How to choose submissions

Editors and busesSubmissions really can be like buses, especially if you work for an independent publisher. You can go months without anything arriving in your inbox then ten appear in a week. This usually happens around the publication of titles from your imprint; it’s the time when authors and agents remember you’re still in business and might stay around long enough to publish something of theirs.

Consequently you have to develop a filtering system that streamlines the process. Remember, you may only choose one of those ten submissions, or none at all.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that reasons for rejecting a submission may have little to do with the value of the manuscript as a work of art. The story and writer has to be right for you and your imprint. As a commissioning editor the first thought at the front of your mind should be “How can I pitch this to my publisher?”

There are a number of factors that enable you to decide which manuscript to take to the next level. The first line of defense for a busy editor is your established submission guidelines. In my case, I want a covering email, a one or two page synopsis and three chapters. I’ve not arrived at these requirements in an arbitrary manner; they enable me to assess the experience and aspirations of the writer, to sense how the story is structured and to get a feeling for the author’s writing style.

Can you work with an author if they cannot be bothered to follow your submission guidelines? I know there are people out there who’ll claim you should be able to work with a tyrant if the novel is a piece of genius. Well… no. The publication of a novel is a collaborative process, and first and foremost I need a collaborator. Prima donnas are not serious writers who want to publish their work. If a writer is not going to abide by your reasonable requirements, then how are they going to respond to the editorial process?

I have received emails from writers asking to send me a different package and I’ve always accepted. This is because the writer is immediately showing me courtesy and explaining why they’ve got a better solution. The writer is already engaging in an editorial conversation; he, or she, wants to work with me and it is only right that I show I want to work with them. (Agents can, of course, be very helpful in expediting this process, and in other factors mentioned in this piece.)

So once you’ve decided you can work with this person, the next consideration should be – is this submission commercial? I have to convince my publisher that they will make their money back on this venture. The commercial considerations of print books are tight because of the distribution and promotion costs of a physical product. As commissioning editor, you have to apply your knowledge of genre and commercial trends. I have rejected submissions because I cannot identify a clear readership or position for a manuscript (or concept) in the market. I’ve always explained this to an author; it may be something fixable, or it may encourage the writer to focus on a new project rather than flog a dead horse. (It may also encourage them to submit something else to you in future – the next project might be a winner!)

If the submission has passed the commercial test, the next factor has to be – do you like it?

I have eclectic tastes in my particular area of publishing, some editors have quite specific areas they ‘like’ and should always communicate this to potential submitters. You have to have enthusiasm for a project; if it doesn’t catch you then how can you possibly play your part in catching a readership?

As a commissioning editor of an independent publisher, I’m going to be intimately involved in every stage of the publication process. There are things that can be fixed: structure, characterisation, writing style (to a degree), but if the submission does not excite you then you’re better off rejecting it. It could be that this is your subconscious telling you this is something that really won’t work, or it could simply be that you (and by implication your imprint) are wrong for the job.

And finally comes the most unfair reason for rejecting a manuscript. You may already have a very similar project in the works. A publisher is like a gambler; they know several of their projects will ‘fail’ so they need to spread their bets. Two similar books from the same publisher at the same time are just not commercial. They will also invite unhelpful comparisons from potential reviewers. As a commissioning editor, you must avoid projects that clash; you must reject the submission.

If the submission has passed all your self-imposed filter systems, if you’ve then read the full manuscript and you’re still excited by the thought of this potential project, then it’s time to get to know the writer. We’re still at the very beginning of a journey that could last up to a year, but, by following a few simple rules, you’ve found the right bus.

STEVE HAYNES
PHOTO: GILDERIC

He Said She Said We Said: simple rules of dialogue attribution

Writing trick: cards

“I love you,” Laura sighed.

Okay, what’s wrong with that sentence? You. Yes, you at the back: you have ten seconds to answer. Come on now, don’t be shy. I’m waiting…

Yes, that’s right. It’s the bit outside the speech marks: the dialogue attribution. I mean, who the hell in the real world ‘sighs’ dialogue? I know I don’t, even if I am in love. Or perhaps Laura has a problem with her lungs?

I see this kind of thing all the time in genre fiction (and also in mainstream or literary fiction, but to a lesser extent). There’s no need for it. What’s wrong with the following?

“I love you,” Laura said.

Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Laura hasn’t sighed the words, or laughed the words, or even (God forbid) breathed the words… she’s said them. Just like I do. Just like you do. We say the words.

So when it comes to dialogue attribution, the worst thing we can do as writers is to insert these pointless melodramatic verbs. Often it’s better if you can leave out the dialogue attribution altogether. Certainly it’s possible to use it sparingly, merely to identify who’s speaking.

This brings us to redundant dialogue attribution.

Here’s an example:

“How are you?” Laura asked.

