Continuum 8 Program Now Available!

The much anticipated program for Continuum 8: Craftonomicon — the 2012 NatCon — is now online and available to download as handy PDFs. It looks pretty damn good and the only thing I’m not looking forward to is making some difficult choices in regards to what sessions I attend. Fortunately, some of the decision making has been taken out of my hands with the following being program items with which I’m actually involved and for which I therefore must show up. Preferably awake and sober. Not always that easy at an SF convention!

Tales As Old As Time — 6pm, Friday 8th June
Fairytales are in vogue again, all over TV and movie screens and for years collected by Ellen Datlow in retold anthologies. Why are we so fascinated with these stories? And with so many retellings and versions out there how do writers make them new again? (Jenny Blackford, Lisa Hannett, Kirstyn McDermott, Jane Routley, Angela Slatter)

Twelve Planet Press Hour — 7pm, Friday 8th June
Ever wondered how your favorite Twelve Planet collection would taste like in cupcake form? Then come along to the Twelfth Planet Cocktail hour, to celebrate the launch of the newest Twelve Planets, Through Splintered  Walls by Kaaron Warren and Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan, plus the new TPP novella Salvage by Jason Nahrung and a surprise announcement! Each book will be lovingly interpreted as a cupcake by master baker, Terri Sellen. Your cocktail choice is entirely your own…

Masters of Podcasting — 10am, Saturday 9th June
What makes someone podcast? Ego? Frustrated media ambition? Being too ugly for television? Ego? A group of fannish podcasters discuss the origins, do’s, don’ts and why-the-hell-nots of podcasting. Why start a podcast? How do you do it? Where do you find an audience? A group of talented talkers talk about talking. (Terry Frost, Alisa Krasnostein, Kirstyn McDermott, Jonathan Strahan)

The Future Is Now — 2pm, Saturday 9th June
eBooks, iDevices, apps etc are changing how we write and read. What’s out there, what’s worth using, and is all this technology a help or a hindrance? And where to from here? (Alan Baxter, Louise Cusack, Kirstyn McDermott, Julia Svaganovic)

Podcast: The Writer and the Critic — 3pm, Sunday 10th June
The Writer and the Critic is a monthly podcast devoted mostly to speculative fiction books, reviews and the odd bit of idle gossip. Join hosts Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond and their most estimable guests Alison Goodman and Kelly Link in this special live-recorded edition for a discussion of The Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater. (Alison Goodman, Kelly Link, Kirstyn McDermott, Ian Mond)

The Awards Debarcle — 2pm, Monday 11th June
What is the role of awards in the Australian SF community? Do we have too many? Do we need more (or different) awards? Discuss. (Dave Cake, Kirstyn McDermott, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung)

And if all that wasn’t enough, Ian Mond and I will also be hosting the Awards Ceremony on the Sunday night from 8pm until …. um … well, we promise it won’t last all night! Cross our hearts and hope to … look, we promise okay? Just trust us.

Hope to see you there!

Continuum 8: Craftonomicon

The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2011

The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Vol.2I am so delighted to announce that my short story, “Frostbitten”, has been selected for the second volume of The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror, edited by Talie Helene and Liz Gryzb, and published by Ticonderoga Publications. It was the only piece of short fiction I published in 2011 so I feel very honoured to have it included, even more so because I judged the Aurealis Awards for horror last year so I know precisely what a strong field there was to choose from in that genre. There are some truly excellent stories in this volume — including one by a certain Mr Jason Nahrung with whom I have more than a passing familiarity 😉 — and I’m looking forward to delving into the handful from the fantasy end of the spectrum that I haven’t yet had a chance to read.

The anthology is due to be published in July 2012, but you can pre-order your copy right now. Feast your eyes on the following ToC, then just try to resist its darkly fantastical charms:

