Podcasting with Words and Nerds!

It’s been a quiet few months for me without writing (and hence blogging), but that doesn’t mean it’s been a quiet few months overall! While I had to reassess the deadlines I’d set myself for my WIP – that’s the nice way of saying I didn’t make them – I have still being doing *stuff* (including a secret collaboration with a local artist and another Canberra author) and have just started seeing the results come out for some of them.

I’m going to keep this short, because as much as part of me wants to explain the reasons/excuses I’ve missed my own deadlines for my WIP, that isn’t what this post is about. It’s about a great opportunity handed to me by the wonderful host of Words and Nerds Podcast, Dani Vee. In short, she asked me to guest host an episode!

Now, if that wasn’t exciting enough, the guest of the episode was to be none other than Helen Scheuerer, best-selling author of the Oremere Chronicles! I enjoyed the Heart of Mist and its sequels, but her latest book, A Lair of Bones, the first in the Curse of the Cyren Queen series, in my opinion is her best work yet. At the time of recording, the book wasn’t out yet, but since getting myself a copy (released 15 July) I haven’t been able to put it down and it’s fast becoming a favourite of mine. It’s dark, full of social and political maneuvering, and I’m looking forward to reviewing it sometime this week.

A Lair of Bones (Curse of the Cyren Queen Book 1) by [Helen Scheuerer]

This was my first time hosting a podcast, and one of my first times interviewing in a scenario that wasn’t part of an investigation (previous employment had some . . . different takes on what and interview entailed), and Helen was incredibly patient as I stumbled along. In the end, I had a great time and learned a lot from Helen’s vast knowledge, experience, and success in the world of self-publishing. If you’d like a listen, the link is below. But before I sign off on possibly one of my shortest blogs ever, I’d like to send a huge thanks to Dani and Helen for the opportunity and for the chat – I had a great time, and am looking forward to more eps coming out!

~Nathan

https://i1.sndcdn.com/artworks-QnIIKZNuCKZZdPzk-VKjpQw-t3000x3000.jpg

https://www.wordsandnerds.com/podcast-1/episode/90c56b0a/357-takeover-nathan-j-phillips-and-helen-scheuerer

Some Aurealis Favourites

Last Thursday we got to celebrate the best speculative fiction books of 2020 at the Aurealis Award ceremony. For the second year running it was done via Zoom, which unfortunately meant the social side was a little more difficult, but even seeing a bunch of familiar faces on the screen was fantastic.

A huge congratulations to those who took home awards as well – the list can be found here, and the video of the 2021 ceremony can be found here.

What I wanted to do though was discuss a few texts that didn’t win, specifically, stories that I really enjoyed. To be clear, this is not an ‘I think X should have won instead’ post. All the winners are hugely deserving, and having judged for a few years now, I know how hard it is when there’s a competitive field. In 2020, looking at the category that I was on the panel for and also seeing the shortlists, it was an INCREDIBLY competitive field. This post is just a personal opinion on some really good stories that didn’t win, that I’d recommend to just about anyone who will listen.

On the topic of ‘win’. . . (and hoping the pronunciation is the same so the segue words. . .)

52971546. sx318 sy475

Bonnie Wynne’s The Ninth Sorceressis the first in the Price of Magic series, and I was enthralled from start to finish. It has all the dark, bitter characters I love in any story, along with a narrative that is full of action, subtle world-building, and deliberately inserting questions throughout that left me wanting to dive further into the story and find out the answers. This is a story that stayed rent-free in my mind for months after I read it, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a gritty, magical, and dark tale of a girl coming into her power, those who want to use (or smother) it and her, and the consequences of her control over it.

Grace Chan’s Jigsaw Children is another one that I’ve raved about to friends for a long time. Well, for at least a year. What I love about this short story is that it explores genetics and how they will impact the future of humankind from a perspective unlike any I’ve read before. We start with Lian as a nine year old visiting her second-mother’s mother – rejected by modern society for being born ‘the old way’. Through a child’s viewpoint (though a child old enough to comprehend, and an advanced child in almost every way), we start to understand what this version of the future looks like, before jumping in time to see snippets of Lian’s life.

