Stephanie Gunn is a writer and one time (mad) scientist. She has had several short stories published, has been nominated for a Ditmar Award and won a Tin Duck award for her reviewing and fan writing. She reads slush for ASIM and is a regular Aurealis Awards judge, currently convening the Young Adult panel. She is currently at work on a contemporary fantasy novel, and lives in Perth, Western Australia with her husband, son, and requisite fluffy cat.
You’re a prolific reviewer (and judge) of speculative fiction, especially Australian works. Are there any particular challenges that are presented when reviewing Australian writers, given the nature of our community?
The main challenge, I think, is the size of the Australian speculative fiction community. We’re not a large community, and sometimes it feels like everyone knows everyone. It can be hard not to let bias creep into your reviews, especially if you’re reviewing a friend’s work or someone you admire. I’ve swung back and forth a few times about whether I should be reviewing work by people I know well, but I’ve come down firmly on the side that says that good work deserves attention. If I’m good friends with a writer or have beta read the story or book I’m reviewing, I try to note it in the review, and then I try to be as unbiased as possible in the review itself.
The same goes for awards judging, but I try to be even harder on myself, disconnecting as much as possible from the writer and only reading for the strength of the work. It really helps that the Aurealis Awards and the Australian Shadows Awards (both of which I’ve judged for) have a jury-based system, so even if one judge is jumping up and down about a friend’s book, if it’s really not that good, the other judges are there to talk them down. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky with the people I’ve been on judging panels with over the years, and everyone has been brilliant in reading works without bias coming through (or noting in discussions if they are friends with an author, just in case that is colouring their opinions at all).
I am constantly astonished by the vibrancy of our community, when it comes down to it. There are so many amazing writers who are producing incredible work, and there are reviewers like Tsana Dolvicha and Sean Wright who produce a lot of very thoughtful, insightful reviews and help spotlight Australian speculative fiction works. Even if their blogs inevitably make me buy books.
On your blog you have explored various approaches to the writing process. How important is a structured approach to you as a writer? What process have you found the most effective?
When I started writing with an eye to actually getting published, I was a hardcore pantser who believed that novels were some kind of magic that just flowed from the aether onto the page. I produced a couple of novels that way, writing in the odd scraps of time I had in between studying at university. Those novels are shoved deep in the metaphorical trunk, and deserve permanent incarceration there.
And just so no one thinks I’m dissing pantsers – I know it’s a method that works for many people. Kudos to you if your brain and subconscious works that way.
The thing is that, while I was writing this way, I was also studying science. My brain likes taking things apart, figuring out how they work, understanding them. As I’ve moved into actually getting serious about this whole writing thing, I’ve moved more and more to using a structured approach. I outline heavily now, even if I don’t always stick exactly to my outline. I’ve spent a lot of time studying different types of story structures. I don’t tend to write slavishly to any kind of structure, but these things – the three act structure and the hero’s journey, for example – are things that are hardwired into humans as storytelling animals. They’re tools that we can use as writers to deepen resonance, or to hang unfamiliar things on to help make them work for readers.
I’ve been experimenting a lot with process over the last few years – I’ve tracked word counts, tried not tracking, moaned a lot about how slow a writer I feel I am. Right now the current process that seems to be working is spending a month or so working up my characters and outlining (which runs 20-30 pages for a novel) and then belting out a really bad first draft as fast as possible. This sits for at least a few weeks, then I go back and re-outline and then redraft. At this stage, I send to at least one beta reader, then rinse and repeat. At line editing stage, I use Scrivener to read the text back to me to listen for odd phrasing and the like (I cannot recommend this enough to every writer). I also retype all my drafts fully, which I cannot recommend to any writer who wants to keep their wrists intact. I hope to break myself of that need at some stage in the future.
I’ve also had a lot of recent success using the Magic Spreadsheet to track my word counts. I’ve tried tracking on my own, doing a general “don’t break the chain” thing, but the Magic Spreadsheet seems to click for the way my brain works.
You’ve also been very open about your health issues. How much impact does this have on your writing, and what advice would you offer to other writers facing similar issues?
