Sci-fi and spec-fic routinely tell stories which involve 'advanced' humans or aliens - usually cartoonish extrapolations of ourselves. Over the last few decades a common trope is the 'AI' which becomes too human, or decides that humans are, for one reason or another, dangerously redundant.
Artificial intelligence, if allowed unlimited development, might begin to guide its own evolution into a mind far beyond our means to comprehend - or control. The pinnacle of this speculation is commonly referred to as a technological singularity. Sadly, for the most part, writers use an intelligent 'singularity' as a poorly thought-out McGuffin, a deus ex machina plot device to serve the needs of the narrative.
When I found my speculation about the near future heading in this direction, I was primed to reject even the concept of a singularity, largely on logical grounds. It can also be a cop-out for a writer to imagine a creature with vague 'super-powers' without thinking through what that might mean in a plausible alternate reality.
My traveling circus in The Last Circus on Earth isn't what it seems, nor it's malignant leader, Mister Splinter. But as we head toward various forms of global collapse via global warming and the extinction crisis, I wanted to challenge the thinking and solve the problem at the heart of it all. How can we humans, and our myriads of cultures, survive the ruin we are causing to our planet and ourselves?
So, for what it's worth, here are a few of the questions and problems I posed for my extremely unpleasant circus owner, Mister Splinter.
If humans cannot overcome those forces destroying us, given unlimited funds, how could we build a better, 'advanced' human to survive beyond us? One who wouldn't create another smoking ruin of a planet, and would instead learn, adapt, nurture and prosper into the distant future.
What things would we change in this new human to 'make them better'? Should we make us stronger? Fitter? Prettier? With heightened senses, and metabolically more efficient bodies?
Would we give them a higher IQ? Greater focus? A new, more sophisticated global language?
Is 'smarter' wiser? Do any or all of these tweaks advantage the individual in a meaningful sense? Do they advantage the wider community? Would emotion and reason, the two sides of the same cognitive coin, be unbalanced in a new ratio? Would ideology and religion be redundant? Would we still be social animals who demand and need communion? Would we be happier? How would governments and economies differ in a better way? What would stop narcissists, sociopaths and liars from taking over?
And what if, in the middle of all this study and experimentation, tweaking genes, new tech and ideas, your time ran out, your unlimited funds disappeared, and there was a global collapse of societies and nation states? What if those years of multi-disciplinary research was about to die along with human civilisation. Worse! What if your ideas of a new human were fundamentally flawed and naive? What if the idea of a singularity was revealed to be ridiculous?
And, finally, what if it was just you, a drug-addled and gene-ravaged researcher, a man now calling himself 'Mister Splinter', who understood all this, and had one idea left to try, and one rapidly diminishing chance to achieve it? How far would you go to save civilisation? How much pain would you inflict on your Frankenstein's monster?
On a young man called Blanco...
Illustration: Dylan Glynn, sourced from Veronica Sicoe's excellent blog, I Abduct Aliens.
Making the shortlist for the 2020 BookLinks Queensland Mentorship for The Fox was a real boost. Looking at the other authors on the shortlist, I genuinely resigned myself to applauding the deserving winner, so I wasn't too hurt they didn't mention my work during the preamble. It was a jaw-drop when my entry won the mentorship with Robin Sheahan-Bright. Author, editor and publisher of literature for young people, Sheahan-Bright is a multiple award-winner and publishing consultant.
Will my gritty tale of a young man, living under the thumb of his father on a remote lighthouse island to the north of Hokkaido at the start of the Pacific War, find favour as an adventurous coming-of-age story with Robin? Or will her highly experienced counsel place me firmly back at the bottom of the literary mountain, bracing myself for a total rewrite? Writing isn't for the faint-hearted, and mountaineering persistence is required for every edit. As of today, Robin is reading my work. I'm strapping on the crampons. [Below is Todojima, a tiny island where this novel is set.]
The Queensland Writers' Centre is brilliant - one of the best in the country - and has given 25 of us a huge leg-up with inclusion into this manuscript development program.
