Sean McMullen's

Beyond Our Shores

Selling a story overseas, especially to a large US magazine, is often seen as a magical breakthrough that launches one's career as a science fiction writer. Some beginners really do expect fame and fortune to follow. More experienced writers merely think that things will be easier after the first sale, but is even this expecting too much? Most who do manage to sell overseas discover that there are issues of conduct and behaviour that they did not even suspect existed. So how does one learn? In America one can go to any largeish convention and corner a few authors and editors in the SFWA suite, but here in Australia such advice is harder to find. This article will cover a few important issues for an Australian beginner entering the overseas sf market, and is based on advice from Australian, American and British authors and publishing professionals.

The first issue is what to write. My own attitude here is that you will get nowhere by rubbing an editor's face in kangaroo droppings - which translates into not making use of Australianisms for their own sake, and to the point where they obscure the story. Years ago I used to play and sing in a band, and we noticed that there were some jokes and songs that we thought were a scream, but which left the audiences cold. Any musicians in the audiences would laugh, however. The jokes were only funny if you had been in the music making business for years. It is the same with fiction being read outside Australia by non-Australians. Your story must stand up for itself and by itself. You will not be standing beside the editor as your story is read, so there will be nobody to explain subtle Australian wordplay and in-jokes.

So what have Australians sold overseas lately? Terry Dowling had a reprint of "Shatterwrack At Breaklight" in the March 1990 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is set in an Australia of the distant future, yet the setting is no more difficult to come to terms with than that of Frank Herbert's Dune. In other words, you do not need to live in either of the settings to appreciate them. Note that Dowling's story first appeared in Omega Science Digest [July, 1985 - Ed.], where it was in a three way tie for first place in the Omega readers' poll for its most popular story. Thus, success in the US and success in Australia are not mutually exclusive . . . yet it depends on your definition of success. More of that later.

In the previous issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was my own story, "While The Gate Is Open. It is set in the Americas, and it covers a number of ideas, one of which is that while death might not be the end of awareness, what lies beyond will be unknowable and alien. There is no Australian content at all, yet I was inspired to write it by Michael Wilding's "A Man Of Slow Feeling, which is also an Australian story and which also could have been told in any setting. My own approach to settings has always been to write the story first, then if the setting can be adjusted to suit a specific market in another country, I make those adjustments. Most of the time the setting is no more than the paint on the outer hull of the story: it makes an initial impression, but changing it will not affect the performance.

Go back to last January, and Greg Egan's excellent story "The Caress appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. This story centres on a famous painting which (shock, horror) was not by an Australian artist and contained not a single Aussie animal. Find a copy, read it, vote for it in the Ditmars . . . and make it the second story ever to win one after appearing in an American magazine. The first was Lee Harding's "Fallen Spaceman in If, June 1971. Herein is a very important lesson: success overseas does not automatically mean local fame. Stop here and ask yourself what Greg Egan has done overseas! Now read on: seven stories published overseas, two stories in Gardner Dozois' The Year's Best Science Fiction Recommended Reading Lists, one story 5th out of 23 and another 5th out of 38 in the Interzone readers' polls, a story in The Years Best Horror Stories XVI (1988) and another achievement that copyright prevents me from discussing until early next year. Are you surprised? Good, because your own future achievements are unlikely to be better acclaimed locally. If you are not feeling thoroughly discouraged by now, continue.

Another good story to read, but for a different lesson, is Leanne Frahm's "Reichelman's Relics, in the July 1990 Amazing Stories. This story is set in space, yet there are references to Queensland, and to Australian animals. The references are not vital to the story, yet they are self-explanatory and do not obscure the plot. So you need some esoterica for your story? Fine, use Australian material! Even overseas authors do. William Gibson had the Tessier side of the Tessier-Ashpool family in his cyberpunk trilogy come from Melbourne. Alan Dean Foster had Brisbane as the capital of the Earth in one of his novels. Frahm's story is a good example of using Australiana without belabouring the reader with it, and beginners would do well to note her approach.

The above four stories ["Shatterwrack At Breaklight, "While The Gate Is Open, "The Caress" and "Reichelman's Relics"] illustrate quite a range of settings and plotting, yet they were all written by Australians in Australia, and were sold to big time US magazines. The second issue that we shall consider is how did they sell them? What was the trick? Who did they know? What was the name of their agent? I cannot speak for Frahm, Egan and Dowling, but in my own case I sent a copy of the story with a brief note that began "Dear Mr Ferman . . ." No tricks, no agent, no friends on the inside. I suspect that the other three authors sold their stories that way too. Nothing sells a story as well as the story being good. Look at it from the editors' viewpoint: without good stories their sales would suffer, so they want good stories. Tricks seldom sell stories.

Those are the broad, major issues. I do not want to duplicate any of the excellent advice given in Van Ikin's "Hints 'n' Tips: Some Advice For SF Writers" in Eidolon Issue One, so I shall pass over such matters as page layout and what to put on the title page. Instead, let us clear away a few minor worries with some short questions and answers.

Q: How can one sell without an agent, and how can one get an agent without selling?
A: Out of my nine sales (three of them overseas), not one was through an agent, yet I have had two agents. No agent will look after an author's interests better than the author.
Q: Is being Australian a disadvantage? Do overseas editors discriminate against Foreigners?
A: Of the five overseas editors I have asked this question, two laughed and the other three were very surprised. All five came out with some paraphrase of Campbell's comment that he would even buy a story from Adolf Hitler if it was good science fiction.
Q: When should I engage an agent?
A: When it is worth the agent's while to engage you.

"How long does it take to get into print?" is a common question, and "How long before I should write and enquire about my story?" is even more common. Let us trace the history of "While The Gate Is Open as a case study for these two questions.

I began the first draft in February 1987 and had a version that I liked by March 1987. Its first submission was to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and I heard nothing more until the day of the stockmarket crash in October 1987, when a cheque and contract arrived in the mail. Three days earlier I had sent off a letter enquiring whether my story had been received . . . ! Very embarrassing, but my letter had been polite, so no harm was done. In late November 1989 I received a note informing me that my story would be in the February 1990 issue, which would go on sale in the US on 1st January. I finally saw copies on sale in Melbourne in February 1990, although that issue was available in Sydney a few weeks earlier. Three years, in all. On the other hand, my earlier story in the same magazine, "The Colours Of The Masters", took a mere sixteen months to make the same journey. Generally speaking, one should let at least four months pass between submission and first enquiry. It might be only one letter to you, but it is one of hundreds to the editor. Out of ninety or so submissions I have only had one story verified as lost in the mail, although two others have gone astray elsewhere. Those odds are good, so my advice is to put up with those long, long silences: the longer the wait, the more likely it is that your story is being taken seriously.

Okay, so now you have the published version of your story on your bookshelf, you have presented signed copies to your spouse, mother, Uncle Bert and the guy from Software Maintenance, and have read the printed version and found only two typos (Don't write to the editor and complain, it's probably less than were in your own manuscript). Suddenly reality closes in, in the form of two scathing attacks on your story in local fanzines because you made no mention at all of kangaroos, pie floaters, frill-neck lizards, or Bob Hawke's prostate operation. To make matters worse, your story does not even get a nomination in the next Ditmar ballot. You wash four Panadols down with a glass of vodka and reach for the keyboard of your word processor . . . but stop! There is more to this authorship business than merely getting into print. Replying to reviews, trashing the offending reviewer's next story in your own review and tailoring your style to win a specific award are all gratuitous acts that will ultimately hurt nobody more than yourself. With a story in print in the top end of the market you have a reputation to protect, so let us now examine a few post-publication traumas and methods of safely coping with them.

One very important lesson to learn, preferably without it being by experience, is never to answer adverse or incompetent criticism. Isaac Asimov once wrote that the biggest mistake of his professional career was to answer a review - he got clobbered. Remember that the reviewer and / or editor may be able to think about your reply for weeks before it is published, and they will thus be able to find flaws in your meticulously constructed criticism and batter holes in it large enough to drive a truck through. Remember also that some reviewers deliberately single out a particular writer to get a reaction and generate controversy. If you do not reply:

1. You have denied them an extra page of copy,

2. You have denied them the use of your name,

3. You have denied them the chance to make a prize loon of you in public,

4. You have spent two hours on your fiction that might have gone into a free letter, and

5. You are denying someone a reward for having hurt you.

And bad crits do hurt; any author who denies it is fibbing. I have had only good crits in America and only bad crits in Australia. Ouch, yes that hurts quite a lot, but I am not going to react to it. Always remember that while people may be able to hurt you at will, they can only make a fool of you if they have your help. Do not give them that help.

Yet another 'don't' concerns criticism. When I met David Gerrold in 1985 I asked him about his attitude to doing reviews. His advice was don't - at least until you are well established and successful as an author. The reason was that quite a few aspiring authors take out their frustrations at not being published in the "right" magazines, or at not winning some award, on authors who did manage to do so. And how do they do this? By writing scathing reviews. And what is the result? Revenge by the aggrieved authors? Funnily enough, no. The result is that every other author, editor, agent and publisher sees what is happening and quietly concludes that the attacking author is liable to cause them just as much trouble if they had any professional dealings with them. Opportunities to get published quietly cease to exist for the attackers, while the victims just lick their wounds and keep writing - and selling. The overseas sf market is big business, and histrionics cost all concerned time and money. Work hard on your good name and fight hard to keep it: be polite, be tolerant, and leave the high risk activities to those with nothing to lose. So when can you safely do reviews? Money is a good guide. If you are sufficiently well known so that people will pay you to review, then you are probably confident enough to leave your ego out of your verdicts.

The last issue that we shall examine is that of recognition. Recognition is not just ego gratification; it has real value. It indicates something about the direction and quality of your work, it influences editors when you submit stories, and it even influences the amount that you are paid. Remember once more that the overseas market is big business, and the right sort of recognition gives busy people a quick means of assessing your potential. Two stories in American semi-professional magazines might not interest a literary agent in taking you on, but if one of those stories reaches the Locus annual Recommended Reading List, your chances are vastly improved. So the Locus list has value, but what about a Ditmar? Well may you ask, so let us examine the statistics.

What does Australia's Ditmar Award for Short Fiction say about Australian science fiction? In the 22 year history of the award, only one short story has ever won after publication in a US magazine, as I have already mentioned. That might imply that Australian stories published overseas were of poor quality . . . except that there are means for verification. I have just finished my part of a collaborative article on recent achievements of Australian sf. It consists of a list of stories with awards or recognition of any sort apart from the Ditmars. Out of 54 Ditmar nominations (for long and short fiction), only 6 were on my list, and out of 18 winners, only 2 were (one being Carey's Illywhacker, and not really sf or fantasy). Out of the 15 short stories on my list, only 5 had nominations and none were winners.

Criteria for inclusion included the Locus Recommended Reading list, inclusion on the Nebula Awards preliminary or final ballot, Gardner Dozois' Recommended Reading list, Terry Carr's Recommended Reading list, magazine readers' polls (finishing in the top 5 overseas), inclusion in an overseas "year's best" anthology, and so on. The divergence between the list and the Ditmar winners and nominees is consistent, even for individual authors: several of Terry Dowling's stories appear on the list (including works on the Locus list and the late Terry Carr's annual Recommended Reading List), yet none of those particular stories are among his seven Ditmar winners!

So, Ditmar winners and nominees tend not to be popular in other literary circles, and the reasons can be guessed at. In Van Ikin's 1985 survey of the literary preferences of readers of his Science Fiction magazine, none of the short stories reaching the final list were published in magazines, and none were from overseas anthologies. So, Australian fans tend not to read magazines, particularly those from the USA, and the Ditmars are voted for by between two-and five-dozen convention-going fans. This is a dangerously small sample of opinion, whatever their reading habits. All sorts of other factors unrelated to the quality of the stories can probably be an influence on the voting, but the cumulative statistical result is that Ditmar short fiction winners have a very localised appeal.

A reasonably versatile writer can study story styles and incorporate elements of successful styles. You simply have to learn from other writers, and so you can steer the direction of your own style. If local recognition is important to you, that's fine, but do not forget that overseas recognition has a real market value. Remember also that there is little overlap between works that are popular with Ditmar voters and works that do well in other circles.

As I said at the beginning, this article only covers a few issues of interest to those with designs on the overseas science fiction market. Things do not become easier after one's initial sales there, yet good science fiction is all the passport that you need to enter it. The rewards are fewer than you think, however, and the turnaround time is longer for everything. If you are still not totally discouraged, good luck and I'll see you in print.

Originally appeared pp49-55, Eidolon Issue 02, August 1990.
Copyright © Sean McMullen, 1990. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.