All posts by Amanda J Spedding

Writer, editor, caffeine-addict, wannabe-ninja.

Writers, Retreats, and Insane Asylums

It’s been just over a week since I returned from a Writer’s Retreat held at Mayday Hills Lunatic Asylum at Beechworth. Yep, you read right – a writer’s retreat held at an old insane asylum. It was as awesome as it sounds. Five days sequestered with other writers in a hauntingly (and quite possibly haunted) beautiful asylum is the stuff of inspiration. And personing. I did a whole lot of personing.

What made this doubly excellent was the other writers in attendance, all but one of whom were very close friends, so it was a catch-up of epic proportions. This also meant that we were all comfortable throwing around ideas and points of view, and engaging in general shenanigans. But we were there to write, to have that uninterrupted time some of us seldom get when at home. And it was glorious.

Writing is often a solitary endeavour where you live in your created worlds among created people. But put a bunch of writers together, and it’s a whirlwind of book discussions, plot summaries, story ideas, and why synopsis writing is the tenth circle of Hell. There’s joy in this cacophony; the rise and fall of voices, the quirks and strange paths conversations take that would make no sense to non-writerly folk but which feeds the soul and the muse of those who bleed ink. They will tell you why your story necessitates the killing of a character (beloved or otherwise) then offer a plethora of options on how to do so that would land them on any federal watchlist.

Just being among fellow scribes is enough to invigorate, enough to drown out that writer-imposteritis but we were also fortunate enough to have the wonderful pocket-rocket Kylie Chan providing workshops all through Saturday, which were fantastic, but always there was time to write. There’s not a lot better than sitting in a nicely heated room listening to the clack of keys in the silence as worlds and people are created – individual galaxies within a shared universe. It’s kinda cool.

But when we weren’t writing, there were historical tours of the asylum, and one very late night there was also a paranormal investigation. As much as I would have liked to go on the paranormal investigation, when it’s -4˚ outside… well, I’m staying where the heat is. Those that took up the challenge had a great time despite the sub-zero temps.

We ate, slept and created together… wait, let me rephrase. Look, we bunked down in the same room, wore pretty much all the clothes we’d brought with us when it was time to venture outside – hell, I even wore my slippers out to dinner because damn it was cold. We took the piss out of each other, we laughed, and we revelled in our own and each other’s weirdness.

And the location was everything. The asylum has a melancholic beauty about it.  The history is both shocking and sad, with desolate and worn-down buildings that hold memories that are like scars. For my mind, pain and suffering has a tendency to linger, to echo long after people are gone, and I don’t doubt there is fear and horror etched into some of the walls, the cells of the asylum.

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Too soon the time was over, and I had to take a tiny plane home, but those five days were like manna from heaven. I came away with so much more than just a honed story premise and structural architecture (and glow-in-the-dark skeletal gloves), but a renewed vigour for writing. I can’t wait to go again next year. And I can’t thank all the people involved enough, but let me try.

To Geoff and Dawn for organising and running the reatreat – you two work immensely hard not only on Asylum Ghost Tours but Cohesion Press as well. You two rock. (Special shout out to Mandy and Leah for all they did over the five days as well.)

Now I’m going to list the writers at the retreat – they are an amazing bunch and you really should be reading their work. They’re incredible and diverse storytellers, and there should be something in here for everyone.

Kylie Chan

Devin Madson

Marty Young

Andrew McKiernan

David Schembri

Fiona Shearer.

And for all those writers out there, find a retreat, a place that evokes inspiration and puts you around others who not only share your passion to create, but will encourage and badger you to do so.

Whispers in the Void

A couple of months ago, Mark Lawrence launched this year’s Battle of the Bards competition ‒ write a flash fiction piece (300 words or fewer), for a chance to win signed books from some of the giants in the grimdark/fantasy genre.

My friend, Devin Madson, won that comp with her incredible piece ‒ Between Lanterns and Corpses. It’s a brilliant story, and I was so chuffed she’d won. You can read it here, along with the short-listed entries. For those familiar with Devin’s work, this story is set within her Vengeance trilogy universe, and this post explains the origin of the winning flash piece. You should be reading her work, she’s quite the storyteller!

I, too, gave the competition a whirl, but alas, no free books. While a ‘loss’ in the literal form, it was a win in the time-to-write column. Yes, it’s only 300 words (good words, I think), but it was more the act of creativity that soothed my soul ‒ that’s always a win.

