Are you ready to enter you short SF story in our Pulp Idol competition? For the last two years, SFX has been running a short story competition, and has given away two volumes of the results on the news-stand. It proved so popular, that we are of course running it for a third year running, and to help you on your way we spoke to a number of people from the SF publishing world to get their insight into the business. Some of them are writers, some are agents, some editors or publishers. What are their tips and tricks for writing fantastic stories? Even if you're not entering the competition, but have aspirations to become a novelist, some of the guidance here will be of use to you.
You can read all the best snippets of advice summarised in the pages of SFX magazine, but here online we're uploading a full interview each week. This week we're helped out by Jo Fletcher, one of the editorial directors at Gollancz. If you saw last year's Pulp Idol book, you will be familiar with Fletcher's name from there.
SFX: What's the most powerful lesson you've learned about the writing business?
"That old truism 'everyone has a book in them' couldn’t be further from the truth! (And even if everyone does have a book in them somewhere, 99% of the time it should stay locked inside them). I suppose the other major lesson I’ve learned is never to underestimate someone’s sensitivity to criticism no matter how hard-nosed they may appear. When you ask someone if they want the truth, most of the time they don’t – they want to hear they’re brilliant, no matter how flawed the work."
SFX: Is there a perfect way to start a short story?
"No, 'fraid not, other than get into the story swiftly; don’t meander around. People want to know what’s going to happen. Every story is different – they have to be, otherwise we’d all have stopped reading long, long ago. Some start with a punch, some are a slow burn. Some begin with fireworks, others with a beautiful phrase or sentence that resonates in your heart or mind. However, I should also say that even the slow burning stories shouldn’t waffle around the point; people will get bored. I’d say avoid clichés, but there are dozens and dozens of clichéd beginnings that end up being brilliant stories."
SFX: As an editor, how do you encourage a writer to keep going and hit their deadlines, when they seem discouraged?
"Different things work for different people: some just want to be left alone to sort it out themselves, others need constant love and attention. You have to be there when they need you, sometimes just to listen, sometimes to advise. You have to learn when honesty isn’t the best policy! And you have to know when bullying is going to do more harm than good. You also have to make sure that they keep writing something, even if it’s not going well. Writing through the problems is the best way to come out the other side. The author/editor relationship is like a marriage (obviously the editor is polygamous!) and as the relationship matures, so you get to know what works best for each individual writer."
"You also have to explain, right at the very start of the publishing relationship, that this is a job, and we can get around most problems – as long as we know there are problems. Editors are many things, but we are not, on the whole, telepathic, so if the writer says, 'Yes, everything’s terrific, I’ll be meeting my deadline,' then we tend to believe them. These are the points that need to be understood at the beginning, that as soon as the writer knows there’s a major problem – I don’t mean a couple of weeks' delay, but if there’s writer’s block, or you’ve decided to rewrite the whole thing in second person passive, or someone’s been taken ill, or there's been a death in the family; whatever the reason is – that’s when you have to tell your editor. We can usually mitigate any problems caused by delay if we know it’s going to happen, but if the author has lied about progress, then we start to run into problems."
"The damage is usually done by over-presenting a book because you didn’t know in time it was going to be late. There’s generally a very long lead time between delivery and publishing, so if we present the book to the trade, get deals done, pump up the excitement – and then discover the book’s going to be six months late, by the time you get around to presenting it again, everyone’s saying, 'Didn’t we do this already? Sounds awfully familiar...' and suchlike, and that almost always has a deleterious effect on sales. I had one much-beloved author, a fabulous writer, who said, 'Listen! That’s it printing, right now – can’t you hear it?' Whatever his printer was churning out in the background it wasn’t my book, which didn’t turn up for another year, by which time the sales force were so sick and tired of hearing about that particular book that it sank like a stone when it did eventually come out. Mind you, that’s not the story you tell someone when they’re in the middle of a crisis! At that point you are loving and supportive and you provide them with whatever it is they need to get the job done, whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or high heels and a whip..."
SFX: What's the biggest mistake that inexperienced writers make when trying to get into the SF scene?
"Not reading enough, either in the genre or outside. If you don’t know what’s gone before, you don’t know what’s really an original idea. If you’ve not read much SF, you might think building an elevator to the moon is the coolest idea ever – and not realise that one of the world’s most successful SF writers ever had that particular idea 30 years ago – Arthur C. Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise was published in 1979... and Charles Sheffield's first novel, The Web Between the Worlds, also published in 1979, features the building of a space elevator. Robert A Heinlein's novel Friday, published in 1982, has a space-elevator type construct, the Nairobi Beanstalk, Larry Niven’s Rainbow Mars, a few years later, has a Hanging Tree, an organic Skyhook. So it doesn’t mean you can’t use that idea, but you do need to use it originally – and even if you’ve never read Fountains of Paradise, for example, you can bet your bottom dollar that a great many of your potential readers will have, and may well think you’re ripping off a master, even if you’re doing it unknowingly."
SFX: So, how should a new author approach a publisher?
"Every editor will have her or his preferred methods. Some publishing houses will not look at un-agented material at all; others will only ever look at a synopsis and the first three chapters; others will want the whole thing. No first-time writer should submit an unfinished novel or story. It’s the easiest thing in the world to start a story; we need to see you can finish it. (And yes, I accept there are always exceptions to every rule. And I, like a great many other publishers, have been burned that way. Once!)"
