introduction to the ultimate CMS

I’ve come up with the hare-brained idea to blog a daily commentary on The Chicago Manual of Style: The essential guide for writers, editors, and publishers, which evidently supports the use of the Oxford comma, as do I (within the bounds of reason).

What, why?

Because I think it will be fun, because I am a nerd.

I tried doing this once with The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, but my life was a tangle of ad-hoc adventure and mishaps at the time, and the project never got off the ground. This time (because I have settled down and have a family now), it should be a doddle.

In notching up a few draft posts, I have entertained myself already by finding cause to reference the drop bear:

Yamavu [CC BY-SA]

genre, literature, literary genre, and genre trash

It’s been a while, but as I said when I first wrote in the Books category here, I’ve been trying to write a few notes at least when I finish reading a book, so that I’m not just reading book after book after book without really integrating what I’ve read.

I fell off the wagon.

The last book I wrote about was Going Bovine by Libba Bray, and since then I’ve read:

  • The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (which I read in my late teens and found recently at a community book exchange);
  • We So Seldom Look on Love, stories by Barbara Gowdy (I tend to have a short-story collection on the go at all times, and will read one or two from the collection in-between novels or non-fiction books);
  • The Etched City by K J Bishop (an Australian New Weird novel published by Tor Books in 2005);
  • Lock In by John Scalzi (which was a bit pukey).

It was cool to read The Talisman again, because it was one of my favourite books in my late teens ~ by that I mean I remember vastly enjoying it, but I never remembered much more than that about it, except a vague image of a young boy on the road, travelling through dangerous ‘territory’. Reading it again this time I was mildly surprised that not one of the words brought back any real memory of the actual story. So mostly it was like reading a novel for the first time. The story was kind of bloated and over-written ~ it takes a long time for the good stuff to happen, and many of the narrative tangents don’t really contribute much to the theme or plot (though they do a good job of developing a rich character in Jack). But I enjoyed it ~ especially the whole notion of how myriad parallel dimensions revolve around the Talisman, which is a theme that must have sunk in deep when I was a kid, because the novel I’m working on goes near similar territory, and apparently King goes deeper down this path in the Dark Tower series, which I’m keen to look at soon.

The stories in We So Seldom Look on Love, by Barbara Gowdy, are brilliant ~ dark, semi-erotic, bordering on perverse, but deeply human and affecting, plus her style and voice are assured and consistent. My wife put me on to it ~ it’s a collection she has had on her shelf for a long time, and which she revisits now and then (such is the quality of the stories). There’s a story about a troubled child who drills a hole in her head, a story about a guy who ‘saves’ a Siamese twin (though not before having sex with them), and a story about a relationship of sorts between a married woman and the voyeur next door. Oh, and the title story about the relationships of a necrophiliac. (I was pleased to learn just now that a synonym for ‘necrophilia’ is ‘thanatophilia’: I wrote an assignment for my lit studies subject last year about what I decided to call ‘thanotic sublimation’, which, I decided, is similar to erotic sublimation except it takes the form of yonic symbolism instead of phallic.) I very much value the ability to embrace the shadowside of ourselves, especially (or perhaps only) since reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my early twenties. So I love it when an author is able to lovingly depict characters who would otherwise be considered perverse or even perverted ~ apart from stylistic concerns like fluidity and the suspension of disbelief, I reckon such a function is an essential factor in determining what makes good writing great literature.

The Etched City by K J Bishop was aesthetically beautiful and deeply engaging at a sentence level, but the story and plot left a lot to be desired, in my opinion ~ an assassin escapes a Dystopian Wasteland for a Victorian-esque Wretched Hive city, has a hallucinatory relationship with another assassin he used to know, and then … I actually don’t remember how it ends, because I had lost interest in the story by that point. I think he goes back to the wasteland, and she evaporates into the whisps of hallucination. I read this because: 1), it’s an explicitly New Weird novel, and 2), it’s Australian. And I enjoyed it, but I’m such a sucker for good strong narrative that I sometimes felt it missed an opportunity to be a great story. No regrets. And I admire the courage to write something that doesn’t depend entirely on plot or story to get people turning the pages.

