Author: thepenofjoel

Bad Tourist

I’m no travel writer, I don’t think I could ever be accused of that. I feel that most times, I would inevitably descend into melancholy about the whole affair.

Let’s back up a bit and get some context for this before I descend into the rabbit hole.

I was very lucky this year to be accepted by two writers residencies. The first was in Iceland for a month and the other will be in Wales for around two weeks, with some travel in Dublin and London thrown between and after the residencies.

It’s my last week in Iceland before the UK leg of the trip and I’m currently writing this article sitting in a cafe overlooking the very dramatic Godafoss waterfall about half an hour drive from the northern city of Akyureri.


Godafoss in the distance. (‘Foss’ means waterfall in Icelandic)

The residency itself was an incredible learning experience, and I feel that the mental gymnastics that I experienced during the stay is worth its own post, so I’ll potentially save that for when I have a better perspective on it when I’m back in Melbourne with a flat white as company.

The idea of coming here to finish the novel was in one sense to immerse myself in the landscape of the story and allow that to make the fiction stronger. I wanted to get a sense how individuals engage with an environment like this. As such, much of the time I’ve spent away from the residency has been on long hikes, usually alone, on small dirt tracks leading off into the middle of nowhere, often not seeing another soul for hours.

In the last week, having finished the residency, I decided to take some time to travel around the island and see more of it. I imagine this drastic change, from the solo excursions to visiting the more famous landscapes that make up the must-see locations in Iceland is the reason I’m having this unfortunate reaction.

At almost all the sites I’ve visited, something has been nagging at me. Maybe it’s not the tourist with the drone, shattering the otherwise quiet beauty of a creek. Maybe it’s not the discarded plastic bag along an otherwise untouched lake shore. Or maybe it’s not the guy that is lounging at the very edge of a cliff in a Sleeping Venus pose, almost daring the waterfall to sweep him off while his companion takes his picture.

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.” – William Blake

Standing at the main platform at Godafoss or really at any of the many grandiose sights that Iceland boasts, I always felt so very small, so very powerless in comparison to the sheer power and beauty of my surroundings. Gullfoss leaving you hypnotised even as the spray soaks you. The misty shroud that blankets Gullkistan on a chilly day.  The towering tectonic plates of Thingvellir and the winding roads that curve with the land rather than carve through it. Don’t get me wrong, I feel I am very much a tourist, but I feel entirely humbled by the place.

I don’t think it’s simply the acts above that bother me, but what they might represent. Stay with me here, but I wonder if Sleeping Venus dude might be emblematic of a kind of arrogance in the face of nature, the desire to put oneself, superimposed atop it. An ugly demonstration of the perception of humanity’s mastery over nature.

Writing speculative fiction often tends to bring out dramatic statements on the state of mankind, and I generally try to reign it in, but along with our contentious reaction to climate change, I wonder if I’m that far off base. I wonder if we look at our world as more of a selfie filter than a living, breathing place that deserves our respect more than internet brownie points. Yes I realise this makes me sounds like someone who doesn’t understand the internet but surely this belligerence does not bode well?

Is this kind of arrogance new? Probably not. The history of garden design is an easy, if not simplified example, of that relationship through the years. If anything, we’re probably more aware of the problem than ever. But awareness does not necessarily mean that Instagram ‘influencers’ and loud tourists are going anywhere.

I think tourism is a great thing if it’s being used to encourage sustainability and love for our environment but I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll all be seeing more clones of Sleeping Venus dude.

That’s all for now, and I promise that in the next post I’ll ditch the melancholy and get back to the super positive vibes of the submission process.



Fences are useful things. You can put them around things. And put things around them.  Fences can be made of many materials: wattle, wood, concrete, barbed wire and others.

Fences can be white or black or white and black and everything in-between.

In many ways fences provide some kind of protection. We put a fence around our house to keep our family safe. We put a fence around our chicken pens to keep their eggs safe.

We put a fence around a prison to protect us from them.

But fences, by their very nature divide. Separate.

Let me tell you about the fence around my house. It’s not great, if I’m being honest. It’s unpainted, slow-rotted (the sad version of slow-roasted) and worst of all, looks quiet dreary. So I was glad when the owner of the property decided to strip the whole thing down and put up some new posts.

You know the interesting thing about fences? They give you neighbours. Or at least the modern definition of what we call a neighbour. The person over the fence.

Now I’ve had good neighbors and I’ve had bad, and I’m guessing you’ve got your stories too.

But fences keep them out of your business and you out of theirs. And it never really occurred to me how strong something like a fence can change social interactions.

