Aurealis nomination!

The 2016 Aurealis Award shortlists were announced today. I am delighted and utterly dumbfounded that my story “The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat” is a finalist in the Best Fantasy Short Story category!

OMG!

The Aurealis Awards are an annual award for Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction (including children’s and YA works). Each category is judged by a panel of volunteers from the spec fic community, who pore over an enormous stack of eligible works to arrive at the shortlists and winners.

(Seriously, they read dozens of novels or hundreds of stories in their categories. All credit and awe for everyone who takes on such an amazing workload).

The winners will be announced at a ceremony at Swancon in Perth over the Easter weekend. Sadly I doubt I’ll be able to be there, but I’ll certainly be hanging off every tweet!

Congratulations and good luck to all the finalists. In particular I want to give a shout out to my many fellow Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild members for their various nominations: Alan Baxter (thrice!), Kaaron Warren (also thrice!), Ian McHugh, Tim Napper, Leife Shallcross, Shauna O’Meara, Simon Petrie, Tehani Wesselly, Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Felicity Banks. I’m proud to be in such dazzling company.

Late edit: OMG I should not have written that so late last night. I completely forgot to congratulate my friend Andrea Höst, whose novella “Forfeit” is a glorious, dazzling fantasy of masked balls, intrigue and complicated game design. Not to mention she’s one of the comparatively few authors flying the flag for self-published work in Australia, so it’s lovely to see her in the finals again.

“Lighthouse” appeared in Aurealis #89 (still available!) and I offer my sincere thanks and gratitude to publisher and editor Dirk Strasser for publishing the story, and to my writer friends Jodi Cleghorn, Tim Napper and Evan Dean for their help in knocking it into shape.

(I’ve almost certainly forgotten someone too – I’ve just discovered that I tossed out all my older notes from the CSFG short story critiquing group, and I honestly can’t remember who if anyone else read the early drafts! If I’ve neglected anyone in the specific, be it known I am more grateful than my feeble memory would suggest).

I’ll probably have more to say about this soon. An awards nomination is one of those milestone markers I talked about a while back, one that I honestly did not expect to come along so soon. For right now let’s just say I’ve spent the day in an inordinately excited state and now I’m running on post-adrenal fumes.

I do have one last thing to do, mind you:

*ding!*

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Visiting with the Classics – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’m a bit behind on my plan to review twelve classic SF novels in 2016. Well, no surprises there – my reviewing projects always take longer than I expect them to.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, published by Ace in 1969, swept the genre awards in the year I was born. It’s still regarded as one of the top four or five science fiction novels of all time (source Locus Magazine readers poll 2012, and I’ll happily fight anyone who thinks Ender’s Game or the Foundation series are better books than this).

The story concerns Envoy Genly Ai, who has been dispatched on a mission to invite the planet of Gethen (also known as Winter for its unusually cold climate) to join the Ekumen, a sort of cultural/trade network of technologically advanced worlds. Ai’s task is to encourage the planet’s leadership to make contact with the wider universe, but for two years the fickle ruler of Karhide, one of the larger Gethen nations, will have little to do with him. On the eve of his long-awaited audience with the ruler, Argaven, political upheaval leaves Ai exiled and estranged from Estraven, a noble he believed to be his only ally until an act of apparent treachery.

The rest of the plot involves Ai’s escapades as he seeks support in a neighbouring country, only to find that the suspicious and self-serving politics of that place is every bid as dangerous as the ones he fled. Circumstances reunite him with Estraven as the two of them flee persecution across a desolate ice sheet in the depths of winter, as Ai looks for a way to contact his support ship.

The Ekumen is made up of human worlds, but Gethen’s populations is uniquely “ambisexual” meaning that they are essentially genderless most of the time. They  exhibit sexual characteristics and behaviour only during a brief window for two days a month, a state they call kemmer, during which they may become male or female. The political dramas and harrowing survival adventure give the book their main plot, but it is Ai’s interaction with and gradual understanding of the implications of a society unaffected by sexual discrimination, violence or intimidation where Le Guin really digs in. While  skirmishes are common in disputes over land or property, for example, full-scale national wars are unknown on Gethen, a revelation that Ai struggles with but I personally found plausible enough.

Some of the gender discussion feels a little dated reading it in 2017, but considering Le Guin wrote it in the late 60’s it holds up remarkably well. (I think, were it to be written now, Le Guin might not be reluctant to use the non-male pronouns for her ambisexual characters, but I can see how it might have muddied the language back then). And in case I’m underselling it, this is a breathtakingly thoughtful, insightful and touching novel, with just a few light touches of survival horror and political thriller to keep things moving.