The virtual-reality sci-fi balls-up of John Scalzi’s Lock In is mass-market genre trash that holds value as market research, but that’s about it. The characters are implausible cardboard cutouts, the virtual-reality depictions are lame, and the myriad plot holes are back-filled with dialogue that would never happen among halfway-intelligent adults. I don’t think I can even be bothered finding a cover to upload. If you find yourself deserted on a temperate island in mid-winter with only this book for company, use it to start a fire and keep warm.

performing “Prank Me” at QUT Literary Salon

I am very pleased to announce that I will be performing a short story called “Prank Me” at next week’s QUT Literary Salon at The Bearded Lady. This story was shortlisted for the Allen & Unwin Undergraduate Writers Prize, and it’s a fun story to read, so I’m really looking forward to it.

If you’re in Brisbane and you’re interested in local spoken word, you can find out more about the event here.

recent and not-so-recent publications and not-so-publications

I’ve just added a Study page to this portfolio site, where I’ve uploaded an exegetical essay I wrote for a uni subject called Swords & Spaceships: Writing Genre. I also included the chapter I wrote for that exegesis. I like saying the word ‘exegesis’.

I’ve also added a page to the Other section of the Writing page, where I’ve published a rumination called “How To Eat Cereal“, which was published in Glass, the QUT student magazine, earlier the year.

And I’ve added a review of Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which was broadcast on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, yonks ago.

the finish line

I finished my final end-of-year assessments a few weeks ago, and the results are in ~ I did pretty well! It feels great to have made it through a year of university study again ~ next year is an open book at this stage, but if I don’t defer to focus on freelancing I hope to make it through more than three weeks of the second year.

In 2002 I started a bachelor of English and philosophy at Adelaide Uni, straight outta high school, and I left three weeks in to the second year because … for a number of reasons. I ended up working in publishing for nearly ten years after that, and had my first full-time in-house job by the time I would have graduated, so it was no great loss, but this time going to uni has a different … vibe about it: I’m really keen to not let my literary skills be spent entirely on editorial and advocacy work, as had happened by the end of my ‘first’ career in publishing.

I say ‘first’ because it feels like the first iteration ~ this time I hope to maintain stronger focus on having my own work published, instead of focusing on the facilitation of others’ ideas, which was and is a joy, but I like to write more than I like to edit, so here’s to hoping for the next iteration.

I’ve got some nag champa burning and some Carbon Based Lifeforms playing, which is nothing unusual for a morning of study, but it feels more ceremonial this morning ~ and instead of working on assignments I’ve been using my morning writing time to work on chapters for a novel I’m writing. For the next three months or so I will be waking up at 6 am to pour myself into crafting words on a page that won’t be assessed according to a university rubric, which feels liberating and exciting.

I like the rubrics ~ they help direct the energies I give to writing, and I think they are set up to reflect a nuanced (albeit arbitrated) judgement of what constitutes good writing, which is mostly considered a subjective question. Learning some objective notions of what constitutes good writing has been interesting and helpful, but sometimes such objectivity gets in the way of just letting loose on the page to see what happens.

The other benefit of a university writing course is that you’ve got deadlines imposed on you that force you to produce material. Of course I’m excited about maintaining a writing practice over the summer, but there’s something daunting about maintaining a writing schedule without the deadlines enforced by a faculty.

I was pleasantly surprised when I received an envelope from the uni recently, and inside was a certificate notifying me that I had been admitted to the Creative Industries Faculty Dean’s List, ‘in recognition of [my] exceptional academic performance in Semester 1, 2019’. I achieved a GPA of 6.75, which kind of surprised me ~ I understand that I’m a halfway-decent writer, but one of the reasons I left uni in the early noughties is that I struggled to get my head around the academic expectations of the assessors, so even after all my experience in publishing I was still a bit daunted by meeting these expectations in 2019.

But I did it, and it feels really empowering.

I was talking to my neighbour recently about the freelancing work I do, and how it’s pretty easy money once I do the leg work of soliciting clients. He reminded me of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which, according to Very Well Mind, is ‘a type of cognitive bias in which people believe they are smarter and more capable than they really are’. It works in the other direction too: people who are good at what they do often diminutise the skills and experience required to do it.

Editing has always come naturally to me ~ I was annotating the books I was reading in late high school. And writing is something I’ve also always had a natural affinity for … with? 🙂

I was thinking about it this morning, and about how I would be likely to say to someone if they asked: ‘Oh, it’s just a creative-writing degree ~ it’s not rocket science or anything.’ But the things I’ve learned this year about the craft of writing have reminded me (thankfully) that, in fact, there is a kind of science to writing ~ you have to experiment with methods, and if they don’t work you need to amend the material you’ve crafted until it does work. It requires a great degree of lateral thinking, and also the ability to observe things as they are and wonder about what will happen if you put them together.

