Friday, May 26, 2017

My Sister is a Superhero: ABIA

Last night during the Sydney Writers Festival, the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) were announced.

I'm chuffed to say that My Sister is a Superhero won Children's Book of the Year from a small publisher.

Thanks to the ABIA judges, my illustrator Peter Carnavas, and my UQP editors Kristina Schulz and Kristy Bushnell.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Pure food

I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: "Even simple food is not simple".

Beginning with the English travels of Lampedusa, I'm taking issue with the idea of "pure" food: food that is simple, authentic, somehow more real than other meals.

A sample:
Ninety years have passed since Lampedusa tripped to England’s north, but the sentiment is thoroughly familiar. He was eating what many today call “real food”. It comes with a list of adjectives: proper, authentic, pure, honest, simple. Obviously this changes by country: real food in York will not be that of Amsterdam or Taipei. The point is that some meals are more “true” than others, often those associated with the working or lower-middle classes, against the high bourgeoisie or aristocracy.  
As French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observes in Distinction, eating reflects economic and social reality: for manual labourers, meals are supposed to be ‘substance’, as opposed to the ‘form’ of posh decorum. For workers, food ‘sustains the body and gives strength…hence the emphasis on heavy, fatty, strong foods, of which the paradigm is pork’. Whether or not simple foods actually encourage muscle and grit is another thing entirely, and modern Anglophone countries are not France. Still, Lampedusa’s ham reveries were no coincidence: he was dining on the fare of ‘plain-speaking, plain-eating’ folks, as Bourdieu puts it. 
What sociology makes clear here is that pure food is not pure. Like the most fussy minimalist cuisine from a three-star restaurant, simple meals are cultural too. They suggest somewhere outside the universe of symbols, but they do this by—suggesting. They connote, imply, signify. 

You can pick up The New Philosopher in all good bookshops and newsagents, or subscribe online here.

(Photo: Geek_love13)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Art of Reading is nigh

A snap from my UK publishers, Scribe. Sexy, eh?

The Art of Reading will be out in June with a special signed edition for Independent Bookshops Week. General release in August.

Prepare yourselves, bibliophiles.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Batman: men's rights activist

Last night at Melbourne's Wheeler Centre, I offered a bold new superhero to the sold-out crowd: Batman the men's rights activist.

Taking part in the "Pitch a Classic Today", I was onstage with screenwriter Niki Aken, and comedians Laura Davis, Sami Shah and Jennifer Wong (who hosted the gig).

I celebrated Batman as a champion of the most oppressed people in society: white, wealthy, middle-class, heterosexual men.

Here's a little of the story:
Batman hid in the shadows, but not in a scaredy way. His hard muscles were hard against the hard bricks.  
He had heard whispers of a new villain in Gotham, worse than the Joker with his ambiguous gender performance that mocked traditional manhood. Makeup was for girls. And Batman’s camouflage face-paint was not makeup. Not at all. It was a liquid mask.  
Wearing his armour like a protective suit of armour, the Batman ran through the alleys until he stopped, cautiously—but still with swagger: there were two women standing there. There was no man. And they were talking to each other. But not about a man.
(I look forward to my new Sky TV show and Australian Financial Review column.)

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Art of Reading: UK cover

In June, the Uk edition of The Art of Reading will be released by Scribe UK.

Here's the brand new cover, designed by the marvellous Allison Colpoys.

Thanks to all the luminaries who've provided such generous endorsements: Melissa Harrison, George Szirtes, Henry Hitchings, Dean Burnett.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Perth Writers Festival 2017

"I read a book once"
I just returned from Perth Writers Festival, where I had three gigs: two panels for The Art of Reading, and a performance for My Brother is a Beast.

I arrived on Thursday, and heard the opening speech by Ben Rawlence: tales from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, from his City of Thorns.

Having spent a full two months with kids -- six weeks of school holidays then two weeks with them sick at home -- I then threw myself into writing: my next picture book, and my adult novel.

