Sean McMullen's

The Great Transition

My first and only meeting with the late A Bertram Chandler, Australia's most prolific science fiction author, was at a Sydney science fiction convention in the early '80s. As we were talking a girl came over and asked him if he would speak to a beginners' science fiction writing group. His answer startled me: he said no, and that it was a waste of time. He added that he had been doing that sort of thing at writing workshops for years, and he could not think of a single successful writer that he had helped who would not have made it as an author anyway. Four years later I was compiling some figures on science fiction workshop attendees and their subsequent careers when I discovered that Chandler had been right: the dropout rate among workshop attendees was very high, and was if anything higher than for the overall population of Australian science fiction authors. The hard statistics were that nine out of every ten such authors who got anything at all published professionally never persisted beyond six stories or one novel.

This has a lot of relevance for anyone planning a future as a science fiction author in Australia. Nearly 90% of Australia's genre authors abandon fiction for other pursuits soon after gaining 'professional' status. Some of these authors have even shown great promise in their early writing, winning critical praise and awards, and having multiple republications of their works. So what is the strange and subtle phenomenon that follows initial success and seems to be so very disillusioning for so many? There is plenty of advice around on how to begin one's career in writing science fiction, but none on the circumstances of a career ending. Superficially, it would seem that a lot of effort has gone to waste by then, so it is a subject worth investigation.

Let us outline some raw statistics first. I have identified 445 Australians with a minimum of one genre short story professionally published in the period mid1974 to mid-1994. In order to make the statistics manageable I have decided (arbitrarily) that one children's novel equals about six short stories, that one adult novel equals about ten short stories, and that the statistical profiles of the periods flanking the study period will be similar. Significant assumptions, perhaps, but not unreasonable ones. On these criteria there are 383 authors in Group 1: people who have published six or less stories or one shortish novel. That's 86% of the authors. Those who have published between six and twenty-five short stories are Group 2, and it contains thirty-eight authors, or 9% of the total. The prolific Group 3 authors number only twenty-four, or 5%.

To get a rough idea of author recognition I decided to examine Australian Science Fiction (Ditmar) Award nominations for fiction over the three groups. The 383 Group 1 authors had seventeen nominations and two winners, but in Group 2 the rate was far higher, with twenty-two nominations and three winners among thirty-eight authors. In other words, they were thirteen times more likely to get at least a nomination. The Group 3 figures provide even more of a contrast: the twenty-four authors had 113 nominations and wins, some seven times the rate of Group 2 authors, and 94 times that of Group 1. Only a quarter of this group have never had a Ditmar nomination.

The foregoing figures are no slur on either the Group 1 or Group 2 authors. Anyone who has had anything to do with writing will know that getting even a single story sold is an achievement. Doing it more than six times and reaching Group 2 is a sign of being pretty dedicated - and talented as well. The Group 3 authors are the most visible, of course, including the likes of George Turner, Greg Egan, Terry Dowling, Rosaleen Love and Paul Collins, while Group 2 includes such authors as Leanne Frahm, Stephen Dedman and Dirk Strasser. So what about Group 1? All of us have spent time there: five years in my case and, by the time I qualified for Group 2, both of my Ditmar winners had been published (although I then only took two years to reach Group 3 - I'm still trying to figure that one out). Make no mistake; as I've said, even Group 1 authors have made impressive achievements. Persuading an editor to part with real money for even one short story is a feat to be proud of. Over the years I have met quite a few of this 86% from Group 1, and none of them had any suggestion of being dropouts or failures. Why then did they stop writing, even though some showed extraordinary promise?

At first glance the answer might seem to lie with the difficulties in getting published, but in reality there is a lot more to it. Anyone who can get one story published can do it again if they really want to but, as amazing as it might sound to beginners still desperate to sell their first story, even being successful and in demand it not sufficient incentive to keep the majority of Australian science fiction authors writing science fiction.

The realities of publishing are at the heart of the problem for quite a lot of authors. Back in 1980 I attended my first science fiction convention, and my sole motive was to meet a few authors and learn about getting published. I attended a panel on writing science fiction and, after an hour of hearing four panellists (one of whom was Joe Haldeman) tell us how excruciatingly hard it was to sell science fiction, I was half-convinced that anyone contemplating a career as an author needed to be dragged off for psychiatric treatment. Not long after that I read that Analog magazine was receiving as many as 2,000 manuscripts per month, of which they published ten at most. Around the same time Penguin Australia reportedly received 2,000 unsolicited manuscripts in one year, of which they accepted two. Those are fearsome odds, so when the people who have been lucky enough to get a couple of stories into print discover that selling their science fiction is not going to get any easier, they often get discouraged.

