Peter M Ball is a Queensland writer whose short fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine and the Harper Voyager anthologies Dreaming Again and Year’s Best SF 15.
He works at the Queensland Writers Centre, managing The Australian Writer’s Marketplace, and is the co-ordinator of the biannual GenreCon writer’s conference.
You’ve spent the last few years working at the Queensland Writers Centre, helping provide resources to other emerging writers across multiple genres. You’ve also been one of the drivers behind GenreCon, which appears to be going from strength to strength.
How has that experience informed your own writing? And does spending your day immersed in the business make it easier or more difficult to focus on your own projects?
I spent about eight years working as a creative writing tutor before I got the job at QWC, so being immersed in writing for the day-job is something I got used to long ago. What tends to make the QWC gig interesting is the stronger focus on the business of writing, compared to the years spent focusing on theory and practice when I was teaching undergrads. There’s a lot more chances to learn how writers are running their business, rather than practicing their craft, and I tend to find that pretty inspirational.
That said, I did make the decision to “give up” writing when I first started working at the centre. From late 2011 until the end of 2013, I made the conscious decision to focus on my job at QWC and developing GenreCon, rather than hustling to find writing gigs and finish novels. It’s only been about six months since I cut my hours back at the centre and started focusing on writing again, so I’m still figuring out the best ways to balance the two gigs.
Given what you learned through QWC in that deliberate hiatus, how are you approaching your own writing business now? As in, are you going about things differently? If so, how? How are you applying what you’ve learned in that job?
I think my approach to things is a lot more strategic than it used to be. I’m less interested in doing things because that’s what writers are meant to do, and I focus on the things that actually move me towards the type of career I want to have in the long term.
Take a relatively simple thing like blogging. For years, I maintained a blog because that’s what writers did. I went on twitter ’cause that’s where writers were hanging out. I didn’t put much thought into what I posted or how the content could be reused, or even why I was blogging in the first place.
I stopped blogging during the hiatus, but I spent a lot of that non-blogging time doing research and focusing on what I really wanted from blogging. Why was I doing it? How could I do better? I spent some quality time going over the data I’d accumulated over the years, looking at the things that’d worked, the things that I’d enjoyed, and the stuff that had gone on to earn money after I’d blogged about it.
All of that informed the content and the approach I used when I resumed regular blogging a few weeks back, and it paid off pretty quickly. I’m drawing in more readers, I’ve resold at least one blog post for a fairly decent chunk of cash, and there’s an iterative effect on other areas of my writing. More importantly, I know where blogging fits into the long-term plan, so when I’ve got limited writing time, I can make smart choices about what to focus on.
Going all the way back to your 2010 snapshot, when you were interviewed in the wake of the release of Horn, you said the impetus behind the decision to keep the Miriam Aster stories to novella length was the “Hardboiled Detective genre elements” you were playing with in those stories.
Exile, released this year, and the forthcoming sequels are also at novella length – has your thinking behind the decision to keep working in that form changed at all since then?
Is it likely to change in the near future?
I still like the economy of the novella and the short novel, both of which are coming back into vogue now that electronic publishing has made works outside the standard novel length more cost-effective. I think the length is particularly important for hardboiled detective stories because one of the key elements of the genre is the lack of change in the protagonist; hardboiled protagonists don’t undergo big changes or learn major lessons, they simply endure.
I can see a point where I’ll leave the novella behind and experiment with something longer, but I’ve largely devoted 2014 to a series of novella-length projects. Partially this is because I already had three lined up, courtesy of the deadlines for Exile and its sequels, and partially it’s because I’m coming back from a hiatus and wanted the experience the thrill of finishing things fairly regularly. Once I’m back in the habit of writing and running a writing career, I’ll probably start aiming to finish longer works.
You said when Exile was released its major character (Keith Murphy) had been kicking around inside your head since 2003 – back when the urban fantasy genre was building as a strong commercial sub-genre, courtesy of Jim Butcher, Laurel K Hamilton and a host of others.
It’s clear you’re still working in that urban fantasy/hardboiled crossover genre – what is about it that’s kept your attention over the last few years? And do you think the genre has evolved and developed much since Keith Murphy stepped into your head?
To be honest, I don’t pay as much attention to the urban fantasy genre as I should; I’m aware of it and keep an eye on some of the major names, but my understanding of the contemporary Urban Fantasy scene largely comes courtesy of the Urban Fantasy anthology Peter Beagle and Joe Lansdale put out through Tachyon in 2011 (the last time I read a lot of urban fantasy back-to-back, it was still being used to describe the works of authors like Charles de Lint, who seem to have been shuffled into mythic fiction in recent years).
For me, the thing that keeps my attention is a growing interest in crime and detective fiction. I was dimly aware of the genre back in 2003, when I first came up with the idea of Keith Murphy, but I was coming at the genre from secondary sources – Bladerunner; the cyberpunk stories of William Gibson; the occasional noir pastiche on TV shows. I was dimly ware that there were influences that unified these things, but it was only really 2005 or so that I started immersing myself in noir film and hardboiled detective fiction, really getting back to the primary sources. I’m still figuring out the bits of the genre I really like, and writing is part of the process.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
I spend a lot more time reading outside fantasy and SF these days, courtesy of GenreCon, so a lot of the Australian works I’ve loved tend to come from other genres. Pretty much all the Anne Gracie novels that I’ve read have been brilliant, but particularly Bride By Mistake. Anna Cowan’s Untamed was a brilliant historical romance novel that’s probably appeal to people who enjoyed the Parasol Protectorate series from Gail Carriger. Similarly, in the crime genre, PM Newton’s Old School is essentially a must-read.
Has the changing publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing, reading and writing in five years?
Yes, definitely, if only because there’s far more career paths on offer for writers in Australia now.
When I started a writing degree back in 1996, the career path students were offered largely consisted of do a PhD, win the Vogel award, then get a teaching job where you can write in your spare time. I followed that doggedly, ’cause it was the only path I knew, right up until I learned better.
When I did Clarion South back in 2007, I was offered a slightly more focused path by a bunch of professional writers and editors, which largely involved writing a lot, publishing a lot, and playing a long-game in terms of writing income. It’s probably telling that I dropped out of my PhD program within a year of having alternate career paths to follow.
Now we’ve got a bunch of paths out there – traditional, hybrid, and self-published – and there’s considerably more information about the way writers earn a living on the net than there was when I started out. The biggest problem a new writer has now is sifting the good info from the propaganda – and lets be honest, there’s a lot of propaganda on all sides – but ultimately having multiple ways of making a living appeals to me.
Having multiple paths means the future is hard to predict – I suspect my career will go in a very different direction if I find myself without a job at some point in the next five years, compared to what will happen if I continue working at QWC and having regular contact with publishers and agents. The main shift that I’ve noticed – both personally, and in terms of the advice that’s out there for writers – is that we’re trying to produce more.