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2014 Accountability List: What Peter Plans on Writing
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Back in January I sat down and wrote a plan. That plan, more or less, said this is the year when you write all of the things. Then I made myself a list, which broken down what all the things were in roughly the order I wanted to write them.

It was an ambitious-as-hell list of stuff. Full of hope and shiny, happy unicorn spit, pristine in its gleaming awesomeness.Full of novellas, weirdly enough, ‘cause that’s the way my year was rolling. I had a bunch of novellas that were due, for various reasons, so I figured I’d go with the flow.

Now we’re into April and the list of all the things has been beaten around a little, the schedule thrown off track by computer problems and work problems and that whole moving-into-a-new-house thing.

That’s okay. I expected things to fall apart. In fact, I even built in time where I’d use the beginning of April to regroup and re-plan my year, figuring out what was still goddamn viable. Apparently my dream of being a self-employed hermit who never emerges from my bunker is not viable within the coming 9 months.

On the other hand, I’m still moderately convinced that a sizable chunk of my writing wish-list is achievable. Partially this is because a certain percentage of it needs to be achievable, because of deadlines, and partially because I just feel the need to get a keyboard beneath my fingers and start pounding out stories until it feels natural again.

With that in mind, I give you my 2014 accountability list – the ten projects I’m more-or-less committing to getting done by the end of the year.

1) Exile

It’s written. It’s submitted. I’ve drunk the celebratory beer. But the editorial letter came through on the weekend, outlining a bunch of problems with the MS, which means I’m diving back into rewrites this week in order to get things done. I’ve got about four weeks to process the changes and rewrite the bits that need writing. I’m spending two of those four weeks packing and moving to my shiny new digs. If you see me out in the wild, it’s possible I’m looking a little manic at the moment. What’s the novella about? Your basic urban fantasy featuring burnt-out hit men, gambling demons, hippie sorcerers, and trying to stop the apocalypse

2) Long Night at the Black Wolf

A short, serialised sword and sorcery novelette about a bunch of characters trapped in a remote Inn by evil fey. This one fucking terrifies me as a writer, since it’s a) written in third person, b) my first real attempt at a project that ties in to an existing world, and c) lets me check off one of the goals on my writing bucket-list that I seriously figured I’d ever get a chance to tick off. I have a fairly detailed pitch document, a shit-ton of notes, and a self-imposed deadline of April 30th.

3) Frost 

Urban Fantasy Novella. The sequel to Exile. Occult hit-man Keith Murphy gets to deal with the fall-out of killing the man whose death could start Ragnarok. I’m due to turn this over to the Apocalypse Ink team on July 1st, which means it’s first cab off the rank once I’ve moved and set up a new writing space. Again with the occult hit men, demons and sorcerers, but this time they’ll have added bikies and Valkyries to keep me entertained.

4) Crusade

Yep, another Urban Fantasy Novella, following on from Exile and Frost. The deadline for turning this one over isn’t until November, but I’m aiming a little earlier than that. Not entirely planned out yet, but I’ll fix that while writing Frost in May. I’m still putting together a plan for this one, but as one of the few things on this list that have a hard deadline, it’s occupying plenty of mental space. 

5) Altered Pitch Document 

A few years back my friend Kevin got into voice acting in a big way. He’s done some cool stuff since then, including serving as the voice of Judge Dread for Tin Man Games. Sometime last year he pitched the idea of working together on the pitch for an animated series, which has slowly evolved into the Altered project. Super-powers. Creepy shit. Rogue government agencies doing massive amounts of property damage.

6) Claw

Also known as Miriam Aster, book three. No, really. Really. Shut up. I can hear you laughing back there. I am for real, here.

7) Hot for Teacher

It’s come to my attention, in recent years, that I quite like romance novels. I’ve got a particular weakness for the Regency period, since Georgette Heyer was my gateway drug, but I’ve found authors I really like all over the romance spectrum. A while back I was talking the great Van Halen era of hair metal with romance writers/editors online, and the kernel of a novella idea kinda plunked into the back of my head. Weirdly excited to give this a go (especially since getting it done means I can finally go read Kylie Scott’s Stage Dive series, which I’ve promised myself I won’t read until this is done).

8) Untitled Planetary Romance Project I

Ambitious lady detective. On Mars. With her Mad Profesor father and a rotund ex-Colonel for back-up. Another one of those projects I’ve been meaning to write forever, but the writer-mind just wasn’t in-gear. Then I took the idea to Kim Wilkin’s Novelist Bootcamp workshop at the writers center earlier this year, banged out a fairly solid plan for the first half of the book, and figured it’d make a nice chance-of-pace project between the urban fantasy novellas that are making up the bulk of my year. 

9) Bad Wolf

A few weeks back, I picked up a copy of Death is No Obstacle, a collection of interviews with Michael Moorcock where he discusses the creation of several of his projects. He spends the first half of the book talking about structure a lot, and how his understanding of structure allowed him to do things like produce books in 3 to 10 days of furious writing with sufficient pre-planning. Later this year, when my schedule allowed it, I figured I’d take a week off work and give his approach a go with a genre where I know the structure really well (hard boiled detective stories) and werewolf tropes.

10) Space Bros! Project

This started as a joke with my flatmate, based on Mass Effect, where we envisioned a trio of Shepherd, Kaiden, and Garrus pissing about the universe, being kinda douche, and generally being awesome SPACE BROS! Then it occurred to me that I’d actually read the fuck out that story if it existed, and I’m actually in a position to make it exist. The sole thing on this list that doesn’t have any planning associated with it at all, but that should have changed by the time I get to work on it in December.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Writing Update: Exile
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So last Tuesday I submitted Exile to Apocalypse Ink. It’s the first thing I’ve written and submitted in a long while, and a project that’s been plagued by interruptions and unexpected turns to boot, so it feels good to have gotten the file through more-or-less on time. Especially since the last time I was going to get the book sent off, about twelve hours ahead of deadline, I dropped my laptop and wiped out about 18,000 words of text I didn’t have backed up anywhere else.

The stupidity of that still stings a little.

On the other hand, the submission of Exile means I’ve officially set off the great-2014-write-a-thon-where-Peter-remembers-how-to-be-a-writer-and-things. One novella down, a little behind schedule. A whole crap-load of things to go before the year is done.

For instance, after I drank Mango beer to celebrate the Exile submission, then started work on the three short stories I have to get done in April in order to meet some deadlines. I did some planning on Frost and Crusade, the novellas I’m due to be turning over to the AI folks in July and November, respectively, in order to make up the full trilogy of books they contracted me for.

Then I went and signed the paperwork for my mortgage, ‘cause I finally found an apartment  that both looked spiffy enough to buy and passed through the approval processes I mentioned back in February.

My world, right now, is all writing and packing boxes, preparing to move in two weeks when the sale is finalised. ‘Course, once it’s done, I have my weekends back again, which means regular transmission will likely resume in May some time (basically, whenever the internet’s on after I move into the new Chez Ball).

 

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Peeps Doing Cool Stuff: February 2014 Edition
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Somewhere along the line, I got out of the habit of posting about peeps releasing cool stuff into the world. I’m not sure why, ’cause I got some pretty awesome peeps and they’re doing some very cool stuff, but my blogging habits are arbitrary these days despite my best intentions.

With that in mind, lets rectify this oversight, and allow me to recommend the following:

RAF_VOL9_ISS_3Review of Australian Fiction, Volume Nine, Issue Three

The concept behind the RAF is actually pretty cool – they grab an established writer, get them to pick an up-and-comer to work with, then produce an issue that features (generally) novella or novelette length work that would be hard to sell elsewhere.

This issue features the always impeccable prose of Angela Slatter as the established author, paired with emerging Brisbane fantasist Linda Brucesmith.

The upside of Angela publishing here is that I now know that RAF has finally abandoned the god-awful Book.ish ebook platform it used in its early days, so it’s actually become something I’ll subscribe to instead of purchasing as a one-off.

everything-is-a-graveyardEverything is a Graveyard, Jason Fischer

This is old news for the Australian SF fans who follow this blog, but for the gamer types who follow the blog and really liked Jason’s zombie novellas (and there are a few), I’m going to mention it: Everything is a Graveyard is Jason’s first short-story collection, brought out via Ticonderoga Publishing.

