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Industry Advice: Lee Battersby

by Lee Battersby
Winner Australian SF ‘Ditmar’ Award for Best New Talent 2003
1st Western Australian winner of the international Writers of The Future Competition

I was amused recently when a review of an anthology in which I appeared referred to me as "one of the most experienced authors". It’s been all of 4 years, at time of writing, since my first sale. Still, if that makes me experienced, then bloody hell, I’m going to grab me a soapbox!

My first sale of any type was, of all things, poetry. One of those too-safe-to-teach-you-anything University magazines. All it showed me was that my enormous egotism was correct. Probably put me back ten years. I immediately decided my tutors could teach me nothing (they couldn’t, but that’s another story), stopped listening, wrote furiously, sent off everywhere, got nowhere, gave up. Went off and did other things.

Seven years later, having learnt how to write fiction by the longest route possible (stand-up comedy, cartooning, acting, the Public Service…) I took another stab at things.

This time, I went about it the right way. I paid attention to my rejections. I attended groups, and festivals, and listened to what the real writers had to say. I asked questions. Most of all, I wrote. The best lesson in the world: Memorise Heinlein’s 3 rules of writing—

  1. Write something every day.
  2. Finish everything you write
  3. Send out everything you finish.

My first acceptance, by half an hour, came from Sarah Endacott of Orb in February of 2001. She bought my story "The Divergence Tree". 30 minutes later, another email came down the pipe from the Writers of The Future competition, telling me my story "Carrying The God" had placed 3rd in their 3rd quarter for the year. The trick here is to read between the lines: the point isn’t that I sold two in the same day, the point is that I had a bunch of stories out there at the same time. "Carrying The God" is hard SF. "The Divergence Tree" is a light fantasy story. Spread yourself out. Don’t do the same thing twice. The more you have out, the more chances you have to score.

Four years is time enough to learn some hard lessons, and the 2 years of writing that came before my first sale would have been the best time to learn them. There are some things they don’t put in the BA courses or library books. This is Battersby’s Brief and Highly Opinionated School of Ephemera & Hard Knocks Guide to Stuff You Might Like To Know:

  • LESSON ONE: Big Notes are For The Brass Section. Don’t bother padding your CV. Your work and track record will speak for themselves soon enough. You don’t "Have a story under consideration by Gordon Van Gelder for an upcoming issue of F&SF", you’re in the slushpool with the rest of us. Pros will recognise the difference, and respect the honesty.
  • LESSON TWO: Stamp On Foreign editors. If you’re sending manuscripts overseas, go online, work out the return postage, and buy stamps from the relevant Post Office. If you want an editor to remember you fondly, you can do worse than save them a trip to the Post office to cash in an IRC.
  • LESSON THREE: Professional & Published Are Not The Same Thing. Professionalism is an attitude. You can be an unpublished professional, in the same way you can have 100 stories under your belt and still be a jerk. Like any business, half the work is interacting with other people, be they editors, fellow writers, or fans. Learn the right way to go about things. If all else fails, ask someone. The world is full of people who want to tell you how to behave…
  • LESSON FOUR: Submission Guidelines Are There For A Reason. I have edited a magazine. If I received something that was outside the submission guidelines, it got bounced. End of story. You don’t want to be bounced. Read the guidelines. If I say ‘no poetry’, don’t send me poetry. Especially about your cat. Guidelines help you work out what will not get published. Outside of knowing the editor on a personal basis, they are the best friend you have.
  • LESSON FIVE: Manuscript Format is not a Suggestion. Imagine you’re an editor. Imagine you’ve just read the tenth story of the day, the twentieth, the thirtieth. Now imagine you’re reading the thirty first, and it’s in red pen on yellow paper. Editors want stories to look exactly the same on the page, because it means that only the writing differentiates them. If it stands out before they get to read the words, that’s a bad thing.
  • LESSON SIX: Respect your Elders. Never, ever, answer back to a rejection. Really. The editor has said no. Move on. Editors, like referees, will not change their minds. But they will remember you if you prove yourself a jerk. Argue with an editor, and you are questioning their taste and intelligence. It’s their taste and intelligence you’re banking on.
  • LESSON SEVEN: A Pox on your Cheerful Hobbits. Are you Tolkien, or are you you? Careers are forged from original voices. Find yours. Don’t serve up another pale pastiche of JRR, or Rowling, or King. It’s too easy to put your story down and read one of theirs.
  • LESSON EIGHT: Lose All Voluble, Extemporaneous, Overwritten Adjectives and Adverbs, Quickly, Immediately, Viciously… In literature, like in the movies, what is terrifying depends not on what you show, but on what you don’t. Overwriting bursts the bubble. A sparseness of language will allow the reader to create their own gaps and images, and it’s so much easier to nail down a precise mood, a precise moment, if you keep things simple.
  • LESSON NINE: Stick Your Creeping Tentacles of Horror or: Lovecraft is Dead, Get Over It. Old HP was pretty good for his day. But his day is gone. Frankly, unless you’re doing it for fun, world-threatening monsters with goo is just a bit passé. Once you can release a book with a title like “Cthulhu & the Coeds”, it just ain’t scary no more. Terrify a modern audience, not the past.
  • Lesson the last, and an invitation. Don’t say anything you’re not willing to discuss further, or as somebody I just made up once said, don’t reverse a car you’re not willing to stand behind. I’ve a blog at http://battersblog.blogspot.com with a biblio so you can see what I’ve done, and a message board where you can call me out for duels. Or you can reach me at llbatt@dodo.com.au  should you wish to chat about anything above, point bones, send flowers, ask my opinion, send me porn, or just say hi.