Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The new world of eBooks

I have finally taken the plunge and bought a Kindle. Purchasing some form of eReader has been on the cards for a few months now, ever since my Born to Run experience in May. But I was not convinced about getting a Kindle specifically until recently. It seemed as though there were so many models of eReader on the market to choose from, and with a Kindle you're pretty much locked into buying books from Amazon.

In truth, I probably wouldn't have bought an eReader of any kind yet, if I wasn't going travelling in three weeks. But the thought of lugging multitudes of paperbacks around with me does not appeal. It's a long trip (10 weeks) and I intend to get a lot of reading done! So I decided I would get something at the cheaper end of the scale -- and believe it or not, that's where the Kindle sits.

There's also the superior functionality and accessibility. I read an article comparing the Kindle, Kobo and one other, and the Kindle came out way ahead -- on cost as well. It's so damn easy. It's to other eReaders what the iPhone is to normal phones (functionally at least). Once I confirmed that it would read just about any other type of 'document' file you care to name (including PDFs, doc and txt files -- the only one it doesn't read is ePub), it seemed the right decision for right now.

So I browsed Amazon on Friday evening, having more or less decided beforehand, read all the stuff and ordered one on the spot. The unit was delivered on Monday morning. Within two hours it was charged, and without me doing anything was pre-registered to my Amazon account. So now, all I have to do is browse the Amazon Kindle store (via either computer or Kindle), click "buy" on the book of choice, and the whole thing appears on the Kindle within a minute or so via 3G connectivity!

It's early days yet in terms of my usage. At the moment, I probably would still prefer to read a normal paperback, because it's more difficult to flick through a Kindle book (I daresay reading on the Kindle will stop me from reading the end of the book before I actually reach it). And there are heaps of books I can think of that are not available for Kindle yet. Not that I'm desparing -- there are still plenty that are available. I can see that in the future I will rarely have the excuse that "I couldn't find the book in time" when I don't get my Page Turners book finished!

For travelling the Kindle will be ideal. Lightweight, with books in English available from wherever I happen to be -- so long as there's mobile phone (or WiFi) coverage. And the reading experience is fine. Time will tell, I suppose, as to whether it becomes more than fine and I become a 100% convert. For the moment, I am reserving judgement.

Monday, 27 September 2010


After not getting around to it all weekend, I've knocked off my application for the HarperCollins Varuna Awards this evening. I was probably planning to agonise over the several chapters to be submitted -- you know, read painstakingly through 17,000-odd words and take a word out here, change a phrase there, add some telling detail . . . worry myself sick that it's just not good enough!

To hell with it. I don't have time to spend days agonising over it, and how much better could I make it in the timeframe really? I did have another go at tweaking the all-important first chapter last week, but that will just have to do the job. I even belted out the one-page summary of "my writing life and experience" without excessive consideration. And I can't quite decide whether it's a good or a bad thing that they've not requested a synopsis. It's daunting to think I'll be judged on incomplete chapters alone. I guess fate will decide whether I am worthy for this program.

For the uninitiated, the HarperCollins Varuna Award is a live-in Editorial Residency from 27 April to 6 May next year. Basically, from the hundreds of applications they will no doubt receive, Varuna 'The Writers' House' selects 20 manuscripts to send to five HarperCollins editors, who each choose one they'd like to work with. The lucky author then gets to stay for 9 days at Varuna, which is in the Blue Mountains, and work with the editor (for some of the days) on the novel.

So there are only 5 places, and you'd have to be so lucky to get picked, but if you do it's a fabulous opportunity to have your manuscript read and worked on by a HarperCollins editor. Making the shortlist of 20 would be cool too, because you can get your manuscript assessed (for a relatively modest fee) by the people at Varuna. Obviously it would also instil a little hope!