  • Peter M Ball “Briar Day” (Moonlight Tuber)
  • Lee Battersby “Europe After The Rain” (After the Rain, Fablecroft Press)
  • Deborah Biancotti “Bad Power” (Bad Power, Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Jenny Blackford “The Head in the Goatskin Bag” (Kaleidotrope)
  • Simon Brown “Thin Air” (Dead Red Heart, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • David Conyers and David Kernot “Winds Of Nzambi” (Midnight Echo #6, AHWA)
  • Stephen Dedman “More Matter, Less Art” (Midnight Echo #6, AHWA)
  • Sara Douglass & Angela Slatter “The Hall of Lost Footsteps” (The Hall of Lost Footsteps, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Felicity Dowker “Berries & Incense” (More Scary Kisses, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Terry Dowling “Dark Me, Night You” (Midnight Echo #5, AHWA)
  • Jason Fischer “Hunting Rufus” (Midnight Echo #5, AHWA)
  • Christopher Green “Letters Of Love From The Once And Newly Dead” (Midnight Echo #5, AHWA)
  • Paul Haines “The Past Is A Bridge Best Left Burnt” (The Last Days of Kali Yuga, Brimstone Press)
  • Lisa L Hannett “Forever, Miss Tapekwa County” (Bluegrass Symphony, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Richard Harland “At The Top Of The Stairs” (Shadows and Tall Trees #2, Undertow Publications)
  • John Harwood “Face To Face” (Ghosts by Gaslight, HarperCollins)
  • Pete Kempshall “Someone Else To Play With” (Beauty Has Her Way, Dark Quest Books)
  • Jo Langdon “Heaven” (After the Rain, Fablecroft Press)
  • Maxine McArthur “The Soul of the Machine” (Winds of Change, CSFG)
  • Ian McHugh “The Wishwriter’s Wife” (Daily Science Fiction)
  • Andrew J McKiernan “Love Death” (Aurealis #45, Chimaera Publications)
  • Kirstyn McDermott “Frostbitten” (More Scary Kisses, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Margaret Mahy “Wolf Night” (The Wilful Eye – Tales From the Tower #1, Allen & Unwin)
  • Anne Mok “Interview with the Jiangshi” (Dead Red Heart, Ticonderoga Publications)
  • Jason Nahrung “Wraiths” (Winds of Change, CSFG)
  • Anthony Panegyres “Reading Coffee” (Overland, OL Society)
  • Tansy Rayner Roberts “The Patrician” (Love and Romanpunk, Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Angela Rega “Love In the Atacama or the Poetry of Fleas” (Crossed Genres, CGP)
  • Angela Slatter “The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter” (A Book of Horrors, Jo Fletcher Books)
  • Lucy Sussex “Thief of Lives” (Thief of Lies, Twelfth Planet Press)
  • Kyla Ward “The Kite” (The Land of Bad Dreams, P’rea Press)
  • Kaaron Warren “All You Can Do Is Breathe” (Blood and Other Cravings, Tor)

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Feminism, My 23-Year-Old Self, and I

First, some back story:

As some of you might be aware, I record a monthly podcast called The Writer and the Critic with my dear friend, Ian Mond. We talk about books and the speculative fiction scene and, occasionally, Other Things. A couple of months ago, inspired by some thought-provoking listener feedback regarding the differences in the way boys and girls read, and the effects this might have on their adult selves, Ian and I wandered into a discussion about the “default male” worldview that permeates our culture. As an off-the-cuff illustration, I observed that our cultural semiotic language employs the same basic stick figure to signify both “human” and “male” and that this stick figure actually needs to be altered in order to signify “female”. But that it is used all the time to include female, effectively, as a subset of male. Even though — and this is the important part — the stick figure itself has absolutely no markers of gender one way or another. It’s a basic symbol for “human being”. That’s it. But we don’t have a separate, slightly altered stick figure which means “male”. One serves for both. Male is the default. Female is the other, the altered, the subset. This is the dominant mindset that boys and girls grow up navigating: boys see a symbol for human as being synonymous with themselves; girls are forced to “insert self here” whenever they see the human/male symbol. Language is powerful. Semiotics possibly even more so. The small illustration of the stick figures serves to illuminate a whole lot more about gender politics in the wider culture.

We talked for twenty minutes or so about this stuff. I drew stick figures which, while not lending themselves well to an audio production, did freak Ian out quite a bit. And that I think you can hear. If you want to listen to the whole conversation, it’s at the start of this episode. Obviously, it’s all off the cuff and if I was writing an essay, I’d be a lot more thoughtful and less general in some of things I said. (The implication that there is a gender binary, for instance. Not good.) But it is one of the more interesting and important non-book conversations we’ve had, and I thought about it a lot over the days that followed.

femaleAs did some of our listeners, apparently, one of whom put me onto the idea of distilling the conversation down into a logo of sorts. Which I did. I also may have spent just a leeeeetle too much time setting up a Zazzle webstore for the podcast. Actually, I originally just wanted my own t-shirt (and mug and magnet) as well as some stickers and badges to give away at our upcoming live recording at Continuum 8, but Ian and I thought it was a good idea to make the store public so other people could buy merch as well if they wanted to. Hell, we might even make enough from our minuscule margins to pay for our Podbean hosting. We can but dream.

