Conflux 9 – and that’s what it is all about

So, after some last minute travel plan changes (my wife realised that 4 days in Canberra with me attending a SF convention does not a happy holiday make… for her at least), I rose ridiculously early on Thursday and hopped on a bus. Yes, a bus. To Canberra. From Sydney.

I wasn’t convinced either.

But fortunately for me, not that many people had an urgent need to get from Sydney to Canberra via bus early on ANZAC Day, so I had plenty of room to myself and managed to do some reading and catch up on the Splendid Chaps podcast (well worth listening to if you enjoy Dr Who).

I arrived just in time for my first workshop, Writing to Sell with Patty Jansenwho talked in detail about issues around the publishing process, especially short story publication. A few takeaways for me:

  1. The importance of the start of a short story. Slush pile readers seldom get past the first paragraph. Jansen did an excellent exercise where she circulated the (anonymous) first 400 words of stories written by participants and asked people to select their favourite. Sadly, mine wasn’t mentioned as a favourite by anyone at all, but I could see why. With only the first page and a half, there wasn’t enough to grab any of them. I know that if people keep reading the first bit makes sense, but a slush reader just wouldn’t get that far. Fascinating stuff.
  2. Not even considering self publishing until you are an established author. I liked Jansen’s rule of thumb on this, qualifying for the Science Fiction Writers of America membership (i.e. three pro sales).

A splitting headache sent me for a lie down and then out to hunt and gather some form of pain relief, so I missed the opening ceremony. However, I did make it back out in time for two panels later in the evening.

  • The first was on the spectrum of horror, starring Jason Nahrung, Kaaron Warren, Kirstyn McDermott, Alan Baxter and Terry Dowling. It was an interesting discussion that meandered across the many topics, from “why do people end up writing horror?” to “what is this horror thing all about anyway?”. The discussion was helped along by an array of alcoholic beverages. It reminded me that there are some panel members that I like listening to, no matter the topic.
  • The second panel of the evening was on editing, with Ian Nichols, Patty Jansen and Abigail Nathan (actually there was someone else but their name isn’t in the program and I now forget it – apologies!). The focus of the panel seemed to be on whether self published authors needed editing, but there seemed to be some definitional problems (people couldn’t really even agree on what editing actually meant).

In the morning of the second day I had my second workshop, Polishing Your Turds with Ian McHugh. If you are a relatively new author and you ever get the chance to do a session like this with McHugh, I’d encourage you to take it up. I found his framework for self-editing very useful. I used a different short story from the one I used in Patty Jansen’s workshop the day before, and amongst other things I found that the start of this story also wasn’t really working. I’m now thinking of subtitling this post “The start of your stories suck, Webb”. Some of the information McHugh provided is on the “on writing” section of his website, I’d advise checking it out.

Lots of panels ensued, including:

  • The Smack down – Small press versus mainstream publishers (Jane Virgo, Russell B Farr and Marc Gascoigne) – interesting discussion but not actually much smack down, as no one actually counted themselves as a mainstream publisher. Some useful reflections on issues an author should take into account when deciding whether or not to go with a particular publisher though.
  • Where have all the Australian female fantasy writers gone? (Trudi Canavan, Karen Miller, Keri Arthur, Jane Routley) – some analysis of trends in fantasy (including graphs!), I was surprised at how few first time authors are published each year.
  • Am I not human? (Deb Biancotti, Kirstyn McDermott, Angela Slatter, Kaaron Warren, Martin Livings). Discussions of “body horror”, but I selected this one mainly for the panelists. May I say that Deb Biancotti is hands down the best panel moderator I’ve seen at any convention. She keeps things moving, keeps the focus off her and onto the other panel members, makes sure everyone is speaking etc. My advise: go to any panel she is moderating no matter the topic. Great interactions in this panel, discussing issues of how readers interact with being human vs humanity.
  • Guest of honour – Marc Gascoigne. Marc is the CEO of Angry Robot Books (based out of the UK). Gascoigne started in gaming spin offs (Fighting Fantasy etc) and he spent most of the hour talking about his career and the formation of Angry Robot. Fascinating to hear a broader perspective on the industry, especially from a UK perspective.
  • Podcasts and Multimedia (Jonathan Strahan, Kirstyn McDermott, Mihaela Marija Perkovic and Phil Berrie). Strahan and McDermott host podcasts that I like listening to, and my work with Antipodean SF narrating stories/articles for their podcast has whetted my appetite for all things multimedia. A very interesting session.
  • The business side of writing (Peter Ball, Karen Miller, Alex Adsett and Martin Livings with special guest star Jack Dann). I thought this session was going to speak to some of the business elements of writing, but it became more of a pep talk about navigating the difficult times of being a writer.

I went off for dinner with a group and spent a very enjoyable evening discussing all things speculative over some lovely Chinese food. The discussions continued late into the evening with a variety of people at the hotel bar, including a very memorable group tasting of a Singaporian staple chicken floss, introduced to us by Kaaron Warren. If I didn’t already know Kaaron was a horror enthusiast, that chicken floss certainly would have removed any doubts. She claimed she was merely trying to illustrate a complex philosophical point around the nature of normality and the need to accept the radical changes in preferences that can come from immersion in an alternate cultural paradigm, but I think she just liked the faces people made when they tried to eat the stuff. I have it on good authority that it tasted like fish food. Red flakes in fish food to be precise.

It was around this point that I realised that it was after 1:00 in the morning and that I had a workshop starting at 8:00am. I immediately exited, stage left. These discussions at the bar are the best parts of conventions.

My Saturday started early, with Vivid, Vivid Characters with Karen Miller at 8:00am. Miller went through a checklist of things to consider when creating and writing characters. As mentioned in a previous post, characters is one of my sticking points in fiction, and this rundown was very helpful. I even won a set of Miller’s books in the lucky door prize at the end, which she kindly also signed for me. I chose the Rogue Agent series, the first of which I reviewed here. I was planning to get the other three books anyway, so receiving them for free was an added bonus! Miller also mentioned that she is planning to put some material (including video) about her writing process on her website (link above) so it would be well worth keeping an eye out for that.

Wiping grains of sand from my eyes, I rolled into my next 3.5 hour workshop, The Keys to the Kingdom continued: what professional writers do to stay on top of the gamewith Jack Dann. Dann mentioned that this was the last time he planned to run this workshop for a while, so I’m glad I got a chance to attend. There were 9 other participants, all of whom were significantly further along in their writing (and with a bucketload of very impressive accomplishments between them). Dann handed out some very useful material for us to read. I’d signed up for this workshop to help get a feel for the industry more generally, and while it wasn’t tightly structured I did draw a lot of inspiration from Dann’s stories of his own experiences as well as those of the other writers in the room.

At this point I ducked out to catch up with some friends (I lived in Canberra for quite a few years in the late-90s/early 2000s), so missed the afternoon’s sessions.

The Ditmar awards have been covered extensively elsewhere, including this excellent piece by Sean Wright using tweets to tell the story of the evening. Deborah Biancotti was outstanding in her hosting duties (see my previous comments on her moderating – am I turning into an apologist for the Biancotti fan club?). For those living under a rock, the results were (with a few gratuitous comments from me thrown in):

  • Novel: Sea Hearts, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin) (my review here)
  • Novella or Novelette: “Sky”, Kaaron Warren (Through Splintered Walls) (very excited about this, loved this story and Kaaron even let me touch her Ditmar. Wait, when did I start writing dialogue for Carry On films?)
  • Short Story: “The Wisdom of Ants”, Thoraiya Dyer (Clarkesworld 12/12) (great story, still available at the Clarkesworld website)
  • Collected Work: Through Splintered Walls, Kaaron Warren (Twelfth Planet) (see above – this is the collection that the novella Sky was in and my review is here).
  • Artwork: Cover art, Kathleen Jennings, for Midnight and Moonshine (Ticonderoga)
  • Fan Writer: Tansy Rayner Roberts, for body of work including reviews in Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth
  • Fan Artist: Kathleen Jennings, for body of work including “The Dalek Game” and “The Tamsyn Webb Sketchbook”
  • Fan Publication: The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond (huzzah – my favourite podcast)
  • New Talent: David McDonald (very well deserved, David has been doing some very interesting stuff over the last 12 months on both the fiction and non-fiction fronts)
  • William Atheling Jr. Award for Criticism or Review: Tansy Rayner Roberts, for “Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That.” (

Other awards announced in the ceremony (not Ditmars but presented at the same time):

  • Norma K. Hemming Award: Sea Hearts, Margo Lanagan (Allen & Unwin)
  • Peter McNamara Award: Nick Stathopoulos
  • Chandler Award: Russell Farr (Ticonderoga)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend any sessions on Sunday. Some more social obligations through the morning, combined with grumpy kids who just wanted to get back to Sydney, kept me away for the whole day (and there were some good sessions I wanted to go to as well, damn it). Also, I must admit when scheduling some of my non-con activities, I had assumed that it would probably wind up around lunch time for people to get flights etc, so hadn’t actually anticipated sessions going through until 5:30. Apologies to those I didn’t get to say goodbye to!

