Submitting stories – going against wise counsel

I recently attended the NSW Speculative Fiction Festival where many fine speakers imparted much accumulated wisdom. A good time was had by all. There was one session focusing on the art and craft of short story writing, chaired by Cat Sparks and including Angela SlatterLisa Hannett and Dirk Strasser. All very accomplished writers, editors and publishers with a plethora of awards between them. One of the main pieces of advice they gave was submit to pro markets first. Why publish your story for free when someone might pay you for it? Why take 2c a word when someone might pay 10c a word? Why miss an opportunity for your work to get out to the wider audiences that the pro markets command?


It’s good advice. It is logical. Across the room I could feel the pluck of my fellow neophyte writers stiffen as we all resolved to send our short stories to Asimov’s as soon as we got home. I suspect the online submission systems of many a professional magazine were swamped with stories from down under. I did it myself, adding some prestigious names to my steadily growing pile of rejections (always boilerplate rejections, never those good personally written ones that everyone talks about :-). And as we’re always told, you’re probably being rejected because your work isn’t quite right for that particular editor at that particular time. Sure, some work is rejected because it isn’t good enough, but not yours. Never yours. Right?

I like my stories. When I leave them for long enough that I can barely remember writing them and re-read them as if I’m reading a strangers work, I enjoy the experience. They aren’t literary, but then I’m not a literary guy. I think they are OK. And considering I’ve only been writing for a short time, that’s good. I’m proud of the work I do.

But OK work that I’m proud of does not necessarily a pro market publication make. And some markets take months to get back to you. By my rough calculations, if you submitted to every pro market that gives you credit towards say joining Science Fiction Writers of America, your story could be tied up for years. And stories sitting in slush piles do not help me learn how to be better.

I’m beginning to think that what I need to be focusing on is mid-tier semi-pro markets where an editor might take some interest in my work, and perhaps provide suggestions on how it could be improved. At this stage, that would be much more valuable to me than large amounts of money. The flash fiction pieces I’ve published on Antipodean SF have been fantastic experiences, working with the editor there (Ion Newcombe) to make them better. Perhaps I need the equivalent for longer works.

I’m undecided. The lure of a pro market sale is strong. But I know I’ve got a lot to learn about the craft of writing, and wasting time sending solid but not dazzlingly brilliant stories to markets that are never going to publish them might not be such a great idea.

So, my friends – what do you think? For the writers out there, what is your approach to short story submissions? Is it all-pro-all-the-time? Free to a good home? Somewhere in between?


NSW Speculative Fiction Festival 2013

Yesterday (Saturday 16th March) I attended the second NSW Speculative Fiction Festival at the NSW Writers’ Centre.

I started off badly, having somehow got it into my head that the day started at 10:30am. I turned up to a full car park, but couldn’t find any people. Imagine the fierceness of my blushing when I realised everyone was in the first session, which had been going for over 1/2 hour. I decided to wait for the second session to save the stinging embarrassment of entering 5 minutes before the end. It also let me pre-order my lunch. Win-win in my books.

My second problem came when the lovely people manning the front desk realised my badge had been taken! An impostor was roaming the rooms of the festival, having stolen my identity and slipped comfortably into the persona of a complete neophyte writer with no paid publications to his name.

Wait, why would someone do that?

I was assured that they had seen my badge that very morning, but now it was nowhere to be found. A hastily constructed replacement around my neck, I set forth to conquer the festival.

But I kept an eye on every name badge I passed, I can tell you.

So, the second session of the day and the first I attended was titled Publishing Into the Future, chaired by Russell Farr (of Ticonderoga Press) with panel members Zoe Walton (Random House Australia), Joel Naoum (Momentum) and Dionne Lister. The general answer to the question “what is the future of publishing” seemed to be “buggered if we know”, but there was some interesting exploration of the mix of publishing options and a general expectation that the book would survive, in some form or another. Phew. I enjoyed the panel, although some answers were a little verbose, I think they could have covered a lot more ground in the time available. That being said, there was some interesting reflections on the changes in marketing that have accompanied the rise of the eBook. If I ever publish a novel in eBook only format, I’ll have a lot to think about.