With the fence taken down at 9AM I now have a backyard shared with the folks on either side. And despite the noisy cutting of wood and beeping of trucks there’s been more interaction between us than I’ve seen since the time I first moved in four years ago.

Suddenly the fence construction was much less interesting to me than simply watching as people wandered in backyards not their own sharing a coffee or tea with the ‘neighbour’.

I can understand why anyone reading this is confounded by this seemingly obvious revelation about modern suburbia. For me, however, it was an eye opening experience revealing how the physical barriers we put up, with usually good reason, change the environment around us, and by extension the way our social interactions evolve, or in a more negative take on it – devolve.

By the end of the week, a new fence will be up, bright and fresh. And once more it’ll block out the people around me, and this time even more efficiently.



A Writer’s Reflections: Lovecraft and Describing the Indescribable

I read Lovecraft quite late in my journey through fantasy and I’ve been thinking about him more and more these days because I believe Lovecraft is a very interesting case of an author finding his voice and maturing his style.

To take a can opener to Lovecraft’s work and general strangeness you need to look quite deeply at the man’s childhood, his upbringing, literary influences and many other factors. And while that is of some importance to what I’m talking about here, that would take a good amount of time to unpack. So to keep this post manageable and concise I just want to talk about two main aspects I find interesting in his evolution as a writer, those being empathy and description.

This first point, empathy, is probably the most related to his personal circumstances and life. Suffice to say while the ‘shut-in racist’ is a crass way to sum him up, it does have some truths to it. That being that he was awfully suspicious of the ‘other’ and due to his own literary preferences and a longing for an old aristocracy. He was in many ways, trying to live the life of a ‘gentleman’ but in our words would have been called something far less glorious – unemployed.

Much of his woeful, close to penniless existence, can be blamed on his own choices, and his choices being a product of his childhood/upbringing… you get the idea.

Due to this we see from his earliest works to around the middle of his career very few characters who have many meaningful relationships with other characters, and God forbid, relationships with members of the opposite sex.

In the Shunned House there is a slight shift here, where the main character has great affection for, and also a on the page interaction with, his dear uncle. Obviously things don’t end well in the story for either, but we can see a shift in Lovecraft’s writing.

Let’s move on to one of his later works. At the Mountains of Madness is one of his more well known pieces, and also it’s my favorite Lovecraft story. I feel that this is the work in which he really came into his own. In this novella we see more emphasis on human relationship. We see the companionship of Dyer and Danforth along with the trademark stress and horror of classic Lovecraft.

But I bring up At the Mountains of Madness for another reason. The monsters in Lovecraft are probably one of the more memorable aspects of his work. Who can forget Cthulhu, the enigmatic elder god, whose face often pops up come election time?

Fun fact: if you think that name is unpronounceable, then you’d be right. Lovecraft wanted a name that mere mortals would struggle with.

Lovecraft’s monsters are terrifying, beyond human comprehension and decidedly frightening. But here in the icy wasteland of the Antarctic the archaeologists stumble upon something at first frightening and deadly but also as the story goes on something that is described in a humane way. This once frightening monster becomes this creature we can empathize with.

Lovecraft expounds on this in the following excerpt from At the Mountains of Madness:

Poor devils! After all, they were not evil things of their kind. They were the men of another age and another order of being. Nature had played a hellish jest on them—as it will on any others that human madness, callousness, or cruelty may hereafter drag up in that hideously dead or sleeping polar waste—and this was their tragic homecoming.
They had not been even savages—for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch—perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defence against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia . . . poor Lake, poor Gedney . . . and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place? God, what intelligence and persistence! What a facing of the incredible, just as those carven kinsmen and forbears had faced things only a little less incredible! Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn—whatever they had been, they were men!

It’s a great look into how his stories evolved. It’s a captivating piece of writing even if one might find the text too dense and the prose too convoluted. Toward the end of his writing Lovecraft managed to empathize with his humans, and his monsters.

The second thing to show this apparent evolution is the way Lovecraft changed or modified the ways he would describe things. His early works contain a near endless stream of vagaries in his descriptions. Eldritch, unnameable, abomination, etc.

Lovecraft would often create an image where one might glimpse a scaled limb, elbow or eyebrow but he would refrain from most descriptions that would, in any way, be helpful for the reader to understand what that particular anatomical feature looked like.

Take this example from Dagon:

Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.

However his later works spend a lot more time expounding on these monstrosities and I think the stories fare much better for it and lose none of their tension.

