PATRICK O’DUFFY is tall, Australian and a professional editor, although not always in that order. He has written role-playing games, short fiction, a little journalism and freelance non-fiction, and is currently working on a novel, although frankly not working hard enough. He loves off-kilter fiction, Batman comics and his wife, and finds this whole writing-about-yourself-in-the-third-person thing difficult to take seriously. Find him at www.patrickoduffy.com
1. At GenreCon in Brisbane last year, that mighty meeting of the genre clans, you presided over a panel on nicking stuff from other genres. What are your best tips for crossing the boundaries? Do the boundaries even matter any more?
I think the boundaries still matter a lot for some people – you only have to look at all the conflict and controversy around the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in the last 12 months. So much of that involved writers with new ideas about the SF genre coming into a space where other writers had extremely different, more conservative ideas about what was ‘true’ SF and how rigid the boundaries of the genre should be.
But those writers are on the way out, along with the idea that genres should be well-defined things that need to be ‘protected’. I don’t think boundaries matter – or, perhaps more accurately, they don’t have to matter. Readers have shown that they’re more interested in original ideas and good writing than they are with any kind of ideological genre- or subgenre-purity. There’s a market for any book that crosses or cheerfully rampages through genre boundaries, and I think that’s really exciting.
As for tips, there’s really only one that matters – write the story you want to write. Tell the story that you want to tell, and don’t worry too much about whether it fits nicely on the standard fantasy or SF shelves. If your imagination can reconcile spaceships and cyborg dragons and romantic relationships and terrible elder gods in the one story, readers can do the same, and they will if you make it worth the reading.
Actually, the reverse of that is another tip – don’t deliberately shop around for elements and tropes of other genres to cobble into your story if they don’t fit there or if they don’t resonate with you. YA steampunk spy thrillers may be so hot right now, but if that’s not the story you want to tell, don’t write it; don’t put a clockwork teenage secret agent into your zombie western just because you hope it’ll get some more attention and sales.
Genres are mostly just labels. Make your own. Stick them to things.
2. You’ve been upfront about the financial reality of your self-publishing efforts, but you seem to maintain your enthusiasm with, for example, plans for The Obituarist sequel. A Sinatra-like case of doing it your way? And what’s been the standout advice for others pursuing the same path that you’ve learnt along the way?
It’s not just that I enjoy failure or throwing money away, although lord knows those things are fun. I think self-e-publishing (or or whatever you call it) can definitely be financially viable, even lucrative, if you’re publishing the right kinds of books in the right market – and I’m not doing that. I’m publishing weird horror novellas and flash fiction collections and stories about social media undertakers.
And not many people want to read those things – but I want to write them. Because those are the ideas I have and the stories I want to tell. So given that I’m going to struggle to find publishers for these not-very-commercial books, and that I’ve written them or I’m going to write them anyway – why not put them out myself as e-books? I don’t make money from them, not yet, but it’s better than leaving them in a drawer, it’s an interesting process to explore, I’m not hugely out of pocket – and most importantly I’m finding that there are people who want to read these books, people who really enjoy them and want to buy and read more of my work.
Self-publishing has connected me to my audience. And if that audience is telling me that they want a second Obituarist novella, then I kinda figure I have to write one. Hopefully they can convince some of their friends to buy it too.
As for advice for others, I think the main one is that self-publishing gives you both power and responsibility. You get to make all the decisions, you control the way you find and interact with readers, you own the whole process. So you need to do everything you can to make the book the best it can be, you need to convince readers that it’s worth their time and money, and you need to be the one shouldering the blame if it doesn’t work out.
That sounds kind of heavy, but I think there’s a really exciting power in that, in the ability to follow your own ideas and play by your own rules. These days a lot of websites and outlets ask writers to work for free, or for exposure, and that can mean they make all the decisions for you. In the end, if you’re going to do things for exposure, it’s better to stay in control of that; it’s better to expose yourself.
No, leave that in. Don’t edit it out.
3. You’ve been working on a fantasy story, Raven’s Blood, complete with commissioned character art. How’s that looking, and what are your plans for it?