10 of the super lucky out of that group, following a Hunger Games style literary kill-or-be-killed competition, will go on to receive mentoring for their work. QWC have put an enormous amount of work and organisation into this program, and a big shout-out to Craig Cauchi for running it.
We've already had readers' feedback on our raw MS, as well as a one-on-one with Cauchi, online workshops with Kim Wilkins and self-editing worksheets from Belinda Pollard.
And, last night, a webinar with Nick Earls.
His well-attended session was on 'chapter beginnings and closings'.
In brief, chapters give shape, allow the writer to shift time / place / POV, and to manage the reading experience. Key is making openings and closings work for the reader - keep the reader visually and emotionally connected. Drip feed exposition, and try to make it a response to something in the narrative. Use genre conventions, or provide a refreshing take on them, to engage. Put us straight into the moment with only the critical details required. Show not tell - but in a way that produces intrigue for the reader. Chapter endings don't have to be cliffhangers, but they do have to compel readers to continue. Tension between reader hopes and fears for the narrative outcomes provides a driver for that intrigue. Focus on character over drama for both beginnings and endings.
Nick was great, and offered brief focused answers to specific questions: no mean feat with 132 in the classroom.
So now all we happy band of 25 need to do is rewrite our MS and hope they win us a spot in the next round for ongoing mentoring to get our works up to publishable standard. All writing is, ultimately, collaborative, and getting outside eyes, especially professionals', on one's work is gold.
Take home message: if you're serious about your writing, and opportunities like this one, join your State's writers' centre. Thanks again to QWC and Craig Cauchi.
Roy Chen did, that's who.
Sydney-based artist and illustrator, Chen blew me away when I saw his cover for The Last Circus on Earth. I loved it, and many people have asked me about it. And because they did, and I wanted to know more about the shy-to-the-point-of-mysterious Chen and his work, I interviewed him.
Hi Roy! You created the cover for my debut novel, Brio Books' The Last Circus on Earth. If I told you my reaction to seeing it for the first time was a jaw-drop and a very loud 'f*** me!', would that seem weird? [Disclosure: I was wearing a huge grin when I said it.]
I'm happy that you loved the cover! I had a lot of fun putting it together (though now that I think about it, maybe the cover should have just been a shot of the elephant with the machine gun).
The Last Circus is a 400-page spec-fic road-trip from England to China in which a whole bunch of stuff happens. What's your process to pick just one mental image you feel sums up the book?
Usually, I'd just read a few key excerpts (often hand-picked by the author or editor) and be given some 'mood / style reference' images, and the cover would be based around those. But in this case, David [Henley, Brio Books publisher / editor / author] just handed me the manuscript. 'Dystopian apocalyptic sci-fi circus...and elephants. With guns.' So I read a few chapters and also kind of spoiled the ending for myself.
When I start reading to do an illustration, I'm mostly trying to get a feel for the tone first, with the specifics coming later. Often, you end up not needing much more than just the tone. I also go through a couple of different ideas and options before settling on the final [image].
People I've shown the cover have responded with very firm approval - they like your image, and are intrigued to find out more about the book itself. Did you paint this image as if you were the potential reader?
Kind of. I've sort of got one foot stuck in the 'design' door, and the other in the 'artist' door. I start by doing whatever I want, but always end up asking 'does this actually make sense for a fantasy / sci-fi / [insert other qualifier] cover? Full disclosure: my initial concepts for this cover didn't make sense.
For other illustrators out there, what media did you use, and how much is involved in font, layout and overall design? What size is the original artwork? Do you scan that and shrink in Photoshop? It looks like a lot of work - is it?
The image (and the title type) is done entirely in Photoshop. The illustration is a mix of photo-manipulation and digital painting, a process referred to as 'photobashing', which is often used by illustrators and concept artists in the film / games / vfx industries.
The technique is mostly a pragmatic one - it's just the fastest way to get a detailed finish without having to painstakingly draw every detail from scratch. There is still a lot of work integrating elements, painting over things, and drawing in details that don't exist, but far less than starting from nothing. It also means any WIP you might show tends to be more representative of the final image, so other people get a better idea of what they're getting.