At a more personal level, writing is a good way of killing dreams. In some forms of psychotherapy people are encouraged to write about their obsessions until they play them out, and it does work. Unfortunately, it works for people's fantasies as well. I can think about a story under development for months, but once it is down on disk and submitted to a magazine I tend to lose interest. Many people have a favourite fantasy that they dream of putting into a story or novel one day (the 'I've got a book in me' phenomenon), and they get quite a lot of pleasure from spending time in this internal world. A few eventually get around to translating that world into words, only to discover that their internal vista has suddenly lost a great deal of colour! Even if the resulting story or novel is a success, that one favourite idea that the author has been nurturing for years is both their first and last. With no more ideas, and their dreamworld gone, the incentive to write more is not great.

The opposite is the type of person who has an unlimited fund of ideas but little skill in writing or characterisation. Such people generally get a nasty shock when they discover that translating a good theme into characters and a plot is very difficult, and quite a few do not survive it to become authors at all. To be fair, however, many of these people cope after trying for long enough . . . but now another problem surfaces. People with limited writing skills will tend to stay with the first successful formula that they manage to establish - probably because it took so much effort. What follows is three or four stories with near-identical plots and characters, and this is no more the basis for a literary career than the single, glorious idea.

For those who get beyond the beginner stage and gain a degree of recognition and success, there are new realities to face. Writing is not a fixed and limited project: it continues forever, or until you choose to give up. This means scheduling time permanently in your daily routine. This is time that will be always committed: it is not like a university degree, which soaks up a lot of time but can eventually be completed. I often say to people in writing workshops, "Take a good look at me, because I'm what you will look like if you achieve even a moderate degree of success." That's a loathsome prospect, undoubtedly, but think about it for a moment. I have a full-time professional job, and I'm married to someone with a full-time professional job, so we have to divide the housework and child-care pretty evenly between us. I want a good family life, so I make sure that my writing does not intrude on spending plenty of time with my family. What time is left goes to writing, and I have to use that time very efficiently. Living such a disciplined existence is obviously not to many people's taste, and so for them the writing of science fiction tends to be crowded out by more important things in their lives.

All of the foregoing problems and pitfalls may seem unconnected, but they do point in a common direction. What lies at their focus is between ten and twenty times the size of what most beginners are used to writing, and is governed by a very different set of skills to short fiction. When you do it well, everyone wants to know you, but if you do it badly it represents a catastrophic waste of time and effort. It is, of course, the novel.

Let us return to the statistics again for a moment. In Group 1, 81% of authors have only had short science fiction published, while 19% have had a single science fiction novel published. Thus, four out of five authors in Group 1 have preferred to experiment with short science fiction before trying a novel. This is only sensible, as the alternative is to have to rewrite one's first novel continuously as one gains experience. On the other hand, the skills required for novels are somewhat different, so when is the best time to start work on them? From the statistics, I would say that you should start no later than when you have completed your sixth short story. Combining Group 2 and Group 3 authors, we see that 21% of those have only ever written novels, while the number who have only ever written short fiction had been dramatically reduced to 24%. Authors who have had both novels and short science fiction published hold an absolute majority at 55%. The conclusion is clear: authors who struggle into Group 2 and beyond are highly likely to have made a successful transition from short science fiction to novels. The question remains of whether they willingly made the transition, or whether they had no choice.

The transition from the short story to the novel is not an easy one, and it can leave one's resolution pretty frayed. The publishing industry wants novels (that is where the big money is to be made), yet most people establish their reputations with short fiction. After getting off to a pretty successful start in short sf, I tried a novel. Upon completion it spent four years languishing with various publishers. It was good enough to get attention and praise, but I was a beginner and publishers were unwilling to take a chance with it. I wrote a second novel, this time aimed at the Australian market - with the same result. I tried numerous rewrites. No luck. I wrote a third novel . . . and at this stage a rewritten version of my first novel was accepted by Aphelion Publications (which had only existed as a magazine when my first novel first went out on submission), and you know it now as Voices In The Light. Short fiction is like a speedboat - light, fast and exhilarating. Novels are like a supertanker - which can have a ten kilometre turning circle, and take several kilometres to even stop. I survived the transition, but it was not easy.

Any number of authors have begun novels after establishing their reputations with short stories, but those novels tend to drag out over years and are seldom completed. They are practically never published. Some writers with full-time jobs throw everything into getting a novel written in six months or so, with their family routines revolving around the writing. It often works too, but it is not a sustainable lifestyle. Once the second novel is under way, the spectre of family resentment at best and divorce at worst will probably be looming large. There is a rarely-included scene in Kurosawa's classic film Seven Samurai where the samurai leader Kambei is forbidding the young novice Katsushiro to go with the rest of them to fight. Kambei says "I know your line, I was a young man like you - once. 'Train yourself, distinguish yourself in war, become somebody - maybe a warlord.' But time flies, before your dream materialises you get grey hair. By that time your parents and friends are dead and gone." There follows a long and poignant silence from the other samurai present, who understand what he is saying all too well. Change a few words and the same can be said of writing novels as a second career. Its rewards are not as great as those of a good family life and friends, and even success is empty if there is nobody to be proud of you. Unless you live alone you will have to fit writing into your life, and not the other way around.

