2012 Wrap Up / 2013 Preview – Writing

As seems to be the custom at this time of the year, I’ve decided to do a bit of summary of my year in writing followed by a few thoughts on the year to come. This is the companion post to my recent discussion on my year in reading and follows the same basic structure.

Writing in 2012

2012 was the year that I started to properly try and fit writing in around my life (busy job and two kids under 5 don’t make that easy!). It is modest by a lot of people’s standards, but the tally of my outcomes in 2012 include:

  • 7 flash fiction pieces written and published in Antipodean SF (also narrated on the Beam Me Up podcast in the US). See my bibliography page for details.
  • Combining those 7 pieces flash pieces into a single publication titled A Flash in the Pan? which I made available through Smashwords (fascinating experience that I documented in a previous post).
  • Written one 4,000 word short story that I’m relatively happy with (Story A).
  • Written one 11,000 word short story that I’m mediumly happy with (Story B).
  • Written one 4,000 word short story that I’m vaguely happy with (Story C).
  • Written about 70,000 words of a first draft of a novel. I’m not happy with those words. Not happy at all. But at least they are there.
  • Started sketching out ideas for 2 or 3 more short stories that I’m quite excited about.

My reading in 2012 has lead me to a lot of excellent work by excellent writers. I’ve also met/heard from a few of the local writers I admire most at the two conventions that I’ve attended (more on that later). It is clear to me that my writing isn’t in those people’s league, perhaps never will be. But it is hard to adequately express how much satisfaction I’ve felt in getting some of these stories down on paper. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to keep working to make them better and I’d love to have them published. But even if, as I suspect, I’m never going to be the wordsmith I’d like to be I’m still going to keep writing. I just enjoy it too damn much!

A big part of my writing year was getting other people to read my work and provide comment. This started with Ion Newcombe of Antipodean SF reading and editing the stories I sent through to him for publication. Ion is very generous with his time and comments – I learnt a lot from him this year. I also had a couple of local fellow writers provide comments on some of my work which was very useful (hi Lyn and Rick if you’re reading).

I also finally discovered an online writing workshop that I’m very happy with. Quite a few people – strangers who didn’t have to worry about whether their comments would hurt my feelings – got stuck into one of my stories recently. It was excellent – so many different perspectives showing me what was and wasn’t working. The result is Story A listed above – one that I’m about to start sending out into the world.

Story A was one of my big learnings actually. It started as a 2,000 word story I sent in for the Continuum 8 writing competition. I was pretty happy with it. It didn’t rate a prize, so I sent it in to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It didn’t get past round 1 of their review process, but I got an encouraging comment back from the reader. I then decided to let the story sit for a while and review when I could approach it with a fresh perspective and also try to get some more opinions on it. Each time I got some comments they were very valuable, and I ended up rewriting and expanding on major parts of the story. Each time I responded to a set of comments, I was always happy with the result. And then there were more comments! It was an excellent learning experience.

Providing critiques of other people’s work has helped focus my thinking on what does and doesn’t work in a story. I’ve had the privilege of reading some excellent stories through the year, both provided directly from authors or through the online workshop.

Attending Continuum 8 and GenreCon this year was another great learning experience. I’ve detailed my experiences in other posts (Continuum 8 and GenreCon), but GenreCon in particular was eye opening about the writing industry. Also got to meet some fantastic people at both conventions.

Engagement in the speculative fiction community has been very interesting. In 2012 I set up a Twitter account and made some tentative steps towards using social media – some interesting lessons there, including what not to do. I’ve started to “unfollow” some people who just use their Twitter account to constantly spam about their self published books. I don’t mind the occasional mention of people’s work, but when it seems like they have set up an automated process to tweet about their book on the hour every hour, well then they’ve lost me. Actually I could probably write a whole post on Twitter and social media generally so I’ll stop the rant here before I get properly started!

