Speculative Fiction Festival at Writing NSW

Saturday 29th June 2019, Writing NSW, Callan Park, Lilyfield

So how was Spec Fic 19?

In a word, enthralling. This was my first time at this one-day festival about all things writing, and I absolutely loved it. I was so absorbed that I didn’t even take any photos, so this post is going to be text only. But if you’d like to see some pictures, you’ll find lots if you search for the hashtag #SpecFic19 on Twitter.

The day began with early morning mist shrouding the old buildings. Very atmospheric and appropriate, especially for the horror writers. There was coffee ready on the verandah, hot and very strong. I was going to need that caffeine. I filled my keep cup and headed inside.

Session 1: That was then, this is now

Sam Hawke (chair) , Robert Hood, Kaaron Warren, Shankari Chandran

The first session was for all participants. The panellists discussed the books that first got them into speculative fiction and how those books stacked up now on re-reading. There was a consensus that The Shining was still worth reading, for King’s tight style, characterisation and pacing. Robert maintained that HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds was timeless, whereas Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while it had timeless themes, was less accessible now simply due to the language and structure which is very different to the modern novel. Kaaron, while championing King, also mentioned Agatha Christie, who despite the presence of problematic elements in her novels, is still an author she reads for her mastery of place, pacing and mystery plotting. Shankari reluctantly showed us David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, saying that she was heartbroken that it hadn’t held up to re-reading and was reluctant even now to criticise it. Nevertheless, she forced herself to tell us that the characters were one-dimensional and there was a very problematic West vs East theme running through it. This was also one of my favourite series as a teenager and young adult. I’m definitely not re-reading it now. I’ll spare myself the disappointment and just enjoy my memories.

A nice, cruisy first session, with a few laughs, not too taxing on the early morning brain. After this, we had to choose between different topics for the next 3 sessions. So here are my thoughts on the sessions I chose.

Session 2: World Building 101

Keith Stevenson (chair), Mitchell Hogan, Catherine McKinnon, Mykaela Saunders

This was a blast, as we were introduced to worlds as diverse as they come, and various techniques for writing them. From Keith’s planet peopled by empathic alien crabs and Mitchell’s struggles with creating religions to Catherine’s amazing time-spanning Storyland built on massive amounts of historical research, and Mykaela’s multi-genre short story cycle based on the past, present and imagined future of her people in the Tweed, it was a fascinating discussion that highlighted there is no right way to do world building. Keith said that while you might write a very detailed description of everything about your imagined world for your own reference, you only need to add a few key details here and there in your story in order for readers to be able to fill in the blanks themselves. This resonated with me because it’s the way I’ve been working. I need to know everything to make sure it’s all consistent, but I’m not interested in writing long descriptions of every location, political system or social practice into my actual novels. One thing I took away from this session is that I can’t wait to read Mykaela’s story cycle when she finishes it. It sounds unique and wonderful.

After this session, we had “Kaffeeklatches”, where we gathered in smaller groups led by one of the panellists. I joined Kaaron Warrren’s. Even though I don’t write horror, it seemed like an interesting group, and it was, made up of several well-known, established writers and a few of us newbies. Kaaron told us about her current work in progress, featuring a prison break, a home invasion and an old lady who may not be as helpless as she first seems. It sounds gory, frightening and possibly a lot of fun. Kaaron herself is neither gory nor frightening, but is definitely fun and very encouraging, as were the others. Australian horror writers are a friendly bunch, it seems. The time flew and all too soon we broke for lunch.

Session 3: Don’t Worry! Self-publishing doesn’t mean ‘Do it Yourself’.

Keith Stevenson (chair), Abigail Nathan, Dionne Lister, Mitchell Hogan

This was the session I scribbled the most notes for: extemely practical advice from people who know what they’re talking about. It was good to hear Abigail speak from the point of view of an editor, compared to the writers’ experiences shared by the other three. Dionne talked a lot about the business end and the importance of publicity and advertising, and she and Mitchell both recommended Facebook writing groups for advice and (very) honest critiques. I’m not sure I can cope with Goodreads, Twitter, this blog and Facebook too, but maybe down the track. I also now have a few websites to check out:

https://www.bookbub.com https://booktastic.com https://davidgaughran.com

https://www.thecreativepenn was also mentioned, and I’m familiar with that. It’s already helped me a lot.

