A Mirage

It shines on the horizon, a shimmer of something that seems glorious, something to be followed with wide eyes and avid heart. It is an illusion. It will trap you in its simple beauty and lead you far and away beyond the ken of life.

The desert does that. It spells the wanderer into thinking it has life, but just carry on, go a bit further, over that next ridge, and all will be revealed. It won’t. There will be another and another and another. On and on and on.

In the desert, to move is to die. To stay still, to wait, is the only option. Once the wanderer leaves the trail, or the vehicle, it may as well be all over.

Out here, out there, nothing will find the body but ants and sand. Years may pass before the bones rise again to the surface, brown and white and cleaned of flesh. It is the way of things.

The glowing message on the horizon? The trap for the unwary? It gives hope, and hope – out here – is not something to chase, but something to give.

Hope will come when the next vehicle along the tracks sees the broken down fellow traveler. Hope will be lost when it’s found to be abandoned. No one will go beyond the border of the track, not without air support, ground support, water trucks, radio support. Out here, out there, there is no hope, no chance, and that mirage is the only thing of substance.

A short one today, but that’s how it goes sometimes. And yes, I do miss the desert; the smell as the sun rises, the sounds that show just how much life is there if you know where to look, the washes of colour and movement that don’t seem quite real. The big, big open spaces where I can stand on one hummock and sense the rest of the world, where I can see the ‘roos digging in for the day, where the rocks glow with the heat or crackle with the change in humidity – night to day. I miss it, and even when I lived in it, drove through it every day, worked on it, and loved it, there was always the fear, because out here, out there, you are the only person who can offer hope to yourself. And that may be the biggest lesson of all.


The Answer

Why are you doing it? I was asked (topic: the presentation next week). Why, indeed.

The shortest and simplest reason is because I wasted so much time and effort trying to learn something everyone seemed to think every writer knows without thinking about it – structure. After all, there’s the 3 acts, the Aristotle’s incline, the beat sheet, the story board, the chain of events, the snowflake method. What I’ve learned in the last year is that all these methodologies can be exceptionally vague in the way they try to spread the word (or is it that it’s too many things to different people?) about structure but can be vague and don’t make it quite as clear as it needs to be – and because structure is 80% of the work in the first stage of ‘a good story well-told’ I consider it absolutely necessary to share what I’ve learned. And I learned it by doing it, by doing it again and again and again until I understood, quite clearly, what it meant. And how to adapt it to how I work best. If I had known about it before …

It, in this case, is structure. Not that it ever seems to be called story structure. Other things, like Outline, Incline, Snowflake, Journey, Chain of Events, Beat Sheet, Story-board, and the big one – the three Act paradigm.

But it’s both more and less than all of the above – which, by the way, are methodologies, not an end in themselves. They are a beginning, a preparation for story, not a plan.

Worse, when you read up on these methods, the words become more and more vague and less elemental (except recently, and only few). And structure is more, much more, than a few vague words that state the story must move through these stages and blah, blah, blah.

It is more than that. Structure is the defined base-plate that steps a story through what comes first and why; what comes next and why; where the big things are waiting and why; how to use these milestones/points/turns to leverage a story into a gripping and powerful tale that takes a reader through the flow/movement of scenes, into the skin of the main character and how he deals with the problems and conflicts – to the end.

That’s it, in a nutshell. It’s the basic 101 stage that should be taught in all classes for creative writing. And I’m going to spread it thick and fast and far and wide. Why? Because when I get too old to write my own stories, I want to read good stories. I want new writers to understand the simple things easily so they can go on to create mind-bending concepts and premises for their stories. I want it all.

There may be no rules in Art, but there will be no Art without a solid and practical understanding of Craft. And structure is as basic as it gets, the ABC of the language of story-telling.


I think now I know enough to help others learn it. This is my opportunity to pass on what it’s taken me so long to learn (those 10,000 hours of apprenticeship).

Anyway, short story long (that’s me all over), this is my paying it forward.

And my hope is that every person who attends the presentation next week will take the opportunity to do the practical tasks associated with learning this, and then pass it on to anyone else they meet who needs to know about it.

I want to give them to opportunity to pay it forward.



Is it Real?

The lives that come to life from the mind, that play games with every action undertaken until they get to live that life on the pages – are they real? Really real, or simply an imaginary expansion of a real-life event or person?

