Monday, July 16, 2012

Representing Local People

Moorabool Shire Council - Civic Hub
"Fearless" by Anuradha Patel and Velislav Georgiev

On 10 July, Moorabool Shire Council held a community and candidate information session to encourage and inform anyone considering standing for local government on 27 October this year.

Being a local councillor isn’t always a popular and highly sought after elected position. In Moorabool, the workload is estimated to be about 20 hours a week. In return each councillor receives an allowance of approximately $25,000 per year plus some provision for childcare, a phone and computer – with the Mayor being paid significantly more in recognition of the additional demands of that role.

On the ground, the workload of individual councillors is often much greater. The hours are taxing and hostility from aggrieved community members can be a considerable problem.

Moorabool Shire is currently represented by 7 councillors, elected within a 4-ward system that divides the electorate into Central Moorabool, East Moorabool, West Moorabool and Woodlands.

Only a handful of community members attended the Shire’s candidate information session, with the majority originating in East Moorabool Ward, which includes Bacchus Marsh and surrounds. East Moorabool will have at least two women contesting this election: Margaret Wohlers-Scarff and Tonia Dudzik.

Sadly, there appeared to be no new candidates for West Moorabool and Woodlands at the information session and only one new candidate for Central Moorabool Ward: Ballan resident Brian Meadows.

Central Moorabool

Moorabool Shire Council - Ballan Office

This post focuses on the Central Moorabool Ward. The next post will cover the new and incumbent candidates in the East Moorabool Ward.

In Central Moorabool, Brian Meadows, a retired systems engineer, says he intends to run on a “back to basics and first things first” platform, which he interprets as safe roads and pavements, “keeping rates as low as they can be” and encouraging small business.
He doesn’t yet have a position on Ballan’s social housing problems or on the preferred direction for the rapid increase in residential development in Ballan. Nor, when interviewed, did he talk about the more remote parts of the Ward or the Shire as a broader entity. It will be interesting to hear more about his position on these issues as his platform develops.

One of Many New Buildings on New Housing Estates - Hogans Road Ballan

Meadows believes that money shouldn’t be wasted and nominated the chessboard paving outside the Ballan Mechanics’ Institute as an example of waste. He looks to business and other private patrons to support the arts.

 Mechanics' Institute Before the Streetworks
 Mechanics' Institute After the Streetworks 
"Moorabool Earth Totem" by Peter Blizzard
(chessboard paving between the sculpture in the foreground and benches behind)

Mr Meadows was not familiar with the specifics of Council’s existing policies and policy gaps, but said that he would be listening to the community to generate ideas and would be “available and accessible”. If elected, he plans to hold regular meetings where community members will be encouraged to come and chat.

Central Moorabool’s incumbent councillor, Philip Flack, says he is yet to decide whether he will stand for re-election.

Modern Local Government

Calls for a return to a focus on roads, pavements and rates are relatively common during local government elections, but they would seem to be at odds with the work of leading a contemporary shire or municipality.

Councils have a legislative mandate that obliges them to be concerned with society alongside their concern with dollar value and the provision of physical infrastructure for pedestrians and drivers.

The Act also requires Councils to undertaken social planning, provide a range of services, express community identity and they must have regard to social sustainability, quality of life issues, and equity in access to services.

Moorabool Shire Council operates within a Council Plan under the Local Government Act. The Plan places roads and footpaths and a reduction in reliance upon rates alongside other items. These other items include:
  • financial planning
  • advocating for better services and facilities
  • water access
  • children’s and family services
  • community facilities
  • telecommunications
  • community empowerment
  • governance
  • support for community projects
  • an early years development hub for Wallace
  • emergency management
  • local prosperity
  • local town planning
  • managing water and energy consumption, and
  • improving service delivery.

Moorabool Shire runs a budget of just under fifty million dollars and operates in a contemporary social and political environment. All of the 7 elected councillors need to be capable of addressing this broad mandate as intelligent, responsible but deeply open-minded decision makers. They represent a diverse urban and rural community and do so in a context where the majority of residents are young families – and young families have high service needs.

Room for More

There are no young people in our current councillor line-up and though the ages of our councillors are unknown, most are clearly over 50. There are no state-wide, age related statistics on local council members, but the relationship between the high workload borne by councillors and the relatively small financial reward means that standing for office is very difficult for anyone other than retirees.

We have no women in our current councillor line-up, although Moorabool has had some wonderful female councillors in the past. The same factors, high workload and low pay, deter women. The acrimony councillors often face from constituents is another major factor in women’s reluctance to run. It’s no surprise that at the State level, women make up less than 30% of Victorian councillors.

As the electoral office doesn’t open for candidate nominations until 20 September there is still plenty of time for new candidates to emerge. In the context of the candidatures of Margaret Wohlers-Scarff and Tonia Dudzik, the climate is building for diversity.

It would be wonderful to see some new candidates standing in the West Moorabool and Woodlands wards and more new candidates in Central Moorabool.

