Interview with Nalini Haynes (Dark Matter Zine)

The sun is just coming up in Australia and I am already shaking from all the pots of coffee prepared by Nalini Haynes of Dark Matter Zine. Dark Matter Zine was shortlisted for two Ditmar Awards in 2014, one in 2015, and five Chronos Awards over a few years; she received a Chronos Award for Best Fan Writer in 2013 for her work on the magazine.

SCy-Fy: Is this your usual way of starting the day, Nalini?

NH: Yes. Rising before dawn most of the year (usually about 5 or 6 am), I lurch into the kitchen to brew my first mug of coffee for the day. My favorite mug holds over half a litre. While my brain slowly unfogs, I check social media and cross-post previously scheduled posts to other platforms. Once I’ve woken up and I’m on my second cup of coffee, I start reading other material – online and books – which becomes fodder for writing on Dark Matter Zine.

I’m also studying full-time at university, so I slurp coffee through lectures, while attending classes and writing assignments. Luckily, many of my assignments are extracts from my novel, which is accidentally being written as I wend my way through a maze of tunnels, shambling towards that bright light of graduation.

SCy-Fy: What are your future initiatives?

NH: In terms of Dark Matter Zine, I’m planning paid advertising and even – shock, horror – possibly becoming an Amazon affiliate so that DMZ starts paying for itself. In terms of me personally, I’m freelancing periodically now and I’d like that to continue.

Did I mention I’m writing a novel? It’s a YA novel about some kids in high school just getting by. Violet is a vision-impaired albino whose maths teacher thinks all disableds belong in special education. Missy, a second-generation Asian American, is Violet’s best friend. Missy falls in love with another girl, Ruth, so there’s a bit of romance. And Curtis is the epitome of a geek guy: smart and funny, but socially awkward. The trio struggle through high school, being financially disadvantaged while the queens and jocks enter the vampire scholarship program. Because vampires are all civilised, they give financial remuneration for feeding rights, especially to virgins… .

So I’ve planned out my novel (I’m a plotter!) and it’s growing slowly but steadily.

SCy-Fy: You have a busy life!

NH: Which gives rise to a big challenge: if you’re not a full-time paid employee, how much time do you devote to a magazine? To social media? Keeping up with all the things is an incredible time-sink. To stay sane while remaining relevant, one must find a balance, find what works for you, and stick with that. There’s little point spending hours crafting a beautifully-written essay if it’s only going to get 100 views, while a post that takes 10 minutes gets thousands of views. Sometimes it’s heart-breaking, but finding that balance that works is essential.

SCy-Fy: Going on from that, what do you think will be the major future challenges for SFF magazines?

NH: Magazines in paper form are a thing of the past. They’re out of date by the time they’re in print. So, for some, the major challenge is changing from a 20th century way of thinking to a 21st century model.

To stay current, it’s necessary to keep up with changes in technology and trends. There’s no point being on MySpace if you’re not a band; there’s little point being on Facebook unless your friends are there. Dark Matter Zine is on Facebook because posts on the website are automatically cross-posted to Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter, then I manually cross-post to other platforms. If I scroll through my personal feed on Facebook and find something fun, I’ll cross-post it to DMZ’s page but, really? Facebook killed Facebook years ago. A social media platform is dead. Long live the social media platform.

SCy-Fy: Do you have any advice for writers?

NH: Stay relevant in this digital age. Build networks; writers with followers and good engagement on social media are more likely to be published and more likely to win $3.4million contracts. Write what you know: for example, don’t write a spoof of an MMO RPG if you’ve never played one. (One writer did!) Write what you want to read. Read the genre in which you’re writing. Read outside the genre in which you’re writing. Get beta readers whose opinions you value. And, most important of all, get a day job to pay the bills.

SCy-Fy: Pitfalls in SFF zining?

NH: So many. So very many.

Putting too much time in so your life suffers. Getting too caught up in the politics; it’s not worth it.

Expect to be flamed and abused online; prepare a plan in advance. Don’t react, respond. Don’t respond until you’ve had at least one night’s sleep and some advice from someone whose opinion you trust.

Don’t visit websites that you know will upset you, tear you down or destroy you in some way. Likewise, beware of reading the comments. Spend your “free” time reading interesting posts and studying reputable people’s reviews as “professional development” instead.

SCy-Fy: What about dealings with writers?

NH: Authors will contact SFF zines for a zillion reasons, anything from “Will you review my book” to “Will you give me free manuscript advice and help me get published”. Prepare a response ahead of time; a pro forma letter will save hours.