Anyway, we announced the opening of the store on last month’s episode of The Writer and the Critic and I wrote something about it in the shownotes and included the badge image. I like it, if I do say so myself. It’s simple and direct and, hopefully, conversation-starting. As I said in the shownotes, “Why is the stick figure female? The more important question is, why is it male?” (And no, I don’t have any real idea as to what a male-specific stick figure would be. Stop asking to see the drawings.)

So that’s the back story.

Yesterday, a lengthy comment was left on the page for last month’s episode by someone with whom I’ve been friends since my early twenties. (I’m 38 now. We’re talking pre-internet time, kids.) Her feedback was essentially a primer about the purpose and function of language and symbols, which ended with the following:

On an Exit Sign the stick figure represents all humans; it is not an exit for men only. On a toilet block, the stick figure is male. It is universally understood to be male without being vulgar. We don’t want any confusion when it comes to public toilets, do we?

Why is the stick figure male? The simple answer is, “Why not?”

By the way, I noticed you used traditional symbolic colouring for your “female stick figure” – red or pink for female.

Her comment felt a little condescending in assuming that Ian and I didn’t actually know how symbols worked but, as I said, I’ve known her for a long time and she is a very blunt person, so I let that go. It didn’t seem like she had actually listened to the previous month’s episode (or maybe even this one) as she was reiterating some of the points we had in fact made about language and semiotics, and was possibly commenting solely on what was in the shownotes. Fair enough. I replied in what I thought was a friendly manner, pointing out that pink was actually a colour traditionally linked to boys until the early 20th Century (being a diluted form of the “masculine” red), and stating that, while I understood how language/symbols worked, the thrust of the conversation I’d had with Ian went deeper than that: “What I find interesting is the dissection of language, and of its subtext, meaning and evolution.”

Her follow-up began with:

I do not believe every one who creates a symbol has a gender agenda. Symbols are graphic designs created to convey information in the most immediate and easily recognizable way possible. I don’t believe there is a worldwide conspiracy to disenfranchise women through the use of graphic art.

She again offered an explanation of how symbols worked, stated that she comes from “a visual arts background and [doesn’t] view the world in terms of gender politics as you appear to now do,” and concluded with a P.S. in the form of a joke she thought I “might enjoy”:

Q: Why can’t men get mad cow disease?
A: Because men are pigs.

I definitely bristled. If she had indeed listened to the podcast, then she seemed to be ignoring all the complexities of the conversation in favour of re-framing what we actually said into some kind of hysterical conspiracy theory. (But, again, I suspected she hadn’t listened.) It was cheap and simplistic, and I told her so. In the context of the discussion at hand, her joke felt like it was being offered with the implication that I would like it because, of course, with all my feminist nonsense, I must be anti-male, and I told her that was a cheap shot as well.

Now, in the harsh light of retrospect, I wonder if this was the case — at least with the joke part. I have known and liked this woman for the better part of two decades. As well as being blunt, she’s given to scatty, corny humour and wordplay. It’s possible she really was offering the joke as way of lightening her reply at the end, that she was making fun of the idea of the stereotypical man-hating feminist, rather than suggesting that I was one. I honestly can’t tell. What I do know is, if I wasn’t friends with her, I would not have given a second thought to her intentions. Nor would I care so much. (It’s not so easy to write off the words of friends, as it turns out.)

In any case, I was done. She didn’t reply and I decided to email her directly in the morning to talk properly out of the public sphere.  Except this morning there was another comment, beginning:

Kirstyn, it saddens me that you appear to have lost your sense of humour and resort to personal attacks when all I’m trying to do is explain a bit about graphic design. So I’ll let you have the last word.

(Yes, I see the irony.) “Here’s an article I found that you might find interesting,” she continues, following up with an entire cut-and-paste of the text of an old 1400 word article I’d written back in 1996 for a Sydney fanzine called The Mentor which is now archived online. Called “A Matter of Sex(ism!)”, the piece was my response to a really quite awful diatribe about how awful men were by someone called Lyn Elvey that I’d come across in a previous issue. I was twenty-three years old, just out of university and brimming with Important Ideas About The World. Seeing it there in the comments stream this morning, I was initially at a loss for words. Had she posted it in hopes of embarrassing me with something stupid I said sixteen years ago? Or did she want to chide me for losing my way along with my sense of humour? It was admittedly with some trepidation that I began to read those long-forgotten words of my twenty-three year old self. But it was a wonderful experience. It really, really was. Not only was I not embarrassed, I was proud of those words. Oh sure, that twenty-three year old was full of bluff and bravado, and she got a few things out of whack, but she was damn fierce.