Do we really need to put “asked” at the end of that sentence? I think not. The question mark at the end of her dialogue tells us that it’s a question, so the attribution is superfluous. It’s just using words for the sake of it rather than using them as tools to convey meaning.

“How are you?” Laura said.

That scans much better. It’s neat and tidy, and it works.

We can go one further with this and use action and dialogue to express what a character means, what they are feeling. The old adage “show not tell” comes into play here.

Laura barged through the crowd, her fists clenched. “I hate you,” she said.

See what I mean? She said. She didn’t shout or yell or snarl or growl. She said. Her actions told us that she was angry. She barged through the crowd. She clenched her fists. That Laura: she’s one angry kid. Her emotions seem to turn on a penny. I’m glad she doesn’t love me. Or hate me.

  • Grumbled
  • Gasped
  • Cautioned
  • Lied

These are all examples of horrible, even silly, dialogue attributions that I’ve seen in books. There’s nothing that can’t be conveyed using other means. If someone’s grumbling, what kind of mood are they in? How can we get that across to the reader without sticking it on the end of a line of dialogue? This sounds like simple stuff – basic stuff – and it is, but it’s amazing how many writers (both established and beginners) forget about the simple rules, the ones we’re first taught at school.

My personal philosophy is that it’s part of my job as a writer to convey complex thoughts, emotions and situations in as simple language as possible. I don’t want to impress a reader with my vocabulary, and I certainly don’t want to jolt them out of the story to go and look for a dictionary. Also, I want my characters to be as believable as I can make them, to speak like real people rather than ciphers. This means that they say words, they don’t sigh them. They speak in a way that’s as close to real speech as I can create.

Writing is like literary sleight of hand. You try to distract the reader so they don’t notice how you do the trick. Simple rules like this one are all part of the craft; they make it easier for a writer to slip one past the reader. Writing isn’t reality, but good, careful writing can echo reality.

Writing is a lie, a cheat that’s used to expose or elucidate some finer truth. And as every good liar knows, you need to make the lie as close as possible to the truth if you want people to believe it.

GARY MCMAHON
PHOTO: KYKNOORD

An expert’s introduction to structural editing

Bloodshot eyes editorThere are two things an editor should always bear in mind when faced with a manuscript:

  1. All novels are too long
  2. The writer has already edited the manuscript until his or her eyes have bled.

I put these thoughts upfront because a lot of what I am about to say may suggest I am promoting the butchery of manuscripts, when I am in fact demonstrating how an editor should be proactive in improving the structure of a novel.

When I say all novels are too long, I’m not suggesting a particular word limit; I mean every novel that comes to me is overwritten.  It is the hardest thing to edit your own work effectively. Emotional investment trumps intellectual engagement every time.  There are writers who are very good at it; Lil Chase talks about reducing a first draft from 74,501 to 49,501, and I’ve known writers who edit very effectively as they write, but in my experience it takes an expert second pair of eyes to perfect the structure of a novel. In 100% of these cases, this will mean cutting.

So how do I cut a novel?

Well the first question to ask is do we need that Prologue? If yes, how much can I shave off it to get the reader into the main bulk of the story as quickly as possible? Indeed, in the world of expanding electronic publishing, the need to get a story started quickly is an absolute given – think Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature; this is the battleground where readers choose or reject books.

After this I systematically go through every chapter, and every scene, looking to see if it can start later in, and finish earlier.  This is a good exercise for any writer and can profoundly change the pace of a novel.

And then there are the things that will hurt the most. If a scene does not lend itself towards advancing the story of a novel, it should be cut. No matter how good it is, how beautiful a description, how delicate a character reveal, it is junk.

I often find myself reading published novels and my attention beginning to drift just after the middle and into the last third. This is basically because the editor has not been ruthless enough to sacrifice good scenes that slow the story down. Now I’m all for a novel with a consistent leisurely pace that fits the style and thematic drive of the story, but to have an inconsistent pace often results in an uneven reading experience. This is down to bad editing – the buck stops with me.

An editor is not a tyrant. If I change something and a writer comes back at me saying this subverts the original vision of their story, character, or theme – then I will back down. The writer is right. I have a duty to be ruthless and proactive, but I must be willing to defer to the writer on fundamental ideas that he or she brings to the story. It is never my novel. If a writer trusts that you understand where they are coming from, they are far more likely to accept radical change that will improve their novel.

With this in mind, nothing is off the table. Sometimes it is possible to remove one, or two characters. If they are minor, exist only to provide background colour, and do not serve the story, what are the advantages of deleting them? Well, by removing two characters I have been able to completely lose a chapter in the middle of a book, tighten the story and keep the reader’s attention on the main characters and the primary drive of the story. If you can show this to your writer, and they trust you, they will go with you.

Of course cutting is only part of the process. The editor brings an overview to the novel that is invaluable.

Is everything in the right order?

Scenes are moveable, and it can greatly improve the structure of a story if certain events happen earlier, or later.

What is missing?

