Reviewing process (Subtitle: no I don’t get a lot of free books)

I was asked recently where I sourced the books I review on this website. Do I get review copies from publishers/authors? How do I choose the books? In general, what is my reviewing process.

For the most part, the books I review on this website are books that I’ve chosen to purchase. The main purpose of writing a review is for me to reflect a little more on what I’ve just read, with the hope that this reflection might improve my own writing. Thinking about what I liked in a story and what didn’t work for me and trying to work back to what that means for writing. So, these reviews are in some ways personal meditations.

So why publish them on a website for the world to see? Actually that’s a slight exaggeration – I don’t think the whole world has seen my website. Perhaps Australasia and large segments of continental Europe. With small inroads into North America. Tops. But I digress.

Well, I like to publicly acknowledge books that I have enjoyed. I’ve been reading quite a few small press publications in the last couple of years and I know it can sometimes be difficult for small presses to get reviewed. Even my (very small) signal boost may help. Also, knowing that there is a theoretical audience for my review means that I want to feel that I could defend my opinions, which leads me to think those opinions through a little more. On top of that, publishing pieces on my website makes me feel a bit more connected with the wider speculative fiction community.

These motivations result in a couple of effects. Firstly, my reviews tend to skew a little more positive as I’m reviewing books that I’ve chosen to read. It is possible that I could select badly, but I don’t have a lot of time to read so I’m careful in what I pick. What influences my choices? Sometimes recommendations from people with a track record for picking out gems (for example Sean the Bookonaut), sometimes books by authors who I’ve enjoyed in the past, sometimes things that are on award ballets and sometimes because a really well written blurb sucked me in.

Secondly, I don’t feel any obligation to be nice. I’ve paid my money for the book and my opinions can be coloured by whether I think I’ve received value for money as well as the literary merits of what I’ve read. That’s not to say reviewers who get books from publishers have their opinion swayed by the fact that they have received something for free. Most reviewers I’ve spoken to have long since had the novelty of a free novel wear off and are too concerned with their reputation for independence for write a fluff piece. But for me, having shelled out hard earned for the story adds something to my reviewing process.

Those few times I’ve reviewed something that I’ve received for free I’ve found my reviewing to be a bit more tentative. Having said that, I’ve recently discovered a new reviewing experience. A publication (Antipodean SF) has provided me with a couple of novels to review for its monthly magazine. Having that extra distance between myself and the publisher has removed all sense of obligation. I’ll be interested to see how that impacts on the writing of the reviews.

What’s my opinion on rating systems? Well, you might have noticed that I don’t rate on my website, I’d prefer the comments to stand on their own. However, Goodreads and other online forums do tend to push for star ratings so when I rate on a 5 point system, I tend to use the following broad criteria:

  • 5 stars: excellent, superb reading experience. Not necessarily a perfect book, but one where any quibbles I have are minor. Can usually point to several specific positive aspects. I don’t tend to give out many 5 stars. Probably the critical point here is that I had to love reading the book. Worthy books where I can see the literary merit but didn’t love reading the book I tend to go down to 4 stars.
  • 4 stars: excellent book. Thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. Usually one or two things that I love, and maybe something I didn’t like so much (although not always – sometimes it was excellent but just not quite as excellent as the 5 star books). For some of the reasons I’ve outlined above, a lot of my reading averages around this 4 star point.
  • 3 stars: good book. Some good things, some bad but on balance I enjoyed it.
  • 2 stars: Meh. Probably more things I didn’t enjoy than I did, but also this rating can reflect being entirely indifferent to a book.
  • 1 star: Didn’t enjoy the book at all, actively disliked the reading experience. Haven’t given out any 1 star reviews so far to the best of my recollection.

Do I worry about annoying people with bad reviews? I don’t think so, but this is something that has crossed my mind as I’ve started to go to speculative fiction conventions in Australia over the last 12 months. I’ve met a few authors and they are by and large very nice people. This website is not a hotspot of speculative fiction review action, and as a result many of them haven’t read any of my reviews so the point is somewhat academic. However I try to give balanced reviews and I’d like to think that I’m never unfair or in any way spiteful in my reviewing. I’m more than willing to concede that my own reaction to a piece of writing is not the only reaction, and I’ve found that most authors tend to cultivate a similar attitude. Thinking of authors as real people helps me to keep my comments purely about the work, which I think is healthy.

