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Australian speculative fiction: a rant

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The ACT Writers Centre asked me to write an article on Australian SF for their October newsletter. Thought I might post it on my blog too in case anyone's interested in my most recent thoughts on the subject:

It seems like now is one of the best times there's ever been to be an Australian speculative fiction writer. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a golden age – that's one of those terms best applied by future academics peering lovingly back on a bygone era, judging it by the literary middens it leaves behind. No, I won't call it golden. The term that springs to my mind is blossoming.

Australian names are popping up all over the international scene – and not just the usual suspects either. Writers like Ben Peek, Stephanie Campisi, Anna Tambour, AM Muffaz and Kaaron Warren are regularly scoring spots in classy anthologies and magazines, while Margo Lanagan and novelists Trudi Canavan and Karen Miller are taking the world by storm. Ms Lanagan seems to have blitzed every award there is to blitz, now gunning for a World Fantasy Award in Saratoga Springs this November. Canavan is reputed to have scored a six-figure advance for her Magicians series and Karen Miller's The Innocent Mage, which released in the UK in April, spent 8 weeks in the top 10 on the mass market spec fic bestseller list. -- including 3 weeks at #1. Having just released in the US, it's currently at #4 on the US mass market spec fic bestseller list. 

Australian short spec fic writers are reaching out and penetrating foreign magazine and anthology markets, facilitated largely, I suspect, by the internet and the growth of blog and other online communities. Sites like Ralan and Duotrope's digest make it easy not only to learn what markets there are available, but they enable writers to track response times, determine which markets might be black holes and learn from the experiences of other writers.

Things were very different in the olden days when I was a newbie writer. Why, back then you had to catch yourself a racing pigeon, roll your manuscript into a cylinder with diameter not exceeding 9mm and launch the bird into a thunderstorm with a SASE clamped securely in its beak, never being sure that your submission had actually made it until that trusty rejection slip arrived by return sea turtle mail. But nowadays… Want to find out why editor X keeps rejecting your stories? Chances are they keep a blog, as do their magazine's slush readers. Chances are, if your cover letter was rude enough or your prose bad enough, they'll be blogging about it in embarrassingly intricate detail. The internet has taken the mystery out of the 'getting published' process. If your stories still aren't hitting the mark, the reason is probably as simple as this: your stories don't cut the mustard. Other people are writing more interesting stuff than you. How many other people exactly? Approximately 1500 according to prolific American author Jay Lake. Fifteen hundred industry pros, all jostling for attention. All shouting 'Me! Me! Me – look at me! Something to keep that in mind as you sit with fingers poised above the keyboard.

According to a recent article in Britain's Guardian newspaper, A YouGov poll has found that almost 10% of Britons aspire to being an author. This ambition was especially noticeable in the over-35 female segment of the population, no doubt inspired by Ms Rowling's extraordinary success.

Pretty much everyone with Word on their computer seems to think they might have a story in them. Presumably if you're reading this article you want to be a writer too, or you're already writing and you want to further your publications and make a career of it. There's an overwhelming amount of advice on this subject available out there already, but I thought I'd add my experience-based two cents, particularly in light of some quite recent changes to the SF publishing environment.

I wrote for approximately nine years before I sold my first story. Back then, there were two types of writers in my world: published and unpublished ones. There was no grey space inbetween and newbies like me regularly flagellated themselves with crit groups, workshops, writing exercises, festivals, 'how to' books, competitions, conventions, etc., desperate to generate the momentum needed to catapult ourselves from one side of that black and white divide to the other. Even the dowdiest looking local zines were impossible to crack, and it was disheartening just how few of those there were. On a semi-professional level, there was Aurealis and Eidolon. Overseas markets were an alternate universe. That was where you sent your stuff when you were good enough. Modestly, I set my sights on Aurealis. Surely my stories were good enough for that?

I would pore over each rejection slip as it came in, humphing and tsking over the ticky box suggestion that 'my story did not contain adequate characterisation' or whatever. Outrageous! I would declare to my writing group comrades (who always agreed). Those editors were mean bastards who wouldn't know a good story if it bit them on the bum. What I didn't understand then but am extremely grateful for now is that those mean bastard editors had done me a big favour. They had prevented my most awful works from seeing the light of print. I finally cracked Aurealis and a host of its new Aussie magazine brethren at precisely the right moment; not when the moon was in the house of the squid and all the crystals had aligned, but rather at the point when I started writing stories that were good enough.

Sadly, that rather brutal form of short story natural selection is no longer taking place. Today there are as many crap publishing venues as there are godawful stories to fill them. Anyone with rudimentary computer skills and a handful of cash can call herself an editor and produce a pile of books. I should know because I did it. I perceived there to be a gap in the anthology market back in 2002 so decided to fill it with Agog! Press. OK, the Agog story is a little more complex than that and I did have some experience and qualifications behind me, but new magazines, webzines and anthologies are currently as abundant as bunnies in the springtime. Quality control, unfortunately, is not. New publications don't even require cash. You can start one right now via free blogging software if you feel so inclined, put out a call for submissions on a couple of established mailing lists and your inbox will be flooded with stories inside of a week, even if you're not offering to pay. Most of those submissions will be execrable. If you 'publish' any of them, those writers will add your 'zine to their list of publication credits. They will start to think of themselves as 'real' writers.

