“Exquisite” at Pseudopod

I’m absolutely ecstatic to have another story at my favourite podcast, Pseudopod. “Exquisite” is one of the three original stories from my second (award-winning!) collection, SERVED COLD. I really wavered back and forth about whether or not to include it, but ultimately decided it was a good fit after all. And that turned out to be the right decision, because no other story in that book has garnered more comment. It’s the kind of story that really resonates with and/or divides people. You have to love that. I’ll add it to the Free Stories page here, but meanwhile, please give a listen to “Exquisite” on Pseudopod ep 755, brilliantly narrated by Dan Rabarts.

Thanks to all the team at Pseudopod. Love your work!

 

 

Great short story collections

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of short fiction. While I love to read (and write) a novel, I find the shorter yarn to be a unique art form. In many ways, with genre fiction (and especially horror) the short story or novella is often a better format than the novel. It can be sharper, more visceral. There’s long been an argument, for example, that Stephen King’s short stories are way better than his novels. I wouldn’t personally comment on that (Kermit-sipping-tea-dot-gif), but I can understand the argument.

A short story is not simply a novel with less in it. When I teach short story workshops, I try to make the differences as clear as I can. However, this post isn’t a workshop, so I’ll leave that argument there. Let’s just agree that short fiction is awesome. This post is about great short story collections (and anthologies). To clarify, a book of short stories all by the same author is a collection. A book of short stories by various authors is an anthology. This distinction isn’t made in film (to use King again as an example, that’s why Creepshow is called an anthology movie), but in written fiction, it’s a well-recognised and very clear distinction.

When I teach short fiction workshops, I constantly get asked for good examples of the form. Understandable, really. So I’ve finally got around to putting together a blog post that lists a variety of my favourites. I’ll revisit this post and add to it as new ones come out. In the meantime, what follows are some examples of what I think are the best short story collections around (and I’ll include a few anthologies at the end). I’ve picked one from each author as a good starting point, but seriously, grab anything by the people listed below and you won’t be disappointed. Naturally, I’m going to start with my own – I’ve won awards for my short fiction and my collections, so it’s only a small amount of hubris to start with my stuff – and I’m going to list more than one. It’s my blog, so there. After my own stuff, the list is alphabetical by author surname. Note: This is NOT definitive, I know I missed loads of great stuff, and yes, I’ll update it as and when I can. Here we go.

Alan Baxter

Crow Shine, Served Cold and The Gulp: Tales From The Gulp 1

My own short fiction runs through all forms of dark fantasy and horror. Crow Shine leans more towards the fantastical than the others. Both Crow Shine and Served Cold won the Australian Shadows Award for Best Collection in their respective years of publication. Crow Shine was also a finalist for the Aurealis Award, the Ditmar Award and was on the preliminary ballot of the Stoker Award (though it didn’t make the shortlist). I’ve yet to see if The Gulp wins anything, as that’s newly published this year.

Jo Anderton

Jo writes the most incredible, dark, twisted science fiction short stories and her award-winning collection The Bone Chime Song and Other Stories is superb.

Nathan Ballingrud

One of the best working today, his horror stories are sublime. Check out North American Lake Monsters, still for me one of the best short story collections ever published.

Clive Barker

Probably my favourite author of all-time, the six volume Books of Blood, Volumes 1-3 and Books of Blood, Volumes 4-6 are still the benchmark in short fiction for me.

Laird Barron

Laird is one of my favourite writers working today and his short horror stories are amazing. A great place to start is The Imago Sequence and Other Stories.

Lauren Beukes

Try Slipping.

Kealan Patrick Burke

Try out We Live Inside Your Eyes.

Roald Dahl

My earliest introduction to short stories, these blew my young mind. Start with Kiss Kiss.

Harlan Ellison

I mean, the man is a legend. Start with I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Brian Evenson

Give Song for the Unraveling of the World a go.

Philip Fracassi

A newer writer who’s turning out great stuff, try Behold the Void.

Ted E Grau

Try The Nameless Dark: A Collection.

Paul Haines

By all the gods, I miss my friend. Taken way too soon, Paul is one of the greatest horror and genre writers Australia has ever seen. His collection The Last Days of Kali Yuga is outstanding.

Lisa L Hannett

Lisa is a wonderful writer, with lyrical, magical stories. I’d suggest starting with Bluegrass Symphony to get a great taste of her dark, fantastical style.

