Monday, January 16, 2012

'All I am taking is your time...'

I've just posted this on my weekly blog at Mad Genius Club, and thought it worth repeating here.

Now, as some you may know I moved to Australia just over two years ago and settled on a magical little island off the coast -- between Victoria and Tasmania. It's a wild and wonderful spot, and I love it very much, and the people have been very kind and very welcoming. There are times when it's a bit like living a permanent Amish barn-raising -- it has a small population, there are lot of social activities, and the community finds willing and able hands, especially ones who want to help out not take over, are thinly spread. We're grateful to be here, and try to our bit and bit extra, especially Barbs, who is gregariously friendly, intelligent and easy to talk to (me, I am none of the above). Australia accepted us as special migrants with permanent residency heading for citizenship (which I'll apply for in 714 days time - the day I am eligible. Yes, I am counting the days.). Australian writers have been a lovely bunch to meet, with the exception of two who'd be right at home in the NY literati (both fanatically politically correct and one sees me as a ‘threat' because I'm competition in her state (which I'm not. I'm just a bloke who writes, and is more eager to support and build up other writers than compete. I'm really not interested. Nor do I think I'm the bees knees. I'm quite happy to be thought a hack who writes entertaining stories. She's welcome to be the towering literati figure. More than welcome, in fact.) Australian sf/fantasy awards and cons still seem caught up in the idealism about writing of the seventies -- where it's not so much about connections and the wealth it takes to attend these regularly, as an enthusiastic bunch of fans.

In short: for me it has been a great move. And, filled me - as Algis Budrys put it in Rogue Moon - with the fierce patriotism of the new Australian. (He was of course referring to Americans, but it was the same thing, where those born to this do not realize as easily how rare and wonderful their country is) I know what a precious thing they have here in the egalitarianism and tolerance of Australia. I know just how valuable a society where ‘a fair go' is central to people's philosophy is, and how great it is to have a society where ‘a little Aussie battler' (someone who gets up and tries again, and again no matter how often fire, or drought or the publishing industry or life in general knocks him down) is a term of liking and respect.

Like the descriptions of the 19th century US West and many colonial societies I think it is a place where you start afresh, make yourself and earn a living by hard work. And that is valued, especially here, where labor is pricy (the minimum wage is twice that of the US and for casual work about 3 times that). Incomers who get in and work hard at the kind of grotty jobs no one wants, can do well. Of course there are bogans and bludgers (among the new settlers too) who moan fiercely about these new settlers taking their jobs (which they don't want to do). But by in large if you work, try to fit in, learn to be Australian, it's a great place to be. My bit here, of course, is God's own country, and I wake up every day, ready to kill the ‘Joe Witty' bird for loudly beating up his reflection ... and realize that means I'm here on Flinders, and that makes me glad to be alive and here again.

What I do is write. It's why Australia took me and my family in. Given the way I feel about the place and the people, the obvious thing I want to do is give back. So: of course Australia has started coming out in my short stories, and CUTTLEFISH and THE STEAM MOLE. Anyone who does not realize the powerful and long lasting effect of writers and their books on the image of country is just is really, really dim. Movies and adverts may have far wider reach, but they tend to be short term phenomena. Books... books stick around for years, get passed around, and most people spend a lot more time in the world of a book than they do in a movie theater. The Australian publishing industry enjoys a trade barrier, which has both helped the local industry (in that, despite about 1/3 of the population of the UK, the writing scene is existent and even vibrant in patches, probably more so than the UK. South Africa, with about the same population as the UK, but no tariff barrier, has a publishing sector that could be favorably compared to a two week dead roadkill wombat, except for sf-fantasy, where it is worse.) and been very bad for it (like any monopoly this has inevitably been abused, and means local book prices are way way out of line with for example US book prices. Australians still read a lot, but there has been some killing of the golden goose for short term gain). Now, our migration -- a subject which has a huge shoo-in local market -- complete with three dogs and three cats and a 500 pound family rock, from a mountaintop in South Africa, to a remote island in the Bass Strait (one of the most dangerous pieces of water in the world) has been fraught with disaster, laughter, chaos, more laughter, and of course Telstra (another product of monopoly) and the rock. I thought I'd like to write a book about it. Now, this is mainstream non-fiction and really largely for an Australian audience, with of course some sf/fantasy readers and some South Africans. So I needed an Australian publisher of same. I spoke to some of my Australian author contacts, and rapidly found myself commended to one of Australia's largest and most prestigious agencies.

And here I found I was back in NY publishing-world. Slow, chaotic, needing repeated prodding and certainly not inspiring, let alone worth 15% of anyone's income. In other words much the same experience I and many authors in the US or elsewhere had had getting into the gate-keepers to the distribution monopoly - which is why, now the monopoly has been broken, they're up a certain creek without a paddle frantically offering to ‘assist' authors with e-publishing. The experience made me appreciate O'Mike all over again. And eventually the best they could do was a publisher's ‘maybe we'll consider it if you write the whole book first.' Well, at that stage, our finances were battered by the move, and the state of US publishing. I couldn't afford ‘on spec' books. So the project didn't go away, it just got back-burnered.