It’s looking pretty good! I’ve finished the foundation draft (which is like a first draft that I’ve polished and edited as I’ve written it, and hopefully explains why the draft took two years to write) and sent it to half-a-dozen alpha readers. Their notes are coming back in, and by the end of August I need to sit down and spend a couple of months revising and improving the manuscript. From there I’ll be looking for a publisher – because this book is one that could do well in traditional markets, in print and on bookshelves. And the joy of doing independent e-books is that it doesn’t stop me in any way from also going through the usual channels – or trying to, at any rate.
You didn’t ask what the book was about, but I’m going to talk about it anyway. Raven’s Blood is a young-adult superhero fantasy novel – yes, I’m walking the talk when I talk about wandering blithely over genre boundaries. This is a book where fantasy-Batman wields a +1 sword to fight steampunk cyborgs on the rooftops of pseudo-Elizabethan London. But it’s also a story about making your place in the world, about working out who you are and what matters to you. Plus it’s got fights, explosions, magic, a heroine who refuses to be what she’s told to be, a hero who refuses to be what she wants him to be, a variety of villains, some romance and occasional parkour. I had a lot of fun with it.
The character artwork wasn’t part of the book, though. I’d been talking to a friend of mine, the author Cam Rogers, about the way he surrounds himself with visual stimulus when he writes – photos, drawings, nightclub flyers, scraps of poetry, street art, things that keep him immersed in the work and in what he’s creating. I wanted to try that as a creative and motivational tool, so I commissioned a drawing of the Ghost Raven (the male lead) from an amazing local artist. Now it hangs next to my desk, prodding me whenever I see it to think about what more I can do to make Raven’s Blood the best it can be. I’m getting a second piece done soon of Kember, the female protagonist; then the two of them can scowl and yell at each other while I’m writing.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Oh god, this is embarrassing. This year has been so busy with writing and day job stuff (mostly the latter) that I’ve barely had a chance to read any books, Australian or otherwise.
Hmm. Can I cheat? Can I talk about Australian works that I’m really looking forward to reading soon? Because I’ve got a bunch of them.
There’s a bit of a wave of urban fantasy thrillers out lately – Peter Ball’s Exile, Christian Read’s Black City and Alan Baxter’s Bound are all on my list. As is Jane Lawler’s Gladio, which is a non-fantastic thriller (you know what I mean). For horror there’s Jason Nahrung’s The Big Smoke (cheers! next year … JN) and Kirstyn McDermott’s Perfections; for weird fantasy I’m keen on Lee Battersby’s The Corpse-Rat King and Nina D’Aleo’s The Last City. And perhaps I’m most excited about Andrew MacRae’s Trucksong, a poetic post-apocalyptic story about AI trucks roaming the Australian wastelands.
I have no idea when I’m going to get a chance to read any of these. But I will. Scout’s honour.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
My day job is in the publishing industry, so changes there definitely influence the way I work – but we’re not here to talk about that, we’re here to talk about writing.
I don’t think that current events and changes are affecting how I work – I still plonk down in front of the PC several nights a week and type away until it’s all finished. But they have changed the way I think about the work after it’s finished, and I’m trying to work out the best way to get it out into the wild and find its audience. For example, Amazon have just started trialling a subscription library, where users can download all the e-books they want for a monthly fee. Is it a good or bad thing for authors? Is that something I should try to get my e-books into? If it is, I’d have to go Amazon/Kindle exclusive with those books – would the benefits outweigh the costs?
Questions like this, questions about the business/publishing end of things, are really important to consider if you’re self-publishing, and I think anyone making their own e-books needs to pay careful attention to tech and business developments. But they don’t really impact on the way I work; I try to put all of that stuff out of my head when I’m writing. Better to switch hats and gears once one thing is finished, rather than trying (and failing) to multi-task.
As for what I’ll be doing in five years? Good lord, I don’t know. Hopefully finishing up the Ghost Raven trilogy, possibly juggling that with an urban fantasy/horror trilogy I’ve been thinking about (but haven’t started yet) and perhaps getting back to the literary fiction book I shelved a couple of years ago to write The Obituarist. I’ll be reading more books on devices but not giving up on hardcopy; writing on a newer computer that doesn’t crash quite as often; possibly experimenting with new digital publishing platforms, such as those for serial fiction, and seeing whether I can do anything with them. Oh, and I’d like to write some comics; interested artists should contact me. We can Kickstart it or something!
THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2014 Snapshot of Australian speculative fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 28 July to 10 August and archiving them at SF Signal. You can read interviews at: