The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year – Volume 8

Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy - Vol 8I’m very happy to say that editor and anthologist Jonathan Strahan has just announced the contents of The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy  of the Year (Volume 8) and that he has selected my story ‘The Irish Astronaut’  for the book.

I’m really very pleased with this and very grateful to Mr. Strahan for seeing fit to include the story alongside work from a very intimidating group of writers including Ted Chiang, Neil Gaiman, Geoff Ryman, M. John Harrison, Ian McDonald, and many more. 

From the Amazon description: “The best, most original and brightest science fiction and fantasy stories from around the globe from the past twelve months are brought together in one collection by multiple award winning editor Jonathan Strahan. This highly popular series now reaches volume eight and will include stories from both the biggest names in the field and the most exciting new talents.”

I heard Mr. Strahan speak at last year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton and it gave me a real appreciation for the thought and effort he puts into crafting his anthologies. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how all these pieces work together as a volume.

CONTENTS (Via Jonathanstrahan.com.au)

  •  Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
  • “Some Desperado”, Joe Abercrombie (Dangerous Women)
  • “Zero for Conduct”, Greg Egan (Twelve Tomorrows)
  • “Effigy Nights”, Yoon Ha Lee (Clarkesworld)
  • “Rosary and Goldenstar”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF)
  • “The Sleeper and the Spindle”, Neil Gaiman (Rags and Bones)
  • “Cave and Julia”, M. John Harrison (Kindle Singles)
  • “The Herons of Mer de l’Ouest”, M Bennardo (Lightspeed)
  • “Water”, Ramez Naam (An Aura of Familiarity)
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”, Ted Chiang (Subterranean)
  • “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Tor.com)
  • “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls”, Richard Parks (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • “Rag and Bone”, Priya Sharma (Tor.com)
  • “The Book Seller”, Lavie Tidhar (Interzone)
  • “The Sun and I”, K J Parker (Subterranean)
  • “The Promise of Space”, James Patrick Kelly (Clarkesworld)
  • “The Master Conjurer”, Charlie Jane Anders (Lightspeed)
  • “The Pilgrim and the Angel”, E. Lily Yu (McSweeney’s 45)
  • “Entangled”, Ian R Macleod (Asimov’s)
  • “Fade to Gold”, Benjanun Sriduangkaew (End of the Road)
  • “Selkies Stories are for Losers”, Sofia Samatar (Strange Horizons)
  • “In Metal, In Bone”, An Owomoyela (Eclipse Online)
  • “Kormack the Lucky”, Eleanor Arnason (F&SF)
  • “Sing”, Karin Tidbeck (Tor.com)
  • “Social Services”, Madeline Ashby (An Aura of Familiarity)
  • “The Road of Needles”, Caitlín R Kiernan (Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales)
  • “Mystic Falls”, Robert Reed (Clarkesworld)
  • “The Queen of Night’s Aria”, Ian McDonald (Old Mars)
  • “The Irish Astronaut”, Val Nolan (Electric Velocipede)

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Volume 8) will be published by Solaris in the UK, Ireland, and Australia this May.

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The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 31st Annual Collection

Year's Best Science FictionThe table of contents was announced via SF Signal last night so I guess it’s official now: my story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ has been selected by Gardner Dozois for the 31st edition of his multi-award-winning annual anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction (to be published in hardcover and paperback by St. Martin’s Press in July).

It’s a real thrill to be included alongside some of my favorite authors (there are people here who I’m sure my friends are well tired of me talking about at this point!) as well as what promises to be very exciting work by writers I wouldn’t be as familiar with (and discovering the latter is always one of the great treats of the Year’s Best series) . I’m humbled and awed in equal measure. Also very thankful to Mr. Dozois!

And of course of I’m very grateful too to John Klima at Electric Velocipede for originally publishing ‘The Irish Astronaut’ back in May, as well as to those who responded so favorably to the story since then.

CONTENTS

  • “The Discovered Country” by Ian R. MacLeod
  • “The Book Seller” by Lavie Tidhar
  • “Pathways” by Nancy Kress
  • “A Heap of Broken Images” by Sunny Moraine
  • “Rock of Ages” by Jay Lake
  • “Rosary and Goldenstar” by Geoff Ryman
  • “Gray Wings” by Karl Bunker
  • “The Best We Can” by Carrie Vaughn
  • “Transitional Forms” by Paul McAuley
  • “Precious Mental” by Robert Reed
  • “Martian Blood” by Allen M. Steele
  • “Zero For Conduct” by Greg Egan
  • “The Waiting Stars” by Aliette de Bodard
  • “A Map of Mercury” by Alastair Reynolds
  • “One” by Nancy Kress
  • “Murder on the Aldrin Express” by Martin L. Shoemaker
  • “Biographical Fragments of the Life of Julian Prince” by Jake Kerr
  • “The Plague” by Ken Liu
  • “Fleet” by Sandra McDonald
  • “The She-Wolf’s Hidden Grin” by Michael Swanwick
  • “Bad Day on Boscobel” by Alexander Jablokov
  • “The Irish Astronaut” by Val Nolan
  • “The Other Gun” by Neal Asher
  • “Only Human” by Lavie Tidhar
  • “Entangled” by Ian R. MacLeod
  • “Earth 1″ by Stephen Baxter
  • “Technarion” by Sean McMullen
  • “Finders” by Melissa Scott
  • “The Queen of Night’s Aria” by Ian McDonald
  • “Hard Stars” by Brendan DuBois
  • “The Promise of Space” by James Patrick Kelly
  • “Quicken” by Damien Broderick

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‘The Cleggan Project’: John McGahern’s Unproduced Screenplay

So I’ve been deep in the John McGahern archives here at NUI Galway of late preparing some preliminary offerings from my project to contextualize John McGahern’s screenwriting efforts (mostly unproduced) within his larger body of work. While I intend this to be a reasonably lengthy article when it’s complete, I’ll be delivering a paper this weekend on one McGahern script in particular – an untitled screenplay set around Cleggan Co. Galway –  at the 10th annual North East Irish Culture Network (NEICN) conference at the University of Sunderland.

Though never produced, the Cleggan film is of a piece with McGahern’s sustained investigation of Irish community living and the transformative challenges it faced in the second half of the Twentieth Century: ‘Again it is about family,’ he writes in notes describing his protagonist, the widowed schoolmaster James Lacey (‘56 years of age, handsome, athletic – a golfer and sailor – intelligent, uncomplicated’) and the small village existence he has lived all his life.

Through reference to Lacey and his supporting characters, the film’s narrative style, and its isolated rural setting, this paper is going to look at how the Cleggan project fits within McGahern’s established oeuvre. Specifically I’ll be examining the extent to which a thematic dialogue exists between the draft screenplay and McGahern’s 1990 novel Amongst Women.

The panel that I’m part of, which also offers presentations on playwright Gary Mitchell and short story writer Claire Keegan, begins at 3:15 pm next Saturday, November 10th, at Sunderland’s Priestman Building (Room 103).

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The Wisdom of Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

Like many today, I was saddened to hear of the death of Ray Bradbury, one of the giants of Fantasy and Science Fiction literature, and – for that matter – literature full stop.

Perusing the tributes on Twitter this evening I was struck not just by the warmth expressed towards him from readers all around the world, but also by the man’s great wisdom, the brief nuggets of truth he had cause to gift us in his life and which are being shared in people’s tweets tonight.

I’ve been jotting down these quotations as I go along and, while Mr. Bradbury’s immortality is already assured, his short, sharp observations are so joyful, so relevant to all of our lives that there can be few better ways to remember him than by taking a moment to appreciate the world the way that he did…

Ray  Bradbury on Reading:

  • “Love what you love.”
  • “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money.”
  • “Libraries raised me. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
  • “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Ray  Bradbury on Writing:

  • “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”
  • “Thinking is the enemy of creativity… You can’t try to do things, you simply must do things.”
  • “You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
  • “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
  • “Some new thing is always exploding in me; and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it.”
  • “Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.”
  • “First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.”
  • “We save up a tension for tears. So I as a writer come along and try to help you to cry.”
  • “Don’t just talk about it… Write.”

 Ray  Bradbury on Living:

  • “Living at risk is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.”
  • “We belong only by doing, and we own only by doing, and we love only by doing and knowing”
  • “If you don’t like what you’re doing, then don’t do it.”
  • “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.”
  • “The blizzard doesn’t last forever; it just seems so.”
  • “We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”
  • “We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
  • “Looking back over a lifetime, you see love was the answer to everything.”
  • “Get out of here tonight and ask yourself: ‘Am I being joyful?’
  • “Fall in love, stay in love. Find something you love and love it for a lifetime.”

Why I Write Book Reviews…

The reviews pages of the Irish ExaminerI had an interview a few months ago for a position at a small university just outside of London. The meeting with the teaching staff before lunch was very pleasant, more like a chat between (potential) colleagues than anything else. Actually, it was very positive. Kind of a surprise so when the interview with the Higher Ups and Admin types in the afternoon was a little more combative. In fact, after a number of other interview experiences in the last year, that afternoon session has started to seem more and more belligerent. In particular, there was one part which sticks with me:

Panel Member: ‘I’m looking at your CV and I see an awful lot of reviews. You’re very productive.’

Me: ‘Thank you.’

Panel Member: ‘No, that wasn’t a compliment…’

Welcome to academia! Now, one of the reasons I didn’t secure that job was that the panel wished to hire someone with an already extensive list of peer-reviewed articles – for which the author will never get paid – and considered my newspaper work – an important part of my living – to be a distraction from more ‘academic’ pursuits. Why? Well, like most things, it’s all down to money. Anyone working in or interviewing for academic positions in the UK (and, increasingly, here in Ireland) will be familiar with how university funding has become linked to the publication output of a particular department’s academics. The result of this is that the person with the most journal articles gets the job because the hiring institution will (in the UK anyway) be able to use those publications in their REF applications:

Me: ‘I do have a number of forthcoming publications. For instance, I have an article on McGahern which looks at –’

Panel Member: ‘How many pages is that?’

Me: ‘Sorry, what?’

Panel Member: ‘How. Many. Pages. Is. That?’

Me: ‘I don’t know, it’s not published yet. I can tell you how long it is. It’s 11,000 words.’

Panel Member: ‘That’ll do. What else do you have?’

Because that, apparently, is the criteria on REF application forms: ‘how many pages have your academics published?’. Not, ‘what breakthroughs have your academics made?’ or ‘how has the contribution of your academics been received in their fields?’ but ‘how many pages have they published?’. More pages equal more money, and though said academic wrote them for free, he or she needs them in order to get the job and make a living.

It’s an awkward Catch-22 (or ‘crocodile’, as I’m told the term was way-back-when!) for early career academics such as myself. Yet what certain funds-hungry members of the interview panel at <Name Redacted> University College failed to or declined to acknowledge is that my aims aren’t so different from theirs. Yes, I write book reviews because I love reading and I love writing about what I read – in fact that’s my main reason – but I also write them in order to earn a living. My lecturing and teaching roles have thus far been part-time and, though I aspire to work full time as a lecturer (at which point I hope to be in a financial situation stable enough to expend the necessary time and effort on a greater number of journal articles) I’m happy to bolster my income until then with reviewing. There are many reasons for this. The main ones are that reviewing:

  • Lets me use my education and experience for financial gain (hey, rent!)
  • Allows me to exercise my writing skills and critical thinking (use ‘em or lose ‘em, folks!)
  • Ensures that I see my work in print within a very reasonable timescale (mere weeks versus the months, often years, of academic journals)
  • Enables me to communicate my ideas about contemporary fiction to a much wider audience than a journal publication (sad but true).

While I intend to write fewer reviews once I secure a more permanent position, I won’t be giving them up entirely because there’s another reason I think they’re important: I firmly believe that it’s crucial for those in the university to contribute to the discussion of their fields through the popular media. In the case of book reviewing it comprises the leading-edge of literary criticism, that ‘first look’ at contemporary writing; more generally though, academics in the media represent a valuable and highly visible rebuttal of the perceived disconnect between the ‘ivory tower’ and the ‘man on the street’. It’s something that I think people like the Panel Member above disregard too readily. In an age when the usefulness of the Arts is questioned more than even, when university lecturers are perceived as doing nothing all day (I can tell you it’s far from that!), there’s a lot to be said for seeing ‘So-and-So lectures on this topic at Such-a-Such University’ at the bottom of an article. It reminds people that the real role of universities is sharing knowledge and contributing to the wider community. Even if the message communicated is as simple as ‘Hey, look! We have things to say about what you’re reading!’ That’s far from a bad thing.

