Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

September 1, 2014

Sydney Book Expo – Personal observations

I spent the weekend working the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild table at the inaugural Sydney Book Expo, held at the Olympic Park over 30-31 August 2014. I imagine that CSFG will be asked to provide feedback to the organisers or, if not solicited, may decide to provide some anyway. So I want to make it clear that these are my personal thoughts and don’t represent the views or the official position of the club. I’m also not linking directly back to the Expo website, because this isn’t intended as constructive criticism.

Basically, it wasn’t very good. Allow me to expand on that a little.

Venue

The venue was fine, I guess. The expo was held in one of the exhibition halls in the Olympic Park that was probably built to stage the rhythmic gymnastics or something. There was plenty of space for exhibitors and punters to walk around – too much, to tell the truth, but I’ll get to that. Our CSFG table was slightly on the cramped side, in that we bought in at the minimum level (we didn’t need any more than that) and so had a table, some backing display boards, a power point and a couple of chairs. There was no way to cram in three people behind the table, though, so at any given time one of us was always roaming.

The downside of the venue was that there was almost no food to be had, other than a single coffee stand and a single mini-cafe selling sandwiches, soups and toasties. If none of that rocked your boat, the options outside the pavilion were vanishingly slim. On the first day I got a pie from the skateboard park nearby (edible); on the second day I went to a nearby park when a fun run was finishing and bought a steak sandwich from a cart there (barely edible). Other than that it was coffee and coke.

The venue was also hot when the sun got on it in the afternoons. That would be consistent with the pavilions being great big aluminium boxes that heat up in direct sunlight.

Offerings

It’s a bit hard to tell exactly what the theme of the Expo was. There were no big publishers in attendance, so the biggest displays were from booktopia.com.au, your bookshop (both online bookstores) and King’s Comics (a comic shop). Those three were clearly the major sponsors of the show, with the largest displays closest to the front doors. Virtually everyone else was a small press publisher – like Satalyte Publishing and our close colleagues from Peggy Bright Books – or a self-published author. I guess there were about forty or fifty vendors all up, maybe?

There were some entertainments of various sorts, starting with the usual author readings and panel discussions on various literary topics of the sort that might interest authors and conceivably also normal people. There were puppeteers, cartoonists and some board games for the kids. There was a guitarist who was selling her CD bundled with a comic and whose set list included about eight light-hearted geek-friendly folk/pop songs. She played all weekend, set after set after set. . And there was a medieval sword-fighting display, complete with costumes and pretty decently choreographed swordplay. I’ve certainly committed worse acts of public martial arts, so more power to them for staying committed all weekend.

There was no discernible pattern to which exhibitors went where – our neighbour on one side was selling a children’s book she’d written about not being afraid of huntsman spiders, and on the other side was an author selling heavily-researched biographies of NSW Governors Arthur Phillip and Charles FitzRoy. Directly across from us was a woman selling her wildlife photography series for kids. Elsewhere were books on alternate histories, mythic romantic fantasies, journeys of discovery, Aussie yarns, crackpot spiritual conspiracy theories and self-help books for self-publishing, sexual health and child behaviour. All reasonably interesting in one way or another, but the word ‘eclectic’ doesn’t begin to cover it. The question we all kept asking each other was, who is the audience for this expo?

Punters

The answer to that question appears to be a resounding “nobody”. Far from a crowd of “up to ten thousand” passing through the figurative turnstiles, we boredly estimated that maybe three or four hundred people came in on the first day. It could have been as few as 250. The second day’s numbers were definitely down on that. If there was any point over the weekend at which there were more punters than exhibitors in the hall, it was a fleetingly brief moment late on the first morning.

We had not much to do. We chatted with maybe forty customers all weekend, and sold stuff to maybe ten. We weren’t expecting to make huge sales or shift a lot of stock, but that was well below even the most pessimistic estimates. At that rate we’d have needed three times as many people (i.e. less than a third of advertised estimates) to show up just to cover our costs.

As it was we did a lot of sitting around chatting to the neighbours, who also had very little to do. I had plenty of time to wander off with my notebook to work on a short story. *Plenty* of time. The other two guys working the stall with me just went off to do stuff with friends during the day, and I can scarcely blame them. If I’d known what it was going to be like I’d have arranged something social for myself as well.

