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

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part II

Paul Finch, WriterHow does your approach vary when writing for the screen and page?

Well, they both start out the same way, but the nature of the two beasts is essentially different. First of all, in both cases, you have to convince someone – either a producer or a publisher that you’ve got a great premise. In both cases you’ve then got to go off and write an impressive treatment. But from the moment they okay it, the two courses diverge.

If you’re writing a screenplay, you’re in company almost all the way through. Okay, you’ll write your first draft on your own, but after that your script editor, your producer, maybe even your director, will have an awful lot to say about its development, and I won’t pretend that this doesn’t give you problems. Trying to serve more than one master in any walk of like is extraordinarily difficult – and it happens a lot in film and TV, because artistic types differ on what they think will work, and often it’s something that is purely subjective, which can be mind-bogglingly frustrating. You’ll do rewrite after rewrite until everyone is finally satisfied. But when the finance people are brought in, you’ll have to do a whole lot more – because they think that because they are paying for the film, they have a say in its artistic development too. At some stage you may find that another writer gets attached; you may even be replaced. It sounds horrible I know, but that is a hazard of film and TV scripting. Just make sure beforehand that it’s in the contract you’ll still be paid the full fee and still be credited as lead writer.

Of course, that would be unthinkable in terms of a novel. I always say this to people who ask me which is the easiest route – well, neither of them are easy, but can you imagine writing a novel and half way through your editor gives you a call and says: “Thanks for your efforts. Someone else will take it from here.” It just wouldn’t happen. In novel writing, the chain of command is much shorter, and there are far fewer people to try and please. In my novel experience, I’ve dealt with the commissioning editor and the senior editor, and that is about it. Okay, they will always request changes, alterations and sometimes extensive rewrites, but you don’t tend to find yourself in daily telephone conversations about this and receiving reams of notes from various different people, some of which contradict each other. And for that reason, I feel writing a novel is a gentler, more relaxed process.

So when you ask how does my approach vary, I’d have to say that it’s primarily a mental thing. If you’re writing a script you might as well accept from the beginning that it’s going to be much more of a team effort. You can’t afford to be precious or proprietorial about film or TV. Understand from the outset that it isn’t really your project and you won’t end up being disappointed.

Do you think you have gained any skills that overlap from screenwriting to prose?

Yes. Screenwriting has improved my other writing no end. It’s taught me to be punchy and succinct, to try and say much more with much less. Many writers of course do that naturally. But I didn’t when I first started out. I had a tendency to overwrite – it was my main weakness. However, when you’re writing a script the only thing you’re putting on paper is the dialogue and the bare minimum stage directions and scene setters the director needs in order to create his vision. In other words, you’re telling a complete story with as little as possible. You are developing characters and unfolding a subtext as stringently as you can.

It’s an intense discipline, not something you can carry over into a novel completely – the average reader would feel very short-changed if that was something you served him, but it’s a great attitude to have when you’re writing a book because it enables you to do the most important job first – lay down the bare bones of a great story – and then add any necessary extra material, the descriptive prose, the steams of consciousness and so on, to create a fuller picture.

I’ve been told that my prose has a very filmic style in that I tend to write in scenes, each one ending with a cliff-hanger. If so, that’s entirely down to my film-writing experience. It’s not to everyone’s taste – I’m well aware of that, but quite a few people seem to like it, and from a personal POV, I find that it helps me produce a tight, linear and very visual narrative.

As well as writing for The Bill on television, you have penned a number of screenplays. What are the major differences between writing for television and film?

There are less these days than there used to be. In the early days of TV, what you basically got were stage-plays on television. Minuscule budgets, restricted studio space and limited camera facility meant that you didn’t very often go beyond the three walls of the main set, and so you had to tell the story primarily through dialogue, and this meant there was lots of it. Anyone watching re-runs of any classic screenplays of the 1980s and earlier, maybe even stuff from as recently as the 1990s, will probably be surprised at how static and talkie they seem. These days TV is very different and much more tightly edited, much more filmic – as exemplified by the modern incarnation of Dr Who, for example, which has lots of short scenes, very little explanatory dialogue and vastly more FX than it used to. This was the way TV had to go in an era when high-energy computer games provide rival entertainment, and all kinds of blockbuster movies are available on download. That said, much present day television is still strongly based around personal drama rather than pretty imagery, so though it tends to look a lot better than it did, it’s not quite as concise a medium as film.

Cinematic movies are still what they have been since their inception in the silent era: mainly a visual experience. It really is all about telling a story through pictures, which is why the directors are so lauded. As the writer, you still have to lay out the narrative and create the drama, but less is more when it comes to dialogue, and exposition has almost no place at all. I’ll give you an example – take a movie like The French Connection (1971): there is very little dialogue in the entire film – many scenes feature none at all, and many feature no more than one or two lines – and yet it’s so well-made, so visually driven a plot, that you barely notice. It doesn’t matter that we have almost no details about the troubled history of Popeye Doyle, or who the other cop is he accidentally killed, or the drugs baron Alain Charnier, or how he got to be France’s number one heroin exporter – we just accept all this because we’re so engrossed in the fast-moving, skin tight narrative.