Robert Hood

Rob is the godfather of Aus horror. One of my favourite collections of his is Creeping in Reptile Flesh, but he deserves a double mention as he is also an amazing writer of ghost stories and has an absolute doorstop of a ghost yarn collection called Peripheral Visions: The Collected Ghost Stories which is amazing.

Nalo Hopkinson

Try Falling in Love with Hominids.

Shirley Jackson

A master of the short story. The definitive collection for me is The Lottery and Other Stories.

Stephen Graham Jones

One of my favourite authors, try After the People Lights Have Gone Off.

Jack Ketchum

Ketchum is in a league of his own. Read Peaceable Kingdom.

Stephen King

We have to include King, right? One of my favourites is Nightmares and Dreamscapes.

Margo Lanagan

Truly one of the greatest, weird, mystical, transportive. Start with Black Juice.

John Langan

Another great writer who works wonders at long short story and novella length. Read Sefira and Other Betrayals.

Joe Lansdale

Joe is a prolific writer across so many genres, his stuff is always fantastic. Try High Cotton.

Thomas Ligotti

Another of the true greats, his stories are mesmerising. Start with the excellent double collection in a single volume, Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe.

Martin Livings

Not prolific, but an excellent writer, start with his collection Living With the Dead.

Kirstyn McDermott

Dark and beautiful, and thoroughly disturbing. Start with Caution: Contains Small Parts.

T R Napper

Proper modern cyberpunk. Read Neon Leviathan.

Annie Proulx

A master of character and almost genre-defying stories. Start with Bad Dirt.

Angela Slatter

Angela is a master of the form, and she has more collections than you can safely shake a stick at. But maybe start with Sourdough and Other Stories. It’s a great example of her dark, twisted fairytale style, and still one of my favourites of her work.

Cat Sparks

Great sci-fi. Read The Bride Price.

John F D Taff

Multiple Stoker Award nominations, try Little Black Spots.

Paul Tremblay

He writes weird shit, man. Start with Growing Things and Other Stories.

Kaaron Warren

Kaaron is an absolute legend and her fiction will discomfort the hell out of you. Another absolute master at work. Something of a definitive collection of her is Dead Sea Fruit.

Kim Wilkins

Wonderful fantasy, with a dark edge, her novella collection The Year of Ancient Ghosts is superb.

Selected Anthologies (alphabetical by anthology title)

A Killer Among Demons, ed. Craig Bezant.

Anywhere but Earth, ed. Keith Stevenson.

Damnation and Dames, ed. Liz Grzyb.

Dark Cities, ed. Christopher Golden.

Dead Red Heart, ed. Russell B Farr.

Dreaming in the Dark, ed. Jack Dann.

Evil is a Matter of Perspective: An Anthology of Antagonists, ed. Adrian Collins.

Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors – ed. Doug Murano and Michael Bailey.

Peel Back the Skin, ed. Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson.

SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror, ed. Geoff Brown, A J Spedding, Matthew Summers – this is first one, but get every volume. They’re all fantastic.

Supernatural Noir, ed. Ellen Datlow – NB: I picked this as it’s one of my favourite anthologies in general, but everything Ellen Datlow edits is pure gold. Get them all. Her Best Horror of the Year series is truly benchmark stuff.

Swords Against Darkness, ed. Paula Guran.

All That Matters – new fiction

I’m pleased to have this new short fiction called “All That Matters” published in The Saturday Paper. For one thing, it’s good when a genre writer like me gets to be published in the mainstream press, but it’s also good because this is one of those bittersweet, heartfelt things that comes from personal experience and the experiences of close friends. You can find it via the link above or the tweet below from editor, Alison Croggon. I hope you enjoy it.

I include the tweet because I’m so pleased they used the photo I offered, of Penry and Rufus when Rufus was new. I miss old Penry so much.

.

Move yourself, sitting folks!

A Twitter post triggered a thread, so I thought I’d move it here too, because it’s relevant and I wanted to save it. Here’s the original tweet that got me thinking.

This is the short thread that followed, transcribed and extended for the blog:

Let’s start at the beginning. A sedentary lifestyle is one of the biggest killers out there. Sitting down for long periods of time is as bad as smoking for mortality. Don’t believe me? Look it up. Here’s a detailed study if you want all the data: 

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6133005/

That’s actually a pretty fascinating study, taking into account a variety of variables. It makes interesting reading if you’re nerdy for this stuff like I am. But here’s the key point: “This study demonstrates an increasing risk of disease and mortality with increasing total sitting time and TV viewing time. It also revealed a threshold of 6–8 h/day of total sitting and 3–4 h/day of TV viewing, above which risk for several important health outcomes increased more rapidly.”