Positives

Personally, I did get a fair amount of writing done, so I don’t consider the time to have been wasted (my family, abandoned for the entire weekend, may have a contrary view they wish to express). And of course I stayed with my dear friends Andrew and Von, and got to spend time with them and their delightful little girls on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Not only that, I saw a few familiar faces – Alan Baxter and Jo Anderton were there as featured authors. It was a delightful surprise to see Jon Blum and Kate Orman out and about, and to get an all-too-brief chance to catch up. I guess for me the Book Expo it was a bit like a geek con, where you have a series of brief reconnections with people you don’t otherwise get to see, but without most of the other fun parts like boozy parties, elaborate costumes or celebratory backslapping.

Conclusions

I’m tired now. And the CSFG still has plenty of stock of its anthologies, if anyone is interested in purchasing some fine Australian speculative short fiction… Hurry now, while stocks (continue to) last.

April 8, 2014

Conflux Writers Day and Aurealis Awards

Canberra turned on a typically miserable autumn day last Saturday for the gala social event of the Australian speculative fiction writing calendar, the 2013 Aurealis Awards. Ignoring the constant, unrealised threat of rain from an oppressive overhead blanket of grey, the tribe gathered to honour the year’s best and fairest in the fantasy, science fiction and horror realms.

But before all that, the Conflux organising committee, spearheaded by the implacable Nicole Murphy, assembled an army of inspirational speakers to present the Conflux Writers Day. The CWD was a one-day mini-convention aimed squarely at writers, with short, sharp sessions on everything from genre to craft, marketing to research, social media to scriptwriting to editing and… Well, with three parallel presentation streams for most of the day, it was impossible to get to everything I wanted to see. One thing we all had in common were the four plenary sessions that bookended the day.

Jo Anderton was first, talking about how she turns simple ideas into fantastic worlds and uses those to find characters and stories. I’m a huge fan of her stories in “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories”, so hearing the specific ideas that inspired several of those stories was terrific. Kaaron Warren was up next, giving the assembled masses a much-needed (in my case at least) kick up the arse about writing when there’s no time to write. “You can’t always change the way you live your life,” she noted, “so change the way you write.” To prove her point that writing can be done in the margins of free time, she made the audience do an exercise – from the index page of a collection of legal cases, we were to select one and write something inspired by the name for two minutes. I don’t know if the exercise worked for anyone else there, but from those two minutes I have the core idea for what should be an amusing little short story.

The first of the afternoon speakers was Ian McHugh, talking about the accumulation of rejection letters as a way of keeping score on your short story writing. “Embrace insanity,” as he put it. “[Submitting short stories] is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard Ian and others endorse before, and it certainly helped me to persist with my weird Twitter(-ish) story. I submitted that one 12 times before it finally found a publisher who wanted it.[1] Ian reckons an acceptance rate of about one submission in ten is typical – your mileage may vary – so he recommends having at least ten stories out for consideration at any time. I’ve personally got a fair way to go to build up my stockpile!

The final speaker was Keri Arthur, on the trials and tribulations of being a New York Times best-selling author. Keri’s talk was primarily about contract negotiations with her publishers, which seems were at times fraught with poor communications if not outright intransigence. Wrangling over advances is a problem a lot of authors might like to have, but it certainly didn’t sound like much of a party. The big take-home message from Keri’s talk was to keep writing. Keri’s written something like thirty books in the last fifteen years, which is…pretty disciplined of her, I would say.

In between the plenary sessions I crammed as much writerly goodness as I could: catching up with out-of-town friends, making a couple of new acquaintances and of course sitting in on the lightning-quick presentations. The standard of presentations was very high – I could have spent easily twice as long with each speaker picking their brains. My personal highlights were probably Cat Sparks’ talk on the alternate history genre and Alan Baxter’s amusing admonitions concerning writers’ use and misuse of social media.

And then it was home for a quick change into something a little smarter for the day’s main event, the Aurealis Awards ceremony. The Aurealis is one of two major annual awards in the Australian speculative fiction filed (the other being the Ditmar Awards, which will be presented at Melbourne’s Continuum convention in June). While the Ditmars are voted on by eligible members of the spec fic community (basically anyone with membership at the current or previous year’s national convention), the Aurealis Awards are judged by panels. Extraordinarily hard-working ones, at that – in the space of a couple of months they read dozens of novels and sometimes more than a hundred short stories to put together their short-lists. I get tired even thinking about the workload.

The evening was MC’d by spec fiction luminaries Sean Williams and Simon Brown. Their hilarious riffs on the Aurealis Awards of what appears to be an extremely exciting future were sadly probably not recorded for posterity. Sorry you missed their routine, it was bloody great.

