The Silver Coast

‘You get out there, out to sea or whatever it is. And it’s brilliant at first. I remember seeing this bloody line across the horizon, like Hagen’s silver coast all over again. But then what happens? You get there. You get there, and it ain’t silver at all. It’s a shithole, same as the one you came from.’
‘It’s Port Ness!’ laughed Bill.
‘And then you look up, and there it is again. That fucking Silver Coast, never any nearer.’
‘You’re a bit philosophical today son!’ laughed Bill, slapping his back. ‘Are you feeling alright?’
‘Why do you get to lament the Modern World all day every day, but when I do it, it’s funny?’
‘Ha! Cos I’ve been there, son! Done that. And distance has a way of putting a bit of drunken sheen on all that heartache.’

*

And so, the long delayed publishing update. Early in January 2015, after lots of polish, THE BASTARD WONDERLAND finally went out on submission to eleven major SFF publishers. These were:

Orbit, Del Rey, Voyager, Gollancz, Tor, Hodder, Jo Fletcher, Transworld, Head of Zeus, Solaris and Angry Robot.

Rumours came back to me that one or two were enjoying the read – then about  a month later, my agent (Rob Dinsdale out of AM Heath) called with the joyous news that several of them wanted to meet me. Shazam, i thought – here we go, etc. So down to London i went, to cram meetings in, to be ferried about to and fro, over bridges in black cabs like one of those twats out of The Apprentice.

Through grand, glass-fronted Thames-viewing real estate i was paraded! Gallons of hospitable tea and coffee did i drink! The meetings went well, the editors were all very encouraging, and though they shared similar uncertainties about how it should be marketed, they all knew and ‘got’ the book. People in publishing, I learned, are very lovely and knowledgeable, and it was swell to hang about with such a bunch of geeks on a (sort of) professional basis. I also got a truckload of free books, and saw preview covers of high profile books that hadn’t been publicly released! The day was topped off by a drink with Rob Dinsdale out of AM Heath, with some more genre talk, and much enthusiasm about the likelihood of offers and so forth. I boarded the train home with a cosy glow, and deadline day was proposed for a week hence – there was even a slight extension to it, because one of the publishers had shared it with their US counterparts! Lumme! Lordy! etc.

It was all great fun, and a day I’ll remember. We weren’t expecting offers until deadline day itself – Rob Dinsdale out of A.M. Heath says publishers like to leave it dramatically late. And then the day came, the much fabled March 5th 2015. It looked extremely promising. Would there be more than one offer? A bidding war?

In short… no.

The feedback across the majority of the publishers was positive. The book was seen as fresh and original, good characters, plot, humour, etc. Several of the editors were keen to see what i wrote next. But, as this post did foreshadow (and the eminent Mr. Robert Dinsdale out of A.M. Heath did prophesy) the book couldn’t be pitched simply enough for the very reductive outlook of the marketing teams – even despite the enthusiasm of the commissioning editors.

And so deadline day came and went as rejections came in their own time. I didn’t blog anything throughout this, because initially, I was holding out for good news, and then there was no news, and the wait went on, and on and on…until the last rejection came today… over three months later. I’m gutted, but actually, it’s a massive relief. And a real eye opener about the publishing game.

The rejections mainly all came with the same flavour: “we love this but we don’t know how to market it.” Concerns varied between the lack of a major EPIC SCALE EVENT to mark it as EPIC, to the focus on a character based plot, the unusual mix of genre elements, etc. Some rejected because they already have books where a vaguely 19th century man has got a gun(seriously). They didn’t know what package, what tagline, what cover to use – they just didn’t know how to reduce it. It almost seems as if the speculative fiction genre isn’t brave enough to actually speculate.

So there is closure, of a certain kind: I know now I won’t make any sort of money at this(not that I would have been able to retire or anything). But I didn’t set out to make money. I set out to write the book i wanted to write. I’ve been railroaded, and learned that nothing gets in the way of writing so much as bloody publishing.

But the very fact that Mr. Warboys and his ‘kitchen sink epic’ have perplexed the genre so much is to me, a sure sign that he needs to be in print. That Mr. Warboys, in his genre defying, cantankerous, rough arsed glory,  should go and stick the nut on genre fiction. I’ll be fucked if I’m shelving him now.