Original cover for At the Mountains of Madness in Astounding Stories

This is the final ‘monster reveal’ near the end of At the Mountains of Madness:

But we were not on a station platform. We were on the track ahead as the nightmare plastic column of foetid black iridescence oozed tightly onward through its fifteen-foot sinus; gathering unholy speed and driving before it a spiral, re-thickening cloud of the pallid abyss-vapour. It was a terrible, indescribable thing vaster than any subway train—a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and unforming as pustules of greenish light all over the tunnel-filling front that bore down upon us, crushing the frantic penguins and slithering over the glistening floor that it and its kind had swept so evilly free of all litter. 

While it might seem a small difference, we’re given some dimensions of the terrifying shoggoth, a creature as horrifying as any Lovecraft had created before it. But instead of passing it off as a ‘mass of indescribable eldritch terror and hideousness’ we get more specifics. The bubbly mass, the multiple eyes that appear and disappear and size comparison to a subway train. It’s great stuff and is a clear showing of how Lovecraft improved on his craft.

Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror all owe Lovecraft a great deal. It is a shame that he died at the age of 46, just as he was coming into his own as a great writer.

There are lessons to be learned from his writing and I hope that this post has been helpful, shedding a dim light on some aspects of his work and maturation as an author.


If you want more Lovecraft in your life you can find much of his work here –


A Writer’s Reflections: The Fight/Flight of Fish

What are you thinking right now as you read this title wondering to yourself why another writer should bother to preach to you about positivity. That word. Doesn’t it just send unconscious shivers down your spine? Oh you don’t want it to, I understand that. But it happens. Because you feel like you’re failing. And that feeling is unjustified, because life fails all the time. We get older, cells start dying, reminding us that we have limited time.

Our bodies defy positivity.

And as writers, when we are staring at a manuscript which is going every which way but the way we want it to, we wonder to ourselves if we’re wasting time.

And then it starts, the feeling that you’re just pretending. Pretending to be a better writer than you actually are. You look at those few words on your screen or pad and then snatch up any book close by and wonder why there is no magic in your hands. Why can they do it and you can’t?

I’m not going to bring up the usual speel of some famous writer who put in x amount of submissions and finally after x amount of years he/she gets accepted with x amount of dollars attached with the letter.

You don’t need that because you’ve heard it all before.

I believe, from the process of observing and talking to other writers combined with heavy doses of self examination, that the life of a writer is like a fish swimming upstream.

There is just a need to do so. A need that almost defies rational sense.

And that need is to write.

The frightening reality is that you need to enjoy the process of that swim. That hard, bloody, sweaty swim if you ever want to carry on life as a writer.

I know this feeling well.

I’ve started on a first draft of a novel, a novel which is set within a genre that is populated by fantastic writers whose names could eclipse the artistic sun. It’s difficult because the temptation to compare my writing to those writers is an intense one.

Positive statements others have made sound hollow, because you don’t believe them. You think their words are tainted with sentiment instead of rational honesty. And even if for some reason you believe them to be honest you then question their taste in books. Freddy thinks my book is good but he also thinks x book is good, ergo his opinion is worthless. We all know a Freddy.

What about constructive feedback? Even if the word ‘constructive’ means many things to many people.

They tell you a character doesn’t work, or that your dialogue is too stilted. First, you’ll start wondering if they’re right. Then the other side takes over and tells you they are wrong. And then there’s the third, which is a bit of a mesh of the two. You think they are right because they didn’t get what you were trying to do. And the reason they didn’t get it is because you didn’t write it well enough.

You’re back to square one.

Take a deep breath.

Start swimming back up.

The Morning Bell Podcast: A Year in Review

As is my habit, I enjoy taking a step back at the end of the year and looking at things both critically and sometimes, a little indulgently. Sure it’s a pretty arbitrary milestone, the ending of a Gregorian Calendar, but it works well for a time of consideration, review and the occasional hint of nostalgia.

So why not? Let’s talk about the podcast for a little while, as it has been of some importance to my creative year.

When I first chatted to Kezia and Lucas (the founding members of the Morning Bell Magazine) about what they wanted out of the podcast, the main vibe I took from that conversation is that they wanted the podcast to be casual conversations that had the writing process at its heart. More often than not, we don’t analyse pieces of literature to any great extent or pick apart sentence structure.

The podcast, over time, became this place where anyone engaged in the writing industry can come and sit in very comfortable chairs, chat about the industry and, to an certain extent, their lives.


I never want the podcast to be about a specific genre or topic in writing. Because I think the industry at large has plenty of that narrow focus. Both in terms of publications and the push for writers to conform to a very particular type of writing these days and to be vocal advocates for political topics the industry deems to be important. I think that it is a push that is especially strong in a city like Melbourne. Sure they can all encourage diversity in genres etc, but really those authors don’t win those awards, right?