Damien Broderick, internationally acclaimed author and fiction editor of Cosmos magazine, has trouble encouraging Australian sf authors to submit stories to Cosmos, even though he's paying pro rates and offering international distribution in a SFWA-accredited glossy magazine. Why? Here's my theory: it's damn hard to write something good enough to get across the line at Cosmos. It took me three attempts. How very much easier it is to have your story 'published' by some dodgy online mag that nobody's ever heard of and few people are ever likely to read? You still get to say you're published. You still get to have your story considered for the various awards.

The fact of being published itself doesn't mean what it used to mean. These days it's all about the where. You need to be published in prestigious places. Prestigious doesn't necessarily mean high paying, but it does indicate quality control. I've read countless biographies listing scores of publications, not one of them familiar despite my reasonably broad knowledge of the genre. Such lists are meaningless, or worse, damaging. All they tell an editor is that you can't sell your stuff to classy venues.

Web publications aren't necessarily the poor cousins of print publications. Up until recently the highest paying and most prestigious SF market in the world was a webzine (Scifi.com), and magazines such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld and Chiaroscuro illustrate how classy webzines can be. Many authors still prefer hard copy books and magazines to pixel-based ones, but I suspect more people may actually read good quality webzines than similarly good quality small press print publications, just because of ease of access.

Here's some advice I'd give my younger self if I could go back in a time machine to the point when she first started submitting stories. (Not that she would have listened):

1. The short story market is global. Support local markets but don't limit yourself to them. Make sure you actually read sample issues of mags you want to sell to. I'm still surprised how often a mag turns out to publish either a broader or narrower range of material than I expected. If you're sending the wrong sort of story to the wrong market, you're wasting both their time and yours.

2. Have something to say. Your story needs to be about something, or be rendered with such style as to trick editors into perceiving content within. Because if it isn’t, if it ticks all the boxes but is without theme or point, then something else will inevitably be chosen in its place if you're aiming at a classy venue. We are living in a very noisy world. Make your noise count for something.

3. Be prepared for a very long apprenticeship.
Some of those overnight writing success stories you've heard about have a good twenty years behind them. The director of a reputable writing centre once told me that in his opinion, twenty years lead-time was the norm. I think I'm up to my sixteenth year batting away at the writing game and I'm only just beginning to crack some of those glamorous foreign markets!

I attended my first World Fantasy Convention in Austin, Texas last year and was overwhelmed by the experience. Peering over the balcony at the enormous Renaissance hotel, I realised I was looking at the beating heart of the western world's professional spec fic writing community. Somewhere between 1000-1200 people were there, all of them pros. Everywhere I looked, there was a famous writer, a favourite writer or a better writer than me. It was a humbling moment in which I grasped a good sense of my own utter writerly insignificance.

If fortune and glory are your main motivations for becoming a writer, you might want to think that one through a bit more thoroughly. Writers are in oversupply, most don't make much money from their efforts and even the most successful amongst us don't end up as household names. If you're fine with all that and are happy to keep at it, good for you and I wish you the best of luck.

A few useful links:
Sean Williams's 10.5 writing commandments

Eight things news writers need to know by Robert J Sawyer

The truth about publishing, 2nd edition by Ian Irvine

My World Fantasy Convention photos

Bio: Cat Sparks lives in Wollongong, NSW. She works as a graphic designer and runs Agog! Press with her partner, author Robert Hood.

In 2004 she was a graduate of the inaugural Clarion South Writers’ Workshop and an L Ron Hubbard's Writers of the Future prize winner. Cat has accumulated seven DITMAR awards since 2000 and was awarded the Aurealis Peter McNamara Conveners Award in 2004.

Cat once won a trip to Paris in a Bulletin Magazine photography competition; has been official photographer to two NSW Premiers and worked as dig photographer on three archaeological expeditions to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Since 2000 she has published forty short stories. She recently became a member of Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA)
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On October 10th, 2007 12:42 am (UTC), lordofallfools commented:

I think that the highest paying market for short stories is STILL a webzine. Baen's Universe offers the following:

