On Places for New Writers

On Friday afternoon I received a letter notifying me that my story, “Out in the Open, Secret” has been shortlisted for the Katharine Sussanah Prichard 2012 Speculative Fiction Award. It’s always pleasing to get shortlisted / accepted / rejected but with feedback / etc, but this one is a bit more special to me than normal.

This is the fourth year I have submitted to the KSP Spec Fic award, for three short listings. Submitting to this competition is the only “tradition” of my fledging writing career, and it is a tradition I am sad to see end because, as I understand it, the competition will not run again after this year.

In 2009, along with my two writing mates Mark Welker and Anthony Panegyres, I determined to get off my backside and start sending off stories to competitions and submission calls. We identified the 2009 KSP Spec Fic comp as one of our initial targets, and undertook to write Spec Fic stories. I had a story from my uni days that Anthony thought was good, but to me it always felt a bit forced. I couldn’t work with it.

“What do you like about it?” asked Mark.

“The robot,” I replied.

“Well write a robot story.”

So I did. 1,800 words was knocked out quickly, and after a rapid spit and polish, I sent it off.

Then I got my shortlisting letter. At the ceremony I found out I came second. you can imagine what I thought.

That was easy, followed closely by, fuck I’m good.

For that erroneous belief alone, I should despise KSP… but I don’t.

Here’s why: another thing happened on the ceremony day. I met Tehani Wessely, who judged the competition. Tehani is the owner / editor of Fablecroft, has been on numerous judging panels, multi-award winning, and generally heavily involved in the Spec Fic scene. And I learn two things from meeting her:

1. That there are people out there who think the work I am doing is important. Tehani wasn’t raving about my story, or even my body of work in general (which didn’t exist), but simply suggesting the importance of the fact that there are “newbies” out there trying. Every craft needs apprentices, practitioners, and wizened masters.

2. That Australia has a vibrant speculative fiction scene. It must seem implausible to those involved in the scene , but there are many people, like me, who read SF and Fantasy all their lives without realising the extent of what is happening in Australia.

And so I discover Andromeda Spaceways, and Twelfth Planet Press, and Ticonderoga. Then individual names like Peter M. Ball, Angela Slatter, Cat Sparks, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Deb Biancotti. Editors such as Jonathan Strahan, Alisa Krasnostein, Russell B. Farr, Keith Stevenson, Tehani herself.

I discover Paul Haines. Holy Fuck.

I discover Margo Lanagan. I read Tender Morsels. When I meet Margo I have her sign a copy for my 9-year old daughter, for some future (rapidly approaching!) birthday.

These authors and editors (written in random order and omitting many of the names now crammed into two bookshelves of Aust Spec Fic) have provided me with some of my finest reading moments of the last four years. In return, I put maybe 7 out of every 10 dollars of my book money into Australian small press products for perhaps two years straight.


***

Back to KSP. I write another story the following year for the 2010 comp. My short listing letter comes in (I don’t place this time). At the ceremony I see fellow short-lister Guy Salvidge who I went to uni with. Guy was an awesome writer even back in the day and I had read and enjoyed his first novel. We strike up a conversation that persists three years later across Facebook, blogs and emails. His second novel wins an award, gets released. He cranks up his short fiction again after a lengthy break. Surprising no one, people start publishing him.

***

I start submitting to Fablecroft, Ticonderoga, and Twelfth Planet Press. Get a little feedback, come close once, never quite make it. When the books are released the Table of Contents prove a balm to my wounded ego. Always chock full of talent.

It is an impressive aspect of these presses that they offer open submissions, and I can’t help but muse that I have at times taken advantage of this when a story I’ve sent in hasn’t quite met the brief. Occasionally other writers talk about the lack of feedback that accompanies their rejections, but how many other businesses regularly throw their doors open to suggestions from any punter off the street? This is what small press does and has always done. An open submission is an open call for anyone to get looked out.

You don’t have to be around the industry long to understand the important opportunities these presses offer the fledgling writer.

***

I write another story for KSP on 2011. The Honourable Stephen Dedman does not honourably mention it, but does plain-old mention it in his judge’s remarks as “showed promise, but failed to deliver.” My writing group agrees with Stephen, so I decide not to hold a grudge. I meet Lee Battersby, and briefly, his wife Lyn Battersby. I tactfully refrain from telling Lee that Lyn’s story in the recent Fablecroft anthology After the Rain was better than his (his was damn good too).

Somehow I end up in a challenge to re-write this story into a 20,000 word novella in ten days. I do it. I remain married, somehow.

***

I start running. Up and down West Coast Highway, early in the morning, late at night. Before work, on weekends. I listen to Galactic Suburbia, Coode Street, The Writer and The Critic, Thrillercast, TISF. I buy more books than is healthy. My “to read” bookcase (yes, its a bookcase now) has about sixty books on it. I understand that I will never catch up. I realise that reading across the entirety of Aust Spec Fic isn’t something to aspire to. I tone down the dream a little.

***

2012: I write another story this year, or more accurately, I pull out an old story, dust it off and rework it. Seek feedback from my peers, send it in. The short listing letter arrives.

***

I don’t know if this really is the last year of the KSP Spec Fic award. I hope not. I have gained so much from my participation in this little competition, and assuming my experience isn’t unique,  the scene will be poorer for the loss of it.

8 Responses to On Places for New Writers

  1. Anthony says:

    Congrats Dan, the KSP Man (yes, terrible rhyme).

    I recall sending a very mediocre X-rated story, which involved a furry alien and cunnulingis (may the writing world forgive me). I vowed to never submit to a comp again as I’m emotionally scarred… from the awful story as much as anything else…

    You went on to reign as a KSP spec-fic champion.

    Great news.

    PS Also really enjoyed your story ‘Shifting Sands’ in dotdotdash.

  2. Dude, Lyn’s story in ‘After The Rain’ was *miles* better than mine!

    Thankfully, this year’s KSP SF competition will not be the last one, an erroneous message I helped pass on due a miscommunication. Judging by the number and quality of this year’s entrants it will continue to go on strong for many years yet.

  3. dansimpson says:

    That’s excellent news Lee! And if anyone reading this wants to wrap their ears around an awesome story, listen to Lee read “In From The Snow” at http://www.tisf.com.au/

  4. Tamara says:

    I’m one of those people who lives in Perth, loves spec fic, and yet somehow never realised how much great stuff is in the Australian market. My eyes are at least a little more open now :)

    Good luck with the awards this year!

  5. guysalvidge says:

    Good stuff, Dan. Like Lee says, the KSP Spec Fic Award isn’t going anywhere. That’s an impressive shelf of small press stuff there; I think I have about half of that. Looking forward to catching up at the Award – hopefully you will scoop the pool this time :D

    • dansimpson says:

      I’m happy just to short list Guy, and given the quality of the winners over the last few years I honestly have no expectations! We might have to think about having a pre (or post) Awards bevy, what do you reckon?

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