Le Guin manages to pack a lot of theme into less than 250 pages – The Left Hand of Darkness covers politics and survival, gender and its cultural impacts, communication and miscommunication, the interplay of religion and mythology, loyalty and duality, with deep thought and insight into each. The SF tropes in play – first(-ish) contact, precognition, telepathic communication and hidden orbital relay satellites – are set to one side when Le Guin doesn’t need them to illustrate her themes. Apart from anything else, her wonderful control over the craft of writing is exemplary.

The first thing that came to mind when thinking about TLHoD’s influences was a really forgettable Star Trek episode featuring Will Riker, but let’s skip over that. This is obviously a groundbreaking work that helped pave the way for generations of social and feminist science fiction, and its echoes are evident even now. I suspect I’m not nearly widely enough read to appreciate the full extent of its impact (Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy is the most recent example I’ve read of a work in nodding conversation with Le Guin).

Finally, as a career public servant, I couldn’t resist adding this all-too-relevant quote that for some reason jumped out at me from the text:

“A man who doesn’t detest a bad government is a fool. And if there were such a thing as a good government on earth, it would be a great joy to serve it.”

Well, quite.

Awards: Nebula Award for Best Novel 1970, Hugo Award for Best Novel 1970; James Tiptree Jr Award 1995 (The James Tiptree Jr. Award is an annual literary prize for works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore one’s understanding of gender).

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The Slow Burn

Going from “aspiring writer” to “published author” can be a bit of a crawl.

I was trying to work out who to attribute that old quote (paraphrased) “It took me ten years to be an overnight success”. I couldn’t do it; seems like someone new parrots the same damn pearl of wisdom every time there’s a TV interview. Let’s just say it was the Macdonalds guy, Ray Kroc, and move on.

The point I’m straying away from is that traditional publishing is a bit slow. I will illustrate “a bit slow” here with a picture:

This is a glacier. Get it?

Even once an author has revised and polished their novel, following the traditional route typically means: querying literary agents until one agrees to represent the author; more rounds of edits and polishes (probably at least a few); submissions to publishers; very likely several rounds of rejections, hopefully followed by an acceptance; more edits, including copy edits and proof reading; and then somewhere along the line being slotted into a production and marketing schedule that starts at months and may stretch to more than a year.

It can happen quicker than that, but it usually doesn’t.

Now, I’m not a novelist (yet), so my personal interactions with the publishing industry extend to trying to place short fiction with small press publishers and online operations. You would expect the process of producing an anthology or a regular magazine would be quicker than putting together a novel, and for the most part you’d be right.

That doesn’t necessarily make it quick though. The elapsed time from receiving the email telling you a work has been accepted to seeing your name in the byline could in theory be days, but – let me just surprise you with this – it probably won’t be days.

What got me thinking about this was a piece I successfully submitted (after more than a dozen rejections) about three and a half years ago. I expect that piece to finally see print this year sometime.

Now to be crystal clear, this is not a complaint. While the delay has been frustrating at times, I’m very happy that the story, which was one of the first I finished after deciding to take writing seriously, will see the light of day in its own time. At any point I could have decided to pull the story and submit it elsewhere, so even if I resented the delay, I wouldn’t have any grounds to whinge about it.

And it’s not the only one. Other stories of mine have been in various production pipelines for six months, fourteen months, even a couple of years. Still others have shown up in print six weeks after the date of acceptance.

The point is – it takes time. There’s no sense if getting discouraged about it. It’s just the way of things. Even the comparative agility of the short story market can look at times like an ocean liner coming about to pick up a passenger overboard. It may well get there eventually, though the chap from steerage class floundering in the icy Atlantic might not be in the same position to appreciate his deliverance when it arrives.

Before anyone mentions it in comments, this isn’t about bagging out trad publishing in favour of the self-published alternative. I have plenty of thoughts on that, but I’ll save them. For myself I’ve made the decision to sell my short fiction to existing publishing markets rather than try to flog them myself. While I think my reasons for doing so are sound, the time factor is one cost of that choice.

It’s not too bad though. If I’m going to be an overnight success, at least I’m still inside the ten-year window.

One day all of the stories hinted at in this post will be available to read.
You can hear about them first by signing up to my newsletter here:

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On not writing angry

It’s not easy to write when you’re angry.

Angry baboon cannot even with this right now

Rather, it’s easy to write furious, frustrated-with-everything, stay-outta-my-way-or-I’ll-cut-you anger. Which is great if that’s what you want to write. If I were to guess, I’d say the demand for scathing political satire and scorching allegory is probably rising day by day. Even when the temperature of the times is not spiking like a pyromaniac’s summertime fever, there’s a place for blistering prose railing against iniquity, greed and the ignorance.