I haven’t picked up a copy yet, but I know Jason’s short fiction well enough to appreciate his off-beat blend of Australian themes, craziness, and off-beat world-building. Also, I’m off to Adelaide tomorrow, so I’m largely planning on picking up a copy while I’m in Jason’s home town, whereupon I shall track him down and force him to sign copies.

And badger him about the number of awful puns…

ASunsetFinish_200A Sunset Finish, Melinda Moore

I can argue that I’m fashionably late mentioning Jason’s collection, but there’s no excuses here: Melinda emailed me about her first novella getting released back in June of last year, and I’ve been meaning to offer public congratulations for…wow, eight months now.

I first got to know Melinda when we frequented the same gaming forum, way back in 2003 or so, and she frequently blew me away with short-stories she wrote for one of the semi-regular writing jams that happened there. Since then she’s been rocking it with a bunch of short story publications, and I’ve just loaded a copy of A Sunset Finish onto my kindle to read while I’m travelling over the next week.

WebThe Memory of Death: Death Works 4, Trent Jamieson

Trent Jamieson has just released the forth installment of his Death Works series, which is a very good thing. Mostly ’cause I like Trent, and it would be unfortunately if I had to kill him for leaving the series at the end of the third book, which was one of the most HOLY-SHIT-YOU-DID-NOT-JUST-FUCKING-DO-THAT-YOU-BASTARD-FUCK-FUCK-FUCK cliffhangers I’ve ever seen.

I would have killed him, too. I’m not a guy who takes things well when good narratives are left half-finished, and there was a very definite sense that Steven de Selby’s journey wasn’t done yet. Out now via Momentum Books, who are doing gorgeous stuff in the digital realm these days (I mean, hell, I love the cover of this book; I have mad cover envy), and worth picking up.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Restlessness
petermball

Motel_PhotographI’m trying to buy an apartment this year. I’m not terribly good at it.

I can find places I quite like in locations I’d enjoy living, but the response I get when consulting with expert is basically the equivalent of a warning siren and the robot from Lost in Space flailing its arms in a panic.

When I find places that are really quite solid investments, well made and reasonably priced, I look at their location and the streets that surround them and realise, should I live in this place alone, my future will involve unacceptable levels of boredom and self-loathing.

There have been suggestions, in Australian media of late, that we’re far too hard on suburbia. Perhaps this is true. I grew up in the suburbs. I live in Brisbane, which is mostly a sprawling suburban expanse that goes on forever and ever, amen.

I’m not good at that. I like the idea that there are people around, people I can go engage with. I like the idea that I can leave my house and there will be things to do within walking distance, regardless of the hour.

This limits my options, in Brisbane. It limits my options quite a bit.

I started this process expecting to be renting, trying to find a place to move before Christmas.  When I realised I could afford a mortgage, the plans changed but I stayed packed, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

All the advice I’ve been given about buying a house suggests taking your time is the best option. Find the place that’s right, rather than the place that’ll do.

It’s been two years since I last had a place, since I gave up my flat and moved into a friend’s spare room. It’s been two good years, but I’m anxious to move on. To have a space that’s mine again, to unpack all the books.

To think, I’d like to read the opening scene of Less Than Zero again, just to see how Ellis uses the language in that bit, and know that I can find the book on a shelf instead of realising its sitting in a random box and it’ll be impossible to find it.

I’ve had the opening line stuck in my head for days now. People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. It isn’t in a hurry to go away.

My irritation at being nowhere is infecting other parts of my life. You can’t build without a foundation, and right now I’m on shifting sands. Work bugs me. Writing bugs me. I’m sick of being around other people.

And so Thursday comes, and I go look at apartments. Saturday comes, and I do it all again. Slowly, inevitably, my standards get lower, ’cause eventually the need to be somewhere will outweigh good sense.

 

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Mark of Cain, Youth Radio, and Pneumatic Drills
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An excerpt from my favourite bit of online reading this week:

We did play Mark of Cain on Triple J, but not in the breakfast program. This is because Mark of Cain sounded like a pneumatic drill slowed to the pace of a Fitzroy junkie looking for his tram ticket and so were only played after 9am. We called this dayparting. This is an industry term used only by people who know about music scheduling for radio.

It comes courtesy of Helen Razer’s defense of Triple J over on Crikey, and references a time period where I was a moderately enthusiastic fan of the radio station, Razer as a presenter, and yes, godsfuckit, the Mark of Cain.

I mean, I’ve more or less got an entire story drafted that’s all about the summer they released this cover:


There are still days when I can fire that song up and listen to it non-stop. One of these days, I’ll even figure out how to make the story I wrote about it non-shit.

But for all that I’ll take any excuse to post youtube clips by bands I love, the debate that inspired Razer’s article is an interesting one and her conclusions are pretty much bang-on in terms where I’d stand in the argument. Worth reading, if you’re interested in music, radio, and the representation of young people in Australia.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Bring me my coffee and my mighty atomic steed
petermball

Allow me to sum up my day in a single image:

Coffee

Me and coffee, we’re going to get real close today. Real, real close. I’ve hit the downhill slope on the latest writing project. Six thousand words to go, all of which is last act stuff where I’m tying off loose ends and resolving bits of conflict. In some ways, this is the easy stuff. I don’t have to make up anything new, I just have to follow the clues littered through the draft and write the things that logically fit into the story. On the other hand, it leaves me with this nagging feeling that I’ve got a job that’s almost finished, but not quite done.

I’m not good with that feeling. As soon as I have one of those open loops, mentally speaking, my subconscious will spend some quality time finding some others when I should be sleeping and my old friend insomnia comes galloping over the hill to pay me a visit. I managed to eke out about four and a bit hours of sleep, and right now I’m feeling better than I should be given that it’s quarter to seven as I write this and I’ve already been up a couple of hours.

In other news, if you’ve been missing my bloggery about all things writing-like, you should probably hie yourself over to the AWM Speakeasy blog at some point in the coming weeks. After a couple of slow years where we rebuilt things like the AWM website and GenreCon, part of my remit for 2014 is getting the social media side of the AWM project back on track, so it’ll become the home for any writing thoughts I have that aren’t driven by anger or high volumes of swearing.

Bring my coffee and my atomic steed. I have a Monday to slay.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Streaking: 7 Days In
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StreakingWeek1I’ve written a minimum of 1,402 words every day for the last seven days. There’s nothing special about that. I’ve done it plenty of times before. But I’m noting it, in this instance, because one of my goals for 2014 is to put together a writing streak.

This is predicated on the Seinfeld approach to productivity, where you get a calender and built up a chain of X’s marking the days where you’ve achieved a certain goal. After a while, the Xs accumulate, and the desire to keep from breaking the chain becomes part of your motivation to keep working.

I’m actually using my calendar to track two different streaks. The first half of the cross gets put in when I clear five hundred words for the day – a kind of minimum viable productivity level that’ll keep me in touch with project du jour – while the second half is put in when I clear the 1,600 words I need every day to hit my goals for the year.

Once I break the chain – and lets be honest, I’ll break it eventually – it becomes the goal I chase. I start a new streak the following day and try to build a longer one.

Discovered immediately after writing this post: Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t want credit for the Seinfeld productivity secret.

WRITING STATS FOR 2014

Current 1,400 word Streak: 7 days
Current 500 word Streak: 7 days

Project Du Jour: Exile (Flotsam, Book 1)

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Dignity is a Luxury Rather than A Necessity
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I’ve been broke a few times in my life. Sometimes it’s been because I worked contract gigs. Sometimes it’s been because I’m unemployed. Either way, a lot of the stuff that Eric Ravenscraft talks about in his blog post for Lifehacker seems really familiar, particularly the stuff about financial advice being aimed at people who are not you when you’re broke, the deliciousness of service station hotdogs, and this bit in particular:

Money isn’t just about paying for goods and services. Money is about dignity. When you get below $20,000/year, dignity becomes a luxury rather than a necessity and, when viewed solely through the eyes of financial advisors, luxuries should be cut first.

Eric Ravenscraft, The Financial Advice I’m Glad I Ignored When I Was Broke

There were years where I routinely lived on about $18,000 a year. Maybe a little less. These days, I look at the money I used to live on in my twenties and wonder how the hell I did it. Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: I’ve gotten used to the dignity as a day-to-day thing. 