A very useful session with lots of information I’ve tucked away for when I’m ready to publish.

Session 4: Science Fiction Now

Cat Sparks (chair), Shankari Chandran, Margaret Morgan, Shauna O’Meara,

I didn’t make any notes during this session, but the conversation was diverse and interesting. Cat, Margaret and Shauna talked about the links between their science backgrounds and their fiction, while Shankari explained that she almost became buried under research and was struggling to grasp all of it until someone pointed out that she was writing fiction and she could depart form the science if she needed to. This sparked a discussion about whether all “science” in science fiction needs to be completely factual, with varying viewpoints expressed, all of which I have some sympathy for. As I don’t write in this genre, I suppose I don’t have to make up my mind. The panel touched on genetics, neurology, climate change and other topical themes. A thoroughly enjoyable session, more applicable to me as a reader than a writer.

Session 5: Ideas Generator

Margaret Morgan (chair), James Bradley, Michael Gillings, Elise Bohan

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t looking forward to this session. Not because I didn’t think it would be interesting, but simply that, after a whole day of listening and thinking, and with a three-hour trip home at the end of it, I was all festivaled-out. Especially as this was another joint session, meaning the room would be packed with people. I didn’t want any more people just then, thank you very much. I went out onto the verandah during the short break before this began, gazed at the trees and contemplated just not going back inside. But it was cold out there, so in I went. Perhaps I could just sit in a corner and tune out.

That attitude lasted about two minutes. These four super-smart, articulate and opinionated panellists caught my attention and didn’t let go for an entire hour. Where were we headed in the future? Was that a good thing or a bad thing? What might destroy us? What might save us? How might humanity change?

Elise was both optimistically encouraging and frankly terrifying, with her visions of benign AI control and humanity uploading out of our bodies into the cloud. James was far more pessimistic, saying we might destroy ourselves long before any of that happened. Michael talked about human nature and the struggle between our instinctive hind brain responses, leading us towards tribalism and aggression, and our front brain trying to make us into better people. Margaret was a knowledgeable and sparkling moderator. Everyone was both passionate and courteous, in itself a practical demonstration of front-brain thinking. It ended too soon, to thunderous applause.

Afterwards, there was wine and socialising on the verandah, but I was more than ready to head home. I left with my head buzzing, knowing that it would take a few days to process everything.

It was an excellent day and incredible value for money. If you have a chance to attend the next one, I highly recommend it.

Review: The Clockwork Detective

By R.A. McCandless

Publisher: Ellysian Press

Genre: Steampunk/ Fantasy/ Murder Mystery

Released: May 2019

Rating: 3 stars ⭐⭐⭐

Can I say first, what a gorgeous cover this is? It’s what first attracted me to this novel. And then the title and blurb were very intriguing, too:

Aubrey Hartman left the Imperial battlefields with a pocketful of medals, a fearsome reputation, and a clockwork leg. The Imperium diverts her trip home to investigate the murder of a young druid in a strange town. She is ordered to not only find the killer but prevent a full-scale war with the dreaded Fae. Meanwhile, the arrival of a sinister secret policeman threatens to dig up Aubrey’s own secrets – ones that could ruin her career. It soon becomes clear that Aubrey has powerful enemies with plans to stop her before she gets started. Determined to solve the mystery, Aubrey must survive centaurs, thugs, and a monster of pure destruction.

Sounds good, right? Fae in a steampunk world and a murder mystery. I haven’t read anything from R. A. McCandless before, so I don’t know how this compares to his other two novels, which are urban fantasy. All the ingredients are here, but they just didn’t add up to a tasty enough dish for me.

Aubrey is an engaging protagonist with an interesting backstory and solid detective skills. The clockwork leg is a stroke of genius. I think one of the problems is that I wanted more fantasy and science fiction wonder here. What I got felt more of a police procedural than anything else, despite the speculative elements. You could drop Aubrey into real world Victorian London, replace the druids with priests and the Centaurs with East End thugs and the first two thirds of the story would unfold in much the same way.

The final third begins with more supernatural happenings, but then devolves into so many pages of thinking and dialogue that it loses most of its momentum and tension. The ending wraps things up nicely, but again is too slow and extended.