I also got to hear Joel Naoum’s theory relating interactive books to masturbation. I can’t do it justice. Next time you’re talking with him, bring it up.

The second panel, The Allure of Epic Fantasy, was chaired by Ian Irvine and included Melina Marchetta, Pamela Freeman and Garth Nix (a last minute substitute for Duncan Lay). The panel ended up focusing more on the authors writing style (plotter vs pantster) and their general approach to writing. Garth Nix was a very polished presenter (obviously gets a lot of practice). Actually, all four panelists were excellent in this session, and while it was only tangentially covering epic fantasy, I found this the “inspiring” session of the day.

All inspired, I then enjoyed lunch with the inimitable Lynda Young. Lyn has been a great support to me in my writing and I always enjoy the chance to catch up. Lyn had a story published in a US based anthology (Make Believe) last year, and I really enjoyed hearing about her experiments in marketing in that environment (I had to admit that while I bought the anthology and read her story just after it was released, I hadn’t quite got to the other stories in the anthology and so hadn’t done a review on this website. Bad writing friend. Must fix that as quickly as possible).

Towards the end of lunch we were joined by Patrick Keuning, a relatively new writer who has recently got his first paid publication with a story in the new In-Fabula Divino anthology. Patrick was (justifiably) as pleased as punch, and I saw him actively promoting the book throughout the day. He has documented his experience of the day on his website, go and have a look to hear more! Rick has also provided excellent feedback on my work in the past, I’m looking forward to seeing more of his writing in the future.

After lunch I attended Oh the Horror! The Future of Weird Fiction. I was excited about this panel, it contained three of my favourite authors – Deborah Biancotti, Kirstyn McDermott and Jason Nahrung. Actually, now I’m worried that the fourth member of the panel, Robert Hood, might feel left out. Robert, I know you probably read the blog. I have to admit I haven’t had the pleasure of reading your work as yet. But I’m sure you would be one of my favourite writers if I had, based on nothing other than the company you keep.

In any case, I digress (did someone mention “too verbose” earlier in this blog? Friends, let’s not quibble). The panel tried to define “horror”, in contrast with “weird”. I really liked Nahrung’s characterisation – horror tries to take something known and make it unknown and leave the reader unsettled, while weird tries to take something known and make it unknown, but leave the reader with a sense of wonder (he said it better than that, but that is why he is a name brand author and I’m writing this blog post).

A very interesting dissection of the broad horror genre ensued. Horror is one part of the speculative fiction spectrum that I’ve struggled to grapple with and I always like the chance to hear skilled practitioners debate the craft.

This session was also notable because in it, while listening to a brief aside about the atheist nature of zombies, I was suddenly struck with a new angle to a story I’ve been struggling with for ages. I really liked the angle as well. To be honest, I would have considered the whole day a success just for that. Good times.

In any case, I ended that session suitably creeped out.

The next session I attended was Short and Not So Sweet: writing and publishing short fiction, chaired by Cat Sparks and including Angela Slatter, Lisa Hannett and Dirk Strasser. An interesting discussion on the short story market was had, with some great thoughts on whether we were on the edge of another short story boom as people seek out bite-sized content to consume on the go. There was universal agreement that one should start submitting to the pro-markets immediately, but I did keep in mind that this was a group of multi-award winning short story writers. With their skills, I’d probably focus on the pro markets as well. I’m pretty sure there are no awards in my near future, but still the advice to aim high is good advice.

As an aside, Cat Sparks (who is the fiction editor at Cosmos, which is a pro market) noted the lack of Australian submissions to her publication. I thought to myself “Well, she’ll get a few more on the back of saying that“, but I notice that Cosmos is currently closed for submissions. As is Aurealis, where fellow panel member Dirk Strasser holds court. I suspect there are a lot of disappointed newbie writers out there today!

