Category Archives: Writing & Publishing

Its Tough Out There

If you were harbouring any ideas about the wonders of being a first time novelist, read this.

So its a tough world out there. Does this really take anyone by surprise? Are there people out there who think establishing a career as a professional novelist is just a matter of pitching up on an MA and then scratching down 80k on a notebook whilst sipping espresso? Then BINGO, Booker prize?

And even for the more realistically minded there isn’t any formula for success, any more then there is any guaranteed method for beating the roulette wheel. There are some ways of improving the odds – develop technique and style, know your genre, take every opportunity to meet writers, editors and agents. (Or of course side-step all the above, become a D-list celeb and hire a ghost writer).

So given the steep odds of success and the huge effort involved, why bother tapping out that novel at all.

Oh yeah, thats right. I remember now!

Because you enjoy it.

The Litt Fic Genre

An interesting breakdown of the literary fiction genre by Toby Litt. Its refreshing to see someone usualy heavily associated with LitFic abandon the partisan position and admit that at bottom is just another genre.

Toby is in a good place to comment, being represented by the Mic Cheetham agency who happen to also have Iain Banks, Jon Courtney Grimwood, China Mievile, M John Harrison, Ken McCleod, Tricia Sullivan and Steph Swainston on their books, which is basicaly a whos who of contemporary British SFF writing.

There is a lot of trashy SFF in the world, I’ll admit to liking quite a lot of it despite (or even because of) its flaws, it just appeals to my tastes. I don’t want this stuff hailed as great literature. But then I don’t want the turgid, genre bound swathes of LitFic hailed as great literature either. IMHO this is one of the majour causes of declining readerships for contemporary fiction at the moment. I would like to see a Booker shortlist that included the fantastic stories being told in SFF, or graphic novels, or even YA fiction and any other genre where the writers are pushing the boundaries and producing startlingly good writing. I think if this did happen you would start to see some of the lost readership come back to books, and back into bookshops.

Word Hustler

There is a great little post over at Tobias Buckel’s blog about hustling for freelance work to support a writing career. I’m not sure I’d advise taking out a six month loan (thats about 10 – 12k!) unless you are uber serious, totally confidant in your writing skills and have at least a few publications under your belt. Even then its a huge risk. But Tobias shows the level of gritty determination, some might say obsession, it takes to break through as a writer.

99% Crap

Agent and former leading SF / Fantasy editor John Jarrold on the route to publication. More information about John here

Or see the original thread at the TTA Press forum here


This does vary from company to company, but here is the general route for a new writer:

Basically, every editor in London will receive around thirty books a week, some from agents, some direct from authors. In the former case, the agent may well have spoken to the editor in advance, so they have an idea what to expect.

An editor may only be taking on one or two new authors a year, and there are two specific points they look for: wonderful writing and great commerciality. That cuts out over 99% of the books they are seeing. Remember that publishing is subjective, and an editor needs to love a book personally AND professionally. Some extremely good books are loved by one editor but hated by another.

Once the editor does think they have something that special, they take it to the editorial meeting. Before that meeting, every other editor in the company has to read the book, and they will make their comments, positive and negative, at the meeting. If the book gets over that hurdle – and many don’t – it will then be taken to the publishing meeting. Before THAT meeting, the sales director, marketing director, publicity director, managing director and other senior, non-editorial staff have to read it, and agree that it is both wonderfully written and intensely commercial. Again, many new books fall at this hurdle. However, if this is all agreed, the sales director and editor will agree on expected sales figures for the first print-run, and a costing will be produced. From that, the editor will come up with a sum that the book is worth to the publisher and, once he has the agreement of his managing director, he will make an offer. Easy! Probably less than 10% of the books that enter this process at the editorial meeting actually have offers made. And they themselves are far less than 1% of the books that are originally submitted by authors and agents.

Handling the Hate

I’ve long observed a natural pattern fall into place with each new writing project.

Writing session one passes in a haze of bedazzled excitement as the possibilities of the story at hand hand unfold in your imagination like a glorious summer bloom. Session two is usualy tinged by the belief that you aren’t quite getting down on the page what it is you had imagined. Half way through session three it hits you that this is nothing like the story you had in mind. Session four is like waking up from a dream where you were a multi-millionaire novelist to discover you are actualy only 2000 words into your magnum opus and its going to take much, much, much, much more work before its even ready to show to friends and family.

