Ep 120 How to write for magazines; and Alan Baxter, author of the dark, weird and fantastic.

podcast-artwork In Episode 120 of So you want to be a writer: Discover the art of translating foreign language fiction, a competition for children, how to write for magazines, and why we need teacher librarians. Our word of the week is preternatural. You’ll also meet Alan Baxter, author of the dark, weird and fantastic. Plus: we share the basics of what you need on your author platform, and much more!

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Show Notes
The subtle art of translating foreign fiction

Wombat Books Illustration Challenge 2017

Want to Write for Magazines? Do This First

NAPLAN Results and the Role of the School Library and Teacher Librarian

Writer in Residence

Alan Baxter

alan baxterAlan Baxter is a British-Australian author who writes dark fantasy, horror and sci-fi liberally mixed up with crime, noir and thrillers, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. He lives among dairy paddocks on the beautiful south coast of NSW, Australia, with his wife, son, dog and cat.

Follow Alan Baxter on Twitter

Visit Alan Baxter’s website

Platform Building Tip

The Basics of Your Author Platform

Competition

WIN 16 books in our crime and thriller short story competition

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Allison

Alan Baxter is the award-winning author of the dark urban fantasy Alex Caine series, Bound, Obsidian and Abduction, newly out in print through HarperVoyager, and through Ragnarok in the US from December, as well as the dark urban fantasy duology, RealmShift and MageSign (The Balance 1 and 2, through Gryphonwood Press). He co-authored with David Wood the horror novella, Dark Rite, a new thriller Blood Codex, out now, and the forthcoming monster thriller Primordial.

 

Alan also writes short fiction with around 70 stories published in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France.

 

And, just because he doesn’t have enough to do, he also writes narrative arcs and dialogue for videogames.

 

Welcome to our program, Alan.

 

Alan

Thanks for having me.

 

Allison

You’re a very busy man. I was just sort of looking at all of the lists of things that you do, and I’m very, very interested as to how you fit all of that stuff in.

 

Alan

Not sleeping much has a lot to do with it. To be fair, a lot of that stuff happens over long periods of time and at this stage I’m not actually doing any videogame work, at the moment. I’m always open for more when it comes up.

 

And often it’s a case of sort of juggling one thing for another. For example, if I get a commission to work on some videogame narrative it tends to take precedence and you get that done because it’s usually a shorter deadline for that sort of stuff. And then once that’s done you move onto the next thing, write the next novel, whatever.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Alan

So, it’s a case of just trying to be a bit organized and fit things in rather than trying to do everything at once. But, yeah, it does mean I keep pretty busy.

 

 

 

Allison

And well because you also have a young family, who I believe we may even hear in the background during our podcast, if we’re very lucky.

 

Alan

Yeah, there might be some screeching.

 

Allison

And as well as that you run the Illawarra Kung-Fu Academy, so you’ve got that going on as well. So, you’re obviously very, very good at time management.

 

Alan

Well, yeah, it’s partly that. I’m lucky — well, I’ve worked really hard to be as lucky as I am. That old adage. But, I’m in a position where I’m able to run the martial arts academy. We live in a country town, so we run a small school. My wife is my assistant instructor. So, we run that together.

 

And all the times that we do classes through the week, various Qi Gong, Tai Chi and Kung Fu classes that we do, mornings and evenings, or whatever, those are all sort of fixed times because obviously people turn up for class, so that’s non-negotiable.

 

And then all of the rest of our time… my wife’s a painter, she’s an artist, so she does amazing paintings. She’s got a show coming up towards the end of this year in Sydney.

 

Anytime that we’re not teaching is writing and painting time, and we basically split that time in half, so one of us will be taking care of our son while the other one does their thing. So, I look after my son while she paints, and then she looks after him while I write, and then we just kind of slot all of that together as well as we can.

 

When either of us are coming up against a deadline the other one will put in extra hours with the son, and the other one will put in extra hours on the weekend or whatever to meet deadlines and things as it goes.

 

So, it’s the advantage to having both us in sort of creative pursuits, that we’re well aware of what each other does so we can support each other like that. So, it’s very lucky, but we’ve worked hard to get to this place too.

 

Allison
Of course. And it sounds idyllic, and yet there you are writing your dark urban fantasy, tapping into the horrors of life.

 

So, let’s talk about that a little bit. Let’s talk about dark urban fantasy. How would you actually define it as a genre, and how did you get started with writing in this area?

 

Alan

It’s a hell of a thing trying to describe genre, especially this one.

 

Well, initially I started writing the sort of things that I enjoyed reading and that I wanted to write. And, I didn’t realize I was a horror writer or a dark fantasy writer until people started sort of telling me that, if you like.

 

The stories that I wrote would always — they would always be a lot of sort of fantastical elements and super-natural elements. They would often be very dark elements, because I tend to — I like the honesty of dark fiction. So, if something is happening I like to follow it all the way down and don’t turn back and sort of tack a happy ending on. Because, you know, often things… some stories, some of my work does have happy endings, or at least sort of, you know, not horrendous resolutions.

 

Allison

Happyish.