I enjoyed Jigsaw Children as much for what is not said, as much as what is. There are all sorts of themes hinted at, and it can be read a thousand different ways from questions on politics, peer pressure, body autonomy, to seeing populations as products and little more, and the importance of understanding a history. All the consequences, benefits (?), and impacts to the world because of embracing a single idea. The end is perfect, and I cannot recommend this highly enough

A shortlisted book in two categories, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Aurora Burning is a fantastic follow-up to Aurora Rising (which took home two awards in 2019), and I’m not surprised at all it got shortlisted again. Squad 312 go a little more epic in this one, and we meet my favourite character of 2020, Saedii. Non-stop action and a great cast – another one that I picked up and couldn’t put down this year. There are heists, relationship dramas, level-ups, great escapes, and a heck of a cliffhanger. Everything to guarantee a great YA sci fi read.

The Attic Tragedy, by Joseph Ashley-Smith. I honestly don’t know what to say about this one as it blew me away in ways I can’t describe. I downloaded it on my phone, expecting to read it on my Kobo later. To be clear, I read on my phone sometimes, but usually I’m not a fan. Too many notifications, a screen really not made reading, and when I’m looking at my phone, people tend to assume I’m not doing anything and have no issues with interrupting me. Still, I wanted a peek, so I just read the first few pages. Then a couple more. Then, next thing I knew, I was completely enthralled by the George’s journey, by the way they were finding themselves, and my heart was breaking as I saw Sylvie follow a tragic path with parallels to schoolyard bullying that she seemed unable to recognise. I finished in a single, timeless sitting without ever opening my Kobo, because I was so entranced by the writing that I didn’t even realise that putting it down was an option.

As a final note, because I’ve already gushed over Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women here, it isn’t on this list, but I absolutely loved it and highly recommend the anthology. Also, I was super excited to see anthology-buddy Louise Pieper win for her short story ‘Truth Be Told’ in Unnatural Order.

As a final final note, these are just a few of the ones I enjoyed this year. I can’t think of a single category though in which the shortlisted titles weren’t incredibly tough to pick a favouite out of. It’s great to see, as it shows how strong Australian speculative fiction is these days. A big part of the reason I volunteered to be on a judging panel back for the 2018 awards was because I wanted to see what what out there beyond what I normally read. I found a bunch of new favourites, and have thoroughly enjoyed discovering more every year.

Moonlit Genesis – by Chris Andrews

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve known Chris for a more than a few years now, and I remember the draft of this book coming through. It was a whole lot of fun then, and with a bit of polishing to get it up to publishing standard, it’s maintained the fast-paced, anti-heroic core (with a little laconic charm thrown in) that grabbed my attention back then. But before I delve too deep – the blurb!

When hybrid werewolf Kyle Smithson saves the life of a young human woman, he has no idea what trouble his actions are about to cause. He also has no idea the wife he buried centuries ago isn’t dead, but now a vampire embroiled in an escalating turf war. With an ancient promise to keep and his personal stakes growing by the hour, Kyle wants nothing more than to get out alive, but caught between a woman he once loved and the woman he’s trying to help, he’s about to have the fight of his life.

One thing that is clear right from the start, is that this is no star-crossed lovers, twinkle-in-the-moonlight vampire/werewolf tale. Set in Canberra and leveraging off some real-world local rivalries (though much more friendly in the real), the story follows Kyle as he gets caught between two rival factions, along with a few individuals trying to work the escalating conflict for their own agenda. In weaving all these stories together, there’s an element of chaotic energy that I loved, but still a feeling that all of it was coming towards an inevitable conflict. Unsurprisingly from the author who recently put together a bunch of workbooks for melding character and structure, the narratives, while a little chaotic, never felt like they were out of the author’s control or deviating wildly towards an unknown end. As a single story, it works nicely as a standalone while fitting nicely into the larger Veil of the Gods world that Chris is constructing.