Key Dates

Campaign period - from now until voting closes
Nomination period - 20 September – noon 25 September
Ballot paper mail out - 9-11 October
Voting closes - 6pm 26 October

Friday, July 13, 2012

Help! My plot has come unstuck

 It's 200 years into the future. Fortune SweetSong looks out at this view and... 

And I stopped writing because I realised my plot was in trouble.

I commenced this writing year really well by starting a new science-fiction novel in Steven Carroll’s master class at Writers Victoria. I wrote every day for the first four months. It was great. But here I am, six months after that wonderful beginning, and my plot seems to have come unstuck.

The story that I thought I’d plotted out – so carefully, so confidently – doesn’t seemed to be as well conceived as I’d imagined. The ending doesn’t fit the cast of characters. Specifically, the ending would be very satisfying if you cared about one particular character. The problem is, that character is dead and even before he died he wasn't very interesting.

I could, should and will replot. The problem isn’t insurmountable but it has stopped me in my tracks and I have begun to wonder about my plotting method. Having written 12 teen romances that were driven by a combination of plot and an assumed adolescent voice, I felt I knew how to devise a novel plan.

The method I’ve always used involves an arc that relates to the genre, a story arc for the main character or characters and a chapter-by-chapter plan in which something interesting happens. In terms of writing teen romance a plan could look something like this:
1 Genre arc: The female protagonist ditches her existing boyfriend for someone more interesting.
2 Story arc for the main character: The female protagonist intends to become a jockey but ends up becoming a horse trainer.
3 Chapter action:
Chapter 1: Our hero goes to the sale yards to try and meet a famous trainer but ends up buying a horse to save it from the slaughter yards. She has a fight with her boyfriend.
Chapter 2: Our hero finds a farmer willing to agist her new horse and in return agrees to help with some fencing. There is a farm accident and our hero has to go to the neighbour for help. She meets the neighbour’s son…

SPOILER ALERT: this next example includes some plot outcomes from The Light Heart of Stone. You can skip to the following paragraph if you’ve yet to read the novel.

In terms of The Light Heart of Stone, my recent epic fantasy novel, the plan looked something like this:
1 Genre arc: The agricultural system in an alternate world is failing and the world needs to be saved.
2 Story arc for main character #1: A young girl named Fox loses her home and family and ends up dismantling the system that caused her that loss.
3 Story arc for main character #2: An old woman named Oria is given a second chance at life but finds that she must become a different person if she is to survive.
4 Chapters:
Chapter 1: Oria finds a perfectly preserved body in a coffin, touches it and loses consciousness.
Chapter 2: Fox is tested for talent and taken from her family…

SPOILER ALERT ENDS. You can continue reading safely.

When I realised the proposed ending for my new science-fiction novel no longer seemed to fit the story, I thought I could solve the problem by reading the book as though I was the reader rather than the writer. I thought I’d know what the ending should be by the time I reached the end of the 48,000 words I’d already written.

I read chapter 1 and everything felt dandy. Chapter 2 had some good material but soon I was in despair because my pages weren’t sticky. Stephen Wright talks about his eyes sliding over a page ‘without getting any adhesion’ and calls those bits of weak writing ‘white-outs’. All I could see in my manuscript were white-outs.

As my despair deepened I began to have second thoughts about key events in the story – never mind the ending!

I’ve had a few public speaking engagements over the last 10 days so I haven’t been able to write. I did a radio interview at Inner FM with Marie Ryan. I did an author talk at Collins Booksellers in Bacchus Marsh. I sat on a panel about creating fictional worlds at the Bayside Literary Festival and I sat on a panel about public art for the City of Darebin’s DIY Arts Seminar Series.

In a way I’m glad that I couldn’t get to my writing. I think I would have sunk deeper into despair if I’d had time to write. During the break I had these thoughts:

Well, white-outs are always going to be present in first drafts, particularly when your plot is unresolved and you haven’t finished drawing your characters – and both of those are true in my case.

A plot crisis? Big deal. It just means I need to rethink and re-plan.

How fortuitous that Pete Aldin told me about that new writing software. I can download the free trial, transfer my existing plot and text and – in the process – work out what’s wrong and how to fix it.

I'll let you know about the writing software if it ends up being useful.

Review News

I can't let this post go past without mentioning that The Light Heart of Stone has just received its first review. Sean Wright, who writes reviews, news and views on speculative fiction at Adventures of a Bookonaut, has said some very exciting things about the book.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Creating Worlds – part 2

I’m consumed with thoughts about world-building because I’m preparing for this Sunday’s panel discussion at the Bayside Literary Festival with Alison Goodman, Jesse Blackadder, Narrelle M Harris and Lindy Cameron.

I’ve been reflecting on my own writing process in relation to creating speculative fiction worlds. In my last blog entry I had a look at the factors that I need to have in place in order to make my speculative worlds go around. This post looks at the elements that are involved in creating believable worlds.