 

Alan

Yeah, exactly. But, I just think there’s a certain honesty to dark fiction. Some of the stuff I write is really dark, and some of it is not especially dark, but it just has kind of — yeah, so a lot of shadow to it, whatever.

 

But, as a genre, really dark urban fantasy is basically anything that’s contemporary, sort of set in our world and our time or close to our time, but that has fantastical elements. Like with the Alex Caine series there’s all kinds of magic and demons and monsters, but it’s set here, and now it starts in Sydney with Alex Caine, who’s an underground cage fighter. And, he’s living a relatively normal life and gets drawn into this dark world of magic and monsters and stuff that he didn’t know existed.

 

So, that’s what dark urban fantasy is. It’s taking urban in as much as contemporary here, rather than high fantasy, which is like Game of Thrones and Westeros is a completely different world. That’s different, that’s full fantasy, epic fantasy.

 

Allison

So, in some ways your style of fantasy — the darkness of yours is actually scarier, because it’s mired in the real world. So, readers are reading it and there’s that potential of, “Hmm, maybe this is actually true,” whereas Westeros, you know, whole different thing.

 

Alan

Yeah, and there is dark fantasy dirtier stuff like sort of Game of Thrones or Joe Abercrombie, Blade Itself and stuff like that, which is that second world fantasy, that sort of Lord of the Rings style fantasy. But, they’re this dark and gritty and ugly and stuff like that — grim dark is often what it’s referred to.

 

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Alan

Which is good, but like you say it’s that one step removed, whereas with urban fantasy and contemporary horror like I write, it is sort of here and now, and some of the horror stories that I do, especially a lot of the short fiction that I do, is really making a point of that. It is really sort of focusing on what is here and now and just kind of twisting it a little bit to say, “What if?” And it’s a much closer ‘what if’ than something that’s far more fantastically based.

 

Allison

Are you ever scared at what comes out of your brain, Alan?

 

Alan

Yeah.

 

Allison

The thing is you put this on the page, but it has to come out of your mind somewhere. Are you ever thinking to yourself, “Mmm, where did that come from?”

 

Alan

“What the hell is wrong with me?”

 

Yeah, I do a little bit. There are times when I’ll just have to get up from the computer and go and take the dog for a walk on the beach and stuff like that, especially if I’m writing scenes with particularly dark characters doing particularly nasty things, which I never do that stuff just gratuitously, like there’s always reason for it in story. But, with a lot of the stuff that I do the bad guys are sort of genuinely bad guys.

 

And so you have to kind of get into those characters. You have to get into their heads. And you have to write characters not, “What would I do in this situation?” But, “What would he do in this situation?” Or, “What would she do?” And if that person is a horrible psychopathic killer you have to kind of think like a psychopathic killer and think how they would genuinely react.

 

So, that’s part of the joy of writing, is that you sort of create these characters and you put yourself in them, and you get to explore so much. But, I do every now and then find that I need to then go out in the sunshine and the fresh air for a little while and…

 

Allison

Have a shower.

 

Alan

Yeah, exactly. Just scrub myself with bleach.

 

But, Karen Warren, who is a fantastic horror writer, she’s Australian, she’s from Canberra. She’s the most amazing writer, she’s the loveliest person you could possibly meet. She’s just such a wonderful friendly person, and she writes the weirdest most fucked up horror you can imagine, sometimes. It’s often really just dark and weird and sometimes it’s just really, really grim. But, she’s absolutely lovely.

 

And she has a theory, and her theory is that horror writers, butchers and plumbers are some of the nicest people you can meet, because they spend their working life mired in blood and crap and horror, and they get that sort of out their system, so they’ve got nothing in there. They get to sort of purge all of this stuff by putting it to the page or by working in the slaughterhouse or working in people’s sewers.

 

Allison

Oh my lord.

 

Alan

So, they’re actually far better adjusted people at the end of the day.

 

So, whenever anybody says to her, “You’re so nice,” they expect her to be terrifying because of the stuff she writes.

 

Allison

So everyone else is just suppressing it, really? We’ve all got it in us and we’re just sort of putting on a nice face for the world?

 

Alan

Yeah, that’s it. And for most people that’s fine. You know? Most people don’t need to let that stuff out. But, maybe it’s best for those of us who do, maybe it’s best we do.

 

Allison

Let’s talk about your journey to becoming a published author, because I know our listeners always like to hear about the magical moment that everything changed.

 

How did you get to that first published book?

 

Alan

Well, it certainly wasn’t a magical moment.

 

Allison

It was horrible, I guess.

 

Alan

Well, no, it wasn’t so much that it was horrible. It was just that it was not one particular moment. It was just sort of a long and twisted process.

 

There’s no single sort of way that this works. If we could bottle all of that lightning we’d be laughing, we’d be millionaires. Everybody’s journey to publication is very different, and mine is long and complicated.

 

But, I’ll try to give the briefest version I can. My first novel — well, not the first novel that I wrote, that’s stuffed in a drawer that will never see the light of day, but the first novel that was good enough to publish, I thought, was RealmShift, which was the first of the Balance books.