I’ve pulled the relevant page with Lyn Elvey’s article (from Issue 88) and the one with mine (Issue 89) if you’re really interested in reading them in full, but here are some choice excerpts:

Lyn Elvey: Where is the man who’s dream in life is a room wholly dedicated to being a library, who uses a diary for his personal life, and who thinks there is more to life than work? Who is looking to his retirement not with foreboding but as a time to do the multitude of hobbies, interests and travelling he wants to do with the partner of his choice. Where is the man who wants a companion of his own age and experience rather than a dolly bird twenty years younger (who is not after his body, let me tell you). He doesn’t exist.

Kirstyn McDermott (age 23): [I] am in a very happy relationship with (horror of horrors) a man – a man whose dream in life is a room dedicated to a library, who does think there is more to life than work, who is intelligent and can commit himself to plans more than two weeks in advance (yes Lyn, he does exist, oh really and truly he does — I’ve pinched him!).

LE: Am I a feminist, or have I met all the wrong men? I can’t help feeling that women are much more the superior sex. We live longer and manage better single than married (married men live longer!). We are more realistic, practical and let me tell you from daily experience, better drivers. And if you don’t agree with me, why do authors keep writing stories about future societies with women in charge? Because it is the logical conclusion for the superior sex, of course. Rather than being a frightening prospect, it is the golden vista that one can hope and dream for. Do you think women are going to spend multi-millions on armaments rather than food or clothes?

KMcD: It’s because of attitudes like those expressed by Lyn Elvey … that I have voluntarily exiled myself from the contemporary feminist movement. Too many women these days are going overboard, claiming superiority over men instead of demanding equality. Is it any wonder that “Feminist” has become the new “F-word” of the nineties? To purport the myth of female superiority is as equally destructive to society as it would be to assert male dominance. All the (valid) feminist arguments about psychological oppression and self-fulfilling prophecy would be just as applicable to men were they to become the inferior sex.

LE: As a final argument to the “logic” of men, in several Asian countries it is the policy to restrict family sizes. Because they value men, these societies have “disposed” of the baby girls and only keep the sons. So now they have populations of adult males in their twenties, thirties and forties with many less females about. They can find wives because there are not enough to go around. What a brilliant piece of logic!!! Particularly when they want sons to carry on the name, etc. Who did they think were going to have them?

KMcD: I think Lyn’s “final argument” concerning male (il)logic needs to be set in its proper context. The reason girl babies are often secretly disposed of in China and some other Asian countries is more an economic one than anything else. It should be pointed out that this practice does not usually occur in richer families (usually because money has a way of talking itself around the law), but is prevalent amongst the poor. The reason for the preference of sons is not primarily because they will carry on the family name, but because they do not require a large, expensive dowry to be provided upon their marriage, and because a son is expected to look after his parents in their old age. Quite literally, poor families cannot afford a daughter. It is hardly an example of male logic, but of cultural logic.

LE: Like most women I am an organised, multi -tasking individual, able to juggle a busy working life with a large range of commitments and a good circle of friends. I do my utmost to do my work as quickly and as efficiently as possible and to keep my “customers” happy. I endeavour to keep in touch with as many of my friends as possible, meeting them for meals or just having a chat. And from my list of commitments above you can see I devote time to a number of other causes. So, I ask you, why can’t men be like that too?

KMcD: In short, Lyn Elvey’s article was sexism, pure and simple, and I refuse to be associated with her caricature of womanhood. Sure, there is lot – and I mean a lot – wrong with our society, but the solution will never lie in inverting the problem. Women better than men? The last time I heard something so ridiculous was when men were running around claiming that they were the superior sex. The answer is really simple, boys and girls. Can anybody say “symbiosis”?

Back on The Writer and the Critic site, I sent my last reply to my friend. I don’t know if she’ll bother to respond — or even if she’s still my friend — but I thanked her for posting that old article of mine and told her that I was happy to stand by those words of my twenty-three year old self.  The views Elvey held mirrored a lot of the extreme feminism with which I had been bombarded during university, and I was — and still am — wearied, angered and frustrated by them. I associated them with feminism and then I disassociated feminism from myself. But sixteen years is a long time, and my own views are necessarily less simplistic than they were back then. And thank goodness for that. Sixteen years would be a long time for a person’s mind to remain unaltered. These days, I realise that the feminist movement is made up of many, many different viewpoints, and that none of its extremist proponents represent it as a whole. Base level: feminism simply holds the view that all genders are of equal worth and should be granted equal rights and opportunities. Full stop. If you believe that, you’re a feminist. (And yes, I consider my friend a feminist. I don’t know what she considers herself.)