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


2014 is Going to Hurt
petermball

I saw my flatmate in the kitchen this morning.

For many people, this isn’t really notable. They probably see their flatmates every morning. For me, it’s a rarity. My flatmate gets up early. Seriously early. He’s usually on his way to work by the time I roll out of bed at 7:30 AM and start thinking about having a shower. Usually, if we cross paths in the morning, it’s ’cause I’m catching a flight scheduled to leave before rush hour.

So he wasn’t entirely out of line when he looked at me, making coffee, around 7 in the morning, and asked: “who are you and what have you done with Peter?”

“This is nothing,” I said. “I’ve been up since 5:30.”

It’s a work day. It’s a writing day. It’s the year of the novellapocalypse. When these things meet, I have to get up early.

#

2014 is going to hurt.

Not in a bad way, necessarily, but in the way that running a marathon when you’re not completely prepared will hurt. The kind of hurt where you’ll ache and you’ll moan, but ultimately there’s a sense of satisfaction behind it. Only, instead of running, I’ll be writing a few things. I’ve got a list somewhere, broken down month by month. I know what I need to have achieved by end of January in order to keep pace with deadlines and expectations. I know how many words I need to write every day, just to keep my head above water.

It works out at 1602.739.

My average daily wordcount for 2013 was closer to 98.2.

#

I hate getting up early, but I know it’s necessary.When my alarm went off at 5:30 AM, my first instinct was to mute the damn thing and make up the writing time later tonight. I didn’t, because that’s a bad precedent to start. Once work is done at five o’clock, there’s a multitude of things that compete for my time. At five-thirty in the morning, the only thing writing competes with is the dire need for a cup of coffee.

#

I’m going to fail at some point this year. For six days now, I’ve kept the forward momentum, hit my word-count and gone a little over. I’m ahead of the curve when it comes to the timeline for my current project. I clocked up a thousand words before I had to go to work, which is about two hundred more than I wanted to achieve this morning.

Right now things are looking good, but a year is a long time. I’ve got shit going on that isn’t writing. I’m going to Adelaide for a week, to hang out at the Fringe. I’m looking for apartment so I can be one of those home-owner types. I’m going to have to move, eventually, once I find a place to own. Work will get crazy. Life will get crazy. It’s just going to happen.

 

The system is going to fall over at some point. That’s going to be okay.

The important part is setting it up again, and making sure all the things get done.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Top Ten Posts on Man vs. Bear in 2013
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Last year, when accurate visitor data was still a shiny new concept around these parts, I went and looked at the posts that had achieved the most visitors over 2012. It proved to be an interesting exercise, so this year I’m expanding it to look at the top ten.

In order of visits, the most popular parts of the archive were:

1. Why I Have Problems with the Big Bang Theory

2. 13 Things Learned About Superhero Games After Running 30 Sessions of Mutants and Masterminds

3. Why Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ Can Be Dangerous to New Writers

4. What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Two

5. What Writers Oughtt to Know About Die Hard, Part One

6. Seven Notes on a Lover’s Discourse While Halfway Through the Book

7. Sri Lankan Love Cake FTW

8. 10 Thoughts on Shame and Writing

9. Running a Villain Audit

10. GenreCon 2013: The Aftermath

It’s interesting to note that both the first two spots are consistent with last year, but not a huge surprise. For one thing, a crazy amount of traffic comes to this site following searches for Big Bang Theory and related terms. For another thing, the post about superhero gaming got a lot of eyeballs when it first got posted, and people still link to it occasionally (we’re coming up on the 60th session of our Mutants and Masterminds campaign in a few weeks, which probably means I’ll do another post in this line to celebrate it).

The weird part about doing this is seeing exactly what it is that gains traction. The Die Hard posts I pretty much expected to get a bunch of links, and they did, even though I ended up getting distracted by other things halfway through the series (part three is still waiting for me to go and re-watch the film so I can enter time codes); the response to the Steven King rant wasn’t entirely unexpected either, but seeing the Writing and Shame post on the list is a pleasant surprise given that I went back-and-forth on both writing and posting that one.

Number 7 is just a reminder that I owe the internet a long overdue dance video. I’ve got no excuse for this one, beyond 2013 being way busier than expected and my original plan for recording things wasn’t altogether feasible. I think my coworkers have set up plans to ensure that it happens over the coming weeks, which will mean we can get a slightly better quality video of my embarrassment due to their superior equipment.

And with that, it’s time to start looking forward, and thinking about what I’ll be blogging about in 2014.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Your Audience: Building versus Earning
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2013 was a hell of a year. I did a lot of stuff. A lot of that stuff was huge: I ran GenreCon; I produced eight or nine full-day workshops over the course of the year; I went to so many cons that I could spend 2014 sleeping and still not pay back my sleep debt; I went to motherfucking Vienna and rode the Wiener Riesenrad, which is one of the few tourist attractions anywhere in the world that holds some appeal to me (largely thanks to its prominence in The Third Man and Before Sunrise).

I discovered that riding the Wiener Riesenrad is a fucking terrible idea if you’re afraid of heights.

One of the smartest things I heard last year came via Chuck Wendig, who did an interview at the Get Read online conference where he talked about author platform and maintaining a career as a writer. I meant to post about it back then, when I first heard it, but it was in the immediate aftermath of coming back from the UK and jet lag was kicking my ass.

Fortunately, Chuck revisited it in his most recent post about resolutions:

I WILL EARN MY AUDIENCE

You don’t build an audience like it’s a fucking chair. And you don’t beat your potential audience about the head and neck with that goddamn chair, either. You earn them by being the best version of you. You earn them by being passionate and awesome and not-an-asshole. You don’t earn them by bickering. You don’t earn them through intrusive marketing missives. You don’t earn them through blathering yelly-screamy auto-DMs or through giant Hulk fists made of quivering spam. You earn them by being a person. A person who happens to have many amazing stories to share.

Writing Resolutions: 2014 and Beyond, Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds.com

I just printed it out and tacked it above my writing computer, to serve as a reminder of the theme I’m adoption for 2014.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Recent Publications in Daily SF and Coins of Chaos
petermball

So these my published stories, much like buses, tend to come along all at once after a very long period of silence. Also, much like buses, I have a tendency to get distracted by shiny things and miss them when they come along, which means I’m left to chase along behind and arrive places very, very late.

I’m really not good with buses. And it’s possible this metaphor is getting away from me. Forgive me, I’m out of practice, and the blogging muscles have atrophied

Suffice to say that the November-December stretch has been pretty good for me on the publishing side of things, however, since it saw my most recent story coming out at Daily Science Fiction, plus it saw the release of the Coins of Chaos anthology which features one of the few stories I actually finished in 2012.

So now, somewhat belatedly, I give you excerpts and links.

From Tuesday to Tuesday, Daily Science Fiction

They’ve been together long enough for this to become ritual: Deanna Sable in the clawfoot bath, head resting against the curve of the tub, her fingers coiled around a Stuyvesant smoked down to the filter; Kirk seated at the door, bare-chested and nursing his third beer, drawing what comfort he can from the proximity to the cracked tiles. Watching one another, half a smile shared between them, looking for new ways to fill the idle silence.

Read the Rest at Daily Science Fiction 


From Tuesday to Tuesday
hit the interwebs about a month ago, when I was deep in the depths of running workshops after coming back overseas. You can read it now over on the Daily Science Fiction website, where it’s somewhat cheerfully appended with a warning about adult language.

Getting published at Daily SF is always a slightly strange experience, both ’cause their readership is so diverse (and, lets face it, huge) and ’cause they’re one of the few places that ask for short exegetic pieces alongside the story. And, every time, I hem and haw and write a handful of words about the story, then delete those words and write another handful. Ultimately, because there’s a deadline and the exegetic bit is optional, I throw up my hands get on with the next thing.

The truth is, sometimes the story behind a story is easy to tell. Sometimes, well, there really isn’t one. From Tuesday to Tuesday got written because I wanted to write a story; I woke up, I wrote a section, and then I tooled around with what I’ve written until I figured out what the next bit should be. It’s an attempt to write a story by leaning little bits of story up against one-another and seeing how many it takes for them to stabilize.