 

And that book, I sent out, I talked to people, I got an agent. An agent represented it, it went to acquisitions meetings at a couple of big publishers, but never quite tipped over that line. But, as a result of that I knew that it was good enough to get that far. But, then it all kind of fell over. And the agent that I had at the time only represented in Australia and she said, “I think you need to get an international agent for this and try to sell it overseas.”

 

And I was like, “Oh, OK.” And at the time I was just kind of a bit exhausted by the whole process. And I knew that there was a second book, I knew that with that story there was a follow up. It was like there was a duology to be written. And it was at the same time that there was this big sort of renaissance of self-publishing, print on demand, eBooks, Lulu and all of that sort of stuff. So, I actually decided, just for the experiment of it, to self-publish RealmShift while I wrote MageSign, just to see how it would be received.

 

Allison

 

Alan

And then this is where I have to cut the story short, because all sorts of things happened, but then basically that came out. It did quite well. The second one came out, did quite well. Gryphonwood Press in the US picked up those two books.

 

Allison

OK, after you had self-published both of them?

 

Alan

Yeah.

 

Allison

 

Alan

So now they were published by Gryphonwood Press. So, that was sort of like the first step, if you like, to actually getting books published by someone else for me. The big publishing deal of my life so far, which was signing for the trilogy the Alex Cane series with Harper Collins here in Australia, with Voyager, the imprint of Harper Collins. That happened on the strength of getting a new agent for those new books, and partly what had come before helped push those books over the line, in terms of getting them noticed and picked up by a publisher.

 

So, it’s this long sort of process. It’s a bit like when a snowball rolls downhill and gets bigger and bigger, only the hill is really freaking shallow and you have to keep pushing.

 

Allison

So, having self-published and you are now traditionally published, is traditional publishing the way that you would go in the future? Or was your self-publishing experience — would you do it again, I guess is my question?

 

Alan

Never say never. One of the things that I really learned from doing that self-publishing thing back in the day, because that was ten years ago, I think, when I first started with that. It was really interesting and it was really enjoyable at the time, but it takes an awful lot of effort. I don’t really want to put in… I want to concentrate on writing. And, as an author these days you have to do a certain amount, a large amount, of promotion when books come out. But, when you do self-publishing added to that is all of the formatting and the uploading and the management of the metadata and all of that stuff that goes along with it, which I didn’t want to do. I decided, actually, that takes too much of my attention. And as we said at the top of this chat, like my time is full.

 

Allison

Yep.
Alan

Adding more things to it, especially since my son has been born, it’s like, you know what? I’d rather just write and then let publishers do all of that work. And publishers have more power and more clout as well, they have better distribution and all of that sort of stuff. And then I’ll do whatever promo I can. I’ll go to the conventions, I’ll go on the book tours that publishers book for me and I’ll do that stuff. And then I can just come back to my desk and I can get on with writing.

 

Allison

Yeah, OK.

 

Alan

Which is how I want to do it. So, I may well do some self-publishing. My short book about writing fight scenes is self-published. I’ve got a science fiction novella that I serialized on my website over the course of a year, and it’s still on my website to read for free, but I put it together as an eBook and a print on demand and made it available in those formats. So, that’s self-published as well.

 

Allison

 

Alan

So, I might carry on doing bits and pieces like that. But, with most of my original short fiction and novels, I’m really only following traditional publishing these days.

 

Allison

All right. So, you mentioned your eBook, which is Write the Fight Right, which I’m personally planning to download myself. So, Alex Caine is a fighter, you are a martial arts champion, you run an academy. Let’s talk about fight scenes. Where you do think most authors go wrong with their fight scenes?

 

Alan

Most authors write movie scenes. This is the single biggest issue. Like, when — see, this all came about because after a few publications I started getting a bit of a reputation for writing good fight scenes in my stories, which is sort of understandable because the two things that I do, I write and martial arts.

 

Allison

Makes sense.

 

Alan

I had an amateur fight career and stuff. Yeah… so, you know, I’ve done a lot of fighting in my day and I kind of know how it works. And, I didn’t really think about that. I just wanted to include it because martial arts is so much a part of my life.

 

But, then when people started saying, “You know, you write such good fight scenes, how do you do it?” And a couple of people asked me to do workshops on it and subsequently I wrote this sort of eBook as a supplement to those workshops.

 

And the first thing that we always cover is the fact that the vast majority of people, quite hopefully for the vast majority of people, their only experience of fighting is watching fights on movies and TV shows and stuff. And the thing about that medium is it’s designed as a two-dimensional visual medium, so fights are choreographed in such a way to look right on film. And I’ve done some choreography for some stuff as well. And, it’s not like fighting, really. It’s kind of turn based. It’s clear so you can see who’s who and what’s going on, because that’s what’s required of the medium.

 

Talking of fighting, you may have heard that just flare up then, that was my son in case…

 

Allison

There’s a fight in the background.

 

 

 

 

Alan

Yeah, there’s a fight going on. Yeah, and so because that’s people’s experience of fighting — and it looks great on film because it’s designed for that medium, so it looks very sort of powerful and exciting and everything.

