MARK WEBB’s midlife crisis came in the form of attempting to write speculative fiction at a very slow pace. His wife maintains this is a good outcome considering the more expensive and clichéd alternatives. He has had short fiction published at Antipodean SF, Robot and Raygun, and Electric Spec magazines. Evidence of Mark’s attempt to procrastinate in his writing, including general musings and reviews of books he has been reading, can be found at www.markwebb.name and you can connect with him on Twitter at @webb_ma
1. You’re part of the Ditmar-winning Galactic Chat team. What are some of the joys and challenges to running a literary podcast?
Working on Galactic Chat has been a fantastic experience. I was very lucky that Sean (Wright)thought of me when he was putting his new team together. I shudder to think of how many people must have turned him down for him to get to me on a list of potential interviewers. Well, boo sucks to them. They missed out on a Ditmar.
I think the thing I love about the podcast the most is how much I’ve learnt from both talking with interviewees and researching to put together questions. We try to talk with people from different parts of the story trade – authors, publishers, editors, agents – anyone who we think could add something to the conversation. And to a person, the people we’ve interviewed have been thoughtful and insightful. Not just trying to sell their latest production, but genuinely interested in the industry we all love to work in and willing to talk about it candidly and intelligently. And there is a great opportunity for someone like me in that. I’m relatively new to the writing game, and I’m constantly amazed at how much thought has been given to issues I’m only just beginning to wrestle with.
Another joy associated with the podcast is my fellow Galactic Chat team members. We did a special, group discussion podcastrecently and I was just blown away by what a fantastic group of people I’m working with. They are all very inspiring. I’ve learnt a huge amount just watching how they all operate.
And of course, another large part of the joy is that our fearless leader, Sean Wright, does all the heavy lifting of editing and publishing the podcast.
For me, one of the challenges of the podcast is that I’d love the conversations to go on for much longer. I could listen to an interviewee talk for hours, but we do need to keep the podcast to a manageable length. I’ve also been somewhat horrified to listen to myself. Not just the whole ‘I hate the way my voice sounds’ thing – that is just part of the human condition. No, I was deeply disturbed to realised just how often I mutter the word ‘fantastic’ when someone I’m interviewing pauses for breath. I mean seriously. Every single time. I had to edit it out of the last podcast I recorded – couldn’t bear the thought that someone might make a drinking game out of my interview technique. ‘I know, every time he says “fantastic” take a shot.’ That realisation was bloody awful.
I’ve also been grappling with the best way to record. My first interview was with Keith Stevenson. We’re both based in Sydney. I know, I thought, we’ll meet face to face. Record into two microphones. The sound will be much better. Well, that was just patently not true. Background noise was a killer. I’m not sure what I was thinking really. Every time I see Keith I feel like apologising on general principle. As it turns out, Skype is a much cleaner mechanism for recording interviews for someone with my level of investment in recording technology. I envy people who have had the means to acquire things like mixing decks, and seem to have the capability to use them.
2. I believe you like to draft stories longhand. What’s the advantage in doing that?
Now there is one thing I need to make clear from the start of this answer. I love computers. I studied engineering and science at university. I spent the first half of my career working exclusively in the IT industry. I’ve been fascinated by electronic calculating devices ever since the day my Dad surprised us all by getting us a Commodore 64 as a family Christmas present (we’d been pushing for the older Vic 20 because we didn’t think the budget would stretch to a C64 – ah, the practical mercantile instincts of youth). So when I started writing I just assumed I would draft everything on the computer.
And I tried. Oh, how I tried. But no matter how much I persevered, I struggled to get any momentum in my writing. I would pick over paragraphs trying to get them exactly right, edit and re-edit the same sentence until it fell apart from overuse. And my stories crept forward, making slow progress, never quite finishing.
I tried writing in different locations. I tried getting a new, ultra portable laptop so I could carry it around with me. I made elaborate plans to free up chunks of time to really knuckle down and use my electronic typewriter. It never quite came together.
And then, one day, I was off on a holiday with the family and was cut off from the electronic conveniences of modern life, so I grabbed a notepad and started to write. Before I knew – bam! I’d written more over the course of a few days than I had in months beforehand. And it all came down to one thing. With longhand writing, I seem to be more capable of turning off my inner editor and just going with the flow of writing. Something about the messiness of scribbling erased my neuroses about trying to capture perfection. Analog approximations were less troubling than the pursuit of digital purity. Used the same word too many times in the last paragraph? Who cares. Can’t remember how to spell something? Just flick your pen to create a wobbly line and come back to it. Can’t remember what you called that minor character nine chapters back? Call her Jane, underline it and pick it up in editing. Know the kind of mood your aiming for but can’t think of the perfect, original phrase to capture it? Jot down a cliché as a placeholder.
Suddenly my writing had momentum. To paraphrase one of my daughter’s favourite movies at the moment, I was a vector. I had both direction and velocity. And a few weeks after writing something, I could come back and type it into the computer, giving it a first-pass polish as I went. Replacing those clichés. Finding the right name. Letting red wriggly lines tell me where my spelling had failed me. Using the joy of an online thesaurus to eliminate word repetition.
I’ve read a lot of advice about writing. The main thing I’ve taken away from it all is that the process is intensely personal, and that there may be a difference between the kind of process that logic says should work for you and the kind of process that actually does work for you. I was at GenreCon last year, and listened to a couple of writers talk about how to write when you have a day job and family commitments (both of which I also have). The consensus was that getting up an hour early every day was the way to go. Yes, I thought. You’re freshest first thing in the morning. The family is still asleep so you can write uninterrupted. You can carve out an island of free time that otherwise wouldn’t exist. It made perfect sense. It was logical. It would suit my situation perfectly.