If I don't get into this program, I will probably apply for a writing residency at Varuna for later in the year, when I have a new project to work on. And if I don't get into that, I can always just throw money at it and book a couple of weeks to soak up the atmopshere and write while being fed and watered and banned from the internet.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Carnivors get much-needed TLC

I am madly working through my list of 'things to get done before I go away', and spent much of this weekend attending to my carnivorous plants. I haven't repotted them in three years, which is bad, and some of the rhizomes have died -- whether from neglect or old age, I'm not sure. They are old, these plants. I've had most of them for over 20 years. They are the one thing I squander water on. But I haven't squandered quite as much water on them in the past year or so; and I fear this, coupled with the lack of repotting (which should have been done last Spring, but I was busy and preoccupied with Trailwalker), has not agreed with them.

Repotting these plants this month has therefore been a high priority as I countdown the weekends until departure. For the first time I mixed up all the pots -- that is, every pot has a mix of different Sarracenia types in it. I figured it would be a good thing to have fewer pots in total (in which aim I was aided by several rotting rhizomes), and I have long forgotten what all the individual ones are anyway... I hope and believe they will come good in their new pots. They're a bit behind where they usually are at this time of year, but many are shooting up flowers, so it can't be all bad.

Pictured is my collection in October 2006. I'm sorry to say they don't look anywhere near as good as this at the moment. But, fingers crossed, they will in a few months!

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Final Aussiecon insights

OK, final post about Worldcon. Need to summarise (for my future benefit!) the insights gained from panels about writing -- both general fiction and fantasy in particular. I've boiled it down to three main panels that resonated with me the most.

Write what you know
This panel shot off in a direction I hadn't anticipated, as the panellists (in particular Guest of Honour, KSR) proceeded to mainly dismantle this rule, or at least reinterpret it. Basically, the "what you know" part comes down to what the writer understands of human behaviour and emotions, which are then projected onto imagined or heavily researched scenarios. KSR was critical of placing too high an emphasis on "experiential research", as it can rob the writer of faith in the imagination. Who wants to read what become essentially "biographies"?

The panel then became more about research -- how much you need to do (lots), how much you need to convey (about 10% of what you know), and how you can let findings influence the plot. For example, sometimes, little gems of fact will take the plot in unexpected directions. One comment I particularly liked from KSR was: "the writer is a conduit or receptacle channelling humanity into this one story." The panellists also emphasised the importance of using telling detail to enrich the world; by selecting unique observations about the world or little-known facts, the story is much more credible to the reader (than if you trot old the same old tropes).

Thinking in trilogies
This turned out to be a considered discussion of trilogies, especially in a fantasy context, and their role in modern genre fiction. The panellists -- all Australian HarperCollins Voyager fantasy authors -- made what I felt were some interesting points:
1. Trilogies (or series) help establish a new author, since they improve the percentage of readers that will go on to read past the first book. (Obviously this is a benefit to publishers who invest in new writers too.)
2. There is increasing demand from readers for trilogies to come out at a book every month or so . . . obviously this is more likely in the event that an international publisher picks up an already completed/published trilogy from another country. (Most writers aim for about a book per year; some freaks, um, gifted authors can write four . . .)
3. Stand-alone fantasy novels from new authors are few and far between. Stand-alone novels seem to be the luxury of the established writer.
4. The question of whether or not the first book in a fantasy trilogy/series needs a complete resolution, or whether it can end on a cliffhanger, was debated without resolution.

Anachronistic attitudes: writing thought and belief in historical fiction
This panel discussed essentially how "realistically" character attitudes need to be conveyed in historical fiction, and whether this is the same for fantasy. Kate Elliott (revered US fantasy author) was on this panel and every time she opened her mouth she said something amazing.

On the subject of relationships between women and men, it seems that even in some genres of historical fiction, readers are not interested in reading about the subjugation of women, and so many authors will create female characters that buck the system. Fortunately, we have much more leeway in fantasy than in historical fiction, but as KE said it needs to be consistent. Characters must be "of their place and time". This means the world building needs to be well thought-out and the characters must still act according to that framework.