Like Mr. Warboys, I’ve come across the Silver Coast – only to find it lies beyond me again. But there are other ways – the small and indie press, digital, self publishing, i don’t know what. But THE BASTARD WONDERLAND will come to a page near you somewhere, somehow…

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Power of Human of Brain

I went for an appointment at the local ENT department, and it turns out that I seem to have an intermittent case of tinnitus. It’s basically ringing in the ear. Apparently, tinnitus is a neurological, not a physical condition, and so there isn’t really any treatment for it. But my doctor tells me, with an accent I can’t place coming from beneath his excellent moustache, that to deal with it, ‘we have to talk about this word, “Brain”‘

Some face it, and choose to ignore, whilst others deny it. Some people cope with it using meditation, by leaving radios and tvs on to mask the ‘sound’, or putting a small device under their pillow that makes white noise. It can, but doesn’t necessarily relate to physical causes – so if you work with noisy machines, or shoot guns, for example, there could be a correlation.

To this end, the doctor asked me what line of work I was in. His eyes lit up some when I said I worked in a library – and he also nodded at the book I was carrying (The Enterprise of Death, by Jesse Bullingdon, by the way). And excusing his initial popular misconception that library work is brilliant because you get to read books all day, I then listened to him talk about his daughter, who had recently done a dissertation on Cormack McCarthy and The Road. He tells me that the director of the film version also did The Hunger Games, and points to this common, post apocalyptic setting as somehow key in understanding our own powers of mind over matter. When humans are desperate, they can do anything, he seems to be telling me. For bad and for good. He’s making  a bit of a leap, if I’m honest but I’m so pleasantly surprised at the sudden shift in topic, that I’m going with it. We’re talking about more than tinnitus here. We talk about this word, Brain. What he’s telling me, again referring back to books and libraries, is that I’ll be ok. I’ll be okay because I’m a reader, I can stretch my imagination with the help of books and libraries, and I can put my mind where I want it to be. He’s giving me philosophical, even existential advice to go with his professional medical opinion. He sends me off with a smile, off to the transformative power of my books and libraries, and we both know that, although the world isn’t perfect, we just have to make the best of it. If that isn’t all round care, I don’t know what is. Just marvellous.

God (or someone) save the NHS.

 

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Deadly Cut-throat Market of Doom

[obligatory i haven’t posted in too long text]

So, the book is about finished. It has gone off for a final proofread by my agent, and also for a review by an unsuspecting, anonymous guinea-pig reader. I’m very interested in what he or she has to say, since fresh perspective is hard to come by at this stage.

Anyway, we get to the nuts and bolts. An editor who loves the book is the first thing, but almost the easy part. The real task, i’m told, will be convincing the MONEY MEN. These cash fondling tycoons want to know – what already published book is this most similiar to, and how well is that selling? This is what they base their decision to buy on. So if you’ve written a medieval style fantasy with cut-throat characters, political intrigue, bloody violence, incest and a bit of dragon action, you can fit nicely into the Game of Thrones market. If you write magic thief heist books, you might be likened to Scott Lynch. You’re up against some stiff competition, for sure, but at least the MONEY MEN know what you are, and maybe you can just jump-start a career in the wake of these eminent scribes.

But what if you your book isn’t so obviously like anything else? Isn’t that a good thing? It should be, really, but it can be a hindrance in this DEADLY CUT-THROAT MARKET OF DOOM. So it helps to be able to reel off a quick, reductive branding of your book.

But THE BASTARD WONDERLAND struggles to fit in. It’s like that rough looking kid in your class who’s got a ‘tache and smokes cigs round corners. It’s fantasy, sure, because its a fictional world. But not what’s called ‘high fantasy’, with elves and dragons and magic and all that shit, and twee maps with mountains and little dinky trees (don’t get me wrong, i used to love this stuff).  There is a bit of magic and mysticism, but its quieter, and not so world defining. Is there such a thing as ‘Low Fantasy?’ The fantasy comes more in almost a sort of alternative history, where we see a post-colonial, rapidly industrialising world, roughly anlagous to North America. There are airships, and a bit of nascent steam and organic technology, but not enough, nor with the right trappings to warrant a steampunk label entirely; we have some rifle based military scenes, but its not a military book. The hero is basically a bloke from Hull. He’s not a prince, or a hero of destiny. He’s a rough-arsed, smoking layabout. He’s too old to be a Bildungsroman. He’s not all that angry, or desperate for revenge or justice so much as just generally cantankerous. He swears a lot, argues with his dad (a lot), and lacks direction. Its not fantasy staple.

So in terms of likening TBW to what’s already out there, i struggle, especially in likening it to other books. Perhaps Joe Abercrombie? He’s got swearing.  And a sense of humour. And northmen(albeit not the Yorkshire type). Mix with Steptoe and son. Shoot at them. Add guest ales, shellfish, and a panic stricken samurai guerilla.

Look, i just don’t know what it is, alright? That’s why i have an agent! He has his work cut out for him, that’s for sure.

Look out, MONEY MEN! Something unfathomable is comin atcha! It’s the new new! It could make enough for a round of drinks and a packet of quavers millions!

