Alan Baxter and Weird Fiction

by Mary Stanley

Alan Baxter is the author of the notable Balance Series and the Alex Caine Series. He has had over 70 short stories published in numerous anthologies and journals across Australia, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Bound, the first novel of the Alex Caine Series, was nominated for the 2014 Best Novel Ditmar Award. Obsidian, the second in the series, was nominated for the 2014 Aurealis Award for Best Horror Novel.

Alan is a new SCWC member—as well as one of our few speculative fiction writers—and we have had the opportunity to ask him some questions and get some tips on writing and publishing speculative fiction.

MS: You’re a new member to the SCWC and one of the few speculative fiction writers we have. Why do you think people should read speculative fiction?

AB: Everyone reads speculative fiction, it’s just that some people choose to stop at some point, and I’m not really sure why. Think of all the great children’s books you enjoyed growing up. How many of those involved magic, space rockets, monsters, wild adventures in other lands, and all that good stuff? Wasn’t it just fantastic to lose yourself in those stories? Didn’t you form at least a part of your worldview by experiencing the heroes and villains in those stories?

Well, adult speculative fiction is just the same, only more so!

It’s adult, the stories are for grown-ups and tackle themes and issues just like the kids’ stories, only from an adult perspective and with adult seriousness. Especially dark fiction and horror addresses the kind of stuff you’d never read to a kid, but it’s valuable, enlightening, confronting, transformative. And there are no boundaries. Speculative fiction can take you anywhere. Why wouldn’t you want to read that?

MS: Mainstream Australian creative industries seem to veer away from speculative fiction, despite Australia’s most iconic narratives like On the Beach, Mad Max and Wolf Creek being part of the genre. Why do you think that is?

AB: I don’t know if that’s entirely true, to be honest. You said yourself, some of our most iconic stories are speculative fiction. You could add others to your list—Picnic At Hanging Rock, Wake In Fright, etc.—and they all sit perfectly well alongside the less fantastic narratives like The Man From Snowy River or whatever. And we’re also seeing a resurgence in SFF in mainstream Australian media lately, which is great.

Shows like Glitch or Cleverman are really pushing boundaries, some of our biggest selling authors are SFF authors (Garth Nix, Jay Kristoff, Kylie Chan, Trudi Canavan, etc.). So many of the really popular shows from other countries are SFF. Think of all the iconic television of recent years. You have stuff like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad sitting alongside Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, The Expanse, American Horror Story. I could go on and on. Mainstream movies embrace SFF.

Recent mega hits like the new Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Avengers, The Shape of Water and so many more are all SFF. Get Out is a fantastic horror movie and it won an Oscar! I think Australia and the rest of the world have always embraced SFF even if people are reluctant to admit it, and it’s only becoming less and less of a stigma every year.

MS: Your novels feature fast-paced action coupled with powerful magic. What rules do you apply to magic and how do you believably ground it in reality? What do you find to be difficult about working with these elements and how do you combat that?

AB: All speculative fiction has to be grounded in some kind of reality. Some of the most experimental stuff might be utterly alien, but that’s very hard to pull off. Generally speaking, the more you get the “real” stuff right, the more readers will suspend disbelief for the fantastical elements.

But there must always be rules. You can’t have magic with no rules, as there would be no conflict. Everyone could just magic up the solutions! So you have magic that involves costs of some kind—ingredients required, time to renew magical energy, offsets of some kind every time magic is used.

In my Alex Caine Series, for example, as the main character develops his newly discovered magical abilities, he finds himself exhausted by the practice, and can’t function without rest. That stops him magically solving every problem. Also, whenever he uses magic, he gives himself away to other magic-users, which is a real problem for someone who doesn’t want to be found.

Some of the most fun in writing and reading this kind of thing is in establishing the rules, then pushing at them, stretching them, using them to create conflict and drive character development. I don’t find it difficult, I find it challenging and fun.

MS: You self-published your first novel as an eBook, tell us a bit about this process and what you learned.

AB: That was a long time ago! Back at the start of the new renaissance of self-publishing I explored the process after twice getting almost published by traditional publishers only to fall at the last hurdle. I produced an eBook and a paperback, and I learned a lot about the mechanics of publishing and cover design and stuff like that.

But mostly I learned that it wasn’t the challenge I wanted from writing. I want to be a writer and self-publishing means being a small business as well as a writer, which is a business in itself! I didn’t have the time to put into all the things needed to self-publish well, which is why I work with publishers again now, in small and mainstream press.

Self-publishing is an excellent opportunity, and it’s never been easier. That can be a problem, as so many people jump in before they’re ready, and before they have the skills. But lots of others are killing it, making great books and building excellent careers. If you’re so inclined and you do it properly, it’s a great path. I learned it’s not really where my passion lies. I want to write and have someone else do all the other stuff for me!

MS: How did you bridge the gap between self-publishing and being published professionally? What advice can you give to writers about pitching their work to an agent or publisher?

AB: I was lucky enough that my first books were picked up by an American small press after self-publishing, which I was pleased about for the reasons I gave above. Through the course of self-publishing and promoting the books and writing more, I began to develop a better understanding of the industry. I came to know people in the industry, and that gave me the chance to spot opportunities when they arose.

From that small press beginning, I continued to build and work. I wrote more, I submitted more work, I took in countless rejections. Eventually I got an agent for the first of the Alex Caine books, Bound, and then my agent sold the trilogy to Harper Collins, for their Voyager imprint.

As for advice, it boils down to three things:

1. You need to have a good manuscript. That means a finished book that’s been read by other people who have given you advice, and that you’ve redrafted until it’s as good as you can possibly make it.

2. You need to know your book, understand what it is, what it’s about, what other books you might compare it to or what kind of audience it could appeal to, so that you can pitch it and its place in the market.

3. You have to follow guidelines and protocol. Don’t corner an editor in the toilet at a writer’s festival. Don’t send your science-fiction story to a romance publisher. Don’t ignore the very specific guidelines that every publisher and agent will have clearly stated on their websites. Research who is looking for work that matches yours, follow the specific guidelines, learn how to write a good query letter (there are loads of resources online), and approach professionally.

And remember that you will most likely get rejected. Rejection is the default, and acceptance is the aberration we all strive for. It’s a thankless business and you have to be determined and resilient and never give up!

You can find out more about Alan Baxter and his work on his website. Don’t forget to pick up his latest book Hidden City and immerse yourself in a thrilling world unlike any other. Also, take a look at Mary’s post about meeting him at Live & Local on her website.

You can catch Alan at the Shoalhaven Readers’ and Writers’ Festival on 4 August, check out the program!

Written by SCWC

Posted on July 04, 2018