The rest of the text is added afterwards in inDesign, which is software more specific to publishing.
What else are you working on, and how can people see more of your art?
I'm still collecting a proper body of work. My older stuff is not really up to par, so my online presence is a 'little' empty. I swear I'm doing something about it!
Can people contact you about commissioning illustrative art / book covers?
For the time being, and particularly if it's a book cover, you can find me through Fantastica / Brio Books - firstname.lastname@example.org
[header image, Roy Chen, blatantly stolen from the wonderful Seizure magazine.]
*See cover below
Why did you write The Last Circus on Earth?
I thought it would be good to travel to the near future to see how things worked out by writing a novel about it. As I was researching and exploring, the characters discovered what I was doing and pretty much took over. I really just edited it from that point on.
So, where did the characters come from? Why these characters and not others?
Did I choose them or did they choose me? After all, there's a lot of life-force in the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, who has been with me since my father came back from communist USSR with a cheap printed translation of Russian Folk Tales. Baba Yaga, and all the other classic Russian characters, became part of my life from then on, joining a host of others in my scruffy little head, from Wonderland, the Looking Glass world, Neverland etc. The circus performers from Tod Browning's 1936 classic Freaks joined the motley crew some time later.
The thugs, carnies and psychopaths are a mix of 'hard men', co-workers and narcissists I've had the pleasure of meeting.
What about the setting of The Last Circus? You travel from Britain to Central Asia, which is quite a hike, and requires dragging the poor reader through one post-Collapse nation after another to get to the denouement, which could've happened anywhere. Why put the reader through all that?
I basically wanted a good look around. If you travel all the way to the year 2070, you're not going to stay in the hotel room.
I'd just come back from a novel-writing trip to 1666 with a pacifist pirate, where I had a look at the roots of the so-called Age of Enlightenment. As a result, I wondered - during this spectacularly shitty era - whether those Enlightenment illusions of 'human progress' were actually delusions. Fifty years into the future seemed enough time to get the gist of where our species is headed, and to see if we made it or not. My characters, on the other hand, wanted more than mere survival - which is why the whole book ended up full of mayhem, mischief, murder and, for Shakespearian counterpoint, love.
What's the plot? In brief.
It's really just a variation on the old 'suicidal assassin boy meets super-intelligent locked-in syndrome girl' story. In mine they have a rescue dog together, and try not to get killed for 400 pages.
It's an adventure story.
Baba Yaga's in it so there's bound to be trouble and some sort of quest.
Does Last Circus have 'themes'? Is it Worthy Reading or escapist trash?
It'll never win any literary prizes.
You literally won the 2019 Fantastica Prize.
Good point, well made. As for themes, there's 'love'. All sorts. Love between lovers, between friends and family, and the most powerful love of all, between humans and dogs. And elephants.
There's also 'death'. Quite a lot of death in there. Being murdered, shot, blown up, dragged under the wheels of a train, drowning...all sorts. Also there's lots of 'nearly dying'. Take a good first-aid kit to 2070, folks. Other themes include the nature of consciousness, why 'intelligence' isn't a marker for compassion, empathy, wisdom or good / smart behaviour, plus questioning the limits of human biology in the context of our extinction crisis.
Spec-fic or sci-fi?
Bit of both. On the sci-fi side, I researched the heck out the singularity concept. The spec-fic side is focused on why homo sapiens can't pull themselves out of their collective dive into global civilisational collapse. I also ask how, if you had unlimited means, you could plausibly(?) augment humans to avoid a permanent end to our particular form of 'consciousness'.
No. I'm not a fascist.
Last question: why are you the only person who could write this particular story?
I'm not. It's hardly original. The only area where I push boundaries is arguing that our current concepts of individual and collective intelligence and consciousness are fundamentally incorrect, and that almost all other sci-fi and spec-fic writers get that wrong.
So, I get this phone call. David Henley, Brio Books, the Fantastica Prize. 'Oh, right, wow - good to talk etc.' I mumble. It's only about two thirds the way through the phone call, during which David briefly mentions some issues with the manuscript that won me a shortlisting, and offers some really useful advice, that the word 'contract' drops in a sentence.