 

But, when you translate that into the written form it’s really boring and it’s not very realistic. And the thing about writers and writing is that we can get inside character’s heads, we can talk about emotions and feelings. We can describe several things going on at once that are hard to convey in film. And so we can make fight scenes in our writing far more realistic and visceral and exciting than they can in the movies.

 

And, that makes it sharper and better and faster for us. And the other problem is that when people sort of transcribe a movie style of fight scene, if you like, it tends to be very slow, lots of detail, lots of, “This happened… that happened…” And what should be the fastest, most visceral powerful intense moment in your story, because suddenly there’s a fight, it should feel like a fight, suddenly it tends to draw out and be sort of long and slow and boring, and it kills pace. And so those are the two things that people need to get their head around. Is that sort of realism, as opposed to transcribing a movie scene and that pace, rather than slowing things down.

 

Allison

So, it is a little bit like writing a really good sex scene in the sense that you’ve got to focus on the feeling as much as on the Slot A goes in the Tab B sort of stuff? Like, is it that sort of thing?

 

Alan

Yeah. Definitely.

 

Allison

Like, rather than focusing so much on the detail of where the punch is and who did what, you’ve got to think about what this feels like to be in the middle of it? Is that the key?

 

Alan

Yeah, that’s it. That’s it. It’s like too much technical detail is very boring to read. A little bit of detail to give people the shape of what’s going on is great, but don’t spend to sentences describing a punch. Just say, “He punched,” and the spend the sentence describing how it felt to the other guy, and suddenly you’re inside a fight and it feels realistic and it’s faster and less boring.

 

Allison

I’m really looking forward to reading your book.

 

Let’s talk about your writing routine. Now we’ve mentioned before you’ve got a thousand things going on and you’ve got your Kung Fu academy and all of those sorts of things, and you work around that. But, are you writing every day? Like, do you try to fit in some writing every day? Or are you sort of as the deadlines encourage you to write?

 

Alan

I think that possibly one of the most damaging pieces of advice that keeps getting perpetuated is if you want to be a writer you have to write every day.

 

Allison

I agree.

 

Alan

I think that’s bollix and I think that’s really dangerous, because it makes people feel inadequate.

 

I’ve got — what am I up to now? Seven — six published novels, seventh coming out, 70-something short stories. So, you know, I get it done and I’m getting the job. But, I absolutely don’t write every day. I just can’t. I’ve got a son to look after. I’ve got a business to run, and that’s the case for a lot of people.

 

But, you do have to be a writer every day in your head. If you let it drift and you just don’t think about it for a couple of weeks, then you kind of get out of that groove and you have to question where your passion really is for it.

 

But, even though I absolutely can’t write every day, I’m always in the mindset of a writer. You see things and you sort of observe people, and you look at situations and you always take those in with that kind of writerly mind and subconsciously think about what you can use.

 

I’ll regularly be turning over ideas for story in my head. Like, I’ll be sitting there playing with my son or something and suddenly realize — he’s going, that noise. You might have heard that.

 

Allison

It’s like he knew. That was his cue.

 

Alan

It’s like he knew I was talking about him, yes. Like, that will be… because I’m not paying him any attention, I’m staring into space because I’m because I’m suddenly thinking, “Actually, if that character did this that and the other…” because it’s in my head. You know? So, you are a writer all the time. But, if you can only write for three hours every Sunday morning, when the kids go to swimming or something like that, then that’s fine. Just make sure you write for those three hours every Sunday morning. You have to make the time to write, because you’re not going to find it. We’re all too busy. You have to make time to write.

 

But, that doesn’t mean that you have to make time every day, because for many of us that is genuinely impossible.

 

Allison

That’s right.

 

Let’s talk about your writing process then. Where do you start with a new idea? Let’s talk about Alex Caine as an example. Was it the character that came to you first? Was it the setting? Was it the plot? Where do you start when you’re writing?

 

Alan

It was two directions, actually. And this is often the case, like with the Alex Caine things, because of the fighting workshops and all of that sort of stuff, it occurred to me that I’ve got all of these stories with fighting in. I’ve got these stories with people who can fight and stuff like that, but maybe I should actually write a story where the main character is first and foremost a fighter.

 

So, like just go straight into that bit that people tell me I do so well, and have a main character who’s first and foremost a career martial artist.

 

And, so I had the idea for the character of Alex Caine, himself, who’s this kind of sort of… he’s an underground cage fighter. He doesn’t like the bright lights. He doesn’t want to go to the sort of big main events and things. He likes the sort of — he’s a bit of a control freak and he likes to do what he does, and he’s a very good fighter because he spent his whole life training. And he has this sort of skill… he thinks it just sort of a — you know the result of extensive training, because he has trained his ass off. And it turns out it’s actually a little bit more than that, that he didn’t realize. And so I thought, “This is a good character to kind of work with,” but I needed a vehicle for the character.

 

At the same time I had been — there’s always a million ideas sort of bouncing around. I always jot things down. I’ve got notebooks and files, you know, with ideas and character outlines and stuff that you never know where they’re going to come up.