So maybe the smoking analogy is stretching it, but not by much. Sitting around a lot is BAD for you. As writers, we obviously sit around a lot. One other thing with regards to that [personal trainer hat on*]: It doesn’t matter if you’re fit and healthy and you exercise for an hour every day. If you then sit around for 6 to 8 hours at work, the unhealthy effects of sitting are just as bad! A lot of people think they can sit around all day as long as they exercise morning and/or night to combat the inactivity. It doesn’t work like that. You may well be fit and strong from your exercise, but the problems of extended sitting are still there, still just as bad.

I’m a martial arts instructor. I train hard almost every day. I’m in pretty good shape. None of that means I can then sit around for 8 hours a day penning mad horror. I mean, that IS what I do, but not without breaks. You have to break up those sitting hours. I use a timer app on my desktop, set for 30 mins. The alarm goes off after 30 minutes, and I get out of the chair and move around. I might make a cuppa, go hang out the laundry, do some push-ups, practice one or two kung fu forms. There are numerous things you can do to move your limbs a lot and get your blood pumping. After 5 or 10 minutes of moving around, I go back to work. I reset the timer and start it again. If I’m really in the zone I might skip one alarm and go for an hour straight, but NEVER more than one. I can take a break and get back to work without losing focus because I’ve trained myself to do that. This is a job, so work on your job skills. I know sometimes I’m hanging in a mental net that’s fragile as lace and if I disturb that, I’ll lose my flow. I can snooze the alarm in those instances and push through. But there are always places you can jack out briefly, then get back in. This is a craft that uses more than just your mind and your typing fingers and you need to train every aspect of the art. Keeping a healthy body is part of that.

You might also get a standing desk, or work with a laptop while you walk on a treadmill. Anything is good as long as you get up and move around once or twice every hour AT LEAST. Now we all know dogs are awesome, but here’s another reason why. In the middle of every day I take an hour or so break, quick lunch, then walk Rufus. Long, fast-paced walks. I might take a 90 minute break if necessary, sometimes combine it with chores like post office runs or grabbing groceries. What’s important is moving my body, even if I’m teaching that night.

Obviously, a long dog walk or any other exercise outside is easier in Australia in summer (or winter!) than say, Maine, USA in February. But there’s a lot you can do at home. Body weight exercises, up and down the stairs, even just briskly walking a few laps of a small room gets the body and blood moving and helps to mitigate the problems of extended sitting.

So that’s my advice to you all, writers especially. But it applies to anyone with a sedentary job. Sitting around is a killer. MOVE YOSELF!

(*I’m not a practicing PT any more, but I was for over a decade.)

From our walk today:

What is 13th Dragon Books?

Okay, so this has come up a few times recently and I guess it needs an explanation. As much as anything, I’m writing this so that when people ask in future I can send them here.

I’m very much a hybrid writer – that means I work with bigger press when I can, small press otherwise, and I do some self-publishing. These days it’s becoming ever more common to work this way. Sure, we’d all love a Big 5 publisher to buy everything we put out and nurture us and send us on champagne junkets all over the world. But that’s only the reality for a very few. The vast majority of writers, even if we do sell to a Big 5 publisher, may enjoy a period in the sun and then not sell to one again. Or maybe not for a while and then get another stab. This business is not a straight line rising upwards. It’s not a job where you start at the ground floor and steadily get promoted up. It’s a random, chaotic series of rises and falls and hopefully, over many years, the trend is generally upwards. But nothing is guaranteed. So a lot of us end up in this hybrid situation where we have a variety of publishers and maybe some self-publishing too.

Back in the primordial past of the mid-00s I first played around with a bit of self-publishing. At the time, ebooks and print-on-demand were new and exciting. I enjoyed it for a while. I enjoyed it so much that I set up a small press. I used it to publish a couple of my own things, and a handful of other books. It was called Blade Red Press, and I commissioned a logo for it. The logo went on the website and on the spines of our books. Here it is:

However, after playing in that sandpit for a while I realised that I didn’t want to be a publisher. I wanted to write and operating a small press took far too much of my time and attention. So I wound the whole thing up. I went on to working with publishers and enjoying that relationship. But this industry is forever in flux. Over the last few years I’d started thinking about maybe self-publishing a few things again. Firstly, I’d had publishers fold and take books with them – so it’s clearly not safe to have too much in one place. Secondly, with self-publishing you have entire control and all the profits. Thirdly, I’ve been at this a while now and have enough of a following that perhaps self-publishing wouldn’t be so much work this time around. But I still wasn’t sure how to go about it, or what projects I might self-publish. Then the whole nonsense with THE ROO came about. A novella, written in part as a joke, all for a bit of fun, so I decided here was the thing I could use to start a bit of self-publishing again.