As a corollary, I am also concerned that my appreciation of an author’s work might be impacted by the fact that I’ve met and liked them personally. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and to be honest it is possible. I don’t think the phenomenon could make me like a work that I would have otherwise thought was terrible, but could it boost a 4 star review to a 5 star review? Possibly. I try to be conscious of it, but I also don’t want to unfairly mark down a work for fear I might be seen as being partial. I also try to note any biases I think might be effecting me. But at the end of the day, sometimes your appreciation of someone’s artistic endeavours can be impacted by your appreciation of the artist themselves. It’s probably why a lot of the most impartial critical work happens after an author has died. I’ve decided to just live with it.

In terms of the reviews themselves, I tend to wait a few days after I’ve finished reading a book before I write the review, just to let things sink in. Sometimes I have a lot to say, sometimes not so much – I try not to write artificially long reviews just for the sake of it. I try to think about as many aspects of the story as possible – the technical aspects of writing, the emotional impact, how engaging it is etc. As discussed above, these reviews are really just me writing down what I’ve taken from each of the books and I don’t feel the compulsion to be comprehensive. I love getting comments from people and hearing different opinions, and after I’ve published my review I’ll often go seeking out other people’s reviews to see where people have had different experiences. Often I’ll find some comment that I wish I’d made, or see some aspect of the story that I missed but totally agree with but I’ll only tend to go back and modify the review if I’ve made a factual error. If I ever want to add something extra I try to make it clear it is a post-review comment.

So, that’s me. How about you? For those that review, what is your process like? For those that read reviews, what do you like to see in a review?

GenreCon 2012 – Sydney (2nd – 4th November 2012)

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the inaugural GenreCon in Sydney. This is only the second convention I’ve attended, the first being this years SF National Convention Continuum 8 (see my earlier series of blog posts for a blow by blow description of my fun and games). There was a remarkably different tone in this event, which was aimed at writing professionals (writers, editors, publishers, book sellers etc). The fan elements of Continuum gave a good community feel, but I must admit that at my stage of writing I think that the GenreCon program was probably better suited to my needs.

The program for GenreCon can be found here.

Unfortunately work kept me away from the opening night drinks on Friday 2nd November and late night panel discussion, although I’m told they went well. I showed up bright and shiny on the Saturday morning. The conference “kit” included a free book (always a good way to start off the morning) and before I knew it I was sitting in the main room waiting for the first keynote speech of the day.

Meg Vann (incoming CEO of the Queensland Writer’s Centre) opened proceedings with an upbeat description of the state of genre fiction and the process by which GenreCon had come together. She was extremely energetic. I personally would have needed a much stronger cup of tea to match those energy levels after my 2 hour public transport trip to reach the wilds of Parramatta. She turned over to Kate Eltham (the outgoing CEO of the QWC) who made some thoughtful comments on the state of the industry, including the concept that the current changes in markets more reflect the move from manuscript scarcity to plenty, rather than any particular technology issue.

The opening address was followed by a community showcase by the Romance Writers of Australia. While I don’t write in the romance genre, I have heard a lot of good things about the professional nature of the RWA. The talk certainly bore this out, it is clear that they provide their members with significant support. It is a shame that the broader speculative fiction genre doesn’t have a similar professional association (I did join the Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association, but it seems to have vanished without a trace, and my joining fee with it).

Following morning tea, I attended a workshop entitled Kicking Off Your Writing Career by Peter M Ball (one of the conference organisers and a well known speculative fiction author) and Alex Adsett, a copyright and writing contract specialist. This was an excellent session, worth the conference price of admission by itself. Ball spoke articulately about the need to think of your writing career as a business, applying some of the planning techniques that I’m familiar with from my day job into the writing game. It was very thought provoking.

I enjoy my day job, and my goals with writing have never been to quit and have writing as my only profession. However, I have had the impression previously that if you’re not aiming to be a full time writer, some people feel you are not taking your writing seriously enough. Ball’s talk was an excellent antidote to that kind of thinking. His own goals were clearly articulated and combined his desire to seriously experiment with genre forms with the idea that writing would only ever be a part time gig for him (by design). Very interesting.