Writing that way is a discipline that you must acquire if you want to pen movies. And that’s another thing – not only do you have to tell a story with the minimum chat, you have to make the chat count, so quality dialogue tends to be the rule in movies even if it isn’t the kind of dialogue you hear in real life (just because Quentin Tarantino gets away with scripting the kind of meandering, repetitive conversations people have on the street, doesn’t mean every other screen-writer can). The same applies to scene setting and stage-directions. You need to keep those to a minimum. When writing a movie script, rather than fill it with detailed prose, you only need put in what the producer and the director need to know, a) because they will have their own ideas about how it should look anyway, and b) because it will look as good as they ultimately can afford it to look. So for example, ‘a luxuriant tract of jungle, thick with vine and leaf, with a muddy road winding through it, the sort only pack-animals could use’ becomes ‘a thick jungle with a muddy road’, and ‘the two cars roar along the darkened street neck-and-neck like modern-day chariots, striking sparks off each other, the red one veering in front of the blue one, the blue one veering in front of the red’ becomes ‘the cars race dangerously along the darkened street’.

You also have a duty when writing a movie to keep ramping up the tension. People go to the cinema for the same reason they go to fairgrounds – to experience a couple of hours of entertainment. A couple of hours – that’s all they’ve got – so it’s got to be intense. When writing a movie, there’s no room for padding, and I’m not just talking about action and thriller movies here. Even a serious drama must keep the audience on the edge of their seats, so as the writer it’s your job to make sure that every scene ends on some kind of ‘OMG’.

I was quite fortunate when I made my transition from TV to movie-writing as episodes of The Bill were usually about 30% exterior shoots, often entailing action – fighting, chasing and so forth – fast, fluid sequences which required crisp scripting, minimal dialogue and much variation of camera angles – so I had a fairly good grounding in those essential techniques.

 DAN HOWARTH

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Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Writing about place and setting in genre fiction

Newcastle settingAs always, this article isn’t meant to be a “How to” piece. It’s simply a personal reflection on an element of writing that I think it’s important to focus on. Take it or leave it; read it or ignore it. There’s no right way and no wrong way in writing; there’s only the way that suits you as an individual.

Sometimes a story can be made or broken by how the writer chooses to describe the place or location where the action is taking place. This sense of place often seems particularly important in genre fiction, because of the need to generate a certain atmosphere. To take an obvious example, Stephen King’s novel It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if he hadn’t conjured the fictional geography of Derry, Maine so skilfully and vividly.

As a writer, I’m always trying to convey a sense of place in my work, especially in my novels. Even if the location is a fictional place, it needs to feel genuine. In terms of the horror genre, one of the most effective methods of disturbing a reader is by creating atmosphere. Place and atmosphere are linked; you can use the setting of a story to convey emotions like dread, terror, or isolation. It’s also possible to show the reader how the characters are feeling by their responses to their surroundings.

Ramsey Campbell uses his native Liverpool to superb effect in his work. Stephen King does it with Main. Ian Rankin utilises the distinct geography of Edinburgh to give many of his Rebus novels an almost supernatural edge. In her collection “Close Range”, Annie Proulx evokes the desolate landscape of rural Wyoming with such an unerring eye that the place becomes a character in the stories, haunting the human characters like a ghost.

Recently I read a short ghost novel called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. In this book the Arctic setting is so beautifully and vividly described that I became immersed in the world of the story. I was right there, with the members of the Polar expedition, and once the supernatural elements kicked in I was genuinely unsettled. I’d invested completely in what was going on, because I believed it. And I believed it because it all seemed so real – the sea, the ice, the cold, the vast Arctic wastes. It was real to me.

But sense of place isn’t necessarily all about the panorama of geography. Sometimes it’s essential to narrow the focus and concentrate on a smaller setting: a warehouse, a bar, an office, a small room. It’s the same thing, only compressed, microscopic rather than macroscopic.

A writing exercise I used to employ many years ago always helped me in my efforts to use surroundings in a story. I’d sit in a room and try to describe a character’s emotional state by using only what was around me: the furniture, the radiators, the windows, the view outside; the sounds, the smells, the feel of the wood grain on the desk…by limiting myself to describing the location I was forced to hone my skills in terms of characterisation.

Describing a location isn’t as easy as it seems. A writer needs to pick out which details are necessary to flesh out the place and which ones to ignore; we need to utilise those unique traits that bring a specific place alive in terms of the prose. As with most aspects of writing, it’s all about making the right choices. This can only hope to be achieved with constant practice – there are no short cuts, there’s no easy way to create the magic.

Read the best, study how they do it. Carry a notebook with you everywhere and write down what it’s like to stand in a certain place: what’s the light doing, what’s around you, how does the earth feel beneath your feet, what can you smell, what does the air taste like? Then find your own way to imbue your story with that essential sense of place.

GARY MCMAHON