In short, the story is fun, dark at times, and has that great aspect of being able to be enjoyed either by itself as part of the larger collection. Characters like Rake, quietly getting in everyone’s way and doing his best to squash any chances of peace, and Taenorah fighting something of a private battle with very pertinent outward impact ensured the story wasn’t so simple as to let the reader confidently guess the outcome; but neither was it so complex that it needs an encyclopaedia worth of detail to understand. Dialogue could perhaps have done with a little less sass (I know, I’m kicking myself for saying that too), and at times there was a little over-explaining of the world, but nothing that really distracted from or took away from the narrative.

It was, for me, an easy read, and fulfilled all the expectations I had from the earlier draft.

Four Moonstars for this one.

Peta Lyre’s Rating Normal – by Anna Whateley

I actually read this book a while ago, but after a run of ‘meh’ stories, I’d rather give the time and effort to talking up a fantastic book rather than go the other way. It doesn’t mean I’ll never give a bad review, but it won’t be something I’ll be doing right away.

But onto Peta Lyre! FYI, this is not a spec fic book, as most of my reads are. So if you’re looking for that kind of review – sorry, will have to wait until next time. But trust me, whatever genre you normally read, this Peta Lyre is worth branching out for.

Peta has her own alphabet. A myriad of diagnoses that are not only invisible to others (SPD, ASD, ADHD, but have hugely impacted her life. Her family, her school, her friends – all her relationships are analysed, studied, and second-guessed by Peta as she rates how she performs each day against the rules that allow her to pass as ‘normal’. Then starts it all again the next day.

Except the combination of a new girl at school, a new crush, and a school ski trip turns all that on its head. Suddenly, passing as ‘normal’ doesn’t cut it, and sticking to all the rules she’d spent years trying to understand just seems to make things more complicated.

Peta Lyre is, in short, an engaging, emotional, and vitally important story. Reading from Peta’s perspective showed the world in a way that most people would not have experienced, and showed just how much effort is put in by Peta just to survive. The flashbacks to Peta’s childhood hit the spot in particular for me – with members of my family sharing some of Peta’s diagnoses, seeing that they have a voice in the world was incredibly reassuring.

There is a plot, a romance, and a finding one’s self element to this book. They are engaging and pull you along as a reader, but very much serve as a backdrop to understanding Peta, and more importantly understanding how she understands herself and and the world. That is the big takeaway from this book. Jeb is delightful, heartbreakingly so the more his explored is explored, Sam is as much an enigma to the reader as she is to Peta (or maybe just to me), and Ant is a fantastic inclusion of a parental figure in a genre more inclined to write them out. Even the minor characters like Kat come in as fully formed and avoid Background Character Trope-iness.

One thing I really should mention is that Peta Lyre is an Own Voices novel as well, and that lived experience really comes through in Peta’s voice. It reads very much as being for and giving representation to communities and voices not often heard in literature, but equally as someone outside the target demographic, I found it emotionally engaging, highly readable and I devoured it (the first time) in one go. It might sound like a cliché to have a character desperately trying to be ‘normal’ only to discover that sometimes ‘normal’ doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or acceptance in and of itself, but Whateley tells that story from a literarily unique viewpoint in a way that is honest and inclusive, with real-world applications. I’m not usually a particularly emotional type, but this book had me on the edge of tears on multiple occasions. Usually happy ones.

I think it’s pretty obvious what I think of this book. If you’re looking specifically for plot or action, maybe it might not be for you. It isn’t what the story aims to be either. But if you want a book that successfully delivers on character and relationships, making for real world impact and reflection, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Five out of five. No gimmicky cartoon stars this time, just five golden stars perfect as they are.

Inhale. Exhale. Survive.

Publication alert!