If more people were to realize this then it might go some way towards combating the poor reputation of the book review in the current academic job climate. I’ve been thinking about this over the last week as a friend of mine recently attended a professional development conference and kindly shared the major points. One of the things she reported was that participants were told ‘no one reading a CV will be impressed by fifteen reviews and no articles, so keep a balance’. That conference was aimed at Historians, but their discipline is close enough to Literature for the same rules of thumb to apply. What the speakers there said has a certain truth to it, yes, but it’s important to note that when they say ‘reviews’ they’re speaking about reviews in academic journals, a fundamentally different beast to the newspaper review. The main distinction is that almost nobody reads the former, something which can be said of academic journals across the board. Mind you, I wish that wasn’t true; I write and publish articles in academic journals, pouring my heart and soul into work on topics which I hope will appeal to people (check out my recent John McGahern and Flann O’Brien pieces if you so wish), but realistically I know that only a handful of interested specialists or quote-mining students will see – let alone read – these publications. Conversely, newspaper and media reviews are widely received and allow scholars and critics to build up productive relationships with many literary people outside of the academy (because, let’s face it, sometimes the insular nature of university life can make one forget that there’s a whole wide world outside its walls). Certainly that’s been my tremendously enjoyable experience of freelance newspaper work over the last half decade, first with the Sunday Business Post and, in the last two years, with the Irish Examiner. Writing reviews has helped me keep a roof over my head, absolutely, but it’s also helped me become a better critic, a better scholar, and it’s ensured that I’ve had fun doing so.

There may not be a box on an REF form for that, but maybe there ought to be.

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Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O’Brien’s Surprising Synthesis

Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXI #3

Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXI #3

Another recent publication I’m very happy to have out in the world is my essay ‘Flann, Fantasy, and Science Fiction: O’Brien’s Surprising Synthesis’ which has just been published in the Flann O’Brien centenary issue of the journal Review of Contemporary Fiction (Vol. XXXI, #3; edited by Neil Murphy and Keith Hopper).

The article examines Flann O’Brien’s writing as a unique form of speculative writing, a locus for the collision of Ireland’s rich fantasy tradition with the twentieth century’s idiom of science and technology . Since Einsteinian readings of O’Brien have been performed before, as have analyses of the author’s folkloric satires, this article is intended to complement existing scholarship by focusing on the synthesis of O’Brien’s scientific literacy and his struggle to reconcile such knowledge with mid-twentieth century Irish Catholicism, ‘the most developed and consistent manifestation of the fantasy tradition in this country’.

Central to this is an analysis of O’Brien’s De Selby character who, through his fantastical and technological irresponsibility, embodies both sides of the divide between tradition and modernity, and so challenges any clear distinction between the two. Functioning as a forward-looking, fake-scientist counterpart to that backward-looking, real-life mathematician and ‘other de’, Éamon de Valera, De Selby personifies O’Brien’s tongue-in-cheek combination of atomic theory, relativity, time travel, and ‘Omnium’ with parodic representations of spirituality, a project which culminates in The Dalkey Archive with De Selby’s attempts to use an artificial element to destroy the world in the name of God.

Using close examination of texts including The Third Policeman and The Dalkey Archive, this article demonstrates how O’Brien’s use of language and reference aims not to reject tradition but to incorporate aspects of Irish fantasy and religiosity into a new scientific age. In the aftermath of mass industrialisation, along with the World War and mooted nuclear destruction which characterised the era of The Third Policeman’s composition (and, later, the dystopian, post-War condition of Europe, let alone the Iron Curtain era in which The Dalkey Archive was written), O’Brien uses De Selby to satirise not only the rampant, destructive pace of change, but also a parochial Irish imagination to which all science is not just science fictional, but – to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke – ‘indistinguishable from magic’.

As ever, anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via their electronic resources, though if you’re having trouble with that or are beyond the paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, of course, but society and economics aren’t exactly there yet.

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Irish Times Flash Fiction – ‘Chairs’

I’m pleased to say that the Irish Times recently published my short story ‘Chairs’ as part of their ongoing Flash Fiction series. An attempt to capture the experience of carers or those whose family members suffer from long-term disabilities, ‘Chairs’ is a piece I’m quite satisfied with. Hopefully it is the kind of thing which readers will find some meaning in.

'Chairs' (Click to Enlarge)

‘Chairs’ was originally published in the Irish Times, 25th January 2012, p.12, and also on their website (though I think the paragraphing is much more effective in the print version above).

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The Higgs boson? It was just here in the bar…

Have you seen the Higgs?

With this afternoon’s CERN press conference raising the newsworthiness of the Higgs boson once more, it seems like everyone is talking about the universe’s most famous (and elusive) particle again.  While CERN’s resident Higgsologists presented a considerable amount of data, enough to make significant progress in the search for the particle, they still weren’t able to conclusively state if it does or does not exist.

