Tag: inspiration

assemblage

The beach had been attacked by a lazy pointillist. The tide has receded, leaving the sand dotted with jellyfish remains. It was a cold morning, but their bulbous forms were somehow immune to the dew. Driftwood and seaweed were scattered along the beach. Together, we took handfuls of debris and constructed a cloying mound. Some pieces of wood were long and beaked. Through some weird muscle memory we created a leering face.

It was a Skeksis. We were making a Skeksis.

I don’t know how many months had passed since we’d seen The Dark Crystal. I was not even five years old then. It was the first movie I’d seen at a cinema. The family had driven to Morwell Village Twin in our defiantly orange Kombi. I sat in my father’s lap. The lights dimmed. The screen lit up. And then, an unearthly chanting and four-armed creatures that were literally larger than life.

As the story goes, I took approximately a third of a second to climb up my father and try to wedge myself between him and the chair, my hands fashioned into grasping claws. “But they’re the good guys,” my parents pleaded. I was not convinced.

After a few minutes I settled down. By Christmas, 1983, my favourite book was Brian Froud’s The World of The Dark Crystal. I loved the designs, the back stories, the apocrypha and prophecy and whorling secret geometries. Within the year, by my reckoning, I was building gigantic bird-skeletons on the beach with my wonderful family.

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Ghosts, and revelations

It’s the classic question: “where do you get your ideas from?”. My brother asked me the question the other day, when we were talking about my still-in-progress novel. That’s quite a phrase, isn’t it? Still in progress. It assumes so much, such as that – one day – the document will be complete, the bow drawn finally around the sprawling story. When does still in progress become incomplete, then unfinished, abandoned? There have been literally months since I wrote a word of Ghosts of the Revolution. But, I still feel good about it. It has strong bones. Sometime soon, once I get a little more free time (hahahaha!), I’ll write some more. I have another legacy to work on for the time being, all 4.62kg of her.

Back to the question. To quote the great Alan Moore, there’s always someone who asks such a thing…
“where do you get your ideas from?’ And you know what we do? We sneer. … The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we are scared that someone will find out.’

I have a bit of an answer. Not much, but a little. I’ll take Ghosts… as an example because, well, it’s the biggest, most ambitious work that I’ve attempted (if not quite there yet). First off, I simply started by writing down things that interest me. Loose ideas, circling, germinating. The list includes both images and concepts, and had (amongst many others) the following ingredients;

Harbin. It’s in northern China, just another city. But a hundred years ago, it was occupied by Russians, building a rail-line in the bandit-infested Manchurian badlands to short-cut their way to the Pacific. A dozen years later, and the city is a hold-out of pro-Tsarist refugees, the ‘Whites’ who lost the Civil War against the ascendant communists. A decade after that, and the city is surrounded by Japanese forces, who are busy crafting a fake Manchurian empire to justify their expansionism. The city is an onion, layers peeling back.

I have, in my possession, a copy of a marriage certificate belonging to a man found in Harbin, claiming to be a British national. I have copies of the correspondence backward and forward between embassies, trying to determine who he was, whether he was indeed who he said he was, and how and why he was there. It sounds like the start of a mystery novel.

I’m reading Ellroy, Hammett and Chandler. Noir, pulp. It’s sex and death, molls and gangsters, private eyes and femme fatales. It’s the thirties, the forties, the fifties. I wonder what Marlowe would look like in a foreign country.

I am reading about robotics, and about how much development came in the early twentieth century. And, how automatons had an era of popularity around the turn of the century (and yes, I have seen Hugo before you ask). I wonder how these would operate in a world that was different from ours, just a little.

I’m on the Dieselpunks website, realising how much I love the aesthetic of that day and age. The images of retrofitted technology on that website and others strikes a chord with me far more than, say, the ‘brown goth’ chic of so much steampunk (and yes, I realise that it’s a stereotype, but it’s one I’m confronted with more often than not).

Next, some Mad Max on the television, some My Chemical Romance pumping through the headphones. It’s post-apocalypse, but the soundtrack is spiky teen aggression and supercharged day-glo. I imagine a motorcycle gang on the Russian tundra, leftovers of the Civil War, left parent-less by famine and strife, ready to create their own civilisation from the shattered ruins of what came before. They are Yesterday’s and Tomorrow’s Children, black-eyed and orphaned.

I am flicking through a Frankenstein comic by Grant Morrison. He describes the concept that water has been found to take on different chemical properties depending on how you label and describe the container it is stored within. What if you labelled the water ‘love’? Or ‘cure’? And then, what about, ‘hate’ or ‘weapon’? Which do you think humans would use more often? (The concept is bogus, apparently, but it’s unbelievably fascinating in that way so much pseudoscience is.)