I popped out to stretch my legs before the last session, and bumped into Jason Nahrung. We started chatting about his new book (Blood and Dust, which I reviewed here and is available from Amazon or at the publisher Xoum’s website). It was an interesting conversation, covering everything from the challenges of marketing in the eBook world, through to my experience of reading Blood and Dust and even Jason’s process in working on his next novel (which I’m very excited about!). In fact, it was so interesting that I completely forgot to attend the last session of the day. Oops. I’m sure others have covered in admirably in other blogs.

Some further brief but interesting chats with Ben Chandler on his role in evaluating grant applications in South Australia and Richard Harland on his upcoming steampunk release (Song of the Slums). Before I knew it, the book launch of Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier from Ticonderoga Press had started. So over a glass of red, I had the pleasure of listening to some excellent readings and general discussion of the book.

Sadly, it being after 6:00pm and my wife having been stuck with enjoyed the company of the children all day, I had to head off. Just like last time, I found the festival to be a great re-charger of my enthusiasm batteries. I look forward to many more.

Next stop – Conflux.

Oh, and I never did find my doppelgänger.



Speculative Fiction Festival wrap up

I managed to make it back from a work trip to Melbourne in time to attend most of the NSW Writers’ Centre Speculative Fiction Festival on Saturday. Overall impressions were good. It’s the first writing festival that I’ve attended and I enjoyed listening to the various speakers. Many of the themes discussed are explored in some of the podcasts that I listen to (the rise of the eBook, challenges facing small publishers etc), but it was interesting putting faces to names and hearing a few different voices (Australian spec fic podcasts seem to be dominated by a lot of the same circle of commentators).

I didn’t schmooze the crowd or try to make solid contacts, but I did get a chance to talk with some people and hear about what they were working on. One young woman, Lynda R Young, told me a bit about a story she was working on that sounded very interesting – I hope she gets it along further. I also caught up with a couple of people who attended a workshop with me earlier in the year.

The known authors and publishers tended to travel in packs, but when I bumped into individuals (lining up to get a cup of tea etc) they were unfailingly pleasant and generous with their time and attention. It had the feeling of a real community – not one that I am fully a part of, but not closed off either.

The festival was curated by Kate Forsyth.

Opening Address – Pamela Freeman

I missed the first part of the opening address, but from where I joined proceedings Pamela was discussing the history of speculative fiction, tracing its origins through Biblical fiction through ancient times and into a more modern context (although is fiction speculative if the people of the time actually believed it was a true account of the world?).

She explored the division between superstition and custom, then made an interesting observation about the relatively recent trend towards non-human adversaries (think vampires and aliens). She maintained that there was a competing tension between our recent ascension to the top of the food chain (since the advent of “portable ballistics” i.e. the repeating rifle) and the consequent disquiet we feel as our evolutionary instincts tell us there should be something out there that can eat us, combined with our innate sense that we are are the smartest thing around.

She contended that this has lead us to create external foes to fight – things that are at least as smart as us but even meaner, rather than rely on foes extrapolated from the natural world.

It was an interesting discussion which I quite enjoyed thinking about and made a good opening to the day.

Session 2 – Publishers Talk

Chaired by: Russell B. Farr (Ticonderoga)

Panel: Stephanie Smith (Voyager), Zoe Walton (Random House – children’s publisher), Claire Craig (children’s publisher – Pan Macmillan) and Keith Stevenson (Coeur de Lion Publishing).

Panel discussion, focusing on innovation in the publishing world.

Lot of talk about trends and the “by the time you can recognise a trend it is too late to jump on the bandwagon” syndrome (with the apparent exception of paranormal romance). I tend to think this is right – the timeframes involved in writing something and then getting it published means that even if you immediately started writing something “trendy”, by the time it could possibly be published the market would have moved on. A theme of the conference from both authors and publishers was to write the novel you want to, and accept the fact that you might have to wait for its time to come.

