First of all, how are you doing these days? The world’s gone to hell the last year and a half, what are you doing to maintain a healthy state of mind?
Keep working, no matter what. IFWG Publishing Australia released my anthology Spawn: Weird Horror Tales About Pregnancy, Birth and Babies in May 2021. Starting in 2020, I concentrated on putting out promotional articles. (Sales and reviews are encouraging so far.) I have a collection due for release in February 2022, which kept me busy writing original content. I subbed the completed manuscript on the weekend. Soon, I’ll start on the final edit of a novella that I wrote during the first half of 2021. I also signed up to be a mentor again for the Australasian Horror Writers Association Mentorship Program: it’s rewarding and reaffirms my devotion to writing.
Look for the positives. The birth of my literary baby, Spawn, felt great. My work getting shortlisted for a couple of awards felt great too. I’ve had success lately with reprint markets. I love writing, and I remind myself often that I’m lucky to have such a passion in my life.
Focus on family. Amidst the lockdowns – and my home town of Melbourne, Australia, had some of the harshest lockdowns in the world – I focused even more on looking after my family. For example, I trialed so many dinner recipes, even oddball ones like Toad in the Hole. (Look it up. It’s not what you might imagine.) I rediscovered baking and have thrown myself into a new hobby: cake decorating with piped frosting. While I don’t have a sweet tooth, my family members are certainly enjoying the treats.
When writing a short story, novella, or novel, what are some things you think you have to achieve to write something that will stand the test of time?
Firstly, elevate the tropes for the genre. Before I wrote my award-nominated novel, Body Farm Z (Severed Press, 2019), I trawled the Internet to find out which clichés made fans of the zombie genre roll their eyes. (I wrote an article about that very topic, published by the Horror Tree.) And then I did my best to avoid those clichés, turn them upside-down, or play with them.
Secondly, a sense of place is vitally important. As a reader, stories that occur in generic-anywhere-lands are boring. Give me a location. I want to see streets, hear the neighbourhood, notice the weather, smell the blossoms. Or does the air stink of diesel exhaust? Bushfire smoke? Shit from a pig farm? Tell me! Lack of location is my biggest bugbear as a reader. Immerse me in the whereabouts and I’ll happily follow you through all the pages of your story.
Who are some contemporary writers every writer today should be reading (and why)?
My go-to for discovering contemporary writers is the anthology format. I’m a compulsive reader of anthologies from around the globe including those published in Australia, New Zealand, UK, Canada, USA, Europe, South Africa, and other places that have English-language translations.
My advice? Skip the works pushed (for whatever reason) by big publishers and instead devour anthologies and magazines released by mid- and small-sized presses. Discover quality stories written by talented authors who aren’t necessarily household names.
If you had to make a list of the three most important rules when it comes to writing, what would those rules be (and why)?
1. Your reader is paramount. As I tell my mentees, writing isn’t ‘masturbation’ but ‘making love’ to the reader. Keep self-indulgences for your diary.
2. The location of your story is a character in its own right. Pay attention to it. Otherwise, you make your reader wander about in the dark.
3. Edit, edit, edit. The first draft is creatively magical, yes, but can be stunted by slipshod writing. Try to make every sentence a pleasure to read.
It’s been said print media is dead. What is your response to those who claim audiences in the future will have no need for books, short stories, etc. (i.e., visual media will take over all modes of storytelling)?
I’ve been a professional writer since 1986. Throughout every decade, the prediction that print media was dying made me scoff. But no longer – the prediction turned out to be true at last. Newspapers and magazines are shutting down. Copy editors face extinction. Proofreaders are all but gone. Since the digital revolution first hit the publishing industry around the turn of this century, I’ve watched my industry slowly die and it’s shocking.
I believe the biggest threat to fiction is the self-published title available free. (I’ve done this myself – to resist being a dinosaur, to keep up with modern trends – but I’m not proud of it.)
Like nothing else, free self-published books erode the ability of the professional author to make a living. For starters, these books create the expectation that all fiction should be free. Secondly, free books don’t just swamp the market but shake the reader’s confidence, because most self-published books are crap. How many crappy stories might someone read before they decide not to bother with books anymore, and instead spend their leisure time playing computer games or binge-watching TV shows?
Quality gatekeepers such as editors and publishers are essential to help keep a high standard. But profit margins in traditional publishing are now razor-thin. I only hope it’s not too late for our industry. And yes, of course, some self-published stuff is absolutely top notch, and many successful authors switch from traditional publishing to self-publishing because they want control of their careers, but that’s a different ballgame to the one I’m talking about.
Who is an historical figure you’d like to sit down and have a drink and conversation with (and why?)?
Artists used to have patrons. Why do we assume in the 21st century that fiction writers should be able to support themselves solely through their work? I’d love to hear from any historical figure about how it felt to be financially supported. Was there anything they felt pressured to give in return apart from their art, such as autonomy? Artistic integrity? Did they feel in any way diminished? Or was it a wonderfully liberating relationship?
That said, I’d love to share a bottle of wine with Michelangelo – who had patrons, by the way. In my youth, I travelled, visited a few European countries, made sure to see the wonders of Michelangelo’s work including David, Bacchus, the Pieta, Moses, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Incredible! I’d like to sit at the same table as Michelangelo and just listen to him chat. That would be enough. If he deigned to speak to me, I’d do my best to squeak a reply.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
I have a crime-noir novelette, Garland Cove, coming out with Demain Publishing in late July.
In February 2022, IFWG Publishing Australia will release my collection, Liminal Spaces: Horror Stories. It comprises previously published and award-nominated content – including stories shortlisted for Aurealis and Australian Shadows Awards – plus original material.
Recently I completed a novella. It’s an action-oriented, horror-laced adventure story, which is very Australian and set in 1913. Fingers crossed for a sale!
Deborah Sheldon is an award-winning author from Melbourne, Australia. She writes short stories, novellas and novels across the darker spectrum of horror, crime and noir.
Her award-nominated titles include the novels Body Farm Z, Contrition and Devil Dragon; the novella Thylacines; and the collection Figments and Fragments: Dark Stories. Her collection Perfect Little Stitches and Other Stories won the Australian Shadows “Best Collected Work” Award, was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award and longlisted for a Bram Stoker.
Deb’s short fiction has appeared in many well-respected magazines such as Aurealis, Midnight Echo, Andromeda Spaceways, Pulp Modern and Dimension6. Her fiction has also been shortlisted for numerous Australian Shadows Awards and Aurealis Awards, and included in various “best of” anthologies such as Year’s Best Hardcore Horror.
As editor of the 2019 edition of Midnight Echo, Deb won the Australian Shadows “Best Edited Work” Award. Other credits include TV scripts such as Neighbours, feature articles for national magazines, non-fiction books published by Reed Books and Random House, stage plays and award-winning medical writing. Visit Deb at http://deborahsheldon.wordpress.com