Adsett’s part of the session focused on copyright and various tips and traps for young players that come from assigning rights for your work. It was a very thought provoking discussion. Sadly I’ve not needed to delve into the wonderful world of writing contracts, but it did make me reflect on the kinds of things I’ll need to keep in mind if my work ever does move to that stage.

After this session we moved through to lunch. I might pause at this point and say this GenreCon was much more like the kind of conferences I would normally attend for work than Continuum 8 was. The morning tea/lunch/afternoon tea breaks were communal – by providing food in a common area it pushed people to mingle more. I found it easier to chat to people than at Continuum 8, perhaps a feature of the conference being relatively new and incorporating quite a few different genres (i.e. less “pre-established” groups of people). I’m still not entirely comfortable breaking into conversations, but the conference felt much more designed to encourage you to talk to new people.

So as a result of this communal eating arrangement I shared lunch with the writing power-couple Jason Nahrung and Kirstyn McDermott, as well as new acquaintance Chris McMahon. Jason and Kirstyn both have books coming out early next year through the relatively new publisher Xoum and it was exciting to hear about their engagement in the marketing and publishing of their books. I’m eagerly waiting to read both books (Blood and Dust by Jason and Perfections by Kirstyn). In conversation with Chris I realised that I had read and enjoyed some of his short fiction, most recently his story in the excellent anthology Anywhere But Earth edited by Keith Stevenson. A very enjoyable lunch where I had less to contribute, but had an excellent time listening.

In the afternoon there were three streams of panel discussions running. First up I attended What Writers Get Wrong chaired by Aimee Lindorff and featuring Simon Higgins, PM Newton and Charlotte Nash Stewart. The discussion focused on medical and crime related fiction (not my usual writing), but it was good to hear people with expertise talking about where fiction writing diverges (jarringly) from reality. Everyone always has problems with how their occupation is depicted in stories. What I took away from the discussion was that the amount of research required to give your work verisimilitude when dealing with modern occupations is large and perhaps beyond my attention span. I may have to stick with genres that allow me to make up occupations.

The second session of the afternoon was After the First Draft chaired by Irina Dunn and featuring Jodi Cleghorn, Sarah JH Fletcher and Bernadette Foley. This discussion focused on the rewriting portion of the writing experience, including the use of beta readers and how to keep an editor on side. There were some excellent suggestions for books to read to help make your work as polished as possible. I am getting close to the point where I’ll want to start seriously polishing some long and short fiction, so it was a timely discussion for me.

There were a lot of parallel sessions I would have loved to attend, as this was true of most of the GenreCon program.

Just before afternoon tea, the community showcase was for Conflux – the national speculative fiction convention for 2013. It was a great showcase which encouraged me to sign up for the convention, which is held in Canberra around Anzac Day next year.

After afternoon tea (where I caught up with Lynda R Young – a much more developed than me author who is excitingly on the edge of publishing in an anthology and has some advanced manuscripts just waiting to find a home), the last session of the day was the international author guest Joe Abercrombie in conversation with Jason Nahrung. I’ve read and enjoyed several of Abercrombie’s books, which I tend to think of as epic fantasy for adults – very gritty with flawed characters. I’ve drifted a little away from epic fantasy over the years, but Abercrombie’s work appeals in a way that shiny hero fantasy just doesn’t anymore. The interview was excellent – Jason had done his homework and kept the conversation moving smoothly. Abercrombie was funny and self deprecating and gave some interesting insight into his own writing journey as well as some good thoughts on what the modern writing and publishing scene looks like.

After the last session finished up, I stayed behind and had a great series of conversations. I don’t know that I added any stunning insights to any of these discussions, but is was fantastic listening to people in the industry talk and being able to ask questions. In particular I thought Jodi Cleghorn had some great thoughts on the current online writing community scene and how it could be improved. I hadn’t signed up for the banquet (always difficult to know whether to sign up for something like that when you could be sitting on your own in the corner) but there were a few people that similarly hadn’t booked in, so a group of us went for dinner at a local Indian restaurant. It was interesting and varied conversation, where I heard everything from the unorthodox way that Wollongong based author Alan Baxter used to prepare for rugby games in his youth through to the fact that author Martin Livings was launching his new collection Living with the Dead at the convention the next day. Good times.

