Welcome back to our weekly Q&A session with people from inside the fiction publishing business. This year we've been thrilled to get some of the finest SF writers, agents and editors to offer their tips on writing SF. This week it's a double-whammy: we're honoured to have an interview with both Gillian Redfearn (editor) and Simon Spanton (editorial director) at Gollancz . We quizzed them for tips and advice for our readers who may be thinking of putting pen to paper themselves.
SFX: Is there a perfect way to start a short story that will catch a publisher/editor's eye?
Simon Spanton: "There's no formula for making the beginning of a story stand out, almost by definition. Just make it as good as you possibly can. Get into the story straight away, get the reader empathising with the characters from the word go. You don't have time for set up. Try and make sure something happens straight away, or start with something having just happened and look at the implications for the characters. You have to get the reader inside the heads of the characters from the word go and you do that either through events or (and this is more risky) through a piece of really eye-popping prose that grabs the reader's attention. But even then the prose has to say something about the characters."
SFX: So what's the most powerful lesson you've learned about the writing business in the time that you've been working in it?
Spanton: "Being good isn't good enough - you have to be excellent or at the very least good and very different. The hardest rejections are when you are so close to being publishable you can smell it, but you have yet to take that final step. And the step you need to take may very well be different for each and every editor you send your work to."
Gillian Redfearn: "Authors do an incredibly difficult job. There's nothing easy about writing a novel. It's a long, hard and difficult process that requires stamina, enthusiasm and a near bloody-minded dedication to get it written. Authors have to smile in face of rejection letters, discouragement and bad reviews - which, sooner or later every author receives. It's a much tougher business than it looks, and the magic is that the best authors make it look effortless."
SFX: As an editor, how do you encourage a writer to keep going when they hit writer's block?
Spanton: "Just write. Even if what you are writing isn't up to scratch and you end up throwing it away that's still better than writing nothing and will, in the end be less soul destroying. And if you are going to be discouraged by the odds and by the hard work you shouldn't be wasting your time trying to get published. As someone once said – anyone who can discouraged from writing should be."
Redfearn: "I guess the first author rule is Know Your Deadlines, followed by Know Your Limits. If an author has a deadline they can't realistically meet then everyone has a problem, and the solution is always to discuss it and find a reasonable solution. Happy authors write novels much faster (and much more effectively!) than unhappy ones, and sometimes talking about a problem resolves it. The same is true for writer's block – if someone's genuinely stuck then sometimes talking about the difficulties helps find a solution simply by throwing a fresh perspective on it. Conversely, taking a step back and giving an author space can be the best approach. It's a question of judging what the problem is, communicating with the author, and making sure they're aware that if they need help there's always someone they can come to."
SFX: How should a new author approach a publisher? Do you need to see evidence of published work, a complete novel, a summary, an idea on the back of an envelope...?
Redfearn: "A lot of writers come to publishers trying to sell a synopsis, or an unwritten novel. There are occasional exceptions, but with debut novelists we really look for a complete novel. Putting together over 100,000 words – sometimes twice that to do a project justice – is much harder than it sounds and having a brilliant idea is only the first step (albeit a crucial one). Show us you can write the whole thing, and your fantastic idea will get a much better reception!"
Spanton: "Send a letter, a good three or four page synopsis and the first 50 pages from a novel that you have already finished."
Redfearn: "And don't pull punches in your synopsis, we don't need to be intrigued we need to know what your book is like. So tell us. if your twist is a great one, put it in the synopsis! That's your very best chance of getting us to pick up your novel and read it."
SFX: Should an author be encouraged to write what they love, or what sells? Fantasy does well at the moment, so does that mean an aspiring author should keep his nose out of hard SF?
Redfearn: "Write what you love. If you don't love it, why should anyone else?"
Spanton: "Yes, write what you love. Trends are to be broken. If you don't enjoy writing, but do it anyway in the hope it will sell, the chances are it won't anyway. It's all about the passing on of enthusiasm. And as for trends in novels... what is selling now was written two years ago, what you are writing now will be published in two years time. Four years is a hell of a time lag when you are trying to ride the crest of a trend. And if you love what you are writing then you have a better chance of finishing your book. No-one gets an unfinished novel published."
SFX: What do you think readers are looking for in good SF and fantasy these days?
Spanton: "What any readers of any fiction are looking for any day – good stories featuring characters they feel for (whether love or hate). Simple as that. SF and fantasy does not have any special let outs."
SFX: If you could give one new writer any single piece of creative advice, what would it be?
Spanton: "Read. A lot. If you're not already writing whenever you can you don't want it enough but you have to read a lot as well – that's how you learn what techniques and tricks pull your bell-rope. It's just another form of writing practice. And if you're not a reader why do you want to be a writer? And you can write without being published – so keep it up. And have fun. No-one holds a gun to writers head and says 'You have to be a writer!' If it stays your hobby there's more chance it will become your job as well."
SFX: Thanks folks!
Find out more about the Gollancz range over at the official website . Gillian Redfearn and Simon Spanton are colleagues of Jo Fletcher, who we interviewed here . See you next week on the SFX site for more Q&As from the SF and fantasy publishing world.