Ironically, I told her, the attitude I held at age twenty-three was similar to one which seems to be (sadly) prevalent today: if you call yourself a feminist, if you talk about gender politics and inequality between the sexes, if you suggest that (white, straight) male privilege exists and needs to be interrogated and dismantled, then you are obviously one of those humourless, man-hating, female supremacists who are just as bad as the system they would like to overthrow. It’s an attitude I am glad I no longer hold. I’m glad that I’ve changed. I hope that I will continue to change. I would only be embarrassed by what I thought sixteen years ago, if I thought exactly the same way today. The world is changing so damn fast. It’s scary and exciting and breathtaking, and who the hell would I be if I didn’t at least try to change with it? Someday I’m sure I’ll be telling the kids to get off my virtual lawn and talking about how swell it was back in the day before the world all went to hell in a handbasket, but today is not that day.

So, I started thinking about my twenty-three year old self, and about what my seventy-three year old self might think of me as I am now, and I decided that hope I make her laugh fondly, and roll her eyes, and remember what it was like to be thirty-eight. Above all, I hope I make her proud. And then I started to think of the things I would say to my twenty-three year old self — which would probably make her roll her eyes and laugh, though not as fondly — and my reply to my friend stopped being my reply to my friend, and became something I decided to write a blog post about instead. It happens.

For what it’s worth, Kirstyn Maria McDermott, age 23, listen up:

You’re awesome. Really, you are. You’re passionate and you stand up for what you believe in and you don’t like it when people try to tell you what to think, how to act or who you should be based on reductionist reasoning. You’re also smart and you like to come at things on your own terms, after you’ve thought about them a lot. (Sometimes, a little too much. You should work on that.)

But here’s something you don’t want to hear: the world is really, really complicated. I know you think you have a whole lot of stuff worked out right now, but actually you’ve only just started. And you’re never, ever going to finish. That’s what life is like. Just when you think you have a worldview nailed, some pesky fact, experience, opinion or argument is going to come along to skittle things. Not completely, not always — you do get better at this, I promise — but enough to make you realise that issues are rarely black and white, that the world and its inhabitants are complex and nuanced and don’t like to be put in a pigeon hole any more than you do. That’s all right. That’s how it works. The day you sit back and decide that you’re done, that you have all the shit worked out and you never have to learn anything or refine your opinions ever again, that’s the day you know you’re in trouble. Seriously.

That thing in your piece about China, for instance. That’s funny. You’re going to realise just how funny in another sixteen years. I can’t believe you can’t see it now, actually. It’s *right there* in that naiive — but passionate — little paragraph you wrote, how gender is intrinsically entwined with economics, how women have been traditionally valued to market, how what you call “cultural logic” is thoroughly meshed with “economic logic” and “gender logic” and a whole lot more besides. How can you not see it yet? Never mind, I’ll wait. Then I’ll laugh with you. And give you a big hug.

(Also, that guy you’re with? Not going to last, sorry. But don’t fret, there’s the most amazing man in your future. Seriously, A-MAY-ZING. You’ll love him. I do.)

me, age 23, with rats, mad hair and a WHITE shirt

Me, age 23, with rats, mad hair and — gasp — a WHITE shirt

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A Study in Blue: Salvage by Jason Nahrung

Because if you can’t plug the soon-to-be-published books of your beloved, what on earth can you plug?

Salvage by Jason Nahrung

I love this cover for Salvage so very much. It captures the feel and mood of the novella perfectly — the team over at Twelfth Planet Press have done a splendid job as usual, and I’m looking forward to seeing this little book in the flesh at last. It’s a beautiful, creepy, melancholy story … somewhat different from the kind of fiction Jason usually writes; more restrained, but no less emotionally heightened for all that. It might be my favourite piece of his. For now anyway.

Salvage is being launched at Continuum 8 in June but if you won’t be there, it’s also available for pre-order from Twelfth Planet Press for $15.00 (plus shipping).

Seeking to salvage their foundering marriage, Melanie and Richard retreat to an isolated beach house on a remote Queensland island.

Intrigued by a chance encounter with a stranger, Melanie begins to drift away from her husband and towards Helena, only to discover that Helena has her own demons, ageless and steeped in blood.

As Richard’s world and Helena’s collide, Melanie must choose which future she wants, before the dark tide pulls her under … forever.

The Writer and the Critic: Episode 19

The latest episode of our podcast is now available for direct download and streaming from the website or via subscription from iTunes. Feedback is most welcome!