Unfortunately, I had another event on Sunday which limited how much of the convention I could attend. I made it over for the first session of the day, a keynote talk by Curtis Brown agent Ginger Clark who was over from the US as the other international guest of the convention. It was a fascinating discussion about the state of the publishing industry in particular in the US, UK and Australia (a bit depressing at times, but still very interesting). I think if I was trying to make my writing a full time career it would have been even more depressing – things seem a bit dire at the moment. Clark also gave some insights into the changing role of the agent, the impact of the rise of self publishing, the changing nature of writing contracts and the difficulties of getting publishers to focus on mid list authors. She also spoke about the importance of understanding contracts and which rights you have sold or retained.

The community partner session before morning tea was by Sisters in Crime, which sounds like an extremely supportive and successful organisation made up primarily of women either writing or reading crime.

I had to leave after morning tea, so I missed the workshop (would have gone to Get Your Characters Moving with Karen Miller) and the afternoon panel discussions (absolutely spoiled for choice here – possibly would have attended Practical Worldbuilding and Text/Sub-Text but would have loved to attend several others as well). I also missed the Great Debate: Plotters vs Pansters which was by all account hilarious.

All in all this was an excellent convention. I understand they will run it again next year, this time in Brisbane. If I can at all make it up there I will be looking to attend (hopefully with some slightly more advanced writing under my belt next time!). If you attended I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments or any musings on conventions in general.

In which I become less impressed with my AWWC achievements

I recently posted on me reaching my target in the Australian Women Writers’ 2012 Reading  Challenge. I was (and still am) happy that I’ve participated in the challenge – everything that I said in the original post about expanding my reading etc still holds true.

As a part of the post I added up all the reviews that I’d done since I started this website to check the gender breakdown. It turned out it was roughly equal (16 female authors compared to 14 male authors). I was pretty happy with that too.

That’s the part I’ve been thinking about over the last week. While I remain satisfied with the ratio, there was one aspect of my own reaction that has started to bug me.

I feel like I’ve been reading mostly women authors over the last 6 months or so. I sought out books written by women in the genres I’m interested in and made a point of prioritising women authors in my to-be-read list. I didn’t feel like I was reading many male authors at all and that my reading was “dominated” by female authors.

And it still came out 50/50.

It was a stark reminder of the power of unconscious biases. Admittedly my sample was pretty small, but somehow I’d “made an effort” reading 16 books by female authors, while reading 14 books by male authors had somehow happened without me noticing.

I consider myself a firm believer in equality. I don’t think I engage in any conscious sexist behaviour and I believe in judging individuals on their merits, not based on a stereotype or cliche. I knew I’d been guilty of letting my reading circle shrink over the years, but the fact that pre-challenge I was reading mainly male authors I put down to being time poor and perhaps a little conventional in sticking with authors I’d discovered in my youth.

Thinking about my reaction and listening to some of the discussion in the last couple of episodes of The Writer and the Critic podcast (episodes 18 and 19) when Ian and Kirstyn spoke at length about some of the default male centric settings in modern Australian society has left me a bit shell shocked. It’s triggered a lot of self reflection. I blame the bloody objective data. Self delusion would be a lot easier without it.

I look forward to the day when maintaining a more diverse reading pattern doesn’t seem like an effort. But in the mean time I’ll continue on with the AWWC, listening to excellent podcasts like The Writer and the Critic when they intelligently discuss these kinds of issues and hope like hell I’m able to evolve!

Ditmar voting – go on you know you want to

Voting in the Ditmars 2012, Australian speculative fiction’s premier voted awards, is still open. Like any awards determined by popular ballot, the more people who vote the better. Voting is open to anyone who is going to the 2012 Natcon (Continuum 8) or went to the 2011 Natcon (Swancon Thirty Six) . If you can’t make it to Melbourne you can purchase a supporting membership to Continuum 8 for $35, which makes you eligible to vote.

I used derivations of the word ‘vote’ too many times in the previous paragraph.

