Sean McMullen's

The High Brick Wall

I shall begin by telling three true stories about people who were up against the high brick wall of the title. Years ago, years before I had ever submitted a story myself, a friend approached the committee of a mainstream literary group and asked them to publish a note in their newsletter advertising for stories for his forthcoming anthology. They agreed, but no notice was published. My editor friend did, however, receive manuscripts from each of the people on the committee (none were suitable for his needs). Shame! What committee member would betray his/her members for the sake of merely selling a story? Just about any aspiring, frustrated author.

A few years later I was at an sf convention and overheard a writer upbraiding one of the organisers of the convention's writing competition. I clearly remember her words "but how could my story possibly be unplaced," and I felt like going up to her and saying "I know how you feel, lady, I get just as frustrated with the form letters that Analog sends back to me." On the other hand I had just won third prize in the very same writing competition, and I suspect that my sympathy would have had a frosty reception. The wall was in a different position for both of us, but it was the same wall.

A year or so later I was on the panel of judges for a writing competition myself. At the meeting to decide the winner one of the other judges pointed out one particular entry and asked us if it seemed familiar. I had included it in my final short list and made the note "Reminds me of early Ellison" (I still have that list). You guessed it, the story was an early Harlan Ellison piece with only the author and title changed. The entrant (as opposed to Ellison) had probably just had a string a discouraging rejections and was out to prove that judges and editors in general - and us in particular - do not know what they are talking about. How else could he possibly have had such a hard time selling his own fiction? Why else would that high, solid wall always stand between him and success?

The high brick wall that I refer to is nothing more than a lack of ability to gain the sort of recognition and success that you think your fiction deserves. This article will, hopefully, reassure you that we all have our walls, offer some suggestions about climbing them, and advise you when to stop beating your head against your current wall and walk away from it.

The wall appears at different stages for different people. It can be getting a story accepted by an amateur magazine, or getting placed in a writing competition, or winning a readers' poll, or making a sale to a professional magazine. I always did comfortably well in writing competitions, but the wall stood between me and my first sale for years - and another one stood between me and my second sale for even longer.

Perhaps because I generally did well in competitions and found them encouraging, the wall was much higher when I went on to try to sell my fiction. I did not realise that it is quite possible to have your sf recognised and acknowledged as being good without that recognition and acknowledgement doing anything at all to further your career as a writer. You can enter half a dozen competitions and score a second prize, a couple of thirds and a swag of honourable mentions, yet not be able to sell any of those stories - and that observation is based on first-hand experience. The judges of competitions do not have very much at stake compared to the editors of magazines, and while both recognise good writing, they often select very different kinds of good writing as being the best. The editor has sales, readers and critical opinion to consider, the judge has a little clause on the entry form which usually begins "No correspondence will be entered into regarding the judges' final decision . . ." and can therefore afford to praise works that are well written, worthy and interesting, but otherwise unsellable. Winning competitions can be a great boost to your morale, yet you are left wondering why you cannot get into print while you are good enough to win prizes.

Workshops, like competitions, can seem like major breakthroughs, yet the high brick wall stands implacably beyond them, too. The first major writing workshop for Australian sf writers was held in Melbourne in 1975 with Ursula Le Guin as moderator. Another was held in Melbourne in 1977, this time with Vonda McIntyre and Christopher Priest flown in to help, while George Turner provided a local perspective. In 1980 the participants in a Sydney sf writers' workshop had the good fortune to have international editor, author and critic Terry Carr to advise them. Generally speaking, the participants appear to have had a wonderful time, and their fiction improved out of sight over the time they were there. Why is it, then, that the number of successful authors that emerged from all this effort can be counted on the fingers of a careless carpenter's hand?

What the workshops did was to tell people quite early that they could write, and to tell them with the authority of a Carr, Le Guin, McIntyre or Priest. What the workshops did not do was to prepare the participants for the real-world markets, markets that are stubbornly insensitive to otherwise worthy fiction that does not suit their current needs. Most workshop graduands (and I have met several) were left saying "I'm sure that I'm good, so why can't I sell?" Why? Part of the reason probably relates to the difference between the values of judges and editors, but then Terry Carr was an eminent editor. Surely he would have been more objective with his advice. Quite probably he was, and attendees at his workshop may have come away with more realistic expectations than those of the other two, but the problem is that there is another wall, even for good writers with suitable fiction. That wall's name is competition.

When any publishable story hits the desk of a magazine like Analog or Amazing there are, on average, twenty or thirty other stories (out of two thousand submissions per month) that are also quite publishable, and are at least as good if not better. The magazine has space for about eight. The truth is that there are a lot of people writing sf, a disproportionate number, in fact. A study of mine (see Science Fiction #28, 1988: "You Ought To Try Going Professional") showed that around 10% of sf readers make some serious attempt to write sf at some stage. Subsequent investigations have shown that this is at least an order of magnitude more than the readers of the crime, romance and western genres, and it shows what the high brick wall is built of: the pulped, rejected manuscripts of thousands of aspiring beginners. The fact is that the competition is savage, and that fact must be lived with. Being good is just not enough to sell your work, you have to tune and streamline it to be the best. The reality is that once it is in the marketplace it will have to compete as hard as any Olympic athlete to be selected.

Okay then, the wall exists and it is undeniably horrid, yet it will not go away and you still want to be a writer. What can be done? My personal advice is firstly to decide what you really want to write, secondly to run a tight ship, and lastly to keep writing no matter what.