Scribbling at Milktooth cafe, Barrack St (tasty coffee, for the record)
I took an hour off to visit Cottesloe beach with my old mate, AAP bureau chief Greg Roberts.

Man and waves
Saturday morning, the chaps at Babylon Haircut, Murray St, gave me a haircut. (First time to a hairdresser in two decades.)

Ελληνική κούρεμα
I also had time to meet Julie Koh, author of the excellent Portable Curiosities, which I discussed on Radio National last year. Lovely also to chat to Annabel Smith, Kirsti Melville, Jenny Ackland, David Francis.

My first panel was "Narrative Desire", with Ken Liu and Susan Varga, moderated by Susan Wyndham. We spoke about childhood reading, the human psyche's narrative urges, our libraries, and reading in the future. (One of the biggest laughs: my response to Ruth's library, shelved by colour. Gorgeous, but JUST NO.) I also revealed that I'm not Batman. (And I would say that, wouldn't I.) I'm now reading Ken's fine The Paper Menagerie.

"I am Batman."
One snack in the green room later, and I was in "The Art of Reading" with Alberto Manguel and Jane Smiley, hosted by William Yeoman. This overlapped with "Narrative Desire", but also touched on the slipperiness of truth, being too late or early for books, discomfiting Dante, and more. Some entertaining disagreement, I hope.

Three grown-ups and a philosopher: WY, AM, DY, JS
I went straight from "The Art of Reading" to a children's event in UWA's gorgeous tropical grove. I held a beast quiz, showed the kids how to draw the beastly brother, then read aloud. A great crowd, with a warm atmosphere. (Literally but also figuratively.)

Many beasts, only one microphone
Many thanks to Katherine Dorrington, Maria Alessandrino and the rest of the PWF gang for making me so welcome.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

My Brother is a Beast: Out Now

Some years ago, while Nikos was in kindergarten, I had an idea for a children's book: about a ninja. That eventually became My Nanna is a Ninja, which came out in 2014, and was welcomed with great gusto. (Thanks, folks.)

My son is now in his last year of primary school, and my fourth children's picture book is out now: My Brother is a Beast.

A brilliantly boisterous picture book celebrating brothers everywhere.
Some brothers tap tambourines 
as the drummers keep the beat. 
But my brother is a beast … 
he pounds pianos with his feet.
All brothers are different. But what if your brother was really different? What if your brother was a beast?

You can find My Brother is a Beast in all good bookshops, or online. IF HE DOESN'T FIND YOU FIRST.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Art of Fight Writing

Statue of Bruce Lee, HK. Photo: Sherpas 428
I like fighting.

As a sport, an existential discipline, and an entertainment, the combat arts thrill me. I've spoken previously about the intellectual value of martial arts and written about allure of cage fighting. I'm also the editor, with Graham Priest, of two volumes of essays: Philosophy and the Martial Arts: Engagement and Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness.

I believe superhero comics are kinds of 'articulate violence', and my first children's picture book was about ninjas. 

Look, I was even in a Jackie Chan film.

But what about the craft of portraying fighting in literature? It's one thing to deliver a ridge-hand to someone's snoot, quite another to make it exciting on the page. How can we translate combat into words?

I asked author and martial artist Alan Baxter for his thoughts on writing fight scenes. 


The Art of Fight Writing

A lot of books and stories feature fighting. Conflict is, after all, an essential part of a good story, so it’s natural the conflict will occasionally take the form of flying fists. If you write genre fiction like I do, punch-ups tend to happen a lot. But a bad fight scene can really bring a book down. So that prompts the question – how do you write a good one?

I’m a speculative fiction writer and a martial arts instructor, so hopefully I have good insight on this subject. As more of my work was published, I began to develop a reputation for writing good fight scenes. I eventually wrote the Alex Caine series (currently a trilogy of supernatural thriller novels) with a career martial artist as the main character so I was able to draw on all that knowledge of fighting I have (an example from the first book is dissected below). While I would never presume to tell anyone how to write, I can hopefully share some information you can use. I call it The Art of Fight Writing.