Someone did ask if the publishers didn’t set trends, who did? The general answer seemed to be “no one knows”. There are such a variety of factors that impact on what readers will get enthusiastic about including other media such as television, and sometimes those factors can be fleeting. Stephanie Smith from Voyager talked about writing that pushes and blurs boundaries as a possible trigger for a new trend.

The publishers all spoke about the factors taken into account when deciding on whether to proceed with a manuscript – the portfolio of books the currently have, how the book compares to current offerings, age balance (for young adult), series vs stand alone. I’ve heard similar discussions before, but you can always learn something new listening to different people talk. The take away was the usual one – rejections can be for a number of reasons, and even a good quality manuscript may be rejected if it doesn’t meet other criteria.

Some things I took away from the session included:

  • There seemed to be some agreement that in a world that naturally seemed to produce trilogies, there was some appetite for good quality stand alone novels.
  • There was some general enthusiasm for good quality humorous novels, but a general acceptance that genuinely funny writing is very rare.
  • That a letter from most manuscript assessment services means nothing to the publishers. If authors need to use the service to get an independent perspective that is fine, but it won’t move you up the priority list for consideration.
  • Recent economic turmoil has really squeezed middle tier writers – harder than ever to get started.
  • Social media is seen as an important channel for authors to build brand loyalty with readers, but is not always an indicator of future success.
  • For the young adult market, the new national curriculum specifically mentions speculative fiction which might provide some opportunities.

Session 3 – Different Voices, Different Journeys

Chaired by: Jack Heath

Panel: Paul Garrety, Stuart Daly, Dawn Meredith, Claire Corbett

This panel was made up of authors that have recently had their first novels published. Some interesting insights into their journey to publication, although as always the insights are so specific to the individual author as to not be applicable directly to anyone else. There were the usual differences in opinion about things like detailed plotting vs more free form writing, whether or not to use an agent and whether an agent will even pick up a first novel author (three out of the four panelists didn’t have an agent even after their first publication).

Still it was good to see another (former) public servant (Claire Corbett) make good.

The panel chair Jack Heath was entertaining and kept his own comments minimal and the focus on the panel members (probably one of the better efforts on that front for the day).

Session 4 – Spearheading New Directions in Speculative Fiction

Chaired by: Alan Baxter (author and publisher at Blade Red Press – in hiatus)

Panel: Keith Stevenson (Coeur de Lion), Stuart Mayne, Russell B. Farr (Ticonderoga) and David Henley (Seizure magazine)

Panel consisting of small press publishers and editors. I was interested in this session to see what people are looking at in the small press end of the market.

Engaging discussion about the changes for small press publishers over the last 15 years. Was particularly interested in the discussion on the economics of small press publishing. The improvement in print on demand technologies has been quite dramatic, and it seems like it is making the money side of small press publishing more manageable. Keith Stevenson showed an example of a print on demand version of his latest anthology, which looked really good.

There was some talk about the way authors can generate income streams from stories – looking carefully at print rights, electronic printing, audible printing, magazines and anthologies – Alan Baxter spoke about selling one story four times as a personal record.

Also raised was one of the issues I’ve been giving some thought to. The spread of eBooks has been quite phenomenal, but the increase in self publishing has had me wondering about how a reader goes about finding good quality works (e.g. there are over 35,000 titles in the Kindle store on Amazon in the Science Fiction and Fantasy categories). There was some discussion across the festival about social networks as a form of “word of mouth” recommendations (e.g. but in this panel there was a lengthy discussion about publishers in general (and small press in particular) as a trusted brand – a way of sending a message about the quality of a particular piece of work.

Session 5 – Speculative Fiction: A Many Headed Monster

Chaired by: Karen Miller

Panel: Richard Harland, Leigh Blackmore, Kaaron Warren and Jack Heath

A panel discussion on the various sub-genres of speculative fiction.