This is an easy one to answer because I’ve seen, and researched, the bubbles of interest in specific themes and motifs in stories written during a specific time-frame. I may have mentioned in past posts how I wrote a story in 1998 that I then read (not word for word, but theme and concept and premise too close to dismiss) the full-novel version by a famous author. It set up an automatic action in me (numbers geek thing) to seek out specific patterns in themes from publicly available writing, and guess what?

It happens all the time! A particular element of a story will be ‘shared’ by a glut of stories undertaken about the same time. Fact.

What does it mean? Are we all thinking and planning things from the same source? You know, news and cable and other forms of media? Or is there a bigger thing, an over-mind, we all hook into to use as our ‘muse’? I have to say, my idea02grey of a muse may not match what other people think, because I call it the ‘word-world-on-my-shoulder’ muse, and not a single entity, but a flow of hundreds or thousands of them, throwing out ideas and ‘what-if’ scenarios, digging at a chain of thought until I see the light of that fleeting flight of fancy.

It’s not the muse, it’s not the common media, it’s not imagination – so what is it? Is there really such a thing as an over-mind? Or a planetary being who watches over us and shares information? Is it how we learn? Is it something ‘other’?

An answer: who cares, as long as we get the stories, the lessons, the vicarious gift of living something [safely] through the stories told. What does it matter if someone labels the writer as ‘peculiar’ or ‘eccentric’ or ‘mad’? Living with multiple person/alities, who all want to put their piece into the story is fun, it’s interesting, it’s compelling.

Other people chase money or fame or family – I love, crave, and burn to find the new minds, the new creatures, the new way of thinking about a particular subject, idea, concept – until it becomes a story, which is always something to be shared.

[when it gets cleaned up a little, that is]


That [swear-word] schedule!

Earlier in the year – it might have been about the time people make resolutions – I made up a schedule. And I stuck to it. For a while. Things happened, and I tried to incorporate those things, and sometimes it worked. Sometimes not.

The qualms set in – how can I do this? that? keep up? keep going?

After the first issue of timeline slip, I let it go. After all, these things happen, and even if I don’t catch up at the very least I can slog on.

Then the second thing happened – more serious. An injury that kept me off the chair for [they said 3 months; I tried coming back after 2, and now it’s 4 months] a considerable part of the year.

The schedule is shot, blasted out to galaxy M31 to drift in the waves of space debris, wandering further and further from my grasp.

I think I’m starting to understand that nothing is ever truly within our control. Nothing. Ever. The more we try to control things, the easier they slip away, disappear.

But …

The Equine story isn’t finished, and I have to wait for feedback before going back in there. In the meantime, I put together two anthologies and published them. I’ve completed two pieces for a competition (worth money, so worth pursuing). I’ve worked on ways to improve the through-rate of beast-sheets (no error in my word there – they can be monstrous things if you want to get it fully complete and ready to roll in a story sense before the fingers hit the keys), and finally, I’ve created a short-cut, cheat-sheet to share with a group of young writers at the local library (next month – already?).

And the other things? Family in distress when the ol’ Pa gets crook (91yo) and ol’ Ma (90) stresses out about him. Takes a lot of time away from work when you have to babysit the oldies (not me, fortunately; the other half does that, but it means our time is severely constrained because I have to do the things he would normally do as well as the things I normally do). Two new babies – no, three! – and now there’s (how many?) so many new names and birthdays and reasons to celebrate (spend money) that it takes a [what do you call those things to put all the important personal details and reminders into?] personal planner (and not electronic, because we know what happens when they fail and you forget a birthday and no one speaks to you for months/years because, I mean, that excuse about technology?) just to keep up with obligations.

It’s all too much. Too much. And the most important thing in the world – those stories – have to wait their turn for my attention. Do you think it’s the stories suffering?

No, me neither. I need my sanity back. Now, thank you very much!

In case you don’t know, I use these moments to ‘warm up’ into my writing day, and it’s all of the cuff, so take the mistakes and guff with a pinch of salt (or sugar) and let it all go in a deep breath. Now all I need to do is listen to my own advice – and act on it!


About Food …

It’s like this: try anything new at least twice. That’s Nan’s rule, and her reasons are simple. She was born in a time where supermarket wasn’t part of the vocab; a world recession made it impossible to do more than survive with what you had (and you needed friends as well); food came from your own endeavor. Yes, she survived the 1920’s, with a gaggle of kids, and to her it wasn’t that long ago. The lessons stuck. Hard, because people died, people wandered the dusty trail looking for something, anything to do, just so they could eat.