The Fildenstar (aka Kate Rowe and Ryan Morrison), whose weird speculative lyrics are married up to some beautiful Kate Bush-y/Tori Amos-ish soundscapes, provided several musical interludes. I was mildly disappointed that they didn’t stay onstage for the whole ceremony. I wanted to see them play someone offstage for having too long an acceptance speech. Nobody did, though, so I suppose the point is moot.

And the awards ceremony was – well, it was an awards ceremony. Not as self-congratulatory as the Oscars, not as unnecessarily glam as the Golden Globes and not anywhere near as unremitting awful as the Logies. Presenters read out lists of names and synopses of stories, then awkwardly tore open envelopes and announced winners. There were ties in at least three categories that I remember. The winners are all listed here.

In terms of winners, I was very pleased to see Joanne Anderton have a win in the Best Collection category for “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories”, which I liked. And my pal Kaaron Warren won for a science fiction short story I’d not heard of from a collection I’ve still not laid my hands on, The Lowest Heaven. All of the winners are listed on the Aurealis Awards homepage.

My only mild disappointment was that I didn’t get to collect a trophy for my pal Andrea Höst for her self-published YA novel “Hunting” (which I thought was jolly good). If I recall correctly that was Andrea’s third shortlist nomination for an Aurealis. It’s only a matter of time until she picks up a gong, I feel sure. Interestingly, this year the winner of the Best Fantasy Novel was also for a self-published book, Mitchell Hogan’s “A Crucible of Souls”. He looked pretty pleased and surprised.

All in all it was a lovely day (and that’s not even mentioning the informal Friday night burritos-and-beer meetup). Cat Sparks has posted up a photo gallery of shots from both the Writers Day and the awards ceremony. Check out the cool mural from the Australian National University’s Great Hall in the first few photos. I suggest you linger on those early picture so that your eye doesn’t stray down the page to where it might accidentally see me. You’ve been warned.

 

[1] I’ll post details on that one when I can. I don’t expect it to be for a while yet.

April 2, 2014

Review – The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton – AWWC14

This will be my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014. Joanne Anderton’s “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories” was published by Fablecroft Publishing. The book was launched at the Conflux 2013 convention here in Canberra, which I only mention because I got the author to sign my copy. I’m not particularly a collector of signed books, but I’m very pleased to have this volume in my library.

Beautiful, dark stories of humanity on the fringes of normality or the verge of extinction. Jo Anderton’s characters occupy the most tenuous corners of vivid, imaginative and often terrible worlds, struggling to hold on to their past as calamity approaches (or recedes into dim memory). These are stories about living in the wake of great calamity – fighting to survive, hunting for meaning in dying worlds, coming to the acceptance that things will never return to what they were. But Anderton’s stories are far from fatalistic. Despite the horrors that she visits upon her poor characters, they have cores of steel; beaten down and tormented by their arduous circumstances, they go on regardless. Weary but resolved.

The title story is one of the first pieces of Joanne Anderton’s that I read, and it’s still among my favourites. The story of Zvonimir the chime-maker, who is called upon by an estranged friend to turn the gruesome evidence from a massacre into a magical windchime, is a strange and sad one, a small personal tale in the midst of a much larger story barely hinted at. It’s an intricately textured story that stays with you.

“The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories” is made up almost entirely of stories that would be highlights in any collection: ‘Sanaa’s Army’ recounts a creepy , beautiful encounter between Sanaa, an artist who works in taxidermy-magic, and something that preys on the children who bring her new bones; ‘Mah Song’ is a sweet tale of sibling loyalty in the face of bleak survivalist exploitation; ‘From the Dry Heart to the Sea’ explores the social fragility of the outsider; “Out Hunting for Teeth” and “A Memory Trapped in Light” are about micro-societies developing after disaster, and the horrors that highly constrained communities can inflict on their members.

This is a collection of thirteen amazing stories; all fantastic, many horrific, all imaginative and disturbing. Of all the many short story collections I read in 2013, “The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories” stands out as one of the best.

May 2, 2013

Conflux Roundup – Bookswag

“Come for the chat, leave with an excessive stack of new reading materials,” said absolutely nobody at Conflux 9 over the weekend. But they should have, because dammit there were a lot of book launches happening. I think I was present for at least four, and I’m pretty sure there were a couple that I missed as well. And on top of that, abundant intriguing material was available in the dealer’s room and at a special one-day marketplace. *SO MUCH STUFF*!

Of course love of books – reading them, touching them, completely failing to control the impulse to own them – seems to be what gets most people into writing in the first place. (At least, I don’t think the converse is more common: “Wow, this whole thing where you make meaningful shapes with a crayon is *so cool*. I wonder if anyone else has ever made protracted sequences of meaningful shapes, preferably in third-person past tense?”)