In all the excitement (?) of rolling into 2021, I nearly forgot to post a celebratory announcement – Unnatural Order, an anthology containing the first story I ever sold, Trench, is now out there in the world! It’s been a weird year already, and celebrating anything feels like its premature, like we’re waiting for the catch, but this one. . .I think . . .is definitely a solid ‘Yay!’ moment for me.

Darkest Timeline | Community Wiki | FandomSome may say we’re in the Darkest Timeline, but at least there’s pizza. . .and publication

Edited by the talented Alis Franklin and Lyss Wickramasinghe (also, go see Lyss’s art on IG here – fantastic and amazing), Unnatural Order is all about the perspective of the monsters. Not all the stories are dark, but there are some fantastic horror stories in there. I’m pretty chuffed not only with getting a story out there, but to be listed among some fantastic authors. Aurealis winner Joanne Anderton leads the list ( Wreck Diving is fantastic, a very deserving winner) , and a myriad of amazing authors including Grace Chan  (highly recommend Jigsaw Children in Clarkesworld 161, and looking forward to Every Version of You coming out in 2022), Leife Shallcross, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Matthew Farrer, and a myriad of other talented authors on the table of contents as well. I’m still in that what the heck is my name doing there?! phase, but hey, I’m happy to be included!

I’m keeping this short, because there’s only so long I can talk about my excitement over this before the overthinking brain decides that its getting a little self-indulgent, but if you’re interesting is rising creatures from the depths of the sea, hive-minds, and dancing, or if you want to (and have the luxury of) reading something other than the news right now, links along with a full list of the authors are below!

CSFG: https://csfg.org.au/product/unnatural-order/

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/au/en/ebook/unnatural-order-2

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com.au/Unnatural-Anthologies-Canberra-Speculative-Fiction-ebook/dp/B08RMKTQSB/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=unnatural+order&qid=1610492693&s=digital-text&sr=1-1

 

 

6 lessons from studying creative writing

2020 has been an interesting year. As in, the Firefly definition of interesting, rather than the the more fun kind. But the last couple of months, on a personal level at least, has started to look up. I commenced a 6 month Write Your Novel course with the Australian Writers’ Centre, finished a contributor chapter focussing on the creation of the US Space Force for a Military Space Ethics book, and got my result back from my Master of Letters (MLitt) dissertation – for which I am relieved to have passed, and still coming down from the disbelief that I managed a distinction.

But this isn’t about the grades – though as someone who has not always done so great at studying, I am going to be pretty ecstatic about this for a while to come – this is about what I actually learned about writing during this creative writing degree. After all, I did this to improve my understanding of writing, so I guess the big question is – did it work?

In short, yes, it if did for me. But to lead nicely into the first lesson. . .

Lesson 1: You don’t need a degree to write

Yep, I went thousands into uni debt to get a fancy piece of paper I don’t need. Or more accurately, a PDF of a fancy bit of paper. I don’t regret it for a second, but neither is it a prerequisite to anything involving writing.

For me, its a way I learn. Distance uni is a nice mix of structure and uni for me. But of the four people I went through the course start to finish with, only one had a Bachelors level qualification in creative writing. All of us were able to write though. All of us entered the Masters with at least some ability in writing and no qualifications behind us. While it worked for us to further our skills this way, it only helped us develop skills we already had, which means that the core skills were already there.

This is perhaps an obvious point that every author learns in their own ways, but its something I wanted to point out as well. Academics are as much a guarantor of success about as any other course – that is they aren’t. They are a way to learn and to practice, and that in itself is a great thing, but its not the sovereign domain of academics.

Lesson 2: All kinds of writing have something to teach

Even bad writing. I did a *lot* of bad writing over the last couple years, and even more in the years before that. Studying other forms of writing outside what I’d usually be exposed to (and reading them, and listening to interviews by authors who write them, and reading articles about them) revealed many of my weaknesses. Romance writing character relationships for example, memoir making the personal relatable, and poetry demanding a succinctness not necessarily inherent in other forms. Having my weaknesses exposed gave me an opportunity to address them and ultimately, gave me the opportunity to improve my writing.