At least she lived on a small landholding – not a farm! Just enough for a few fruit trees (watered from the once a week bathwater and fed by the almost-wild chooks), two small patches for veges (fenced in to stop the plague of rabbits and thieves of the two-legged variety), and many insects. People look askance when she mentions some of these things. Crickets – good food, she says. They are. Excellent food.

Always try something new at least twice, she says. Why? These are her reasons: The first time it may have been too different for the taster to truly accept; it may have been the ‘one’ with the bad bit; it may have been cooked improperly (she always looked at me when she said that!); it may not be representative of the best (green, or under-age or over-ripe/age/etc.). That first taste may not have been the best option. Make your first opinion the temporary one.

So, try it at least twice. That became my motto. Always give it a second go. And the things I’ve eaten when we were hungry as kids? Snails (you do have to prepare them for at least 10 days before you cook ’em), and they’re okay. Crickets (you catch them during the swarms with the same tools people use for butterflies, but bigger), they’re great, especially fried in butter (crunchy!). Frogs (with the local kids, and only at a particular time of year), and I didn’t like it because I like frogs in my garden keeping the other insects at bay (mozzies!). Lizards – only the bigger ones – and cooked like the local indigenous people. Good tucker, and worthy opponents because they can run, they can scratch and bite, and they’re pretty smart. ‘Roos – a very rich and lean meat, and one ‘roo fed the whole family for a month.

There’s lots of other stuff, and a warning never goes astray: never try something unless you know it’s not toxic or downright poisonous. Some flora (and some fauna, and some insects, and some reptiles, and some funghi, etc. etc.) shouldn’t be eaten. Ask the locals, ask the indigenous peoples, ask the specialists. But don’t look down your nose at the things you haven’t tried. At least twice.

spiderweb2 006

And that’s the warm-up writing practice for the day – now to work!

On, and on, and on, and on, and …

Until we’re both so knackered we don’t want to look at another thing that even looks like the words of story.

What this means is that the stage of collaboration is creating the waves we wanted, the extra work we didn’t want, and that time was wasted on injuries and other unimportant stuff – but now we are near to the end. A bit late, but that’s life.

This is the first time we (Shannon Hunter & Cage Dunn) have collaborated on a project together, and it has been both exhilarating and frustrating. The ideas burn bright, the extra oomph and presence is obvious, but the meshing of two to make it look like one – that’s tough.

Even tougher is the fact that one of us [moi, in fact] managed to do an injury that kept the seat off the bum – and that’s slowed things down a bit. But the deadline we set is our own deadline, so we have now adapted it. And we have reached the stage of initial editing – of which we disagree about the process. So, what to do?

Negotiate, that’s what. Shan will do the first edit for the big picture things – the story arc, the plot arc, the character arc (including the baddy), and I will do the middle picture things – the paras and how they flow, the sentences and what they play like (think music and rhythm), the set up, response and resolution/lead in for each section, para and sentence.

But do I start at the same time as Shan? or do I wait? If I wait, will I re-read what she’s done, or will I simply trust and go ahead with my role?

It’s difficult, but this is when all that training in workplace teams and management come in handy. Allocate, trust, continue. Check before the next stage.

Yes, we’re doing it in stages because that allows the person who didn’t do a section to be able to see the possible conflicts better than the person who is too close to the work.

Trust. The big issue – whose story is it anyway? We know the answer to this one, because we did the idea through to concept/premise, all the beat-sheets (for protag and antag) and chain of events scenarios, we did the character profiles and arc strategies – we did them all together, both heads over the hot stove of creation. So neither of us ‘owns’ the right to say ‘mine’ and we both own the right to say ‘ours’.

No arguments there. And we both know that to do the job to the best of our abilities, we have to allow the issue of the other person advising of potential issues. We have to think of it like a small business, which involves not only trust, but an open mind, acceptance of criticism (when it works to the good of the business) and schedules [ooooohhhhh, that timeline thing again].

Then on to the final stage: the small picture things, the use of words, the spelling and grammar and line-by-line edits.

Next time will be easier for both of us [where is that bit of wood?].

Anyway, long story short: Equine Neophyte of the Blood Desert is undergoing a more protracted editing phase than anticipated, and due to some silly person doing speccies over the lounge while watching women’s football of telly, we’re late.

C’est la vie!

Now, back to work.



Lest We Forget …

It was a promise made, one man to another, who wrote it down and spoke it again and again.

“Do not forget. Do not allow others to forget. Say it often: Lest we forget.”

ANZAC Day means something. It’s not a celebration.

It’s about friends, and how they watched each other die in the stink of ditches, in the rain of another country, in the cold and dust of a military action most of them didn’t truly understand. The men who took up the banner of their country and represented it as best they could. Alongside their friends.

