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Agent interview: John Jarrold

Agent and script doctor John Jarrold has run three science fiction and fantasy imprints in the UK and edited many noted authors. Running his own agency these days he acts on behalf of over forty authors, and his site (which you can check out here ) includes some top tips for those hoping to get published. We asked him to share some of that experience with us.

SFX: Is there a perfect way to start a short story that will catch a publisher’s eye?
John Jarrold:
"Make it a novel."

SFX: What do you think publishers are looking for in good SF fiction?
John Jarrold:
"Great story – and opening hook – fluid prose, invention, characters."

SFX: What’s the most powerful lesson you’ve learned about SF writing?
John Jarrold:
"From a publishers’ point-of-view, never buy a book cynically – but equally, never buy a book just because you like it personally, consider the commerciality too. And from a writers’ point-of-view, don’t write to make money, or make a living. Most authors with whom I have worked, as a publisher or an agent, have day jobs."

SFX: What’s the biggest mistake that inexperienced writers make when trying to break into the SF scene?
John Jarrold:
"Not using point-of-view properly (or at all), awful dialogue, cardboard characters, trying to write like a favourite author from 20 or 30 years ago, using large dumps of information."

SFX: Is it a good idea to go on a course? Can you teach creativity?
John Jarrold:
"It’ll depend on the author. Some prefer to work alone, others thrive on the workshop environment. And writing cannot be taught if there is no talent there in the first place. It isn’t like carpentry. Most people will never be able to write fiction to a publishable standard – if that is what they desire. But if talent is there, it can certainly be nurtured."

SFX: What’s the market like at the moment - how hard is it for a new writer to get picked up?
John Jarrold:
"Basically, novels are where the market is. And – quite rightly – it’s bloody difficult to sell a first novel. Every editor sees over 30 books each and every week, and might take on two debuts over an entire year. I’ve done nine deals for debut SF and fantasy authors in the last two years, but there are a number of others I've submitted very optimistically who have not received any offers at all."

SFX: What advice do you have for somebody starting out, perhaps getting discouraged by rejections?
John Jarrold:
"Keep writing. If you’re going to stop because you are discouraged by rejections, you weren’t a writer in the first place."

SFX: If you could give one new writer any single piece of advice, what would it be?
John Jarrold:
"Keep writing, keep reading, and if you want commercial publication, be aware of the market. Please note: this does not mean 'write like Iain M Banks'. But it does mean, be aware that in 2008, the SF and fantasy market is not exactly the same as it was in 1988, when I started working with Orbit. Every area of the publishing market changes, and if commercial publication is your goal it is stupid and unprofessional not to know the present situation in the genre in which you wish to be published. A new writer expects a publisher or agent to deal with them professionally. Extend them the same courtesy. I am horrified by the number of new writers who say they want to write SF but have never heard of Alastair Reynolds or Charles Stross, for instance. No one exists in a vacuum – your work will be compared with the best and most successful SF or fantasy writers of the past five years or so (not long-term bestsellers). And if it is found wanting, you’ll be turned down. Sorry, not simple advice, but heartfelt!"

SFX: Thanks John!

Find out more about John Jarrold at his official site here , and be sure to watch out for more fiction business tips and advice on the SFX site in future.