So here’s what I ended up with:

Loot!

A tiny fraction of what I wanted to buy

A Trifle Dead by Livia Day – Livia Day is the not-particularly-secret crime writing pen-name of Tansy Rayner Roberts. I’ve been waiting to see what Twelve Planets Press would put out under a crime imprint for a while. This seems like it will be a fun romp with cakes and capers and bloodthirsty Hobart-based killings. I will, of course, report back once I’ve finished it.

Siren Beat by Tansy Rayner Roberts/Roadkill by Robert Shearman – Back to back novellas by the aforementioned Tansy and Robert Shearman, who wrote (amongst other things) ‘Dalek’, one of the best episodes from Chris Ecclestone season of Doctor Who. I know absolutely nothing whatsoever about either story, but Twelve Planets head honcho Alisa Krasnostein pointed out that it was cheap with any other purchase SO THERE YOU GO. (Also I have a collection of Shearman’s short stories in the to-be-read folder on my Kindle, so what’s one more story for the stack? Even if it doesn’t have *any* Daleks in it, I might very well still like it).

One Small Step is a short story anthology edited by Tehani Wessely of Fablecroft Press (great name!) Funny story: the theme for One Small Step is along the line of ‘journeys of discovery’, a theme that (arguably) fits my short story Imported Goods – Aisle Nine’. I almost submitted that story to this anthology instead of Next. As it turns out One Small Step became an all-women volume, so I’m glad I changed my mind. But it looked like an enticing project then and I’m keen to see what it’s turned into.

Next – is an anthology or something. I will probably blog about it soon.

Leviathan – My buddy Evan attended the Clarion South intensive writing workshop some years ago and he often mentions Scott Westerfeld as one of the tutors who made the biggest impression on him (along with Mrgo Lanagan, Sean Williams, etc etc bastard). As steampunk was one of the big themes of Conflux, and an area in which I am deeply unschooled, I finally gave into temptation to pick up the first volume in his alternate WWI YA steampunk series. Didn’t get a chance to get him to sign it though, which in retrospect is a bit of a pity. Did enjoy hearing Evan recount the story of how Westerfeld has decided not to continue beyond the third book in the series because his decision to fund the luscious illustrations by Keith Thompson proved to be prohibitively expensive. A shame, because from the first paragraph alone – which mentions Australian cavalry, diesel-powerted walking machines and armoured zeppelins – I *know* I am going to enoy this book.

The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories by Joanne Anderton was launched at the con along with One Small Step and the Thoraiya Dyer volume of the Twelve Planets Series, entitled Asymmetry. (I didn’t pick that one up, since I already have the ebook and read it with great relish on my holidays. Review coming soon). The titular ‘The Bone Chime Song’ was among my favourite stories from 2012 (and probably the best entry in the excellent Light Touch Paper Stand Clear anthology, which I reviewed here). It was deservedly up for a Ditmar Award for Best Short Story, although as it turned out it lost to one of Thoraiya Dyer’s, ‘The Wisdom of Ants’. I listened to it read on a podcast a couple of weeks ag. It’s pretty good too.

This is all getting a bit tangled and interwoven, isn’t it? Anyway, those were just the books I picked up. There were others launched and/or available at the con which I would love to have added to that stack, if finances constraints and the threat of spinal damage had not prevailed upon me to see sense. These are a few of them:

In Fabula-Divino – This was an anthology project that Nicole Murphy put together, at the same time that she was being one of the co-chairs of Conflux 9! The goal was to foster new writers, working with one a month for a year to get their first work into print. The project was unfortunately interrupted during the year, but happily various other members of the spec fic community stepped in to help Nicole flesh the book out and get it into print. I already had my e-copy for supporting the project through crowdfunding, but I am still tempted to get a physical copy for the pretty cover…

Dark Rite – A supernatural thriller by Alan Baxter and his podcasting and writing partner David Wood. I meant to get this and just completely forgot at the end of the weekend, when energy levels were low and I was slightly overcaffeinated.

 Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead by Robert Hood – Don’t know much about it, but (a) I’ve read a couple of Hood’s stories recently and they are suitably creepy and action-packed, and (b) I like the Lovecraftian monster on the cover. This was another book that was launched at the con. I missed the launch and they were all gone by the time I arrived – but screw it, I just checked and it’s available on Amazon, so I’ve bought and downloaded it since I started typing this sentence.

(Did I mention that one of the panels I was on was about instant gratification through digital books?)

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