 

And one of those sort of plot ideas that had been sort of bubbling away in my brain for quite a while was the idea of taking that classic sort of big, fat fantasy quest idea and compressing it down into our world, like an urban fantasy, because my books tend to be sort of thriller-paced, you know? I like to… a lot of the time, like the publisher quite often cites them as dark urban fantasy thrillers, because they’re not 500-pages long, you know? They’re sort of 300-page powerful fast thriller things, and I wanted to take that big, fat fantasy quest trope and write it as a modern, urban dark thriller. And I was tossing around ideas for that.

 

And then that’s when the sort of moment of inspiration came, when I was thinking, “Oh, hang on, this Alex Caine character that I’ve been thinking about would be a great protagonist for this plot idea that I’ve been thinking about.” And then, bang, those two things kind of merged, and I started working out what was going on. I said, “Oh, OK, this is a story that I can write here.”

 

And most things are like that. There’s usually a couple of things that sort of crash together that make you go, “Oh, there’s a story I can write.”

 

Allison

What’s the next step from there? Do you then plan those books out in detail? Like, did you always know that Alex Caine was going to be three books? Or did you start out writing one and think, “There’s more to this.”?

 

Alan

Yeah, exactly. The whole idea of being a sort of planner or a pantser or an architect or a gardener, as George Martin calls it, I think it’s a sliding scale. Everybody, to some degree, plans, and everybody to some degree just flies by the seat of their pants.

 

I tend to do a lot less planning and a lot more just flying free and seeing what happens. But, I do tend to sort of make notes and keep timelines and my notes kind of expand a bit as I’m going and the story grows. And, I tend to usually know more or less the main beats I’m going to hit through a novel.

 

Allison

 

Alan

But, when I started writing Bound, which is the first Alex Caine book, I was writing a stand-alone novel, because I wanted to do that big, fat fantasy trope, like a big fat trilogy, but do it as a single thriller.

 

Surprisingly, fantasy got the better of me and it turned into a trilogy. But, each one is a standalone story, and each one is a thriller in its own right. So, I did kind of stick to that. But, the thing was when I was writing Bound, even though Bound is a standalone novel and is sort of complete in itself, while I was writing it the things that I was using and the artifacts and the MacGuffins and all of that stuff, they all sort of had history and the characters had history. And I realized, “Oh, you know what? There’s more I can do. I can explore that, and then if I explore that I have to explore that…”

 

And so by about sort of halfway, three-quarters of the way through writing Bound, I realized, “Actually this is three books, because there’s this story… then I can use this to tell this story. And then there’s this, which is kind of the combination.”

 

And as it turns out even though each book is a standalone thriller, the three books together make a trilogy with an overarching story that covers all three. I’ve also got several threads that are left from those that I can write more Alan Caine books in the series, if the demand is there to do it.

 

But, each time they will be standalone books, just in an ongoing sort of, you know, series.

 

Allison

Right. OK, so that’s interesting, because you also write a lot of short fiction. So, you’ve got this kind of — I find it really interesting that you have this long, as you say fantasy quest, that’s become this overarching narrative. But in the meantime you’re also writing a lot of, like, this short fiction.

 

Do you find it difficult to switch gears between the two things?

 

Alan

Not really. I find it difficult to work on the two things at the same time. Like, if I’m working on a novel and I get commissioned for a short story it can be a real sort of wrench, if there’s a deadline I have to switch to.

 

But, what I will usually do is write a novel and then when that’s finished in its draft I will usually write a few short stories and then I’ll go back and redraft the novel. And then probably write some more short stories in between.

 

So, I tend to do things in sequence like that.

 

Weirdly enough, to use an example, the collaborative novel that’s just come out,
Blood Codex was just — because it was collaborative I was working with David Wood, and there was a point in that where we had to stop for a while because of various commitments and some research we had to do and stuff.

 

And so I had a week, maybe two weeks where my writing time wasn’t — I could spend it on Blood Codex. And, I was like, “Oh, I might as well write a short story then,” because I had been forced into a gap.

 

Allison

Might as well. Yeah.

 

Alan

“Might as well.” Yeah.

 

And so I started on what I thought was a short story, it turned out to be much longer and it ended up being a 40,000 novella. So, I had to put it aside and finish Blood Codex and then come back to this thing that wasn’t a short story at all.

 

Sometimes I can be a terrible judge of these. Usually I’m pretty good at knowing if an idea is a short story or not. But, that one got away from me a bit.

 

 

 

Allison

Well, that was actually going to be my next question, how do you know something is a short story and not a novel or a novella, generally, when you’re not writing the one that you just wrote?

 

Alan

Yeah, it’s a bit of an occult skill really that you kind of develop with experience.

 

In a simple premise any short story could easily be a novel, because a good short story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to have character development, it has to have conflict that is resolve or not resolved in certain ways. You know, all of those things would apply to good story.

 

And so any short story you could expand out, add secondary characters, add sub-plots and turn it into a novel. But, often I just tend to know with an idea that I’m going to explore this idea in a short story, rather than explore this idea in a novel. And so I come at it that way.