The only problem was that, for me, it was complete bollocks. I couldn’t do it. I press snooze. Five-thirty in the morning is something that happens to other people, not me. So instead of following a process that logic tells me should be perfect for me and my situation, I have set up a system whereby I can’t go to bed until I’ve written something. And that means I do most of my writing after 10.30 at night. When I’m tired. When the day job has drained my creative energy. When I’m often absolutely aching to just go to sleep.
What the hell. Logic is overrated anyway.
3. You’ve been getting a few short stories out – one that comes to mind involving ‘backpacking’ kobolds! Is fantasy where it’s at for you and is it something you’d like to write in longer form?
I’ve been a bit all over the place with my genre selection since I started writing. My flash fiction pieces have ranged across science fiction, fantasy and horror. My latest published short story,Showdown (here be kobolds! JN), was a rural-fringe fantasy piece, but the short story before that, Wefting the Warp, was pure science fiction. The novel-length piece I’ve been working on is urban fantasy, and I’ve just starting writing something which is falling fairly directly into the space opera classification. I love reading across the speculative fiction spectrum, and my writing seems to be following the same path.
I recently typed the words ‘THE END’ against my first novel-length work, with great relief. For too long I’d been saying to people that I was two thirds of the way through a bloody awful first draft of a novel. It has been of great comfort to me that I can now say that I am all the way through a bloody awful first draft of a novel. The sense of completion is sublime.
For some reason, writing fantasy, horror and science fiction seem to exercise different parts of the creative bit of my brain. Writing fantasy for a while allows the science fiction ideas to bubble away in the background. And vice versa. I’m not great at horror, but I find writing some (unpublishable) pieces in the background acts as a kind of palate cleanser. So for the time being I will classify myself as a literary dilettante, and flirt my way across the genres with a breathtaking disregard for propriety.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
At the risk of making my interviewer blush, I loved Blood and Dust by Jason Nahrung and am absolutely hanging out for The Big Smoke to see how the story plays out. I’ve been a fan of Jason’s work since hearing one of his short stories, ‘Smoking, Waiting for the Dawn’ on Keith Stevenson’s Terra Incognita Speculative Fiction podcast a couple of years back. Blood and Dust was a rip snorter of a yarn. Vampires in the Australian outback. Fantastic stuff.
I also really enjoyed Perfections by Kirstyn McDermott last year, and was very pleased to get a copy of the inadvertently limited edition first print run of the book at Continuum this year. Wonderfully unsettling work set in a modern context.
Speaking of Kirstyn, her podcast with Ian Mond, The Writer and the Critic, is one of my favourites and remains on my ‘must listen’ podcast playlist.
I’ve been fascinated by Tansy Rayner Roberts’ online experiment in serial writing, Musketeer Space. Not just for the story, which has been very enjoyable in and of itself, but also for the experience of watching someone push the boundaries of what modern publishing can do.
The Twelve Planets series (now 13) of books from Twelfth Planet Press have been highly entertaining. Choosing a favourite there would be difficult, but I must admit to an inordinate fondness for Bad Power by Deborah Biancotti.
Bloody Waters by Jason Franks had a wonderfully different style to it, which I loved. I would like to see it get more attention, it was a fantastic read.
And look, I know it’s New Zealand in origin, but given Australia hasn’t had any home grown SF TV for a while, I think I’ll sneak in a cheeky plug for The Almighty Johnsons as my pick for recent televisual delight. Norse Gods emigrated to New Zealand. What’s not to love?
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing/writing/reading in five years from now?
I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the step change publishing seems to be going through at the moment. As e-publishing and print on demand technology becomes more sophisticated, more options are going to be available for authors, especially those that already have an audience. I mentioned Tansy Rayner Roberts and her experiment in serialised fiction in one of my other answers. I’ll be interested to see whether this kind of “patronage” model becomes more prevalent for mid list authors with enough of a following to try more experimental pieces of work.
Of course, for a newer writer such as myself, the sheer volume of fiction now available over the internet makes building an audience a challenge. And I think that because of the volume issues inherent in the use of new publishing technology, the role of the gatekeeper is going to become even more important in directing people towards new talent.
Of course, it is still an open question as to whether traditional big publishers will be able to position themselves in that way. I look at the strategies being employed by places like Tor,Angry Robot and Subterranean overseas, and even small press like Twelfth Planet,Ticonderoga and Fablecroft here in Australia, and I can see a trend towards establishing brands which focus on ‘taste setting’. People talk about liking Angry Robot authors. The Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press reinvigorates a conversation about female authors in the genre. These are the actions of organisations trying not just to publish books, but to create brand loyalty to the publisher themselves, much more so than I remember in the past. I see some of the big publishers starting to reinvigorate their speculative fiction imprints and I wonder if they are trying to create the same branding edge. I’ll be fascinated to see how that plays out.
I’m not sure I can pick any trends in what may be hot in terms of sub-genres or story types. I suspect I’ll just be writing whatever takes my fancy and hoping that I can find people that enjoy the work. I did dabble in a form of self publishing recently, when I wanted to collect my flash fiction pieces together into one place for ease of sending people. And as a result, A Flash in the Pan? was born. But again, without an existing audience an effort like that sinks without a trace.
So, in summary, I’ll probably still be writing via longhand and lurching from project to project without much of a coherent plan, while finding it increasingly difficult to find an audience.