I dusted off all the old skills, called in some help, relearned a bunch of stuff and set to self-publishing THE ROO. Now for me, a book doesn’t look right without a small logo on the spine. It doesn’t look finished somehow. So I thought, why don’t I dig out the old Blade Red logo, just for a bit of nostalgia, and put that on the spine? So I took the text off, and this is the logo you see on THE ROO. Then I decided to do a standalone version of my wuxia fantasy novella, GOLDEN FORTUNE, DRAGON JADE. So I used the same logo again. I decided this would do two things: 1. It would look right, fulfilling my need to have a logo on the spine of a book, and 2. It would clearly indicate anything I’d self-published. All my self-published work will now bear this logo. It’s on the spine of THE GULP too. Here’s how it looks now:

And here’s where the next bit comes in. The page of a book called the TP Verso (the reverse of the title page) is where all the disclaimer and ISBN and other information goes. This is also where the publisher is named. So for fun, with THE GULP, I added 13th Dragon Books under the ISBN on that page. That’s the publisher, because that’s me. I’m the 13th Dragon. Here’s why. Within my kung fu style of Chan Family Choy Lee Fut (the website of the school I run is here), at the top there’s our grandmaster and the Jeung Mun (or Keeper of the Family Style), Master Chen Yong Fa. Master Chen has disciples, who are his most senior and trusted students, and we’re responsible for protecting his legacy and spreading that to all the schools around the world. First, there are the golden dragon disciples, then the fire dragon disciples. There are further disciple levels after that, but let’s stay focussed. There are currently 15 dragon disciples – 3 Golden Dragons, then 12 Fire Dragons. I was the 10th fire dragon named, or the 13th dragon overall. So that’s me, the 13th Dragon. And it ties in nicely with that sweet dragon head logo from way back when. And 13 is a good number, it lines up nicely with horror and all that. See how it all fits together? The whole thing pleases my sense of synchronicity. That’s why my self-published stuff will bear that logo and have 13th Dragon Books listed on the TP Verso. I’m not hiding the fact that this stuff is self-published, and I will list it as such in anything that requires a publisher to be listed (like awards submissions and all that). But I just think it looks right to have a logo and I like the idea of naming it.

And yes, there’s also one tiny little other option here that I’m not really looking at but maybe considering for some potential future possibility… I don’t even want to admit to it… Okay, I will. Setting this up means that if I do ever reconsider starting up as a boutique micro-press, everything is already in place. I’d just need to register it as a company and sling up a website. I am definitely not suggesting I’m planning to do that, but it’s nice to know I can if I choose to. Which I won’t. Shut up.

 

Women in Horror

February is Women in Horror Month. There are women out there writing some amazing horror and I love it that WiHM exists to highlight them. I plan to only read women in February (mostly horror, but maybe not exclusively) and I wanted to help with the highlights by listing below some of the awesome women horror writers out there. Some of those listed will also be people who are maybe horror-adjacent, but certainly writers of dark fiction. Now, I know I’ve missed a bunch of wonderful people (including my friends, I’m sure!) and I apologise. Mea culpa! This list kinda got out of hand. So many amazing women out there. But, if you’re a woman in horror but not on the list, drop a comment and introduce yourself there!

So, no further ado – find yourselves a bunch of this stuff and get into it. At the start are a couple of groups to follow, then all the people. The list is in alphabetical order (by first name), but just to shake things up, it’s reverse alphabetical order. Give all those Zs a highlight over the As for a change!