This is where the trust shared with your writer really pays off, because you have to go back to them and say the story needs new scenes to smooth transitions and make the novel logical. Not only that, but there may need to be things added which reflect deep story-structure, for instance, we need the main character to refuse the ‘call of adventure’ for as long as possible, we need perhaps two scenes that see him/her in conflict about this matter. And remember – you never write scenes for a writer. You might make alternate suggestions that solve a problem – you might work very closely with a writer on a particular passage – but you NEVER indulge in re-writing the writer. Apart from the ethical reasons for this, the writer is the driver and you are the navigator, undermine these roles and you destroy the process that makes a good book.

All these factors bring us to the end of a novel. Here the big-picture view of the editor means I must make sure that every loose end is tied up, that all characters finish their journey, that the resolution is satisfying. At the same time, we have to get out quick. Do we need that epilogue? Is it so long because the story conclusion is inadequate? If it is essential, how much can we reduce it?  If you’ve taken your writer on a journey of trust, he or she will see the need to make changes and will always, in my experience, rise to the challenge.

I always look at the structural part of a novel first – it is my particular way of working. The production of a novel is an evolution, a complex process of collaboration that moves through many stages. When these matters have been resolved, a whole new stage is started, one that involves a far finer, more detailed, approach. In the end everyone’s eyes will bleed.

STEVE HAYNES
PHOTO: MATT REINBOLD

Steve Haynes, EditorSteve Haynes lives and works in Cornwall. He is the commissioning editor of Proxima Books, the science-fiction, fantasy, and horror imprint of Salt Publishing.

An introduction to screenwriting: suspension of belief

Why do so many horror (and fantasy & science fiction) films play fast and loose with common sense?

Stone Cold Steve AustinYou’re familar with the scene; you’ve seen it time and again, ever since you were a kid sneaking a late-night scary movie on TV after your parents had gone to bed. The ingredients: attractive scantily clad girl-woman; old house in the woods at the dead of night; raging thunderstorm; bolt of lightning that fries the fuses; trembling torchlight exploration; a coughing sound a bit like a chainsaw pull-start coming from the basement…

Okay, so what happens next? Does she: (a) grab some clothes and get the HELL out of there, or (b) tiptoe to the basement door, open it, call “Is anybody there?” and follow the dim torch-beam down the stairs, one small step at a time, to her almost certain bloody demise?

See, that’s the problem, right there in a nutshell. What she does is the opposite of what you’d do, what anyone in their right mind would do, especially if scantily clad. The writing flies in the face of all logic. Even Stone Cold Steve Austin would make Olympic time hightailing it out of there because it’s doubtful that who or whatever made that noise is someone nice with your best interests at heart. At this point the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered in anyone over the age of, say, 14 – the very people for whom you’d be forgiven for thinking horror films are actually made. And once that suspension is shattered, it’s nigh-on impossible to build it back up again.

Many ‘fantastic’ genre films (horror and its cousins fantasy and science fiction) fail to suspend viewers’ disbelief at crucial junctures because of a propensity to formulaic plotting and over-familiar tropes. They habitually display cavalier attitudes to situational credibility and motivational integrity. Horror screenwriting almost by definition issues a licence to play fast and loose with the rules of logic, but this has led to a basic disregard for those rules and, by extension, for viewers. Audiences appreciate careful crafting of a solid three-dimensional universe, populated with believable characters whose actions are driven by their personalities and traits, much more than crude plot necessity to deliver scantily clad Girl A into the bloodstained bludgeoning hands of the Butcher in the Basement.

Fantasy and SF hold an advantage over horror; because they are made for younger audiences they are more easily forgiven for operating on plot logic that poses no problems for the average 14 year-old.

Indeed, fantasy comes with its own inbuilt get-out-of-jail-free card: magic. Once you can invoke magic you can use it to get out of any plot situation, no matter how impossible. This is also known as cheating. It’s the equivalent of the clause in a contract that reserves the right to amend it in any way at any time – so whether the document is one page long or a hundred, that’s the only clause that matters. Why slog to invent an ingenious solution when you can simply invoke the magic clause? And yes, sacred cow The Lord of the Rings, I am looking at you.

From its early days SF too has humped its own anti-logic cross. Frederik Pohl wrote “When print science fiction is translated into film science fiction the subtle parts are left out.” The media coined a pejorative term for these commercial mutations, which unfortunately has become the default for all science fiction: ‘sci-fi’. Harlan Ellison, SF’s most strident voice, summarised the distinction: “The public image of what is, and what ain’t, science fiction film – an image as twisted as one of Tod Browning’s Freaks – is the result of decades of paralogia, arrogant stupidity, conscious flummery, and amateurism that have comprised the universal curriculum of milieu that passes for filmic education for a gullible audience. If it goes bangity-bang in space; if it throbs and screams and breaks out of its shell with slimy malevolence; if it seeks to enslave your body, your mind, your gonads or your planet; if it looks cuddly and beeps a lot, it’s ‘sci-fi’. We pronounce that: skiffy. And if you love fantasy, you’ll love skiffy. And skiffy is to science fiction as Attila was to good table manners.” Skiffy is what happens when you remove the science and allow the fantastic free rein.

