Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Fantasies of the fairer sex

Ekaterina Sedia and Catherynne Valente, along with Prime Books and PS Publishing, all get name-checked in this article on women in SF&F up on GuardianUnlimited. Go them.

One in every three novels is published

Here are two statements about writing novels that we will put to the test:

They are published
You get paid for them

Now I know it’s not that easy to get published. I have done a bit of slush reading in my time, and for a very short while for a mainstream fiction publisher. It’s true, there are lots of books that are great, and should be published. The thing is, and the thing most people don’t tell you, hoping to persuade you to keep going and not deflate your dreams, is that most of these are published. It’s the dross that—for the main part—isn’t.

Out of say twenty manuscripts I read in a fortnight from the ‘slush pile’ for this mainstream F&SF imprint (which included those submitted by agents), there was one I loved. Okay, enjoyed, relatively. One if I had my own publishing house I would have been happy to see the light of day. One. Out of twenty manuscripts. Vetted by agents. The rest were poor, mediocre, middling or okay. So I was doing this for a couple of weeks. Twenty manuscripts a fortnight. Say the editor, publisher and editorial assistant between them got through the same amount in the same time.

That’s eighty manuscripts a fortnight. 160 a month. 1,920 completed novels a year. Sounds a lot. And it is. But if there’re only two books a week that are great, that someone would be happy to publish, that’s not so many. Especially when you need consensus from, say, three of the four editorial staff reading them; a hit rate, even with like-minded readers, of maybe seventy five per cent. Six books a month. Seventy two books a year.

That’s still quite a few books from submissions if you consider existing authors with series to manage and contracts to honour. Then you have to convince the marketers that this can work. The book I read, that was great, in comparison to the others, was maybe not entirely appropriate for a mainstream F&SF audience. Not safe enough for the already high-risk business of fiction publishing. But it did get published; had already been published in the US and possibly other places too. It was this book by Cory Doctorow. A really fabulous book. But I can see why it was passed on. Even had the editorial staff liked it, it would be a tough sell to a marketing department.

Marketing Manager: What’s it about?

Editor: Well the main character is called Alan, although sometimes his name changes, but it always starts with an A. He’s got quite a few brothers. All initialled alphabetically: Brian, Colin, Edmund, Freddie. Their names change too.

Marketing Manager: Right.

Editor: I’m not explaining it too well. Listen, the Dad is a mountain and the mother a washing machine. And there’s this sub-plot about everyone getting free wireless Internet and then there’s this girl with wings that get cut off…

Marketing Manager: [Walks away shaking head]

Editor: That’s a no then is it?

So from seventy two great books that will probably get published (and probably see numerous publishers throughout the pitching process), not all, for whatever reason, will be appropriate for mainstream publishers. With even those that are, it might be the wrong financial quarter when a manuscript with a fifty-fifty chance comes in. Or five brilliant books come in at once and there’s only room on the list for three at a push. Let’s take a quarter of that estimate of great books. That leaves just under nineteen titles suitable for mainstream publication. Now if you had eighteen and a bit books to read, I’m sure you’d have your favourites? If you only had six slots to fill for new authors for the year, and you got the best of those eighteen and a bit books in there, job done, right?

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you have a truly great book, a proper book, you have a one in three chance of getting it published. So write three great books; get the first one published, and then when the creative well runs dry, you’re still sitting on two great books.

Just once that happens, don’t expect the money to start rolling on in. I’ll leave Aliya to fill you in on that bit.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Two strands living in just one book

Aliya and I recently sent the draft manuscript of our co-written novel off to a couple of very generous readers, one of whom (not a million miles from this blog) pointed out something of particular pertinence to the book I’ve been working on longer than any other, but which I’m still forever back-tracking, scrapping and starting over again.

The point in question was leaving readers without access to a POV character for too long a period of time, potentially leading to a reader’s frustration (needing to know what’s going on with that character) and possibly boredom with the thread that is keeping them from the absentee.

My work in progress has two separate threads. I recently came to the realisation that rather than both of these threads bearing equal weight, one of them is of greater importance, and should probably make up the bulk of the book. The simplest and least alienating way I can think of writing this is for the main thread to consistently run the bulk of a chapter, with the second thread appearing either at the start or end of it. (More heavy editing, Neil. Oh joy.)