The story I wrote has also brought into sharper focus one of the characters of my WiP, so I’ve gained another win (two ticks in the win column ‒ I’m on a roll!). Writing tight forces those essential traits, the… trueness of a character and lets the world see it.

So, if you’ve read this far, then perhaps you can read another three hundred words.

Whispers in the Void

Wren knew this wasn’t the last of the dead they would stitch beneath her skin. This night the soothsayer would be forged into the finest jewel, and Wren would carry that hateful woman for all time. Already the sickly-sweet scent of roasting flesh clogged her throat.

Anointed in oils, Wren had been left to commune with the souls she carried, but never had their voices been quiet. Never had they let her be. Silence, how she craved it. Nights undisturbed. Days, her thoughts her own. But the people had cut and carved and delivered their dead ‘til she was a shadow within a shell. Infested. Infected. The slow death of self.

Escape was all she had. And freedom meant retribution. With no Journeywoman to replace Wren, the clan’s spirits would be unprotected. Ripe for the Undergod’s pickings.

Beneath the Spirit House, blisters bloomed on her skin as she dragged herself past the furnace where the soothsayer sizzled and spat. May the Undergod never shit you out. Wren stifled a cry; lances of fire a thousand-fold speared through her, the spirit-gems enraged at being so near their creators. Life-eternal they’d been promised, yet prisoners they’d become in an unwilling crypt.

They blazed their fury, but freedom meant pain. They would soon understand.

At the slag pit’s egress, the light of day stung her weeping blisters, and glinted off the jagged spears of metal below. Thousands of spirits she’d been burdened to carry. She would carry no more.

The drop from her perch was steep, and the dead began to beg. Without her, they were just whispers in the void.

Freedom beckoned. Her life her own, however fleeting.

No longer the caged bird she had always been, Wren smiled as she pushed from the edge, and for a moment, she flew.

raven

Art by: Dimitarsizce

Tag, you’re it.

My absolute loathing of the dialogue tag ‘opined’ is no secret. (By all the gods, Baxter, if you start tagging me with that shit again, I will steal your dogs.) If you’re using ‘opined’, or another wankerish dialogue tag to push home to the reader some kind of pretentious point your character is making, then you need to take a look at your character’s dialogue because it should be pretty clear they’re voicing their opinion.

Dialogue tags serve a few purposes. For example, they identify the speaker, they break longer pieces of dialogue, and they can also be used to further enhance emotion. And yes, that third point should be used sparingly – if you can’t convey emotion through dialogue and action, then a dialogue tag telling the reader so, doesn’t really cut it.

Use ‘said’. Almost always use ‘said’. Of course there are going to be exceptions to this ‘rule’, but the beauty of ‘said’ is that it’s invisible. It ensures the emphasis is on the spoken word, on the emotions put forward within those words, and the honesty and/or sub-text behind it.

Dialogue is the voice of your characters, and I’m not just talking accents and inflections here, I’m talking a deeper sense of self. When a character speaks, they reveal a lot about not only themselves but the situation/scene they find themselves in (do not use ‘he/she revealed’, if the characters says it, trust me, it’s revealed). You don’t need a fancy-shmancy dialogue tag, it’s distracting, and removes focus from speech.

Sure, there are times when ‘said’ isn’t going to cut it, but choose words that impact the dialogue, eg. whispered, muttered, shouted, screamed. These dialogue tags up the ante, but use them sparingly or they’ll become repetitive. No, put down that Thesaurus – use ‘said’.

Opine

Same applies with ‘asked’. If there’s a question mark at the end of your dialogue, it’s safe to assume the reader understands a question is being posed – ‘asked’ becomes redundant (don’t use ‘posed’ either, that’s redundant as well).

Look, I understand there are a lot of ‘rules’ to writing and grammar and all that comes with storytelling, but as an editor and a reader, I’m telling you: let the dialogue do the work for you, and let the dialogue tag (if you need one) become invisible. It’s the characters’ voices we want to hear, not the way you tell us they spoke.

Show the reader through dialogue, through action. It falls in line with ‘show don’t tell’. You want the reader to know the character is angry? Don’t use: ‘he/she said angrily’, show us through the narrowing of eyes, the gritting of teeth, or punching a wall, for example. Then use ‘she/he said’. The emotion and/or sense the character is trying to put forward is far more visual, far more visceral, and the reader will be far more engaged than having a character opine at them (you use that, and I’ll cut you).