It takes me a little while to summon courage to check. 'Sorry, you mentioned a contract. What would that be in relation to?'
'Did I not mention earlier? You won.'
'Oh, right, yes, no, terrible phone-line out here in the mountains, I can barely...wait, what?'
'The...the...thing? The prize? The Fantastica Prize? I won it?'
[heavy sigh over the phone, as Henley realises he's offering a publishing contract to an idiot]
'Yes. You won. Congratulations.'
'Great. Wow. Yes. I see. That's, um, good. I'm somewhat to quite pleased by that news.' I enthuse, struggling and failing to get my head around this turn of events. After the call ends, however...
The long genesis and process of writing this spec-fic beast (currently 127 thousand words) has unexpectedly resulted in a publishing deal. From early idea-shuffling, character-finding and narrative-structuring, in one of Steve Rossiter's excellent groups, to an ASA-awarded mentorship with Alyssa Brugman, twelvety-ten edits later the monster is a winner. Let's party!
Later, at the same party, I attempt to explain the plot to a guest.
So, I'm officially delighted, not just for the win, the feeling of validation, and the hope that now the Writing Police won't kick the door in, tear up the contract and tell me to get a real job, but so I can enter a new phase of learning - collaborative editing with the publisher. I get actual professional help to polish the t...to make my work shine. Beyond that, the thought of people reading a book with my name on it...no, even my imagination can't stretch that far.
Brio Books Fantastica Prize 2019 Shortlist - I'm on it!
After finishing a historical novel set at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, a trip to the future seemed in order. So I went there. And, just fifty short years in the future, post-Collapse, I found a terrible group of people, masquerading as a circus that travel the Post-Britain, Post-Europe northern hemisphere.
I travelled with them, writing The Last Circus on Earth, uncovering their mysteries, foibles, their good and their evil, exploring the world from former Britain to the remote Bogda Shan, the mountainous spot on Earth furthest from any ocean.
And, at the last moment, I chanced my arm by entering the Fantastica Prize competition.
And I made the shortlist!
In creating characters that readers care about, the reader doesn’t need to like them – at least at first. In those crucial first pages, the reader is still getting their bearings. They don’t know or understand the characters yet. But, if they don’t understand them, how can they empathise with them? Why would any reader care about a character with whom they can’t empathise, and why would they keep reading?
For a reader to begin a relationship with the person on the page, they need to see that character caring about someone or something other than themselves.
In the early paragraphs and pages, when we’re still luring our reader in to become hooked on our story, the plot or context is likely to be one of tension – internal, external or both. Our protagonist will be in the thick of it, or about to be. At this point, a standard trick in feature film scripts to engender audience empathy for the protagonist is to stage a ‘save the cat’ moment, where the hero or heroine steps out of their comfort zone, perhaps at risk to themselves, to perform an impressive act of kindness. In novels, however, this could appear too large a moment, unsubtle, and too obvious a technique for winning a reader’s heart.
In the first pages of Hunger Games first novel, author Suzanne Collins has her heroine, Katniss, worried about her younger sister. Anyone who cares about another person is inherently good, and is therefore worth caring about in turn. Readers register this kind of subtext with little or no analysis, but the questions remain – why does the protagonist care? What is the threat and what is the worst-case scenario?
In that cunning way we writers bind and enchant our readers to our tale, we’ve already indicated ‘here is someone worth caring about’. If the plot is high stakes, any altruistic thoughts the protagonist has are put into sharp relief – caring becomes an active, risky thing, and therefore admirable.
Even a selfish character or anti-hero has to care about something, otherwise there would be no dilemma and the reader would struggle to remain interested.
In the first pages of Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones, protagonist Charlie, acting against his parents’ strictures and his own fear, exits into the night, summoned to help his dangerous friend, Jasper. Without knowing anything else, Charlie wins the reader’s sympathy, and the author wins their intrigue. Either way, we’re hooked.