Here are the show notes:

This month on The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond spend some time discussing the results of the recently announced Aurealis Awards. Ian valiantly attempts to pry a little out-of-school talk from Kirstyn, who convened the Horror judging panel, but Kirstyn just as valiantly resists the spilling of any beans. Well, mostly. You know how persistent Mondy can be.

And from the Department of Filthy Lucre, Kirstyn and Ian are pleased to announce the opening of a brand spanking new Writer and Critic Zazzle Store from which their loyal listeners can purchase all kinds of yummy merch! Okay, there’s just one design available right now, but it’s very classy. Inspired by last episode’s conversation about stick figures, which was in turn inspired by listener feedback from Mark Webb, Kirstyn has designed a female stick figure logo which is now splashed across shirts, badges, stickers, mugs and a whole heap of other swag. Why is the stick figure female? The more important question is, why is it male? Go on, you know you want one.

Female Stick Figure

Around the 26:20 mark, discussion turns to the first of the two books for the podcast, Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti, which Ian recommended. Ishtar, an anthology from Gilgamesh Press which includes a novella by Deb, is tangentially mentioned and garners a bonus mini-review from Kirstyn. At 45:00 they switch over to Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan (also known as The Brides of Rollrock Island outside of Australia), which was Kirstyn’s pick. Ian mentions this review of the book by Abigail Nussbaum and, for listeners wanting to know more about the writing of the novel, Kirstyn suggests watching this interview with Margo. Sea Hearts was expanded from a highly acclaimed novella of the same name, which can be found in the X6 anthology from Coeur de Lion Publishing.

Bad Power and Sea Hearts

If you’ve skipped ahead to avoid spoilers, please check back in at 1:25:10 for final remarks and some exciting — and exhausting! — announcements about future episodes. Kirstyn and Ian would also like to thank the wonderful Charles Tan for creating a Pinterest board of all the books they have review on the podcast so far. There’s really quite a lot of them!

Next month, The Writer and the Critic hits the road once more to record its second live podcast in front of an audience at the Continuum 8: the National Science Fiction convention in Melbourne. Their very, very special guests will be Alison Goodman and Kelly Link, who have recommended The Crystal Singer by Anne McCaffrey and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater respectively. (Ian and Kirstyn have wisely decided not to choose books of their own because, well, four people talking about four books in less than two hours would be a frantic kind of madness.) Read ahead and join in the fun!

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The Obituarist: An Interview with Patrick O’Duffy

Patrick O’Duffy is a Melbourne author who has just digitally published a quirky crime novella chronicling a handful of Very Bad Days in the life of self-styled “obituarist”, Kendall Barber – a social media undertaker who settles accounts for the dead. If you need your loved one’s Facebook account closed down or one last tweet to be made, Kendall will take care of it, while also making sure that identity thieves can’t access forgotten personal data. It’s his way of making amends for his past, a path that has seen him return to the seedy city of Port Virtue after years in exile.

Patrick is no stranger to e-publishing, having released several books and short stories into the wild over the last year or so, and his thoughtful musings on the subject over on his blog are always worth reading. I thought I’d take the opportunity to have a chat with him about his ongoing adventures in the digital world as well as his brand new novella.

The Obituarist is your third full-length ebook, plus you’ve made several pieces of short fiction available as free PDF downloads on your website. What have you learned along the way when it comes to self-publishing ebooks? Any rookie mistakes you now know to avoid?

The Obituarist by Patrick O'DuffyIt’s honestly difficult to make many mistakes in creating ebooks using sites like Amazon or Smashwords – you give them a Word file, press a button and you’ve got an ebook 5 minutes later. I often find formatting problems in those ebooks after they’re published, true, but again it’s easy to tweak the file and resubmit. The learning period is very short.

I think the real ‘rookie mistake’ that I’ve made, and that many ebook writers make, is thinking that ‘if you build it, they will come’. You want to believe that the work will stand for itself, that good writing will find its own audience. You don’t realise just how much work needs to go into promoting and publicising an ebook until you create one – or how little response you might get from readers despite that work. There’s so much on the market clamouring for attention that what might seem like a reasonable amount of self-promotion – a couple of blog posts, some tweets, emails to your friends and family – has only a minimal effect.

You have to keep doing more; you have to keep devoting time to marketing yourself, but not so much time that you stop writing or start annoying people with repeated pleas to come on, read my book, pay three dollars, just this once, please. It’s a tricky balancing act, and I salute those writers who can make it work, or indeed enjoy it. I didn’t do a very good job of it with my first two ebooks, and I don’t know that I’m doing the best job of it with this one either, but I’m giving it more of a try.

