Sunday, 27 March 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 3: Editorial Intervention

I always get a little nervous when an editor lets my story through without suggesting any changes.

Maybe that seems a strange thing to be stressing about.  Possibly it would make more sense if it was the other way round.  But the thing is - and I don't think I'm being overly modest here - I've never written a perfect story.  I've never written one, and I've never read one.  I don't believe that such a thing exists.  And I've never had an editor suggest changes that didn't help to make a story better.

Again, that's a grand and maybe slightly crazy statement.  Nevertheless, it's true, and there are any number of examples I could give to back it up.  Those changes haven't always been big things, sometimes it's been a half-dozen words here or there, but the crucial point is that someone else picked up on things I couldn't have seen myself.  There comes a point with any story where you develop blindspots you might never see past, no matter how hard you work on redrafting.  They might be simple typos or they might be crucial plot points. I've done everything from tidying up some phrasing to juggling a few lines around to adding five hundred words of new endingon the back of editorial suggestions, and I'm glad I did, because in each case it lead to something that was a bit - or in a couple of cases, a lot - better than it would otherwise have been.

Am I suggesting writers should always feel obliged to go along with editorial suggestions?  Not at all.  There have been a couple of occasions where I've argued my case - though never without giving ground where I thought it could reasonably be given.  Am I suggesting I'd always expect an editor to propose changes to a story they'd accepted?  Yeah, I guess I am.  But I'd settle for an e-mail saying they'd had a good read through and couldn't find anything that needed changing.  Like I said, I've never written a perfect story, but a second opinion that there was nothing gapingly wrong would be some comfort, at least.

My point isn't that I expect an editor to madly hunt for potential changes whether they're needed or not, or that as a writer I feel obliged to make any amendment that's thrown at me.  It's that I want to feel confident the person I'm entrusting my work to has read it critically and has made an attempt to improve on it before chucking it out into the world.  Because, while writing short fiction isn't generally a collaborative medium, getting published should be.  I mean, that's a big chunk of the idea, isn't it?

So how is this different for the small press?  I guess, like most of the points in these articles, this one comes down to time and resources.  If you don't have sub-editors or assistants, getting intimate enough with a story to make useful suggestions is a big time sink.  That's especially true because small press markets seem to tend towards a higher volume of stories per issue than their professional counterparts.  I've never entirely understood why this should be the case, except perhaps that it's easy to conflate quantity with quality.  But I can see that providing valuable editorial feedback on, say, twenty stories would make for a hell of day's work.

All I can say is that I've failed to enjoy many a story that could have been saved by a little judicious editing.  This is a personal thing, of course, but I'd always far prefer to read ten really polished tales than twenty that were let down by careless, easily-fixable mistakes.  In fact, of all the points raised in these ten posts, this is the one that most often ruins magazines for me, and the one that editors most endear themselves to me by getting right.  It's a rare treat to read a piece of fiction that's been dragged to its full potential by a second set of hands - and it usually shows.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Endangered Weapon Finally Unleashed

First things first: here's the link to to the Myebook page where you can read mine and artist-extraordinaire Bob Molesworth's ten page comic strip Endangered Weapon B - finally, awesomely complete and available to read entirely for free.

It seems like I've been going on for a very, very long time about Endangered Weapon.  Partly, of course, that's because it's taken a very, very long time to make its way out into the world.

I think I originally conceived it some time in 2007.  That initial idea was kind of a parody of giant robot cop anime like Patlabor, only with Pandas piloting the mechs instead of humans.  I still want to write that series one of these days.  But for reasons far beyond the reach of memory, the concept changed - and changed and changed.  It took on a whole cast of characters, each with their own bizarre back stories.  A whole, mad world sprang up around it.  It drifted from one publisher to another, and went through a change of artists along the way.  In short, it's been a hell of a journey to get these ten pages out there.

It couldn't have been more worth it.  Don't believe me?  Take a look.  Bob has turned this madness into a thing of beauty.  For the first (and hopefully last) time, I have a crush on one of my own characters.  Which probably means I'm going to hell or something.  And it's still worth it!

It's fair to say that this is only the beginning for the Endangered Weapon project.  First up, there are a handful of super-rare print issues floating about, containing Endangered Weapon B Issue 0 (as it shall henceforth be known), an exclusive, possibly-never-to-be-available-elsewhere board game, and another strip, Bob and writer Daniel Cox's haunting tale of robot woe The Signal - pictured to the left and also available to read at Myebook.  Meanwhile, we're already hard at work on a full-length issue (or two) and a sampler to start shopping around to potential publishers.

So, hey, with a bit of luck I'll be going on about Endangered Weapon for a fair while longer yet.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A Fistful of Burning Room Reviews

I've come across three reviews of The Burning Room, as recently published in the January issue issue of Bull Spec, and thought I  might as well take a few minutes to share them.