I haven’t read everything on the ballot, but looking through the list I realised that I have reviewed (directly or indirectly) a fair number of the nominations. So, for convenience I thought I’d list out links to my relevant reviews on one handy page.

Note (with one glaring exception) none of what follows should be interpreted as particular support for any story, publication or person. It just happens to be the stuff I’ve looked at.

Best Novel

I’m currently reading The Shattered City by Tansy Rayner Roberts and Mistification by Kaaron Warren. If I finish either before voting closes I will update this blog entry.

Sadly I don’t think I’m going to get to Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres by the time the voting closes.

Best Novella or Novelette

  • “The Sleeping and the Dead”, Cat Sparks, in Ishtar (Gilgamesh Press)
  • “Above”, Stephanie Campisi, in Above/Below (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burnt”, Paul Haines, in The Last Days of Kali Yuga (Brimstone Press)
  • “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living”, Deborah Biancotti, in Ishtar (Gilgamesh Press)
  • “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • “Below”, Ben Peek, in Above/Below (Twelfth Planet Press)

I note Ben Peek’s impassioned attempt to climb to the top of the “times nominated but never won” category. It’s too bad really – I liked Below!

Best Short Story

  • Alchemy“, Lucy Sussex, in Thief of Lives (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Bad Power“, Deborah Biancotti, in Bad Power (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • The Patrician“, Tansy Rayner Roberts, in Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press)

Best Collected Work

  • The Last Days of Kali Yuga by Paul Haines, edited by Angela Challis (Brimstone Press)
  • Nightsiders by Sue Isle, edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts, edited by Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Ishtar, edited by Amanda Pillar and K. V. Taylor (Gilgamesh Press)

Best Fan Writer

OK, strictly speaking I haven’t actually reviewed anything in this category but I’m going to mention Sean Wright, for body of work including “Authors and Social Media” series in Adventures of a Bookonaut. I’ve really enjoyed Sean’s writing over the last 12 months.

Of course, everyone else in the category is excellent too. But, you know, go Sean.

Best Fan Publication in Any Medium

While I haven’t done any formal reviews as such, I do describe the podcasts I listen to on my Podcasts page. It includes very brief commentary about the four podcasts on the ballot (The Writer and the Critic, The Coode Street Podcast, Galactic Chat and Galactic Suburbia)


The Writer and the Critic episode 18

I don’t normally write posts about individual episodes of the podcasts that I listen to, but in this month’s episode of one of my favourite podcasts The Writer and the Critic they covered my feedback. And talked about it for a while.

I listen to a few podcasts, so I first became aware of the fact that my comments were talked about from a post on Sean the Bookonaut’s website (by the way, if you are in any way interested in the Australian speculative fiction community, Sean’s website Adventures of a Bookonaut is a “must subscribe” – he publishes news, book reviews and other pieces of general interest on a daily basis. Well worth checking out).

I knew which piece of feedback they would be talking about. And I became worried. Was my question so asinine that they had to devote significant amounts of time to mocking it? The question was related to gender and reading habits, had I inadvertently said something massively offensive? I immediately bumped The Writer and the Critic up to the top of my podcast listening list and listened in on my walk to work this morning.

Fortunately and to my everlasting relief, the presenters (Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond) actually liked my question and spent a good amount of time responding to it. If you’re interested, I’d definitely recommend going and having a listen. Suffice to say the answer was excellent, giving me much more food for thought.

My engagement with the broader speculative fiction community is unfortunately constrained by the business of life, so I really get a kick out of experiencing some of these kinds of interactions.

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.


Antipodean SF Radio Show – 165 alpha

Antipodean SF, who have published a couple of my stories, also has a community radio program that airs every fortnight or so. The host and editor, Nuke, plays readings of the stories in that month’s edition of the webzine, usually interposed with some electronic music and other news and reviews.

Episode 165 alpha was just released and contains a couple of my pieces. First up is my narration of The Gloriously Cunning Plan, my second story published by Antipodean SF. Nuke starts the introduction at about the 2 minute mark, with the story itself starting at about 3 minutes.

