Every project offers up its own storytelling challenges.
When I first sought feedback for an early draft of “Lemon Girl” I learned that my beta readers didn’t like Charlie. I had deliberately written her as unlikeable, but there seems to exist the ‘likeable character’ equivalent of ‘uncanny valley’. Audiences love to read about likeable and hugely UNlikeable characters, but don’t enjoy the murky in-betweens. Perhaps we all like to be told who to root for, just not in an obvious way?
So in a revision I turned Charlie into an on-the-page psychopath. Minors are not actually given the label of psychopath. They may get conduct disorder or similar, but because of this fact, and because on-the-page fictional diagnoses are fraught with difficulty, I had to be careful not to make Charlie a psychopath within the veridical world of the story. So she’ll self-diagnose. Problem solved?
Next problem: Now the reader doesn’t know how reliable she is as narrator. So I changed the first person narration to third hoping that’d fix it. I wanted to keep Charlie’s voice. So what we have now is a different kind of uncanny valley — psycho narration — but who is telling this story? I’m not sure I’ve fixed it without introducing a new problem: Who on earth is telling the story in Charlie’s voice, if not Charlie?
It was an interesting exercise, trying to create a character lacking in empathy, constantly craving drama, because that doesn’t describe me at all. So I had to revise the story while deliberately giving Charlie inverse to reactions to my own.
I did spend time on messageboards for sociopaths, and a good number of lines in the story are pulled from various messageboards, written by self-described sociopaths.
One messageboard sociopath stuck out to me: an anonymous woman who said that sociopaths are hugely misunderstood. It is perfectly possible, she argued, to be an ethical sociopath. They’re not all murderers. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in ten or twenty years’ time, we’ll look back on stories about psychopaths and see huge discrimination. Just look at how trans people have been villifed in fiction (and still are). Either villified or used for gags.
The comparison has its limits, because trans people are NOT psychopaths (despite what Silence of the Lambs would have us believe). But on the topic of hugely misrepresented minorities, what about all the stories in the world about murderous psychopaths? No one chooses to be a psychopath. What if we’re unfairly villifying another neurodiversity by failing to create fictional ethical psychopaths? Who are baby psychopaths supposed to look up to?
With that in mind, I wanted to create the story of an ethical sociopath. Charlie feels nothing for Willow, but she can choose not to be mean. She can learn strategies to keep herself sufficiently stimulated. But the storytelling issue I run into is this: Any story about a mysterious possible psychopath is inadvertently set up as a thriller, and the reader expects something big and terrible to happen. Anything less feels anticlimactic.
There’s also a rule of storytelling concerning revelation of the true self. Where a character reveals their true self to the audience but continues to hide from other characters within the story, the story doesn’t feel ‘finished’. The rule is that in any story the narrative mask comes off.
I wanted to try writing a story in which the mask stays on. From start to finish, no one in the story knows who Charlie really is. I believe there are plenty of people walking around who will never be truly known by others, and I wanted to create realism. I’m still not sure I was able to subvert that subconscious expectation for the reader in a satisfying way. Hence, “Lemon Girl” is a work in progress, and a character study at its core.
I decided to create comic-book illustrations in black and white using yellow as an accent colour. It was a fun challenge deciding which part of any given page would be yellow. But when my kid saw my illustration of Charlie sitting in the spa pool she said, “Looks like she’s bathing in a her own urine.” She also pointed out that it looks like Charlie is drinking it. I specified “Berocca” on the page in case there’s any confusion there, but I’m not sure every decision has been a successful one…! Those black and white illustrations took just as long to do as the “Doggy and Sam” full-colour illustrations, if not longer. It’s not the colour that takes the time but the tonal values.
I started thinking about the modern use of ‘troll’ and wondered if I could create a story about internet trolls with a Three Billy Goats Gruff fairytale setting. This is one of those occasions in which the story seemed to write itself. Not only that, I had planned to write a much longer story, but after finishing that final scene, I realised that’s all the story needed. It’s wonderful if that happens. More commonly, for me, I start and end in the wrong place, then must spend a lot of time heming and hawing about where it really starts, and where it should properly end.
“Trip Trap” was originally going to be an interactive app for iPad, but we took our apps off the App store when they started costing us money. We had a great run with our other apps, but I was a third of the way through the illustrations of Trip Trip when sales plummeted from ‘workable’ to basically nothing. Moreover, Apple requires constant updates, an each time they release a new device or a new software update, an app which worked perfectly before now needs attention. Apple’s process isn’t perfect — they can remove a perfectly functioning app! We also didn’t want the ongoing expense of buying their most up-to-date device.