All told, the response seems to be a general thumbs-up.  Firstly, here's one from

David Tallerman’s “The Burning Room” is a ghost story apparently set a few centuries ago in London.  A woman who is new to the city finds a room in a widow’s home for a suspiciously reasonable price, and learns why the room was available on her first night, when a specter appears. The new boarder — Miss Taversham, which necessarily gives us echoes of Charles Dickens — neatly unravels the mystery in a way that offers no surprises. It is a nice exercise in setting and mood, though, and Tallerman’s use of 18th century vernacular seems just right.

The ex-history student in me feels the need to point out that the The Burning Room is set around the beginning of the twentieth century, but "nice exercise in setting and mood" is pretty good, right?  Still, this one, from SFRevu, is probably a bit more positive on the whole:

David Tallerman's "The Burning Room" is a chilling little ghost story about a young woman named Taversham who rents an attic room from a widow named Mrs. Faraday. At night she feels a great heat, even though the embers on the fireplace have burned down. She sees a vision of a man. What is behind all this? All in all, like I said, a nice little ghost story.

Last up, and my favourite, since that last-line summary is pretty much exactly what I was aiming for, here's Lois Tilton from Locus Online:

Miss Taversham had expected to live with an aunt while she took employment as a milliner, but she unexpectedly died, leaving the younger woman with an urgent need for lodgings. The second floor of Mrs Faraday’s house seems quite suitable, but her landlady’s nervousness clues Miss Taversham to the fact that something there is quite wrong. And indeed, when the ghost appears, he is not unexpected. But our narrator is not afraid. In fact, she regards the ghost’s appearance as a mystery to be solved.

A nicely-done ghost story in the classic mode, with a tragic conclusion.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Big News, Part 1: Agented!

As I've possibly kind of hinted on a couple of occasions, there have been some big things building at this end over the last three months or so, which I've had to sit on and keep schtum about until they became completely one-hundred percent official.

Did I say big?  I meant, of course, huge.  Gigantic.  Megalithic.  (*Consults dictionary*)  Okay, maybe not that last one.

Anyway ... I'm immensely pleased to announce the first part of that huge-but-maybe-not-precisely-megalithic news.  Henceforward, and beginning with my first completed novel Giant Thief, my writing work will be represented by the Zeno Literary Agency.

Rather than try and explain in my own words just why that's so damn awesome, here's the official blurb from the Zeno site:

Zeno Agency Limited is a partnership between veteran literary agent John Parker and freelance literary consultant and genre critic, John Berlyne. Neither can recall exactly when they first met, but undoubtedly it was at some social occasion – a book launch or more likely a science fiction convention. Over a few years, their association grew, with Berlyne becoming a regular reader and consultant for Parker who was at that time – and had been for many years – a senior agent with MBA. Never one to rest on his laurels, in July 2008 John Parker took the huge step towards agent independence, splitting off from MBA and joining forces with Berlyne whose genre knowledge and Internet savvy quickly proved indispensable. Along with the huge benefits this move offered to existing clients, the start up company was perfectly placed to help develop the careers of new authors and Zeno’s aim of bringing writers of excellence and originality to the attention of both the industry and the public is already paying dividends.

Bottom Line?  These guys know genre publishing as well as anyone around, and they're already representing some of the most exciting up-and-coming authors in Fantasy and Science-Fiction - people like Aliette de Bodard and Lavie Tidhar - and a fair few more established names as well.  Like, oh, say, that Tim Powers guy.

It's my fervent hope that Giant Thief and I can not embarrass ourselves in such prestigious company.  First step?  A decent haircut!

Anyway, here's a link to Zeno's - perhaps a little more concisely worded - version of this prodigious announcement.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Full Time Again, (Not So Deliberately This Time)

Last year, I deliberately took around four months out of fulltime work to write my second novel, (currently running under the title of War For Funland), an endeavour I rattled on about extensively on this here blog and kind of summarised here.  A key point of that summary was that it wasn't entirely an experience I'd choose to repeat.  Writing full time?  Hell yeah!  Writing with the deadline of financial meltdown and permanent unemployment hanging over your head?  Not so much.

Yet, nine months on and here I am again.  In fairness, it wasn't quite so  - or, let's be honest here, remotely - deliberate this time.  Well, such are the vicissitudes of contracting.  Still, I'm determined to make the most of it, and since I just happened to have started a new novel at the beginning of February, it's hard not to see the twitchy finger of fate in all of this.

This time around, I won't be taking my time in getting back to work if I can help it.  My financial raft is somewhat smaller than before, and the sharks will soon be nipping.  Still, I can't help but be a little pleased at the prospect of some consolidated writing time.  Two weeks in and I can already feel parts of my brain coming back online that were driven into deep-freeze by the nine-til-five routine.