Most 14 year-olds will forgive bad science, muddled reasoning, absurd plot developments, ridiculous decisions and 5% solutions as long as things explode loudly, ugly creatures slice each other up in dank caves and scantily clad girls-women look great and scream loudly as they meet their unmaker. Horror audiences should, in theory, reject such clumsy, unsubtle machinations, yet they keep coming back for more despite films digging wider and deeper logic graves from which their characters have no chance of escape. In horror narratives the dangers to protagonists from butchers, monsters and psychos can be chickenfeed compared to those posed by clunky, cringe-worthy plotting.

So if this unholy state of affairs has always existed, what factors are making it worse today? I’ll set the monsters’ ball rolling with a few thoughts, I’m sure you can add more of your own.

Hollywood-led dilution of adult material in favour of a wider appeal to younger audiences

In chasing the extra box-office bucks of the tween generation, studios have alienated those older folks discerning enough to remember and value multi-layered plots, complex characters and narratives that go beyond the superficial to supply subtext, symbolism and thematic depth.

Filmmaking-by-numbers instant production processes

The screenplay is the single most important element of a film but in reality it is often the least developed one, sacrificed at the altar of haemorrhaging production dollars. The producers’ meter is ticking from the moment they commission or purchase the script, so they want to make the film yesterday whether the script is ready or not. And because they rarely cough up development dough, it’s likely to be half-baked at best.

The writer’s need to eat meets the industry’s need to turn a profit

Screenwriters almost never walk into gigs by creating an amazing original work that a producer just has to make with its aesthetic integrity intact. Rather, they’re awarded to whomever might sell the most sausages for producers and investors on the other side of the mincing machine. Commercial considerations often mean that horror scripts are placed in the hands of writers with little understanding of the genre. How can they know what works and what doesn’t if they have no feeling for how the codes and conventions of the genre have evolved, nor how those codes can be extended, or better still, subverted? They’d be well advised to concentrate on building a fantastic universe with its own tight-knit set of rules, as considered as a classy crime thriller. When time is money though, where is their incentive to do better work and take longer over it if the damn flick is going to be turned around double-quick regardless?

What the hell is going on?

Closely linked with the previous point is the ever-growing need for writers to explain exactly what is happening in excruciating detail, or avoid explaining anything because doing so would only give rise to awkward questions. Some auteurs like David Lynch have explored the abstract while steadfastly refusing to explain it, but they tend to have a deep inner understanding of their metaphysical territory. How can Lynch give a meaningful account of why a suited dwarf is speaking in reverse in a room with monochrome zigzag patterned flooring and red velvet curtains? We get it on an instinctual level, but struggle to put it into words. Some writers employ sixth-form surrealism and refrain from attempting narrative cohesion, so the result is beyond comprehension and we’re left not knowing or caring what happens or why. On the flipside, and equally as bad, others over-elaborate by hammering us into the ground with the bleedin’ obvious; a non-aficionado’s desire to explain the inexplicable, thus rendering it ludicrous or just plain cardboard.

Technological advances and social changes

The late, great Dan O’Bannon – creator of Alien; writer, star and de facto co-director of Dark Star; director of Return of the Living Dead – said that when technology is capable of putting anything on the screen, the first casualty is every other aspect of the film. The most serious one is the script. The scariest things are not guts splattered across the screen, but the unseen eviscerations that happen just off it. The spectator’s subconscious mind delivers horror punch-lines far more effectively than 3D CGI can. Directors like Hitchcock knew this very well; indeed, they had to supply most of their shocks through suggestion as the censorship policies of their era did not accommodate on-screen atrocities. And a very good thing that was, too. Modern writers and directors would do well to study and recreate the genuine atmospheric dread of yesteryear instead of decorating apartments with slimy entrails and thinking their job is done.

Tired tropes and contemptuous caricatures

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; familiarity breeds contempt. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, toxic monsters – anything that transforms or somehow cheats death – mostly obey predictable and unsatisfying formulae, and their very presence is becoming a turn-off. On the rare occasions a wunderkind comes along and breathes new death into them, there’s a surge of hope that this may herald a quality watershed – but then the next batch arrives and normal service is resumed. Trying to update the rules is hard but rewarding when you do it right, and far better than slavishly aping them. Just make sure that you don’t try something real stoopid like making vampires able to walk in daylight, and glow in the sun. Oh, er, hang on… (I can forgive Blade for the former, but not Tw*l*ght.)