This was an interesting discussion, but it mostly boiled down to:

  1. Classifications are arbitrary
  2. They help readers navigate the labyrinth of speculative fiction
  3. You shouldn’t pay too much attention to them when writing your stories – let the publisher worry about classifying the work after it is complete.

Seemed like sound advice to me.

Session 6 – Q&A – Best Sellers & Prize Winners

Chaired by: Belinda Murrell

Panel: Richard Harland, Margo Lanagan, Karen Miller, D. M. Cornish, Pamela Freeman, Kate Forsyth

Question and answer sessions with a group of experienced Australian speculative fiction authors.

My favourite quote from this session was “publishers don’t exist to make your dreams come true”. What really struck me here was the professionalism and pragmatism of the panel. By contrast, some of the questions from the audience were well meaning, but a little naive. There was some really sensible stuff in this session and an insight into how a “name brand” author approaches their work and relationship with publishers.

A lot of what they had to say made sense to me, in particular the stuff about developing a body of work and holding on to some stories until their time in the sun comes.

There was some questions about how you judge success as an author. Several answers ensued (e.g. sales, awards, the glistening tear on the cheek of a child etc), but I particularly liked Margo Lanagan’s answer where she spoke about the instinctively feeling something was right, then retrospectively applying an intellectual framework to say why it was right. That was sufficiently messy to sound like real life to me.

There was a long discussion about eBooks and the scope for further interactivity with story, especially for younger readers. Kate Forsyth seemed to be doing some very interesting work in that area, in particular covering the issue of providing an extra dimension of entertainment without jarring a reader out of the immersion required to make the main story work.


There were two launches through the day. One was at lunch time, and was the launch of a new anthology Anywhere But Earth edited by Keith Stevenson of Coeur de Lion Publishing. Three authors (Richard Harland, Alan Baxter and Margo Lanagan) read part of their stories out to the participants. It was very good. RIchard’s reading was very theatrical – I think he must do readings often. I enjoyed Alan’s story and he left it at a good spot to make you want to know more. The lyrical nature of Margo’s prose was quite mesmerising (and a little on the rude side!). All three readings were excellent and I bought a copy (and even got a few signatures in the process). I don’t buy many physical books these days, but I am looking forward to reading this one.

At the end of the day there was the launch on the sci-fi edition of Seizure magazine. Unfortunately I could only stay for 1/2 hour. At the time I left, the launch seemed to consist of a lot of people standing around and drinking bright blue bubbly alcohol. I’m sure it probably had a formal part – perhaps anyone who stuck around can leave a comment. I did buy a copy of the magazine, which I’m sure will make it onto my What is Mark Reading? page sometime soon.


All in all I had a very enjoyable time at the festival. I’d recommend future versions to anyone interested in speculative fiction and if anyone from the NSW Writers’ Centre is reading this, definitely put an extended version on in the future (perhaps with associated writing courses). I’m interested in hearing comments from anyone else who attended this (or other similar) festivals – I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve missed.

Speculative Fiction Festival – 5 November 2011

This Saturday, the NSW Writers’ Centre is sponsoring a Speculative Fiction Festival at their premises in Garry Owen House, Callan Park, Balmain Rd, Rozelle in NSW, curated by Kate Forsyth (a successful Australian author).

I’ve got my ticket – this will be the first writing festival I’ve attended. There is a very interesting program of events and I’m looking forward to attending sessions (although I’m having trouble which “stream” of sessions to go to – there are several points along the way where I’d like to split myself into two).

I’m in Melbourne for work this week and I’ll be travelling home some time on either Friday night or Saturday, so I’m hoping that I don’t get stuck anywhere. I’ll post a review after my attendance (or my excuse as to why I couldn’t make it).

If anyone reading this is going along then make sure you introduce yourself and say hello. Tickets can be purchased from the NSW Writers’ Centre website ($55 for members, $80 for non members).