For a far more polite understanding of the above, check out Devin Madson’s vlog on this very subject: Almost Always Use Said, it has some wonderful insights as to why you shouldn’t fancy up your dialogue attributions.

So, the next time you’re writing dialogue, remember to make that attribution invisible so the voice of your character holds the power it should.

(Seriously, Baxter, I will steal your dogs.)

Character Motivation: May it Burn with the Fury of a Thousand Suns

Today’s post is brought to you by motivation. Mine, to actually write the post, and that of the characters you put into your stories – be they short stories or long. Characters are the heart of your tales, they’re who the reader connects with, and they must be on point. Motivation is key to bringing that connectedness to the fore.

Characters are also essential to driving plot, and every character you put into your tales (yes, every) needs to have motive. There needs to be a reason your protagonist makes the decisions they do, there needs to be intent behind your antagonist’s choices. The reasons and intent don’t have to be honourable or dastardly (gods, I love that word), and they don’t have to sit in neat little boxes ‒ protagonist = good, antagonist = bad ‒ they just have to be real. Flaws and all.

I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I’ve put down a book because the characters were wandering aimlessly looking for a plot, or waiting for said plot to impact them. It doesn’t work that way.  The story cannot act independently of the characters. You don’t read a story solely for plot, you read it for those who live, who try to survive the world you’ve created. Don’t sell them short.

Ray-Bradbury 1

So what is motivation? Merriam-Webster defines it as: a motivating force, stimulus, or influence. Incentive. Drive.

That. Right there. ↑ Now ask yourself: what is the incentive, the influence that drives your character(s)? It’s that inner motivation, that sense of self that impacts the plot, the story. And will continue to do so. Every decision (good or bad) your characters make will influence the story – some of these decisions may essentially backfire, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing should be easy.

Motivation doesn’t need to be complex, it can be simple but it needs to be that driving force. Yes, FORCE. Motivation can be: you killed my family, payback’s a bitch. Simple, yes? But the depth comes in the decisions and choices your character makes to achieve this end.

Let’s take a look at how this works. Your protagonist, now alone in the world, is driven almost blindly for retribution. Do you: a) have them stumble across a magical object that by chance provides them with the exact location of the antagonist and off they go? Or b) have them make a pact with a shifty character whose motivations, while at odds with their own, can get them closer to their target ‒ but in doing so compromises the protagonists morals?

You know which one I’m reading. Character motivation can (and should) cause all kinds of issues that influence plot/story. Characters are the driving force behind your storytelling, and what motivates them is what will connect to the reader. Give them lives and loves, sins and secrets, and have all of that be the heart of your story.

Motivation and conflict of that motivation is what can make a good story great. Don’t waste time on overly-detailed physical descriptions. Sure, physicality is important to a point – it’s nice to know what a character looks like, but is it essential to the story? Rarely. Ah, but give conflict to motivation and you really set the bar high.

So your antagonist has green eyes. Cool. Does she burn with the fury of a thousand suns because your protagonist was born into a family that subjugated hers? Your protagonist has hair the colour of silver? Nice. Does she practice her fighting skills to the point of exhaustion to not only kill the antagonist who wreaks havoc on the realm’s stability, but to take her place and destroy the father she hates?

You see where I’m going with this? By giving your characters motivation to achieve their ends, by adding conflict to that motivation, you make them real to your reader, you make them believable, and you create a story that has depth and layers and soul. It’s what brings readers back to your writing.

Motivation. It makes all the difference. Have it make the difference in your story.

Movie Review: Train to Busan

It took me longer than it really should have to get around to seeing Train to Busan, and it wasn’t until I finally sat down to watch it that I realised how big a mistake that wait was. I’m a huge fan of zombie apocalypse films and when the first trailer dropped I was hooked. Then as tends to be the case, life happens, and it fell off my radar.

It wasn’t until a friend posted they’d bought a copy that I hunted it down on cable TV. Train to Busan was everything I hoped it would be and more. It hits all the right marks when it comes to horror, action-thriller, and zombies. It’s a slow burn at the beginning, introducing the main characters, setting up the premise and foreshadowing the virus that will come to destroy South Korea, but it soon kicks up the pace and ramps the tension.

SPOILER ALERT IN ALL ITS SPOILERY-NESS. READ ON AT YOUR OWN SPOILERY RISK.