Friends who died. And for the ones who returned to a home they no longer felt comfortable in, to people who hadn’t seen the last gasp, or felt the stare of death so close the breath clogged because they weren’t there – this is for you, too, to say those words: Lest We Forget.

The only people who understood the emptiness and bitterness, and sometimes the shame that they couldn’t have done it better, or faster, or been in the place of someone else … The only people who understood were the ones who came back. And now they had to speak for the ones who didn’t. And they said it: Lest we forget.

The woman who was so broken when her husband didn’t come back and decided to lay a flower for him in a public place, who then met up with the man who couldn’t find a way to let go of his friends who were no longer living – they began to meet up on one day each year. Others joined them. Today, I join them to remember my father, my uncles, their friends. Their lives. Lest we forget.

Now it is up to us to say: We remember. And for those who died, and those who came home, and those who lived with a pain in the centre of the family – this is for you. The memory of those who did what was asked of them, who died and suffered and those who relived it all every day of their lives until …

Lest we forget … the price the ordinary people paid for the freedom they believed in.

ANZAC Day is a memorial, a reminder of the cost in blood of those who fought, and continue to fight, for our right to be. There’s no more to it than that – the words are important, the feeling is important, the continuation of our understanding of the sense of loss and deprivation are important.

Lest We Forget.

25 April 2017.


The Shocking Toilet

A jolt from the black sky, a zag of lightning that hit the metal tip of the broken weather-vane on the toilet door. Gem’s hand wasn’t quite on the handle. Almost, but not quite. Risa squealed when Gem looked up and tried to move away, as she took her hand off the door. Stepped back.

It didn’t stop the bolt of lightning as it pounded through the ironwork that held the old door together – and blasted out to meet the skin of her rapidly withdrawing hand.

The flash of energetic light from metal to skin felt like … like … Risa didn’t know a word for it, but the sense of power in the air, the smell of singed flesh and ozone, the scream of agony that cut off into the silence of the raging black thunderstorm as Gem disappeared into the darkness in a tumble of chaotic movement.

It was Risa’s fault of course, because she always needed to go to the toilet after dark. The toilet was outside and had monsters and she held on and held on and held on – until she was ready to burst. Like tonight.

Sharing a bed with Gem was better than sharing with the others. At least Gem would wake up when the wriggles started. She’d wait a while to see if the wriggles stopped.

“You’re like a wild mouse,” she’d say when she grabbed the hand and escorted the cross-legged wriggler to the outback, long-drop dunny. And then she’d check to make sure no monsters were hiding, and hang onto the door to keep it open so nothing could sneak up from any direction. Gem kept Risa safe outside, not like the others, the tormentors.

Another flash, followed by the boom. The ground shook. Risa shook on the timber seat, trembling so hard her teeth clattered louder than the hail on the tin roof. She should get up to help Gem, but her hands wouldn’t work; her feet were up around her waist as she sat like a toad on the hard seat.

Lightning didn’t touch wood, did it? She thought she remember someone said it didn’t, but the trees she’d seen blasted to splinters gave the lie to it being safe. She wasn’t safe, and Gem was lying on the ground. Dead.

Was that a groan? Yes! She leapt off the seat, pulled up her pants, leaned her head out into the roar of wind and rain and hail. Looked left and right-

Another crack. Risa ducked back inside. The pound in her chest was so loud she couldn’t tell if the boom came straight after or …

Her left hand reached for the door to pull it closed, to be safe, but she stopped herself just in time. Huddled into the corner behind the door.

Boom. The toilet seat crashed down. Risa jumped forward, stared at the blackness behind the seat – monsters! – and leapt outside. She leaned down and grabbed Gem by the arms and dragged, grunted and dragged and dropped. Wiped her face and hands, gripped the arms – don’t touch the burned one! – gripped harder, pulled backwards – get to the veranda – pulled and dragged and felt the stones as they dug into her feet and Gem’s pyjama bottoms.

They were gonna come off – didn’t matter. Pull, drag, grunt. Again. Dropped the arms to get a breath. Crack. Boom. Crunch. Lift, pull, drag, grunt. One step, one lunge, don’t look, just pull. Pull. Groan. Grunt.

Wait! That wasn’t Risa who groaned. That was Gem. She was alive! Get her out of the rain. Out of the lightning. Get help.

Risa tried to scream, tried to yell, but she didn’t have the breath for it. Nothing could stop her if she wanted to keep Gem alive. She had to, had to, had to get her to the safe place.