A poorly-written fight scene can really pull me out of a story. Even for the uninitiated, a badly-written fight in an otherwise well-written book can be very distracting. It’s not the author’s fault – as writers we’re always told to “write what you know”. I’m rare among writers in that I know fighting. Most writers, thankfully, have no experience of it. The trouble is, that shows in their fiction. The majority of people draw on the only experience they do have, which is garnered from watching TV and movies, and they perpetuate that, essentially transcribing that kind of choreographed action. But the fighting you see in movies is designed for that medium – there’s a turn by turn nature so people can see what’s happening, and very little attention is paid to the nitty gritty of inside fighting, and the all-important emotional content of a scrap. With writing we have the advantage of being able to write from inside our character’s heads. We can describe emotions, fears, the tiny details that don’t show up on film. In other words, we can write a realistic fight.

In the same way that a badly-written fight scene might distract a reader, even if they don’t know why it’s bad, a well-written fight scene can have the opposite effect. A reader may know nothing about fighting, but when an author writes with knowledge, it gives the scene a certain authenticity on which the reader picks up.

My top tip, from a writing perspective? Try to keep fight scenes short, because real fights are short. Don’t labour away at it trying to get too much detail down. Fights are fast and furious things and should be written that way.

The truth is, a real fight is a lot more exciting and visceral an experience than a movie fight. When you get that vibe into your fiction, readers will respond to it and you’ll draw them more deeply into your story, and that’s what you want. Too often a poorly-written fight scene can slow a story down and drag it out when it should be at its most frenetic. The last thing you want is slow, unconvincing action in your action scenes. 

By far the best way to get that from mind to page to reader is, of course, to experience fighting. And ideally, you’d experience fighting in the controlled confines of a martial arts gym or boxing ring. I know I’m biased, but I honestly can’t recommend martial arts classes enough. Apart from the obvious benefits of learning the martial art, you also get fit, strong, flexible, make friends, and so much more. It’s a lifestyle change for the better.

But even if you don’t do that, you can still act out what you’re writing to test its validity. I have no idea how many times I’ve been crashing around in my study acting out two parts of a fight scene to see if it all gels together properly. Try it next time you write a fight scene – pause, get off your chair, and walk through a few of the things you’ve written. Imagine yourself an expert and question how realistic it is.

Another consideration is that when a person is fighting, they’re in their most base, natural state. There’s no room for veneers and swagger – it’s all real and right there. Putting your characters in that situation offers excellent opportunities for character development. Trainers will tell you that you’ll learn a lot about yourself in a fight. It’s true. So readers can learn a lot about your characters that way too. Are they quiet and introverted, but fight like a furious Tasmanian Devil? Are they all bluster, but crumple to weak knees and blubbering when physically threatened? There are numerous possibilities. Fighting is a way to explore these deeper aspects of a character’s psyche. So make sure when you write that your characters don’t all blur into one under duress and only show their character at other times. Their true selves should be more clearly on show in a fight than at any other time.

I’ve written a longer work on this subject, called Write The Fight Right, which is available as an ebook, so look that up if you want more detail. But for a quick example, let's turn to Bound: Alex Caine Book 1, which opens with a scrap. 