 

There’s a new novel that’s hopefully — I’m just going to work on one more redraft before I send it to my agent. But, I had a short story in 2014 I think it was published. I won the Australian Shadows Award for it, for best short story last year. And that was a story called Shadows of the Lonely Dead. And that was about a girl who works in palliative care and has this particular sort of affinity with death and dying and that sort of thing.

 

And I really enjoyed that story and it was a very personal one for me, because of my experience with family members having terminal illness and stuff like that. But, I knew that was a short story that I was writing then.

 

And then this year, well, end of last year/start of this year I started working on a new novel that includes her, the character from that story and another character. And I’m basically taking that short story and it’s almost like the sequel to that story is now a novel, because I just decided that what she does, and I had another character come along with something similar, but different, and I got to explore those things in a far bigger playing field, if you like. And, so I’ve taken a short story then and expanded the consequences out into a novel, because I just wanted to explore it further and go deep and follow up these other ideas that worked well with it.

 

And so, yeah, like I say, it’s a bit occult. You can’t really pin down how these things go.

 

More often than not I do know whether they’re short or not. But, yeah, this last one I thought it was a short story and realized, “Oh shit, this is going to be a novel and it actually turned out to be like 39,000,” so technically it’s actually a novella after all.

 

Allison

Oh well, slight misconception there, but anyway.

 

Alan

Yeah.

 

Allison

You talked just before about the fact that you recently co-authored a novella with David Wood, and you have a new novel out at the moment. There’s a novel called Blood Codex, and you’re also working on a new monster thriller, Primordial with him as well.

 

How did the co-authoring thing come about? And what are the biggest benefits and challenges of it, do you think?

 

Alan

It’s a weird thing. David Wood and I have known each other for a long time. He’s a very successful sort of action/adventure writer. He writes novels like sort of Indian Jones, Doc Savage kind of action adventure and those sort of — Dan Brown Da Vinci Code kind of thrillers, that’s his kind of sandbox. And, he’s very good at it.

 

And I tend to write the dark and the supernatural and the horror and stuff, even though there’s a lot of cross-over, like I was saying most of my stuff has that kind of thriller vibe about it and that sort of pace.

 

And in talking to each other we thought that we might just… on one hand from a purely commercial decision, and then in as much as if we collaborated then I might pick up some of his readers and he might pick up some of mine, which could work for us in terms of exposure.

 

But, also as much as anything just to see how it would go.

 

And so the first thing we wrote was Dark Rite, which is — it’s a short of big novella, short novel. I think it’s like — an old-fashioned House of Horror sort of horror story, done in a slightly more literary kind of way.

 

And it was as much of an experiment to see how it would as anything else. And it turned out that we work pretty well together. And subsequently we decided to write novels, but rather to lean more towards the thriller and the action adventure and less towards the horror and the dark fiction, again, partly commercially, but partly because we figured the way that we work together we’d get the best out of both of us by doing sort of thrillers with a dark edge rather than horror and stuff like that. I’m better at horror on my own, I guess.

 

And so the publication history of the novels is actually back to front, because first of all we wrote Primordial, which is a monster thriller, so a big creature feature thing. And we sold that to Cohesion Press, and it’s due for publication in January, I think. And then subsequently we started a new series called the Jake Crowley Adventures, the first of those was Blood Codex. And that’s now just come out a few weeks ago, even though we wrote it afterwards it came out first. So, that happens sometimes with publishing, because that’s with a much smaller press and it’s an indie press directly involved with Dave, himself, rather than Primordial, which sold to Cohesion Press.

 

Allison

Oh, interesting.

 

Like, you’re both published authors, you’re both successful in your own sort of areas. Did you have to create a new author voice for this series? Like, how well do your established voices mesh together? Like, how did you — to read cohesively?

 

Alan

Yeah, that’s one of the things that made it work, because when we had a couple of beta readers we had a couple readers saying, “I’ve been really trying to figure who wrote which bit, and it’s really annoying because I can’t figure it out.”

 

Allison

That’s what you want, isn’t it?

 

Alan

Yeah, exactly. And so that’s part of the reason we realized we could work well together, because our authorial voice is similar. And interestingly enough we sound different in our solo work — I sound like Alan Baxter and he sounds like David Wood when we write our solo work. But, when we collaborate it is a bit like a combination of us both, only you can’t really tell his — like, we don’t deliberately do it that. But, it is a bit like a third voice, and in some ways it’s partly because we work with lots of sort of over-editing, write something, pass it on. So, he’ll write something, send it to me, I’ll edit what he wrote, write the next bit, send it back, he’ll edit what I wrote, do the next bit and send it back.

 

Or, with the Jay Croley stuff he does really detailed outlines and I do the writing. So, he’ll do big research and outline and then I’ll write the novel and then it will go to him and he’ll go right through and he’ll edit it and add/change the voice a little bit. He’ll send it back to me and I’ll do it again.

 

So, it’s a little bit like stirring colored paint until it’s brown, you know? By working it over and over you tend to smooth out things that sound different. But, I think that only works because we have very compatible voice.