Also in this edition is my narration of Has Your Reading Circle Shrunk?, an article about my participation in the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading Challenge (AWWC). Nuke starts his introduction about 36 minutes and 40 seconds into the podcast and the article itself starts just a tad over the 37 minute mark.

Nuke and Antipodean SF have been very supportive of my work. The flash fiction format of the site means that you can get across a lot of authors for a relatively small investment of time, so I’d encourage everyone to support the antipodean speculative fiction community and visit Antipodean SF!

Paul Haines – author

Paul Haines, a New Zealand author now based in Australia, is a speculative fiction writer who specialises in quite disturbing stories. When I first started to realise that I wasn’t happy with the narrow range of my speculative fiction reading, I came across one of Paul’s stories in the Terra Incognita Speculative Fiction podcast and thought “This is just cool”.

I’m not actually much of a horror reader, but Paul’s story was so well written and so different from what I was used to reading that it spurred me on to actively seek out antipodean writers and even start my own writing. I credit Paul and his writing for starting me on my current track, which has been very personally rewarding and has helped bring a bit more creative balance to my life.

So it was with sadness I recently read that, due to an ongoing and worsening fight with cancer, Paul has been forced to give up his writing career. His post gives a fantastic summary of the work he has done and a moving account of the work he has to leave behind.

Starting with his latest collection The Last Days of Kali Yuga, I’m going to be actively seeking out the work of Paul’s that I haven’t had a chance to read, and I’d encourage anyone who loves good writing that does an excellent job of freaking you the hell out to do the same.


Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

I’ve seen the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge mentioned in a few blogs recently. It seems like a very positive way of promoting more gender equity in literacy circles, so I’ve decided to give it a go.

I’ve chosen the purist (speculative fiction) genre challenge, and the Miles challenge level (i.e. read 6 books, review 3). In the back of my mind, I’m hoping I might get closer to the Franklin-fantastic challenge level, but I am aware that my day job and life generally can often get in the way of me reading as much as I’d like.

I’m not sure of exactly what my six books will be, but they will likely include:

  • Whichever books from the Twelve Planets series come my way in 2012, starting with Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti. I believe I should get at least 4 books through the Twelve Planets series.
  • I’ve heard a lot of good things about The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood.
  • Power and Majesty by Tansy Rayner Roberts (I really enjoyed Love and Romanpunk by the same author, so looking forward to reading some more of her work). If I like it, then I’ll probably read the second book in the series The Shattered City.
  • I’m not sure if this counts, but I’ll be reading the Above/Below double novella. Above is by Stephanie Campisi, which in my mind qualifies it. Below is by Ben Peek. Maybe that disqualifies it. We’ll see.

You can find all my reviews for the challenge here.

Some information from the challenge website follows.

Australian Women Writers 2012 Challenge

Objective: This challenge hopes to help counteract the gender bias in reviewing and social media newsfeeds that has continued throughout 2011 by actively promoting the reading and reviewing of a wide range of contemporary Australian women’s writing.

Challenge period:  1 January 2012 –  31 December 2012

Goal: Read and review books written by Australian women writers – hard copies, ebooks and audiobooks, new, borrowed or stumbled upon by book-crossing.

Genre challenges: 
Purist: one genre only
Dabbler: more than one genre
Devoted eclectic: as many genres as you can find
Challenge levels:
Stella (read 3 and review at least 2 books)
Miles (read 6 and review at least 3* )
Franklin-fantastic (read 10 and review at least 4 books)*
* The higher levels should include at least one substantial length review

Gender & cultural analysis paralysis

Listening to podcasts such as Galactic Suburbia has elevated the profile of speculative fiction gender issues in my thinking recently. I never considered myself to be particularly biased in my reading or writing, but it has been very confronting listening to commentary making the point that if you’re not actively supporting gender and cultural diversity in the genre in your purchasing, reading and writing habits, you are effectively engaging in passive discrimination.

I’m not intending to deconstruct the wide range of diversity arguments in this posting. Many clever people have done so much more eloquently than I ever could. Suffice to say that I have probably been guilty of not paying enough attention to who I’m reading and I do agree that you should attempt to read more widely than the traditional white, middle class male science fiction writers of yore. As mentioned in a previous post, my foray into writing has helped me expand my reading range and that has included paying more attention to the authors that I am reading. At the end of the day you will like what you like, but at least you’ll be making an informed choice knowing better the full range of work that is out there.

