Sequel Blues

A little angst. I finished Nights of Villjamur thinking that no publisher would take it. I wrote this book I hoped would go into new territory, some genre-bending fantasy, whilst keeping readers in touch with more trad markets. When the pen had been put down, I was thinking about dozens of new ideas, radically different directions. Then of course, Peter Lavery waltzed into things and said, yes please. More!

So, I’ve been working around following ideas. Sure, I wanted it do be a ‘series’, that word that strikes fear into the heart of many a reader. But I wanted it to stand alone too. Now I’m thinking about even more new territory within the framework of epic fantasy. Still doing this Epic Noir. I’m fascinated with the taxonomy of this genre.

It’s pretty tough taking your mind back a few months. You have to remember what your intentions were. Remember where you were taking the bigger arcs, should anyone care enough to buy the novel.

I was chatting to big George Mann at work, and he highlighted this split in fantasy between Peake and Tolkien, the two schools of thought—as featured on the BBC Worlds of Fantasy series I’ve pretty much been working in between these philosophies, mixing the widescreen epic and the close, intense psychology and weirdness of the Peake school. And throwing in those elements of crime noir—which has it’s own set of literary conventions to play with. Anyway, the point is, it’s difficult developing ideas when you strive to be an innovator, as well as being commercial, and appealing to a wide audience. In doing New Stuff, you have to not turn off readers so much with what’s effectively an author masturbating on the page.

I suppose it all it comes down to is telling a good story in the first place, then telling it well, or stylishly, and then putting in your symbols and themes. But it’s certainly a bizarre place to be in. I’ve a new found respect for the best series authors to keep people entertained in the long haul. People might sneer and say it’s selling out—well, I’d say it’s tougher, and comes with more pressure, to entertain readers over so wide a plot.

I’m sure there was a point to this waffle. Maybe there wasn’t.


Extreme Coolness: Black Cab Sessions

Okay, you get a lo-fi indie musician or band. You stick ’em in the back of a black London cab. You take a camcorder. You watch ’em play. Check out The Black Cab Sessions.

I recommend you watch Seasick Steve, who was the highlight of a Jools Holland Hootenanny a few years back. Also, do find the Raveonettes video, because I believe the girl may well become my future wife if I can track her down. (Reminds me of a girl I once knew… Good days!)


Macmillan Visit

So, yesterday I took the train down to the Big Smoke to see my agent and visit the offices of Macmillan. It was one of those really, really cool moments. I met up with John for a coffee before hand, and had the usual chat about the world with him. Then, we meandered to the offices of Macmillan in North London, not too far from King’s Cross Station. Very plush reception, with fancy LCD screens of book covers, and for the more traditional folk, actual books themselves in smart, sleek display cases.

Then Peter Lavery popped open the door full of handshakes and smiles, and I instantly liked him. Well, I did before really, but you know what I mean. This was the guy who published China Miéville, Peter F. Hamilton, Hal Duncan. Stunningly talented writers. So I was rather in editorial awe of the man. He took us on a brief tour of the building. We passed a chorus of spectacularly charming publishing ladies on their way out to lunch—where did they come from and where did they go? (This made even more bitter-sweet, by the fact I must face Christian and George at Solaris on my return to work.)

Then I met the rights people, the digital chap, the cover design chap—all people who I’d be involved with in one way or another, because it’s a big, big operation there—Rebecca and Steph who flank Peter’s main office and handle their own list of authors, and who used to work with him on the Tor list, and of course, the hub of Tor itself, Peter’s office. Plenty of books on them shelves. Unsurprisingly, a couple went home with me. Alan Campbell’s Scar Night, and a signed Vellum, by Hal Duncan. A moment later, one of the ladies announced she had porn on her desk; an eyebrow raised, I glanced over to investigate, only to find one of those new trendy-sex-romp-style fiction books, and I’m still not sure what I was expecting to see there.

I’m not sure I could ever bore of being referred to as “our new author”. Nope. Felt like a star of sorts.

I signed the contracts, and John, being a super-agent, brought along the invoice! That’s efficiency for you. Then, off for a very long lunch, the way they used to do ’em, with plenty of red wine. John and Peter go way back, so there was much gossip and banter of publishing through the ages, all of which kept me very entertained. Peter has a great sense of humour, and a frightening ability to put back the wine without seeming to change mood at all.

Well, I’m delighted to be part of their list. Certainly a day I’ll remember fondly. I’d better get to writing the next one now…


Updates, And Some Music

Okay, it’s the weekend. I’ll be busy. And on Monday I go over to the offices at Macmillan/Tor to meet the legendary editor Peter Lavery and my agent, Sir John Jarrold. I’ll update about that on Tuesday, and report from the inner sanctum of a major London publisher. There’ll be all sorts of contract signing stuff going on, you know, selling my soul, that kind of thing. There may be wine involved. Maybe even some pilfering of paperbacks, which reminds me, I must take an empty suitcase.

Some music. This one, by Yorkshire band One Night Only, has all the hallmarks of an indie-pop hit. It’s the kind of things indie funksters love to get drunk on Red Stripe to, and they dance to it on sticky rock club floors, next to girls in Converse shoes, whose moves are well-worked postures, too cool for the likes of you, all in a haze that just flies right by until Sunday morning and you wonder, suddenly, where the weekend went.


And here’s a little retro trip-hop from Portishead (whatever happened to that movement?). Anyway, isn’t Beth Gibbon’s sexy, in a 1990s kind of way?


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Road to Publication, Part Five

This section should really start off with the sub-heading: “Dodgy Agents”.

Well, firstly, I want to state that you should never part with any cash. There are some scumbags people in this industry that want to prey on aspiring writers. They say, “Yeah, I’ll represent you. Oh, there’s just this processing fee” and away they go, conning you out of your cash. Or even stating that they charge a reading fee. You should never part with any money up front.

A literary agent hopes to take a percentage of your earnings from novel advances and royalties, around 10-20%. That way, there’s faith in your ability to sell. They’re experienced and knowledgeable. And friendly! They have to feel that you will succeed for them to want to represent you. You become a team. Anything else, well, they’re just exploiting your desires to get published.

Do a bit of research on the matter. See what books the agent represents. See what sales they’ve made recently. Look at their client list. Hit Google. Or check out links like this forum.

Okay, so if you find a good agent who wants to represent you, what happens next? It’s pretty simple. You sign a contract that says, quite clearly, they take the 10-20% cut of any earnings you make through them. Nowhere should it say that you’re parting with cash up-front. Once that’s all signed—and it really is that simple—then the agent will begin to approach publishers on your behalf. (Again, the vast majority of publishers only accept submissions via agents.) Sometimes, your agent will submit to several publishers at the same time, if they’ve got something very commercial. Even so, they may think specific books are more appropriate for certain publishers, and submit to just the one.

If it’s a no, then at least through the agent you should get a fairly decent reason why your book wasn’t taken on. If a yes, then hurrah, the agent begins to negotiate the advance*, royalties etc. If submitted to many publishers, and more than one wants the book, the agent will then phone around to try and get an auction going for it, in order to drive up the advance.

Once that’s all done, the agent then begins the process of combing through the contracts to make sure everything is wonderful, that the percentages of foreign rights are good, for example, or that certain things are or aren’t included—such as media rights. They then pass the contract on to you, you sign, return to publisher, and the publisher pays the agent, who then takes their cut, and then pays you. Voila.

Simple, isn’t it?

*A note on novel advances: this is quite simply, an advance against royalties. It can vary greatly from a few hundred notes, to thousands. So your book has to sell x-thousand copies, earning out the advance, before it makes money for you again. Some deals are royalty only, so you begin making a percentage of the book’s price from the first sale. 


Road To Publication, Part Four

I’ve steered away from the technicalities, but I think it’s worth dropping a few words of wisdom. I saw some advice from my agent, John Jarrold, on a forum, and it was 10 thing to avoid, basically:

  • Awful dialogue – read it out loud, does it sound natural, coming from your mouth?
  • Hackneyed plots. No discernable focus to the book or sense of continuity.
  • No Clichés.
  • A complete lack of wit or humor.
  • “Characters” who are only talking heads.
  • A lack of background and foreground.
  • No idea of the commercial market
  • Lots of telling from the outside, rather then seeing the story from specific characters’ point-of-view
  • Only use one character throughout a scene, don’t jump around. ‘Show, don’t tell’
  • And, of course: don’t use huge expository lumps. The dreaded info-dump.

These are excellent things to avoid in order to increase your chances or publication. For those who want to know about better control of point-of-view (a common area of confusion), I’d point you right towards George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Here he shifts POV with excellent skill.

There are a billion other things you can do so as not to annoy editorial types. There is a good list of them here and more here.

But that’s all I’m going to mention about technicalities. Why? Because there are too many people giving their opinion,  telling people how to write. All I’ve said is what not to do. You have your own voice, so let it out.