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Fantasy, Culture, Patty Butties and Hull 2017

Bit of a jump since my last post. I’ve just submitted my rewrite, six months to the day since i discussed it with aforementioned Agent. I’m now trying to forget it until i get a response.

However. Much as i try to be professional and reserved, the odd day dream leaks out – smash hit reviews, sequels, publicity, dodgy picture of me clutching book in the Hull Daily Mail, film adaptation in which i star, tear-jerking dedications, etc…and then there’s 2017.

Kingston Upon Hull (where i’m from), has, as you may be aware, recently been awarded City of Culture status for 2017. In this bonanza will be showcased local art, artists, writers, even….and i’m sort of thinking, all being well…would that include me?

You see, i write what you have to call Fantasy. I don’t really want to call it that, as there are certain connotations of the word – the main one being “daft” – but that’s the market i write in. Is it cultural though? Is fantasy even relevant? Does my fantasy skylarking contribute to Hull’s cultural richness?

Culture is a big word.  Culture is everything we do and participate in that defines our actions and identities once basic physical needs are established. In Maslow’s heirarchy of needs –

Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs

– ‘culture’ is up top. The apex encompasses religion and spirituality, but also sport and the arts – including literature. Culture fills what would otherwise be a ‘meaning of life?’ vaccuum at the top. Springs from it. To shoehorn some #hullyes Larkin in here – “a place cannot produce poems, it can only not prevent them”.

Now Fantasy writing, often thought of as escapist, isn’t a dearth of literature or ideas, it’s just a further dislocation of them – it still rushes into that void. What’s more, i’d say the idea of escapism is itself often miscontrued. Fantasy is never entirely removed from real culture, for although the ‘escapist’ reader might seek another world to knock about in for a while, he can’t help but drag a bit of his own world with him. And these bits of baggage not only help to flesh out the fantasy world, but in the isolation, reconfiguration and relocation offered by a fantasy setting, they enable the Fantasy framework to  hold up a mirror to our real lives, to challenge and compare it.

Just like proper literature does!

Here’s my own take on this. In a way, the City of Hull was my co-author on THE BASTARD WONDERLAND. Though fantastic, with a made up setting, the book contains certain historic, aesthetic and architectural aspects directly inspired by my home town. There are buildings here that are pretty much in the book, in a different world with a different name and a borrowed meaning.  More fundamentally though, in the character of Mr. Warboys, his Dad, the town they live in, there is the character, dialect and attitude of Hull.  His world-view, though a made up one, is a down to earth one. He is salt of the earth. He has his feet on the ground, even as fantastic things occur. Like someone growing up in Hull, Mr. Warboys has had to deal with the workmanlike expectation of the previous generation, whilst navigating an uncertain future. There are even patty butties. Mine is no history book. It’s not a book about Hull. But like me, it’s riddled with the place.

So, to hijack onother of Mr. Larkin’s #Hullyes quotes – all half decent fantasy (which i hope includes TBW) should be, like Hull, Part of the world but sufficiently removed from it to give it a certain…resonance.

So there. Shameless bid for emancipation over.

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The Shattered Terrain

A re-write sounds easy on paper. “What i’ll do is, i’ll bring him in there, cut that down, move that, make them go here and she can do this, and then that’s the end”, you say to yourself. But about one fifth of the way in and i am standing in a shattered terrain.
It’s like when the wife says – “what we’ll do is, we’ll knock that wall down and redecorate, then move that there and this here.” Sounds easy. But then there’s that middle bit, where you’ve basically smashed everything up, ripped off old boards and beams, and torn out plaster. Filth clouds about your house, and trail of grime goes after you. You’re past the point of no return. You can’t remember what the place used to look like, and you don’t know what it’s supposed to end up being. This is the doldrums that awaits you when rewriting. You sit and survey the ruin, breathe in the dust and wonder if you should have bothered.

Anyway. I’m just about done with a scratchy redraft, which i haven’t invested too much quality in because i’m trying to work in broad strokes, then move in on the details.

It takes some time, some banging your head against a wall until you start to feel a shine about what you’re doing (ALERT: Another “heads up, keep calm and carry on” sort of note to self).

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A glimmering, shiny pitch

After three weeks of bursting at the seams to get on with a rewrite that had already begun to form in my head, and three weeks of possibilities i’d really ought not to be indulging myself in, i finally got on the train to London and meet a real jen-yoo-wine literary agent.

I had a little re-read on the train, and a glimmering, shiny pitch began forming in my head. I would blow that agent away with  my confident BASTARD WONDERLAND know how, and my coherent writing history – indeed, i seem to have had my whole life mapped out and made meaningful by accounting the development of my writing career.