It’s in that gap between the wonders of your imagination and the reality of the words hitting the page that the Hate lives. Its the little voice in your head that keeps telling you your story is a huge steaming pile of pooh only fit to flushed down the loo. Its the growing belief that however much you work on a piece of writing it will never been finished, never be read and amount to nothing more than a huge waste of time and effort.

Getting any writing project finished is an exercise in dealing the Hate. Before you even start, accept the reality that at some point in the process the Hate will rear its demonic visage and try as hard as it can to undermine your confidence and self-belief.   Even if you manage to get the Hate to go away one day, you can be sure it will return the next. But don’t listen to the Hate, its a minfestation of your subconscious and hence nothing more than a dumb beastie.

Rules for Handling the Hate

1. The first draft is always pants. Hence its aptly applied title – THE…FIRST…DRAFT! It took me about three years to realise this. The Hate will tell you that because the first draft is pants that means you are also pants. Don’t listen to it. Get the first draft finished at all costs.

2. Like all imaginary beasties, the Hate can’t be defeated by full frontal assault. To deal with the Hate you need to disempower it. Whenever it makes a charge, say to yourself ‘No. My story is not pants. This feeling is just the Hate trying to get at me. I will ignore it and continue writing as though it had never happened.’

3. Tame the Hate and make it your servant. Hate is just Love manifested negatively. A little mental effort can turn that voice of doubt into a voice of certainty, telling you how great everthing you write is. Be warned however, that while the Love beatsie can be useful, its no less a beastie than the Hate. Its OK to think what you are writing is fantastic, right up until you need to start editing. At that point you need to track down the ‘Reality Check’ beastie, who’s job it is to tell you the way things really are.

How Many Writers Can You Fit In A Mini?

I’ve had an odd evening. I did the last set of edits on the story for the Beeb (now finished and with producer..yay!). I sent a longer version of the same story to an editor of a US magazine that I had sent a paper copy to months ago but they had lost it, and got a response back 15 minutes later saying they didn’t like it. I dropped into the TTA Press forum and lobbed a comment into a resurgent debate on New Weird, then pootled over to Vanderworld and read a leaked extract of Jeff V’s new book.

It really is a very small writing world.

I’m wondering what effect this must have on those old ‘established’ writers who are used to working in relative isolation. I’ve heard writers identified as the Class II persoanlities who stand on the edge of the playground and watch the other kids suspiciously. Writing fiction has long been a way interacting with humanity at a distance, not just physical but temporal. You get to compose your work well in advance and then release it into the world, complete and polished. This interweb thingy has changed all that irrevocably. Critical debates that used to rumble on over the period of decades in respectable journals now flower and then die in months or even weeks, and even worse any old johnny can throw in their tuppence worth. Readers aren’t held at a comfortable distance anymore, they are right in your face asking difficult questions of every snippet of information that gets written, and expecting answers. Writers used to be able to get away with a spectrum of ill behaviour ranging from irrascible old curmudgeon to pathologocal isolationism. No longer. These days a writer needs the public relations skills of a customer service executive just to  manage their e-mails.

And it has to change the nature of the writing as well. Once an exercise in exitentialist angst generation where the writer struggled to produce work that may not see the light of day for months or even years. Now a writer can draft work, publish and get feedback from an audience of anywhere from zero to a hundred thousand in seconds. The writers who thrive in that kind of environment will be very different to the old curmedgeons we know and…Love? Loathe? Both?

British Library Discovers Blogs…And Only a Decade Late

I woke up this morning to discover that the British Library and a collection of their National Trust partners had declared today a sort of national blog day.

In an attempt to capture the minutiae of ordinary life our nations bastions of learning have invited the normal everyday of people to toddle along to the History Matters website and post a diary of their oh so average lives.

Perhaps I’m alone in finding outreach work of this kind coming down from the lofty heights of such ivory towers more than a little bit patronising. It occurs to me that ordinary people have been sharing the details of everday life with each other for quite some time now, and archiving those thoughts as well.

Firstly it seems that in order to benefit from the BL’s generous offer to catalogue the lives of such mere mortals as ourselves, after so many years of neglect, the BL is asking us to go to their website and post our blog entry on their blo…this seems to miss one of the cardinal principles of blogging, that we as ordinary people have control of our words, how they are presented and stored and archived.

I also wonder at how representative a ‘day in the life’ of people who take part in this project will be. Is it possible that in a hundred years time the historians view of Tuesday 17th October will be coloured through the lens of a self selecting audience of Radio 4 listeners and amateur historians?  

