Darren Nash is editorial director of SF imprint Orbit , and he's the latest honoured guest to our site sharing his tips and advice with would-be writers. Over the weeks asked several industry insiders to answer a Q&A about the fiction-writing life, and as an experienced fiction editor Nash was an ideal choice to answer our practical questions:
SFX: "What's the biggest mistake that inexperienced writers make when trying to get into the SF scene?
Darren Nash: "Probably not appreciating how busy editors are. Submitting a piece of work to a publisher and then following up with an abusive phone call or a sarcastic email when you don't get an immediate response is a very good way to get rejected out of hand, no matter how good you may think you are."
"Common mistakes include clichéd storylines, poor grammar and/or spelling, form letter submissions ('Dear Editor' or, even worse, 'Hi!' is no way to impress somebody you want to read your work), recommendations from relatives (nobody cares whether your Uncle Charlie liked your book – probably not even your Uncle Charlie), smart-aleck submission letters ('You probably won't be interested in this because it's ART not grubby commercial product you can sell to the brainless masses, nevertheless…')."
SFX: How should a new author approach a publisher?
Darren Nash: "Ideally, through an agent. Editors have so much work to do that we don't have the time to sift through unsolicited submissions looking for the rare gems. But that aside, a good rule of thumb is that the more established/well-known you are, the less you need to show up front. Someone of the stature of, say, Terry Pratchett could go into any publishing house in the country and say 'I've been thinking about writing…' and before he'd finished his sentence, the publisher would have the company cheque book out. An unknown writer trying for his or her first break should have nothing less than a finished manuscript before approaching an editor."
SFX: So it's not all just about who you know?
Darren Nash: "No more or less than any other walk of life. You're going to have more editors willing to read your work if you come recommended by Arthur C Clarke than if you come recommended by Arthur Daley. That having been said, you're on your own once the reading begins. There are various paranoid ramblings on the net about publishing being a massive conspiracy to exclude those who aren't 'in the know', but that's simply not true. Contacts can only get you through the door, everything else is up to you. I used to know a guy who was tremendously well-connected – he got lots of jobs because of whose son he was, but he never kept them because he wouldn't put the work in. Same thing in publishing. I'm sure there are a few exceptions, but for the most part, nobody gets published for any reason other than that a publisher sees merit in their work."
SFX: What do you think publishers are looking for in SF and fantasy these days?
Darren Nash: "Would it be terribly cynical to say 'the next Harry Potter'? It's easy to get caught up in the latest bestseller or subgenre – 'publishers want the new JK Rowling! Publishers want the new Terry Pratchett! The new Iain M Banks! The new Robert Jordan! Everyone's talking about the New Weird; quick, let's publish some New Weird books!' But actually, I think what we're all looking for is deceptively simple: good stories, peopled by memorable, well-drawn characters, well told."
SFX: How much interaction is there between you and the writer during the editing process? Do you insist on some changes, or is it a collaborative process of shared ideas?
Darren Nash: "Again, it depends on the writer and the book. Some like to talk through ideas in the middle of writing, others like to finish the entire book before showing anyone. I happen to think the first approach is the most effective, but everyone operates differently.
We should both be trying to make the book as good as it can be so, ideally, it's a collaborative process. I'd hate to have to insist that something change – if an author and editor can't come to a civilised compromise on a book they have more problems than that one difference of opinion."
SFX: As an editor, how would you encourage a writer to keep going when they hit writer's block?
Darren Nash: "Physical violence seems to work well... It really varies from writer to writer. My preferred approach is talking through the problem points and throwing some ideas around until a solution presents (or starts to present) itself. Mind you, that only holds true for strictly 'writerly' reasons; if an author has difficulties in his or her personal life or has just injured themselves in a freak gardening accident, I think you have to let those issues play themselves out naturally."
SFX: Is there a market for short stories at the moment, or is it all about novels?
Darren Nash: "I think there's certainly a readership for short stories, but in the internet age with so many stories appearing free online whether there's a market is a different question. I think you'd be better off asking some writers their opinion on this one, as they'll be the ones who will know how much of their income derives from short fiction!"
SFX: Is there a perfect way to start a story that will catch a publishing company's eye?
Darren Nash: "We don't publish short stories, but I think the same answer applies to short stories and novels. Make the reader/editor interested right from the start. It doesn't matter whether it's done by immediately imposing an intriguing atmosphere (The Darkness That Comes Before, A Game of Thrones), the introduction of an interesting character (American Gods), a vibrant or stylish piece of prose (Neuromancer, The Shadow of the Torturer), an engaging piece of wit (Devices and Desires) or the indication that we aren't 'in Kansas anymore' (Tigana). Lure the reader in as quickly and cleverly as you can."
SFX: Who are the great story writers that you should check out for inspiration if you're an aspiring short story writer these days?
Darren Nash: "My personal predilection is for stories with a bit of a sting in the tale and on that basis, I think you'd have to go a long way to find a better exponent - certainly as far as SF is concerned - than Arthur C Clarke. Roald Dahl, Harlan Ellison, JG Ballard and Neil Gaiman also spring to mind. Unfortunately, I don't get to read much short fiction, these days, as I'm constantly reading and editing novels, but Ted Chiang seems to get shortlisted for pretty much every story he writes, so you could do worse than start with him."
SFX: If you could give one new writer any single piece of creative advice, what would it be?
Darren Nash: "Tell me a story. Don't try to show me how clever you are. Don't try to impress me with your vocabulary. Don't fill your book with pretentious allusions to other artists' work. Just tell me a story; nothing else matters if I don't want to turn the pages."
SFX: Thanks Darren!