 

Allison

 

Alan

And neither of us is too precious about it, either.

 

Allison

Well, that helps as well.

 

Alan

Yes, exactly. With my own stuff, I’m very precious about it and obviously I’ll gladly work with editors, but it’s very important to me to have my own voice. With the collaborative stuff, I think for both of us, we’re a lot less precious about maintaining something that’s true to us and instead maintaining something that’s true to the story and that works smoothly.

 

So, it’s a strange process, but…

 

Allison

Just switching gears a little bit, I’m kind of fascinated by your work with narratives and dialogue for videogames. I’m assuming that sounds a lot more interesting than it may be. I’m not sure. It’s the kind of thing that sounds like it should be lots of fun.

 

Alan

Yeah, no, it’s not. Actually, it’s not bad.

 

I mean I’ve not done a lot of it, I’ve only done a little bit of it, and I’ll gladly do more, partly because it can be well-paid. But, it’s an entirely different skill. It’s very good for improving and working your dialogue, because that translates back into prose.

 

The way it basically works, when you’re dealing with videogames, because usually — I don’t know how much experience people would have with videogames, but you’ll encounter a character while you’re playing the game and it will be like, “Oh, hello, who are you? What do you do?” Options will come up on the screen, you know, buy the sword, steal the sword, stab him with the sword… And then you select one and that then will lead into the next part of the conversation.

 

And so when you’re writing dialogue for games you use what’s called a dialogue tree, which is basically something that fractals out, because of course for every option you need a few subsequent options, otherwise it’s just too linear and you might as well not play it. You need it to change.

 

So, you build these dialogue trees. And so you start off with a single line of when you interact with that character and then you have a few options, to be polite or to be rude or whatever and how these things work and it builds and it grows like that.

 

So, you end up kind of bending your brain looking on the screen with this what looks like a big fractal tree where you’re working on this dialogue, and it kind of has to make sense, you know? Then you get play testers coming back and go, “Right, this kind of died. I said this… this… and this… and then all of a sudden he was asking me the same question again and I was stuck in a loop and I couldn’t get out.”

 

So, those sorts of things. Normally you iron those things out yourself before you submit it, but sometimes you get called out.

 

So, it’s an entirely different skill to writing prose, but it’s all dialogue. So, you have to tell the story without any narrative prose. So, you have to — while you’ve got the graphics there showing you a scene or whatever, you have to be able to explore the story and what’s happening and what the players’ options are, purely through dialogue. So, it’s good for developing dialogue skills, but it is this sort of laborious task, because it’s not one conversation, it’s numerous potential conversations each time.

 

Allison

That’s just doing my head in just thinking about it. Like, I’m trying — it’s like writing a choose your own adventure story. I always get… my head…

 

Alan

That’s exactly what it’s like, yeah.

 

Allison

… hurts with those as well.

 

But, yeah, it’s the kind of thing, like you say, it’s very fun on the screen, but behind the scenes it’s a spreadsheet, basically.

 

Alan

Fundamentally, yeah. And that’s the thing, everything that happens, everything that you read some poor bastard had to write.

 

Allison

Oh.

 

Alan

So, yeah.

 

Allison

I’ll tell my children that the next time they’re playing whatever they’re playing.

 

Alan

Yeah, do.

 

Allison

Some poor author just, like, sweating over the spreadsheet.

 

Alright, so you’ve got what I would describe as a cracking author website, and those who are interested in developing one should probably go and have a look at it, because it’s really well thought out.

 

I just found the navigation of it to be so good. I thought your ‘about’ page and your bio and everything was terrific.

 

And I know that you’re also on Instagram and Facebook, I’ve seen you particularly on Instagram.

 

Alan

Yep.

 

Allison

So is the idea of the author platform something that you’ve embraced? Or is it something that you do because you have to?

 

Alan

No, I enjoy it.

 

Allison

Oh good.

 

Alan

Yeah, I think you do have to do it these days. I mean there are some people who don’t and some people who are successful and they completely abort it and want nothing to do with it and gone on, if they can get away with it.

 

Fundamentally you want to be a good writer and you want to hope that your writing sells your writing. But, in this day and age there is definitely a sort of assumption that you will have some sort of online presence, some sort of social media persona. And you should absolutely only do as much as you enjoy. So, if you hate it, just don’t do it.

 

Allison

Because you can tell, can’t you?

 

Alan

Yes, you can just tell it’s just inauthentic. And if you don’t like Facebook don’t be on… my main ones… I’ve got my website, which is basically my — sort of the hub of my online presence, because there’s short stories on there that people can read for free. There’s all of the contact stuff, about me and my bio and my blog where I share news and all of that sort of stuff. So, that’s like the main hub.

 

And otherwise I tend to stick, these days, to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, because those are the ones that I enjoy using the most.

 

Allison

So, you haven’t been Snapchatting as of yet, Alan?

 

Alan

No, I keep seeing Snapchat and I haven’t really looked at it. Usually I try to check these things out, like I’ve checked out — God, I can’t even remember what it’s called now, the photo one that got really popular for a while. I’m having a mental blank on what it’s called.