My engagement in the broader speculative fiction community has been tentative. I’m acutely conscious of the fact that I’m not a “proper” published writer and that I’m interacting with people much more experienced than I am. I’ve generally found people to be very generous with their time and thoughts but I don’t like to abuse that generosity.

A large part of my “contribution” to the wider discussions in the community has been through posting on this website. Reviewing the books that I read is my way of reflecting on the work to help my own writing, but also trying to provide profile for those works I enjoy. Goodreads has been good for that, and I’ve posted most of my reviews there as well as on this site. Traffic to the website has been steady but not huge (most days have between 3 and 10 visitors and in total 2177 people visited the site in 2012), but I’ve had some nice comments from people and I think generally my reviews have been well received. My most popular post for the year wasn’t a review, it was a reflection on my accomplishments in the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading Challenge (In which I become less impressed with my AWWC accomplishments) that got a signal boost from people on Twitter, driving a lot of traffic to the site.

And finally, I’ve spent some time in 2012 helping out in minor ways with the Antipodean SF online magazine. Mostly I’ve been producing the ePub version of the magazine and doing some narration of stories. I find the publishing side of the writing industry fascinating as well and working with the AntiSF editor Ion has been a great learning experience.

Writing in 2013

So, what’s planned for 2013? I found it difficult to find time to write through 2012 – it was a fairly tough year in the non-writing parts of my life. I’m taking a bit of time over the new year to recharge and hopefully get into a more sustainable rhythm. In the hopes that by writing it down in a public place I may just embarrass myself into getting things done, this year I hope to:

  • Start submitting Story A  around the traps
  • Polish Stories B & C to a submittable level
  • Ignore the crappy-ness and finish the first draft of the novel, then start the polishing process. Even though I’m not happy with the writing, I do still really like the core idea of the story and want to give it a proper go
  • Write at least three additional stories of short to novella length
  • Receive cash money for at least one story
  • Write a few flash fiction pieces for Antipodean SF and continuing to help out with narrating and creating ePub versions of the publication
  • Get more involved with the online workshop and try to provide useful critiques for a wider range of stories
  • Support any fellow early stage writers (or indeed any writers!) in any way I can
  • Attend Conflux 13 in Canberra in April
  • Attend GenreCon in Brisbane
  • Attend the Speculative Fiction Festival at the NSW Writers Centre
  • Try to participate in the speculative fiction community in Australia more regularly
  • Look out for the opportunities I can’t see coming yet!

So that’s me. How about you?

2012 Wrap Up / 2013 Preview – Reading

As seems to be the custom at this time of the year, I’ve decided to do a bit of summary of my year in reading followed by a few thoughts on the year to come. Being an engineer by training, I’m breaking this post down into a couple of logical sub sections. Well, they are logical to me. Go find your own damn logic if you don’t like mine…

I’ve also published a companion post on my year in writing.

Reading in 2012

Probably the biggest influence on my reading year has been joining the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading Challenge. The challenge forced me out of my comfort zone. Not too far out – I stuck with speculative fiction of course – but it did push me to seek out more authors. The results of my reading/reviewing can be found at my “Mission Accomplished?” post from a while back – in total I read and reviewed 17 books by Australian women speculative fiction authors in 2012.

I’ve looked back over this blog at reviews published in 2012 and come up with some statistics. Note: Given the number of novels, novellas, multi-author publications, anthologies etc, I’ve used a whim based system for counting up things I’ve read. Sloppy workmanship may also be a factor. It is highly unlikely that anyone who could be bothered going through my back catalogue of reviews would come up with exactly the same numbers, however the percentages should be roughly correct. Stop complaining. What are you – perfect?

Stuff in book form:

  • Total number of books read: 42
  • Total by female authors: 25 (60%)
  • Total by male authors: 17 (40%)
  • Total by Australian/New Zealanders: 27 (64%)

Sean the Bookonaut has put up a post describing a gender audit of his 2012 reading recently. He has graphs. They are very impressive. As a homage, I am also including the following graph:

2012 gender reading

Stuff in magazine form:

  • Total number of short story magazines read: 21

On the short fiction side of things, in 2012 I tried to read AurealisAndromeda Spaceways Inflight MagazineAsimov’s and Analog. I failed, but I did keep up with Aurealis and ASIM (I have a lot of Asimov’s and Analog to get through).

It wasn’t included in my review statistics above, but I also read every monthly edition of the online magazine Antipodean SF. This is partly because AntiSF was where all my flash fiction from 2012 was published. It was also because I like keeping in touch with what new and emerging authors are writing and AntiSF is an excellent venue for that. It was also also because I create the ePub version of AntiSF each month and get advanced access to the stories.

In 2011 I started broadening the base of authors I read, this trend continued in 2012. I also tried to become a lot more familiar with the Australian speculative fiction scene.

Looking back over my Goodreads reviews, my 5 star reviews included two books by Deborah Biancotti (Bad Power and A Book of Endings), Madigan Mine by Kirstyn McDermott, The Silver Wind by Nina Allan, The Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines, the Sprawl anthology edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Pyrotechnicon by Adam Browne. So, I guess that constitutes my reading recommendations for the year that was.

2013 Reading

I’ve joined the Australian Women Writers’ 2013 Challenge, so expect more reviews of Australian speculative fiction from some of our fantastic writers (starting with Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott – review coming soon).

There are quite a few “must read” books from 2012 that I haven’t actually read yet (e.g. 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson). I also intend to have read the Ditmar and Aurealis Award short lists before the respective award ceremonies, especially so I can vote intelligently in the Ditmars.

In 2012 I completely failed to read the Hugo short list. I intend to fail to do so again this year.

I’m currently rethinking my short story approach, but I will look to read Jonathan Strahan’s Best of the Year for 2012 to catch up on the good quality short fiction from 2012 that I missed. I’m also considering committing to Strahan’s Eclipse Online series of short stories which I think is an excellent forum. I will continue reading Antipodean SF, Aurealis and ASIM in 2013, and will give Asimov’s and Analog a red hot go. Apparently I can only commit to publications starting with ‘A’.

Apart from that, I suspect my short fiction reading will be spotty.

In terms of books:

  • I am really looking forward to Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott, Blood and Dust by Jason Nahrung and Quiver by Jason Fischer. They are all loaded up on the Kindle ready to read and get my year off to an Australian start.
  • I also should mention the last volume of the Wheel of Time series is coming out in a few days. I started reading this series when I was a teenager and now sheer bloody mindedness is keeping me going. Having said that the last three books did lead me to the writing of Brandon Sanderson and I do quite like his work. But mostly I just need to see how the damn thing ends.
  • I’m also hanging out to see what Deborah Biancotti does next. Given how much I’ve enjoyed all her work so far, I don’t even really mind what it is that she writes, but I am secretly hoping for something longer set in the Bad Power universe.
  • I’ve just received the Library of America 1950s Sci-Fi collection curated by Gary K Wolfe – I think there are 9 novels in there, which will constitute the “learning more about the history of the genre” phase of my reading this year.

That’s about if for now – I’m sure there is more to say but my spidey-sense is telling me that you, dear reader, have run out of patience for reading this post. Stay tuned for a brief discussion of my writing year in review and thoughts for 2013.

Hope you all had a great 2012 and will have an even better 2013.

I’d love to hear your reading suggestions/hopes for 2013 – feel free to comment below or provide links to your own blog posts on the issue.

Scrivener to Smashwords

I recently collected up the flash fiction pieces I have had published in Antipodean SF through 2012 and published them in a single eBook at Smashwords. It was an interesting experience and I thought I’d note down some of the things I encountered while it was still fresh.

Firstly, some background. I write on a Macbook Air using the writing software Scrivener. I have found Scrivener to be an excellent way of keeping my stories together and structured, and the product itself is very workman like. I use Dropbox to backup my working stories (and so I can work across other computers if I need to). I have been using Scrivener to create an ePub version of the Antipodean SF online magazine each month for the last few months, and it always seems to work out OK.

Smashwords doesn’t take ePub submissions directly. You have to create a Microsoft Word document according to their specifications, submit that Word document and they use their own product (the charmingly named Meatgrinder) to churn out versions of your book in lots of different formats.

If that sounds a bit complicated, the first resource I’ll point you to is the Smashwords style guide. Pay particular attention to the suggestions around the licensing statements. When you get to the point of submitting your file, incorrect licensing statements can be one of the things that stops the submission going ahead. It also has excellent discussions on formatting etc, but it is a fairly long document, and if you’re anything like me you’ll probably be too impatient to read the instructions.

Turns out that Scrivener creates a pretty good first cut at a well formatted Word document. This isn’t a tutorial on using Scrivener (frankly, there are so many features in it that I haven’t even come close to mastering that I’d be the wrong person to give a tutorial anyway). But, a few pointers when generating the document:

  • Don’t create section breaks between parts of your document, create page breaks. Section breaks do weird things in the Meatgrinder process, including inserting superfluous blank pages. Page breaks seem to work fine.
  • Switch your line spacing to single space (mine was set at 1.2 by default). While the line spacing won’t get caught in your initial submission, anything other than single spacing seems to get flagged as a problem that won’t allow your book to achieve “Premium” status (i.e. distributed to places like Apple etc).
  • I overrode my font to be Times New Roman (Smashwords prefers the basic fonts)

When creating the Antipodean SF ePub files, I let Scrivener create a table of contents and it was all good. Because of the Smashwords Word document process, this doesn’t work. I achieved a pretty good manual TOC by inserting a TOC page into my Scrivener manuscript and using Scrivener links to connect each line item in the TOC to the appropriate title in the document. When the Word document is generated, this seems to create all the appropriate links and TOC information that Meatgrinder needs.

I had a few of the normal issues you might expect getting the paragraph formatting correct, setting to single space, indenting, no gaps between paragraphs etc. The main issue I faced here was that the layout in the Word document (which all seemed fine) didn’t seem to translate into the right format for the ePub version. In particular, the first line indenting (which was absolutely fine in the Word document) seemed to randomly not work in the ePub version generated by Smashwords.

I noticed in particular that paragraphs that started off with speech seemed to always be effected. The first thing I needed to do was make sure that the autocorrect settings in Word weren’t attempting to switch normal quotes into “smart quotes”. That seemed to have an impact. The other thing I did was go into Word and open the “Normal” paragraph style and modify it so that the underlying style had all the right formatting elements (single space, no gaps between paragraphs etc), then reapply that style to the text. This was a little manual and time consuming but it did the trick. I think sometimes paragraph formatting from Scrivener might be applied to text without changing the underlying Word paragraph style, and Smashwords seems to take some of its cues from the underlying style.

Now, when it comes to covers you upload the cover to Smashwords separately from the Word document, so you don’t have to worry about inserting it into Scrivener. I need to be clear here – I have no artist ability whatsoever. My sense of aesthetics seems to be entirely out of kilter with mainstream society. I have no advice to give you re: an artistic creation that will draw the punters in.

I will say that relatively recently the pixel dimension requirements changed to take into account higher resolution screens. Smashwords wants rectangles with the width at least 1400 pixels and the height greater than the width. I went to the online cover designer site (My eCover Maker) and created my cover for about $5. Yes, I know it shows. I don’t really warrant or recommend that site in particular – I just registered for free for the “pay as you go” option and made sure I paid using PayPal to keep it all at arms length. Also, if you do go that way make sure you are 100% happy with the cover before you “generate” it – if you find you need to make a couple of small adjustments once you’ve seen the final product, that’s another $5.

Once you’ve uploaded the book and it passes the automatic checks, it is available through Smashwords. However, Smashwords has a second level of publishing, the “Premium Catalogue”, which requires a more precise adherence to the Smashwords style guidelines. This was the spot where some of my line spacing and paragraph formatting issues were tagged. It takes several days for them to review a book, so don’t expect instant turn around. Once your book is approved for the Premium Catalogue, it is also shipped to other online distributors such as Apple, Barnes and Noble etc. This isn’t quite as important to me, the point of publishing A Flash in the Pan? was to collect my flash fiction in one place for 2012 and to try out the Smashwords process. If you were self publishing a full novel, getting this status would be much more important.

At the time of writing my book is available on Smashwords and I’ve made the adjustments that Smashwords requires for the Premium Catalogue (although it hasn’t been reassessed as yet).

I used the Smashwords ISBN manager to assign my work an ISBN. Not really much more to say on this, of course if you’re managing your own publishing house you probably will bring your own ISBN number to the party, but for a simple self publishing job the Smashwords process seems fine.

When checking the ePub output from Meatgrinder, I found the Adobe Digital Editions provided the most convenient option (as recommended on the Smashwords site). Short of loading it onto the iPad of course (which is just a bit fiddly – download the ePub, move it over to iTunes, plug in the iPad, sync it and repeat every time you make a change). For the mobi version, it was pretty much check it on the Kindle.

Finally, I thought it might be useful if I attached three documents:

  1. The Scrivener file for A Flash in the Pan? (A Flash in the Pan.scriv)
  2. The Word document that Scrivener compiles (A Flash in the Pan – Scrivener)
  3. The Word document that I finally uploaded to Smashwords after adjustments (A Flash in the Pan – uploaded)

All three documents remain copyright me etc, but hopefully they will help show the process I’ve been through.

So, there are some of my thoughts on the Scrivener to Smashwords process. What about you? I’d love to hear some stories, hints and tricks in the comments section.

The Dreaded Kindle To Be Read List

I posted a comment recently on an article regarding to-be-read lists, the gist of which was how deceptive it was when your to-be-read list is on your Kindle. Such a slim device sitting innocently on your bedside table, completely masking the fact that you have the equivalent of bookshelves of books waiting to be read. It also has a large impact on your purchasing habits. When my to-be-read pile had a proper physical presence, I used to moderate my purchasing (“what’s the point of buying that when I still have 20 books waiting to be read”). Now, not so much (“how many books do I have on my Kindle? Oh, who can remember. One more won’t hurt”).

Through the week, I received in the mail my new Kindle Touch. My original Kindle is quite old, and I’ve been looking forward to getting the lighter and more interactive version for a while now. But then I had to transfer all my unread books from the old to the new.

50 books. Waiting for me to read them. Plus another 10 or so on the iPad. Plus about 8 issues of various magazines.

Added to the 20 or so yet to be read physical books I have in the mix (loving Damnation and Dames edited by Amanda Pillar and Liz Grzyb at the moment), it was a sobering experience.

No wonder I struggle to find time to write.


The value of a detailed critique

As mentioned in previous articles, as I come across something new (for me) in my writing journey I’m trying to jot something down about it. These posts will be of little to no interest to established writers, but for someone new to the writing game they might be of interest. Or not. Read on at your peril.

Recently, a generous friend agreed to be a “critiquing partner” and we exchanged stories for review. I am very much the junior partner in this enterprise – my friend is a much more experienced writer who is really hitting her stride at the moment. I don’t have much in the way of a network across the speculative fiction community, so to have someone take enough of an interest to agree to read through some of my work was very encouraging.

It is the first time I had released an early draft story to someone, and it was nerve wracking to have something of mine “out there”. I’ve commented elsewhere on how much I enjoy the editing process with the editor of Antipodean SF (Ion “Nuke” Newcombe), but this critiquing experience was something new and different.

I was the first off the mark reviewing a chapter of a novel my friend is working on. The experience of giving feedback was very interesting. I wasn’t really sure how much detail to go into. I didn’t want to cause offence, but I wanted the critique to be useful. I also wanted to indicate through the nature of my comments that I was open to detailed and hard hitting (where needed) feedback on my own work.

Fortunately my friend is an excellent writer so I wasn’t faced with any fundamental issues to deal with (I can only imagine what it must be like to have to break it to someone that you didn’t like their story at all!). I then had the excellent experience of trying to put into words why I liked or disliked things in the text. It was interesting to work through a piece in that way, and it made me think a lot about the process of writing.

With nerves singing I sent off the comments. My friend took them well, and even expressed gratitude. My relief was palpable.

So what did I learn from the experience? I learnt that the more pedantic and detailed the comments the better (at least for my friend). I learnt that it was OK to express an opinion on something knowing that the recipient was under no obligation to agree. I learnt that working out why you like something is just as hard as working out why you don’t. I learnt that it is OK to say something isn’t quite sitting right with you even if you can’t pin down exactly why – it at least gives the author an area to focus on.

I learnt a lot.

It was then my turn to receive comments. I should start by saying that I was happy with the story I sent through. It was short (about 2,000 words) and I’d been playing around with it for a while. I was at the point where I wasn’t really seeing it anymore – too much tinkering will do that to a person. But I thought to myself ‘this is probably one of your most solid pieces of work – send it through so you don’t embarrass yourself with some of the other stuff you’ve got sitting around’. So when I saw the sheer amount of virtual red ink flash up in the returned document, I almost gave up my writing career before reading the first comment. But I steeled myself and started in.





The comments were thoughtful and intelligent. I learned a lot about how to lay out work more professionally and was reminded that my vague memories of high school English classes weren’t really cutting it when it came to writing fiction (there is not a lot of call for sharp dialogue when putting together a brief in the public service).

I was called on some lazy use of language and a structural problem with the first half of the story. As I worked through the comments in detail and applied them to the first draft, I gained a better appreciation of some elements of better writing than I had in months of looking at things by myself.

By the time I finished I had a second draft I was much happier with. I have a whole lot of work to do to rework most of my other draft material, but it is good work. Work that will substantially improve the stories.

One thing I learnt about myself was that even though writing briefs for government doesn’t necessarily help with all aspects of writing fiction, it has helped in one substantive area – the receiving of feedback. Many years of being focused on requiring the best possible work to get an outcome has helped me reduce the ego involved in receiving comments. If I got cranky every time someone pointed out a problem with my writing at work, I’d spend more time than is healthy being cross. And my proposals wouldn’t get anywhere.

So, while my other talents may be mediocre I hope I’ll be able to become a world class feedback receiver. If this experience is in any way representative, I’d strongly recommend any other new writers out there try to do the same. And if you can find yourself someone who’s writing you admire and who is willing to have a look at your work, grab onto the opportunity with both hands.

What have your experiences with critiquing been like? Leave a comment and let me know.


Speculative star spotting in Sydney

I love living in Sydney. I took my little girl (M) to swimming lessons this morning, as we do every Saturday, and saw Australian author Margo Lanagan doing laps. In true Australian fashion I of course took the “she doesn’t want to get bothered at the pool” course of action and left her entirely alone, although we did exchange a smile over the antics of my little girl, who wasn’t being the world’s most attentive student.

It did afford me the chance to have a chat with my daughter about how people can write for a living, so I didn’t completely waste the opportunity. M is at the tracing letters stage of learning to write, and she seemed very impressed with the concept that Ms Lanagan had a) mastered that tricky art and b) used it to make her living telling stories.

M then proceeded to tell me a story about her commercial brand tank engines and their adventures in the snow. Then we had an ice cream. All in all a good morning.