How I manage the money part of writing


I’m writing this post for two reasons - firstly, because finances are an omnipresent train of thought for me. I’ve always been a bit interested in money, an extension of an interest in numbers. However, it was really the experience of being both poorly advised and flagrantly defrauded by actual licensed financial advisors that really sharpened my desire to be in full informed control of all things money. That experience is fortunately in the 10+ plus past now, and I’ve long left behind the idea that managing money is in any way mystical. There’s a lot of bullshit around in the financial world, but I’ve hard-earned the confidence to call it now.

***This is where I’ll put the disclaimer that I am not a financial advisor, and nothing in this post should be taken as financial advice. I’m sharing my approach to managing writing income for the interest of fellow writers. You should talk to your own accountant to discuss your own situation.

The second reason is the reminder in Peter M Ball’s newsletter today about the subject of writers and money. Writers tend to get lumped together into the artsy-and-no-good-with-money stereotype. And let’s face it, for many, spreadsheets are the enemy. But writing is one of the hardest professions to make a living at, and the money can be sporadic and its easy to get caught out with taxes. So, in the spirit of sharing strategies, I’m putting down here how I do it. I’m a bit ruthless, with good reason.

  1. Keep track. There is fancy accounting software, but I use a simple spreadsheet to track Expenses, Invoices, Car kms, Travel, and BAS calcs (each on a separate tab). The spreadsheet automatically calculates certain things, like how much I can claim from an expense, or how to distribute any income (more on that below).

  2. Record invoices. Each time I issue an invoice, I record it in the invoices tab, and the sheet tracks how long it’s been since I sent any particular invoice. That allows me to easily follow up on tardy payers. And there are many.

  3. Divide each piece of income into set pieces. This is the really practical part. There’s nothing regular about my income, so the only way to do this is to divide each and every payment** that comes in, no matter how big or small: **after removing 10% GST for Australian income - if you’re not registered you don’t have to do this.

    • 15% for super. The current mandatory super payment for employees is, I think, 9.5%. But the word for a long time is that this isn’t sufficient, so I pay myself 15%. I don’t see this as optional. I also use an ultra low-cost fund, because the fees are what robs you in the long term (I use the Barefoot Investor’s approach on that front). Super isn’t sexy, but it’s important. I pay the owed amount into my fund about every quarter.

    • 20% for tax. I hold the tax in a separate account (along with GST, super and operating costs) until I do my BAS each quarter, and any extra until tax return time. Most years, I earn not very much and so I get most of that back as a “refund” (plus I pay installments with my BAS). No one likes being caught out owing money and having none to pay it, though, so I keep the tax aside. For my level of income, 20% has proved to be more than enough.

    • 15% for operating costs. My business has costs - paper, internet bills, advertising, books, conferences, flights. That money should come where possible from the business … if it’s coming from somewhere else, than the business isn’t profitable. Many writers run unprofitable businesses, especially in the early years, but holding 15% of my income for expenses irons out the worries I have about meeting, say, a membership renewal when it falls due.

    • What’s left (50%) into my pocket. It doesn’t feel great to have each payment cut in half before it lands in my bank, but that’s how I run things. I can’t imagine how I would plan for the future, avoid tax surprises, and have operating money any other way. It’s a hard truth, but I believe that if I can’t live on the 50% that’s left, then my writing isn’t a viable job, it’s a side hustle (and this is me). And that means I’m doing other things, too, like teaching. But my income is still important; even with a working spouse many of us aren’t solvent on that other person’s income. So I treat it importantly. It’s part of maintaining the health of the business.

    • I further split that 50% in my pocket into different pots in my “normal” accounts, which includes spending, saving, and long-term investing. I’m not going to get into that here … just to say that personal finances are a bit like the sun for many people - painful to look at for long. But having been through the utter grossness of being under heavy debt after the GFC, I find it now better to stare the money reality in the face and make long term plans I can stick to. If you don’t know where to start, I would recommend the Barefoot Investor’s approach. I have found it doable.

  4. Take care with expenses. I’ve found many writers with misconceptions about what you can claim as an expense. For example, to my knowledge, you can’t claim your “business lunch” with writer colleagues, unless you’re actually away from home overnight. You can, however, claim a portion of movie tickets (as narrative education), and there are ways to even out your income over the years … this comes from having an arts-specialist accountant. I strongly encourage you to try and find one.

  5. Record all travel. Travel has particular rules around what you can claim - I need to be working a certain number of hours each day to claim that day. I keep a travel log to keep all that above board. I also periodically keep a log of phone and computer use so I can justify the percentage I claim for my business expenses.

  6. Separate business accounts - one for expenses, one for lay-away. I use linked accounts - one is a transaction account with a debit Visa (income comes in here, and expenses go out), the other a high-interest savings account (that’s where all the super, tax, GST and operating expenses money goes when each invoice gets divided). My account has an auto-top-up feature, so I don’t ever worry that there won’t be money there if, say, I’m running Amazon Ads, or a website renewal comes in.

  7. Avoid credit like the poxy plague it is. Credit cards are awful, and seductive. I run things without one now, and it’s freedom to do so. See above about operating expenses … if I don’t have the money, I don’t have the money. If there’s something I want to do that the business can’t afford (like a conference trip), then I have to be prepared to pay for it from other savings. Writing incomes are so fickle … I won’t add debt into that mix ever again.

So that’s the essentials. There are other things I could talk about, like how I organise expense and invoice filing, but I think that’s enough for now. If anyone’s interested in a blank copy of my tracking spreadsheet, I’m happy to share it. I wish everyone fortitude in dealing with the numbers, especially if it’s not your thing.

Post-RWA report: The immaculate Nalini Singh

I’ve just returned home from the annual Romance Writers of Australia conference in Melbourne. I haven’t made it much in recent years, mostly because of the small child, and I go for different reasons now than I did at the beginning of my writing life. One constant remains though: RWA is, above all things, a beautiful community of supportive writers who all love what we do and are generous to everyone else. On that theme, I thought that this time I would write about one particular highlight of RWAus2019, which was Nalini Singh.

Nalini Singh is prolific and accomplished writer of romance, in several sub-genres including urban fantasy and sci-fi. I first discovered her writing through a friend who recommended her Psy-Changling series, and then in Rosmary’s Romance bookstore in Brisbane, I bought a collection of novellas (Angel’s Flight) that introduced me to her Guild Hunter series, which is still my favourite (I may or may not have made an undignified squeal when Angel’s Flight was mentioned in a conference session…). In any case, Nalini’s longevity in the industry and her legions of fans are testament to her skill and professionalism, but she also just happens to be a wonderful human as well.

If you don’t know Nalini Singh and her work, get thee to a bookstore!

If you don’t know Nalini Singh and her work, get thee to a bookstore!

For a time we shared a publisher, so we’ve met on some past social occasions and my publisher even sent me some signed copies of her books (no doubt after a fan-girling I must have unleashed in her direction). On all those occasions, as at the RWA conference, she’s been down-to-earth and approachable, in a way that’s not always true of mega-star authors. She’s also a fantastic teacher, presenting two high-value sessions at RWA - one on writing series, the other on novellas. I go to her sessions (as I’m sure many of us do) because they are guaranteed to be well-prepared, thoughtful and valuable insights into the craft of writing, all delivered with the non-nonsense approach that someone as successful as Nalini must possess. She has thoroughly earned every craft skill she has, through the only way any of us do: writing lots and lots of stories. And she is generously sharing that knowledge back to the community. She doesn’t have to do that. She could easily choose not to come, but I think this is the lovely thing about the guild-like world of writing. You can go to the conference and be in the orbit of writers you so greatly admire, and it feel completely natural and wonderful.

My favourite piece of advice from one of these sessions was in response to a question about marketing the first book in a series. Nalini’s answer was (and I’m paraphrasing here): Your job is to write, so spend your time there and not on marketing. Finish a series of books or novellas, and then maybe do a marketing push on the first one. Think long-term, which means creating something readers can really engage with.

I really liked that because advice (particularly from the indie side of the business) is often about the frantic need to do marketing, to spend the majority of time on that rather than writing. I struggle with that all the time, and especially post-conference, with all the marketing ideas I’ve absorbed from other people. But that’s not the core business of being a writer. It’s not the reason I got into this line of work. Instead, it’s more the SS that you have to swallow. But the writing should come first.

So, that’s my take-away this year. That the writing will come first. And so I wanted to credit Nalini Singh with that cut-through clarity, and wish her many many more years of fantastic stories ahead.

My much-handled copy of  Angel’s Flight

My much-handled copy of Angel’s Flight

I got it signed at GenreCon in 2017 … which reminds me that  GenreCon 2019  is coming soon.

I got it signed at GenreCon in 2017 … which reminds me that GenreCon 2019 is coming soon.

The Sunday Circle

The Sunday Circle is an initiative of Peter M Ball, aimed at fostering a community of creatives. It asks three check-in questions, and you can read Peter’s post for this week here, which also contains links for the rationale and how to participate yourself, if you’d like. I don’t make it every week, and I also usually post them over on my other blog, because it feels more natural to talk about the full breadth of my writing practice (including all the sci-fi and fantasy) there. However, this week it feels like it fits more comfortably here, so here we go :)

What are you working on this week?

It’s marking season at university, so this week I have the tail-end of that to do, mostly essays that have extensions. I generally enjoy marking - I learn incredible things from my students, and I’m exposed to a host of new ideas, new content, and new thoughts, along with the practice being part of ongoing craft development for myself. The part that’s less enjoyable is the time crush to have everything in by a certain date, but generally that’s manageable.

Other than marking, I return to my thesis this week. I’ll have both the novel and exegesis draft back from the respective readers, so it’s really in my court now to clean everything up and compile the final document for submission. I’m about 5-6 weeks away from that.

In one further job, I need to send my thesis novel manuscript out on query, so it can join my next Charlotte Nash book in being out for consideration and hoping to find a publishing home for it.

What’s inspiring me this week?

The Emerging Writer’s Festival. I’ve been privileged to be a festival ambassador this year, and I’m writing this blog from the green room at The Wheeler Centre, the main conference venue. I’ve met so many enthusiastic early-career creatives, and more established writers and professionals. I’ve a whole page of thoughts and valuable contributions I’ve taken away from the discussions, This is the incredible benefit of in-person attendance at industry events. And while there is also always a rub - chiefly in the comparisons we all naturally make to others - I’ve learned how to debrief afterwards to take the benefits forward and leave the doubt mostly behind.

Some of the highlights for me have been meeting (and being on a panel) with Melbourne author Melanie Cheng, who writes sensitive and powerful stories of modern Australia. If your enjoy literary work, I can recommend checking her out. Also, mindfulness facilitator Andrea Featherstone, whose session on mindfulness and guided meditation was an excellent reminder of the benefits all writers can find in training our attention. Finally all my 5x5 rules of writing co-panelists: Toni Jordan, who was so funny and reminded us to take care of our backs; Maria Tumarkin, who gave the most artistic and lyrical anti-rules treatise I’ve ever heard; Alison Whittaker, who reminded us of the value of sometimes stepping away from writing; and Katherine Brabon, who spoke about being comfortable with gaps and silences, among other things. You can find links to them all here. Lastly, Carl (Karl?), an aspiring romance writer whose attitude and enthusiasm made my day. I wish everyone I met the very best with their writing.

What action do I need to take?

I need to close out marking and some other teaching obligations early in the week, and remain focused on the thesis after that, ahead of useful time becoming difficult in the school holidays.

In the background there’s the niggling need to plan for what happens when my scholarship ends (also in about 6 weeks), and start re-jigging the finances to cater for it. Oh, and being the end of the quarter and financial year, there’s the check-list of business things to attend to so I can rule a line under the year, and start the next one.

The prophetic unicorn

Today, in the weekly grocery shop, I noticed another incursion of the unicorn into a familiar brand. Kellogg's LCMs now have unicorn line, joining the Coles brand unicorn icecream cones we've been scoffing in this house of late (though I prefer the mermaid flavour). Last year, unicorn hair colour was everywhere. Then there was unicorn toast. And frappacinos. Blow up pool toys (our neighbours have one). Make-up. In fact, I’m reasonably sure if you scroll back my insta feed you’ll find a unicorn biscuit there, too.

A desecration on the memory of the unicorn. But new and probably delicious! ***I’m not being paid to put any of these products here. Just so as you know.

A desecration on the memory of the unicorn. But new and probably delicious!
***I’m not being paid to put any of these products here. Just so as you know.

These may or may not have been frequently purchased in the it’s 8:30 and the kid is asleep supermarket treat run.

These may or may not have been frequently purchased in the it’s 8:30 and the kid is asleep supermarket treat run.

This infiltration of the unicorn into product brands is not new or narrow; it's a huge current thing as has already been noted in other pieces here, here and here (if you yourself had been under a rock and missed it).

These pieces point out what's fairly obvious – right-now unicorns are synonymous with rainbows, positivity, and whimsy that draws on a deep nostalgia from childhood – especially if you grew up with My Little Pony. The thing is, these unicorns aren't what I remember from my childhood.

I had two main sources of narrative as a child – the Story Time compendiums (Storyteller in other countries, I believe) and cinema. The two depictions of unicorns in my nostalgia vault are the ferocious beast variety who basically horn-skewered anyone who wasn't a virgin, and The Last Unicorn. Both align with more classical ideas of the unicorn – rare, mystical, elusive – but it's the latter that really burned their imprint into me.

From “The Bold Little Taylor”,  Story Time , Issue 21, pp.561-567. No fluff and rainbows here.

From “The Bold Little Taylor”, Story Time, Issue 21, pp.561-567. No fluff and rainbows here.

The Last Unicorn , with the source of many a childhood nightmare, the Red Bull. The Unicorn also comes sans rainbows … though according to the title song, she does sparkle.

The Last Unicorn, with the source of many a childhood nightmare, the Red Bull. The Unicorn also comes sans rainbows … though according to the title song, she does sparkle.

Okay, so revamped posters have a rainbow. Somehow I think that’s recent.

Okay, so revamped posters have a rainbow. Somehow I think that’s recent.

The Last Unicorn is a book, but I saw the cartoon version. Incidentally, it’s another 80s animation in the anime tradition, like Astroboy, The Lost Cities of Gold, Belle and Sebastian, and this whole musing might have been sparked by an Insta post yesterday remembering another, Ulysses 31. I’ve only recently realised how many of my narrative exposure comes from them. But I digress.

In the story, unicorns have been disappearing from the world and their magic and life going with them. We follow the last free unicorn as she journeys to find what's become of her sisters, and discovers they have been driven into the sea by the (terrifying) Red Bull, the fiery agent of a privileged noble who enjoys watching them in the surf. Along the way, the unicorn makes friends, spends time as a human, and ultimately has to choose between love and a human life, and her true form. Definitely not a Disney movie.

Fracking terrifying. Just sayin’. Also, life can feel a lot like this sometimes.

Fracking terrifying. Just sayin’. Also, life can feel a lot like this sometimes.

Even as a child, I found the film full of yearning for better times past. It's all about nostalgia for when magic used to be real, in a world on the brink of forgetting. People of the world can't even see the magical creatures that still exist – they are blind to them without a glamour. The suspense of the story is between the hope that the world can be magical again, and the fear that the unicorn will be just like all her sisters – driven into slavery by the Red Bull. It absolutely haunted me as a story.

The dark broody palate of the film matches the end-of-epoch vibe. Life right now often feels a good deal like this.

The dark broody palate of the film matches the end-of-epoch vibe. Life right now often feels a good deal like this.

This same kind of yearning is what many commentators ascribe to the current unicorn incarnation – with a zeitgeist that worries about the fate of the world and sees dark and bleak signs, the rainbow fluffy unicorn is an antidote. It's fun. It's easy. It's the hot air balloon that lifts you away from the dark place.

The thing is though … I keep thinking about The Last Unicorn. In that story, the noble man strips the unicorns of their power in keeping them in the sea. The exist for his pleasure, at his direction. They are beauty and grace, yes, but they no longer keep forests alive. They no longer visit young women as a rite of passage. They have been stripped of function, reduced purely to aesthetic form. It's hard not to see unicorns on so many commercial products as similarly stripped of their power. To not see them as beautiful shells stripped of other functions by commercial machines.

I'm not against this unicorn-of-the-moment. I'm all for fun and whimsy (and the ice-cream is delicious). But there is something inside me that pales walking down the aisles of the supermarket. That says, unicorns aren't about rainbows and fun and antigravitas. Unicorns are questing creatures. They represent the moments of clarity, vision, tenacity, that come perhaps only a few times in our lives. And maybe that’s really what we need.

I'm trying to hold onto that idea, despite the inclination to ride the rainbow hot air balloon somewhere nicer. The dark bleak world of The Last Unicorn sometimes feels a lot like our world right now, as if my 80s childhood stories had come from writers who’d seen worlds like now before, and had survived to tell tales about them. And in this particular story, it was the facing down of the Bull that let the magic back in.

Unicorns, unleashed!

Unicorns, unleashed!

… and if you’ve never seen the movie, it boasts some big names as voice actors including Mia Farrow, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee. Check it out.

To swear or not to swear ... ?

I’ve noticed a trend on review sites, of one-star reviews that come from readers offended and angry about finding swear words in romance novels. Often these readers specify they’ve returned the book, got their money back, but decided to leave a one-star review anyway. According to these readers, a romance shouldn’t have swears. It means there’s nothing redeemable about the story.

I’ve got these reviews myself. Lately, for my first book, a reviewer found it “peppered” with the f-word. (For interest, the f-word appears 13 times in all 360+pages, the first in Chapter 3 in the context of a very rude patient, the next in Chapter 5 from a very fearful patient, and again the third in Chapter 8 where the rude patient is now a thief and threatening the heroine. There isn’t another until Chapter 18.)

Now, I know swearing is not everyone’s jam, and one person’s light profanity is another person’s shock-horror. I’m not here to respond to a review, but I am curious about this.

Swearing is a fascinating subject for me. I include it in my stories for different reasons - sometimes to authentically represent the dialogue of people in particular groups and display their style of social bonding. My first three novels are particularly like this - maybe we swear more in Australia, but I’ve never been on a mine, or a construction site, or a remote location where no one was dropping the f-bomb, sometimes worse.

Research supports these aspects of swearing - that it has important social functions. It helps to prevent physical violence by giving big emotions a verbal outlet. It’s used as a kind of social bonding in all kinds of groups. Studies also counter many widespread cultural beliefs we have about swearing - it absolutely is not a mark of a lower-class or dumber person - swearing is found in all social classes. And, the all-time kicker, it doesn’t corrupt children, despite the fact that we all seem to carry the hang-up that we shouldn’t swear around them. This paradox in itself is interesting.

So, swearing (and other taboo words) have an incredibly interesting place in our language. It’s processed in a different part of our brain to other language, and becomes associated with strong emotions. This is why more swearing seems to come out when we’re really upset or angry. But it’s also a thing that does seem to require a lot of social information to allow us to deploy swearing “correctly” (that is, to try avoiding offence). So, you know not to swear around someone’s grandparents you just met, but at a bar watching a game, you might think very differently. Intent also seems to matter - words said in anger or to hurt are often more offensive than words meant humorously (though again, one person’s humour is not another’s).

Maybe this is the issue with books - being a text-based thing, that social context isn’t the same. A reader can easily come to a novel like mine expecting that romance doesn’t have swears, and then be rudely (to them) surprised.

I’m proud of my books, all of them. I’m not shamed by the language I’ve used - it’s part of who I am and part of some of my characters. I think taboo words play a huge role in our language and society and I want them in my word palate. I’m sorry I don’t meet every reader’s expectations, but that’s the game. I’m sad to get one-star reviews over this issue, but really, there’s nothing I can do about that either.

So, what do you think? Does swearing in a story put you off? Curious to hear what you think.

All Patrons' Day – 1 December

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of it for another.” —- Charles Dickens

Last year we started a new tradition in this house where 1 December became "All Patrons' Day". In short, it's a day to allocate a some pre-Christmas budget before shopping takes over and exhausts the funds.

I use this as a chance to donate to content makers whose work I consume (mostly podcasts, but also app developers), and charitable organisations. It's also a good opportunity to review any regular donations or patronages that might go out monthly.

I like 1 December because generosity of spirit is high right now, and it sets a nice tone heading into the holidays. Now, I know that #givingtuesday has just gone last week, and if that floats your boat, all fine. The outcome is what matters. I like 1 December because it's easier to remember, and I'll be honest – I hadn't heard of #givingtuesday until I started writing this.

We're lucky to live in one of the most affluent countries in the world, so I like this pause in the middle of the Halloween/Christmas/New Year rush and tumble to put some of that affluence in someone else's hands. In many ways, the world is actually improving (despite the messages in the news cycle), but I'm also aware of how much creative content I consume free these days, along with the work of many organisations I want to support. This is everyone's personal decision to make, but for me, it's something I really believe in.

This year, our "All Patrons" list includes a mix of Australian and International groups:

Podcast collectives:



We thank all the people involved with the above organisations for entertaining, informing, and doing great work in the last year. Here's to a bigger and better 2019!

Have you been shamed for your reading choices? Why denying what you love is denying yourself.

In this video/audio, I talk about one of my pet hates - the marginalising and shaming of someone’s reading choices. Many readers of romance and science fiction have experienced this in their lives, but undoubtedly it isn’t limited to those genres. Through my PhD reserach into the neuroscience of reading, I’ve really come to appreciate how “story” is a collaboration between reader and text, and that reader has their own memories and knowledge that make the story meaningful. That really questions the absolutist idea of “value” in literature, and the idea that anyone should be shamed about what they enjoy reading, whether it’s for pleasure or for meaning.

You can also follow this link to SoundCloud.

Cheers, Charlotte (proud romance and science fiction reader).

Book Review - A trio of vintage Agatha Christie


I have no idea why, but I had a hankering for classic whodunnits this past fortnight. Maybe it’s because I’m editing a thriller, and a crime mystery is a nice adjacent genre without being too much the same. Because I’d seen the new Kenneth Branagh version of Murder on the Orient Express earlier this year (not at all motivated by certain small persons’s obsession with trains in this household), I gravitated to Agatha Cristie - not just one, but perhaps three of her most famous Hercule Poirot novels: Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Death on the Nile.

That’s the order in which I read them this time, but not the order in the Hercule Poirot novels - Roger Ackroyd is the earliest (#3 - 1926), then Orient Express (#8 - 1934), then Death on the Nile (#15 - 1937). Note in these numbers I neglect the short story collection and adapted play that sometimes have the books at #4, #10 and #17. Such the confusion.

I’ve read Orient Express before, but not for several years, since I was working on The Horseman (which has a crime subplot and a character obsessed with Christie, and who lends the book to the heroine). I’m sure Agatha Christie is a favourite homage for novelists - I still remember Kate Morton’s The Shifting Fog hinging around a character who was devoted to Christie novels, and a mistruth she tells as a result.

But I digress!

The review!

All three novels are masterful stories that are tight and engaging, despite a huge number of the scenes being simply people in a room talking to each other. Hercule Poirot’s personality carries a great deal of the page traction - he is a classic iconic character, one whose defining feature is their collected and unchanging ideosyncratic behaviours, a personality that confers particular advantage in resolving the situation of the story. Much of the tension and the reading pleasure comes from Poirot’s theory testing, running the crime through our eyes in different forms, while as the reader you try to remember little details and ask if they fit.

I read all three novels in under two weeks, a herculean (no pun intended) feat for me, even in Audiobook, so that’s a testament to their aweseomness. And it’s a testment to Christie that the books withstand early correct presumptions of the ending - I have an annoying habit (very mild superpower??) of anticipating twist endings. I worked out The Usual Suspects in the first twenty minutes, and I had my murderer sussed in both Nile and Roger Ackroyd early in the piece, the latter a book made famous for its resolution. I had the same suspicion of the ending when I saw Orient in film. But this minor annoying superpower of seeing-it-coming doesn’t dampen the experience.

Mysteries are more about how the discovery is made, as they are about the revelation. This is why the personality of the investigator matters so much - Poirot’s mind and affectations are a spectacle to watch at work. Anyone who reads romance knows this is true - knowing the ending is not the point; it’s how we arrive at that ending, the pleasure of seeing how it all unfolds, how the character will overcome the obstacles in their way to arrive at “the end”.

I recommend all three novels (if I was being tortured with promise of a mock cream donut, I’d rate Orient my fave, closely followed by Roger Ackroyd and then Nile, but there’s nothing in it). Agatha Christie is an eduring and celebrated novelist for a good reason, and for work published now up to 90 years ago (staggering!) the stories still feel fresh. Kenneth Branagh’s audio narration of Orient is wonderful. He was criticised for making Poirot less perculiar in the film than in previous adaptations, but I found I could move between different incarnations of Poirot without being bothered (I listened to the narrations by Hugh Fraser for Roger Ackroyd and David Suchet for Nile). I read that Kenneth Branagh will be releasing a new adaptation of Death on the Nile in 2019. All Christie, all the time.

Click on below for the trailer for Murder on the Orient Express if you haven’t seen it yet. The cinematography is breathtaking. I so want to go on the orient express - though with less murder would be grand. Links also to all three novels on Goodreads.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Murder on the Orient Express
Death on the Nile

Double Review: Crazy Rich Asians (book + film)

If you'd prefer to listen or watch this review, choose the audio track or video below, or read on for the text!

How did I discover this book/film?

I saw a trailer for the Crazy Rich Asians film when I was seeing another movie, and then the book turned up in my audible feed, so I decided to read [or rather listen] to it first.

The review!

I'm a huge fan of romantic comedies – there's such a pleasure in those stories when they're done well. But they can be a bit samey – sometimes that's part of the pleasure, and sometimes it becomes tired. One of the great things about Crazy Rich Asians is that it sits broadly in romantic comedy, but is very different from other stories – the characters, the setting, it's all very much not Jenifer Aniston/Lopez. To be honest, I found the book a very slow start. Lots of characters to meet, and a lot of the opulent "world" to be built before the story really feels like it gets going. I wonder if I had been reading a hard copy if I would have stuck with it.

In audiobook, however, I pushed past that start, and the page traction picks up. It's very much a story about the setting – that over-the-top opulence is what makes it work, though there's enough story to be satisfying.

When I saw the movie, I was expecting a huge on-screen realisation of that opulent setting, and to be honest I was a little disappointed with how restrained it was compared to the book. The other dissatisfaction is that, while I think it's a good adaptation, the nuances and complexities of the secondary characters and subplots is completely missing.

The ending, particularly of Astrid's story and Rachel's family past, is very Hollywoodised and underdone in an unsatisfying way. It was odd to watch that, when the early scenes of the movie were straight takes from the book, even the bible study scene which I always thought stood out as not matching the rest of the book. I read somewhere that it was one of the originating scenes for the story, and it read that way – something that was a legacy and didn't quite belong. So double odd that the movie went with it anyway, but then departed so drastically from the book in all the wrap-up.

However, it's enjoyable to watch a rom-com without the usual suspects in the cast, and despite the other-worldly wealth, it does a good job of conveying a universality of romantic difficulties common to everyone. Plus it has some very funny moments!

It's rare for me to read a book so close to seeing the movie (the last time was Lord of the Rings), and it does create a strange story dissonance in my mind where it's hard to separate the two versions of the story, which might be one reason I found the film more unsatisfying. One thing is for sure though – I've never wanted to go eat in a Singapore food market more in my life.

Book – 4 couture dresses out of 5
Film – 3 mega-diamonds out of 5

Interested? Watch the trailer ...

TV Review: Younger


How did I discover this show?

Like a disturbing number of my streaming choices recently, I received the recommendation from fellow author Christine Wells, whose judgement I now rate highly after enjoying Lovesick (Netflix), which she also put me onto. I signed up for Stan (again) just to watch Younger, and very glad I did. The show is currently in season 5, an incredibly rare case of me actually cottoning onto a show before it goes off the air. Sadly, this also means I've caught up to the current episode and am having to exercise all my powers of delayed gratification to WAIT for the next one. Grrr. On the plus side, the series has renewed for season 6.

The review!

If you know nothing about it, Younger follows Liza Miller (Sutton Foster) a 40-year-old who pretends to be 26 to get a job in publishing after her marriage breaks up, and an expanding pool of friends and colleagues. While the show does centre on Liza, the ensemble cast is one of the huge strengths and pleasures of the show, with each character maintained in the story even when they are not directly in Liza's scenes. The show is also stuffed full of publishing industry in-jokes and literary references, which is titilating and for me, pumps the funny. The plot follows the ongoing consequences of Liza's lie as different circles of her acquaintence discover her secret.

The irrepressible Diana Trout

The irrepressible Diana Trout

The writing is tight and effective, a rare case of a drama genuinely keeping the romantic tension going on multiple fronts, and the plot has pleasantly surprised me more than once. The characters are fun to watch, and I have special affection for Head of Marketing Diana Trout (Miriam Shor) with her avant-garde fashion, endless necklace wardrobe and spectacular haughty derision. Ever since she quipped something about the "bottom feeders at Little, Brown" and I spat my tea, I have enjoyed her.

Then there's the ongoing debate between #teamjosh (Nico Tortorella) and #teamcharles (Peter Hermann). And I still don't know whose side I'm on. Do you take all that Joshian romantic passion and raw energy, or Charlesian restrained brooding and experience? I can't say ... and I love that.

Choices. Cruel choices.

Choices. Cruel choices.

In short, this is a binge-worthy, funny, romantic show, that still has some deep moments, dealing with friendship and intimacy, as well as generational changes in attitudes towards age, work, sex, and so much more.

5 New York moments out of 5

Interested? Watch the season 1 trailer. Zero spoilers. Honest.

If you're super interested, you'll find Younger on Stan.

Book Review: Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners


How did I discover this book?

I found Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners (hugh breath!) on a table somewhere in the labrynth of Barnes and Noble (Union Square) New York City. It wasn't on the ground floor, or particularly prominent, but the combination of risque cover (at least for the Victorians), the humour, and the fact I am researching the Victorian period for a book led me to hand over my money. I have no association with the author or publisher.

The review!

If you find historical era books a bit inaccessible, this book might be for you. It's fun, witty, and does a good job of using our expectations as modern day women to frame the differences in Victorian times. It's also transatlantic in focus, so you'll have examples from both the American Victorian era, and the British one. If you're a stickler for historical texts, the humourous style might get your hackles up, but it's an excellent introduction point if you want to dig further (a reference list is in the back). And if you're not researching, it's still entertaining. And occasionally sobering. Be glad to be a 21st century woman, I think.

Overall, I read the book very quickly, and I think I took more away from this about the lives of Victorian women than I have in a dozen drier, more traditional history books. A book that is trying to straddle the ground between entertainment and fact isn't an easy feat to pull off (when I get around to posting the review of Gut here, evidence will be presented), but Unmentionable does that for me. That's a win. Also, there is a sequel coming on children of the era - Ungovernable, I think.

5 tight corset stays out of 5

Interested? Here's the blurb from Goodreads

Ladies, welcome to the 19th century, where there's arsenic in your face cream, a pot of cold pee sits under your bed, and all of your underwear is crotchless. (Why? Shush, dear. A lady doesn't question.) 

UNMENTIONABLE is your hilarious, illustrated, scandalously honest (yet never crass) guide to the secrets of Victorian womanhood, giving you detailed advice on: 

~ What to wear
~ Where to relieve yourself
~ How to conceal your loathsome addiction to menstruating
~ What to expect on your wedding night
~ How to be the perfect Victorian wife
~ Why masturbating will kill you
~ And more

Irresistibly charming, laugh-out-loud funny, and featuring nearly 200 images from Victorian publications, UNMENTIONABLE will inspire a whole new level of respect for Elizabeth Bennett, Scarlet O'Hara, Jane Eyre, and all of our great, great grandmothers. 

(And it just might leave you feeling ecstatically grateful to live in an age of pants, super absorbency tampons, epidurals, anti-depressants, and not-dying-of-the-syphilis-your-husband-brought-home.) 

Super interested? Amazon | iBooks | Kobo

UK, Day 16 – Flying wood piranhas, and us, the stoopid tourists

I've done my share of tut-tutting the English tourists on Australian beaches, lobster red and yet still out baking. They're clearly dazzled by the appearance of this thing called sunshine we have in Australia, and in their enthusiasm to up the lifetime quota of Vitamin D, neglect the sunscreen. They may never had slip-slop-slap-(slide) ingrained in their cultural upbringing, but still, it's a stoopid tourist move. After all, who doesn't know about the Australian sun's ability to strip your epidermis before you can turn over?

The only thing is, I think I may have been a little premature in my judge-yness of English tourists in Australia. Might not be able to feel so on the high ground of touristy respect of the foreign country after this week.

You see, we Australians grow up in the pride of having the world's nastiest spiders, snakes, sharks, crocs, drop bears, creepy serial killers, et al. Basically, we think we have all the native aggressors stitched up. Come to Australia at your peril, ho ho ho, we have all the stuff that can get you. Of course, most of us are secure in the knowledge the worst we've ever actually experienced is a red back bite, and even those don't have the whispered deathly mystique they had in primary school. I've been bushwalking all over the place and never gotten anything worse than a leech.

So, on entering the English countryside, I saw endless cultivated fields and thought we were home free. Lo, this is the place where generations of my ancestors worked and lived. Everything nasty has been driven off. Nothing here can harm us!

Not so fast. Now, I realise that yes, there are endless fields. But all that seems to have done is concentrate the attack arsenal of all the stuff lurking in the woods and hedgerows.

First, there's Nettles. Not just one, but fields of fracking nettles. Not the faery story nettles that a princess beats into cloth for her swan brothers (which is absolutely bonkers), but glass-needle, histamine loaded dart tipped nettles. In groves, leaning over every path. Go play, I said to the three year old, and all was jolly. Until there was screaming. And welts. And more screaming. And googling what to do about nettle stings.

Second, Mosquitoes. Not just one or two sneaky ones, but whole fracking clouds of swarming mosquitoes that lurk in the cool of the woods, waiting for tasty tourist flesh to happen by. Unopposed, these things could suck out the blood of an adult human in thirty seconds. In fact, they're not mosquitoes anymore. They are flying wood piranhas. The real version of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would basically have ended after Kevin Costner said, "we can find safety and solace in the trees", when all the outcasts were instantly driven from the forest by hoard of flying wood piranhas.

Three, the Black Skin Lice. I'll admit, I don't know what these little beggars are called, but they're tiny crawly insects that get on you and crawl around until you squish them into tiny streaks of black. Which sadly, doesn't at all deter their dozens of friends.

Now, it is unseasonably hot weather, so the nettles and FWPs and BSL may have just gone crazy in the heat. But it's also true the houses have no screens. So until we can leave all the greebs behind this week, we just have to put up with them. And wear jeans against the nettles. Maybe this is why I never see anyone walking a bridleway? The only plus is that we have had plenty of sunscreen, so no one has been burned. I never thought I'd look on an Australian fly with nostalgia, but come our return to Oz this week, I just might.

London, Day 2 – The misadventure

When I finished the last post with a glib suggestion of travel misadventures, I was anticipating turning down a wrong street in London, or hilariously catching the tube the wrong direction up a line. Not what actually happened, which had to do with the flight from NY to London itself. My tardy posting about it (being it's currently London day 7) could be taken as time required to process the experience. Or just laziness, choosing to ingest Sainsbury's 75p croissants as if the rapture is tomorrow, instead of blogging.

So, here's a short summation of the journey from New York to London Stanstead, travelling with a low-cost carrier I'll call Scandi McBudget Air.

I reach Newark airport smoothly (subway, two trains). Drop bag. Query my seat allocation, which appears to be back in an exit row***. Counter staff says "I'm not going to change it". I shrug. Reach gate. Screen says "on time". Staff (who turn out to be cabin crew and flight crew) are standing around drinking coffees. Waiting. Waiting. Irate French woman yells at gate staff (we will soon discover what this is about). Flight finally boards over an hour late, all the while the screen merrily says "on time". Ha-dee-ha.  ***there's a long story I won't go into with the booking process where I had a seat in this row to start with, and then it was changed twice to avoid being charged extra for the seat.

Once on board, becomes evident some colossal balls up has happened with seat allocations. People who paid for exit rows aren't the in exit row. Staff come to ask us if we paid for it. I say my seat was changed three times and the woman at the counter then wouldn't change it again. This is what French woman was yelling about. Finally, we leave, very late. Drinks trolley comes out, and water must be paid for. But the staff have been given no card readers (ticket says credit cards preferred) so they are collecting whatever cash people have, Aeroflot style.

I gave my last cash to a distressed woman on the train to Newark, so I'm facing all night in the desiccating cabin air with no water because of Scandi McBudget's manifest organisational fuckery. Steward, to his credit, gives me a bottle of water. Hours pass. The toilets are so stinky I'm convinced they've adapted the long drop to high altitude flight. That's when I notice the duct tape holding an overhead bin closed. Possibly containing snakes?

Duct-tape-gate, the evidence

Duct-tape-gate, the evidence

Yes, duct tape. Just in case you don't believe it, here is the photo. And while duct tape is a wonder material, it's not really what you want to see fixing your aircraft. Any part of the aircraft. Haven't they ever seen Air Crash Investigators? One tiny thing leads to another. To ANOTHER. And suddenly that duct tape on the overhead bin means some solvent dissolves some wire that controls some thing that makes everything go boom.

The dramatic close-up.

The dramatic close-up.

Anyway. To spoiler the end of the story, we managed to land safely, which I think was the only thing that went well. Chatting to other passengers in the terminal, I learned a part of their window assembly was hanging off, so they could see into some kind of plane innards. Now I know why the ticket was so damn cheap.

From there, I caught trains and tubes effortlessly to my destination, and will not even deign to complain about the lack of promised wi-fi on the Stanstead plane because I clearly used all my points up with the universe on the flight.

Since then, there's been a conference and various research around London, but I'm not sure any of it is very interesting blog material. On the weekend we head north to Lincoln for more research. Stay tuned. Maybe.

New York, Day 4 – Weight limits

It's my final day in New York City, and I'm writing this after the slightly harrowing journey from Manhattan to Newark Airport, which is actually in New Jersey. This is on account of having booked a very budget airline, which will whisk me across the Atlantic for a bargain price, but will then deposit me at Stanstead as punishment for my thriftiness, and require me to fly from Newark and not JFK.

I prepared for this by ensuring I could take trains here (having learned the folly of engaging with New York City road traffic last time), and bringing my own entertainment, being Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners by Therese O'Neill (both hilarious and informative), and Colleen Hoover's Maybe Someday in Audiobook (addictively sexy and romantic – curse your talent, Ms Hoover). Still, the trip involved duelling with the crowds at Penn Station, and wrestling my (by now) 20-odd-kg case up and down far too many staircases (along with public bathrooms, working elevators are also a rarity in NYC).

The reason for my heavy case is that I visited more bookshops today, including Book Culture on Columbus, Barnes and Noble at Union Square, and Books of Wonder. The latter is a specialist children's book store, and I have it on some authority that it's the inspiration behind the store Meg Ryan works at in You've Got Mail. My visit to NYC just isn't complete without a Meg Ryan movie reference, it seems. Sadly for my airline weight limit, I had gifts to buy and terribly helpful staff prepared to take my money.

I confess I bought six books and a book bag, my total spend being so stupendous that I qualified for an extra free book, and thus had to sit on my case to make it close. I regret nothing. But I do make an offering to the gods of baggage handlers (St Anthony of Padua, Google informs me) that my case won't pop like an overstuffed burrito before London. It was an excellent store however, including a rare book section where you could purchase a copy of Where The Wild Things Are, personally signed with a small illustration by Maurice Sendak himself, for $22,500. I stepped back from the case, just a bit.

Ah, Sophia Nash, we meet again ...

Ah, Sophia Nash, we meet again ...

After Books of Wonder I proceeded to Barnes and Noble and, after a cunning hunt through the four floors, found The Paris Wedding, face out no less, in a nice eye-level position. This rounded my day off nicely.

So, now, I am waiting for my flight to London, binging on an expensive box of GuyLian seashells, which looked cheap until they added the tax and I did the currency conversion. I have attempted to prepare for the long commute from the aforementioned Stanstead by photographing Google map information (and purchasing expensive, consoling Belgian chocolates), which clearly is a foolproof plan with which nothing could go wrong.

Let's just say that the next blog may contain travel misadventures. Stay tuned.

This travel plan is completely clear and contains all detail necessary to make it door to door.

This travel plan is completely clear and contains all detail necessary to make it door to door.

New York, Day 3 – Long distance


This is a relatively quick one, because it's pretty late. By which I mean, it's late on the clock but I am alert and blogging because timezones and melatonin. Today was my date for out-of-city adventuring, where I caught the subway to Queens, hired a car, and imbued with the confidence of last year's cross-country driving-on-the-right success, drove out to Shoreham on Long Island.

The freeways on Long Island are a little scarier than the I-40 I drove last year. Trucks are thick, and everyone (everyone) speeds. Still, despite one overly long wrong-way detour (which wouldn't have happened if the US would have a little more enthusiasm for public bathrooms), I made it out and back in one piece, so success.

The lab in its glory days

The lab in its glory days

Today, the view from one end, about as close as I could get through the chain-link fence

Today, the view from one end, about as close as I could get through the chain-link fence

This trip was to visit Wardenclyffe, the location of Nikola Tesla's wireless transmission station from 1901 to 1906. If you're not familiar with Tesla and this site, read the Oatmeal's amusing and enthusiastic recap, which also links to the campaign to save the Wardenclyffe site from development. Now, the museum isn't built yet, so all you can do is stand outside the fence and soak it up. Why did I bother to hire a care and drive three hours just to do that?

Partly, it's because it's just cool – to see a physical remnant of an amazing scientist from a different era. Too good an opportunity to pass up. The other part is that Tesla figures in the science fiction thriller I'm writing for my PhD. The story is an alternative history where Tesla goes to London instead of New York, but I wanted the sense of where he'd been in his "first life" to inform the "second" that's made possible with time travel. Ok, I'm done with the nerding about that. The trip out was 100% worth it.

Having sat in a car for much of the day, when I had the chance to have dinner with some lovely friends tonight, I decided to walk the 30 blocks to their place, and back. Between that and staying in a fifth-floor apartment, my fitbit is very happy with me.

Tomorrow is my last day in New York before I leave for London, and I intend on more bookstore visits. Stay tuned.

A wall of positive reinforcement from the fitbit, though my feet are sore.

A wall of positive reinforcement from the fitbit, though my feet are sore.

New York, Day 2 – Bookstore adventures

It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.
— W. C. Fields
Wall art outside Strand Bookstore

Wall art outside Strand Bookstore

One of my objectives in coming to New York was to see my book on an American bookstore shelf. I figured I couldn't take this moment for granted; it could be the only time in my career I have a book out in the USA. In the way of good travel, however, the decision to come led to some twists and turns of fate that made today a bookstore adventure.

It started this morning with a meeting with my wonderful publishing team at William Morrow, after which I asked for bookstore recommendations. One (of the very long list!) was Strand Bookstore, a three-floor wonderland of pages, including a floor devoted to rare books. This also happened to be the location of an author panel tonight called "Romance: it's complicated", featuring Sarah MacLean, Marie Force, LaQuette, Julia London, and Elizabeth Lim. Damon Suede excelled as the moderator, asking poignant and insightful questions (the above quote was one he raised during a discussion of the common misconception that romance is "simple"), and all the authors were articulate and intelligent.

I've never been so captivated by an author panel. They discussed the relationship between romance and autonomy, the nature of happiness as a subversive act, the correlation between the rise of modern democracy and modern literacy, and above all, the rejection of sentimentality as a label for romance. As the title suggested, romance has never been straightforward, IRL or in fiction.

The Romance: it's complicated panel. From left, Damon Suede, Maria Force, Julia London, LaQuette, Sarah MacLean, and Elizabeth Lim.

The Romance: it's complicated panel. From left, Damon Suede, Maria Force, Julia London, LaQuette, Sarah MacLean, and Elizabeth Lim.

Despite moments of intense sadness (Sarah's apt comparisons between the foundling hospitals of historical London and the current children at the boarder horror makes me so upset I can barely type about it ... as I write this, Twitter is blowing up over the Corey Lewandowski belittling a child with Down Syndrome separated from parents at the border. I am at a loss as to what's wrong with us as a species in my rage right now.), this was an amazing group of authors, speaking in a spectacular venue, and with important things to say. As (I think Marie) said, love is a social issue. I can't imagine a time when that has been more true, both here in the US and in Australia. I feel very privileged to have been able to attend.

My book, with more inches than I could ever have hoped for. Super thrilling.

My book, with more inches than I could ever have hoped for. Super thrilling.

And of course, a little icing on this cake was that I did see my book on the shelf! My own micromoment of subversive happiness, amongst the mucky world we live in right now.

Tomorrow, I'm taking an excursion out to Long Island, so I'll post next about that. Stay tuned.

New York, Day 1.5

I'm writing this from a grotto table in the back of Mud Coffee bar, downing an oversize mug latte and waiting for a breakfast involving bacon. I'm in the odd, in-between day of polar-earth position time zone change where, like Byron said, morning has come and went and come and brought no day. Or at least, no sleep. The journey here was two flights racing the sun across the Pacific, split by a strange dash through the bowels of LAX, necessitated by the rules of US Customs which decrees that to fly on anywhere else, we all must queue, clear customs (a labyrinth of crowd control lines), collect our bags, queue, drop our bags back, queue some more, clear security again, and then re-board the same plane, just in a different seat.

The ensuing delay of all passengers making the onward trip to New York (for all other connections, leaving later than us, were given express cards but we were not) meant we were rather badly delayed. We thus missed whatever slender airspace window had been allotted to us and spent a good deal of time circling JFK, touched down late, and then spent some more time waiting on the runway.

By this stage, the pilot was announcing the "annoying delays" in increasingly bewildered tone. After that came another hour or so on trains and subways before I finally put my bag down. However, as I'd re-watched Gravity during the first flight during a patch of turbulence, I should be grateful for the safe arrival, however late. Watching space stations and satellites smash themselves to pieces around Sandra Bullock as she tries to make it back to Earth is a rather special experience while you yourself are ten clicks off the surface of said earth in a shaking aluminium and composite can. I can recommend it to everyone.

I elected this time to stay at an Airbnb apartment, reasoning that staying with a local would be a different and hopefully positive experience. My mistake was apparent soon after arriving, not because of my host (who is lovely, if erring on the strict size of house rules), but because it's New York, which means a tiny tiny apartment with one tiny tiny bathroom (I shall never complain about the size of my workers' cottage at home again). In a hotel, I never worry about how many times I might need to visit the bathroom because I sank two pints of soda water while waiting at a nearby bar for my host to arrive. I also don't worry too much about old and narrow sewerage pipes and how much toilet paper one might be able to use before it becomes a plunger issue.

Then there's the emerging First Rule of Airbnb, which is, We Don't Talk about Airbnb. That is, should anyone ask, I'm staying with "a friend", and though I intensely resent having to tiptoe around the clandestine subletting issue after having paid via a legit website every single time, I of course will not say anything about it. Except to the bartender across the street before said prohibition from mentioning Airbnb was made clear to me at this place. Ooops.

Let's say I survived the night, though much of it was spent not sleeping but listening to Story Club podcasts (and the comic stylings of David Cunningham), flicking through several hundred blocked TV channels, and fretting about what I could wear for the 31 degree heat when I'd packed for a Brisbane winter. When the sun did come up, the view out of the window of the fire escape stairs put me in mind of Vivian's apartment in Pretty Woman. Sadly, no Richard Gere in a limousine was waiting down the four flights of stairs. Probably because, a) I'm in the wrong city for the metaphor, and b) my loved ones are on the other side of the globe. So I walked several blocks to this café.

Mud breakfast.jpg

This degree of sleep dep makes me feel woozy. Hence the industrial mug of latte, though all the coffee in the world will not make up for having been too cheap to buy roaming (or local) data, and having left the comforting radius of the apartment wi-fi without confirming directions to the right subway stop for my trip downtown. That one I'm going to have to wing. I know I have to walk west. Really, what could go wrong?

Next time, I'm going to post about meeting my New York publisher, and adventures in New York bookshops. Stay tuned. For now, breakfast is here. :)


Shooting for 5 stars ... or why I decided to leave indie book review groups

NOTE: EDITED 28 March to add note about "minimum viable product".

I admire indie authors and have absolutely nothing against indie publishing - I republished my backlist as an indie earlier this year and every story you've heard is true: about how much work it is, how subject to luck it is, how long-term the game can be.

In that game, reviews - especially Amazon reviews - are like gold. All kinds of speculation abounds about the number of reviews you need to be treated well by the algorithm. Regardless of the truth of that, reviews definitely matter. Books without reviews are very hard to sell. Some promotion services won't accept your book without a certain number of reviews, and with an average above a certain number of stars.

So, it should be entirely predictable what happens next. Indie authors work out how to most effectively get more reviews.

This isn't a sock puppet story. Amazon has rules about that, and they also have rules about review swapping. And so when you enter reviewing clubs (mostly on Facebook) you'll find all kinds of elaborate rule sets designed to ensure that reviews are NOT swapped and that all is above board with Amazon. The groups vary enormously in how they run - some are only for "free" books, some require you to purchase the book. Some do monthly assignments, others keep a rolling review-last-post list, others just have open posts. The thing is, however they run, the rule sets usually include a policy about what to do if you don't want to give a book 4- or 5- stars.

And here, I ran into my problem.

The first book I ever reviewed, I couldn't give it more than 2 stars. I don't even know where to begin with the editing it needed. The site asked me to contact the author, which I did, and they were gracious about the feedback. That group's policy was if you couldn't give at least 3-stars, they preferred you contact the author first. That, I can almost be ok with - because at 2-stars, the book probably has huge problems that an author probably needs help with, rather than a flaming through the Amazon star system. But then this month, on a new group where I had paid for the books I was reviewing, I posted two reviews, one 3-star, one 4-star. Then next thing, I had a message telling me that in future, I needed to contact the author if I wanted to give a 3-star review (equivalent to "It's Okay" on the star scale), and give them the choice of whether to accept it.

I'm sorry, what now?

Look, reviews are the author's bane. Bad reviews are hell. But I have never in my life expected that I had the right to reply, let alone to silence a reviewer who wanted to give me a less than stelllar review. And yet here, in this club, the expectation is that an author can choose not to accept a review under 4-stars, anything less that "I liked it". What happens with a rule like this? I would suggest that predictably, reviewers feel pressure not to rate under 4-stars. Because then, you have to have that uncomfortable conversation direct with the author, telling them that their book was only "okay" in your eyes and asking if they're ok with that opinion going live. I'm not fine with that. I also highly resent being told to do this when I PURCHASED THE BOOK. I subscribe to the philosophy that someone who's paid to read my book can say whatever they want. That's just the nature of the industry. 

I expressed my discomfort with the rule, and in the conversation with the (admittedly lovely) admin of the group, it was clear they didn't really understand why I had a problem. Not posting the review doesn't increase the author's ranking, I was told. Well, that's obvious, but it also skirts around the fact that their books rating doesn't decrease, either. This is the book reviewing equivalent of academic publishing's Achilles heel - no one publishes negative results, so the published record is skewed towards studies where a positive result was seen. So too then with book reviews, and I'm so frustrated with buying indie books stuffed full of 4- and 5-star reviews and finding they aren't that good. Not just not-my-taste not good but poorly written, wouldn't make it out of the slush pile not good. I never understood what was going on there. Now, I wonder if it's just group and club reviews pushing up ratings by deterring anyone who thinks different.*** The admin told me it was totally my choice to give a poor review, just not every author wanted to receive a 3-star review, that's why I had to contact them. Yeah, really missing the point!!

So I did the only thing I can do: I made my choice to leave.

I'm not going to be part of it, this culture of reviewing books of fellow indie authors with the punitive demon of a no-low-reviews sitting on my shoulder. It's against every value I have of fairness and justice and honesty. Reading these books takes a good deal of precious time, as does writing a considered and honest review. If I've paid to boot, then I'm damn well going to be honest about it, and not be held to a rule that allows an author to say, "no thanks, that review's no good for my ranking". But on Facebook, you can't be anonymous. Your picture is right there next to the reviews you've done. I felt I had no choice but so say I couldn't subscribe to the rule, and to bow out. I'm not handing out my reviewing time under those conditions.

So, I wish everyone luck. Indie authordom is a tough gig, but no one is really served by setting up an environment like this. It encourages inflated reviews, encourages skim reading, encourages reviews as a currency, rather than as a reflection of the book itself. Direct interaction between authors and reviewers is always fraught, and in this case, see nothing but conflict. So I choose not to engage. I feel the better for it.


***after publishing this blog, I came across the concept of minimum viable product, through Peter M Ball's newsletter. Basically, this is the idea that you put out a minimum standard of product to draw people in, because raising it to the quality of a fully finished and refined product exceeds your capabilities/resources/patience. A lot of indie publishing, I suspect, falls into this category, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge for how to actually edit a story to a high standard. I've even had an author tell me directly that they'd had a lot of trouble with a book that just didn't quite work, but they'd decided to push it out there anyway just to see how it might do. Now, not every indie is doing that. But the fact that some (many?) are doing this makes the concept of not allowing low reviews even less palatable.

What other people think

On dealing with online judgement, with some great words to remember


Any writer will tell you that dealing with reviews is a tough gig. Issac Asimov is supposed to have said that writers "fall into two groups: 1) those who bleed copiously and visibly at any bad review, and 2) those who bleed copiously and secretly at any bad review."

We all have different techniques for dealing with it. Mine is to not read reviews (works most of the time, but sometimes I must to say, maintain this website). One other writer I know takes a pragmatic approach and says that as long as someone's paid for her book, they can write whatever they like.

But there's no avoiding the fact that the online nature of the world now means that what other people think of you -- your books, or just you -- can be right in your face. If you write romance, or you self-publish, that can be particularly sharp, because so many people think that it's fine to take a dig at you (including big respectable institutions, like this in The Guardian and this in The New York Times) and make fun of what you do because, I don't know, they feel morally superior or something like that. People who are in privileged positions will do it, even though it's really beneath them to be so petty. They do it anyway. I've had it happen to me so many times I've lost count.

When you're starting out on a new venture (as I am right now - can't share details yet, but I will) you're particularly vulnerable to that. And so I wanted to share with you this from the Barefoot Investor that landed in my inbox this week. As someone who's been through financial ruin due to predatory financial advice, I'm a keen follower of Scott Pape and his no BS independent stance, but please know that I don't have any association with him. This is just very timely and important to remember advice, I think. 

Truth is, most people worry about what other people say about them.

Yet here’s the rub: if you’re doing brave things — working hard, starting a business, kicking arse with the Barefoot Steps — chances are you’re going to make someone around you feel uncomfortable. And they may try to bring you down a peg or two … back to their level.

If you listen to them — or worry about what you think they’d think — it’ll eat away at your self-confidence. And that will keep you in jobs you don’t like, relationships you’ve outgrown, cars you can’t afford. Worse, it’ll waste the precious time you have on this planet.

What’s the answer?

Care with both hands. I can count the number of people I care about on two hands — chances are you can too. And when you think about it deeply (and I have), these are the only people who matter.

If you’re being a jerk, or hurting people, or behaving like a Kardashian — they’ll pull you up on it. And that’s the only time you need to worry about someone’s else’s opinion. For the rest, just talk to the hand.
— -- Scott Pape, Barefoot Investor Newsletter, 25 Sep 17

So, for all those doing brave things, carry on. If you see someone trying to be brave, lift them up. The world will be cruel enough. And don't be afraid to call out your friends when they behave like jerks to other people beneath them. Hard to do, but important.