Ladies of Horror Fiction @LOHFiction
Ladies of the Fright Podcast @LOTFpod

 

A J Spedding https://twitter.com/AJSpedding
Alma Katsu https://twitter.com/almakatsu
Angela Maher https://angelajmaher.com/
Angela Slatter https://twitter.com/AngelaSlatter
Bernie Rutkay https://www.linkedin.com/in/bernie-rutkay-85996040
Caroline Angel https://carolineangel.com/
Cassandra Khaw https://twitter.com/casskhaw
Cat Sparks https://twitter.com/catsparx
Christina Henry https://twitter.com/C_Henry_Author
Christine Morgan https://twitter.com/CMorganAuthor
Claire Fitzpatrick https://www.clairefitzpatrick.net
Cynthia Pelayo https://twitter.com/cinapelayo
Doungjai Gam https://twitter.com/djai76
Ellen Datlow https://twitter.com/EllenDatlow
Gabrielle Faust https://twitter.com/Gabrielle_Faust
Gemma Amor https://twitter.com/manylittlewords
Gemma Files https://twitter.com/gemmafiles
J H Moncrieff https://twitter.com/JH_Moncrieff
Joanne Anderton http://joanneanderton.com/wordpress/
Kaaron Warren https://twitter.com/KaaronWarren
Karen Runge https://twitter.com/RungeKaren
Kathe Koja https://twitter.com/KatheKoja
Kathleen Jennings https://twitter.com/tanaudel
Kathryn Hore http://www.letmedigress.com
Keri Arthur https://twitter.com/kezarthur
Kirsten Cross https://twitter.com/KesCross
Kirstyn McDermott https://twitter.com/fearofemeralds
L Zedda-Sampson https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16201109.L_Zedda_Sampson
Laurel Hightower https://twitter.com/HightowerLaurel
Lauren Beukes https://twitter.com/laurenbeukes
Lee Murray https://twitter.com/leemurraywriter
Linda D Addison https://twitter.com/nytebird45
Lisa L Hannett https://twitter.com/LisaLHannett
Lisa Morton https://twitter.com/cinriter
Livia Llewellyn https://twitter.com/TheNuminous1
Lucy Snyder https://twitter.com/LucyASnyder
Margo Lanagan https://twitter.com/margolanagan
Maria Lewis https://twitter.com/moviemazz
Marlee Jane Ward https://twitter.com/marleejaneward
Mary SanGiovanni https://twitter.com/marysangiovanni
Meghan Arcuri https://twitter.com/MeghanArcuri
Nadia Bulkin https://twitter.com/nadiabulkin
Nancy Holder https://twitter.com/nancyholder
Olivia White https://twitter.com/NoSleepOlivia
Rebecca Fraser https://writingandmoonlighting.com/
S D Perry https://twitter.com/sdp668
S P Miskowski https://twitter.com/SPMiskowski
Sara Tantlinger https://twitter.com/SaraTantlinger
Sarah Read https://twitter.com/Inkwellmonster
Shauna O’Meara https://twitter.com/OMearaShauna
Silvia Cantón Rondoni https://poetsilviacr.wixsite.com/poetsilviacr?fbclid=IwAR127tiTGL3l1C5-Azg_WjIAgScDiqC_vBWjGFSBltHsQYnwehAjUbhRfjs
Stephanie M Wytovich https://twitter.com/Swytovich
Tananarive Due https://twitter.com/TananariveDue
Theresa Braun https://twitter.com/tbraun_author

 

 

Books read in 2020

I won’t go into too much detail here, but it’s always interesting to look back and see what books accompanied me through any given year. I use the Goodreads challenge to keep track. I wrote a bit about that here, and how from now on I’m setting my goal at 10 books to remove pressure. According to Goodreads, in 2018 I set my goal at 50 books and read 65. In 2019 I set the goal at 50 and read 70. In 2020, I set the goal at 50 and read 57. Given the hell year that 2020 was, that’s not a bad effort. The images below show all the books I read in 2020. A quick scan shows a fair amount of variety. Or does it?

Using a completely arbitrary system of people’s names and my own knowledge (apologies for any mistakes!) I see there’s 15 books by women. That’s a terrible amount out of 57! That is partly offset by the fact that I read multiple books in a series by single authors who were men (Moorcock, Sapkowski) but that’s not really an excuse. Funny, as I thought I’d read more women this year, but there you! I’ll try to balance that up in 2021. I’m reading Fonda Lee’s second in the Green Bone Saga right now (Jade War), so that’s a good start.

Only four books by POC authors that I can see, so that needs rectifying too. While the books I’ve read are pretty diverse in genre and subject, the authors sure seem to be overwhelmingly white and male. Whether they’re straight or queer I don’t know. Regardless, more women and POC authors need to get to the top of my TBR this year. There’s only five non-fiction books on there that I see, but that’s five I finished. I always have a few on the go. Sapkowski’s Witcher books are the only ones in translation too, so I need to read more non-English books this year.