That’ll do for now. There are plenty more reasons of course, so throw in a few of your own. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a short list of films that in my honest opinion create a good solid force-field of suspension of disbelief around themselves; plus somewhere the force-field is more like a moth-eaten nightdress (not unlike the one our attractive girl-woman is nearly wearing) with holes that leak belief by the moment; and finally a few that are so stylised, mad-in-a-good-way, or both, that suspension of disbelief never becomes an issue – you’re just happy to be along for the ride.

Force-field intact: Pan’s Labyrinth / The Exorcist / Texas Chainsaw Massacre (you know which one) / Dawn of the Dead (ditto) / Alien / The Shining / Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer / The Vanishing / Halloween / An American Werewolf in London / Psycho

Holy moth-eaten nightdress Batman: The Human Centipede / Tw*l*ght / What Lies Beneath / Prince of Darkness / Planet of the Apes re-imagining (a personal nadir; if only imagination had played any part) / Halloween II / Exorcist II: the Heretic / An American Werewolf in Paris

Divine madness: The Evil Dead / Phantasm / Suspiria / Videodrome / Troll Hunter / Eraserhead / Possession / Audition / Carnival Of Souls

JOHN COSTELLO

John CostelloJohn Costello is a freelance author, screenwriter, script analyst, lecturer and electronic musician. His sole author credits include Writing A Screenplay (2002, last ed. 2006), David Cronenberg (2000) and Science Fiction Films (2004), all published by Pocket Essentials.

 

Interview: Pat Cadigan on Writing

Pat CadiganPat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two non-fiction books, a young-adult novel, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners Synners and Fools. She lives in North London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler. Most of her work is available electronically as part of SF Gateway, the ambitious electronic publishing program from Orion/Gollancz.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

I’m one of those lucky people who always knew what she wanted to do–I don’t remember not writing. It runs in the family. When my mother – known to anyone acquainted with me on Facebook as Old Unkillable – graduated from high school, her teachers tried to talk her into going to university to become a journalist. This was during the Great Depression, however, and her family had lost everything; her oldest brother offered to put her through school but she didn’t feel she could. Anyway, she started reading aloud to me before I was a year old and I learned to read by osmosis. I got my first library card before I was three.

Reading made the world – the universe – bigger for me. I read everything I could get my hands on and if I didn’t understand it, I kept reading anyway because sooner or later it would become clear to me in some way. As soon as I understood that books didn’t simply appear by magic, that they were written by human beings, I knew that I was going to be one of those human beings.

What attracted you to the genres you write in?

Once again, that was something that just happened. Every story I started to write, even as a little kid (Old Unkillable gave me her ancient Underwood typewriter), had a fantastic element. I had no interest in writing slice-of-day-to-day-life.

When I finally got my adult library card, I discovered Judith Merrill’s best SF of the year anthologies. In those days, the genre wasn’t as stratified as it is now – SF meant SF, fantasy, what we now call Magic Realism, and even horror. Good old nuts-and-bolts SF by people like Ward Moore was side-by-side with odd little pieces by Bernard Malamud and even John Cheever and Tuli Kupferberg. I thought this was wonderful. So when I started a story, I never thought, I’m going to write a science fiction story or a fantasy story–I let the story tell me what it was.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

The thing about the literary world is, there are plenty of admirable people in it. I admire every editor I’ve ever worked with – Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, Nick Mamatas, Ian Whates to name the ones I’ve most recently done original work for (I’d name everyone but I know I’d have a senior moment and leave someone out and the guilt would eat my liver till the day I die). I admire George RR Martin for hanging in all those years and never giving up, and I admire his wife Parris for hanging in there with him–there were a lot of lean years when she worked to keep them afloat. In fact, I admire all the spouses/partners, especially mine. Without my husband Chris, I’m not sure I’d be able to get anything done.

I admire William Gibson. Every time I read a new book by Bill, I fall in love with his work all over again. And he’s a truly lovely person.

I admire J.K. Rowling for persevering with Harry Potter. Her success blossomed directly from her readers–she wasn’t an insider, her first manuscript was rejected at least a dozen times and it was plucked out of the slush-pile. It tickles me to death that the richest woman in the UK is not just a writer, she’s a fantasy writer–a YA fantasy writer. Yeah, I know she’s just written her first book for adult readers–I have no idea whether it’s fantasy or not but I’ve pre-ordered it. I want to read it.

And finally, I admire Stephen King more than I can say. I love his work and he’s given a great deal to his community in Maine. I’ve met him several times and interviewed him twice, once just before The Stand came out and again after he’d gotten so big he could barely go anywhere without being mobbed. He’s the same guy.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Perseverance. Over the years, when I was in school, and when I was first starting out, I met a number of people who were more talented, who wrote far better as beginners than I did. But I can’t tell you their names because I don’t remember them – they gave up or they just weren’t interested enough to continue. Talent can be developed, it can be improved, but only by hard work.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

See above. Don’t give up, don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do, and listen to your editors.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

I don’t know…I never thought about it. Seriously.