Read the scene first time without reading the bits in italics. Then go back to see how I’ve broken it down. This is the first ~500 words:
A distant roar rose and fell, rose again. Dark grey concrete underfoot, bloodstained, hard. Alex circled to the left. He peripherally registered each panel of chain-link, each steel upright, never taking his eyes from the figure in front of him. The man known as Bull Finley.
Below a heavy brow Bull stared back, cautious. But not scared. He exuded feral, predatory strength, a calm resolve. His hands, raised before his face, were calloused and rough, like Alex’s. [Here we set up both characters in broad strokes.] Bull’s energy pulsed. Alex watched the man’s shades, the aura of his intentions, shifting around him, saw purpose swell, muscles bunch. [Here I establish a hint of the supernatural in Alex’s ability.] One of Bull’s meaty hands swept within an inch of Alex’s nose, breath grunting out between clenched teeth, forward momentum carrying him through. Alex let him go by, twisted, gathered and whipped out a leg in a turning kick to the ribs. [Short, sharp action, no extraneous description. Let the reader fill in the blanks.]
Bull’s exhalation finished its escape in a rush, his face registering shock more than pain. [Emotion, not just physicality.] Alex pressed the advantage, following in, hands a blur of strikes and counterstrikes. Bull blocked well, but not well enough, his upper lip and nose flowered scarlet. [Again, not slowing down with flowery descriptions or technical terms. Just action.]
His intent changed, a slight desperation entering his mind. Alex saw the shades move, felt the man’s desire to grapple, take the fight down to the hard stone floor. He disengaged, slipped out of reach even as his opponent made the conscious decision to grab. That surprised expression again. Confidence to surprise, surprise to concern, concern to fear, fear to defeat. A journey Alex had seen play out time and again. His opponent’s eyes widened slightly, the corners of his mouth twitching downwards. Surprise to concern. Alex smiled inside. So it begins. [This paragraph enhances the hint of Alex’s extra abilities and also reveals his style of fighting, his emotional strategy.]
For several seconds they circled, the roar rising, falling, rising, falling. Bull’s bulky frame heaved with his breath. Alex, leaner, more athletic, waited. He was calm. Bull looked for an opening, a gap that wasn’t there. Alex feinted in and out, his opponent flinching, lips tight. Concern to fear. [The pace of the fight rising and falling in concert with the nebulous crowd to give shape and environment to the fight.]
The tension grew. Alex drew his breath in deep, sank his energy low, gathered himself. A deliberate drawing away, taunting his opponent to follow him in, to attack. Fear brought with it a lack of focus, lack of patience, a desperate desire to take back control. That desire pulsed off Bull like a wave. [Here we explore the nature of a psychological advantage in a fight and Alex exploiting that.] Alex moved in and to one side exactly as Bull made his assault. A clumsy move, all physical strength, no breath, no finesse. The man closed the gap to where Alex had been, launching fast punches. Alex exhaled, struck back across Bull’s arms, drove a knee up hard and sharp. The big man’s nose and ribs cracked almost simultaneously, pain escaping in red and black waves. As his opponent stumbled, Alex whipped in one last punch and a kick to finish him. [Again, let the reader fill in the gaps. Only give enough information for direction, not excruciating detail.] Broken and unconscious, Bull collapsed against the chain-link fencing as though his skeleton had been removed.
Alex turned away as the dull roar boomed into his ears. He honoured his opponent by not relishing the defeat as he let the rest of the world back in. The stench of steel and concrete, blood, sweat and popcorn. The glare of overhead halogens, the stamping of hundreds of feet on wooden stands, hundreds of throats screaming approval, baying for blood. A loud, brash voice burst over loudspeakers and Alex walked past the man with the microphone, as he always did. [And here we establish more of Alex’s credo as a fighter, more of his character, and move on into the greater story.]
Now go back and read the scene again pausing to read the notes in italics. Hopefully it gives some shape to all this.

From a technical perspective, consider this example of tight writing versus loose writing. Fights and action should always be tight.
The verbose fighter:
Bob clenched his fist tight and threw a long cross to Bill’s chin. Bill dodged backwards, using a sweeping forearm block to intercept the punch. As he moved he lifted his knee and drove a sidekick towards Bob’s ribs. Bob leapt backwards into an orthodox boxer’s stance, his left hand checking the kick down harmlessly to the ground. 
The succinct fighter:
Bob threw a heavy punch. Bill dodged back, blocking, tried to thrust out a kick. Bob danced back, slapping the kick aside.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either paragraph above. But the first one uses a lot of description, setting up details for the reader to visualise the fight. That fight has hardly started and already it’s close to sixty words, and it’s pretty boring.

The second paragraph says all the same stuff, but like a fight it’s quick, sharp, alive. At around twenty words it’s a third as much to read as the first one. It gives the writer room to keep the pace up, but also to include more emotional content as the fight progresses, more adrenaline, gritty in-fighting, the five senses and descriptions of movement and the environment they’re in – all essential components. 

Imagine each of those examples expanded out to five times the length to cover the whole fight and think about which will give the reader a more visceral and realistic experience of what the characters are going through. Hopefully this combined with the Alex Caine excerpt above gives you plenty of examples to draw from.
Other than those generalities, here’s a checklist of some other things to consider to get you under way:
  • People fighting are never still.
  • There’s nothing rhythmic and ordered about fighting.
  • A good fighter is always aware of their surroundings.
  • When you fight, you can never plan ahead; fighting is constantly responding to chaos.
  • Something unexpected is likely to happen almost immediately.
  • The best block is not being there.
  • A smaller, skilled fighter can dominate a bigger, less skilled opponent, but they are always at a disadvantage.
  • Sight. Touch. Sound. Smell. Taste. Use them all.
  • When a person is about to fight they get what’s called an adrenaline dump. When adrenaline dumps, a person’s fine motor skills go out the window. Their vision narrows, affecting the use of peripheral vision, and their memory is shot. The more experienced the fighter, the better they are at dealing with the adrenaline dump.
  • Getting hit, properly socked in the jaw, is a shocking experience.
  • It’s not unusual for someone who’s had a fight to remember very little or even nothing of it.
  • The more a fighter trains and the more they fight, the better they are at controlling adrenaline and fear and using them to their advantage.
  • All fighters are scared.
  • One clean crack that really rings the bell means it’s usually game over.
Finally, for realism, remember the old martial arts adage:
 “When two tigers fight, one limps away, terribly wounded. The other is dead.”
And if you ever get the chance, ask me about The Knockout Myth. Or read the ebook I mentioned earlier.


Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes supernatural thrillers and urban horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat. He’s the multi-award-winning author of several novels and over seventy short stories and novellas. So far. 

Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – – or find him on Twitter @AlanBaxter and Facebook, and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Thief of Time

I've an essay in the latest New Philosopher magazine: 'The Thief of Time'.

Something of a companion to my book Distraction, this piece explores procrastination, and what it says about human time and value:
If procrastination is the thief of time, then William James knew this criminal intimately—as a detective, not as an accessory to burglary. The philosopher and psychologist described one dilly-dallier doing everything but his job: stoking the fire, dusting specks, nudging around furniture, skimming pages from the library. He will ‘waste the morning anyhow… simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noon-day lesson in formal logic which he detests.’ James argued that what marks off the idler from the doer is not force of will, but inventiveness and curiosity. The genius will find ways to make tedium more novel, but the slacker will seek relief in trivia. The result: the first sticks with his labours, the second avoids them. 
This is a noteworthy observation about concentration, but it also illuminates our relationship to time. To procrastinate is not simply to lack verve or potency. It is also to put todays’ pleasure—or, just as often, avoidance of pain—ahead of tomorrow’s. William James’ lecturer who turns up to the hall without notes will fail to teach well, and this will be far worse than the dullness of writing. In this, he knows exactly what to do, and how to do it—but the threat of misery to come is faint and fleeting next to the ennui of his study. To paraphrase Augustine of Hippo: please give me curiosity and industry—but not yet.
The essay features thinkers including William James, David Hume, David Harvey and Martin Heidegger.

You can subscribe to New Philosopher here, or grab a copy from good bookshops and newsagents.

(Photo: Vic)