Road To Publication, Part Three

What makes a good synopsis? Well, these are just my opinions, but worth thinking about. 

Be concise as you can for the length of the work. Three or four pages should be the limit, although it’s useful to include a general one paragraph summary at the start. Unless you’re doing a chapter by chapter breakdown, which can go on, but it’s useful to have the concise summary. This is all general—if you can, make sure you find out from the agent or publisher you’re sending it to. Everyone has a preference.

In this first paragraph, compare your book to others which are selling well—this will help the editors (more importantly the marketing department) understand how to sell it. That’s the most important decision at the back of their mind. Make it clear what it is you’ve written. Think of this as a brief sales pitch. Don’t compare it to something too obscure, or something that has bombed recently. This comes back to market awareness. Just write about what happens in the book, what the characters go through. Keep it simple. After you write everything that happens, take out all useless commentary. Be brutal. Make sure all that you describe is key to the story, nothing more. 

Like writing, it’s not an exact science, but it’s useful to bear this in mind. And it’s no guarantee this is absolutely correct!


Road to Publication, Part Two

Continuing the path to publication discussion, here’s the follow up from having an idea of the types of books that sell.

Now you’ve written something. You’ve chucked out your TV, trimmed your social life so you can get things down on paper. It’s a full novel now, not a patchwork of ideas. It’s all the way through. Written to the best of your ability. You’ve put it away and come back to it with fresh eyes to rewrite the damn thing. Hopefully, it’ll be a good way to being what publishers want to buy. So what the hell do you do?

Well firstly, there are some final things. Make sure it’s formatted well—double spacing, in a decent font. Run a spell check over it. Get a synopsis together. Some might say that’s as hard as the actual writing. Have some points in mind about what (current) books you can compare yours to. Think in terms of marketing.

Next: find a list of agents. Literary agents are essential. Most publishers won’t even look at submissions that don’t come from agents. It wouldn’t be possible to operate otherwise. Get a copy of The Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook. In there you should find a listing of agents by the genre they represent. Not every one will represent SF and Fantasy. Find those that do. Write to them, with a covering letter, with a brief outline of your work and if they’d like to see it. Keep it polite and simple. Remember, it’s a business, so act professionally.

Maybe they’ll ask to see your work—great, send it on as required. You should know your market, know the kind of readers your book will appeal to. Now, prepare to be rejected. It’ll happen. Get used to it. Don’t be so arrogant to believe your work is genius, because there are many that do! If you’re not like this, then you’ll be able to modify your book, work on your writing.

When you get to this stage, resist temptation to self publish. In my opinion, this is sinful. I think it’s terrible the way self-publishing imprints rip-off people, play on their emotions, so that anyone can publish their book. Anyone! The main issue I have is that as a writer you have no one to edit, no one to give feedback. Why’s this important? Because you improve as a writer, and you improve as a person. (Although self-publishing can be good for obscure types of books, especially local ones that aren’t going to be commercial at all.)

If an agent gets back to you negatively, move on. Learn from your mistakes. Maybe your writing isn’t quite right—work on it. Listen to advice. Study other authors. Look at how they piece a novel together. Read. Look at their style. Look at how the plot is formulated. There are a billion things you can learn from reading with a keen eye. It isn’t easy. Some people might never get there, but you don’t know unless you try, do you? 

And if the agent gets back with a positive—listen to them. They know what they’re talking about. (Note: never pay an agent upfront. I’d be asking some serious questions if they wanted cash.)

I felt lucky when I signed with John Jarrold. I sent him some material when he was starting out as an agent. He got back to me immediately with praise and acceptance. I felt like a fraud at the time, knowing next to nothing about the publishing world, but what the heck, I had a great agent. I went with it. And I didn’t get published right away. I had the heart-breaking journey navigating around ‘marketing departments’ and their requirements. It took a couple of years to get things right, but I couldn’t have done it without listening to John’s advice.  So in my case, after one unpublished novel (that has remained so), one that has been sold to a small press, and the third attempt to Macmillan, I finally got there.

I guess the advice I’d have is to work really hard at it, remain professional, and find out as much as you can about the industry. Don’t assume you know too much. I’ve only been in the trade for a few years, and I’m frequently suprised by things…

Oh, and if you find it hard, join a writing group. They’re great for moral and support. Plus you realise you’re not alone! 

If anyone wants to chat some more, drop me a line on here or on one of the social networks to the right. I’m more than happy to keep a debate going.