Due to my cheap train fares I arrived hours before, so that i could dither around the capital wondering what to do with myself – until arriving early at the Agency. I was impressed by the place – which turned out to be larger and more distinguished than i expected – and sat quietly before a wall of previously published clients’ books in reception – with names i recognised and everything!

Agent arrives (i recognise him before i’m introduced because i’ve already –stalked researched him and seen a video interview on the BBC). He briskly gets me onside by whisking me straight out to the pub, a pub so immaculately unpopulated it might have been a specially built set. He offers me a drink and i perhaps hastily select a big old pint of ale and am wondering how professional this is when the conversation begins. I wouldn’t say that my Golden Pitch went out of the window exactly, but i did find that, like in a job interview situation, my mind was threatening to seize up, or at any rate was lumbering through treacle at times. It was obviously nothing to do with the bucket of beer i’d made the man buy me. I reflect that it is a good job i’m on paper based assessments in this game, otherwise i’d be f**ed. The literary agent (i’m not just being cagey, i just don’t want to name-drop until time) seemed to be okay with this. He turns out to be a human. He is honest about what he likes and what would need to be changed. He is obliging about my befuddled questions about ‘the process'(see below). He makes it clear there are no promises on the table (only a seemingly endless pint that seems to befuddle me still further).  The meeting repeats some of what we’d kind of gone over by email, but it was nice to emphasise it, and to put a face to a name, as the saying goes.

And so, the upshot is, THE BASTARD WONDERLAND needs another draft. We need more emphasis on the core relationship/s, a more coherent sense of how the world works (they went were? Why? Why do they do that?) to put the story in context, and some sort of broader motion of events that unites world and character change, the way a novel of this genre ought to.

I have already submitted a revised synopsis to The Agent, and all being well, i will soon be blogging about getting stuck in, and all that (or just getting stuck).

For anyone who is interested in ‘The Process’

  •  i am lucky, for a start. It’s unusual for an agent to suggest a general rewrite, unless, as the case was here, he particularly liked some element or character. Normally it would be a more black and white case of cut this, change that.
  • I had imagined that an agent takes on over a long term, a year or so, and touts your work over that period. But no. If an agent takes you on, you will pretty much know if you’re successful within a month. Agents have regular meetings with their associated publishers, at which they pitch ahead titles ahead of their particular auction date. On that date, publishers bid, and bid against one another if there are more than one interested. Winner gets title. If you’re still on the table after a few weeks or so, then it doesn’t happen. Eek! Is that good, or bad?
  • Your genre (however loosely or reluctantly you are aligned with it – i’m a bit of both) expects certain conventions to sell. First is that ‘fantasy’ has to have the old epic sweep. Not necessarily the old obligatory battle shoehorned in at the end, but its hard to escape some sort of scale<up. (I have to change this).  Also, readers of fantasy expect a series. They just do. its the rules. So cast aside the integrity that made you want to write a standalone, because they don’t sell in fantasy. Any deal you get will be for your current book + more (just a general synopsis will do for for the others).
  • By the time you’ve been accepted as far as the agent stage, its unlikely you will be asked to do any major rewriting by the publishers themselves. Agents now package to go. With a side of ‘slaw.

 

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A Development

You may recall i mentioned a development

There i was, slowly re-editing my novel, blogging as i went, bit by bit, steeling myself for forthcoming Self publication, when one of my submission attempts came up with something. Lo and behold, for the first time ever, a real live literary agent wants to see the full thing!

Strike a light!

I hastily dusted it off and sent it. I even pulled out another work in progress and began on that, so as not to worry myself about the probable failure of this latest bite.

And yet – lo and behold – i discover that the agent quite likes it – but with some reservations. There’s a lot to love, he says, but basically, it won’t sell. Would you be willing to discuss more work on it? Yes, i bloomin’ would, i says (i don’t know why but the experience seems to have brought the Dickensian cockney out in me), and now i’ve got an appointment and allsorts.

Lawks! Lumme!

It’s strange how a development like this utterly spins your point of view on the whole thing. One moment you’re finalising, confirming the final details of your story with a fine toothed comb. Those thoughts about about marketing, kindle formatting, what cover you’re going to have are all rising in your mind. You have baked a cake. it is a multi tiered, ornately iced wonder. It is on the table, decorated and lined up next to the flowers and napkins and ready for the guests. Then you get feedback from a distinguished figure who picks up on some aspect you never really thought of and tells you it ought to be changed. Suddenly the table collapses. You grab great fistfuls of the shattered cake, you kick it across the room. It is appalling and exciting all at once. There is the aching sensation of achievement cut with the firm awareness of hard work and potential failure ahead.

Crikey! Gordon Bennett!

I will go and meet with the distinguished figure, and we will see…

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