As time passed and I learned more about the island that we'd come to live on. I write fantasy which has a strong historical basis and there are few places in Australia with a wilder and more romantic and tragic history than Flinders. It's a place that was uninhabited since the land bridge drowned about twelve thousand years ago, and, as it was visible from Tasmania, but there were no fires (elsewhere, you could see the fire-smoke of other tribes), it was the land of the dead. The mythical islands, rather like those of Celtic mythology. And then the first white settlers came - sealers - as often as not Irish or Scots, taking wives from the Tasmanian Aboriginals, living a tough life out in a wild, lawless place. Even now the locals are rather like the occupants of Aran or the Hebrides in many ways, and belief in the second sight is more the norm than otherwise. There were shipwrecks a-plenty, and disasters and heroism too. It was a refuge-place, where you came if you wanted to be at the end of the earth, beyond the reach of anything. A perfect spot for a fantasy writer... and the perfect setting for an Australian fantasy with roots in both the old world and the new. I had the idea for CHANGELING'S ISLAND, got inspired, wrote up an outline and the 10-20% of what would be a YA fantasy, with an Australian lead character (it would be very easy to switch this for say an American lead character which would make it very sale-able... for a lot more than in Australia, to anywhere but Australia. But I want to write a book about here, for here). I sent it to the local agent... Who did nothing at all for six months. I was busy writing, so didn't chase. Eventually, I did. She promised to send it on to their YA/fantasy person. She didn't, until the next prod about 3 months later. This one sat on it for months too. Then yesterday I got the single most bizarre semi-rejection I've ever had. The agent is ‘not entirely sure it works for me' - and could I write a few more chapters so that she can make up her mind next week?

My jaw nearly hit my keyboard. This is Australia. Labor is valuable... except, it seems, from authors. I suppose you do still have the work once it is done, but this not a publisher out to make you an offer or not. This a gatekeeper to the gatekeeper. The assumption 1)that I could just drop whatever other work I had, to rush (after about a year of their doing nothing) and give her a few more chapters so she could make up her mind whether to try and sell the book, and 2)that I would be happy to donate, conservatively, at floor-sweeper rates (because I'm an author, and they're worth less than floor sweepers) 500 dollars worth of work-time when she isn't even enthusiastic about it... well, you can see the value put on an author with a third of a million copies sold, and a slew of books. Heaven help you if you're a noob. I'm no tall poppy, but this denigrates any author.

I politely wrote back and said, sorry I had a deadline and paid work took precedence. I would have to get to it, if and when I could. I've got four more books on contract. Once they're done, I want no more to do with this proposal-and-contract system. Fortunately, we're nearly self-sufficient, our living costs tiny, and I'm getting to a position where I no longer have to contract ahead, and hopefully with independent e-books, where I can tell them to pee (generously) or get off the pot very quickly.

I will be writing the Flinders Family Freer Migration saga. I will be writing CHANGELING'S ISLAND. I will not let these little obstacles stop me.


  1. And when you write it, we will buy it if that's at all possible for us here in the USA… I tell my Dad and kids snips of your travels and travails because it's such an extraordinary thing, and one that fits into our family ethos. I'm looking forward to reading the book!

    1. :-) -If if have to send you a copy, it will be possible. I have too many good friends there just to abandon it.

  2. Replies
    1. Yeah, sometimes uphill. But we battle on :-)

  3. Yep. That sounds about right. It's a pity you never got here in time to meet Peter McNamara. Most of the "next wave" of Australian SF authors (Sean Williams, Damien Broderick, Greg Egan, Sean McMullen, Sean Willians, Shane Dix, and Terry Dowling) got their big break (or at least public recognition) through him, either through his Aphelion (magazine) or his own small press publishing imprint. Until we see someone willing to do what he did, I don't think that many people will notice the next wave of Australian SF authors.

    And yes, for historical reasons (ie personality conflicts) the main organisers of lit cons and media cons went in separate directions in Oz for quite a while (at least until the fanatical believers on both sides had effectively faffiated. Although the commercial cons have essentially taken over from the fandom run media cons.

    But yes, there are some quite overly pretentious "towering literati" figures in the Australian SF fandom, mainly concerned with getting SF recognised as a form of literature at university level, rather than the entertainment value of the work. [And due to the aforementioned split they do appear to be overly represented at the lit cons these days.]

  4. I am afraid I believe in the value of sf/fantasy as entertainment, not as university oddments.

    Australian sf is still in better shape than many of those which should rival it.

  5. And when you do write those books, we'll buy them. Direct from you if that's still possible. My elder girl is nearly 13 and probably about the right age.

  6. I find "hacks" who write entertaining stories to be ever so much more interesting than towering literati figures. When you finish writing those books I'll be waiting to read read them.