I’m very interested in the process involved in publishing your own ebooks, from the point at which the final draft of your manuscript is finished. How much do you do yourself? What other people do you bring in for their expertise, and at what stage?

It really depends on the size and scope of the project, and how much another person can bring to things. I’ll always look for feedback and criticism from other writers that I know before I consider a piece finished, and for something like a single short story that’s probably enough. I’m a professional editor and publisher in my day job, so I can usually do the necessary development of a short project without bringing in help.

For The Obituarist, though, I hired an external editor to go through it and look for errors, problems and weaknesses. It was really important to have that second set of skilled eyes looking through things, and she picked up a lot of things that were just dumb mistakes on my part, as well as writing that needed to be improved. I also sent the draft out to a number of friends and writers, asking for detailed criticism, and they focused more on the plot and narrative than the grammar. All of that was invaluable; the book would have been much weaker without that help.

Some authors design their own ebook covers; sometimes those are good, but mostly they are not. I do them myself for the one-off short stories I give away, and they’re terrible, but I don’t need those covers to actually be that good. I prefer to hire a graphic designer for any book that I’m going to sell. I’ve worked with a couple of designers now, and I’ve loved seeing what they’ve done with my concepts. I used a different designer for The Obituarist than I had for my earlier books because it’s in a different genre and I wanted to take the look in a different direction, focusing on typography rather than images. If I do a sequel I’ll go back to that designer; if my next book is in a different genre/direction I’ll look for yet another person to work with, possibly an illustrator.

That’s really all you need for an ebook – editing, informed criticism and cover design, and depending on your skills and the project you may not need all of those. Layout and typesetting isn’t an issue, as the ebook reader handles all of that. The only other area where another person might help is promotion, but I’m not at the point in my career where I can afford to pay a publicist. (I do have someone giving me publicity advice, but luckily for me it’s a volunteer position!)

Over on your website, you’ve been very open about sales figures/earnings and at the beginning of this year you started a 99c pricing experiment for your previous two ebooks, Hotel Flamingo and Godheads. Have you noticed any difference in sales figures because of this? Based on your experience as both a creator and reader of ebooks, do you have any thoughts about the sorts of price points that might be sustainable in the long term?

Hotel Flamingo by Patrick O'DuffyI’ve noticed pretty much no change at all for sales of Hotel Flamingo and Godheads, other than getting less money for them. As experiments go, it’s been a dud – or, more accurately, it’s an experiment with a negative result. But that’s still a result, and I’m trying to learn from it – and what I think I’ve learned is that, barring sudden exposure to an all-new audience, those two books have probably reached all the readers they’re going to. I hope I’m wrong – these are fun books and I’m proud of them – but unless I devote a lot more time and effort to promoting them, they seem destined to stay as they are. I guess it’s all part of the learning process. I won’t pull them back to $2.99 – I’ve made the change and I’ll stick with it. Perhaps in the future I may make them free. We’ll see.

As for sustainable price points, that’s a really hard question. Certainly the race to the bottom that sees full-length books being released for 99 cents is a problem. It’s a problem for writers who can’t sell enough of those books to make a profit, and it’s a problem for readers because the writers can’t afford to spend money on editing, developing and improving those books to the extent they deserve. Sure, as a reader cheap books sound great, but when low prices mean that we get unpolished work, we have to start reassessing our priorities and considering paying a little more in return for quality and craft (assuming those things matter to us).

I mentioned that I work in publishing in my day job, which means I get to see what costs go into creating traditionally-published books. I used that knowledge to write a series of posts over at my blog (Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3) about the costs involved in producing some hardcopy books and which costs might carry across to creating ebooks. None of that’s authoritative or the Final Word on the topic, but I tried to share some information on how publishers sets costs and where the money goes – and talk about how ebook publishers, including independent ones, need to take costs and sales projections into account when setting a price, rather than just pulling a number out of thin air.

I think that in a perfect world, full-length novels would cost between five and ten dollars in ebook form, with novellas and other short-form work between three and six dollars. Those are higher prices than successful ebooks generally sell for right now, but they’re still very affordable and they give authors a better chance of making their writing sustainable. But I think that we’re still a few years away from prices like that becoming acceptable to the market, if they ever do.

The publishing industry is infamously in flux right now. There are many evangelists advocating the digital self-publishing route, as well as others who stand equally firm behind the traditional model, and of course there are a great number of people with enthusiastic feet in both camps. Are the ebooks you have published so far part of a long-term strategy or are you simply experimenting to see where it all goes? Any plans for print, either for The Obituarist or future works?