Lesson 3: Even as a Pantser, planning has its place

16 Funny Teacher Memes About School Reopening This Fall

The reason I did this degree was because I’m used to formality and I know that I learn best with a little structure. No idea why. Could be my career or something. But anyway, I love learning and for me, the MLitt program was one that combined my love of writing and my love of massive debt for flimsy pieces of paper. But what I found straight up was that every semester, I had to plan everything I was going to write. I wasn’t the only one a little worried about this. Thankfully, we had a great lecturer who has done this course many times before. Her solution? Encouraging us with the methodology of using the planning requirement to support the writing, not the other way around. The plan – always the first assessment in this case – was a guide for those who needed it, a touchstone for other, or a starting point to an entirely new idea if it didn’t work out.

I ended up using all my plans, despite having the freedom and intent not to, with the exception of my dissertation. Even then though, the plan had its place – it taught me that my first idea had significant holes in it and enabled me to distill what I actually wanted to write about and bring that out into another story, one that I could write entirely off-plan and pants it to my heart’s content. Even without sticking to the plan though, I would never have gotten to this point without making it in the first place.

Lesson 4: There’s no substitute for writing

Another one that probably seems obvious. While each and every author has their own pace, at some point you have to write. I had a couple subjects where I had trouble with starting and got about half way through a semester without a decent word on the page. Sometimes the right thing to do is to think, mull it over, or let the story peculate in your mind. At some point though, you just need a terrifying 90’s warrior screaming at you:

xena mad - You should be Writing!

Lesson 5: Genre can be as much an afterthought as an intent

I’ve always loved fantasy and always wanted to write it. That’s probably not a surprise to anyone who knows me. But what I found was that it wasn’t really the area I was naturally writing in. I didn’t really have a genre for it, and even when I worked in features of the fantastic, it didn’t quite hit what I would expect from fantasy. This troubled me for a bit, but after mulling on it and discussing it with my classmates, the end result was that if I write the story I want to write, and retrofit genre along with the expectations and subversions, it can actually produce a more powerful story. There were some places this couldn’t be done. Creative non-fiction, for example, is difficult to weave into fantasy. That’s not to say its impossible, but it was beyond what I could do with my chosen subject matter. Experimental non-fiction was similar – I had enough trouble getting my head around what it was, so fitting in fantastic elements probably would have gone one step too far in pushing my capability over time equation. But where it really became apparent was the difference in my first piece – which was purely in fantasy – and my dissertation. One was me trying to tell a fantasy story, and it was alright. Nothing special, nothing terrible. The final piece though was a story I wrote and wrapped in a fantasy setting. Again, it isn’t amazing and still needs much improvement if I’m ever going to get it to an agent or publisher, but its vastly better than my first attempt. The story itself could be told (and probably has been told) a hundred different ways in a hundred different genres, and still make the same point and ask the same questions. This wasn’t so much a retrofitted fantasy, but telling the story and then worrying about genre made it better. Genre is just the cloak a story wears. Doesn’t mean you can’t write to genre, but if the story is guided by genre expectations or restricted by them, then maybe try just writing the story and putting the cloak on after.

Lesson 6: There are always more lessons

Related to the first lesson, no matter how much I thought I’d learnt from a course, every avenue of study lead to more questions, more authors, and more subgenres I’d never known and led me down lines of inquiry I would never have considered. I’m doing another course now – the Australian Writers’ Centre Write Your Novel course – which so far has been brilliant. I’m not doing it as a natural progression of partner course or anything like that, nor has the MLitt qualification given me any kind of advantage. Its just that as long as there is a willingness to be taught, there is always something more to learn, and if I’m going to keep improving my writing and one day make a living out of it (fingers crossed), then continually being open to learning more can only help me towards that goal.

~Nathan