Attention to detail and accuracy… Festival director, Jessie Doring, associated both of these factors with the task of world creation in historical fiction. Instinctively, I want to them for speculative fiction too. Attention to detail is fairly easy to argue because we like the big and the small picture when we’re reading stories set in new worlds. The gritty stuff of sound and smell is important but so is the political system.

I recently read When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett. Her future world of fliers and non-fliers gives the reader both sorts of detail. Corbett gives you the ‘sharp forest scent’ on the wings of a flier and also provides a bigger picture that involves a complex and disturbing nexus between extremely realistically drawn political, socio-economic and religious forces.

Which is a nice segue into the subject of accuracy. Accuracy in a made up world? Really? Well, accuracy is called for – and I don’t just mean putting hard science into science-fiction. I think there are other areas where accuracy matters: internal coherence, non-speculative elements in imagined worlds and an attitude of truth-telling in your writing craft.

The world you create can’t be fuzzy or inconsistent and real world elements must be correctly rendered. Even the invented parts of your speculative world have to be correctly imagined, make sense, be precision-made and accurate. And – in craft terms – when you write about your new world, it should be so well envisioned that you are engaged in virtual truth-telling. Your world should be so real your writing should border on non-fiction.

I recently read a science fiction novel that opened with a scene in a public sculptor’s yard. The main character, a sculptor/architect, undertook a complex and dangerous bit of work during a surprise visit from the client who commissioned the artwork. I guess I’m the worst reader for this particular scene because Velislav Georgiev and I have been running a public sculpture business for a number of years and we’ve had clients drop into the studio. The scene didn’t feel accurate because clients get to see simple show-and-tell work and I wasn’t convinced that in the author’s imagined world this sort of truth had changed.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Creating Worlds – part 1

I am busy preparing for a panel discussion at the Bayside Literary Festival. This year’s festival is The Art of Words and – being a speculative fiction writer – I’m involved in a panel about speculation and invention:

Creating Worlds: Real and imagined
Scotland 1561; Melbourne 2012; an almost-Chinese mediaeval kingdom; an alternate, undated universe. World-building is an integral part of historical and fantasy fiction. Attention to detail and accuracy are vital in the former; imagination and originality are the building blocks of the latter. Author and publisher Lindy Cameron interrogates historical novelist Jesse Blackadder, and fantasy and speculative fiction authors Alison Goodman, Narrelle M Harris and Tor Roxburgh to find out what makes their fictional worlds go round, what brings them to life, what makes them believable, and just how much reality goes into making something up.
2pm to 4pm
True South Brewery, $10
Food and drinks available for purchase

As part of my preparation, I’ve been revisiting the process I used to create the world in my new epic fantasy novel The Light Heart of Stone. For me, world building starts with people. I remember a panel I attended a few years ago at Conflux, Canberra’s science fiction and fantasy convention. Two writers, both men, were discussing the process of world building. One insisted that the only way to create a plausible world was to begin with the cosmological situation. It was that situation that would determine the length of the word’s day and the nature of the world’s atmosphere, which he saw as the starting points for world building. The other writer spoke about beginning worlds topographically and cartographically. I was impressed and intimidated in equal measure.

Systematic work like that always impresses, intimidates and revolts me. It appeals to that part of me that would like to analyse, categorise and order everything that exists and GET IT RIGHT: the part of me that can still imagine spending twenty years researching a single narrow subject for the pure joy of it. It repels me because I know I would never complete another book or anything else in life. It revolts me because it is so tight and prescriptive.

My world building is based on the idea that all worlds, including our own, are imagined worlds. That is, words are primarily mental: they are created by minds and exist in minds. I don’t dispute the existence of a physical world but I believe we construct more of that physical world than we realise.

So I build worlds with imagined peoples who relate to, perceive and sculpt the landscapes in which they live. I imagine a world by getting to know its people: who they are, what they believe, what they disbelieve, what sort of stories they tell, what’s tolerable for them and what they can’t cope with.

In the case of The Light Heart of Stone, I knew I wanted to write about a post-colonial, continental world and I decided to create two culturally distinct peoples. I set my story 1,000 years after colonisation because I was interested in the idea of post-colonial worlds as enduringly fragile societies.

I wanted to write about semi-nomadic indigenous people who have a custodial relationship to land. I invented a people and called them the Indidjinies because I liked the slippage from the word ‘indigenous’. I wanted to write about immigrant people with a proprietorial attitude towards talents, about people who see talents as exploitable resources. I gave these people a talent for companioning plants and animals and called them the Companionaris. Having given my immigrant people an effective monopoly, I wanted the indigenous people to have a balancing monopoly so I gave the Indidjinies title to the entire continent.

So, at the outset of my world building, I had two contrasting beliefs (custodial and proprietorial) and I had two powerful monopolies (in one case, ownership of land; in the other, control over the growth of plants and animals).

I asked myself: what happened in the beginning when the Companionaris arrived? What happened a few hundred years later? What happens when the novel opens 1,000 years post-colonisation? The answer became the novel.