Now before I go on, I’ve said before that I’m no movie aficionado – I just know what I like. So it’s on that alone I’m basing my review. Alrighty then, let’s get this show on the road… or tracks…

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Train to Busan follows the story of Seok-woo, a divorced fund manager who works long hours while trying to raise his daughter, Soo-an. For her birthday, she finally convinces him to take her to see her mother in Busan. He doesn’t want to go, but his mother convinces him he must take her (just an aside, the last phonecall between the two is very cool). On the drive to the station, it’s clear some major shit is going down ­‒ ambulances and fire trucks are screaming past ‒ but the pair seem relatively safe. Once on the train, however, and just as the doors are closing, a young woman stumbles into one of the carriages with a bite wound to her leg.

And so begins the journey.

We’re introduced to the rest of the cast – a married couple expecting their first child, a baseball player and his cheerleader love interest, two elderly sisters (brilliantly played), a rich CEO, and the train driver (minor though his role is, hero he remains).

It doesn’t take long for the infection and the attacks to begin, slowly working their way through the carriages. These zombies are hard-core eating machines that move with speed, and in the confines of a train make survival all the more difficult. It soon becomes clear to those on the train that some bad, bad shit is going down outside, although most are unaware of the infection spreading inside, pretty much until it’s too late.

While most of the film takes place on the train, one pit-stop at a purported safe zone doesn’t end well for a lot of the passengers. Numbers are whittled, and characters are separated­‒ Seok-woo from his daughter, husband and pregnant wife, the sisters, and the baseball player and his new girlfriend. They have to fight through a number of zombie-infested carriages to reach their loved ones.

There’s something about horror set on trains that amps up tension – confined spaces, no way to get off, not in control of your destination. The claustrophobic feel of it lends itself well, and here is no different. It also brings out the true nature of the passengers, and what some will do in their quest for survival. Do you try to save who you can? Or, do you sacrifice others for your own survival? We see both sides of this with the remaining characters, and there are some brilliant scenes that showcase the decisions the characters make.

The two elderly sisters’ relationship is one of the most touching. Grouchy and sarcastic with each other, they are the most fun to watch, which makes the death of one (watched in all its gory glory) so traumatic. It’s here we really see the choices made, and the surviving sister understanding the wrongness of kicking uninfected passengers out of a safe carriage, sets things (almost) right.

TraintoBusan_zombie

Sacrifice is the name of the game here, and it’s not until very close to the end that we understand Seok-woo (and his company) are the harbingers of what is happening. There are no happy endings here. There is survival, but at what cost? And it’s that social commentary, woven expertly through the storyline without it being didactic, that gives Train to Busan its heart.

For those of you who balk at foreign-language films because you think subtitles take away from your viewing pleasure, put that aside and watch this movie. I had (and have) no issues with it, and it in no way lessened my appraisal.  Director Yeon Sang-ho delivered a film that entertains and makes you think, it makes you question: what would I do? The zombies are fast and voracious, single-mindedly focussed on “food”, and damn well everywhere. Excellent stuff.

For me, it’s one of the better zombie movies I’ve seen in a very long time, and if you haven’t got around to seeing it, you really should make the effort.

I give it 9 out of 10.

Book Review: The Raven’s Table by Christine Morgan

Collections are a notoriously hard sell in the publishing world, especially if you haven’t got the household name to back you, but sometimes you come across books that turn that notion on its head. Christine Morgan’s The Raven’s Table – Viking Stories is one such collection, with tales and saga-esque poetry set in the Norse world, it’s a feast of Vikings and thralls, gods and goddesses, curses and cults.

In my previous post I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology which, despite its glorious cover, felt over-indulgent on the author’s part, and left me feeling… meh. The Raven’s Table does all the things Gaiman’s collection should have but didn’t. With each tale, Christine Morgan drops you into the character(s)’s world without preamble. There’s no over-explaining of the mythos ‒ it just is. It’s this type of storytelling that allows the reader to be fully immersed.

The Raven's Table

The Raven’s Table has eighteen tales and poems within this collection, four of which are originals. Don’t let the ‘reprint’ status give you pause, though, as each story is a vicious delight of blood and gore, war and betrayal, monsters and mayhem. It’s clear from the first story that Morgan knows her mythos, giving the reader insight into the lesser-known aspects of the superstitions and rites of Norse mythology. There’s a depth to each of the tales that creates layers you don’t often see in storytelling, and boy does she nail her imagery.