That’s a definition of creativity I encountered in a Netflix documentary: creativity is the ability to take two or more existing things and put them together until you’ve created something new. A nice and simple definition.

Doing this with, say, two different chemicals in a lab to make polystyrene (to use an example from the doco) is one thing, but doing this with concepts requires a whole other level of creative ingenuity. And the results I’ve been getting at uni this year seem to suggest that I possess this ingenuity, which is definitely affirming. After struggling to overcome intellectual insecurities in my late teens and early adulthood, I slowly began to realise that yes, I was in the possession of intelligence and creativity, but it’s still been something I’ve struggled to accept as valuable in a culture dominated by ideologies that seem to prioritise material creativity and productivity ~ in the form of, say, medical or engineering innovation.

But this year I’ve formulated the beginning of a thesis for a New Weird novel that I genuinely hope will ‘create room in our collective psyche for new and innovative institutional ideals’ (to quote from the exegesis), and I live now with the confidence that such work is both imminently and immanently necessary.

I’ve learned (or, rather, been officially reminded) this year that there is great power in the written word to change the way we think and act in the world. I’ve never been one for direct action in the form of, say, protest activism, but I certainly share the sensibilities and values that inform such dissidence. But I think I’ve always suspected that something needs to change at a level deeper than just the streets. I have deep admiration for the people who protest at the coal-face of our culture’s iniquities, but I’m also convinced now more than ever that the real protest has to happen in the structures of our minds, which are informed (maybe even just straight-up formed) by the language and neurological structures we use to tell ourselves stories about the world and our experience in it.

I never really expected a first-year BFA in creative writing to have this kind of deep ideological impact on me ~ I really only expected to learn some neat skills about how to improve the craft of writing. So I guess I need to send props to the profs at QUT for the way they’ve handled the material this year. It’s been really inspiring, and I’m super proud of myself for being able to respond to that material in a way that I hope has done it justice.

It’s been a hell of a year ~ super busy because I’ve also been adjusting to living in a full-time relationship with someone I adore, plus I’m a sudden-dad of an eleven year old now, who has a huge heart even though he’s troublesome now and then (but what kid isn’t ~ and we want him to be troublesome, because we need young people to speak and act out against injustice, so we try to encourage that when he does it at home 🙂

I’ve got a few short pieces of writing that I have started shopping around, so hopefully over the next few months I’ll have a few announcements to make about those. And I’m thinking about throwing up my exegesis here, because I’m proud of it and it constitutes the begin of the first major work I’ll try to produce. (Well, second — but the first one kind of flopped, though I’ve noticed that many of the ideas are beginning to leech into this one.)

Meanwhile, I’ve got a novel manuscript to edit for Paul Mitchell, a guy I worked with at Wakefield Press yonks ago. And compost to turn! And bikes to ride. And books to read slowly …

“Prank Me” shortlisted for the Allen & Unwin Undergraduate Writers Prize

I am very pleased to announce that my short story, “Prank Me”, was shortlisted for the Allen & Unwin Undergraduate Writers Prize. It’s a story about a couple of friends who almost bump into each other after one of them has been overseas for a long time. I wrote it many moons ago, and back then it was broadcast on Cath Kenneally’s breakfast radio show in Adelaide. The shortlisting has inspired me to get onto the task of shopping it around to magazines, because it still hasn’t been published in print yet. Here’s a sample from the opening:

Here they are on the streets of old suburbia on the wrong side of town, alone. The streetlights are weak, as though the council doesn’t expect people out this way this late. These are capillaries clogged with darkness and stillness, thick with silence except for the sound of the nearby main road, a constant whoosh, but no discernible engine sound, just displaced air and rolling rubber.

She’s a silhouette he can identify by the way her ponytail still seems ready to spring a leak. She stands in front of her mother’s house, anxiety patterning her hunched back, her fingers fiddling with an envelope.

Beyond her, the procession on the main road is an awkward dance, choreographed by people used to fumbling with the sun in their eyes between work and home, whose children, due to there not being much to look at, develop wonky imaginations about wonders like the old one-block factory, out of action since these two can remember sneaking out of church, the other main attraction.

Going Bovine by Libba Bray

wherein Bodhi does not write a
review ~ just a blogspurt

In my current search for books in the new-weird genre, I came across Going Bovine by Libba Bray, which depicts a wild, hallucinatory road trip across America in search of a mad-cow-disease cure for high-school-stoner Cameron Smith. It was okay ~ I’m glad I read it, and I’m doing my best to appreciate it for what it is ~ but these events-driven narratives are just not really my bag.