Recommend a good example of writing.

I’m currently re-reading John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. It’s fascinating to compare the future as seen from 1968 with the present that came to pass.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is wonderful – go read it!

I’m glad Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award – it’s great.

Tricia Sullivan’s Maul and Lightborn will bitch-smack you – I mean that in the best possible way.

Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books are a great example of how to write a series without letting any tedium creep in.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King is the definitive modern-day vampire story. With vampires that are frightening monsters, not just misunderstood and too beautiful for the common people.

If you can find any of Judith Merrill’s best of the year anthologies in used bookstores – mail order or online is probably your best source – grab them and read some of the finest short fiction ever. I mean, EVER.

And while I’m at it, short fiction readers and writers should be reading Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine taught me a lot about the structure of good short fiction.

And if that still isn’t enough, go read my stuff. It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it. *chuckle*

MICHAEL WILSON

The shocking truth about writing competitions

Sun rise planetSomething happened to me the other day that made me throw down the magazine I was reading and shout out something along the lines of “That’s fucking bullshit! Fuck this magazine! Piece of shit! They’re all whores! They’re all lying bastards!”

Before we get into the finer details of what sparked off the initial rant, I should probably clarify something. Now admittedly, I’m not the most sophisticated writer in the world. I like to use words like fuck and all of its derivatives in my prose, and I predominantly write horror fiction – a genre that is probably the literary equivalent of the top magazine shelf at a sweet shop. It’s a dirty genre, nothing quite so celebrated as science fiction or even the wonderfully monotonous mind-numbingly mundane sub-genre of horror – paranormal romance. No offence to anyone who writes that stuff, but it’s shit really, isn’t it? I’m not sure if it’s the soft-porn book covers or the thematically droll insistence on friendly vampires and cute werewolves, or werewolf detectives and vampire private investigators, or whatever the fuck they choose to regurgitate, I just don’t like it (For the record, the majority of bored housewives that write paranormal romance or, ooh, dark fantasy, will probably sell more than anything I’ve ever written or will ever write, so they get the last laugh).

Now going back to my original point – I’m not a sophisticated writer, never gonna be in the Waterstone’s top ten or in the Richard and Judy Book Club, but, I CAN write. The only reason I am able to say something so vulgar and arrogant is because for the last five years, I’ve done nothing but make myself a better writer by…writing. I don’t mean I keep a blog and post a paragraph every four months about what I did on my bank holiday, I mean that I’ve written entire manuscripts in excess of 300 pages that I will never even try and publish, because I always understood that I was doing it for practise. There’s a fine line between having confidence in one’s own hard-earned skills and being deluded. A famous pool player called Earl Strickland, who has won just about every pool tournament in the world and is widely considered the best 9-ball player of all time once said something along the lines of “I’m getting old now and look how I’m playing, I’m still getting better. By the time I’m eighty, I’ll be shooting holes in all these guys.” And that’s how I feel, but only because I’ve earned the right to feel like that.

What was I talking about again? Oh yeah. I’ve won writing competitions in the past (one of which got my second book Someone’s in the House published), and I’m not short on imagination. While I sit comfortably in the horror genre, I do also enjoy writing science fiction from time to time, thrillers, and have even had a crack at writing YA fiction, although I sucked at it.

So when I saw a competition in a writing magazine for a short science fiction story, 1,500 words with the prize money being something like £300 – which isn’t great but it’d cover my electric and telephone bill for a month and probably some food – I thought, fuck it, I’m going to win that competition. The more I write, and the more good reviews my books get, the more competitive I become. Anyway, the story could be about anything as long as it was science fiction. There was a weird footnote in the magazine that read “Perhaps you might like to set it on another planet, or encounter an alien race” and my initial thought was, if you have to give a writer a suggestion for a story which is meant to be for a competition, and the writer actually chooses to use the cliché conventions mentioned, then they really shouldn’t enter.

No way was I going to write some bullshit about aliens and outer space. Fuck that, I’d be more subtle; I’d woo the judge with my literary flair. Or at least, that’s what I thought.

My entry was called ‘Electric Lady Love’ which was an obvious play on the Hendrix album but an apt title because it was about cyborg prostitution in a near-future. The main character wanders around this futuristically fucked ghetto being accosted by all these malfunctioned robot prostitutes in the rain, but what he’s really looking for is a black market dealer who will sell him the memory card of the particular prostitute whom he used to frequent (as she’d since hit the scrapheap. Maybe she’d caught a virus – get it?). I thought it had all the hallmarks of a really rich, visual and edgy story, and I also thought the idea was pretty sad – that this guy was so lonely he was trying to buy the memories of a robot he used to bang so that he could watch their times together on his console at home. Prejudiced as I was, I thought it was a winner. It was cyberpunk, my second favourite genre, and it was fairly original, although I was heavily influenced by William Gibson but the guy is like a science fiction God, so whatever.