In some small way, I want to counter that. Call it a tangent if you will, but I think that is a very important factor of why I host the podcast. I want writers of fantasy, science fiction and crime to get as fair a shot at the microphone as well as those writers of realist fiction, humour, drama, and non-fiction. And that’s just a narrow slice of the guests we’ve had on.

Another purpose for the podcast to exist is to give the audience a glimpse into the creative lives of these people. Demystifying the writing process would be a stretch, since I think there is always mystery in the creative process.

We’re here to be a resource for emerging writers and a reminder to those who have been doing it for so long that you’re not alone in a profession that may, at some times, feel quite lonely.

And you know what? I think we’ve done that.

A large part of why the podcast is a pleasant and engaging space for us is the location we have been provided – Brunswick Street Bookshop. A huge thank you to the staff who put up with us yammering in the back throughout the year.

Since we’ve started thanking people I also think a large and obvious reason why the podcast has engaged so many listeners is the guests that we’ve had on. I’d like to thank each and every one of you, for taking time out of your day to come on over to the bookshop and chat with us about what makes your creative lives tick.

And where would I be without my (mostly) loyal co-host Luke Manly? He’s asked questions I didn’t think of and fills the air when I’m desperately running to fix something in the background. It’s rare to find someone you can bounce off on air and I think he deserves a lot of credit. Thanks also to Lucas Di Quinzio for filling in when Luke was out of town or unavailable.

And thank you for listening. It seems obvious but without you, the listeners, these recordings would just be an echo chamber with no real purpose. A pleasant bubble, but a bubble nonetheless.


I look forward to bringing you another exciting guest list next year and I hope that you share The Morning Bell Podcast with anyone that you think would enjoy it.

Thanks again and we’ll see you in 2016!

– Joel Martin

Story problems in the Witcher 3

In my video How to Write a Side Quest: Part 2, I used an example from the Witcher 3 and outlined the strengths of it and also a few weakness.

And for the most part, I was pretty positive about the game in my general thoughts and mentioned that I would not be doing a full story review of the game.

The main reason for this is the most obvious one for me – there was so much media saturation around Witcher 3’s release I didn’t think another voice screaming with/against the crowd would have been much good. It would be more like cashing in on the hype with limited information, since I did not complete the game a week after release.

And at this point, I think a short written post would achieve the most significant point I would be making in a video. I recently finished the main story (yes, it took me this long!) and there’s a couple thoughts that I wanted to monologue about. Also I understand quite clearly that what I’m about to say will probably sound like an anti-hype hipster rant. I hope you can look past that perception to what I’ve been banging on about in my videos for some time!

I think the Witcher 3 has some pretty good quests, decent dialogue and a few well written characters.

But the plot of the main story? That’s where it fell flat for me. What it boiled down to felt very simplistic and quite unfortunate. This gets pretty spoilery right now, so if you’re concerned about that then you shouldn’t be reading on.

You all have probably heard from me before I’m not a fan of world ending stories in games, because it seems to be the only story we want to tell, because huge stakes = investment right?

In many ways I imagined that the Witcher 3 might depart from a ‘generic’ storyline and go back to what makes Geralt, well, Geralt.

And I’m talking about the universe of the Witcher. Bear with me here and follow my train of thought. The emphasis in the Witcher books, or at least in the short stories were about a monster hunter. And those were always the strongest tales for me. Whereas the Witcher games are about an action-hero saving the world. Technically you can argue with me and say that Ciri was the one doing the saving, but the story by and large is told from Geralt’s point of view. Ciri may be the device used to save the world, but the getting there for us was through Geralt.

But he does a lot of monster hunting in his spare time right? And that’s the good part of the game for me. But that’s not what the story of the Witcher 3 is all about. And that saddens me.

That’s not to say that the main plot doesn’t include some pretty well done sections. The quests around the Bloody Baron and the Witches of Crookback Bog were two of the standouts for me.

Honestly the story is pretty good until Geralt finds Ciri mainly because before that, it was Geralt landing himself in various situations and having to deal with it. Once Geralt and Ciri meet around the mid-act the tone of the story changes. Instead of more personal problems between characters the emphasis shifts to global affairs and that I think is a shift that ends up hurting the story.

Let’s tangent off for a moment and think about the design of the game that may have put some pressure on how the story progressed. An open world game demands its space be used for gameplay and story. In some ways we can see this as a freeing experience. But at the same time, we are constrained to create a story and interesting experiences within a cohesive area. Instead of the well-crafted situations that lay geographically all over the place in Witcher 2 we are placed in a smaller region. Isn’t that funny to think about? That technically we see less of the world in an open world game?