You must sort out your priorities early on. So you have just won the Marble Bar SF Association's writing competition, yet the idea of patiently submitting fiction for years (while editors patiently reject it) is not your style. Fine, you know you have some ability, so why not try an article on the implications of the Greenhouse Effect for the Marble Bar Bugle? Follow it up with a satirical piece on the prospects for genetic engineering producing a sheep that thrives in high temperatures and eats sand. Note that you are still writing science fiction, and are making money from it too. Returning to those participants in the sf writing workshops of 1975, 1977 and 1980, one should remember that many of those people who did not go on to become successful sf authors nevertheless became successes in other literature-related areas. The lesson here is that before trying to scale the wall, make sure that you are really interested in doing such a difficult and thankless thing at all. If you have already started and have been getting nowhere, make some decision about when enough is enough for you, and go on to try something else.

So, a good way to deal with the wall is to walk away from it, yet you still want to get past it. This brings us to my second piece of advice, to run a tight ship - which translates into looking after your own administration and image as a correspondent with meticulous care. No, no, you cry, writers are meant to think wonderful thoughts while their agents look after all the banalities. Wrong! A young American author that I met at the U.S. National SF Convention in 1987 told me about a high powered literary launch that he was invited to not long before. Present were publishers, agents, lawyers, and other commercial heavies on one side of the room talking about literature, while the authors were on the other side talking bond rates, market trends, and what the U.S. postal service had been doing to manuscripts lately. What is good enough for professionals is good enough for aspiring professionals.

Draw up a submissions spreadsheet, check the format of your manuscripts, replace your dot-matrix printer with a daisywheel, get your act looking professional. This article is about attitude, not practicalities, but I shall give you one example by way of illustration. Do you have a bio? A bio? You filthy swine, how dare you suggest that - oh, a biography, oh no, I'm much too modest for that, I've never sold a story . . . but wait, stop and think. You come home and check the mail to find a letter from a big U.S. magazine with a cheque and a request for a 100 word bio. In a fit of euphoria you dash off 100 words about being an apprentice Mongolian chicken sexer, because your brother read one of your manuscripts last week and said that even a Mongolian chicken sexer could write better sf, and boy-oh-boy will this put him in his place! On the way home from the postbox you suddenly realise that you have branded yourself a prize ding-a-ling with the entire sf publishing community for the rest of your life for the sake of antagonising your brother. So, what to do? Firebomb the postbox? Send a grovelling letter of retraction to the editor right away? Take out Mongolian citizenship and enrol in a chicken sexing course? A better idea would have been to compose a meticulously phrased bio years in advance, and subject it to constant updates and idiocy checks. Go through a couple of years of back issues of Analog or Asimov's, and see what others have written. Make sure that your bio does everything to enhance your career and nothing to clobber it. This is just one part of running a tight ship, and doing that allows you to look professional on the editor's desk before you have anything in print. That helps with getting over the wall almost as much as writing good fiction does.

Now on to my third piece of advice: keep writing no matter what. One sure way to alienate even a moderately successful author is to suggest that they had it easy, or that they were lucky. If they seem to have had some great breaks, it is because they spent years building up to those breaks. I began my first serious experiments with writing fiction six years before my first sale, and nine years before my first overseas sale, yet soon after the latter sale I had it reported back to me that a few people were saying: "He was just so lucky, it's really not fair. He's only been writing two years, yet he's sold a story to Fantasy and Science Fiction." Well, as I have said, at that stage I had been writing for nine years, and had completed 35 published and unpublished short stories and one unpublished novel. Examine your consciences, folks. How many of you have never ever thought that about someone? The chances are that most other authors also had at least as much literary scaffolding beneath them when they scrambled over that particular high brick wall. The chances are that most of you will need quite a lot of that scaffolding, too. This is the prime method of getting over the wall: keep writing. Write when there is no immediate hope of success, write when you have just sold three stories to a magazine that promptly folded, and especially write when it is two, three, or four years since your last success. This is not to say that you should just write anything: you must frame your sf to sell. If you do suddenly have a major breakthrough and need a lot of fiction in a hurry, your reserves must be of a high standard.

What must be obvious by now is that you must think in terms of writing for a very long time with no return, and for that you need staying power. Staying power comes from liking good fiction and having a genuine interest in improving your own writing style. If you fit that description, then you can go on writing alone for years and constantly improving - whether or not you are getting fiction published.

This has not been a particularly easy article to write, because if there is anything harder than explaining to talented beginners why their work is not selling, it is coming up with constructive suggestions about what to do. The high brick wall can often come to dominate a beginner's (or anyone else's) life, and the better you are at writing, the more it hurts. Baffled writers sometimes put one page into a manuscript upside down, so that they can check the returned manuscript to ensure that the editor has inverted the page - and thus confirm that their work has actually been read. Others submit the same story six, seven, eight or more times to the one magazine, just to see if anyone notices and complains. Some extremists even sign their stories and covering letters Asimov or Ellison in their attempts to prod something more than a formletter out of editors. Whenever you are against the wall remember that success in sf writing takes many forms, and it may not even turn out to be what you really want at all. Thinking your priorities through can save you from a great deal of anger and frustration, because once you have worked out your aims you can develop realistic expectations. Whether you target the Australian literary magazines, or the overseas high circulation market, or go straight to novels, there will be a wall of some description and it will make life hell.

Selling sf is not fun, yet if you want to be an author you must do it yourself and be good at it. If you can accept that, and accept that behind every brick wall is another brick wall, you are about as well equipped to succeed as any of us. Good luck, and see you in print.

Originally appeared pp. 20-25, Eidolon 3, December 1990.
Copyright © 1990 Sean McMullen. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.