But can an approach like this work in the type of book I’m writing? It’s not particularly genre-bound, and when such a tactic is usually employed in fiction, the smaller piece is plot-driven. The problem I’m trying to get my head around is my primary thread is more important and relevant to the reader, but second thread is of great importance to the first thread, and not just a plot-driver. I need readers to completely engage with it, but not be disappointed that it makes up such a small portion of the story. Instinct tells me I can pull this off, but I would feel a lot better if someone could point me in the direction of something fairly literary where a similar feat has been accomplished.

Am I even making sense? (Bring back the veggiebox and dancing penguins and dump the soul-searching I hear you cry.)

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Historical matters

A while back Aliya commented on her admiration for writers of historical fiction. My reading in the genre is not very broad or deep, although I have read a fair amount of popular history books, mainly layman’s books about general notable events, or specific to periods or themes I’m interested in, pre- and Roman-Britain and the Dark Ages and the controversy surrounding the Roman and Saxon ‘invasions’ (See the works of Francis Pryor et al in books like Britain BC and Britain AD, The Year Zero) and pre-history and the mystery of ancient civilisations (the fanciful work of authors like Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods and related titles such as The Ashes of Angels). But history books differ from fiction, in that they fail to give details of the everyday.

My only dabblings with the genre include a Victoriana horror I adapted slightly for a steampunk anthology that now looks unlikely to be published, and a tale written in response to Aliya’s challenge to write something out of character: a Victorian romance. I’ve visited enough National Trust properties, seen enough period dramas and knew enough about Darwin’s work to write the not particularly Victorian or particularly romantic In the Rose Garden.

What I would really love to be able to do however, is write a novel on my fairly new pet project, The Peasant’s Revolt. It appears Alis Hawkin’s Testament may be a good place to start in looking for current fiction dealing with roughly the right time period, but near-contemporary works, barring Chaucer, are a little hard to come by.

An obvious key scene for the novel, were I to choose to work with the most famous peasant of them all, John ‘Wat’ Tyler, would be the alleged catalyst for the revolt, where a poll tax collector, following Tyler’s wife’s assurance that her daughter was under the fourteen years at which age a person would be taxed, ‘offered to convince her she was old enough in a very rude manner’ according to John Harris’ History of Kent (1719).

So let’s try the start of that scene. First we need a name for the wife. Lisa? Was Lisa in use in fourteenth century England? Probably it’s a contraction of Elizabeth any way, so rather than stumbling at the first research block, let’s call her Lizzie.

Okay. Let’s go with that:

Lizzie was in the kitchen.

Hm. Kitchen. Would a fourteenth century serf’s home have a kitchen? I don’t know. People didn’t still live in roundhouses then, but was the house separated into rooms? Have to look that one up. Will tag that as needing some research.

Lizzie was in the kitchen [check] preparing the family’s meal of… of what?

Mutton? Sounds about right to my twenty-first century ear, but would poor serfs crippled by the poll tax have money for meat or feed for their own livestock? Perhaps they were more likely to be eating cabbage or porridge. No potatoes either of course. No chips. Possibly there could have been very small fish or eels from the river if they were living at Dartford, but that’s up for debate too. Several of the Home Counties claim Tyler as their own. And anyway, were peasant’s allowed to fish? (Not that they would have had time with their workloads. I’m presuming they had heavy workloads.)

Lizzie was at home preparing the family’s meal.

I can’t go wrong with that right? But would she have been preparing the family’s meal when the tax collector was working? Did they get to eat at such regular intervals? Would Tyler have eaten what he could have on the job? Would Lizzie more likely be at work? If her daughter was not quite fourteen, is it not likely that even at a younger age she would have been working somewhere? I don’t know. Does Alis? If Lizzie and her daughter were at home, would they be more likely flaked out after a hard day’s slog? Where would they be splayed out? Not on the sofa. On straw on the floor? On a bench at a table?

I guess what I’m trying to say is I agree with Aliya. Accurate historical novelists deserve our respect, admiration and envy. If any can enlighten me on how they would go about writing this scene, I’d be interested to know. Is several years of research required before embarking on such a project, or is a very sketchy draft produced and the innumerable cracks and gaping chasms of information filled during the re-write?