Whether I will manage these things or not remains to be seen, but it’s always good to be aware of our reading habits and biases and try to address them. That takes conscious effort. I tend to read things that call to me, but I also need to put myself in a position to hear the call of work outside my unconscious bias.

Onwards into 2021. I’m off to set my Goodreads challenge to 10 books and see how I go. First I need to finish Jade War, which I’m loving. Can’t believe I’ll have to wait until September for the final book in that trilogy.

No one is keeping secrets from you.

I get one or two emails or private messages a month on average asking some variation of this question, so I thought I might as well write a blog post about it. Then I can reply to those emails with a simple link. Firstly, if you’re one of those people who have written to me, especially recently, please believe this is not a passive-aggressive dig at you. This is the result of many examples over a long time. And it mystifies me that I get them. I mean, who the hell am I? I can only assume other writers do as well. What am I crapping on about? Well, the emails (and DMs, in-person queries, etc.) usually go something like this:

I’ve written these stories/books/what-have-you and they just don’t sell. No one is noticing my work. The secrets of publishing success are just out of reach. Please tell me what I need to do or who I need to talk to.

Or some variation of those themes.

You know, once I even saw someone bail up another writer during a room party at a con and say, “Just tell me! What do you know that people won’t tell me?”

I mean, that’s some serious conspiracy-driven loopiness and 99.9% pf people are not like that. (Also, do NOT do that, ever.) Most people are genuinely frustrated trying to break into this thankless industry, and I get that. Oh man, how I get that. I absolutely sympathise with the frustration. It’s easy to think there’s something you’re doing wrong, or some fundamental thing you’re not doing. You’re working your arse off in every other way, honing your craft, sending submissions, querying agents, self-publishing books with great editing and professional covers, but you’re not soaring on the wings of publishing success. It’s easy to think the problem lies in some secret formula people are keeping from you.

There is no secret. No one is withholding that vital key.

The simple fact is brutal, but true. Most don’t make it. The ones who do did one thing and one thing only: they didn’t quit.

It’s frustrating as hell when you see a new writer burst onto the scene with their first book or first stories and just go stratospheric. Suddenly everyone is talking about them, you see their book everywhere, they’re hitting the Best Of The Year lists and you’re sat there staring at your screen thinking, What the fuck, man?

We’ve all been there. Believe me when I say, those people are the serious outliers. And good for them! Amazing to get that lightning strike of luck right out of the gate. It almost never happens. You notice it on the rare occasion when it does.

For 99% of us, this gig is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s Sisyphus pushing his rock up the mountain, except your rock is a book and the mountain is what separates you from readers. For most people who are seeing great success, who frequently crop up on lists, who seem to be in every magazine or anthology, whose books always sell, well they’ve been busting their hump at this gig for years. They’ve been bloody-mindedly, relentlessly pushing their rock, refusing to quit.

Success in publishing is built from three things: talent, hard work, and luck. Anyone who denies any of those is deluded or lying to you. And you want to know the shittiest part of it? The most important one is luck. And that’s the only one you don’t control. The only one you can’t control. But you can work to improve your talent. The longer you do this, the better you’ll get. You can work hard. And the longer you do it, the smarter you’ll work too. And the beauty of those two things is this: the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get.

And now for another downer: luck is variable and often doesn’t last. But that’s okay. Because every little bit of luck helps. You know the parable of the crow and the water? It goes like this. The crow was thirsty as fuck (that’s you, thirsty for publishing success) and he found a glass with water in the bottom (that’s publishing). But the crow couldn’t reach the water. The crow, however, was smart. He put his birdy back into some hard work. He found a stone and dropped it into the glass. Then another, and another and another (that’s you working and not quitting). Slowly, as the stones filled the glass, the water level began to rise. Eventually the crow got a drink. That’s what publishing is like for most of us. And sometimes, the fucking glass cracks and all the water pisses out, and you have to go and find a new glass, and start over with the stones. Every once in a while, the glass randomly and inexplicably overflows and you nearly drown in it. You have no control over those things. All you control is finding the glasses and putting the rocks in.

I’ll move away from the analogy now for fear of over-stretching it!