Hell, I’ve been known to indulge in it myself. It can be cathartic to savage one of the world’s particularly egregious ills in fiction, even if all you’re doing is kicking over shoddily-erected straw men.

But at heart I’d rather be the sort of storyteller who buries any messages well below the surface, like a shot of fertiliser to the roots. Without it, the story won’t flourish, but it’s not scattered haphazardly around the trunk or dripping off the leaves, on vulgar display to the reader.

Being a news addict, since long before 24-hour news and the internet turned it into a near-ubiquitous condition, and worse still a part-time political wonk, the last couple of months have been difficult. Outside of the months following 11 September 2001, I can’t recall a time when I’ve been more outright pessimistic about politics, both here and abroad.

Without belabouring the obvious, the state of the world bothers me. With things as bad as they seem to be, the urge is strong to create angry, defiant work that spits in the face of thugs, thieves and oppressors. To strip bare their lies and expose their shriveled, diseased truth. To punch Nazis in the face, with fists of pure, righteous Art.

Two problems with that. One, I’m not a great orator in the fascist-bashing mode of a George Orwell, Umberto Eco or Jack ‘King’ Kirby. Two, I don’t really want to be. I just want to tell stories.

It feels selfish, though. Who do I think I am, telling frivolous yarns about pyromantic monkeys and magic robots when the world needs serious help? Every day I struggle with the question of how to reconcile my desire to create diverting entertainments with my growing awareness of the many things being lost, broken and stolen by petty, grasping men.

I feel like a patch of disputed ground being fought over back and forth by two sides of my conscience: “do more good” versus “do what you love best”. Neither side is wrong and neither side shows any signs of gaining the upper hand. It’s exhausting.

Here’s some good advice on the subject from writers I admire:

There are many others, of course – it’s a popular topic of conversation among writers at the moment.

I’m going to press on for now, trying to write my escapist nonsense. I’ll do my best to pretend the world’s not falling apart (in fiction at least). It might not be a bad idea to cut back on my time on news site and social media feeds.

I’ll build a wall – a modest one, nothing flashy or expensive – between my storytelling and my political fury.

Though I might just let a little bit of the rage seep into the work.

Not too much. Just a little bit, dug in around the edges.

To help it grow, you understand.

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What I Wrote on my Summer Holidays

You defend yourself with the weapons you have

Oh, is it February already?

It’s not easy, that hard smack of reality after a long pleasant dream. By which I mean, I just finished a long holiday visiting family and friends, and now I’ve returned to work. Ugh.

Travelling made it difficult to pursue my regular projects – they look at you funny if you try to put a PC tower through the airport x-ray machines. So I put those off and went with a side project for the three weeks I was away from home.

Full credit goes to my brilliant colleague Jodi Cleghorn, whose ability to come up with energising writing prompts eclipses my feeble efforts. Every time she make a suggestion I end up producing three times as much work as I expected to. I should really put her on a retainer.

Jodi’s prompt, via Facebook, was simple: write a story every day for a whole month. Write one line on the first day, then two lines on the second, and so on, until you’ve written 31 lines on the 31st of January. That is (if my maths doesn’t fail me) 496 lines in total.

It’s a brilliant idea – building momentum without building pressure, creating a habit that feeds itself, and creating a story that would not otherwise have existed. It’s the perfect low-pressure holiday writing job.

I made things harder for myself by interpreting “line” as meaning “complete sentence”, and furthermore estimated an average sentence length as being about seven words, for a story length in the vicinity of 3500 words.

You might note the last sentence I wrote contained 35 words.

My estimate was…a little off. I finished the month’s word count at roughly twice my original guess. And the story itself isn’t done – it still has two major scenes to add, which will run to at least another thousand words, if not two.

Sigh.

Length issues aside, the story has been an utter pleasure to write. It’s a Weird West fantasy of sorts, about an exiled seamstress haunted by her brother’s ghost, and a retiring military officer who makes her a barbed offer. It’s called “The Dressmaker and the Colonel’s Coat”, and right now I think it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever written.

(I could be wrong about that. I’m a lousy judge of my own work).

I’ll continue working on it for the next few days, keeping to the same accelerating pace. When it’s done, I’ll preview it in my newsletter, which should go out early next week.

And then I’ll get back to rebuilding my pre-holiday routine: editing the novel and writing the next chapter of my serial.

Oh, I suppose I should going my day job too. I’m suspicious though. It smacks of reality, and who needs that when you have fiction?

“When the town of Mirror Springs threw a shindig to welcome the Colonel back from the war, she set tongues wagging when she paid a call to the exiled dressmaker, Molly Bright.”
That’s the first line of “The Dressmaker and the Colonel’s Coat”. You can see more than mere intriguing tidbits by signing up to my newsletter here:

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