I'm also trying to learn a few lessons from last time.  Hammering out wordage like there's no tomorrow just doesn't fit with my writing style.  I like to be able to go over what I've done, revising as I go, and if I can't do that I get very twitchy and assume that everything I've done is rubbish.  So this time, the target per week is 6000 words.  It's not a huge amount, in fact it's not that much more than I was managing around work, and this time around I even have a solid chapter plan ... but hopefully it's the right balance between quality and quantity, and will mean I don't have to sideline other projects like my comics work.  I want to get this one as right as I can get it the first time through, and I don't want to put everything else on hold while I do so.

So ... the current deadline is the end of July at the latest, while the end of June would be absolutely ideal.  If I can get the whole of April to write solidly in then I should be able to make the former; chuck in a bit of May and the latter looks like a realistic possibility.

Why those particular months?  Ah well, that's something that'll have to wait for another post...

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 2: Artwork

I pretty much always judge a book by its cover.

What else am I supposed to judge it by?  It's not like I can read it before I buy it.  But even if I could, I'd still be wary of any story that was trapped behind a lousy piece of art.  Because my gut instinct tells me that anyone who truly, devotedly, unconditionally cares about their product gets everything as near to right as they can.  If the cover looks like it was drawn by a six year old with nothing better to do, how can I expect the editor to put care into anything else?  How can I trust them to present me with a story I would want to read, in a format I could stand to read it in?

I know that's unfair.  I realise how unreasonable it is to ask anyone to get everything right, and how next-to-impossibly difficult it is to do in practice.  There's only ever so much time or money or energy.  But that isn't going to stop me judging books by their covers.  Because, like I said, how else can I judge?

If cover art is a big deal for books, it's even more important for magazines.  Even the most well-informed reader is unlikely to be familiar enough with all the writers a magazine publishes to buy solely on the promise of its content.  A cover, a piece of banner art, is the bridge that lets a reader know that here's something they're willing to invest time in, that's worth their time.  It's first contact.  And you only have to get it wrong once to lose a reader for ever.

I think that's an obvious point, though, and something most serious editors get right to a greater or lesser degree.  In my experience, the magazines and sites that neglect artwork altogether rarely last that long.  What's perhaps trickier is interior art or, for web-zines and podcasts, story-specific and other more transitory pieces.  I suspect there's often a feeling that this is something to be skimped on, a money-sink that isn't really that necessary in the first place.  If someone's hooked enough to be reading, they probably don't need to be seduced with pretty pictures.

There's probably a degree of sense to that.  But here's another one of my readerly traits: I fear full pages of text.  Oh, I can manage one or two, maybe even half a dozen, but an entire magazine's worth?  Hell, no.  Nor do I think I'm alone in this.  One of the biggest trends in publishing over the last half-century has been a drift towards more white space, larger fonts, clearer typefaces, shorter paragraphs, more dialogue ... in short, towards breaking the page down, moving away from a page-sized chunk of cramped text.  Call it dumbing down if you will, but if, like me, you tend to read in low light and your eyesight sucks, it's a blessing.

This is a big point, and one I'll be coming back to it in at least one more of these article thangs, so for the moment I'll just say this: I love an editor who thinks about my poor strained eyes.  Really, I want to hug them. I would love them even if they were only randomly inserting pictures of their wife and kids (in fact, possibly more so.)  I like to look at cool pictures of spaceships and crazy monsters and ladies in furry bras wielding broadswords, but my number one requirement is that I get to the end of a magazine no more blind than when I started.  Anything that breaks the page up makes me that bit happier.

So ... onto the vaguely-useful observations bit.  See?  It's even bullet-pointed.
  • Artwork doesn't have to be expensive.  It doesn't have to cost anything except the time and effort of attracting artists and offering them a spotlight.  As evidence, I offer Futurequake Press, a venue that's won awards without paying its exceptionally talented artistic fold in anything more than exposure and love.  Because in my experience, artists aren't that different from writers.  They want similar things.  They'll work for the promise of an audience.  They like to be told how great their work is.
  • That above was a good hint.  A quick and easy way to find talented artists who'll work for little or nothing is to look at the indy comics press.  An art-heavy magazine like Murky Depths is a worthwhile stop-off too.  I know there are fantastic artists out there who'll put huge amounts of time into anything that will make their CV that bit better because I've been making comics with them.
  • Anything is better than nothing.  There are many, many sites that provide copyright-free art and photographs*.  So long as it's in a good enough resolution that it doesn't pixelate, where's the harm?
  •  When I said "anything that breaks the page up"?  I meant anything.  I'm perfectly happy to see good-quality, eye-catching adverts for products that might potentially interest me as a genre-fiction reader.  By which I mean, not Viagra or Kalashnikovs.  Personally, I think ad-swapping and banner-swapping are great ideas.  Free advertising for both parties, and free graphics to boot.
  • If you're going to review a book, film or computer game, why not include an image of the cover / poster art?  More free graphics, less blocky text.  Easy win!
I don't doubt that are plenty more quick, cheap and relatively painless ways to art up a magazine or webzine, but those are the ones that occurred to me on the spur of the moment.  And each and every one of them have, on some past occasion, made me like a magazine that little bit more.

* Not to say photography isn't art, like.