whatever

There’s a whole debate, or at least people saying opposing things, about exactly how original a writer has to be for a story to be worthwhile. Into the mix comes: 13 True Stories Behind Edgar Allen Poe’s Terror Tales. It’s an interesting read… some of the examples are just light influences, a jumping off point, but some he appears to have written about almost verbatim.

And he’s a legend.

Last Drink Bird Head

WonderbookThe “textbook” for my writing course came today, about one working day after I ordered it. This blows my mind, because I’m used to books from Amazon taking weeks to get here. This book was ordered from Amazon Mexico, and I am now A FAN.

I’ve already done one of the exercises for my first class, a loosening up writing exercise based on the title Last Drink Bird Head. There are some examples at the Wonderbook site, and I’ll include the one I wrote here just as an added bonus for all of you!



Those who are familiar with the dim lights of a bar close to closing time, when the pool tables are finished with the clacking of balls and the jukebox has been tuned to the same rotation of sad songs paid for by the heartbroken guy who sobbed into the street a couple of beers earlier, when the tables that hosted shots and nibbles are being wiped down by a tired barman and the only lights left on are those bulbs above the final drinkers, one and all on shaky stools at the bar nursing the glasses they’d received in the hectic minutes following the call of “closing time”, those people are familiar also with the Last Drink Bird Head.

At this point the place of ground the bar stands on is facing directly away from the sun, and on a melancholy Tuesday any who have the slightest reason at all to be at home, or to get up in the morning, are in bed snoring and dreaming and sticking the foot out from under the covers. The rest of us, we whose home is less preferable to the sad stickiness of the final few minutes of a bar’s business day, who wake in the morning and wish we hadn’t, we slouch with elbows on stained wood either side of a weeping glass full of cheap beer. Our necks are too weak to hold our heads, which dip on a regular basis, our face diving towards the glass only to be caught at the last minute by a simple neural program that stops us face-planting into agony. Our heads jerk up, oh-so-briefly before falling again towards our final beer. The Last Drink Bird Head.

Our sips are small, like a swallow at a fountain, brief and tiny and rapid. They are quick, to avoid predators, we draw out our final drink to avoid our own predators, prowling from the depths of our minds to rake us with loneliness and self-loathing despair. The Last Drink Bird Head is a last, desperate attempt to hide from ourselves.

But nothing lasts forever, not the Last Drink Bird Head and not the final beer, and the barmaid turns off the lights behind us as we are purged into the grimy street.