Retired Chief Media Manager
We invited author J. Ashley-Smith to share a little about his road to publication.
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction and other materials. His short stories have twice won national competitions and been shortlisted seven times for Aurealis Awards, winning both Best Horror (Old Growth, 2017) and Best Fantasy (The Further Shore, 2018). His novella, The Attic Tragedy, was released by Meerkat Press in 2020 and has since been shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, an Australian Shadows Award, and a Shirley Jackson Award. J. lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by the desolation of telegraph wires.
You can connect with J. at spooktapes.net, or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Ariadne, I Love You is available now from Meerkat Press.
The Road to Publication
The most important lesson I have learned, on what turned out to be a thirty-year journey to becoming a published author, is best summed up by Chuck Wendig’s crude aphorism: finish your shit. It doesn’t matter how good that story is in your head, or for how many weeks, months or years you polish those first few chapters – if you don’t finish the damn thing it doesn’t exist and that’s the end of it.
I first started writing when I was about ten or eleven, gruesome little horror skits that I’d scratch out in a hardback Manila notepad. There’d be one, maybe two characters, little to no plot: just terrible things happening to people, sometimes a ghost; the end. When I was about seventeen, I started taking writing more seriously, penned longer pieces – scripts mostly – that had a beginning, a middle and… well, that was the thing. I could finish an outline of a longer piece, but when it came to actually sitting down to write it, I could never get to the end.
I studied film at university (hence the scripts) and minored in creative writing. It was there that I first learned to ‘finish my shit,’ but only because I had to. It wasn’t so much that I learned a valuable life lesson and from that moment forth was some kind of prolific author – finishing things was more a necessity. If you wanted a grade, you had to hand in your work. In the years after uni, I started five, six, seven novels, maybe more. I’d get excited about the idea, write the outline in a flurry of creative energy, write one, maybe two or three chapters, and then… I’d grow bored or restless, or some other idea would knock on the door. I was like a man that longed for marriage but couldn’t commit, that fell from one abridged and unsatisfactory relationship into another.
I did finish a novel towards the end of that period. Well, the first draft of one anyway. I had big plans for the redraft, but then moved to Australia. I imagined myself as F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing The Great Gatsby on the French Riviera (the novel was set back in Cambridge, where I grew up, and was, I was then convinced, a masterpiece). But I couldn’t finish it. I got two, three chapters into the rewrite and began to struggle. Turned out that finishing a novel – even a masterpiece – was hard. After a couple of months going over and over the same few pages, I quit. I didn’t write a word of fiction for ten years.
In all that time, though, I knew I wanted to be a writer, knew that I had unfinished business. But that novel sat there like a lump of concrete in my imagination. Nothing could get past it, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back to it – convinced, as I was by then, that it actually wasn’t a masterpiece. Of course, it actually wasn’t anything. Because I hadn’t finished it. In end I had to literally burn that book to let it go, to move on and write other things.
Turns out that even burning books is hard. In the end I had to feed it into the flames a page at a time, burning my fingers in the process. That was a turning point for me though, the first action relating to a book that I ever followed through on and completed.
When I did start writing again, I was chastened. Maybe, I told myself, let go of the whole masterpiece idea. Maybe just finish something. I wrote a story just for fun, a crime horror short about a lyrebird that hears and mimics the sound of someone being horribly murdered – the detective hears the murder through the bird, but doesn’t recognise it, so falls into the same trap. It was short. I enjoyed writing it. I finished it. And sent it out. (That’s the other thing you have to do, by the way. Send your babies out into the cruel, hard world.) Then I wrote something else. Another horror short about a sensitive new age guy who lets himself be sucked dry by leeches. It was fun to write. I finished it, polished it. Sent it out. Just a few days later it was picked up for an anthology of Australian horror – my first acceptance.
In the years since that first story was published, I’ve worked hard to hone my craft. I feel deep in my bones that complaint of Chaucer’s: The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne. I have so much that I want to write, so many stories I want to finish and put out into the world before… and, please, forgive the melodrama… before I die. But I’m a married man now, committed to completion. It doesn’t matter how many ideas may be knocking at the door, I’m wed to my WIP till ‘The End’ do us part.