"Character and culture cannot be separated," Kate said. "Figure out what the key things are . . ." And then she followed up a little later with: "People's basic emotions are the same, although attitudes towards them might differ [depending on culture]."

Two random insights
Of the other panels I attended, here are two more interesting insights:
1. [on writing YA] most YA authors said they didn't set out to write for a specific audience, the story determines its own shape and finds an audience. (Write what you're passionate about.)
2. [on characters] some authors find them as they write; others build them with care. I liked Kate Forsyth's terminology of waiting until the characters "quicken", inspiring a surge of revelation.

Overall it was a great con, with lots of things to think about. Now I need to execute the grand plan . . .

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

post-worldcon enthusiasm

I'm pleased to report that my post-worldcon enthusiasm has seen me write just about every day for the past week. This included my first solo cafe writing session with baby computer, two large skinny lattes and an omelette. The cafe people at Melody's like me sitting there because I make their relatively new business look populated (they have stiff competition from some other far-busier cafes down the street). It's a nice quiet environment for me -- I've taken workshopping there in recent months -- and sometimes they give me a free coffee!

Thus do I make progress and find myself hurtling (figuratively) towards the final turning point and then to the climax. Huzzah! The end is still a few months off at my snail's pace, but I can smell it. In fact, I've even found a section from the previous draft that can be extracted and reused in the chapter I'm next to write. If I can find more little buds to survive my loppers I'll be well pleased. I had thought I wouldn't need to rewrite as much of the novel as I have done -- to-date I have re-written just about the whole thing -- but like a house of cards it all fell down and was so plain awful ... Yes, I am a perfectionist.

So there you go, chapter 33 is completed and there may be as few as 5 more to follow. Surely I can't be that close to the end? Let's see. . .

PS - Isn't that the most gorgeous picture? I googled 'archer' in images and this is what came up. She actually looks somewhat like my female protagonist (who is not an archer, however). Nevertheless, I LOVE this picture. Perhaps she can be the heroine of my next novel. The art is by Kelly McLarnon.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Movie: Inception

I finally saw Inception last Friday. It's visually and conceptually quite stunning, although at its heart I believe it's not much more than a good old-fashioned 'sting' or heist movie. It has many of the tropes: gang of characters recruited for their specialist skills, target of the operation, primary objective/sting (in this case to seed an idea deep in the subconscious of the target using shared dreams). This isn't a bad thing, because the familiar structure -- albeit in an imaginative setting -- made it easy enough to follow. On a deeper level, the movie explores themes of mental stability, enduring love and its corruption, the meaning of reality, the ends people will go to to get what they want...

There are, however, too many faceless men with guns, explained away as 'projections' of the subconscious created to protect against intruders, but far too convenient as obstacles for the team to achieve their objective. I also found a few plot holes. Nevertheless, the film captures the imagination, and the stakes for those participating in the adventure the stakes were high enough for me to get somewhat nervous at times. I didn't love it, but found it entertaining for sure. Definitely a movie to discuss over cake and coffee afterwards (if, that is, you can find somewhere open).

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Worldcon wrap on pro panels

Looking over my notes from panels at Aussiecon 4 last weekend, I can see that my interest fell largely into two categories: 1) topics relating to publishing and being a pro author, 2) topics relating to themes, trends and execution of fantasy/SF fiction. I attended a few panels that didn't fall into these two categories, but they were few by comparison. Certainly I took the most notes in category #1! Here are some thoughts on these.

'Making a living: professional writing for SF authors'
There was some talk about how to get into freelance writing on non-fiction subjects (none of which was really news to me, given my current profession), and the point was made that kids' stories commissioned by the education department tend to pay very well -- if you're lucky enough to be a children's writer.

