Before the big break

Tuesday, August 13, 2013
Sean McMullen

headshot of Sean McMullen
Sean McMullen

Writing is a solitary occupation, but professionals are not as isolated as beginners. They are kept company by emails from their agents and publishers, royalty cheques, advance payments, fan mail, reviews and awards. This gives them lots of encouragement, yet they were all once beginners with only rejection slips for company. Assuming that, like professionals, you love to write, what can you do to keep your morale up while still unknown?

Having a mentor solves many problems. For example, the brilliant prose you wrote last night can magically transform itself into garbage by morning. An experienced author will just say “Don’t worry, everyone has this problem”, but most beginners don’t have mentors to tell them that.

Feedback is the next best thing to a mentor, and this article is all about early feedback. Today there are online and social media writing groups, but in 1980 I got similar feedback from a university science fiction club with an amateur fiction magazine, 'Yggdrasil'.

My first story was published there, and came midway out of two dozen stories in the annual readers’ poll. Even that was a boost for me. Readers’ polls are impartial and anonymous, so voters do not have to be nice to the authors. Results are more or less based on quality.

My second story was accepted by another magazine – which then folded. Well, that’s publishing: some opportunities fizzle.

Even I could see that my third story was too self-indulgent so I never sent it out. Some stories just don’t work – in spite of multiple rewrites – so learn to drop unworkable stories.

My last story of 1980 got an honourable mention in a competition, was later published in 'Yggdrasil', came third in the readers’ poll, and was broadcast on Radio PBS in 1983. Because of it, I decided that I might indeed have a talent for writing: both readers and judges had voted that I was doing better than 95% of the other beginners. That’s feedback at work.

Over the next two years, I wrote eleven more stories. Three were published in Yggdrasil, and one of those won the annual readers’ poll and got third place in a national writing competition. However, I had not yet made it, because my submissions to professional magazines returned only rejections.

Some feedback tells lies. Four of my rejected stories did eventually sell, but only after I had made a name for myself. It’s unfair, but true. Without a reputation, it’s hard to get taken seriously in professional markets, even if you write well.

In December 1982, I reached an important conclusion, which a mentor could have told me in 1980. My writing showed real promise, but it had to be much better if I were to become professional. I began studying award-winning stories to see what made them exceptional.

Around this time I joined two self-help writing groups, and discovered something alarming: the people in both groups tended not to submit their stories to magazines, and thought it was nicer to merely get praise from fellow beginners than to get rejection letters. I dropped out of both groups. Praise given because people are your friends is praise for the wrong reasons.

In 1985, I submitted The Deciad to the World Science Fiction Convention’s writing competition. It won. At the party that followed, the editor of a professional magazine asked to see a couple of my stories, and later bought The Pharoah’s Airship and The Deciad for a thousand dollars.

The Deciad’s win launched my professional career, but it was founded on five years of striving to improve, seeking feedback from impartial people, and never being satisfied. Three decades later, with fifteen awards and a Hugo Award runner up in my CV, I’m still never satisfied with anything that I write.

Today we have a vastly different publishing landscape, but all of the lessons I learnt in the 1980s still apply. The web is the biggest change, and it has brought both opportunities and problems. It lets you post your works online without publishers checking them for quality, coherence, or bad grammar.

Because anyone can publish anything on the web, unrestrained, there is now so much fiction available online that it would take more than a lifetime just to read all the titles. To become visible amid this deluge, aspiring authors must self-promote. Publishers used to handle promotion, but the web can help, too. If you learn to use social media, you can collect loads of followers, then try to promote your fiction to them without seeming annoying.

Finally, remember the five years when I could not sell anything? That forced me to learn to write better, but today you can post whatever you like. If it’s a bad read…well, do you really want people to know that you write badly? Always go for the hard markets: if you are good they will let you in, but if you are not, they will force you to improve.

About Sean McMullen

Sean McMullen has had 17 books and seven-dozen stories published. His neo-steampunk story Eight Miles was runner up in the Hugo Awards in 2011 and he has won a dozen other Australian and international awards. His latest novel is Changing Yesterday (2011), a young adult time travel story described as Terminator on the Titanic. Sean works in scientific computing, has a PhD in medieval fantasy literature and teaches karate at Melbourne University.