I’m not saying immersion isn’t a big deal for a lot of people. Riding here and there seamlessly engaging with different people and places appeal to some. The fact that a stretch of land from quest point to quest point somehow makes us feel better about the game design does boggle me a little though.

Does that mean you can’t tell a good story within an open world? Not at all, but it makes the job a lot harder in my opinion. If I were to look at the recent Batman series, Arkham Asylum is probably the strongest story for me. And I think the reason for that comes down heavily on the design of the levels and the progression through them. Despite my problems with Dragon Age: Inquisition, you actually felt the pressure of the world and the impending threat on the continent because you saw a lot of it within large open levels.

Wait, I thought we are talking about the main quest? Indeed, and the quality of the main quest is quite dependent on how your game is designed and laid out, i.e Skyrim.

Let’s do an unfair comparison while we’re at it, shall we?

If they had just taken the short stories in Sapkowski’s book the Last Wish, produced levels for each story, have a few sidequests here and there and have a thread connecting the various stories while keeping to the heart of what the Witcher is, I honestly think it would have been a stronger and tighter story.

Instead the Witcher 3 plays it really safe. It doesn’t try and push the narrative envelope because its focus is on the ‘largest open world’ tag. It wants people to feel the sheer scope of the game by the ton of side activities, the gorgeous vistas and the explosive set pieces provided in the main story. The game is a marketing paradise.

And all this isn’t wrong to have it’s just that, for me, it was a great supporting cast of features that was missing the director.

Story Design or Level Design?

I talked a bit about this in my Warframe Review when I said story can be woven into the design of a place. Let’s do an exercise to illustrate what I mean.

Walk into a place of some religious significance. The stained windows show a specific scene, the walls are lined with statues that refer to a specific person or persons, the mosaics are aligned in such a way to convey an image. All of this tells the story of a place whether illustrating events directly or just the emotions and feeling within a place.

You walk into a park, what do you see? Perhaps trees arranged in a way that does not seem natural. You venture a little closer. In fact these trees were planted in memory of children who had passed away due to a specific illness. All this is story.

I mentioned the Witcher 2 and Dark Souls in my videos as having great story design, and that comes down very much to how much the environments aid the stories. Dark Souls more so than the Witcher 2, since the lore of Dark Souls is almost exclusively told through the environment, just look up the Broken Statue inside the Undead Parish if you want an example of that.
With shining examples like that I think that this is a great way to tell story within an interactive medium.

So the next time you walk through a level, have a look at what was done with it. And the next time you take a walk outside, see what stories you can find!


The Sandbox World: Expanded Thoughts

A World Done Well

I mentioned Witcher 2 as my example of a world done well, and it really is the prime example recently anyway. However I would like to give props to another game that may not have had the greatest story, indeed, the story was rather generic, but the world was a completely different beast. The game is Dishonored and I just want to take a few minutes of your time examining what it got right.
Skyrim and Oblivion served as the whipping boy in the video and I’d like to take them out again for a few more lashes. Often times the politics and racial prejudices observed in open world games are done in a rather ham fisted manner, and Skyrim and Oblivion are no exceptions. Most point to Morrowind as having done the social and political side of the world much better. In Dishonored the nebulous nature of morality and prejudice is portrayed quite well through the different locales you visit in Dunwall. The way Dishonored handled social classes and the ‘morality of technology’ was immensely interesting. Clearer examples of this would be found in some of their marketing material, the series of animated shorts, Tales from Dunwall (which I strongly suggest you watch). The world of Dishonored is not explored through its story, since the story is fairly thin and doesn’t provide anything unexpected other than introduce important characters. Instead the world is fleshed out through audio logs you find in the game, ambient dialogue and the books that you are able to read. The in-game books definitely sets the scene that this is a very small incident in a much larger scheme of things. The mythology surrounding the whales, the unexplored continent are all fantastic elements to build up this world.
Some bank on the Cthulhu style stories sometimes from the fevered writing of a forgotten explorer, others are about those delving too deep into the supernatural element which is left vague and compelling.
What Arkane has done is create such a complex and multilayered society and world that they build hype for the next game which will have most of its lore already established. Dishonored is simply a slice of this massive world. I mentioned the introduction of important characters. Most of the time these characters are only important to Dishonored and the story that it tells, but they not quite so important if you look at the world as a whole. A major exception would be the Outsider, who is very much the epitome of the supernatural in this world.
This is a great way to start off a series. You build up the world from everyday things, and sometimes everyday people, not through long monologues.
I was more than happy with the layered elements in Dishonored and hope more games follow in its footsteps.
If you’d like to see what sparked this ramble you can check out the video below!