Monday, 18 February 2008

The ups and downs of not getting into bed together

Most collaborative writing involves two or more people sitting down and talking to one another. It also often involves things as a writer I’m not particularly enamoured with: detailed planning; plot outlines; character cards, perhaps even psychometric profiles; maps; story arcs; arguments. Most big budget films and television productions are either the result of the work of a team of writers, or a script that’s gone through the blender with different authors at various times. Often all that’s left is a Hollywood goo. But the process can also result in some great stuff.

The common theme either way tends to be that the creators are in a room/pub with one another for at least a portion of time, and all have an agreed understanding of how events are due to proceed. Perhaps that’s very wise. It certainly seems easier than the approach Aliya and I have taken so far. For a start, it doesn’t involve one party (me) rattling off to the other (Poot… er, Aliya) about a dozen disparate and often contradictory emails about how so and so met whoever and why this company is no longer employing such and such. And how the aliens aren’t aliens anymore, even though half the characters (mainly your ones, who are in the dark as much as you are, poor things) still believe they are, etc, etc. And then trusting the other person enough that they’ll come out the end of it with a perfectly executed piece of uncontrived writing that the first party never had a hope of Hell in producing alone. And also hoping that they haven’t had enough of the first pary’s demanding behaviour and lop-sided approach and just throw in the towel and be done with it. It’s pretty frustrating method a lot of the time, as unlike in the case of Nikki French, there’s never the opportunity to roll over in bed and suggest: ‘What do you think about making Mrs X the one with the wooden leg instead?’

But on the other hand, it’s fascinating to sketch the vaguest of drafts, and have someone produce an oil on canvas from it. And the no-discussion-unless-vital rule makes the process feel less forced; more organic. More like proper writing. Of course, I’ve not been on the receiving end yet.

Some pros

  • You’ll produce work that you could never have achieved alone
  • Writing stimulation: it’s like pass-the-parcel and rare to get a block when inundated with the possibilities the other writer presents
  • You get to read and write

Some cons

  • You’ll have someone else’s expectations to live up to
  • It’s harder to throw away a hundred pages of writing that’s not panned out well
  • You will never know when a bunch of dancing penguins will turn up in the strangest of places

Friday, 15 February 2008

Serendipity 6

Ben and I have somehow managed to keep to our target of publishing one issue of of magical realist and contemporary fantasy stories every month, as evidenced by the sixth, woman's only, issue of Serendipity

And, no nepotism here (as we're not related), but this issue features a reprint of Madame Whiteley's classic tale of an emerald green penguin. I would urge you to read the lead story too, Joanna Gardner's Where the Stream Comes From.

We have no trouble getting decent fiction for the magazine, but are a bit lacking on the non-fiction front, so if anyone fancies a bash. (We average over 1,000 readers each issue and over a 100 subscribers to our mailing list, so it's not just whispering into the void.) We're also looking for a guest editor for our June issue. If anyone fancies it, let me know.

In other news, our daffodils have begun to flower and everything's budding. I've a bad feeling I've messed up the trimming of our clematises (clemati?) again.

Word of the day: Forewarn. To warn. (Why not just use warn then? I have NO IDEA!)

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Needing no introduction

Welcome to the new home of Aliya and Neil's blog.

You may know us from such books as Three Things About Me, Nicolo's Gifts and Mean Mode Median, or from anthologies including
The Adventure of the Missing Detective: And 19 of the Year's Finest Crime and Mystery Stories!, The Elastic Book of Numbers, Poe's Progeny and Gratia Placenti.

Did you also know Neil ghost-edited Book of Voices, the not-for-profit anthology produced for Sierra Leone PEN and Aliya's short stories have appeared on Pulp.net, McSweeney's Internet Tendency and GuardianUnlimited?

We are also close to finishing our first co-written novel. If we can iron out the creases, dot the t's and cross the i's, we hope to find a publisher.

Aliya is represented by Jane Gregory. Neil was until recently represented by a picture of a chicken.

And for anyone not knowing this crucial fact, the launch party for Light Reading starts at 18:30, Thursday 28 February. It'll be at Goldboro Books and there will be FREE WINE. Here's a review by fellow Macmillan author Alis Hawkins.