I say ‘events-driven’ narrative because I can’t really say the book was plot-driven, and it definitely wasn’t character-driven: the plot is deliberately implausible, and the characters are a bit two-dimensional, except for Cameron, although his surname is the bog-standard Smith, which suggests that Bray didn’t think too much into whether this character would have any nuances to distinguish him from any other high-school-stoner stereotype. He’s a smart kid, but a lot of the time his elaborate reflections on the nature of life, love and the universe make him feel more like a vehicle for Bray’s ideas than a character in his own right. The events he has to go through to arrive at places where such reflections might feel plausible are the driving force in this story, and if you’re okay with that, you’ll enjoy it.

I recently read China Miéville’s novel Un Lun Dun, which employs a similar approach to narrative, and these types of books continue a long and esteemed tradition including Hitch-hiker’s Guide (which is referenced in blurb quotes on the edition I read) and the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett. I’m sure we could include the Arabian Nights in this tradition as well, and even the Bible in all of its radical implausibility. Going Bovine also fits into what I would characterise as the ‘ideas novel’, where ideas are more important than plot or character. But unfortunately this novel just doesn’t live up to the standards of these traditions.

It’s too long, for starters. I love a good long novel, but I don’t go in for length resulting from sloppy plotting, and at almost 500 pages, it wasn’t until around chapter ten that the first real premise of the story was mentioned: Cameron has mad cow disease, and is informed by a punk-angel called Dulcie that he must find Dr X, the parallel-dimension-hopping physicist who accidentally created a wormhole and released the prions that are causing the disease and jeopardising the fabric of reality. (Yep, he’s called Dr X, and this is just one of the many instances where Bray seems to have used placeholder names in a novel-writing template, then forgot to come back and edit the fields with something more unique. Drs A, T, O, and M are pretty cool though.)

Cameron then convinces Gonzo, a Little Person of Mexican descent, to come with him for the journey ~ Gonzo repeatedly complains that it’s a stupid idea, but goes along anyway, threatening to phone his mum and call the whole thing off, but then never actually doing it, to the point where I began to understand that this was just a flawed device for creating character tension, which immediately dissipated once I realised that no amount of complaining was actually going to be met with follow-through: if the character acted on his feelings, Bray wouldn’t have a sidekick for Cameron.

And the prion-actions that are causing Cameron’s debilitating disease, which would otherwise prevent him from going to the toilet on his own, let alone trek across America … these are held at bay by a too-convenient wristband. So the book starts (after too many preliminary chapters) with a deus ex machina, which was a red flag I chose to ignore because I was hoping the shonky plotting and characterisation would be worth it for the ideas.

Alas, the hijinks they go through are funny (they rescue a kidnapped garden gnome who believes he is the Norse god Balder, destroy a chain restaurant trying to escape the fire giants who got through the wormhole and are trying to kill them, and sabotage a happiness cult by unwittingly causing a ‘reality revolution’), but I just didn’t care because the characters are templates and their story is nothing more than a vehicle for Bray’s surface-level ruminations on the many-world’s interpretation of quantum physics, which I so desperately wanted to enjoy because it’s one of my favourite subjects, and something I’d like to … *ahem* … enfold in the novel manuscript I’m working on. So I was bummed that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I was hoping I would.

So yeah, I read this as research as much as for leisure, and it’s going on the inspiration pile because it’s New Weird (part quantum-sci-fi, part urban-mythological-fantasy, part bildungsroman, part tragi-comedy, part YA, all roadtrip), but it’s going on the how-not-to-write pile, simply because this is just not my kind of book. It’s not the sort of book I want to write, because it’s not the sort of book I enjoy reading very much. I enjoyed it, on some levels, but not on enough levels that I would aspire to even read it again, let alone write something like it. I don’t mean to sound harsh ~ it’s just not for me. It’s not a terrible book, but it’s not a great book either.

That said, the conclusion is surprisingly well-constructed and effective. The ending is described on All the Tropes as being a ‘gainax ending’, meaning an ending that doesn’t make sense, but it does make sense in the context of Cameron’s/Bray’s appropriately-half-formed ideas about life after death. So I enjoyed the ending a lot, because it’s not neatly resolved and it’s not exactly a happy ending. The book didn’t need to spend 500 pages getting there, but I’m glad it go there in the end. If you’re into easy-reading pan-genre New Weird strangeness and you like watching high-school stoners do implausible things and learn a few basic insights along the way, check it out.