I have shipping lists, detailing the refugees of a dozen wars. Russians leaving Asia by Chinese ports, bound for Australia and other Commonwealth countries. They list families, individuals, spinsters and widows. Religion: Orthodox, athiest and Old Believer.

I’m watching del Toro’s first Hellboy movie, and I come across the scene where a man is thrown into an quasi-magical explosion. As he hits the edge, his flesh strips away but the body continues to move and react. The skull’s jaw widens, as if to scream.

There’s more than that, unsurprisingly, but I hope this helps in seeing how some ideas start coming together. Essentially, begin with things that interest you, and find new ways to connect them. And, don’t be afraid if most of your jottings end up in the bin. I junked a good three-quarters of what I initially thought I was going to write: or, to put it another way, the story started swiftly outgrowing those concepts I’d begun with. That’s a good thing; it means it’s taking on a life of its own.

Now, a realisation that I made early on was as follows: be prepared to either make yourself an expert, or make shit up. If your story has even a passing resemblance to reality, your instinct should be to research until your eyes bleed. This is also a good thing, to a point. The more you know, the more story ideas will emerge. The fuller and realer your characters will become; the world that they inhabit will have more depth and structure. Think of it like the difference between filming a movie on a cheap set – the buildings only paper-thin – versus filming on location, where the actors and director can get into the trenches and understand the world the characters inhabit. I have pages upon pages bookmarked (both physical tomes and on the internet) detailing wars, street maps, skeletal structures of various animals, cars, clothes, uniforms, biographies, death camps, who was who in various embassies and delegations. The list goes on. But if you’re basing something on reality, there’s always more to know, and someone who will know more than you. The former will drag you down in detail and potentially cause you to lose the spark of whatever tale you wanted to tell, while the latter is a constant bogeyman hanging over your head – in your quest for authenticity, you’ll miss some vital detail and be greeted with howls of condemnation from the reader. So, don’t be afraid to make it up. That’s probablt part of the joy found in writing fantasy or speculative fiction: except in cases where you’re working in a shared (i.e., franchised) universe, things that work however the hell you want them to.

This quickly became an easy decision for me, in that I had already decided to write an alternative history of sorts; the real world, off by a few degrees, changed incrementally at some earlier stage. The background reading I did gave me street names and geography, but I could paint the buildings whatever colour I wanted, and tear down or rebuild anything that didn’t suit my narrative. And if I didn’t know about it in the first place, well, no big loss; the over-informed reader could suspend disbelief on that small point because s/he was already suspending disbelief over a number of other things.

This reminds me, in a roundabout way, of a comic book called S.H.I.E.L.D., which came out a year or two ago and was intended to tell a ‘secret history’ of Marvel Comics’ shared universe. It was a clever enough conceit, weaving in real-life luminaries such as Da Vinci and Isaac Newton into broader conspiracies of a less-than-real world. My enjoyment came tumbling down over the most minor of issues; a double-page spread showed Da Vinci looking over a Renaissance-era Roman cityscape while a giant creature rampaged the Eternal City. And there, smack bang in the mid-ground, was a building that I knew had been built hundreds of years after that era. The frustration I had lingered for pages thereafter. I was frustrated that the artist hadn’t done enough research; it was like he’d taken a picture of the city and drawn over anything he suspected looking too modern, but didn’t notice something that was ‘fake ancient’. My enjoyment of the book faded as the story progressed – more to do with the writing than the artwork – but I can trace my first flicker of disapproval from that image.

I’ll be back next time with some further minor epiphanies on the writing process.But before I go, a quick comment that the thoughts above are not, by any stretch of the imagination, enough to turn you into a best-selling novelist, or even a published author. I’d think that getting a good agent and finishing your book would be the best place to start for that (and not necessarily in that order). These are the baby steps only, as taught by someone only just learning to crawl.

Four weeks early, and feet first

It’s said that every million or so years the magnetic poles of the earth flip and realign themselves. The world, in a manner of speaking, turns itself upside down. Magnetic fields form and reform chaotically before finding their new position, and during the transition you would find yourself suddenly, strangely vulnerable to things that you may have taken for granted before. It’s a natural phenomenon, this recalibration, but it creates incredible chaos. Civilisation wouldn’t stand a chance.

I can, in some small way, empathise. Life has fundamentally, irrecoverably altered. It happened both slowly and all at once, and this is what my new centre of gravity looks like.

One of my overriding memories of the minutes leading up to her birth was the sound of her heartbeat from the monitor. Amplified a hundred times strong, it drowned out everything else. A phrase came into my head at that point: ‘the galloping of angels’. I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but there was something almost otherworldly about that constant, steady drumming, like hoofbeats.

A miracle coming to see us, the journey almost complete.