 

Allison

Oh, me too.

 

Alan

Anyway, there’s numerous…

 

Allison

Yeah, that one.

 

Alan

Yeah, exactly. I’ve looked at Google+, I’ve looked all of these different things. And I just keep sort of coming back to these ones that work for me.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Alan

And that’s really enough because it means that’s where people can find me. If they like Twitter they can find me there. Most people are on Facebook, they can find my author page there. They can check my website. They can see visual stuff, if they want to follow me on Instagram.

 

And, that’s kind of enough for me. And I enjoy doing those things, and I enjoy — I’ve been doing Vine a bit lately, actually. I’ve been posting some short Vine videos, because I think that’s pretty good fun. So, I’ve been doing a few Vine bits, but I’m only really just getting into that and just figuring out —

 

Allison

Are you doing fight tutorials?

 

Alan

No, but I have done a few clips of some sort of martial arts stuff, mostly clips of my dog, because he’s hilarious.

 

Allison

You’re as bad as I am!

 

Alan

I know, I’m a —

 

Allison

I just share photos of my dog too.

 

Alan

Yeah, I always said, “As soon as I started posted more photos of my son than my dog I will have turned into one those terrible parents,” but it’s just only about their children. So, my dog is still by far the most popular character on my Instagram and everything else.

 

Allison

Oh dear.

 

Alan

Yeah, but it’s about just being engaged.

 

And, I’ve got a YouTube channel too that I’ve been, again, just sort of getting into where I’ve been posting a few things, like when I had a book launch there was a Q&A with Garth Nix when the Alex Caine trilogy was just rereleased in print, so that all three books now are out in bookstores and we had a launch and I had a chat with Garth Nix at Galaxy Books about that. So, that video is on my YouTube channel and stuff like that.

 

Allison

So you’re really and truly out there.

 

Alan

Yeah, exactly.

 

And, at any point where I feel like that’s taking away from writing time, I back off, because I always want to put the writing front and center. The writing always has to come first.

 

Allison

Absolutely.

 

Alan

And you’ll see — I’m regularly on Twitter and stuff, because I’ve always got my phone on me. I’m a bit of an iPhone addict. And, I can be in the park with my son or sitting at my desk or having a rest between classes and stuff like that and my phone is there and I can skim Twitter and chat and talk shit on there. That’s easy.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Alan

But, otherwise you’ll bursts of activity either on my blog, or on YouTube or stuff, and that’s usually when I’m between projects.

 

Allison

Alright, so let’s finish up today with our all-important top three tips for writers question, which of course I forgot to tell you about, so now I’m going to just put you on the spot. But, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers, Alan?

 

Alan

OK, read as much as you possibly can, as widely as you possibly can, across as many genres as you possibly can. That’s the first and foremost requirement I think for all good writing.

 

Second would be to just write and keep writing. Like we mentioned earlier, you don’t have to write every day, but you do have to write if you want to be a writer. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get. So, just write. And if you don’t have ideas just write anything. You can sit there and write about how it’s hard because you can’t think about anything to write. Sit there and write about a character who wants to write a book and can’t do it, and maybe explore why — suddenly you’re writing. Just write and you’ll get better at doing it. It’s like lifting weights. You’re never going to lift 100 kilos if you don’t lift 20 kilos a bunch of times first.

 

Allison

Yep.

 

Alan

And third, probably the most important tip for anyone who wants to end up seeing any kind of publication success is just don’t give up. The only real difference between published writers and unpublished writers is that the published writers didn’t quit.

 

Allison

Yeah, it’s so true.

 

Alan

Because hopefully you get better the more you do. So, if you just keep doing it and not giving up you’ll get good enough to be published. You’ll get lucky enough through perseverance to be noticed and that’s how it goes. There’s a lot of rubbish out there and people who get lucky on the first hit, they’re like lottery winners. They’re the outliers. The vast majority of us work our asses off, get better and don’t give up and that’s when you see some success.

 

 

Allison

Which is all excellent advice. So, thank you so much for your time today, Alan. I really appreciate it.

 

Best of luck with the Alex Caine series. I hope it goes gangbusters, and for your other upcoming publications. Yeah, so I guess we’ll see you around the track on Instagram — or your dog, anyway, on Instagram and Facebook.

 

Alan

You see plenty of me on there as well, because I do awful ridiculous selfies and stuff like that too. So…

 

Allison

Oh good. See…

 

Alan

It will be coming around.

 

I’ve got a short story collection coming out in a couple of months, and that’s being launched at Conflux and I’m guest of honor at Conflux the first weekend of October this year. So, if anyone’s around Canberra, then, yeah, you can come along to that and see me and my short story collection is getting launched there. So…

 

Allison

Go and say ‘hi.’

 

Alan

That’s the next place to catch up. So, yeah, if you want to meet in person, but, yeah, otherwise I’m all over the web, as we’ve discussed.

 

Allison

Fantastic. Alright.

 

Thank you very much, Alan. It’s been really, really pleasurable talking to you today.

 

Alan

No worries. Thank you very much for having me.

 


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