I still think there are things here to enjoy, and I know that some readers have loved this novel, but it just scrapes in at three stars for me.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from #Netgalley, courtesy of Ellysian Press.

QLTR July 2019

Well, here’s a turn-up for the books, so to speak: only four of them? Is that really all I’d Quite Like To Read next month? What’s going on, I hear you ask. It’s simple. I have declared July 2019 to be Writing Month. And if I’m writing more, I’ll need to be reading less.

When I’m writing a first draft, I average about 12 000 words a month. But not this month. No, in July I intend to be a Super Drafter. I’m aiming for 30,000 words, which should bring my work in progress up to around 85,000 words in total. The end will be in sight!

I’m excited and apprehensive. Can I do it? Even if I can, will I? Or will I wimp out and capitulate to the desire to read other people’s words while consuming too much chocolate? Who can say? Only time will tell. And other cliches. Can you tell I’m nervous about this? Anyway, this isn’t meant to be about me and my neuroses. On to the books. The very, very few books.

This was on my list for June, but I didn’t get to it. I’m writing fantasy, so a bit of a crime thriller should be a nice break, and it should be a quick read.

I have this one as an ARC from Netgalley and I’m keen to get into it. It’s the story of a search for a serial killer in Washington DC in 1947, with a twist: one of the detectives is Prudence Blackwood, an immortal who seeks vengeance for those murdered by history’s most notorious serial killers.  That sounds like a terrific premise and should make for a really fresh take on the thriller genre.

I’d like to read a bit more of this one, for a change from fiction. I’ll just dip into it when I feel like it. I like what I’ve read of it so far.

There are two novels set for July in Mission Marple, but given my time restraints, I think I’ll only get to this one. Another detective tale, but cosy rather than thrillery (yes, that’s a word now). I’ve read it before and it should be very quick, a bonus this month.

So that’s it. Three books and part of a fourth. I should be able to manage that. I’m also beta reading a Middle Grade novel, so I guess we could call that five books, kind of. I may be able to read more, but somehow I doubt it.

What are you looking forward to reading in July?

Review: The First Five Pages

By Noah Lukeman

Genre: Non-fiction, Writing

Rating: 1 star

It had to happen eventually: the first negative review on this site. Oh, I thought about being tactful and just saying something like, “this book wasn’t for me”, but those weasel words refused to come out of my fingertips onto the keyboard. So what follows is my unvarnished opinion. You have been warned.

I was quite excited when I spotted this in a secondhand book sale last month. It’s rare to find books about the craft of writing in these places. I hadn’t heard of the book, but it seemed worth spending a couple of dollars to check it out and maybe find one or two useful tips.

To put it simply: even given such modest expectations, I was disappointed. For a start, the title and blurb are misleading. I expected a detailed analysis of how to construct and edit the first few pages of a manuscript. That’s not what I got. Instead, Lukeman discusses flaws that will cause a manuscript to be rejected at first glance by an agent or reader at a publishing house. The idea of “first glance” is important because that’s literally all Lukeman covers: the writing faults that are so obvious they can be spotted without the need to actually read the pages.

If you have read anything at all about good writing or watched any videos about it or done any kind of course or seminar, nothing in this book will be new to you. It’s the usual stuff you’ll find everywhere: don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs, show don’t tell, avoid too many dialogue tags, and so on. You know the rest. Honestly, if you haven’t already gone through your manuscript multiple times with an eye to such things, why would you even consider submitting it yet?

Not only are the topics themselves obvious, they are covered at an elementary level, only suitable for beginners. There would be nothing wrong with this if it was clearly stated from the beginning, but it isn’t. On the contrary, the blurb trumpets:

The First Five Pages will help writers at every stage take their art to a higher – and more successful – level.

This simply isn’t true.

And the examples! They are so childishly bad that they’re no use at all. Even when Lukeman gives suggestions to “fix” them, they’re still terrible, even for a first draft.

There’s one final problem and it’s an annoying one: Lukeman talks about the importance of good style, but he doesn’t follow his own advice to write with clarity and conciseness. The text is rambling, repetitive and frankly boring.

For someone just starting out trying to write, there is some useful advice here, which is why the book gets 1 star from me rather than none. Although there are numerous books (and videos and podcasts and online articles) covering the same ground and doing it better. For anyone other than a beginner, don’t bother wasting your time.