Assuming you don’t get one of those early lightning strikes that lasts, you’ll be plugging away repeatedly and relentlessly, and you will, over time (oh, such a long time), start to generate a reputation, and a following. You’ll learn what resonates and what doesn’t. Every tiny success from one small bolt of luck could lead to another. You get a story in one place and an editor sees it and might invite to submit to another place. You get a book review in one place and it might lead a bunch of new readers to buy your book, and maybe even your back catalogue. Or those things might not happen and you have to keep going, feeling like nothing works, feeling like some secret is eluding you. It’s not. This is a bullshit industry and you need the hide of a rhino and the bull-headedness of a… fucking bull, I guess. And when it comes to the work, diversify. Short stories, novels, novellas, non-fiction. Spread your wings, get your work out there in a variety of ways to help build your skill and your reputation.

Get good, work hard, get lucky. That’s how it works. You have to be good and working hard in order to recognise the luck when it comes, and in order to grab hold of that luck and milk it for all it’s worth. You develop skills at these things the longer you’re at it. It sounds fucking awful, huh? It is. But it’s not all awful. If you’re still reading, that’s good. That means you’re not a quitter. So here’s a few tips on ways you can try to improve your luck and thereby find some success:

Improve your skill – we never stop learning.

Figure out what you like to write and zoom in on that. Some people try to write to market, and some can do that, but for most of us it’s superficial and lacks heart. People want to read your soul laid bare on the page. If you have passion for what you’re writing, people will respond to that authenticity.

I hate the concept of “author branding” but there is some merit to it. People need to know what to expect from you. That doesn’t mean you’re constrained to one genre or style, but find your voice and work with it. It will develop naturally over time, so let that happen. I’d like to think that by now people have an idea of what they’ll get from an Alan Baxter book. I try to both give them that and surprise them with each new release. Not easy, but nothing worthwhile is. That’s part of the work.

Learn the landscape. That means being across the publishers and publications out there. Understand who’s doing what and pay attention to any opportunities. Target your work well. And know the landscape changes frequently. And like I said above, work with novel and short story length stuff. It’ll improve your skills, improve your reach, and potentially improve your income in the short term too.

HELP OTHER PEOPLE! For all the truth of the fact that there are no secrets, people do help each other. If I see an opportunity, I’ll share it. If I see something that seems to suit particular people, I’ll let them know. If I see work being released by people whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past, I’ll share it. Not for any perceived reward but simply because a rising tide lifts all boats. And if you support and promote other people, they’ll get to know you and most likely support and promote you too. That’s you and them building your careers – we’re all in this together. We are allies, not competitors.

Go to cons, book launches, and other bookish events. In these Covid-times, this one is tricky. And for some people, the expense, the travel, the social anxieties, are all too real. But it does pay off. When you immerse yourself in the active culture of something you want to be a part of, you become a part of it. You hear about opportunities you might miss otherwise. You discover authors whose work resonates with you and you learn from it and them. People meet you and discover that you exist, and they hopefully also discover that you’re not a complete dickhead. This works best in person, but it’s true online as well. Some of the people I know best and respect most I’ve never actually met in meatspace.

Success in this business comes from people knowing about your work. No-one can read a book they don’t know exists. Most people won’t know you and your book exist, especially if all you do is yell about it from your small corner of the internet. Get involved with other people’s stuff, and then other people learn about you. Networking is key, online or in-person, and networking doesn’t mean wandering around asking what people can do for you. It means looking around to see what you can do for other people, even if that just means chatting like not a psychopath. Eventually it all comes around.

When you start to see some success, keep at it. And keep helping others. Success will rise and fall like a stormy sea. Things you never thought would take off go ballistic while the thing you love, the best thing you ever wrote, sinks without a trace. It might rise again later, or it might not. Keep going. The best marketing for your book is to write another book. The best salve for rejection is to submit again. Be part of the industry in whatever way you’re able, keep producing your best stuff, and keep working hard. The more stuff you put out there, the more chance you have of people discovering your work. When it comes right down to it, the only way to build a career is to have other people reading and talking about your stuff. And that doesn’t mean churning out as much egregious shit as you can. It means writing your best work and getting it out there in the best way you can, then rinse and repeat. Again and again and again.

Just by the way, this is all only my opinion on the subject, of course. I’ve talked with lots of people and most share this view, but I certainly can’t speak for all. I mean, the idea that I’m even successful is something else! I recognise that I’m in a position loads of people would kill for, but I don’t sell thousands of every release. I wish I did. I don’t make a full-time living at this. I’m constantly trying to increase my readership and I’m always on the hunt for that break-out book. But everything I’ve discussed above has got me this far, and I trust it’ll keep me going on a generally upwards trajectory. Out of all the stuff I’ve talked about, writing the best stuff I can and putting it out there is the most important part.

