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Industry Advice: Robert Hood

by Robert Hood
Award winning author

How are your larynx?

I guess I was lucky when it came to the beginning of my professional writing career: I gained a few very encouraging early sales. They were, of course, flukes, but they did give me a backlog of positive experience to draw upon, once the real flurry of professional stonewalling began.

My first submission to a professional market was a story called “Castles in the Air”, sent to GALAXY Magazine in the US when I was 13 (about 1964). It garnered me the first of many rejections, but it was a polite and friendly one, and I wasn’t discouraged. In retrospect the rejection was well-deserved, of course, as the story was imaginative but poorly written.

Busy with study and the like, I didn’t do a lot of sending out for a long time after that, but in the meantime got one or two stories published in the university SF-society rag, TELMAR (not a difficult task and, of course, it didn’t pay). But it’s all practice.

Meanwhile I kept writing whenever possible.

My first professional sale was simply a result of serendipity. It was 1975 and I was doing a course on “Prose Craftsmanship” at Macquarie Uni under the tutelage of Thea Astley, the award-winning Australian literary author. She’d sold a story to ABC Radio and encouraged me to send in one myself. I did – a perverse SF tale titled “Caesar or Nothing” about a megalomaniac bent on ruling the world – and the story was broadcast over Radio National on 28 February. The same year I entered a Twilight-Zone-like story based on some surreal experiences I had as a prac teacher (“Orientation”, it was called) in the Canberra Times National Short Story Competition -- on the off-chance that the Canberra Times might publish it. To my surprise, it won. The story was published in two national newspapers and the prize was several thousand dollars. These two stories represent my auspicious beginnings.

It was all down hill from there… until I reached the level again and started a much more gradual uphill climb.

Though I kept writing sporadically, and sending out stories now and then, nothing came of it until about ten years later – once I left teaching and its emotionally draining constraints. At this point I established an intense and determined writing regime, and followed up by persistent submissions to magazines and journals. Lots of rejections came tumbling back at me of course. Lots and lots of them. The stories were getting better, but endless rejections can get a bit discouraging, particularly when you’ve been given some high-level early encouragement. Still, I didn’t give up.

What sales I made in the late 1980s were few and far between and mainly to mainstream and literary journals. Then in 1988 two things happened. I was in a writing group at this time, largely made up of writers who specialised in literary prose and poetry. I had written a sort of domestic drama story that wasn’t working, until someone in the group made a revolutionary suggestion that changed everything. They advised me to start the story in the characters’ future and then flashback to the events that lead to it. This inspired me to go further and to give the story a rather bizarre temporally fractured structure. Just as I finished the story, I happened to hear about a crime writing competition, high profile and high-paying. “Well,” I said to myself, “this new story has a corpse in it. That sort of makes it a crime story.” So I sent “Dead End” in to the competition and it won. That story has now been reprinted many times and is my most-published story. Moreover, the contacts I made thanks to the story led to many other opportunities being offered. The moral: take every chance, no matter how unlikely it seems … and listen to good advice.

Also in 1988 a group of poets from the University of Wollongong, including my then-wife Deb Westbury (herself a major Australian poet), decided to set up a cooperative publishing house to publish poetry, as the available markets were so few. This resulted in the establishment of Five Islands Press, which went on to become a leading Australian small-press poetry publisher. In those early days I applied to enter the cooperative (it was competitive, based on submitted work) and a bit later my first collection came out through the press, DAY-DREAMING ON COMPANY TIME. It seemed a dubious chance, but it wasn’t exactly self-publishing, nor was it vanity publishing, and the group offered good editorial supervision, so I went with it. The book ended up being shortlisted in the US Readercon Speculative Fiction Awards in 1990, where it was beaten by a retrospective volume of Richard Matheson’s stories. At the very least, it made me feel like I was getting somewhere. I had a book of my own to hold on to and people liked it.

From 1990 on my publication rate picked up markedly. But I had to send out stories all the time, and to keep them in circulation. A rejection would come back and out the story would go again, to the next market on my wish list. Gradually, my publishing record began to look better and better. I had stories in small Australian mags, major Australian mags, some big US mags, literary mags, and in the Year’s Best Horror Stories. I was still getting heaps of rejections, but hey, unless you’re very lucky, that’s par for the course. But I have found over the years that even much-rejected stories (provided you can retain faith in them) will eventually find a home – and it is some of these that have gained me the best reviews and have occasionally received decent kudos by being listed in Year’s Best Recommended Reading lists (such as those of Ellen Datlow).

If you asked me to tell you the secret of being a professional writer, I’d say this:

  1. write a lot
  2. submit what you write to decent markets, a list of which you maintain in order of preference;
  3. revise a lot;
  4. be ambitious;
  5. keep your eyes open for possibilities, even unlikely ones; and
  6. don’t give up.

One of the biggest thrills of my writing career, however, was the first time someone ASKED me for a story (“Mugger’s Game” in Stephen Knight’s CRIMES FOR A SUMMER CHRISTMAS, 1990). “We are doing an anthology and would love to include a story by you.” That sort of thing. No slushpile shuffle. Straight in! It felt like bliss.

And then when they asked again the following year, and the next, it was even better.

But such an easy course is rarely offered. I’ve now written and had published a heap of short stories, plus two collections, several novels, three edited volumes and various other miscellaneous stuff -- but I still suffer from the rejection blues. Less often than before, but still it happens. One major work that has provoked it a lot is a large, much-re-worked fantasy novel – an abortive tome that manages to gather decent reader’s reports and positive responses, but no offers of publication. It has been rejected, in Australia and overseas, many many times. One day though, one day…

For that’s what we do as writers: we get rejected, we sing the blues – and we keep going.

But we also get published. Sometimes.

And one last thing: yes, selling your stories does get easier, even if writing them doesn’t.

You just have to learn to sing.