Tithes, Coins of Chaos Anthology 

Last stop, Gould’s Antiques, up on Wickham Terrace. The three of them skulk in, trying to disappear amid the furniture and the ball-gowns and rows of glass display cases. The same routine every visit: Angie slinking to the rear of the store, breathing in the scent of the ancient leather jackets; Byron down by the glass-fronted cabinet, crouched so low his coat brushes the concrete floor, peering at the flintlocks and gasmasks and colonial knives; Nate just kind of wandering around, not really looking at anything except his watch, fretting about the possibility of missing their last train home.

Nate’s only there because they are a team, the three of them. Refugees from the land of misfit toys, as Byron’s so fond of calling them, sharing a shitty fibro shack in a city that has no use for them. They spend their days, three against the world, the punk-girl, the goth-boy, and whatever Byron calls himself, a witch or a warlock or just strange weird.

Read the rest in Coins of Chaos

So back in August of last year I got an email from Jennifer Brozek asking if I’d be interested in submitting a story to Coins of Chaos, an anthology of dark SF-ish stories that revolved around the concept of hobo nickels.

Now I knew fuck all about hobo nickels when the email came through, but I’d written a bunch of stuff for Jennifer’s Edge of Propinquity project in 2011 and, honestly, I had so much trouble getting my shit together on the monthly deadlines that I pretty much assumed I’d be *way* down on the list of writers she’d ever want to work with again. Awesome, I thought, I get a shot at redeeming my laggard ways.

Then I actually went and read up about hobo nickels and checked out the sample images Jennifer had sent through, realised they were all kinds of creepy awesomeness, and disappeared down the rabbit hole for a week while I belted out the first draft of the story. It is, quite possible, the fastest I’ve ever gone from I’m going to write a story to holy shit, this is done in twenty years of writing.

It’d been years since I wrote something that was intentionally a horror story – usually, if that happens, I’ve ended up there accidentally – and it was great fun to play around with my memories of being nineteen or twenty and hanging out with the small crew of goth-types on the Gold Coast (which is, really, not a city that is ever going to be welcoming of vaguely goth-type people).


One final note for people who’ve been reading the blog on the email subscription: you may note a slight change to the layout of the emails that are coming through, as I’ve swapped from the old RSS provider over to a mailchimp set-up that does the same thing. In theory, this should be a seamless change that no-one notices, and the email list will only ever be used to send through blog content.

 

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Checking In
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Back from Europe (which was awesome, except for the bits that weren’t). Back at work. Writing my last workshop of the year, THE SUBMISSION CRASH COURSE, which will be running at QWC this Sunday (spaces still available).

Once that’s done, I have to go find a new place to live. And, you know, move.

And I have to write some things.

Which means I’m still prioritizing the juices squeezed out of my brain-meats for things that aren’t regular blogging for a little longer, although I expect to be about regularly in 2014 after scaling back my extra-curricular activities a little.

Until then, have approximately nine minutes of early nineties AWESOME to tide you over.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.

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Hot for Teacher
petermball

If you looked at my buying habits, as a kid, you’d be fooled into thinking I was a huge fan of Van Halen. I owned a copy of 1984 on cassette by the age of twelve, acquired primarily ’cause I thought the smoking cherub on the cover was kinda awesome.

My first CD – acquired, begrudgingly, when cassettes ceased being available – was a copy of the Van Halen. We were deep into the nineties by this point, long past the age where the distorted guitar of Nirvana had put hair metal to death, and there was something deeply uncool about liking Van Halen at that point. And, if I’m honest, Van Halen, as an album, did nothing for me. I’d picked it up ’cause I was collecting guitar magazines at the time, and kept coming across references to Eruption and the rest of Eddie Van Halen’s solos.

I learned something really important from that CD: don’t front load your album.The three best tracks on Van Halen are the first three, which meant I’d pretty much go from Running with the Devil to the cover of You Really Got Me, then stop.

Also, I learned that I really, really hate guitar solos.

Maybe, if I’d been better at guitar, I would have appreciated them more. Unfortunately I was destined to be one of those guys who learned a handful of chords, the opening to Stairway to Heaven, and an off-key version of Tomorrow, Wendy before giving up on the guitar for good. Listening to Van Halen fell by the wayside as I practiced less and less, and these days I couldn’t even begin to tell you where my CD went.

But 1984 stuck with me.Every now and then I’d find it among my cassette collection, kept around ’cause there was still a tape-deck in my car, and I’d spend a week or two playing Jump, Panama, and the rest of the album as I drove between Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Sometimes I’d tell myself I was going it ironically. Most of the times, I wasn’t. Hair metal may have stopped being cool somewhere along the line, but of the albums Van Halen produced, I’d argue that it’s the one that holds up best in a modern context.

Plus, it’s got Hot for Teacher on it, which isn’t a classy song by any stretch of the imagination and is thoroughly about the male gaze in a way that only 80s film clips can be, but there’s something about the drum intro that digs into my skull and sits there.

I’m going to be listening to this song a whole lot over the next couple of months, since it’s going to be sitting at the core of one of my upcoming writing projects.This and a whole bunch of 80′s hair metal besides, which is why I’m posting about it tonight: if you were (or still are) a fan of the poodle-rock phenomena of the 80s and early 90s, I’m eager to hear about your favourite clips and albums. I am, officially, in research mode now, so if you’ve got any recommendations, fire away in the comments.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Help Wanted: Writing and Travelling
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This time next week, I’ll be on flight to England, wending my way towards the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton. There’s a lot of Australian folks doing that at the moment. I’d wonder how Brighton is going to cope, if it weren’t for the fact that England seems to be overrun by Australians as a matter of course, so they’re probably used to it.

Right now, I’m on a lunch break, trailing the not-quite-a-computer set-up that I’m planning to use as a trasnportable word-processor/blogging platform while I’m overseas. That consists of the Samsung Galaxy 2 tab I acquired earlier this year, plus a battery-operated Ligitech bluetooth keyboard that works way, way better than the peice of crap I gold sold when I first picked up the tab (the lag on the first keyboard was bad, and I tend to type really fast). The Logitech is working out pretty well. It doesn’t quite cope with my typing speed, but it catches up pretty quickly, and I’m a short-burst writer at the best of times, so catching up is a workable solution.

It’s been pointed out that not-writing was also an option for this trip. These people have been dealt with. I’ve done enough not-writing in the lead-up to my own con. I’d rather not let that become an ingrained habit while I’m at someone elses event. Plus, you know, there’s the epic pile of stuff that needs to be done. I really should get on that.

So if anyone’s got any tips for doing the writing thing while travelling, let me know.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


GenreCon 2013: The Aftermath
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gc-2013-web-banner

So I’ve been organising a con for the last few months, and now it’s over. GenreCon 2013 has been laid to rest, the attendees have all departed and flown back to their home cities, and my twitter feed is filled with people either thanking me for putting the con on or congratulating me on its success. Which means my life returns, more or less, to what passes for normal around these parts. A least until October 24th, when I fly to the UK to attend World Fantasy and get to experience the whole con thing from the attendee’s side.

The internet is slowly starting to fill with people posting con reports. Some of the ones that have crossed my path are here, here, and here. This is my report, which isn’t really a report, ’cause when you convene a conference, you don’t really get to see much.

Perhaps a more accurate thing to say is this is a series of vaguely coherent thoughts and feels I’ve had since the conference ended.

One

Holy fucking Jesus, that thing ate my life. I mean, there are many projects that are all-consuming, whether they’re work-related or writing-related, but this was like inviting Godzilla into your house to snack on all the available free time.

I am seriously fucking tired right now. But it’s a good kind of tired. I’m building up to some epic napping in the very near future.

Two

In a lot of ways, I’m one of the most visibly faces of GenreCon online, which means I get a lot of thanks and gratitude sent my way when the social medias start firing up (also, this year, an ungodly number of free drinks when I hit the bar; this caught me off guard).

All this gratitude is great for my ego and all, but it’s really not fair – for ten month of the year GenreCon is a conversation between me and my boss, Meg Vann, and for the most part those ten months are the fun part. Once the conference date draws near, however, a whole gang of people come on board to make things happen, and their jobs are actually a lot harder (and way less fun) than mine.