Long story short, I never won. I didn’t so much as get a runner-up mention. That’s fine, that’s great, that’s lovely. But if I don’t win something, I want to read the person that beat me, and if his or her story isn’t better than mine, I’d instinctively know. Sometimes ego gets in the way and all writers think that what they’ve written is the best thing since the arrival of Jesus, but I’m at an age and level whereby I can be honest with myself, and differentiate good writing from ugly, narcissistic prose.

The winning entry came out about six months later. I forget what it was called or the man’s name who wrote it, but I’ll give you the story in a nutshell. A man is on another planet, maybe Mars, and he has this futuristic weapon that shoots lasers or something, and he’s trying to kill these aliens, because in the future humans and aliens are like water and vinegar.

Perhaps you might like to set it on another planet, or encounter an alien race…

Wow.

Then I read the judge’s comments. For the record, I don’t know who this judge is, but I hope he or she bangs their knee on something really hard.

And then dies.

The judge said something like “The author uses popular conventions to detail an enriched, futuristic landscape, drawing on genre-defining themes such as alien colonisation, to convey a wonderfully crafted story.”

I’ll end by saying this: If you do plan to enter a competition for a popular magazine, or one that you assume will be judged by ‘a literary type’, then go for the safe bet. Write what you think they will like, not what you think will make a good story.

Also, fair play to the winning author, I’ll grit my teeth and take my hat off to you. But that competition doesn’t mean shit; you’re still not better than me.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

Writers and filmmakers: movie option rights

filmmakers

Lets’s say you’re a published author who has just had a stroke of luck; someone wants to buy the rights and turn your humble little book into a film. Now if you’re playing with one of the big boys, Bloomsbury, Random House, or Penguin, you don’t have to worry about a thing. There are highly trained professionals dealing with that side of things, preventing you from getting shafted and ensuring that you make a tonne of money.

But let’s say you were like me. 23 years old (at the time), with about 300 sales through a small publishing house. How do you then deal with film people, who show a sudden interest in your book?

I still don’t know. But here’s what happened to me:

About six months after the release of my debut novel, Playground, my publisher was able to bring it to the attention of a small TV production company. My publisher’s idea was to get me interviewed on one of the TV shows so I could promote my book. But what happened was the producer’s wife gave a copy to the director of the company, who read it and liked it. He then gave the book to a film director, who also happened to think it was pretty good. For the purpose of this article, the director of the company will be called Steve, and the film director will be called Mike.

Then I get a phone call from my publisher that went something like this:

Me: Hey, how are you?

Publisher: Yeah, I’m fine. Listen, Steve really likes your book.

Me: That’s good.

Publisher: In fact, he wants to turn it into a film.

Me: Jesus Christ! That’s great. Make it happen.

I had my doubts then about how seriously I should take Steve’s proposal; after all it was only worth the paper it was written on, and as there was no contract as of yet, I didn’t get too excited. I only had one major issue – I knew nothing about what I should expect, money-wise, and neither did my publisher as Playground was, from what I understand, the first book published by her company that had been considered for adaptation. I later learned it was to be the TV company’s first feature film.

At the time I was interning at a traditional publishing house (who I later edited for), and I told the director about the situation. He said, “photocopy one of our film contracts and take that to the meeting with you,” and so I did.

First of all though, I met the film director who would have the job of turning my book into a film. We met in a cinema bar in the west end and talked for two hours about how the film should be made. He was completely enthusiastic and loved the book and knew it probably better than I did, which made me feel great as you can imagine.

In the meantime, my publisher was getting her lawyer to model a contract for us based upon the contract the director at the publishing house I was interning at allowed me to photocopy.

Eventually, we went for the meeting in the bar above the big Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus: Me, my publisher, Mike, Steve, and a woman who was apparently a script supervisor and a casting agent. It was all very nice.

Steve, the TV producer and director of the company said, “We want to turn Playground into a horror film. Do you have any objections against us choosing someone else to write the script?”

I didn’t actually want to write the script because all I wanted to do was work on my novels. So I told him, “Get the better man to do it. My job is done.”

We all had beers and wine, shook hands, and went our separate ways. We were to get a contract over to them in a few days regarding us selling the film rights, and then they would get the funding.

Initially, the production company tried to give me a contract that we felt was slightly unfair. I got a staggering £1.00 for the option rights (you read it correctly, ONE POUND) so they could work on it for a year. After that, I got a percentage of box office and DVD sales. There were other technical bits and pieces but I can’t really remember them all as I write this. It was mostly percentages of things.

When we saw the £1.00 option fee, we felt it wasn’t quite right and then sent a reviewed contract to them. The new contract that we worked on basically gave us everything we believed we were entitled to based upon an existing book adaptation contract. They said their reason for the £1.00 option fee was “just to make it legally binding,” but I felt that it was just a cheaper way for them to have my work.