This, then, would appear to be the rock upon which most of the really promising Group 1 authors come to grief. One average-sized novel has the combined wordcount of ten novelettes at 10,000 words each. According to my statistics, an author selling two stories per year would be doing pretty well for the Australian market - so that a novel of equivalent wordcount would represent up to five years of work at a leisurely pace (I can write a novel in less than a year, which is considered fastish for someone who also works full time). Six months between drinks is bad enough, but five years is enough to make you forget the taste altogether. Some authors do the sensible thing and return to short fiction, Jack Wodhams being the best-known example. The majority give up writing science fiction completely.

Notice that I used the term 'science fiction', however. Those who stop writing science fiction have often discovered that they are good writers who are not necessarily interested in writing science fiction. You can use driving skills to great effect without having to be a Formula One competitor. Australian authors have left science fiction for such fields as journalism, scriptwriting, drama, editing and publishing, and some have done very well. David Rome is quite a good example. Between 1961 and 1972 he had twenty-six stories published in Britain, America and Australia. Two were republished in Year's Best SF anthologies, one was a Ditmar nominee, one polled second in the Vision of Tomorrow poll, and one was even featured on a New Worlds cover. His single novel was also republished, and the republication received a Ditmar nomination. In anyone's terms this was a pretty good innings, yet in the early 1980s I heard Rome pronounced a failure by a panellist at a science fiction convention. The reason? "His stories came last in the New Worlds readers polls." True, six of Rome's earliest stories did poll last between 1961 and 1963, but so what? Rome had developed into a successful science fiction author by the early 1970s, when he began to concentrate on writing for television - a field in which he became even more successful. Abandoning science fiction does not automatically mean failure, even if some people say it is so.

For some science fiction authors silence does not mean inactivity: there is a class of author that looks to have ceased writing, then comes back to literary life. Paul Voermans had one story published in the workshop anthology View From the Edge in 1977, then was not heard of again for fourteen years. On the surface he appeared to have been promising but nothing more, yet he reappeared with two novels from Gollancz in the early '90s, the second of which was a Ditmar nominee. Sam Sejavka also had a story in that same 1977 anthology, and in 1990 he too resurfaced with a science fiction play at Melbourne's La Mamma theatre, Advice From A Caterpillar, which brought in rave reviews and packed houses. All through the 1980s both of these authors looked like part of that nine out of ten who drop out, never to be seen again, but one came back as a novelist, the other as a dramatist. A problem with promising teenage authors is that they almost inevitably lack the life experience and literary background to produce outstandingly original works. There is nothing wrong with taking time out to get a life, then returning to the keyboard with that expanded background.

Starting too late is the opposite problem to the one just mentioned. Last December I was a judge for a mainstream writing competition, and during the course of reading several dozen stories I was continually surprised by the number of older entrants who clearly demonstrated that they had something to write about, but who had fairly limited skills as writers. One man who was in his seventies had based his entry on his World War Two experiences. The material was fascinating, but his technique needed a few years of practice and polish, and I said as much in my report. The trouble is that by the time his literary skills might be brought up to scratch, he would be close to eighty. While there are plenty of octogenarian writers about, it is a pretty advanced age for one to begin a career. There is a strong temptation to promise oneself to become an author after retirement, but I think that this is a very, very foolish notion. By all means begin your magnum opus on the day after your 65th birthday, but you owe it to yourself to start practicing two or three decades earlier. Practice by writing short science fiction, practice by writing experimental chapters, but make sure that you practice.

To draw an analogy with space exploration, if getting a short story published is like orbiting a satellite, then getting a full length novel published is like landing astronauts on the moon: it's far more complex and unimaginably harder. The characteristic common to those authors who persist with science fiction is a genuine love of writing it. Having a flair for science fiction is good, having the ideas is wonderful, being determined and ambitious will get you a long way, but . . . in order to succeed with science fiction novels in the long term, you are going to have to spend a pretty large proportion of your remaining life with your fingers over the keyboard. For most people the transition away from short fiction will be a transition away from writing science fiction as well. Unless they genuinely like writing in general and science fiction in particular, then they will probably lose interest and put the talents that they have developed to use elsewhere. This is not failure, whatever anyone may say to the contrary. Learning to write novels is difficult and time-consuming. If you love writing science fiction and think that you can last the distance, then good luck, and remember that while it is hard, this great transition is not impossible.

(Presented as the keynote speech at the South Australian Writers' Centre SF Evening, 12th July 1994)

Originally appeared pp. 28-33, Eidolon 15, July 1994.
Copyright © 1995 Sean McMullen.
Reprinted by kind permission of Sean McMullen.