"In general, you should submit a synopsis (two pages is fine) and the first three chapters or 60 pages and a covering letter with name, contact details and anything else that is directly pertinent to your submission. Working as an astrophysicist is pertinent to submitting an SF novel. It is not pertinent to submitting a historical romance about Boudicca. Telling me that Harlan Coben read your thriller and is prepared to give you a quote is pertinent. Telling me your brother, great-aunt, neighbour, milkman and the cat wept aloud when they read your prose is not. Telling me you’ve won a writing competition is vaguely pertinent. Telling me you were Mr Southend-on-Sea StudMuffin 1976 is not. Everything should be double-spaced (I have to read the synopsis as well as the chapters) and unbound – no fancy stitching, stapling or folders are necessary and if you do send it in some nice folder the truth is you’re not likely to get it back, not because I’ve ripped it off, but because I’ve extracted the pages to read on the way to or from work and by the time I come to reject it, I have no memory that it came in anything, let alone where it is. Do not use fancy fonts, coloured paper or ink. Do not draw your own cover or write your own cover blurb or reviews. Check your spelling and grammar. Check it again. And again. If you can’t be bothered to get it right, why should I be bothered to read it? Include an SAE or postage if you want your material returned, or state that it is recyclable if it is not suitable (the latter is preferable for me). Never send non-consecutive chapters because chapters three, 17 and 33 are your best writing. How am I going to be able to judge plot and character development that way?"
"Finally, always get the name (and sex if it’s not obvious) of the person to whom you are submitting: I still receive submissions addressed to (1) my Gollancz predecessor who died in 1996; (2) my Orion predecessor who left in 1998, (3) the temp who was with us for a few weeks in 2005 and (4) Mr Jo Fletcher; Joe Fletcher; Mrs Joe Fletcher; and various combinations of the above..."
"And once you’ve submitted, remember that the slush pile comes a very long way down any editor’s to-do list, so just wait patiently until someone gets back to you. If you keep asking, the chances are it’ll be rejected just to get it off the desk. And never ask for criticism or advice if you’ve been turned down. We don’t have the time."
SFX: Should an author be encouraged to write what they love, or what sells?
"Write what you love. That’s it. The difference between work-for-hire and work for the love of it is usually pretty obvious. If you’re writing a space-race thriller just because right now space-race thrillers look to be hot, you’re probably wasting your time; apart from anything else, there’s a very long lead time between finishing a book, submitting it, getting it accepted and getting it published and by the time it comes out, it may be that readers are sick to the back teeth of space-race thrillers; they’re all going for werewolf chick lit now instead. If you’ve written your space-race thriller because it’s what you love and if it’s brilliant, then you’ve still got a good chance..."
"But you do have to be pragmatic. If horror’s not selling at all, the chances of an editor buying a horror book are pretty slim, no matter how good. (That’s where luck plays a big part: you need in that case to land on the desk of someone who thinks your book is the greatest thing in ages and is prepared to fight tooth and nail to publish it in a non-existent or even hostile market). Right now fantasy’s in the ascendant, but that doesn’t mean hard SF is dead – very far from it; on the Gollancz list alone we have the absolute best in the field. Writers like Alastair Reynolds, Stephen Baxter, Richard Morgan, Gwyneth Jones, Paul McAuley, Roger Levy, Adam Roberts, Ian McDonald, Greg Bear, Justina Robson, and not forgetting newcomer Jaine Fenn, of course, have not been put off by the fact that fantasy seems to dominate the genre bestseller lists, and their sales are increasing. They write what they love, and readers in turn love it too."
SFX: If you could give one new writer any single piece of creative advice, what would it be?
"Read, and write. (I know that’s technically two, but you must do both.) The more you read, across all genres and styles, fiction and non-fiction, the better equipped you’ll be, even if you’re not knowingly taking anything in. Osmosis is a wonderful thing. There are writers who are so worried about being accused of plagiarism that they no longer read fiction, which I think is an enormous loss to them – but they do still read, voraciously: after all, there is an equally vast range of ideas, style and delivery in non-fiction, and plenty of thrilling stories which have been brought to life by the power of the writer’s imagination and the skill of her/his writing. I truly do not believe you can be a brilliant writer if you’re not constantly expanding your mind, both by using your own imagination, and by reading the fruits of other writers’ imaginations. And you must write, all the time, to exercise that creative muscle, otherwise, when you do finally pick up that pen or turn on the computer or put a new tape into the recorder, you’ll find it horribly hard to get started again. Different things work for different people, but for most a routine is invaluable, whether it’s an hour before work, or two hours at night, or using the commute, or your lunch break: but be consistent, and don’t let the weather or a cold or ‘just don’t feel like it’ get in the way."
SFX: Thanks Jo!
Find out more about Jo's books at the Gollancz website .
You'll get more author, agent and editor interviews every week here on the SFX site while the Pulp Idol 2008 competition runs. We've spoken to loads of big names from the world of SF writing and they've kindly given us their tips and advice for aspiring science fiction and fantasy authors. Check back here regularly, and also look out for our writing features in the pages of SFX 169, 170 and 171.