This means there’s a series of people who are getting nowhere near the love they deserve from the attendees, despite the fact they worked their fucking asses off to make the con happen. I spend a lot of time thanking these people for their work, but it never feels like enough, so I’ll do it once again:

To Meg, who helps keep the good ship GenreCon running and helps me steer the mighty beast;

To Aimee, who fucking rocks the on-the-ground admin and masters the logistics that would take me hours to untangle;

To Simon, who refuses to be flapped by anything and remains a quiet centre of calm amid the chaos;

To Sophie, who promoted the hell out of things and worked through a wicked flu to keep things running;

To Megan, who worked booze-free at all the events that had free booze, and thus made the ultimate sacrifice;

To Stacey, who wrangled transport and stepped up to fill the empty spots in the schedule whenever they needed filling (seriously, *have a lunch break*);

To Emily, who switched gears over and over on the weekend, and managed to line up an epic series of interviews amid all the backstage stuff.

To Lizz M., who stepped into the breach more times than I can count, thus earning the gratitude of me and the entire QWC contingent;

and to Lizz G., who walked into the chaos at the eleventh hour, and held her own admirably.

Seriously, all of you, thank you.

You seriously fucking rock, and none of you get the gratitude you deserve for your efforts through the GenreCon weekend.

Three

I said this last year, and I’ll stand by it: when you’re planning a con, the quality of your talent matters.

For the second year in a row, we were blessed with a truly outstanding list of guests. I can whole-heartedly recommend Chuck Wendig and John Connolly as potential guests to anyone planning a writing conference – they were both erudite, thoroughly engaging, and exceedingly fucking smart presenters who brought a great deal of knowledge to the table, and I think almost all the writers who engaged with them came away inspired and ready to double-down on their writing careers.

The same can be said of our Australian guests. We already knew Anne Gracie was going to be phenomenal (I’ve been a huge fan of her advice articles in the RWA newsletter, and pretty much anyone involved in the Romance Writers of Australia is a safe bet when it comes to being a con guest), and the same is true of both Alex Adsett (one of the rising stars among Australian literary agents) and Harlequin Escape editor Kate Cuthbert (we met her at GenreCon 2012 and immediately thought, yep, we’re definitely bringing her back).

Kathryn Fox was someone we’d tried to bring to the first GenreCon as a guest (we were thwarted by email problems), so it was great to see here in the thick of things this year, enjoying herself amid the other guests. John Birmingham remained a laconic, entertaining presence at the con and delivered an image I’ll be hard-pressed to forget during the final debate.

I’m exceedingly sorry I missed Peter Armstrong’s presentation about serial publication, which my boss has been raving about for several months (and the implementation of his Lean Pub platform seemed to impress our digital team at work).

Four

If the quality of our invited talent wasn’t enough, GenreCon really thrived on the backs of over ninety writers, editors, and agents who volunteered their time to participate in this year’s program. In the end we could use only half that number (limited time, limited space), but it meant we could represent a great deal of diversity in terms of the genres and experience levels presented.

A whole bunch of people came to GenreCon and rocked it, for no other reason than because they wanted to contribute to the development of emerging Australian writers and help forge the kind of community that makes exists to help everyone.

Seriously, all of you, you fucking rock.

Five

The statistical odds of me attempting to write a romance novel is significantly higher than it was this time last year.

Six

It probably won’t be a good romance novel, but I want to make the attempt.

Seven

When you work a project like GenreCon, you get to see a whole lot of genre-snobbery up close. It happened a few times in the lead-up, whether it was in the abstract (people posting me articles about the difference between genre and lit-fic) or the specific (people making disparaging marks about genre writing in general). That shit, it royally pisses me off, to the point where my blood pressure spikes. In my world, if you want to write, you’ve earned all the respect you need to earn for your ambitions to respected. What you want to write doesn’t factor into things.

The reverse of this – genre writers getting snarky at the lit crowd – doesn’t happen in quite the same way, but it does happen, and it’s a thing I generally try to avoid programming stuff that’ll provoke that kind of snark when we put together the con program. For one thing, I like big L literature as much as I like genre fiction. For another thing, a whole bunch of the peeps I mentioned up in point two? Lit writers. REALLY FUCKING GOOD lit writers. I don’t want them to feel disrespected when they’re giving up sixteen hours of their life to make something run.

Mostly, we get that right.

This year, on occasions, we got that wrong, and it made me a little sad. I get where a lot of the anger towards literature comes from (I’ve felt it myself, in the past, and will no doubt feel it again), but the truth is writers are writers, and the vast majority of writers will find common ground if given half the opportunity to do so.

Eight

The next big GenreCon isn’t until 2015 and I’ve got a whole lot of complex feelings about that. Mostly, though, I’m happy we’re taking a break next year.

Don’t get me wrong, I love running the con, but if I’m being really honest with myself, I have to admit that this year has damn-near wiped me out when it comes to work stuff. I don’t have a good filter when it comes to doing things I’m passionate about, and that means it’s extraordinarily hard for me to come home and switch off when running a con. I may be employed four days a week, but I think about it twenty-four seven (and largely work that often well).

But it isn’t just the all-consuming nature of the work that makes me happy about the every-two-years plan.

It’s the fact that it’ll give us the time to do things better. It’ll let us plan the next conference and give it some more shape, rather than just resting on the things that have let us get to this point. GenreCon grew fast – we had about 70% more attendees this year than the first time we ran things – and sticking with that kind of roller-coaster doesn’t leave a lot of time for thinking things out.

24 months may seem like a long wait, but I’m already looking at ways that the extra time allows us to try some things that are completely kick-ass. We can take a look at all the things we’re doing right, all the things that are going wrong, and really take the time to deliver a quality experience.

And honestly, for me, 2015 will be here before I know it, and I’m already sweating the details of what the conference is going to look like…

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Writing, Not Blogging
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I keep reading articles that say blogging is mandatory for writers nowadays. That agents and editors won’t take you on if you don’t already have a platform. This is hooey.

Let me repeat that. Hooey.

Cat Rambo has a sensible blog post about not blogging up on her website this week, which I’m linking to because: a) it’s good, common-sense advice that syncs into the things I routinely tell people who ask about writing and social media and stuff; and b) it neatly explains why I’ve been absent around these parts, and left everyone hanging half-way through the Die Hard series.

The TL:DR version: I’m being mugged by life at the moment, and most of my brain-meats have been expended getting the GenreCon Program up and running. The head-space I’ve got left over goes on projects in order of deadline, ’cause when you’re working with limited time and mental resources, ya gotta prioritize the things that need to be done and the things that help you recharge.

I am about halfway through my draft of Die Hard, Part Three, though. With luck, I’ll get it finished over the weekend (which is looking gloriously, outrageously free of day-jobbery) and posted next week.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


Avril Lavigne Channeling Tank Girl? I Am Down With This Combination.
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As predicted at the tail end of my Die Hard post last week, blogging service is somewhat irregular this week and we’ll be picking up on my narrative deconstruction of Bruce Willis’s greatest movie role next Tuesday.

However, ’cause I love you all, and because I’m fairly sure I’m about to put together a sequence of words that will make my friend Kevin spontaneously combust, I’m going to do a spot of youtubery. I was alerted to Avril Lavigne’s latest video clip via this article on SF site Tor.com and, for the love of god, it really is all the shiznit they promise it to be.

If you’re not interested in following the link, let me give you the short version (Kev, brace yourself): Avril  Lavigne and Danica Fucking McKellar  team up to channel Tank Girl while fighting knife-wielding Lobsters. Also, bad guys in gas masks. Plus, you know, self-referential meta-text as part of the set-up.

Presumably this clip could have ticked more boxes on my short list of automatic awesomeness, but that would require a) catchier music (Avril is still Avril, this is going to be all about the clip), and b) the producers delivering a crate of high-end bourbon to my house.

With that, I leave you to a few minutes of free-floating pop-cultural signifiers and visual awesome-sauce.

See you next week, when we kick off part three of the Die Hard posts.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


What Writers Ought to Know About Die Hard, Part Two
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So my friend Kevin was in town this weekend to talk about a project he’s putting together, which meant we spent a lot of time talking about narrative structure and the way character works and how to do a lot of effective storytelling without wasting too much time on things.

