Snapshot 2014: Patrick O’Duffy

patrick o'duffyPATRICK 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


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?

obituarist by patrick o'duffyIt’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!

2014 aussie spec fiction snapshot

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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:

Snapshot 2012: Patrick O’Duffy

australian speculative fiction snapshot 2012 logoMELBOURNE-based writer Patrick O’Duffy has been writing since he was a little kid; he’s been writing stuff that’s good enough for others to read for, well, less time than that. He has been a freelance RPG writing for companies such as White Wolf and Green Ronin, where he got to work on the revival of Lynn Abbey’s Thieves’ World setting.

Since moving to Melbourne from Brisbane several years ago, he’s given up game writing and focused more on shorter-form fiction, which he publishes independently as e-books. They include the dark fantasy novella Hotel Flamingo and the horror anthology Godheads, plus his new crime novella The Obituarist. Upcoming work includes another anthology (this time of flash fiction), a sequel to The Obituarist, a YA fantasy novella and a serious literary novel that he’ll be trying to get published through the usual channels.

All this and more can be found at his website,, where he also blogs about writing and reading and similar things. Sometimes there are pictures.

Your previous e-books have been genre-blurring horror-tinged tales. What influenced you to head into crime territory with The Obituarist?
I think every story has a core that can be expressed in a number of ways, and that the best way to find the right expression is to start with the core and work outwards to the story, rather than work from the story and try to find its core. So while I’ve done a lot of horror and fantasy writing – and I’m going to do more – I’m always read to follow an idea down a different path.

The Obituarist is a story about the way technology changes the way we live and in doing so changes some of the ways we think about death. You can write a story like that as speculative fiction, certainly, and I think there are some great paths it could take – in fact, some of my earliest thinking on the ‘social media undertaker’ concept was along spec-fic lines. But to write a story about how technology affects us right now, rather than how it might affect us in the future, I had to keep things grounded in the real and the modern day. And if I’m going to do that, well, a crime story lets me have some fun with the concept and include some chase scenes and gruesome deaths. That’s a win in my book.

What’s the most challenging or annoying element to publishing an e-book, and the greatest joy?
The challenging part is the part that comes after publishing – trying to get people to hear about it and to consider reading it. There’s so much out there at the moment and more every day, especially independently published ebooks. Some are very good and a lot more are very bad, but good and bad get just as much attention and seem pretty much the same to buyers. To stand out you need to spend as much or more time promoting your work than writing something new; you have to use word-of-mouth, push books at reviewers, monitor social media for opportunities.

I find that challenging. It turns me from a writer into a publisher, a publicist, a marketer. None of which are roles I particularly want to fill, but the alternative is having my books vanish without trace as soon as they’re released. Which I don’t really want, oddly enough. So I do my best to be honest about what I’m doing, to stop short of spamming people with constant ads for my stuff and to genuinely share the passion I have for writing with others.

As for joy, well, I think a lot of indie authors get great joy from maintaining control over their work, and not having to concede to the demands of publishers or editors. For me, though, it’s the immediacy and the freedom to experiment with extent, form or structure. I like the way that I can take a finished, edited manuscript and have it up on sale 10 minutes later. And, yes, then have to tweak the file to get it right and upload it again, but the principle is sound. I like writing novellas and short fiction and having an avenue to publish them even though they’re difficult to make financially viable in print. There’s room to try things in e-publishing, because even if you won’t make money you also won’t lose very much, and sometimes it’s acceptable to spend a few hundred dollars to do something you believe in.

How has your experience writing role-playing games informed your fiction writing?
Primarily it’s taught me about the importance of positioning the things that matter in a story – whether those are plot elements or core themes – at the centre of the story and making sure that the rest of the material revolves around those points. RPG settings tend to be filled with tiny little bits, like plot hooks and non-player characters and Sudden Looming Dangers. It can be a lot of fun to think up things like that, but it’s easy to make them too self-contained – to come up with, say, some kind of political intrigue that is all about three NPCs, or a terrifying dragon that stays in a cave scheming and never comes out. Things like that are interesting in concept but dead boring in play because they don’t contain a space for the players’ characters to become pivotal parts of the story. World building for its own sake can be fun, but a big part of successful RPG setting design is making sure that everything in that world can matter to the players, even if it doesn’t right away.

To extend that concept over to fiction writing, I always try to identify the important things in a story – the main characters, obviously, but also themes and motifs and the like – and make sure that every event and turn and additional character in the story connects directly to those things. The Obituarist, for instance, is a story about death and identity as well as a crime story. That’s the core – two themes and a set of genre markers. So everything starts from that basis, every scene needs to be relevant to at least part of that core, and everything has to have a hook or angle that directly draws in the main character, social media undertaker Kendall Barber.

That’s not exactly an insight that’s unique to RPGs. But writing those – and running and playing them – is what really drove it home to me.

What Australian works have you loved recently?
Most of the Australian work I like tends to be either literary fiction or crime fiction. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s because the Australian voice lends itself well to both introspection on our place in the world and violence without proper thought of consequences. Or maybe it’s because I don’t spend enough time looking at Australian speculative fiction. That’s probably more likely.

In any event, the Australian books I’ve really loved of late include Tom Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing, Nicki Greenberg’s Hamlet, Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore and Truth and Benjamin Law’s The Family Law.

What have been some of the biggest changes in Australian speculative fiction in the past two years since Aussiecon 4?
This is another point where I have to confess ignorance.

Actually, no, wait, there is something I’ve noticed – the degree to which Australian spec-fic is moving online. There are obvious changes like Aurealis becoming an e-book periodical, but I’m also seeing a lot more independent and small e-books coming, such as Alan Baxter’s Darkest Shade of Grey, which The Penny Red Papers published as both a free website and a cheap e-book.

The difficult part sometimes is knowing that these are Australian works, because the internet puts them right alongside American and British works and presents them as equals. Well, in theory. In practice, e-book readers still gravitate to writers they know, and Australian writers have to work hard to gain some visibility from international readers who might then recommend their books to their peers. It’s still not automatic, but it’s easier than it used to be.

And that’s something, right?

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THIS interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Snapshot of Australian Speculative Fiction. We’re blogging interviews from 1-8 June and archiving them at Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus. You can read interviews at: