Spoilers for The Shape of Water.

(And highly unrelated pictures, because I’m hazy on copyright law for movie stills.)

Last night, I saw The Shape of Water, which recently won an Oscar and (more importantly in my world) has been talked up by The Mary Sue.

I walked into the movie saying to Chris, “I have no idea why a movie about fish sex just won Best Picture.”

I walked out saying the same thing. I still don’t get it.

The Shape of Water is a fantastic movie. No doubt about that. So I watched a brilliantly written and acted speculative fiction movie and… the more I think about it, the less I like it.

I certainly do appreciate that this is a movie for and about freaks: a fishman, a mute orphan, a black woman (possibly an atheist), an older gay man, and a Russian scientist. (The villain is an oh so heterosexual white man.) It’s also really cool that the film doesn’t suffer from the “male gaze” problem that so many films do (there’s a “normal” sex scene which made the audience audibly horrified, and sexy scenes with Eliza and the fish man focus on her pleasure via her delighted smile). Guillermo del Toro was very careful to give the fish man a lean, muscular body (and especially butt) for female audience members to appreciate (seriously; he consulted regularly with his wife and others) but there aren’t any lingering shots of the fish man either. It is, in short, not a film that’s all about being sexy to the audience.

However, the movie makes it abundantly clear that yes, Eliza (the main character) and the fish man definitely have sex. In her extremely interesting video on Monster Boyfriends, Linday Ellis says The Shape of Water finally took the monster movie “where scores have women  had wanted it to go for decades”.

I am just not one of those women. I’m a little disappointed in myself, to be honest. Surely my imagination and empathy aren’t letting me down right here in my favourite genre?



I really like Lindsay Ellis’s take that “Beauty and the Beast” stories are a way for women to talk about their anxiety—and hope—when facing the daunting spectre of arranged marriage. I’ve spoken to quite a few Indonesian people who are in happy arranged marriages and it’s a topic that has fascinated me for years (and that I’m not necessarily opposed to… except of course that it gives men even more power than they already have, with the inevitable awful results in way too many cases).

Elliss’s video has changed my view of the entire “Beauty and the Beast” concept, except of course that (a) Most of the audience is NOT facing arranged marriage, so there’s clearly something else at play (b) The idea of a super-virtuous female changing a bad man into a good man is so awful. First because that’s a classic inverse of famous abuser lines (“I love you, but sometimes you just make me so angry I can’t help it.”), secondly because it relies on fundamental personality change for a relationship to work, which is both patronising (don’t ever go into a relationship thinking you can mould someone to your specifications) and dangerous (false hope and false reality, both of which aren’t healthy).

I DO think that a healthy relationship improves people, but in a mutual and mutually beneficial way. I like a romance where people are partners, and I hate a relationship where someone (pretty much always the woman in a hetero pairing) is the parental figure—either disrespecting their partner, doing more than their fair share of the work, or constantly nurturing someone who doesn’t nurture them back. (This is a topic very close to home as my husband has inattentive ADD, which causes a lot of behaviour that appears childish in a grown man. Luckily-?-my own anxiety and bad health causes a lot of childish-like behaviour in me, too.)

The adjacent idea of “Men will do anything for a pretty woman” is also super problematic. It’s linked to rape culture as well as the infantilising of men (which then links to men not doing their share of household chores, which isn’t good for anyone). I do understand the appeal of that idea. I like the idea of women being powerful, even if only because they own a pair of boobs.



Ellis’s video also talks about King Kong and other movies, and the shift from hatred of monsters to sympathy. She says that, overall, monsters tend to represent the anxieties of whatever time they’re written in.

Which brings us to King Kong. Unfortunately, any kind of primate tends to represent (unconsciously or otherwise) black people, and it’s no coincidence that the darkest/hairiest monsters tend to be paired with the whitest possible females (Sally Hawkins is incredibly white, and her fish man is dark—another problematic element of The Shape of Water). King Kong isn’t a romance (or is it?) but a story of how a white woman is more powerful than a black man (and/or monster). Which is appealing, even to me, but also deeply messed up as I explained above.

On reflection, I think the romantic “monster” of modern books/movies is all about the “bad boy” thing. (Or, in some cases, a case of “Us freaks have finally found each other” crossed with “OUR romance is special and unique”. Both of which I’m actually fine with.)

I have a really close friend who I respect deeply (and who is an adult, mother, and wife) who loves both Twilight and Beauty and the Beast. Both of us are married to very stable, reliable men. Her life is quite stable and responsible and adult-like because her husband has a stabilising influence (it’s not boring; they can do really cool things with their whole family because they actually do planning and budgeting and stuff); my life is risky and chaotic and exciting because I know my husband will be there when I fail. So I think that might be at the heart of things. The bad boy appeals because he is exciting; ditto monsters. To me the bad boy has no appeal because I am already wild and destructive and risky. I am the monster, so I don’t look for those qualities in a partner.

Yep, I think that’s it. Okay! I feel better about monster movies now.

So what about the movie?

First, let’s talk masturbation. The Mary Sue web site loved the fact that Eliza’s life was perfectly content—she didn’t need a man (amphibious or otherwise). She was sexually satisfied by pleasuring herself, and her daily routine was exactly what she wanted it to be. When I watched the movie I wasn’t sure what the purpose of showing Eliza’s masturbation was—why have a masturbation scene, when it clearly wasn’t to titillate the audience?

I think a lot of it was just to say, “Yes, this is set in the 60s, but people were sexually active then too”, so that it felt more natural for her to have a sexual relationship with someone (the fish man, in this case) that she hasn’t known very long.

And I think it was also to hint that Eliza wasn’t necessarily entirely human herself. She was a foundling discovered by a river, with what looked like knife slashes on her neck that later turn into/turn out to be gills. She masturbates in water because she’s part fish person herself. (The fish man is clearly very comfortable mating with a human, so it’s entirely possible fish people have been interbreeding with humans.)

So that’s fine. I found it slightly jarring that Eliza’s face is quite old for a romantic lead (why, she’s over forty! Which is lovely) but her body is VERY young. Not a wrinkle, freckle, sag, or blemish.

Eh, I’m probably just jealous.



I mentioned earlier that the film is all about freaks, which is lovely. (A mute woman, a gay man, etc.) But I hated hated hated that the gay man’s crush was on a twenty-something. The actors are about forty years different in age, and the crush was framed in the film as sweet and life-affirming and charming. I just found it creepy. I would have found it creepy in any much older person crushing on a much younger person, but so much homophobia is based on the idea that homophobia = pedophilia, and although that’s nonsense, having a huge age gap like that in a film is really unhelpful.

I was surprised and disappointed at how little time was spent developing the relationship between Eliza and the fish man. To me, you get to know someone and have a deep connection with them, then you have sex. In the movie, the fish man learns how to say “egg” and “music” and… that’s it. It’s clear that time is passing and there’s more to their growing friendship that we the audience don’t see, but they never actually have a conversation. Couldn’t we have a scene where Eliza and the fish man actually talk to each other? It doesn’t even need to be in words (or in sign language, or whatever). Although having said that, how about they learn one another’s names? Or invent names for each other?

It just didn’t seem to me as if there was much more to the relationship than a bit of sex and a rescue (which is noble and exciting, but doesn’t make a relationship). Clearly the movie portrays sex AS communication/connection.

Okay, fine. Sorta.

It also disturbed me very much that the fish man was child-like in some ways. That’s never not going to make me hate a romantic pairing. I’m fine with someone having fun and being silly, but I’m not okay with someone having the intelligence of a child and then having sex.

Much is made of the fish man’s intelligence, but he doesn’t behave like an intelligent adult. He behaves like an intelligent child.

Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew.

And I have one more big problem with the movie (an issue linked to the slightly-off choice of a speaking woman actress for a mute character—when it would be so much better to use a mute actress). I feel like the movie contradicts itself. Eliza appears content from the beginning of the movie (in her rather ordinary life), and she has two excellent friends who don’t see her as a mute woman but as a person.

But then she gives an impassioned speech about how the fish man is happy to see her, and doesn’t see her as incomplete.

Sure, that’s nice. But she already has at least two friends who don’t see her as incomplete either. She’s doing just fine. So what is that speech doing there? There are so many other things she could have spoken passionately about at that exact moment.

Then, in a scene that a lot of people love, she is sitting across the table from the fish man knowing she soon has to let him go, and she sings to him and has an imagined dance sequence with him (much like the TV she loves to watch). So she longs to talk—and sing. Fair enough.

Except… she was so content until then. So it’s as if the fish man brings out her unhappiness, making her life and sense of self seem poor and shabby when they were fine before. No relationship should make you feel worse about yourself or your disabilities (a passing moment of wistfulness, sure—but not an iconic movie scene, weighted with meaning).

I would have been so much happier if her impassioned speech was about something—anything—else. The character is so much more than her disability, yet the movie treats her muteness as her most important character trait in the two most emotional scenes. I hate that.

Maybe the masturbation was all bout Eliza longing desperately for a romantic relationship—the one thing her life lacks most (other than a nicer apartment and job, two things that apparently never bother her). But a romance is so much more than sex. In my opinion.


And, finally, the body horror of the bad guy’s injured fingers is a total cliche, in my opinion, and something rather unworthy of a film that treats a fish man as beautiful and a mute woman as the hero. Yeah, I get that the bad guy is… well… bad. So does that mean everyone with a physical deformity is bad, too? So muteness is fine but physical disability = evil?

I really wanted to like this film, and there are so many wonderful and original things about it. But I don’t have a thing for monsters, I don’t think adult-child romances are ever cute, and I don’t think being mute is the most interesting (or the most tragic) thing about Eliza.

Introduction to Interactive Fiction

I thought I’d better write an entry today in case someone is a-googling after hearing my interactive fiction interview on 666 ABC Canberra at 7:25am this morning (wheeee!)

Hello and welcome.

I write both novels and interactive novels. Other people find interactive fiction via the gaming community, so there are usually elements of game play (for example, skill bonuses that are tested later). You can “read” an interactive “book” or “play” an interactive “game”. I use the terms interchangeably.

Within interactive fiction, there are two main forms: Choice-based interactive fiction (the reader makes choices from set options) and Parser interactive fiction (the reader types commands to move the story forward and/or solve puzzles). I’m strictly on the choice-based side, which is definitely more accessible for newbies. The list below will make it immediately obvious that I was drawn to interactive fiction via Choice of Games. It’s not a bad place to start. This is what games always look like on the inside:


You pick one of the options, and click next. Easy!

Interactive fiction is almost always digital (the obvious exceptions are “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels, and the Windhammer Prize), and almost always released as a phone app on the itunes and android stores (and more, for Choice of Games).

If you’re curious about interactive fiction (IF), here are some good places to start learning more:

To learn by playing

Interactive Fiction Data Base This link takes you directly to my page, which has links to all of my games. My games are usually accessible to newbies, since I am one myself. There are a LOT of games and reviews on IFDB, and you can find lists (such as “Games for new players”) to sort through the mountain of stories.

The Interactive Fiction Comp is hugely popular, and all the games are free to play. Judging season is in October and the first half of November each year (right now!!) Usually about half the games are Parser games. Some games are a lot easier to download than others so if you get stuck just move on.

Birdland came fourth in the IF Comp 2015, and is a funny game using Twine. Free.

Choice of Games (CoG) is an extremely successful company with a clear in-house style.

Choice of Broadsides is a short CoG game that’s a perfect introduction. 

Choice of Robots is an excellent scifi CoG story.

Community College Hero is an excellent teen superhero CoG story (Pt 1). It’s not an official CoG game, but is released through their Hosted Games label.

Creatures Such as We has a more literary style than most CoG games. It’s also free, and placed second the IF Comp in 2014.

My own CoG Hosted Games (I’m not associated or affiliated with CoG in any way) are the Australian steampunk adventure Attack of the Clockwork Army, the piratical romp Scarlet Sails (which also placed 7th in the IF Comp 2015; this version was improved after the competition which is why it’s not free like the original version). I also wrote and edited for the retro scifi comedy Starship Adventures, which has a bunch of behind-the-scenes special features.

Cape is a beautifully written Superhero origin story, where you can add detail by choice. It’s a hypertext story, meaning that you click on bolded words rather than choosing choices from a list. It placed fifth in the 2015 IF Comp, and is free.

Tin Man Games releases what they call “Gamebook Adventures”. They range from the mostly-text scifi serial story “Choices: And The Sun Went Out” app on itunes or android (the European steampunk tale “Choices: And Their Souls Were Eaten” is the second story inside that app; I’m a co-writer on #1 and writer on #2) to the recent Warlock of Firetop Mountain which takes the famous Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone novel and turns it into a video game (including a fight system). They are internationally respected and an Australian company.

To learn by reading the blogs of reviewers (who also write games and talk about stuff)

Emily Short

Sibyl Moon

Jason Dyer

Sam Kobo Ashwell


To learn by joining a community

Be aware that the IF community is a small, welcoming, diverse, and kind group. Don’t be a troll. Don’t write when someone (especially a reviewer who is adding to the community with their comments and not getting paid for it) has made you feel angry.

Embrace different genders, sexualities, abilities, and nationalities.

Choice of Games forum

The Interactive Fiction Forum is very lively during IF Comp season (October/November).


An excellent book on Twine and writing, pitched for beginners to both

Writing Interactive Fiction with Twine by Melissa Ford


If you’re quick, you can probably catch me at Conflux today between when-I-get-there and 1:30 (when my workshop starts – it’s booked out already, but just email if you want to arrange something else workshop-ish). I’ll most likely be in the dealer room, since my publisher has a table (the publicist is actually hiding in this shot – can you see her elbow?)



