I have a confession to make: the beginning of my literary career was powered by coal company. The arts festival presented by Griffin Coal is a big event in the life of Collie, the coal-mining town in the south-west of WA where I grew up. Winning second-prize in the open category of the 1996 Griffin Festival Literary Awards at the age of fifteen – beaten by my drama teacher – made me think I could be a writer.
My entry was a story called “Retribution.” I’d switched my allegiance in year nine from epic fantasy to science-fiction, and I was immersing myself in it. For the sake of this blog post, I’ve taken the painful step of rereading the story for the first time in nearly twenty years. It’s not as bad as I feared. It tells of a crash on a distant planet, when a tentacled creature attacks a tourist family in a “skimmer”. They’re helped by a mysterious hermit who seems to know more about what happened than he lets on. It turns out the creature was his pet, undergoing one of its occasional and very dangerous transformations. An excerpt:
The hoverjet lay strewn in mangled clumps around the area.
He lay in a small pool of blood. His blood. His wife’s blood. His daughter’s blood.
The distant rumble of a roadhauler roused him. His whole body oozed pain. He groaned, softly and managed to bring himself to his knees. The rumbling was getting louder.
It occurred to him that he should get off the road.
It’s quite remarkable how un-autobiographical the story is; I can’t find any traces of anything going on in my life at that point, or even any borrowing from the settings I knew. But that was the appeal of science fiction to me at that point: escapism.
It’s also not obviously derivative from any particular text I’d been reading, though it does seem to have a number of familiar elements.
If I was given this story today for feedback, my advice to the aspiring young writer might include:
- Do not ever have a section called “Prologue” in a short story, unless you are being consciously playful.
- Do not ever end your science fiction story with excerpts from the “Galactic Standard Encyclopedia” in order to explain events in the story.
- Learn more about people and what drives them so you can create some memorable characters.
I moved away from Collie in September of that year, but graciously the literary awards allowed former Collie residents to keep entering, and I was determined to beat my former teacher the next year. I don’t think she entered again, but I won first place the next three or four years in a row, which looking back may have begun to be a little unfair to those still living there.
I do not believe that coal is “good for humanity,” but I do appreciate so much what the arts festival, and especially the literary awards, have done for a town dominated by sport over the decades.