Morgan takes poetic licence with her narrative, often melding stanzas in the form of storytelling by the characters within her tales, which only reinforces the saga-esque feel of the book. Morgan is the skald who has sat you around the fire, retelling the places she’s been, the things she’s seen, and giving warning to those who dare defy the gods.

Not one story is alike, although Morgan’s narrative-style is the thread that binds.  There are some truly beautiful turns of phrase in the stories, pieces that will transport the reader entirely into the fear of a thrall, the struggle to stare down a Valkyrie, the absolute certainty that monsters are real. When stories start with: ‘Men died screaming.’, you know you’re in for some bloodied fun.

It’s hard to pick a favourite from the collection, but I’ll give the top five of those that have stuck with me now that I’ve finished the book: The Fate Spinners, The Barrow Maid, Njord’s Daughter, With Honey Dripping, and Sven Bloodhair. That was a tough top five to pick, I have to say… so I’ll sneak in At Ragnarok, the Goddesses.

I mentioned earlier that The Raven’s Table did all that Gaiman’s Norse Mythology didn’t, and I stand by that. If you’re wanting to read seriously impressive Viking tales that cover the gamut of the Norse mythos without that didactic feel, then ignore Gaiman’s offering and instead pick up Christine Morgan’s collection – you won’t be disappointed.

Fair warning, for those who don’t like blood and gore and sex in all its forms, this might not be the book for you. For the rest of you – it’s the best collection I’ve read in a long while.

On a Goodreads scale I give it five stars.

Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Now for a change of pace. Yes, it’s book review time, and up on the blocks is Neil Gaiman’s latest offering: Norse Mythology. I have to admit, I was truly excited for this signed copy to arrive, like stalk-the-postman-excited (sorry, Kev). Mythology has always held a special place since I was a child. There were gods and monsters and battles and magic ‒ many-legged beasts and winged deities, muses and fates… so much wonder and woe. It was the playground of my imagination, both glorious and treacherous.

The Norse mythos is also one of my favourites – the gods are fallible, and they make no excuses for who and what they are. Gaiman, too, has used mythos in a lot of his work, American Gods (arguably one of his best) delves deeply into the role of gods both old and new, and those who have read it know exactly who Mr Wednesday is. So it really wasn’t a surprise that Gaiman decided to pen a retelling of the Norse mythos in his own words, expanded upon and tweaked somewhat.

Unlike my other book reviews, there’s no need for a spoiler warning here – this is known ground Gaiman’s covering. Which leads to my next question: why? I thought long and hard about this question, as there’s nothing really in Norse Mythology that you couldn’t find in The Edda. Sure, Gaiman has put his spin on it, but… that’s pretty much all you’re getting.

Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful-looking book. That cover is sublime, and the print edition is top quality (gotta love those matt covers) and looks wonderful on my bookshelf – yes, even with just the spine showing. The writing is solid, the storytelling pure Gaiman (along with the humour and wit), but at times it did strike me as rather self-indulgent. Thing is, I’ve read The Edda, and that may be the issue I have with this – the source material is divine.

Norse Mythology

When I got to the end of Norse Mythology, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t say I loved it either. What I did recognise, however, was its use for those who are testing the waters of Norse mythology and wondering whether it’s for them (it is, I’m just sayin’), or even just wondering what the fuss is all about. It’s the perfect introduction to the mythos, to those greater tales – the sagas – that so beautifully bring to life the Norse and their gods and goddesses, their giants and their beasts, of Fenrir and Sleipnir, and Gjallarhorn of Ragnarok.

Perhaps it’s for those who watch the series ‘Vikings’ (which I love), and want greater understanding of the role the gods and goddesses play in that universe. And if it’s a stepping-stone to someone wanting to read The Edda, then I’d say Norse Mythology has done its job.

There’s really not a lot else I can say about it. Was it truly awful? No. Did I enjoy it? Somewhat, I guess. And I think that’s where the real issue lies. There’s nothing… outstanding about it. Someone who has no real knowledge of the Norse mythos may have a different take on it; Norse Mythology is easier reading than The Edda. Maybe that was Gaiman’s idea behind the book, to make it accessible, to entice readers unfamiliar with the sagas to step into that world and explore. Maybe. I don’t know. Like I said, it does come off a little self-indulgent, but that could be just me.

The cover is beautiful though.

On a Goodreads scale I give Norse Mythology three stars.