For those who don’t know, I have lupus and fibromyalgia, the onset of which came halfway through my PhD in immunology/genetics. I limped through the latter half of my studies and finished, though I was too sick to even go to my graduation, and almost immediately went onto a disability support pension. Having to give up a career in science shattered me for a long time, and I spent quite a few years in a deep depression about it, not really able to do much of anything. Though I did keep writing, even if it was only a few words a day. It took a few years to get diagnosed, but once I did, and started getting medicated appropriately, things started to improve.
I have been extraordinarily lucky in the amount of support I’ve had – my family and my husband support me 100%, and I’m even luckier that my husband has a stable income, which means that I don’t have to work outside of the home. It breaks my heart that I know so many other people with disabilities and/or chronic illness who don’t get the support they need. There’s this pervasive idea in the media and community that people who are chronically ill are bludgers, which couldn’t be further from the truth – everyone I know who deals with illness would love to work, if only the jobs existed that could work with their limitations.
A lot of my life revolves around illness management. I have to be really careful about getting enough rest – napping if needed – and I need to eat well and keep exercising within my limits. For me, I’ve found that a huge part of my self-esteem comes from being productive and feeling like I contribute something to my chosen community (hence the reviewing, awards judging and slush reading). In terms of writing, I try to produce something every day, even if it’s awful and I delete it the next day. If I balance everything well, at the moment I can work between 1-4 hours a day (more usually 1-2 hours), but I always have to remind myself that in a day or a week or a month everything might crash again. I can be very guilty of pushing too hard, trying to cram in lots of work to stash against the bad days, but I’m working on that.
My advice to other writers is to cherish any support you have. Find what makes you feel useful, and pursue it – even if it’s writing one word a day, that is still writing. Inform yourself about your illness and be proactive with your medical team. Don’t hesitate to fire doctors, but also remember that they’re human, too, and they can make mistakes. The internet is your friend – there are so many little communities for people with chronic illness popping up. I’ve found Instagram to be particularly useful (search for the hashtag #spoonie and you will find so many other people struggling and achieving and commiserating together).
The main thing is this: you are not alone and you are not useless.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Alan Baxter’s “Bound” and Marianne de Pierres’ “Peacemaker” are both brilliant beginnings to new urban fantasy series. I loved Alexis Wright’s “The Swan Book” and Ambellin Kwaymullina’s first two books in the “Tribe” series and am looking forward to the sequels. Allyse Near’s “Fairytales for Wilde Girls” is also incredible.
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?
I always thought that I’d only ever want to pursue the traditional publishing path – get an agent who sells your book to a big publisher etc etc. And I still would like to pursue that path – but I am also conscious of the fact that what I write isn’t necessarily going to be something that a traditional publisher is going to find marketable. And that’s okay, because writers have so many other options now. For example, we have a multitude of small presses in Australia who are doing amazing things – in particular, Ticonderoga Publications and Twelfth Planet Press stand out for me as really striving to produce work that stands strong both in Australia and internationally.
Ideally, I’d like to purse a two-pronged path: publishing both through traditional means and also exploring self-publishing. And when I talk about self-publishing, I talk about making an investment in your career, which means paying a good editor for a full structural edit, paying someone to format your book, paying someone for good cover art. I’ve seen more than one writer desperate to have their name on a book literally slapping some free stock art on a first draft and lobbing it at Amazon, and it frustrates me, because if they had taken the time to rewrite, to edit or pay for editing, they might have had something that really stood out. In saying that, there are more than a few writers who are doing a fabulous job of self publishing – Patty Jansen and Andrea K Host are both authors who people could do well to look to before exploring self publishing.
I think we as writers are really lucky to have so many options right now, but it also works against us in that there are so many books being published, and its easy for your work to be lost in the morass.
In five years, I hope I’ll be at the point of having at least one book published and being read. The novels that I’m currently working on are contemporary fantasy, but I also have a weird steampunk dystopia setting (which I used in the story “Escapement”, recent published in Ticonderoga’s “Kisses by Clockwork” and in an interrelated story, “Pinion”, hopefully to be published soon) which I hope to expand into a novel. Mostly I want to be working in contemporary and mythic fantasy, though.