So, all in all it was a great convention. Didn’t get to chat to everyone I wanted to, but then you seldom do. I think in future I will try to not have parallel social obligations, it was difficult to do both justice. This con was much more writer focused than Continuum was last year, so clearly the different conventions still have different slants even when they are the national convention. Lots of book launches and general celebration of community, combined with engaging panels and useful workshops. Can’t ask for much more than that.

As the word count on this post is pushing 2,000, I might leave it there. Over to you. Did you attend Conflux? Do you wish you attended Conflux? If you attended, what was your favourite part? If you didn’t, what was the part you most wished you were there for? Any comments on conventions in general? Go on, leave a comment. You know you want to.

Conflux 9 – the workshops

As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts, I’m off to my first Conflux convention (Conflux 9) next weekend. I’m looking forward to it, this convention I’ve signed up for some workshops to complement my tendency to generally lurk around.

It was very difficult to pick out workshops, there were often a couple on at the same time that I would have loved to go to. I chose sessions on the basis of how much they might help with my own writing (it needs all the help it can get!). My final selection included:

  • Writing to Sell with Patty Jansen (Thursday 25th). The workshop looks at long term strategies for selling your work. Given I haven’t actually made a paying sale as yet, it might be seen as a trifle presumptuous to consider long term sales strategies, but I like to think ahead. I’m also very keen to hear about the relative merits of different publishing paths. My travel plans mean I’ll be cutting it a little fine in making it to the start of the session (fellow participants forgive me if I’m late!).
  • Polishing Your Turds with Ian McHugh (Friday 26th). I need to get a lot better at editing my own work. When I send pieces out to beta-readers, I’m usually a bit embarrassed by the sheer number of observations I get back that I should have caught myself. McHugh is a very well regarded short story writer and I do most of my work in the short story domain at the moment. Besides, if this doesn’t win the prize for the “best-workshop-name-in-a-speculative-fiction-convention-in-Canberra-during-2013”, then the whole integrity of my fictitious awards system must be immediately brought into question.
  • Vivid, Vivid Characters with Karen Miller (Saturday 27th). I recently read and enjoyed Miller’s The Accidental Sorcerer, and her name (as well as her guest of honour status) was what first caught my eye re: this workshop. Characters and character development seem to be what I have most trouble with in my own writing. In my flash fiction it hasn’t been so much of a problem (not much space for character development), but as I’ve been attempting longer works, one of the most frequent comments from my readers has been “while the plot idea is interesting, the characters are not engaging enough”. I’m hoping to pick up a few tips here!
  • The Keys to the Kingdom continued: what professional writers do to stay on top of the game with Jack Dann (Saturday 27th). I couldn’t pass up a chance to hear from/work with Dann, and the theme of the workshop (paraphrased “offers a hands on, step-by-step writing strategy and chance to broaden working knowledge of speculative fiction”) sounds very engaging. This workshop follows straight on from the Karen Miller workshop above, meaning roughly 5 hours of workshops on Saturday morning. I may be a little brain fried by the end.

It was disappointing to see that several workshops had to be cancelled because of lack of numbers (including a couple of very interesting looking ones I couldn’t get to because of scheduling clashes). On a selfish level (the level where I work best), I’m glad the workshops I selected all remained on the schedule. I guess the cancellations might be a reflection of the fact that Conflux is as much a fan convention as a writing one, so not everyone attending would be interested in the workshop topics.

Of course there is a lot more to Conflux than just workshops. Excellent panels abound and the tantalising opportunity to catch up with people from the full spectrum of the field cannot be resisted. Ditmar awards will be handed out, interesting guests of honour will be probed by insightful interviewers and I suspect that good times will be had by all.

I’ll be in and out a bit through the conference, I used to live in Canberra so my time is being split between conference attendance and catching up with friends. But if you’re attending as well, make sure you come up and introduce yourself if we haven’t met already (or even if we have!). Perhaps we can have a chat over a refreshing beverage or two.