Perhaps a more effective historical document could be compiled by historains actualy going out and documenting all of the REAL blog posts made today. Certainly this would be more representative (even if it was weighted towards IT nerds and SF geeks…)

I applaud blog day as a great piece of PR for the history movement and wish it every success, but hope that the dedicated historians behind the scenes manage to live up to the promise of documenting the lives of ordinary people in the digital age. Even the cynical and sarcastic ones…

The Next Big Thing?

An idea I seem to have stumbled into three times in as many weeks…the ‘breakout’ artist.

Every type of art gets them from time to time. Folk music got Dylan. Kids books just got JK Rowling. Sports get them as well, basketball got Michael Jordan. Something about an individuals work gets them noticed far and above even their most succesful peers.

It seems like a long time since SF had one of these, if it ever did. Philip K Dick? William Gibson? I’m not sure any SF writer has really broken through into the popular imagination in that way. Well, theres always L Ron Hubbard. Throwing the net a bit wider to the whole of SF, Fantasy and Horror – Tolkien is a good example. As is Steven King. Neil Gaiman seems really close to that point, maybe after the new film is relased.

I’m wondering who might be the Next Big Thing? Its an impossible question to answer but maybe the folks over at the Asimovs board will have some suggestions. The two names that spring to mind for me are Charles Stross in the SF world and Joe Hill in horror – wouldn’t be the first son to inherit talent from his father. (I’ve been working my way through 20th Century Ghosts over the last few months, genuinely fantastic writing. I’m looking forward to the novel.) But something tells me that the fact I know who they are at this point means it probably won’t be them. They both have the talent but the ‘breakout’ status is more a thing of luck than skill. Perhaps theres somebody out there somewhere right now penning the next big SF/F/H novel.

Evil Yahoo!

I wish I could say I left Yahoo! as part of a principled stand against their activities in China, or as a protest against their horrendously corporate identity. Perhaps these things crossed my mind, but the truth is I left because Yahoo! stopped working.

There is no doubt that Yahoo! represents the worst of the mainstream internet. If you want to be forced fed advertising for every type of cultural lowest common denominator from teeny pop videos to mobile phone ring tones then Yahoo! is the place for you. I can’t imagine anybody over the age of 16 being anything but bored stupid by the utter shit that Yahoo! is pedalling. But this has been the case for years and I lived with it.

I loged onto Yahoo! everyday for the best part of a decade because they had the chore of hosting my webmail. For a long time it fulfilled that purpose admirably. And then one day I noticed that not only was I waiting way too long for the new video ads to load, but once they did they were so huge that my e-mail messages were being displayed at about three words per line. And then the final straw came when Yahoo! overhauled their whole e-mail system and the whole thing became completely unusable.

So I’ve moved over to Google. Maybe they are evil as well, but at least the site loads cleanly, the facilities are 5 star and I can read my e-mail properley.

But Yahoo! weren’t finished with me. Oh no! Not by half. It seems that when Yahoo! figured out I had defected they implemented their revenge by deleting my website on Yahoo! geocities. No warning, no message allowing to even capture the files. I go to log on and the whole thing has just been purged from their system.

So I knew Yahoo! were evil, and now I know they are also vindictive. Fortunately I have back ups for all the website files, but I can say without a doubt that if I can possibly manage it I will never type into my address bar again.


The SF Genre?

You know how it is. Or at least you do if you spend some small part of your time on web forums as I do. You find repeating themes in the posts you are reading, and in your answers to them. Ideas begin sparking in the tiny mind you (and I) have access to and then sometime later that idea reaches some kind fruition. So what do you do? Well, if your anything like me you splurge it out in a couple of posts with tenuous connection to the actual thread of the ongoing conversation and hope for the best. Excatly as I have done here –

So is SF really a genre at all? The thought that it isn’t has been entertaining me recently. Sure…there are some genres in SF – space opera, dying earth, high fantasy, cyberpunk. These have recognisable character archetypes, tropes, plot structures etc, all the toys a writer can play with within a genre. But SF is much bigger than these genres alone. SF, I would argue is more of a mode of writing than a genre.

A mode tells you something about the writer / reader relationship that a story is developing. The SF mode is all about taking the reader into their own imagination (by way of yours) and giving them an experience beyond reality. I’m sure every writer and reader has their own way of phrasing that sentiment, but I feel that the sense of taking the reader beyond the realms of their own experience is what glues all the otherwise diverse types of SF together into a whole.