Stay productive, stay kind, and DO. NOT. QUIT.

 

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Nostalgia magic.

Reading is a special kind of magic. I think it was Stephen King who called it a “uniquely portable magic”. Books are mystical portals to other worlds, they let us experience being another person, they permit travel without moving. It’s escapism, but it’s also immersion. It’s mind-altering. It blows my mind, as a writer, that I can put these words down and trigger actual emotional responses in people I’ll never meet, never know about. I’ve recognised this power since I was a child, always loving that uniquely portable magic. But something else has happened as I’ve grown older. Magical echoes.

Certain books stay with us in powerful ways. There are some reading experiences I remember in vivid detail – some of the scared from early reading of Stephen King himself, some of the wonder from my early reading of fantasy and science-fiction. But some memories are more nebulous. I used to read a lot of fantasy in my early years. From about 9 years old and onwards, fantasy was my first love. I read it voraciously. It stands to reason that a lot of it would blur together. While I still read modern fantasy and enjoy stuff coming out today (like Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight books, Anna Stephens Godblind trilogy, Devin Madson’s The Reborn Empire, and so many more) I’ve recently been revisiting the old fantasy of my youth.

I’ve made it a habit of recent years to reread some of my favourite series, maybe two or three series a year. I reread all the Elric and Corum books by Michael Moorcock, which are still so fantastic. But interestingly, I always preferred Elric as a kid. Now I think the Corum books are far better. Next up are the Hawkmoon books. Every couple of years I reread Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books, because they are just ambrosia to me. Everything about them is perfect. I also reread the entire Chronicles of Morgaine by C J Cheryh at the start of last year and that was just as awesome as I remember.

And here’s where something strange happened. You see, since I was a teen, there was this one scene from a fantasy novel that really stayed with me. I remember a magical woman and her warrior partner, trudging through a landscape that was flooded, the water up to their knees, with nowhere to sit down. In every direction, nothing but smooth water, as they searched, exhausted, for a gate out of that world. I don’t know why, but I’d always loved that imagery, it stayed with me. Except I couldn’t remember which book it had been in. Apart from the fact that I wanted to revisit all the wonderful fantasy from the 70s and 80s, part of my decision to reread these classics was 1) I wanted them on my shelves again for my son to discover, and 2) I really wanted to find that scene again. When I got hold of an omnibus edition of The Chronicles of Morgaine I thought, Powerful woman! Warrior companion! Travelling multiple worlds through strange gates! This has to be it! I reread the entire thing, some 1,500 pages or more, and I loved it all over again, but that scene wasn’t in it. I was a little bereft.

Oh well, the search continues. I kept reading old classics in between modern fantasy (I’m doing the same with horror and thrillers too). Then earlier this year I was in a secondhand bookshop and they had a whole lot of 70s and 80s fantasy. A treasure trove! I found a bunch of Moorcock’s I’d been looking out for as well as a variety of other stuff. And then I found Six of Swords by Carol Nelson Douglas. I got a nostalgia punch right in the gut. I’d forgotten all about the series, but seeing the cover I instantly remembered it. Irissa, the Torloc seeress with silver eyes, who could never look directly at anyone for fear of seeing her reflection in their eyes and losing her powers. Kendric the Wrathman, a seven foot giant of a warrior. And I remembered too that they were searching for a Torloc Gate. More than the memory of this book, though, was the sequel, Exiles of the Rynth. That particular book had blown me away as a teen, so much better than the first. I’d forgotten all about it until then. And could it be the one I’d been looking for? So I bought Six of Swords. I read it again and it was awesome. It ends with them going through a gate. I finally managed to track down a copy of Exiles of the Rynth (it had to be the old Corgi editions like I’d had before). I just finished reading it last night. So good still, such original ideas. And right towards the end, Irissa and Kendric walking knee deep through floodwaters, looking for the gate. I found it! I can’t describe the sense of relief. It was like striking gold after panning for years. There’s a certain sense of completion now, a coming home. My fantasy journey gone full circle. Now I’ve also managed to find the sequel trilogy to that original duology, which I’d never read as a teen. Keepers of Edanvant, Heir of Rengarth, and Seven of Swords, in their original Corgi editions, are sitting on the shelf, ready to go. But I’m not searching for something from the past any more. I can forge forwards.

More magic ahead.