Authors contact reviewers to correct, criticise and complain about reviews. Appreciate the authors who behave respectfully, especially those who are discrete and don’t flame you on social media. If you’ve made a mistake in the review, correct it. If an author behaves like a petulant child, ignore and avoid. If you don’t like an author personally or you don’t like your experience with that author, don’t review that person’s work in the future. Any criticism after a negative experience could be seen as holding a grudge; keep dual relationships out of reviews as much as possible to keep credibility in the community.

SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going?

NH: I love science fiction and fantasy, so it’s easy to turn to stuff I love – reading and watching the good stuff – when things get tough. I’ve also enjoyed getting out of the genre, reading more widely. It’s like a sorbet cleansing the palate before the next course. (On my wedding night I went to a really swish restaurant for dinner; that experience comes in handy when I want a posh analogy!)

SCy-Fy: Which of your pieces have been the most popular?

NH: Generally, author interviews are really popular and continue to get traffic over a long period of time. It’s common for author interviews to still be getting upwards of 300 visits per month YEARS after they were posted.

Other posts that have attracted attention include Life after death, a response to a post by Neil Gaiman. That got a lot of hits, largely because Neil retweeted the link.

SCy-Fy: And which have been the most controversial?

NH: Pieces that have raised the most controversy are usually related to SFF politics, like Being Schooled by the SMOFs and A Troll Too Far. I also posted several articles about the Space Marines controversy.

Posts about copyright, including a reviewer’s legally-enforceable copyright over reviews, have caused a lot of controversy. Authors who said that reviewers don’t own their reviews came out of the woodwork. I listed them so I don’t waste my time reviewing their books; if I’m not getting paid in money, I damn well want the traffic to my website instead of authors copying my reviews without permission.

Posts denouncing bullying – specific acts of bullying – have also caused considerable controversy, including inciting more bullying. I’ve found it’s wise to avoid certain people and “not feed the trolls”. Although a flame war may incite traffic, it’s short-term, consumes too much time and energy and is generally destructive. A flame war is like sprinting in a marathon: you’ll burn out. It might be spectacular but you won’t stay the distance.

I’ve been running Dark Matter Zine for nearly 5 years now; sometimes the better choice, in terms of maintaining the online magazine, is the quieter, less obtrusive and, dare I say it, less sensational path. Put another way: I don’t get paid enough to put up with that shit.

SCy-Fy: Your personal favourites among what you have published so far?

NH: Errgghhh… most of what I’ve published is stuff I’ve created. I have published a few short stories by other people: The Driver by CJ Dee (horror) and Unmasked by Tom Dullemond (science fiction). I’m quite proud of the illustration for ‘The Driver’, which I created myself for an assignment last year. ‘Girl Torque’ is an acrylic painting I did for the helluvit; I suspect that’s what earnt me the shortlisting for Best Fan Artist that year. I’ve written some essays of which I’m proud, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. It’s been 5 years!

Above all, I’m proud of my interviews with people like geek musical comedy trio Tripod, Joe Abercrombie (I’m currently reading Half a War by Joe and loving it) and Graeme Simsion (author of the Rosie Project, a romantic comedy with a Sheldon-type academic). Panels of which I’m proud include Queers Destroy Science Fiction with Seanan McGuire and Mark Oshiro; Vampires: then and now with authors Jason Nahrung and Angela Slatter and Worldbuilding in science fiction with Sean Williams, John Birmingham, Meg Mundell and Marianne de Pierres.

SCy-Fy: What have been the best books and stories you have read recently?

NH: Everything Simmone Howell, my writing YA teacher, has recommended has been 4 or 5 stars; one of those books was Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, a science fiction story about the end of the world Starship Troopers – style, but with a bit of a twist. Techbitch by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza is contemporary fiction about an editor who returns to work after 6 months leave to find a techbitch taking over her life. Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato (not reviewed by me but I concur) is fun steampunk. And The Awesome by Eva Darrows is hilarious fantasy about an apprentice monster hunter needing to “have the sex” so vampires wouldn’t go virgin-bloodlust-crazy and she could get her journeyman’s monster-hunting licence.

SCy-Fy: Which upcoming releases are you most looking forward to reading?

NH: Half a War by Joe Abercrombie and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. They’re taunting me with their deliciousness IN THIS VERY ROOM (yay for ARCs!!!) so, as soon as I finish this interview, I can return to their tasty goodness. Sadly, I can only read one book at a time.

SCy-Fy: I can tell that you are itching to get back to reading.

NH: I love books. There aren’t enough hours in the day to read all the fabulous pages. If you don’t like reading or you don’t like science fiction or fantasy, you haven’t met the right book yet. Don’t give up, ask for recommendations to suit your taste. Or, alternatively, READ ALL THE THINGS.

SCy-Fy: I will let you get back to it, Nalini. No, no more coffee for me.


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