Of course all this commitment to diverse reading habits is predicated on the assumption that no one is going to make me read the Twilight series. I think that’s fair.

(As an aside, if you are wanting to read some excellent Australian female speculative fiction authors then can I suggest the Twelve Planets series coming out of Twelfth Planet Press, a small Australian publisher. Three of the planned twelve books out so far, all excellent. I believe the fourth book, Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, has just been released and is hopefully making its way to me in the mail now – can’t wait).

However, I have found one unexpected impact of all this enlightenment. Recently I’ve found myself a bit paralysed in my writing when it comes to representing female characters, or characters from different cultures. I’ve been told that so many things are wrong/insulting/biased that I can’t keep them all in my head. For example every time I put in even the smallest physical description of a female character I worry that I’m sexualising or stereotyping when I don’t mean to. When you get beyond the basics, some of the arguments about what is and isn’t offensive are sometimes a little esoteric (I keep having to look up the “stuffed into the fridge” (1) concept for instance) and don’t come to mind naturally – especially those that talk to unconscious biases that can be deeply ingrained in the culture you grow up in.

I got to the point where I became so concerned that I would end up offending someone that I haven’t wanted to write anything at all.  Then I started getting concerned that by not writing I was committing horrendous sins of omission.

So, I’ve been giving this some thought over the last few weeks and I’ve come to some conclusions.

  • Conclusion 1: I’ll start from a position that a broader perspective is not only good in and of itself, but will improve my ability to tell a story

Yes I know, the road to hell and all that. But I think it is important to acknowledge up front that your intention is to take all this stuff into account because…

  • Conclusion 2: It’s highly likely that I’m going to offend someone at some time

I have accepted that I’m unlikely to write the perfect culturally and gender aware novel/story. I’m likely to get things wrong and despite my best efforts, someone is going to get cranky with me. That leads me onto…

  • Conclusion 3: Don’t worry about it too much in the first draft

In the same way that I gave myself permission to write crap in order to get writing at all, I’ve decided that while I’ll always try to keep gender/cultural issues in mind when writing, I’m not going to worry about my unconscious biases too much in the first draft stage because…

  • Conclusion 4: The second and subsequent drafts are my friends

This, I’ve decided, is where the self editing/polishing phases need to come into their own. As well as other editing tasks, I’ll be looking at my own work with a specific gender/cultural awareness perspective and also asking my inner circle of readers to do the same and then trying to rework any problematic parts. But despite all that excellent effort…

  • Conclusion 5: Something will slip through the net

Whether because it wasn’t caught by me in the writing process, or it is a bias that no one in my reading circle had recognised and brought to the surface, or I’m misunderstood somewhere down the line or because I’m just plain stupid, something will get out there written by me that genuinely and legitimately offends a group. I’m not talking about people just disagreeing with an opinion of mine – fortunately the world is too diverse a place to have everyone agree on pretty much anything. No, I mean I’ll represent a culture in a way that wasn’t meant to be offensive but is or inadvertently say something stupid and stereotyped about a female character.

In that case, I’ll acknowledge I’ve made a mistake, try to learn from it and not do it again in future work.

Re-reading this post, most of my conclusions seem like simple common sense. But there are a lot of well meaning people out there making valid observations about the biases and injustices that exist in the writing world, and it is easy to let it all overwhelm you.

So that is all. No great insights or worthy additions to the conversations on diversity in writing. Just some fairly simple musings on how these issues have impacted my writing process.

Have you had any paralysing moments in your writing or reading? I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.


(1) “Stuffed into a fridge” – just so you don’t have to look it up (it can be disturbing what you find in Google when you type in something like “stuffed into a fridge”), the term refers to a plot device where a female character is killed off solely to further the journey of the male hero.

This one is of particular concern to me, because at the start of one of my stories the male character does indeed lose his wife to the bad guys (I was trying to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to him to send him into a downward spiral with little to no support – that was it). And 60,000 words in it is kind of a key element of the plot. And I’m struggling to think of a different way of achieving the same effect…