In the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, the female protagonist, Aomame, cares for a piece of music, specifically composer Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Murakami uses stream of consciousness exposition as a curiously adrift Aomame is stuck in traffic, listening to music, letting her mind wander. She thinks, is thoughtful and therefore cares what she thinks about. Even if we don’t care, we’re curious about why she does, and see that she is a decent person as she considers the cab and its owner. In the tension of gridlocked traffic, stuck in the confines of a small taxi on one of the upper level freeways that fly high through Japanese cities, when Aomame decides to strike out and leave the taxi to get to an appointment, it’s an oddly daring risk - a flight to freedom and into possible danger. She doesn’t care about herself, but she’s likeable and intriguing, and we’re worried what’s going to happen to her.
In Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, three teenagers are walking to an interview. The two in front are James and Julia, young lovers who walk hand-in-hand. Behind is the Quentin, desiring Julia but loving James, who, in turn, shows his love for the other two by wit aimed at easing the tension. Julia loves them both, showing it with silly banter. None of them are talking about the interview, but it hangs like a deep, held organ note throughout the first pages. Without knowing any more, we know all three care enough to protect the others from worry, despite their own.
Irrespective of plot, and even with minimal context, observing an act of caring raises questions that are inherently intriguing. Why is this person behaving selflessly? Are they wise or foolish to do so? Is the person or thing they care about worthy? Would I be as brave and generous in the same situation?
When characters risk something for someone else, perhaps against their own wishes, and even putting themselves in danger, readers perceive bravery, and cannot help but admire that character. Even a doomed romantic like a Don Quixote wins our affection by dint of his unrelenting love for the appalling Dulcinea.
To care is to love, and love attracts love. Thus we may ensnare our readers to read on, by falling in love with our characters who care.
In 2010 I wrote an anthology of stories on the theme of death, The Children’s Guide to Death. In 2011, I saw that Qpix – an offshoot of Screen Queensland – were taking submissions for short film scripts. I wrote one and sent it in. True Love was picked up by Ignition Films’ Simon Toy and director Robert Braiden, who turned it into a ten-minute film. In 2012, True Love won awards in Brisbane, New York and the Gold Coast for best story and best drama.
Though I write scripts for television, I’d never written a short film script, but True Love lent itself to conversion. It’s a single scene, set in an industrial wasteland, where a battered wife tries, and fails, to bury the husband she’s just murdered. A man walking his dog comes across her, and the interaction between them changes their lives.
Watch full version here
I was surprised and chuffed that the script was picked up, amused by the ‘payment deal’ where Qpix’s heroic and indefatigable Kerry O’Brian had to fetch his wallet to formally pay me the two dollars for the rights, and rapt to be able to workshop the script with L.A.-based writer, Richard Taylor.
We swapped versions and tweaks by email and consulted by phone; lengthy calls that highlighted the differences in how I saw the story, and how he did. I was focused on character, particularly the man with the dog, and less so on the overall theme, which Richard, Simon and Robert instantly saw as a redemption story.
I found it hard to pitch my understanding of the male character to the others. He is an extraordinary character based on two men I’ve met in real life – street fighters with nothing to prove. But hard men age, mellow, can have regrets, and therefore lend themselves to the possibility of redemption. Even in these ‘softer’ moments however, there is nothing soft about the men themselves; things are done because there is sufficient reason to do them. Emotion, what there is, is acknowledged as just another factor in the equation, and is not necessarily the prime directive.
These men are dangerous. Adhere to reasonable, polite and respectful behaviour and you’ll probably be fine. Make a foolish mistake and you’ll probably rue the consequences in a hospital bed.
So that was my focus; painting a character at a cusp, meeting another character at a cusp. Because I was so focused on this, I struggled sometimes with changes suggested by Richard that I felt weren’t consistent with my vision. Nevertheless, I decided early on that while the original story and script were mine, the film and expertise belonged to others to do as they wanted with it. It was my job to help them achieve their vision, not mine.
It was also a valuable learning experience, and one where it was better for me to listen and accept than raise objections and obstacles. Finally, after five or so drafts of my simple story, Richard Taylor was done with me, and we parted on the phone in cheerful fashion – Richard to attend a star-packed party in Los Angeles, me to throw the ball for the dogs in the empty section next door before making dinner for the missus.