The discussion then meandered into e-publishing -- such a hot topic at the moment. I think the audience member who brought it up was wondering whether there was merit in self-publishing on-line -- pay per download type of thing. The panellists seemed to think it was a bad idea for a few reasons, including:
> you lose negotiation leverage, should a publisher actually want to publish your novel. The incentive goes away if it's already out there.
> writers should be writing, not worrying about all the other stuff (editing, cover art, distribution etc). That's what publishers do.

Someone also made the interesting point that writing doesn't get faster courtesy of new digital and automation technologies. Writing, like other service industries, still requires straight human hours, whereas tasks like publishing might get quicker because of new tools. This is one reason why many services won't actually get cheaper...

Publishing industry panels
I attended four panels directly related to the publishing industry: 'Pitching the novel', 'Editing the novel', The secret life of literary agents', and 'How we edit'. Many of the panellists were common across these panels, thus many common pearls of wisdom were imparted, many of which I had heard a thousand times before: be professional, courteous, patient; do your research; write the best novel you possibly can.

It was also good to hear some long-known maxims reinforced -- especially 'before you pitch it, finish it', and 'don't query until it's the best it can possibly be'. (When they said this various members of my writing group rolled their eyes at me.) It was also good to hear an emphasis from several industry professionals on the importance of good writing -- 'the worst plot in the world can be saved by great writing' said one, thus warming the cockles of my heart.

The two editing panels were interesting, and covered similar ground. It seems that once your book is bought by a publisher, the editor is your new best friend (as opposed to feared gate keeper). They exist to make your vision the best it can possibly be. One of the panellists said he had never yet come up with a solution to a problem that was better than the author's. He said he isn't there to create, he's there to shift thinking into a different direction. (Take the author gently by the shoulders, rotate, let loose...)

They talked a little about adjusting font size, leading and margins to manipulate the final number of pages -- either more or less, depending. And how editors often don't read through a manuscript more than twice, owing to commercial pressures and throughput demand. On the topic of the slush pile, they were frankly depressing. The odds there are NOT good. Put simply, your ms may very well be screened by the work experience student... oh, horror. The reality is that there may very well be publishable material in the slush pile, but editors will always prioritise those manuscripts they have already bought...

The agent panel was largely concerned with how to get one -- although everybody knows that most in Australia aren't taking any new clients. But hypothetically one approaches them similarly to an editor. We're told that agents want to love your novel, but getting them to take notice can still be impossible. A few interesting points:
> Most agents are looking for something they connect with personally, others are looking for books that will merely sell.
> Agents will google you, so it's best to have an online 'footprint' (see below).
> Agents are essentially 'free', since they'll negotiate a better deal than you could yourself and therefore pay for themselves.
> Some agents track short story markets, but not having short story publications isn't a hindrance (although it may help).
> Agents are completely fine if you approach multiple agents (although I think they prefer if you tell them up front); they also encourage you to approach editors simultaneously.

'The writer and the audience: online interaction and public personae'
This was an unexpectedly interesting panel -- particularly in light of the above point that agents will google you if they're interested. The upshot is that if you're a novice/unpublished author it's a huge benefit to have a professional blog/web site etc that proves you're serious and demonstrates an understanding of the industry.

If you're a public figure/published author it's more or less essential in order to nurture your relationship with your audience. However, it's important to be nice at all times and not too opinionated. The question of whether to mix professional and personal lives was discussed too -- particularly with respect to social media like facebook.

At the end of this panel I was left thinking I should generate a public blog/web site that only includes upbeat posts about my writing, and absolutely no moping about how slow or disheartened I may be at times... After all, we want prospective agents etc to read about how of course we'll churn out at least one a book a year, don't we! I was also left a bit daunted by the enormous number of web sites, blogs and podcasts that I feel I should be reading/downloading. How does one find time for all that as well as write?