To learn by writing

Twine is certainly the easiest; it actually automatically builds an (adjustable) map for you. It takes about thirty seconds to learn, or ten minutes on your own. 

There are LOTS of online resources, including lists here and here about finding the authoring tool that works for you. You certainly don’t need to be a computer programmer! 

To get paid

Choice of Games pays advances of up to $10,000 for novel-length stories based on an approved outline and written with their tool, ChoiceScript. I know from personal experience that a story written for their less-exclusive “Hosted Games” label earns a respectable amount purely through royalties. Mine have earned around $1000 each, but there are no guarantees (and no limits!)

Sub-Q magazine pays for short fiction (they can be quite literary). is a vibrant community that’s specifically designed to let indie creators sell their games on their own terms. It has loads of game jams that you can join, and some jams are competitive (which is a handy low-stakes way to see if your writing is appealing to others.

Contests pay a little (often not in money) but are hugely important to the community and to gaming companies, who sometimes even approach entrants to offer paid work. All the contests are publicly reviewed and judged, which is an intense emotional experience for any writer. Don’t ever interact with reviewers until after the competition is finished (and even then, always thank them regardless of what they said—every review is a precious gift, and the harsh ones are often the most useful).

Your stories must not be published, and they must be publicly available after the contest for free. Although the judging is public, they are NOT popularity contests, but based on judges being as neutral as possible in their ratings.

IF Comp is the biggest and best, but it’s NOT for beginners. Reviewers can be harsh in order to be more entertaining, or due to assuming you’re trolling the contest).

Windhammer Comp is printable (and short, and Australian) and high-status. First prize is $300, within runner-up prizes of $50. Not bad for a short story that doesn’t require learning a new tool! 

IntroComp (for games that aren’t even finished)

Spring Thing (called the Fall Fooferal if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) is particularly welcoming to newbies, including a “Back Garden” where you can indicate that you’re new and reviewers should take that into account. It’s deliberately placed in a part of the year when the IF Comp is far away.


I won the Windhammer Prize in 2015, and my publisher included that story with my novel:


Full disclosure: I have some kind of connection to pretty much everyone on this list, but every single connection is through reading their work and liking it.

Emily Short has a fantastic Intro to IF here.

Weak Words

I haven’t posted any writing advice in a while, possibly because a lot of my work is out there now and anything I say is likely to be hypocritical and I’m scared of people pointing that out.

But here is a great, simple, well-explained infographic on words that should be dragged out and shot. Take a look!

The changing face of publishing

Here is quite a long and thorough article on how publishing is changing. I picked the bits I found most interesting about the present. . .

Indeed, the problem for readers is that regardless of which side you agree with in theory, in practice you probably love the idea of buying books for under $5.00 but hate the idea of having to sort through quite so much junk to find good books at that price.

. . . the pricing. . .

Books deliver three sorts of value: good writing, good stories (true or fictional) and social connection.  By the last, I mean that reading is a social activity and we like to read what others are reading.  So popular books are worth more to us than less popular books.

. . . and the future. . .

Publishers also need to manage their backlists more effectively.  Hugh Howey points out that in fiction many of the top-sellers are not recently published novels.   Publishers are used to pulling titles out of physical circulation after a few months and focusing their promotional efforts on new authors.  However a rich back catalog, all made available in electronic format will allow publishers to respond more quickly to emerging market trends.

Read the article here.

Should I work for free?

Writing is something that looks super easy from the outside, so a LOT of people give it a try. Many of them get to a certain point and realise they need outside help. That is when they approach professionals in the biz and ask, “Would you mind just. . . . looking at my first chapter/writing me a foreword/telling me how to spell occasionally/giving me an awesome quote for my self-published book “Ocelots and why I love them”?”

Most people who’ve been around a while say a rapid no and back away quickly, overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. If your mouth is the kind that reverts to a yes answer, this handy diagram may help you retrain yourself back into a sanity-inducing lifestyle. Also, it’s just funny to read. Also, if you think I’ll read your novel, maybe see where you fit into this flowchart first and then you can work out the answer for yourself.

Warning: There is some swearing. As in life, so in this flow chart.

Facebook and regional cultures

[I’m posting this somewhat early due to the fact that my ceiling is being replaced on real-Monday. Just pretend I posted it then, okay?]


Here is an article about facebook photos from different parts of the world. Can you guess the results before you read it?

I’m sure there’s an article on the cultural differences in cat photos, but I don’t know where it is. In the meantime, here’s a cat in a box.