Die Hard, unfortunately, wasn’t in the list, but it’s amazing how much you start noticing when your reading of an episode/movie moves from the passive to the active. I do this kind of thing for fun, since I’m kinda obsessed with structure, and even I start noticing different things when I have to actively explain how things work to someone else.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat follows is a pretty close examination of the Die Hard‘s first act, which means we’re going to spend a whole bunch of words looking over what’s effectively just twenty minutes of film. This post will probably stand alone, but it builds on some of the things I mentioned last week. You may want to go back and review if you haven’t read part one of this series.

This is also going to be a longish post, ’cause First Acts are generally packed to the gills with information. You may want to get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit or two.

You’ll also want a copy of Die Hard handy, ’cause if you can get to the end of this post without wanting to re-watch the movie, you’re a better man than I.

THE FIRST ACT – A BEGINNER’S GUIDE

So you’re going to need to know the basics of how first acts work if the following is going to make any sense, but that’s generally a good thing for writers to understand anyway. People who aren’t writers frequently rhapsodize about how awesome it must be to be “creative” for a living, but the truth is that narrative is actually a highly structured system of conveying information. A writer’s job, especially in film and television, is usually to write to that structure and find interesting twists on the individual components.

This sounds terrible, I know, but it’s not. A strong understanding of how narrative arcs work makes your job extremely easy as a writer.

The vast majority of long-form story-telling will follow something that vaguely represents the three-act structure I’m using as the basis for breaking down Die Hard. They’ll call it different things, they’ll focus on slightly different components, but they all largely revolve around a familiar series of beats or movements. The best part is, you already know them on some subconscious level. You’ve been seeing them in movies for so long that they’re an ingrained part of how we watch and understand stories, so things feel wrong when the structure is messed with.

I largely picked up my understanding of it from reading books about screenplays/structure (I recommend The Weekend Novelist by Robert Ray and pretty much any book on writing screenplays), too much Joseph Campbell at uni, and a lot of time breaking narratives that don’t work down when teaching creative writing.

What you need to know about the first act of a story is this: it’s generally there to create context for the action that follows by setting the stakes of the story. It will tell you what the emotional arc of the narrative is, it’ll set up the physical conflict that’s going to give people something to focus on (since internal changes are hard to map), and it’ll introduce you to many of the major players and the major metaphors associated with them.

In narrative/screenwriting terms, this is usually done by breaking the process down into several key moments:

  • Establishing the World
  • Introducing the Narrative Conflict
  • Having the Protagonist Choose Not to Engage
  • Introducing Some Kind of Object Lesson/Mentor
  • Break the Protagonist Out of Their Reluctance/Kick off the Second Act with a Bang

One of the reasons I’m doing this with Die Hard? It’s one of those stories that is so tightly written and subtle that you almost don’t notice when it’s hitting these key traits, ’cause almost none of them involve terrorists.

The argument that I made last week about Die Hard being about John McClane setting aside his pride/masculinity to accept his wife? I can make that with confidence, because that’s what all the set-up for this story is about. It sets up the inner conflict, the major symbols that will be serving as the metaphor of those conflicts, and then lets the terrorists loose as a complicating factor while our protagonist undergoes a profound transformation.

I’m going to take these movements within the first act one by one, calling out the interesting things that are happening within the movie. It’s worth stressing that these movements always happen in order, but will frequently involve hitting the same beat multiple times, particularly when establishing a bunch of characters. To make things easier, I’ve marked out the time-codes from my copy of the film, which gives you a chance to see when/where I see the breaks happening as we move from phase to phase.

MOVEMENT ONE: ESTABLISHING THE WORLD

PART ONE: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE WIFE AND THE GUN (Time Code: 0:00 to 2:00)

The very first images we get in Die Hard are loaded with metaphorical meaning. There’s ten seconds of a plan landing against a backdrop of orange sunset – a colour that calls to mind the kind of cinematography associated with the Western genre that the film is going to reference a time or two more before we’re done. This is a classic Western opening – a stranger riding into town – only this time the horse is a seven-four-seven.

When we cut to the interior of the plan, there’s another focused shot: a close-up of McClane’s hand, gripping the arm-rest tight, wedding band in plain view. We pan up, never seeing John McClane’s face, to the guy in the next seat. He’s a business man, a comfortable flyer, and he notices John’s distress.

“You don’t like flying, do you?” he asks, and immediately we’re on John’s side. It’s a quiet, subtle way of setting up the protagonist, but it works immensely well. We’ve all been stuck on public transport and had someone try to strike up a conversation. We all know how awkward it can be, especially when the question isn’t wanted. John doesn’t want the question to be asked – he’s a man so reserved we haven’t even seen his face yet – and no matter how well-intentioned his neighbor may be, he’s butting into someone’s life. Even John’s non-committal response to the question isn’t enough to shut up the neighbor eager to assert his authority, based on nine years of air travel.

Looking at this scene twenty-odd years later, it’s easy to lose track of how revolutionary and smart this opening is. Keep in mind that Die Hard was released at the tail end of the eighties, at a time when the protagonists of action films were generally named Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and showing any kind of vulnerability was either verboten or a narrative throw-away before the explosions started. Those were narratives about super-men, massively-muscled and nigh indestructible. John McClane is woefully, painfully human, afflicted with the most basic of fears: flying.

Having established his vulnerability, the film immediately turns towards establishing McClane’s credibility as a hero. The plane lands. He goes to collect his overhead luggage, and the annoying exec spots John’s gun.

“It’s okay,” McClane says. “I’m a cop. Trust me, I’ve been doing this for 11 years.” He takes a little pleasure at the nervousness the businessman displays here, which is impressive – there are very few people who can make the smirk an endearing facial expression, and Bruce Willis can do it.

In one smooth movement, less than 2 minutes into the film, we’ve set up the core of who John is: he’s defined by his job, and his job is represented by the gun he keeps at his side. The gun is John’s object, the thing that defines his character, but it’s at odds with who he really is – that’s why the first thing we see is his wedding band. These two metaphors are going to be put into conflict again and again throughout the film, since they represent the two halves of John’s personality.

For now, it’s the handgun that gets the majority of the attention, the thing that’s called out in dialogue. That’s because they’re setting McClane up as the new-age sheriff, willing to keep the law in the unruly Western frontier (if you just had a “holy shit, this is why the film is set in LA” epiphany, give yourself a gold star. If you didn’t…well, think about it. Figuring out why that’s a little-but-significant thing is a step towards realising why this film is so smart).

PART 2: A MOM ON THE MOVE (Time Code: 2:18 to 5:00)

We go from the airport to Nakatomi towers, where we meet John’s other half for this film (both literally and metaphorically).

There’s a party going on, a CEO making a speech from the balcony. This takes up the foreground, but it isn’t what we notice. What we notice is Holly, who is the only person moving and continuing to work while the rest of the office stops to listen.  This is only a few seconds, but it tells us a lot: 1) she’s important enough to keep working while the boss talks, without fear of censure; 2) she’s invested enough in her job that she’s willing to work while everyone else is celebrating Christmas.

The scene progresses: Holly’s propositioned by Harry Ellis (played by the inimitable Hart Bochner) and fends him off with images off Christmas: eggnog, chestnuts, Rudolf and Frosty. She may be a woman invested in her job, but family remains important to her. Christmas remains important to her. Any fear we have that she gets lost in her job is eradicated when she sends her pregnant assistant out to join the party – Holly may be invested in what she does, but she’s not demanding everyone work with her. She’s a good boss, a good person, a good mother. We like her.

She calls her family, talks to her kids. Asks the nanny if John McClane has called (he hasn’t), and suggests that the spare bed gets made up in case John comes to stay for the weekend. It’s a nice gesture, an overture to the story the film is really telling, but we get a clue that all is not right in the world when she turns the family photograph on her desk face down. She may be willing to let John visit, but all is not well in their world. Shit has gone down, although we don’t yet know what.

With that, we hit the five minute mark, and our set-up is done. We know who these characters are now, we’ve got a hint of the stakes they’re fighting for. We don’t yet know what conflict is going to crash into their lives and change them forever, but we know that it’s coming.

MOVEMENT TWO: SETTING UP THE CONFLICT

PART ONE: ARGYLE (Time Code: 5:00 to 8:30)

Having established our main characters, Die Hard lights a slow-burning fuse that will eventually push these two to breaking point (and, were it not for the timely intervention of some faux-terrorists, probably push them apart forever; this, too, is important, ’cause it means the “terrorists” are a necessary part of changing these two forever rather than a throw-away plot element).

We cut back to the airport. John is following a line of people away from the baggage claim, but in one of those tiny moments that you barely notice, he’s the only person looking around and trying to get his bearings. Everyone else is powering forward, straight ahead, going where they’re going. John McClane is the only person here feeling a little lost.

He notices a young couple greeting one another, the young lady leaping into her paramours arms. “California,” John says, like it’s the state’s fault, when really he’s just covering the thing that’s really bothering him – there’s no Holly here to meet him. He’s on his own. For the rest of the first act, “fucking California,” become’s John’s code for “I hate this place/job/person that has taken away my wife.”

Then Argyle appears, a limo driver among a row of drivers, holding a sign with John’s name on it and the Nakatomi logo.

This, too, is a smart moment in the movie. Argyle is new to his job – John’s his first customer – and he’s nervous as hell about things. He doesn’t know how to act yet, unlike the stoic limo drivers picking up people who aren’t the protagonist of this film. “It’s my first time driving a limo,” he says.

“It’s my first time riding in one,” John says, and they two men strike a kind of affinity for one another.

A stoic limo driver would have been a disaster in this sequence, a false note. We’re going to learn that John really doesn’t like his wife’s job or her company, and a stoic driver would have been a symbol of the faceless corporation that took her away from him. Quiet authority, unwilling to engage. Argyle, nervous and unsure, isn’t a threat to John or his masculinity, so they bond.

All of this takes less than a minute, by which times we’re in the limo and we get another glimpse into who John McClane is: he’s seated in the front seat, putting himself on equal footing with Argyle. Two ordinary guys, unassuming and uncomfortable with wealth. Even as Argyle tries to sell John on the limo, talking up it’s features, John is unwilling to engage. He yawns. Ignores the spiel.

Because they’ve bonded, Argyle gets to asks a whole bunch of questions that the audience is eager to know about John and Holly’s relationship, and because they’ve bonded, John gives honest, albeit reluctant, answers: they’re married; Holly moved out West for work six months ago; he stayed in New York; they’re officially separated. Why aren’t things working out?

“She had a good job that turned into a great career.” John didn’t come along because he’s a New York cop with a six month backlog of New York scum bags he’s still trying to put behind bars. He can’t just pull up stakes and leave.

And because Argyle is the comic relief character, the court jester of this film, he gets to speak truth to power: “In other words, you thought she wasn’t going to make it out here, and she’d come crawling back to you, so why bother to pack, right?”

Almost immediately afterwards, Argyle puts on a rap track (it is still 1988 here). “Don’t you have any Christmas music?” John asks, echoing Holly’s response to Ellis a few minutes earlier. For all their differences, Holly and John are still united in what they really want. Christmas. Family. Each other. If only they could work their shit out.

PART TWO: NAKATOMI TOWERS (Time Code: 8:31 to 13:30)

Having dumped a whole bunch of back-story on us in the preceding three minutes, the film starts really putting the screws into John. He walks into Nakatomi, heads over to the front desk. “I’m here to see Holly McClane,” he tells the guard on duty.

“Just type it in there,” the guard says, pointing to a computer. “Cute toy,” John says, and he searches for his wife’s name under M, doesn’t find it. Searches for her name under Gennaro. It’s totally there.Shit.

Sheer fucking brilliance packed into less than twenty seconds.

The key thing we’re meant to take away from this scene is that Holly is operating under her maiden name, a point that will stick in John’s craw and become a key point in the next phase of the movie. We could learn exactly the same thing by having a human guard check a ledger, which is how most movies at the time would handle it, but the computer does so much more. Consider the following:

  • The fact that so much of this building is computer controlled is an important plot point, so establishing it early is important. The genius of Die Hard is how seamlessly it ties this sort of thing to other aspects of the narrative, setting something up while simultaneously distracting you with the emotional kick of the scene.
  • It reinforces that John isn’t part of his wife’s world. She lives in a place where these computers are common, he isn’t impressed by them any more than he’s impressed by the limo. He’s a cowboy, a maverick, built to handle the frontier. Technology isn’t his thing. Hell, passenger jets aren’t his thing. He’s a simple man, all about the face-to-face. A throwback to an earlier time.
  • It means the security guard gets to be sympathetic in the few moments he’s got on screen, empathising with John’s loathing of technology. Since we already like John, we feel for the man whose on his side, even if the guard is stuck working with the hated machine. Considering this nameless security guard isn’t long for this world, having him even mildly sympathetic means there’s something at stake when he gets shot a few minutes from now.

John heads upstairs. Notices the cameras, the observation, the omnipresent security. He doesn’t like it.

He likes it even less when he hits the party upstairs, plunging into the Christmas celebration Holly worked through earlier in the film. There’s violins, waiters serving cocktails, people in suits. Not John’s place at all, and he’s ignored by everyone.

Everyone except Holly’s boss, who spots John and welcomes him. A friend John doesn’t want, but is willing to accept in the face of the chaotic party. We learn that Takagi sent the limo, is a nice guy who speaks well of his careers.

We transition to Holly’s office, where John and Takagi run into Ellis snorting cocaine. It’s a key scene for John, since he needs to stamp down on his nature – he’s a New York cop, adverse to scum bags, and Hart Bochner is a master of inserting a little extra scum bag into every scene he’s in as Ellis. He’s arrogant, he’s drugged up, and he boasts about his achievements. He’s everything John dislikes about the corporation, everything John fears Holly will become, distilled into one character. John doesn’t like him. Neither do we, the viewers.

Once again, its important to note that the scene needs Takagi and Ellis. The former needs to come off as a nice guy, someone John can like, ’cause John both needs a means to connect to the office if he’s ever going to understand Holly’s job, and because Takagi is going to be die in the opening minutes of the second act and we need to like him for that death to have an impact. It’s the same trick they pulled with the computer a few minutes earlier, just writ a little larger.

Ellis needs to be a scum bag because we need the conflict – someone for John to but heads with. If John had met Takagi and liked him, its a step towards reconciling with Holly and her work. This would be great for the characters, but it’s not great for the plot. We’re in the first act. We want them ready to fight, ready to deny their true wants and desires in favour of the things that distract them.

This is where the film really starts to hit boiling point, since we’ve brought John right into the heart of Holly’s domain. She’s not there, not quite yet, but John’s been confronted by machines, ostentatious displays of wealth, a throw-away two-second scene where he’s kissed on the cheek by a guy who wishes him a Merry Christmas, and a scumbag like Ellis that John can’t arrest. People may say bad things about Bruce Willis’s acting chops, but he totally fucking nails it here. We have no doubt exactly how much John hates all this.

And then Holly appears, twelve minutes and fifty seconds into the film, still holding files and working through the party. She pauses, whispers John’s name; it’s the first thing that’s made her pause in the entire film. This is significant. John McClane is something important enough to stop her in her tracks, the woman who doesn’t stop for parties or bosses or anything else. You can see the hope that the two will reconcile right there, in that moment, but everything goes wrong. Her boss says something, bringing her work up when they least want it. She crosses the room and greets John, kisses him on the cheek. It’s awkward, but not impossible to imagine that things will get better.

Then Ellis is there, just to fuck things up for everyone. “Show him the watch,” he says, alerting both John and the audience to the object that will stand in for Holly’s core narrative choice in this film. “It’s a Rolex.”

That does the trick. John’s first instinct when faced with his wife’s success is retreat, and he lapses back into that now. “I’m sure I’ll see it later,” he says. “Is there a place I can wash up?”

The man is out of there, fast as he can be, ’cause he isn’t willing to face the choice between his ring or his gun yet.

MOVEMENT THREE: FAILURE TO ENGAGE

THE BATHROOM SCENE (Time Code: 13:31 to 16:17)

So I first got interested in writing this series when I was talking about narrative structure to a friend of mine, and mentioned that the primary role of the protagonist is to run the hell away from the plot for the majority of the first act. This is the core of what makes a protagonist interesting – that they sense the great chances coming their way and avoid going through it.

Audiences are sadists. We much prefer seeing our heroes reluctant and in pain.

“What about Die Hard?” my friend said. “When does John run away?”

I didn’t have an answer for her, not at that moment, so I sat down and started blocking out the movie scene by scene. And when I was done, I adored the movie even more than I did when I started.

This process starts thirteen minutes and thirty seconds into the film. There’s a few seconds where we see the exterior of the building and the terrorists showing up.

And then we cut the bathroom. McClane is washing up, Holly is right there. They talk about how good it is to see each other. Holly asks where he’s staying. “Things happened so fast,” she says. “I didn’t get a chance to ask you on the phone.”

McClane tells her about a former captain – a tie to his job. He’s retired out here, offered John a place to stay.

“He lives in the middle of nowhere,” Holly says. “Why don’t you stay with me?”

The eventually build up to the point where she asks him to stay in her spare room and see the kids’ they both agree it’d be nice. It’s a feel-good moment for the audience, a hint that perhaps Ellis hasn’t ruined everything. There is still common ground these two people can find.

And then a random couple burst into the room from the Christmas party, break the mood, and exit again.

And immediately afterwards Holly says “I missed you,” and McClane responds with “I guess you didn’t miss my name, though, huh? Except when you were signing cheques.” Even the body language changes here: hands in his pockets, belligerent, not at all interested in reconciling if it means giving in and admitting she may be his equal.

And the argument begins. Another interruption – this time by Holly’s pregnant assistant, calls Holly back to the part where she has to be an important member of the Nakatomi team (if this post wasn’t three thousand words long already, I’d spend some time theorizing on the importance of having a pregnant woman make this announcement, but my inner lit-theorist is probably showing badly enough for one post).

Holly excuses herself, goes out to work. John beats himself up for being an idiot.

And with that, we’ve set up characters and primed them for the story to come. They aren’t ready to change yet, not without a catalyst that sets things off, but fortunately that’s about to start.

MOVEMENT FOUR: MENTOR FIGURES

MENTOR FIGURE ONE: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED IS A WHOLE BUNCH OF TERRORISTS (Time Code: 16:18 to 20:10)

In romantic comedies the mentor figure – the person who exists to guide the protagonist through the confusing world they find themselves in – is usually a best friend figure. In epic fantasies, it’s usually a literal mentor, with a white beard and wizard robes.

In Die Hard, our mentor is a squad of terrorists who invade Nakatomi towers and kill the security guards on the ground floor, taking over their role.

They get a nice, long introduction here, a necessary extravagance given that they haven’t really had a presence in the film thus far, and their competence is immediately apparent. They do their job fast. One character makes jokes as they kill. They’re not sweating a damn thing as they go through the motions. These guys may be scum, but they’re scum that have their shit together.

The we see the kind of our mentors: Hans. Walking at the forefront of the armed “terrorists” as they ease their way into the film and lock the place down.

Holly and John aren’t in this scene, but there’s no doubt that it changes things. This story, which has been all about two people who can’t live together anymore, is about to veer off in a very different direction. And because the film has primed us for this moment, through its title (Die Hard) and the trailer focusing on explosions and the poster advertising 40 stories of terror, our interest kicks up a notch.

Think this is insignificant? It’s not. Our expectations for how a plot works are set from the moment we engage with these things, and keep developing throughout the first act. If you’d titled Die Hard something like The California Reconciliation, the arrival of the terrorists would feel jarring.

Despite what your mother told you, we do read books by their cover. It’s why there are all sorts of conventions that separate fantasy covers from romance covers from thriller covers from literary covers, to prime the reader for the kind of novel they’re about to read. Films do the same thing. Covers matter. Trailers matter. Titles matter.

And once you know this, and start paying attention to it, you can play with the expectations these things generate. Which is why Die Hard can get away with leaving its “terrorist” take over of the tower as something of a secondary plot, ’cause we’ve been waiting for this moment since the first time we saw the movie poster.

MENTOR FIGURE TWO: SOMETIMES ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS STRIP OFF YOUR SHOES AND SOCKS (Time Code: 20:11 to approximately 23:00)

Of course, terrorists alone aren’t going to cut it in terms of pushing the film forward. John McClane can learn a lot by liberating machine guns and explosives off people, but he isn’t meant to be indestructible. We need him vulnerable in every way we can imagine, so we cut to a shot of him seated in the bathroom, barefoot and creating fists with his toes on the rug.

And once again a make a little squeal of excitement as I realise exactly how smart this film is. Not just because they’ve made our protagonist barefoot, which will prove to be the ultimate sign of vulnerability as the film goes on, a thing that separates McClane from both his enemies and the legion of army-boot wearing heroes that dominated the eighties.

Everyone notices that. The film goes out of its way to highlight the physical vulnerability being barefoot represents.

What’s far more significant is this: John McClane, the man who loathes his wife’s job and the limo, the man who took smug satisfaction in the nerves of the businessman who sat next to him on the flight over when said businessmen saw John’s gun…

…that guy has taken the businessman’s advice, and realises that it seems to work. He’s found a moment where he can connect with the business world his wife exists in, even if it’s in a small and seemingly insignificant way.

The moment immediately leads to John flipping open his wallet to get Argyle’s card, letting the limo driver know that he may end up staying with Holly. It’s a chance for us to see how much family means to John when we spot a photograph of his wife and kids in his wallet.

And because he’s on the phone, John gets some advanced warning that something’s gone horribly wrong when the siege begins and Hans’ crew cuts the phone lines with a chainsaw.

John’s going to pay and pay hard for taking that businessmen’s advice from the opening minutes of the film.

But it’s also going to save his life, in more ways than one.

We get a shot of Hans and his boys walking into the party, machines guns at the ready. John is puzzling over the phone as the first shorts are fired. There’s an attack going on, Holly’s caught in the middle of it. John escapes to the upper levels, barefoot and barely armed, courtesy of his advanced warning.

The film is off to the races, and our first act is done. We have hit the event that breaks the protagonist out of their I don’t wanna engage with this fugue and forced them to engage with their internal conflict. Thus we hit the all-important:

END OF ACT ONE

God fucking damn I love this film.

At this point you’ve stuck with me for about four thousand words of explanatory stuff about the first act (and trust me, I’ve been relatively restrained here), so I’m going to cut things short. Next week’s post will probably be towards the end of the week instead of Tuesday, as I’m heading to the RWA conference in Perth this weekend.

When it does get posted, we’ll be looking at the first half of the second act, where a lot of the meat of the story happens. See you all then.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


A Call for Reader Questions: Dancing Monkey 2013
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If you fire up the time-machine and travel back to August of 2012, you’ll notice that about this time of year my life gets increasingly hectic. Weekends that used to be free for writing and bloggery get siphoned up by Writers Festivals, Conferences, and other work-related things. I start spending more time in airports than usual. Projects that have been ignored for a little too long start lurching their way to the top of the to-do list.My brain, known to be unreliable at the best of time, starts misfiring like you wouldn’t believe.

I’ve discovered, from hard experience, that it’s best not to set my own topics in this period. No-one is particularly interested in reading an endless cycle of well, guess how I fucked up today and seriously, me and airports, it’s like I’m cursed; I’m not particularly interested those posts either, but I know I will if I find myself ready to blog and unable to think of something.

Which brings us to this post: the beginning of the second ever Dancing Monkey Post Extravaganza series. 

Once again I’m throwing open the doors of Man Versus Bear and crowd-sourcing topics you’d like to see me tackle in the coming weeks. Give me topics. Set me challenges. Fire away with single words that can be used as a writing prompt, if you want, and I’ll store them in a file and use them to fill the empty hours when the writer-brain is willing but the thinky-brain is weak.

If you’re interested in seeing the type of things we covered in last year’s series, you can find them archived here. I’ll note that the response to John’s question about plot is still among the most visited posts I’ve ever written; I may be brain-dead for these, but I do try not to half-arse things.

So, pitch away, people. Drop you questions, words, and ideas into the comments and I’ll get things rolling in the coming weeks.

Originally published at Man Versus Bear. Please leave any comments there.


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