There was something heart-stoppingly surreal and slow-motion about the hours that followed. The rush of adrenalin, the ragged emptiness when the Code Blue was called, the unbelievable happiness when we knew that everything, truly, was going to be okay. I know, now, that beneath it all was the feeling of recalibration. It was every atom in my body shifting toward some new magnetic True North, a constant undeniable truth that this, here, is the reason to do everything that comes after.

“… and tell them Carl Sagan sent you!” – Atomic Robo, babies and the Princess Bride Factor

The Baby Of Undisclosed Gender is on their way, with progress marked by my beautiful wife’s expanding belly and the continuing accumulation of Necessary Items. These include but are not limited to: furniture, clothes, nappies, wall decals, stuffed toys, Moses baskets, prams, mobiles, towels, bibs and incredibly tiny socks. Responsible father-to-be that I am, my role in life is likely to expand shortly to the location of hazardous items (whether poisonous, inedible, delicate and dangerously pointy) and moving them to shelves out of reach from undiscerning fingers.

That discerning fatherly eye has turned, inevitably, to the bookshelf. There are two things at play here. First: gadzooks, I must remove those more precious tomes to higher ground rather than letting them get dribbled and drooled upon and/or fall heavily upon my unsuspecting progeny. Second: what sort of content do they have, and would I really think them fit fare for The Babe With No Name when they grow up? Some items clearly have the answer ‘sweet jesus no’, for all the obvious reasons; Preacher, Scalped and my smattering of Chuck Palahniuk novels will disappear to the higher shelves for many years to come, as will anything else with strong adult themes (I’m looking at you, Lost Girls). Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a fantastic series, and one I’d be encourage pretty much anyone to read, but it’s not the sort of work that leads to balancing your bubba on a knee to read aloud. That’s not a critique of the work or author – Gaiman didn’t target it at the pre-teen market, and would probably be surprised if you suggested it – but rather an appreciation that its mix of genre might not be right for such an audience. Coraline, Wolves in the Walls, The Graveyard Book – yes. Serial killers with fanged mouths for eyes, not so much.

Reason #1 why Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman' can wait until later years...

There are other stories that are a little more age-less though. Let’s call it the Princess Bride Factor; that special mix of action, romance, intrigue and humour that means anyone – young or old, boy or girl – can find something interesting and wonderful to latch onto. Goscinny & Uderzo’s Asterix has that for me; I read it as a kid and can happily read it as an adult, and as such didn’t hesitate to buy a collection of stories for my offspring-to-be. Tintin falls into the same category (and as a side comment I’d be keen to know whether the recent movie manages to capture that essence; I’ll probably find out this weekend, as we have stupidly hot days forecasted and am keen to find somewhere comfortably air-conditioned in which to while away the days).

The Princess Bride Factor is incredibly important for me; I want my child to love stories no matter how they’re presented or what sort of characters are in there. Boys aren’t genetically programmed to despise pink and like blue, any more than girls have any inherent predisposition to Barbie dolls over guns, swords and dragons. What we like or don’t like is learned. The things I read as a child have (mostly) stayed with me through to adulthood, and so that learning starts early.

Which brings me around, rather circuitously, to Atomic Robo. AR is a special sort of story. It is inclusive without pandering to the lowest common denominator. It has that special quality of being equally accessible to a kid or adult. There’s a certain joy to its storytelling that is rare nowadays. It has robots, dinosaurs, strong female characters, ‘adventure science’, gangsters, and lightning battles between Tesla and Edison. It’s not necessarily packed with laughs on every page, but it’s undisputedly FUN.

And, it’s also insanely cheap. If you have a smartphone, iPad or equivalent, go download the Comixology app for free, now. That’s fine, I’m happy to wait here. Okay, done?  You’ve now got access to literally thousands of digital comics for incredibly reasonable prices. Atomic Robo has bargain-basement prices – 99 cents an issue, or less than five bucks per collection (a bundled storyline)– and plenty of freebies too. 2011’s Free Comic Book Day tale, for example, has a gun-wielding dinosaur at a science fair who steals the A-Team’s van. What more could you possibly want out of a comic book than that?

So, Atomic Robo it is then. Not for a pre-school jellybean, but certainly it’s family friendly enough that I’d gladly encourage him/her to read them whilst they’re still in single figures.

If you want to know more about Atomic Robo, the website is here. I’d recommend you also read the creative team’s promise to the reader, and their blog entries where they describe their approach and what kids think of their books. And kudos where it counts, various people / sites that put me onto the book in the first place are: ComicsAlliance, where AR featured in their top books of 2011; the crew at NonCanonical, who produce the finest comic book-related podcasts I know; and All-Star Comics, Melbourne’s newest and best comic book shop (hi Mitch & Troy!).

And finally, if you were wondering where this blog’s title came from…