We wanted a proper option fee of £1000.00 for the duration of one year, 5% of all box office receipts and DVD sales, and the legal right to have my name featured on anything tied in with Playground. Also, they would be buying the rights to make a film only and no sequels without my consent.

Upon seeing the new contract we presented with them, they felt that our new terms swayed the contract too much in our favour and weren’t willing to sign. So we reached a stalemate. Nothing moves for almost a year.

During that year, though, I happen to get lucky again, because a film agent reads my book and wants me to sign a six-month contract for her to work on selling the rights on my behalf, for a ridiculously cheap cut of 12.5% of the total option fee. I jump at the chance and want to sign it, but then something interesting happens.

The original production company got in touch with my publisher and said something like: “Hey! Long time no speak. We still didn’t sign any contracts so I’m hoping we can do that and begin filming soon.”

No problem, I say. Sign the contract we proposed and you have a deal.

Their response was something along the lines of: “No this isn’t a fair contract. Everything is in your favour. We were thinking more along the lines of simply making a film and giving Sam a percentage of DVD sales.”

By this time I was angry and frustrated with the whole process. Of course I was thrilled at the idea of having my book turned into a film, which is surely every author’s dream, but the contractual details were so draining.

To cut a long story short, the film didn’t get made and the rights were never sold. I signed the contract with the film agent, but despite her efforts, nobody was biting. Perhaps we left it too late, or perhaps we were the only ones that thought it might make a decent film. In any case, I’m no better off now than when I started the whole affair. Except I now know how to handle this kind of thing in the future, should the opportunity present itself again.

Moral of the story, take everything with a pinch of salt and don’t start writing things on Facebook like “oh my god I’m so happy my book is being turned into a film!” until the ink is dry otherwise you end up looking like a complete loser.

Like me.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

 

How to find the right literary agent

Looking for an agent? There are five basic rules to finding the right agent for your work. There are no cast-iron guarantees that following them will land you an agent, but what they can guarantee is that paying attention to them means you’re giving your work the best possible chance to be noticed.

Keyboard typing1. Do your research

It used to be you could just pick up a copy of The Writer’s Handbook and research potential agents that way. Times change and one of your best research tools is now the internet. Agents have websites, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, Facebook profiles: all of these are avenues for you to explore, to get a glimpse at who this agent represents, to discover what interests them, and to learn how best to approach them.

Take your time with this stage. There’s no point querying an agent whose clients are all crime writers when you write historical romances. There’s no point querying the first agent who takes your fancy without first finding out their guidelines for submission. Do your research. Do it well.

2. The query letter

Once you’ve found an agent or two that you think would be the right match for your work the next stage is to get in touch. Do NOT go wild and rush into contacting them. You need to ensure that you know exactly what they wish to receive in an initial query letter or email. Check their guidelines first and stick to them. Keep your cover letter brief and professional. Say a little about yourself without going into your life story. Never send your synopsis and sample chapters within the body of the email: these should always be separate attachments. If you have an online presence provide links to where the agent can look you up; if an agent’s in the least bit interested in taking you on as a client you can guarantee they’ll be Googling you at some point. Save them some time and show them the way.

3. The synopsis

As with your query letter check the agent’s guidelines on synopses. Generally agents don’t want to see more than 2-3 pages for a synopsis, though this can vary. Make sure all the relevant plotlines and characters are included and ALWAYS reveal the ending. Give it a final proofing before sending it off, then proof it again. If you’re making basic mistakes with your own plot and characters in the synopsis, if you’re not paying attention to basic grammar and punctuation, you’re on a fast-track to rejection.

manuscript4. Sample chapters

Check those guidelines again. What does your potential want to receive with regard to sample chapters? Some ask for the first three chapters, some ask for the first fifty pages. Send the agent what he or she has asked for. Never send random chapters or more than has been asked for in the guidelines. As with your synopsis, make sure you are sending in the best possible copy. Check and double check for errors in formatting, spelling, grammar and punctuation. It could just be you’ve written the next big thing to hit the publishing world, but don’t bank on that possibility making up for shoddy craftsmanship. Make every word and page count.

5. Patience is a virtue

So, that’s it then. You’ve done your research, found your potential agent, and sent off the best possible query according to his or her guidelines. What comes next? You wait. You may receive an acknowledgement of receipt, but don’t expect one. You may receive a reply within a week, but don’t expect one. Every agent is different, with varying workloads and schedules, and you must respect professional boundaries. If an agent states on their website that responses can be expected within a certain time frame, always leave it until after that date before getting in touch with a polite query about your submission. Pestering and stalking (yes, it does happen) will get you nowhere other than on a blacklist. Stay positive and continue to write while you wait for a response.

Good luck!

SHARON RING

Sharon RingSharon Ring is a literary agent and freelance editor. She currently represents Simon Bestwick and Gary McMahon. She can be found on Twitter as @AgentRing

Sharon Ring Website