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Australian speculative fiction: a rant

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)
Tags: sf, writing
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