Alan @ Conflux 2009

This week we’re talking with Alan Baxter, a speculative fiction writer from Australia whose books MageSign (Sample at Amazon) and RealmShift (Sample at Amazon) recently made their USA debut with Gryphonwood Press.

He’s published three novels, numerous short stories and articles, and taught a writers workshop on fighting at Conflux last year.

His blog “The Word According to Me” is consistently one of the top twenty Australian writing blogs, a fact which can probably be attributed to the loads of free stories he makes available from his “Dark Shorts” to his serialized novel, “Ghost of The Black: A ‘Verse Full of Scum”.

But enough about his accomplishments and on how Alan deals with rejection.

***

Evolve: How many rejection notices have you received since you started trying to publish your work?

Alan: Way more than I care to count! Both long and short fiction submissions have had numerous rejections before acceptances. I could count on one hand the things that have been picked up on their first submission. I’ve got short stories still doing the rounds that I’m very happy with and I know they’ll sell somewhere eventually, but they’re picking up repeated rejections in the meantime. Rejections out weight acceptances by at least 10 to 1 I would guess!

Evolve: Of all of those do any stick out in your mind? Some good, some bad?

Alan: I always appreciate the rejection that comes with some quality feedback as to why it was rejected. That’s rare but it’s enormously helpful to have feedback from an editor on why they rejected the story. If you’re thick-skinned and take time to understand what they’re saying, you will almost certainly improve the story.

Probably my favourite rejection thus far was from a small press that I sent my first novel, RealmShift, to. The book addresses religion and belief in considerable detail and has some controversial ideas in it. This particular editor was clearly a Christian and took deep offense to my book. He scrawled notes all over the manuscript (which is a big no-no!) and told me in his rejection letter that he wouldn’t have anything to do with a book that would empower Satan. I took that as a massive compliment. Maybe I should send him a copy of the published novel now, just to see what happens…

Evolve: At the time did you find his reaction funny?

Alan: It was pretty funny at the time too. It hurt a bit as I was pretty new to the whole writing and publishing game back then, but I saw the humour in it. I also thought, “If the book gets this kind of visceral reaction, then I must be doing something right!” Fortunately I was getting other feedback that balanced my perceptions considerably. I must admit, I’ve thought on several occasions that I should try to get some of the world’s religious readers to look at the book – there’s nothing like a religious banning to publicize a novel.

Evolve: Did you read though all of his comments? Were any of them worth listening to?

Alan: I did read all the comments and in one or two places he’d nailed a grammar or spelling error. Sadly, all his editorial comments about the actual narrative and dialogue of the novel was so coloured by his prejudice that it didn’t really make sense. He ended up making snarky little comments like “We know this character is smoking, you mentioned it already” when a second mention of a cigarette cropped up and stuff like that. Comments like that can often be useful, but unfortunately he ended up sounding like such a vindictive child that it was hard to take any of his critique seriously.

Evolve: Recently you published a short-story called Strange Death with Flashes In The Dark. Were they the first journal you sent it to? If not, how many times was it rejected and what did you change to help it sell so to speak?

Alan: Funnily enough, that was one of the few stories that was picked up on its first submission. I originally published it on my website as a Friday Flash piece, where writers offer free flash fiction on their website every week. I certainly don’t do something every week, but once in a while I will. Flashes In The Dark accept reprints and they were running a lycanthropy contest. I submitted this piece for that and they asked if they could publish it as a daily story and enter it in the contest as well. Of course, that was more than fine with me!

Evolve: Have you ever written something you thought was really good and than received a rejection that tore it apart?

Alan: Does the Pope shit Catholic bears in the wood? Everything I submit I think is worthy of submission. The trouble is, writers are the last people to judge the quality of their own work! I’ve had some rejections that cut deeply, but you have to suck it up in this game. Read the rejection, digest it and work on improving the story for the next submission.

Evolve: Having just published MageSign (Amazon) and RealmShift (Amazon) in the States with Gryphonwood Press what do you think is the biggest difference is between Australian publishers and US based publishers?

Alan: These days I think there’s very little difference at all. The only real variation is that the US has a massive domestic audience and Australia has a tiny domestic audience. I think US publishers take on more books as a result of that. Australia’s isolation and small population definitely has an effect on what gets published and how much risk Australian publishers can take. Of course, with the digital age and the world getting smaller, this is quickly changing.

Evolve: Is writing your day job, or is there something else putting food on your plate?

Alan: I tend to eat what I can dig up in the garden. Or I would, if writing was all I did! I would love to be supported completely by my writing and hopefully one day I will. In the meantime, I run the Illawarra Kung Fu Academy as well, and that adds to my income. And in truth, even if I did make a full time wage from writing, I’d still run the Academy. Training and teaching Kung Fu is just something that I do, just like writing. I’m very lucky to be doing the things I love for a living.

Evolve: What advice do you give to writers who have recently been rejected?

Alan: Sub it again! Being rejected is something that happens all the time to every writer out there. Even the most famous and prolific writers will get rejections. There are some exceptions – people like Neil Gaiman or Stephen King can pretty much submit a shopping list to a publisher and get it picked up – but those people are very, very rare. The vast majority of writers deal with rejection as a daily reality. Just keep writing, keep submitting, join a crit group and have people help you develop your craft.

Most of all, don’t be a princess. You didn’t get rejected because the publisher didn’t recognise your genius. You got rejected because: a) the piece just wasn’t right for the publication or b) the piece wasn’t good enough. Always assume it’s b) and you’ll continue to improve as a writer.

Evolve: Do you have any genre specific genre related advice for your fellow writers of speculative fiction?

Alan: Read, read, read! I don’t read nearly enough in the genre, or certainly not as much as I’d like to. Read what’s out there, read what’s being published and then write something new and original and different in your own unique voice. And believe me, it’ll take you years to learn how to do that. I’m still trying to get it right!

Evolve: You mentioned earlier that you run a Kung Fu academy. How does that play into your writing?

Alan: Kung Fu has been a part of my life since I was a kid. It informs my philosophy and outlook on life and my writing. I suppose the thing about it that stands out the most is when I write fight scenes. I’m developing a reputation for writing visceral, realistic fight scenes in my books and stories and that comes from having an intimate knowledge of fighting. Not only the mechanics of it but the emotional aspect as well. It actually led to me formulating a writers workshop on the subject that I ran at Conflux last year, which turned out to be a great success and a lot of fun. I’m hoping to run that workshop again soon.

***

I hope you enjoyed this weeks interview. If you have any questions for Alan leave a comment below or email me evolvejournal@gmail.com and I’ll make sure they get to him. Also, support Alan and but MageSign (Amazon) or RealmShift (Amazon).

Note: After a listening to so reader feedback we’ve decided to change “Best of the Worst” into a weekly interviews that focus on how different writers deal with rejection.