Guilty Reader Book Tag

Today I’m doing my first book tag. This one’s been going around for a while and I don’t know who started it, but if you do, tell me in the comments and I’ll acknowledge them. There are ten questions about bookish habits that might cause feelings of guilt. This could be embarrassing!

  • Have you ever re-gifted a book you’ve been given?

Yes, if I know I won’t read it or won’t read it again. I always hang onto them for a while before re-gifting, but if I think someone else will enjoy the book, I’ll pass it on. Whether I’ll tell the gifter or not depends on whether I think it would hurt their feelings, but I don’t feel guilty about it. It would never bother me if someone re-gifted a book I’d given them – pass the books around, I say. Guilt level: zero

  • Have you ever said you’ve read a book when you haven’t?

Okay, second question, first twinge of guilt. I did this quite a lot in college. I minored in literature, but I really didn’t like many of the books chosen by my lecturers. I always started them, but the ones I truly hated, I gave up on quite quickly and bluffed my way through tutorials and assignments with the help of summaries and Cliff Notes. I never actually lied and said I had read the book, but I certainly implied it. I haven’t done it since, promise. Guilt level: 😞

  • Have you ever borrowed a book and not returned it?

Yes, once, and it still haunts me twenty years later. I was taking a pottery class and I borrowed an expensive coffee table book about Japanese pottery techniques from an acquaintance, who has probably never lent a book to anyone ever again. I didn’t steal it on purpose – I just took a long time to get around to reading it and by then we had lost touch. She had moved to another town and I never found her again. This was before we all had mobile phones, you understand. I couldn’t even remember her last name. I kept that book for years – a silent accusation staring at me from my bookshelves – hoping the rightful owner might get in touch (she had my home phone number, but perhaps she lost it in the move?) Finally, I realised it was never going to happen and I donated it to a charity shop. Guilt level: 😞😞😞

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Review: The Other Half of Augusta Hope

Joanna Glen

Publisher: The Borough Press

Editions:  Hardback, paperback, Kindle, E-book, Audio Book

Release date: 13 June 2019

Rating:   5 stars

Goodreads Synopsis:

Augusta Hope has never felt like she fits in.

At six, she’s memorising the dictionary. At seven, she’s correcting her teachers. At eight, she spins the globe and picks her favourite country on the sound of its name: Burundi.

And now that she’s an adult, Augusta has no interest in the goings-on of the small town where she lives with her parents and her beloved twin sister, Julia.

When an unspeakable tragedy upends everything in Augusta’s life, she’s propelled headfirst into the unknown. She’s determined to find where she belongs – but what if her true home, and heart, are half a world away?

My thoughts:

This book. These words. You know how sometimes you finish a book and you actually want to hug it? That.

Before I began reading The Other Half of Augusta Hope, I had no inkling I was going to adore it so much.

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Review: Limited Wish

Impossible Times #2

Mark Lawrence

Publisher:   47 North

Edition:   Hardback, Paperback, Kindle, Audio

Release date:   28 May 2019

Rating:   4 stars

Goodreads Synopsis:

One choice. Two possible timelines. And a world hanging in the balance.

It’s the summer of 1986 and reluctant prodigy Nick Hayes is a student at Cambridge University, working with world-renowned mathematician Professor Halligan. He just wants to be a regular student, but regular isn’t really an option for a boy-genius cancer survivor who’s already dabbled in time travel.

When he crosses paths with a mysterious yet curiously familiar girl, Nick discovers that creases have appeared in the fabric of time, and that he is at the centre of the disruption. Only Nick can resolve this time paradox before the damage becomes catastrophic for both him and the future of the world. Time is running out—literally.

Wrapped up with him in this potentially apocalyptic scenario are his ex-girlfriend, Mia, and fellow student Helen. Facing the world-ending chaos of a split in time, Nick must act fast and make the choice of a lifetime—or lifetimes.

Game on.

My Thoughts:

Limited Wish is another really fun read from Mark Lawrence. Nick and his friends are back, along with two new characters: Helen, and a mysterious girl who keeps appearing and disappearing. I guessed who she was, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. There are many parallels to the previous book, One Word Kill, which is also fun. Things are similar yet different, in interesting ways.

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