* For the first 5000 words, we'll pay 25 cents a word. That comes to $1,250
* For the next 5000 words (i.e., from 5-10K), we'll pay 15 cents a word. That comes to $750, or a cumulative payment of $2000 for a story that was 10K words long.
* For the next 10,000 words (i.e., from 10-20K), we'll pay 10 cents a word. That comes to $1000, or a cumulative payment of $3000 for a short novella that was 20K words long.
* For the next 20,000 words (i.e., from 20-40K), we'll pay 8 cents a word. That comes to $1600, or a cumulative payment of $4600 for a short novel that was 40K long.
* Anything longer than that, we'll pay 6 cents a word.
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On October 10th, 2007 12:46 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
Thanks for the info. That is good pay indeed.
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On October 10th, 2007 01:02 am (UTC), benpeek commented:
i remember those pigeon days. that was a golden age, then, i tell you.
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On October 10th, 2007 01:05 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
agreed. the fatter your pigeon, the cooler everyone else thought you were.
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On October 10th, 2007 02:13 am (UTC), kathrynlinge commented:
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On October 10th, 2007 03:06 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
good man!
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On October 10th, 2007 08:26 am (UTC), karenmiller commented:
Great article, Cat. I think we have a huge amount to be proud of, writing wise and spec fic wise, in this country. Sean Williams, Sara Douglass, Ian Irvine and Jennifer Fallon are also flying the flag with great success in the overseas novel markets. You made your mark with your Writers of the Future success. I think we're really making people sit up and take notice, and it thrills me to bits that there's the chance my little bit of success might help open the door a bit wider for the next writer ... just as it's been opened for me by Trudi and Sean and everyone else. Go us!
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On October 10th, 2007 08:49 am (UTC), ex_benpayne119 commented:
As I've argued before, I think you're way off base (or at least stretching assumptions) with your argument re: cosmos.. I suspect it has more to do with writers' perceptions of it as a market...

I also think it's a bit of a myth that before the small press boom there was simply Aurealis and Eidolon and that's it... looking through my lists of stuff published in the mid nineties, there *was* less published than today, but you're still looking at at least a hundred, up to two hundred stories a year (that we know of... there could be even more.)

They were published in smaller mags like Bloodsongs, Harbinger, Under Magellanic Clouds, The Mentor, and a bunch of other places I've never heard of...
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On October 11th, 2007 12:01 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
Dude, the goal of a serious short story writer is to get published in the best markets possible. Cosmos is *way* visible. It has newsstand distribution, an online presence and it pays real money.Any writer not perceiving it as a market isn't looking very hard.

I have copies of Harbinger, Under Magellanic Clouds, The Mentor & several others. Their production values make Potato Monkey look like Cosmos, by comparison. Bloodsongs was cool though.
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On October 10th, 2007 01:26 pm (UTC), sclerotic_rings commented:
I'm glad that you brought up how any idiot can start a magazine or a publishing house: I'm still amazed at the dolts with a stolen copy of Adobe FrameMaker who think they'll make a fortune by publishing their friends' work. (What's left out is when these goofballs send out contracts and then see another shiny object and decide to chase that. This explains the number of magazines that went under because the editor/publisher decided to put out books instead and vice versa, as well as the number of publishing venues where everything went to hell because the staff decided that they wanted to make movies instead.)

Oh, and by the way, congratulations on the SFWA membership. And which character did you use for entry?
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On October 11th, 2007 03:27 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
Oh dear. I can't do a single cartoon character voice. But I did used to date Jonny Quest so I guess thats how I got over the line.
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On October 10th, 2007 07:31 pm (UTC), garykemble commented:
You have been articulated! http://blogs.abc.net.au/articulate/2007/10/australian-spec.html

Let's see what the mainstream readers (if I have any) think.
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On October 11th, 2007 01:43 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
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On October 11th, 2007 01:09 am (UTC), (Anonymous) commented:
I think you should list all the Australian markets that aren't worth being published in. :)

Alternatively, where is the line between a publishing credit that does you no good, and a publishing credit that may do you some good, even if that good is from what you learn when reviewers pan your story?

Re Cosmos. I've been too scared to submit anything since I accidentally called Damien Broderick Damien Roderick in a feature last year! :(

(That, and my writing is siht)
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On October 11th, 2007 01:35 am (UTC), catsparx replied:
Hello anonymous... care to reveal your secret identity?

One or two 'lesser' publication credits aren't going to hurt anyone. When it becomes a problem, IMHO, is if a writer never aims any higher & starts strutting around pretending they're a pro. I don't blame any writer for attempting to get their work published. But I do blame editors who consistently publish shit & encourage the lowering of the bar.

My partner Rob often points out that new writers need publication credits in order to be encouraged to keep writing. He thinks my attitude is a little too harsh. I agree. I am harsh. But I believe you have to be realistic about this stuff in order to be legitimately competitive. I take writing seriously, and I want readers to take me & the field of spe fic literature seriously. If all you want to do is see your name in 'print' as a hobby and you have no ambition beyond that, that's absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with hobbies. Occasionally I pull out the bead box and pliers and make myself a pair of earrings. Just for fun. I have no dreams of becoming a professional jeweler.But neither do I strut about claiming to be a professional artisan. Its the bignoting and strutting that shits me, even more than the lousy prose. There seem to be so many people writing in order to 'become someone' rather than because they actually have something to say.

I'm sure Damien has forgiven your spelling error
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