That's a wrap on my summary of panels about publishing and the business of being a pro writer. Next I'll cover off panels about writing itself.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Write every day (or stating the obvious)

One thing reinforced at the con -- although by no means for the first time -- was that I must actually WRITE if I am to get anywhere. One panellist said he had no sympathies for any 'writer' who complains about being too busy with work, family, socialising, TV, blogging, facebook etc and allows such distractions to prevent them from writing. Being a writer is hard work. It's about carving out time every day to keep moving forward (like Mr Gaiman's shark) -- whether before work, after work, during work (or more accurately lunch breaks).

OK, so I've had my kick up the backside (again) and have thus been writing a bit this evening. Not much has been produced, alas, but so long as I write a paragraph every day I will keep inching forward. The idea of course is that a single paragraph actually expands into a page or so, but for now I'll take the paragraph as an indication that I'm keeping within the story. There is definitely a 'fitness' element to writing: I know from experience that if I write every day I am far more productive in any given time, plus am more able to make use of short time windows. (I spent some time this evening reading over past chapters to refamiliarise myself.)

I plead all this as an excuse for not yet posting more about the con panels. I still have pages of notes, so will definitely get around to this eventually, but am trying to adhere to the maxim that 'writers write'. It's so damn obvious.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Some brief thoughts on the con

After five frenetic days, Aussiecon 4 has run its course, leaving me energised and somewhat determined. I attended around 18 panels across the five days, covering topics that spanned the publishing industry, writing craft and inspiration, plus various genre themes. In between there were cafe breaks, drinks in the wine bar, large and small group dinners, convivial conversations with friends old and new. After a few false starts I also practised being positive when asked whether I was a writer: "yes, I am working on a fantasy novel." I even managed to discuss specific aspects with a few lucky people (hehe).

I also chatted (however briefly) to the author of every single book read in the last month, including the one I am currently reading. This included a meal shared with Jennifer F, during which I had the opportunity to discuss which of her series was my favourite, along with the frustrations felt at the end of her latest. (I said I wanted another chapter to give me complete resolution; she merely smiled mysteriously and said it wasn't that simple, and that there would probably be a whole extra trilogy...) She also outlined the plot and setting of her forthcoming series, granting a couple of us some unique insights.

On the whole, I feel empowered and positive about forging ahead with my rewrite and subsequent attempted publication. The odds are no better than they were, but the environment of a convention like Aussiecon 4 is so amazingly supportive and encouraging, that I can't help but feel like it might be possible. I copped the usual flack from my writing group about being a perfectionist (of course), but I'm going to figure out a reasonable deadline for me to finish the rewrite and attempt to meet it. Then, who knows?

Over the next few days, I'll be posting some specific highlights/insights/comments etc from the panels I attended.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Easing into Aussiecon 4 - Day 1

It's been a long time coming, but Aussiecon 4 is finally here. The venue is the very swish new Melbourne Convention Centre - an elegant cavern with monster escalators and long winding halls. It's the type of venue where you doubt you'll ever quite see all of it -- and if today is any indication the place is going to get packed. My experience today was a far cry from my first-day experience in 1999 at my first ever science fiction convention. Back then I only knew one person, although made a few friends along the way. These days, thanks to the tentacles of my writing group, friends seemed to be everywhere.

I went to just one panel this afternoon, but it was an interesting one. It was called 'Steal the past, build the future: new histories for fantasy fiction' and focused not so much on setting (as we had expected) as theme and plot. In other words: overlaying a traditional folk tale or mythology with a fantasy/SF setting, or rediscovering/reinterpreting historical events in a fantasy setting. On the panel were Kate Elliott, Catherynne M. Valente, Amanda Pillar and Jonathon Walker.

They all had very interesting things to say, but I particularly recall some of JW's points. He's a historian and author, and talked about how all historical records are filtered -- whether by the person recording it or a translator etc -- and that the potential influences on the source hold as much interest as the 'facts' themselves. He also likened use of history in fiction as 'having a conversation' with the past, or 'finding a connection between past and present'. I like this.

After my one panel, there was the bar and socialising and Chinese for dinner and socialising. A good first day, easing me into the festival to follow...