Then the script went to Simon and Robert. I’d assumed that would be an end to drafts, but they workshopped their own take, and suggested and requested more tweaks. I had to balance my defence of dialogue and action against their need to be sufficiently satisfied with their script to the point that they could go ahead and shoot it. While we worked well together, and it was friendly all the way, I privately struggled with frustration that the script needed more work. But I kept to my role, which was to assist them and to learn everything I could about the process.
Finally they were satisfied, and the shooting went ahead over a single weekend in a graveyard of old Queenslander houses, perched on rusting scaffolding; windows winking with fallen blinds, doors sagging with rust and disuse.
I visited the location for a few hours to watch the processes of direction, acting and cinematography, and had the pleasure of hearing my words come to life.
It’s a rollercoaster ride, but one worth considering if you have an interest in feature film scripts. You will learn humility, and that the writer doesn’t always have the total grasp of his or her own concept. Sometimes it will be others that point out themes and issues you are blind to.
I'd encourage early scripts to be written as low-budget as possible. There is no money in short-film making, so the story and core idea it’s based around, needs to be simple and powerful – a fresh twist on a familiar theme.
Not that sort. The book sort. Novels. Etc.
“The Austrian horses glinted in the moonlight, their riders standing tall in the saddle, swords raised.”
That’s by Scott Westerfield from the first in his Leviathan series. He puts down a few brief, stylistically old-fashioned / steampunkish brushstrokes to give you a sense of place, theme and tension. A war is in progress, and if that tickles your proverbial, that’s exactly what you’re going to get.
“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”
Lev Grossman kicks off his novel, The Magicians, with this little character flick, and follows it up with what I thought was a beautiful first few pages that efficiently paint time, place, character and the tension surrounding them. The first sentence hints at both the character and humour of the book. Nice. Efficient.
“The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room. He smiled sourly. ‘Just imagine,’ he said. ‘Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.’”
I’m partial to this approach; Chris Wooding’s start to the first in his Ketty Jay series, Retribution Falls drops you straight into a life-and-death situation, in which the flawed hero has to extract himself and his companion. If your story is an adventure, start as you mean to go on.
“Jasper Jones has come to my window. I don’t know why, but he has. Maybe he’s in trouble. Maybe he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Either way, he’s just frightened the living shit out of me.”
Craig Silvey’s start to his novel, Jasper Jones, hints at the ambiguous relationship between the narrator and the subject, is reasonably active – ie something potentially dangerous is happening – and creates intrigue. It’s no bad thing for a beginning to make the reader want to know what’s going to happen next.
“I belong to Mister Splinter’s circus. I do the murders.”
That’s my first line of an MS I'm working on, The Pricking of Thumbs. I wanted to establish a scenario, a sense of intrigue, and give a little something of the darkness of the novel. I’ve seen worse first lines.
“I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen.”
Ransom Riggs begins his tale, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, with this first line. It hints at intrigue, but, if I’m being picky, it’s exposition rather than action, especially as he doesn’t immediately follow it up with an example of an ‘extraordinary thing’.
“I was sitting outside the Commodore’s mansion, waiting for my brother Charlie to come out with news of the job.”
Patrick De Witt starts The Sisters Brothers with a mild, unassuming sentence that sets up the brothers’ relationship – the narrator brother passive, the other brother the active leader – and gives a sense of intrigue; enough to read on to find out what the ‘job’ entails.
“There are plenty would call her a slut for it.”
Margo Lanaghan starts Tender Morsels with a first-person observation that hints at her narrator’s poor education and background, at the theme of illicit sex, and raises a certain intrigue about what ‘it’ might be. It's also dark, which accurately heralds Lanaghan's dark, twisted and surreal novel.
I haven’t touched on the vast non-YA bulk of my library, but if we’re looking at contemporary, commercial writing, then we’ve got a clear pattern forming.
Signal clearly to the reader that they’ve begun a story that will go somewhere interesting, raise intrigue and perhaps expectations, hint at the flavour or style of the storytelling, say something about the character of the narrator or protagonist, hint at the world they’re in, and don’t waste a word. Every good story starts with a question.