The version of Trip Trap you see here is the full prose edition, which would have been heavily truncated for an app. I still plan to finish off the rest of the illustrations and upload them here, but I’m not interested in doing that style at the moment. It is an extremely time consuming style, in which a single page can take most of a week, even if I’m using Daz models for the humans! Posing them and lighting is still time consuming in its own right. And I have failed to fall in love with Daz Studio. Opening up painting software makes my heart sing. Opening Daz only makes it sink. (I guess this is how many artists feel about digital art in general.)
I was making use of Daz models partly to see if it’s quicker to create the art, but partly because of the uncanny valley effect (which I want, this time). I grew up was an eighties child with a View-Master. I wish I still had it. A lot of those stories had been made from creepy models, photographed against painted backdrops, surrounded by miniature dollhouse models. They were creepy but fascinating. It must have been fun to have a paid gig creating those sets. For the same reason, I always enjoyed visits to the Christchurch Museum, especially the recreations of Maori life with the (almost) lifesize people.
Lotta: Red Riding Hood
Like “Trip Trap”, Lotta: Red Riding Hood is a feminist fairytale, and very much of the Me Too movement. I co-wrote it with a friend. We both independently came up with Lotta as the name of Little Red Riding Hood, who clearly had to be named in order to be humanised.
My friend asked why I had created the illustrations the way I did, with the character of Lotta on crinckly paper that seems to be laid on top of the background scenery. The reason is this: When girls and women are told constantly to curtail movement to avoid getting raped (or whatever) we cannot hope to feel a fully integrated member of our own worlds. Notice how at the end of this story I do integrate Lotta into her natural background. She is now a fully-fleshed member of her own world.
Urban Legends for Supra-rational Ponderers
When I was teaching English in a girls’ high school, my favourite unit was the creative writing , and my favourite writing activity was one I probably wouldn’t attempt at some kinds of schools: I gave each student a different urban legend printed out from the Internet, then asked them to rewrite in a more fleshed-out, literary way.
The main difficulty lay in persuading the students that the stories, composed only for plot, needed anything doing to them at all. I found the most successful lesson plan of this sort is when the students are asked to take just a moment from within a well-known urban legend and asked to flesh out that moment as fully as they can.
Of course, if you’re going to teach creative writing, you need to do it yourself. These are my own efforts. Some have been previously published elsewhere.
Fairytales for Glorious Contrarians
“Glorious contrarians” is a phrase I heard Natalie Wynn use on one of her Contrapoints YouTube videos and I’d been on the hunt for a title. I now knew what I’d be calling my collection of feminist fairytales.
I’d read an English translation of the Grimm fairytales (the one translated by Jack Zipes) from cover to cover. I don’t normally read collections from cover to cover, but wanted to see what insights immersion would offer.
Well, I felt exactly how Angela Carter must’ve felt ten-fold after she’d translated a fairytale collection, then subsequently wrote her own feminist re-visionings, probably as catharsis. Irritated as all heck. I needed a mental mouthwash.
I’m no Angela Carter, but I absolutely needed to get these stories out of my system.
Étude and Other Short Stories
These stories were written in my late twenties, early thirties after I’d moved countries a few times, lived in a backpackers, etc. I found homes for most of these stories in various zines and anthologies which have since gone out of print. So here are the best in one place.
Étude is my favourite, possibly because it was the easiest to write. I’d just spent an entire week immersed in Katherine Mansfield. Etude is a re-visioning of “The Wind Blows“. The others didn’t write themselves. Far from it.
Doggy and Sam
Sam is a fully-realised character within the imaginary world I’ve carried with me since the age of 14. (The Bronte Sisters created a paracosm set in a place called Gondal; mine spans three countries and, so far, about three decades.) This inner fiction is constantly evolving, and the characters age as I do. “Doggy and Sam” is a snapshot of Sam’s life. I know what happens to Sam later. For now I’ll keep that inside my head. I don’t normally take stories from my paracosm and turn them into fiction. But I wanted to know what would happen to my paracosm if I concretized a little bit of it in the form of an illustrated story.
As writers know, the main work of writing is actually the thinking. “Doggy and Sam” was remarkably easy to write because I already had the full story in my head, and just as well, because I did something stupid with technology and lost most of it. I had to type it all out again. Despite being easy to write (twice), a story borrowed from my paracosmic world was hard to revise, because revising a story from your detailed inner world is almost like revising autobiography. I can’t easily change details to fit the story because that would involve changing my entire paracosm!
I illustrated this story as Australia hunkered down over the 2020 lockdown. Later in the year, Melbourne endured a far more lengthy one. I illustrated the Melbourne tram based off a tiny postcard, actually taken in the 1970s (my story is set in the 1980s). I think creating this story was a form of therapy! Who knew, back in the 1980s, that 2020 would be looking like this? In my head, I was walking around freely under the Melbourne sunshine. At the same time, I was creating the adult fictional Sam’s fictional 2020.
I am fully aware that for people who don’t have paracosms, and can’t even imagine having one, this all sounds borderline crazy.