The birth of a short story

Seeing my name on the 2016 Aurealis shortlist a couple of weeks ago was pretty bloody thrilling. There is a writing goal I’ve had my eye on ever since the moment when I first held a copy of Winds of Change – the anthology in which my first-ever published story appeared – in my hot little hands.

What made the nomination even sweeter was seeing how many of my really good writing buddies were on that list with me. The Australian Speculative Fiction community is pretty small and (in my experience anyway) a really collegiate, supportive bunch of people. I know a fair few people on that list now. But, among all the nominees I know and admire, it was very satisfying seeing how many of my fellow Canberra writers and members of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild appeared on the list:

  • Ian McHugh (nom for Best Science Fiction Short with The Baby Eaters in Asimov’s)
  • T R Napper (nom for Best Horror Short with The Flame Trees in Asimov’s)
  • Dave Versace (nom for Best Fantasy Short with The Lighthouse at Cape Defeat in Aurealis)
  • Shauna O’Meara (nom for Best YA Short for No One Here Is Going To Save You in In Your Face)
  • Kaaron Warren (noms for Best Horror and Best Sci Fi Short for 68 Days in Tomorrow’s Cthulu and Best Horror Novel for The Grief Hole)
  • Simon Petrie (nom for Best Sci Fi Novella for All the Colours of the Tomato in Dimension 6).

Echoing these sentiments, my mate Tim (aka T R Napper) tweeted:

Which got me thinking about the important role my writing community has played in getting Pretty Jennie Greenteeth this far. In fact, in getting all of my stories published.

Just looking at Pretty Jennie Greenteeth, I found out about Belladonna Publishing and the anthologies they were producing through my writing group. Someone (I think it was Dave Versace) pointed me at their submissions call for their Black Apples anthology, which they knew was right up my alley. I didn’t end up getting a story into that anthology (damn), but I was instantly on it when Belladonna put their next call out. That willingness to share information about opportunities is something invaluable about my writing crowd, the CSFG. Especially to a rank rookie writer who had no idea who was who or what was anything. And not only did they help me figure out where in the industry I needed to be sending my submissions, but they also helped me figure out how to submit.

Start at the top. Work your way down. You’re never going to know what level you’re writing to if you don’t start at the top.

 – Ian McHugh

^^That’s one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever been given. Submit to the best markets first. Where do you want most to be published? Go there first. You just won’t know if your piece was good enough for them if you don’t send it.

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Ian McHugh & Tim Napper, celebrating Aurealis noms

Then there’s the frank and fearless feedback offered by the CSFG critiquing circles. I’ve had my work critiqued by almost everyone on the list of nominees above. In fact, these guys are basically my go-to peeps outside the organised critiquing circle, especially when a deadline is looming, or I just want to sit & talk through a piece and really hash out the issues. Pretty Jennie Greenteeth went through CSFG’s short story critiquing circle. I got some really useful feedback on it, including, from memory, advice on dealing with a continuity issue, comment on a difficult-to-pronounce name and warning flags on cliches. But a good critiquing partner will also tell you where you’re going right. We’re all suckers for metaphorical pats on the head in this business, but damn it feels good when someone whose work you admire says they like your story. (Thank you Dave Versace and Tim Napper in this case.)

Then there’s what happens after your story gets published (if your luck is in & you get that far.) Tim Napper, in particular, is fairly tireless in his commitment to spruiking stories by Australian authors that he rates well. He regularly posts about good Australian fiction he’s read and he put this great post up recently with his recommendations on Australian stories that came out in 2016 that are eligible for the Ditmar awards (these are Australia’s fan-voted genre awards, the Aurealis awards are the juried awards). Even if you’re not necessarily eligible to vote in the Ditmars, it is worth checking out his list, because he’s recommended some fantastic fiction. (If you are eligible, you should get your skates on and vote – noms close tonight, 19 March, 11.59pm AEDST: list of eligible works, online voting form.) Full disclosure: he’s recommended one of mine, Breathing (Aurealis #95). But I am far and away the junior partner on that list, so I have no hesitation in adding my voice to his exhortations to read the others’ work.

I’m far from the first to point out writing can be a lonely business. And trying to judge for yourself whether your piece of fiction needs more work or is ready to send out into the world is a tricksy business. Finding your writing community, the right writing community for you, is a gift of incalculable worth. And it can make bringing your stories out into the world just that little bit easier.

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