Pull, drag, grunt.

Fiction, based on a childhood memory.  Copyright Cage Dunn 2017


Finally, a word that is truly mine from the Daily Post! Cranky! That’s me, you see. C-R-A-N-K-Y Critter.

Me. In a nutshell. A cranky critter.

The why is a thing that’s an excuse. The truth is more along the lines that I developed my character by fighting my way through insurmountable odds and surviving (my childhood). How? By showing the side that was tough, unbreakable, vengeful. And then I learned to use that outer visage to good effect. That mask became useful as a tool.

My name to most of my fosters over fifteen or so years? Sarge. Yep. As in the ‘Do Not Mess With Sarge’ adage. It’s not that I was tough, or a bully, or unreasonable. It was about the rules with the fosters. Follow the rules; do not break the unbreakable rules; negotiate changes to the other rules or suffer the consequences (this is where they learn to get what they want by gaining support from others – communication skills, social skills, etc.). But I had to run the show, and if you’ve ever had to deal with a dozen or so highly flammable teenagers in full dram mode, who have low self-esteem and problems with authority, you may understand how I used my ‘cranky’ to get them into a place where they had a sense of ownership. Yep. Personal Power.

And I learned it all through the ‘look’ and the ‘feel’ and the ‘act’ of cranky. The look does it first – that tilted head with the eyebrows slanted in towards the centre of the eyes, the single-line frown of slight disapproval that grows when the look is ignored. That moves onto the body language of hands on hips and one leg spread out for balance (the fighter stance, they learned later in martial arts training), and the lean in to show a slight measure of overbearing of the elder v. younger. The final piece, the enactment of the consequences of failing to respond to the first two – the act, which puts out the possible cost of ignoring the rule, the potential for loss of something they wanted more than to win this particular round of belligerence.

After a period of time in the household, they learned that ‘Sarge’ was a mask, and that they could use their own mask to ‘fake it til you make it’ in situations in their life. They learned to protect themselves through the gaining of skills in self-defence and negotiation. They learned to not judge the person by the mask – the hardest lesson of all.

Most of the world lives and breathes their relationships by understanding what a person’s unspoken language is saying. Usually, it’s all wrong (their understanding, that is) because they look only at the outer, and don’t take the time to discover the ‘why’ of the mask.

Those kids had no choice. They’d survived until they came to my place, sometimes barely and always in a state of emotional damage that would take years or even a lifetime to work through, and now they had to learn that to survive isn’t a singular thing. Only community can offer true survival.

That was the lesson. Be more than one and you have a chance. Be part of the whole and become whole. Look past and beyond the mask to find the path to a heart. That’s where you find home.

Thank you for putting up ‘my’ word!


I Made a Word

the word

Not one word; many words. I made many words, and they all have meaning – each distinct, but the context of pattern within the enclosed structure they’re in make them so much more than the one word’s meaning. One word fitted in with other words to make one sentence – a sentence with one subject, one object, and one verb. One construct.

Stick the conjoined sentences into one paragraph, that has one point to make – each distinct, but within the context of the pattern within the structure. Shape it so the emphasis on the opening is the setting up of the one point; do the middle story-telling part, then build it to the emphasis on the finale. That’s it – a paragraph.

But a paragraph on it’s own means nothing (well, not as much as it could).

Put that paragraph in a paddock with a few more; create a structure within the group of paras, so that the first para sets up the second (and so on) until you have – wait for it – a scene! (A reminder: One scene is one event in one location and time, from one POV where something changes.)

A scene has one event where something changes from beginning to end. A bit like a sentence, it has a subject (POV), and object (even if a thought process) and something happens (the verb). The first part of the scene sets up what’s to come; the middle plays it out and builds and builds to the climax at the end!

That’s it. One word put in with other words creates a sentence; sentences put together create a paragraph with one point; paragraphs put together make a scene (Let’s Party!).

And just in case anyone’s wondering: A chapter has no real meaning. It’s purpose is to give you somewhere to stick your bookmark – it’s only a scene that’s important!

Put all the scenes together following the same logic – the setup (Act 1), the first half of the middle (Act 2-part 1), the Middle (where it all gets tipped up and out and we see in the murk the reality of ….), the second half of the middle (Act 2-part 2), the Climax (Act 3).

I think that may be how one word can become one story. The whole concept of story began with one word.

What’s your word?

Disagree? Let me know how it all comes together for you, and we’ll have a chit-chat, shall we?

I look forward to making words with you!