There’s this weird Shark-versus-Jets rivalry that’s developed between the hardcopy and ebook writing worlds. As you say, there are evangelists on both sides – and like most evangelists, they’re primarily preaching to those who already agree with them. Independent ebook publishers speak dismissively of ‘gatekeepers’; hardcopy enthusiasts deride independent ebook writers as unpublishable and unpolished. And none of that is useful.

I think that writers should work in the form and market that suits the project. Just as some ideas are novels and some are movies, some ideas are better suited to hardcopy and some are better suited to ebooks. My ebook publishing efforts have focused on shorter-form genre work like novellas, which are difficult to effectively and economically publish in hardcopy – but they’re perfect as inexpensive ebooks, especially as genre readers are largely ebook enthusiasts. I’m also working slowly (much too slowly) on a full-length novel, Arcadia, and when that’s finally ready I’ll be trying to sign it to a major literary publisher, one that can market it effectively to a larger pool of readers across Australia who tend to prefer hardcopy books. And then the next project after that might be an ebook, or a hardcopy, or an iPad app, or some form of interpretive dance.

We don’t need evangelists. We don’t need one-size-fits-all attitudes and demonization of writers who choose a different path. We need writers to make informed decisions about what’s right for them and what’s right for their work, and to have the freedom to make different decisions for each new project.

I really loved the concept of the “social media undertaker” — it sounds like one of those weird, niche 21st Century careers that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn actually exists. Although, in The Obituarist, it seems like you were only able to scratch the surface of what a job like this might entail, which leaves me wondering if you have any follow up novels in the works … maybe a Kendall Barber series?

Facebook DeathThis is one of those times where fact follows fiction, because in between coming up with the ‘social media undertaker’ concept and actually writing the book, a lot more attention started being paid to what happens to the online portions of people’s lives after they die. A number of companies have started offering post-mortem services such as wills that cover disposal of online assets, including Facebook pages and social media profiles, or sending out a set of emails to designated recipients a set time after you pass away. I haven’t seen anyone filling Kendall’s job description as yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time. (I hope their clients are less trouble than his.)

As for sequels or a series – yes, definitely! I came up with this as a stand-alone book but I was already working out ideas for a sequel when I was halfway finished, and it’s about half-finished in my head. There’s so much story potential in the worlds of online identity and surreal crime that I could probably write 4-5 more novellas without repeating myself. If this book takes off, if The Obituarist sells, if readers ask for more, I’ll do my best to deliver.

And finally, here’s your chance to royally plug your new book. Put aside any thoughts of modesty and tell us why people should themselves grab themselves a copy of The Obituarist!

Oh man, I wish I was better at this sort of thing. Umm…

Why should you buy The Obituarist? Because it’s a fun, fast-moving crime story that’s also a look at how ideas of death and identity are changing due to technology. It’s a homage to the hardboiled fiction of Raymond Chandler without aping the style or conventions of that genre. It has guns, chases, fights, ugly bikers, sexy ladies, illegal laboratories, dishevelled cops and a hero that just wants to do the right thing. It has funny bits and sad bits and danger and romance and swearing and moderately accurate information on the problems of online identity theft.

It has a lot of swearing, if you like that kind of thing. But not too much, I hope.

It’s a good read that will entertain you while costing you less than three dollars. And I hope you like it.

Patrick  O'DuffyBy day Patrick O’Duffy works as a commissioning editor for a major educational publishing company that he prefers not to name. By night he fights crime… er, that is, he writes fiction.

He particularly likes mixing up genres, playing with ideas and writing prose for the sake of prose.

As well as a number of short stories and RPG writing credits, Patrick’s major works include the mosaic novella Hotel Flamingo (a horror/dark fantasy story made up of character sketches and vignettes) and the horror/slipstream anthology Godheads, both available as ebooks.

His new book, The Obituarist, is a crime novella about a ‘social media undertaker’ who settles online accounts for the dead while getting drawn into a confusing case of missing persons and identity theft.

He’s pretty tall and never feels comfortable writing about himself in the third person.

You can follow him on Twitter (@patrickoduffy) or check out his blog and book info pages at http://patrickoduffy.com/

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Let the wild rumpus truly start …

Farewell, Maurice Sendak.

For all the wild things that live within me, I thank you.

They will never, ever be still.

where the wild things are

“I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we’re not fantasising, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young. Children do live in fantasy and reality; they move back and forth very easily in a way we no longer remember how to do.”

~ Maurice Sendak (10 June, 1928 – 8 May, 2012)

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Please don’t go. We’ll eat you up. We love you so.

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