Now, I’m no particle physicist, but I once had a go at locating the Higgs in my story ‘All the Wrong Places’, published in Australia’s Cosmos magazine back in February 2010. You can read the full piece via this link.

“This is really funny, light absurdity,” Locus said about the story, a farce about how the search for the Higgs has wormed its way into popular culture. Its protagonists are two C-list physicists tracking the Higgs through its various adventures:

“Evidence was mounting that we should forget about electroweak parameters and particle accelerators. Instead we started measuring Michelin Stars and blagging our way into exclusive after-parties. We bought sunglasses and expensive cameras. We started hanging around fancy hotels and passing grubby bills to every sticky-fingered concierge that we could find.”

A little over two years have gone by since I wrote ‘All the Wrong Places’ and I feel like I’ve developed a lot as a writer since then (always forward, right?). Looking back on it, there are some things I would change about the story (in particular, the excursion to CERN strikes me as ground zero for any potential redraft) and, if I was writing it today, I’d also include something about the Higgs saving the Euro. I suppose topicality is a double-edged sword though, so maybe that particular omission is for the best. Still, this is a piece I really like, the kind of story which allows me to indulge my super-frivolous mode (sorry, Science!). I hope you enjoy it.

A History of the John McGahern Banning Controversy

Irish Studies Review

I meant to plug this sooner, but ‘If it was Just Th’oul Book …’: A History of the McGahern Banning Controversy – my article on the banning of John McGahern in 1965 – was published a little while ago in the Irish Studies Review. It’s the first time this crucial event in McGahern’s life has been looked at it any depth.

The article examines the banning of John McGahern’s novel The Dark in Ireland in 1965, along with the subsequent controversy surrounding its author’s dismissal from his teaching position in Dublin. This so-called McGahern Affair provoked wide-ranging and vigorous debate about both the censorship legislation and the role of clerical authority in the Irish educational system. Throughout the article I delve pretty heavily into contemporary journalism, reviews, parliamentary records, and letters-to-editors to construct the most detailed account available of this central event in the development of McGahern’s reputation, with the involvement of figures such as Bishop John Charles McQuaid, journalist Peter Lennon, and Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington contextualised against the social transformation of 1960s Ireland.

Anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via the link above, though if you’re having trouble with that or are locked out by the ivory tower paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, etc., etc.

For what’s it’s worth, the gestation of this project was a curious one. It was originally an idea for a short story, an alternate history of what might have happened if McGahern had not been banned.  The process of putting together the divergent timeline necessitated researching what actually happened in considerable detail, with the lack of one single history of the banning sending me deep into the embarrassment of riches offered by the newspapers of the era. It didn’t take long to conclude that reality was far more fascinating than anything I was going to make up on the topic.

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Thoughts on the Penguin Ireland Publishing Workshop

As some of you know, I won this year’s Penguin Ireland/RTÉ Short Story Competition and, in addition to having my story published in the RTÉ Guide, I was invited (along with the top runners-up) to a publishing workshop held last month in the excellent facilities of Dublin’s Pearse St. Library.

The workshop was designed to give potential authors a sense of the marketplace and the publication process. It was attended by editors from Penguin, by the Books Purchasing Manager of Eason’s, by Agents, Editors, and published authors. Naturally, everyone there had useful things to say and so I’ve condensed the most relevant into this report, taking the liberty of including some of my own thoughts and also bits of wisdom picked up elsewhere. Hopefully it will be of use to some of you, though of course some of the information is blindingly obvious but most of it – even things people have figured out for themselves – is material that still ought to be said to anyone hoping to make it in the scribbling business. In any event, it’s probably useful to have it all laid out like this in one spot.

Overview:

That publishers and their editors are hungry for new material couldn’t have been clearer from the workshop day, however publishers and editors are interested in material they can sell. Almost all the speakers from both the editorial and agent sides of things said they were looking for ‘High Concept’ material, though I felt very strongly throughout that they misunderstood the meaning of the term. For instance, when I say ‘High Concept’, I’m talking about a literature of ideas, Haruki Murakami or Philip K. Dick or Kim Stanley Robinson; the speakers at this workshop seemed to mean Ross O’Carroll Kelly when they used the phrase. Moreover, pretty much every agent and editor began with a variation on “I don’t accept science-fiction…’. Disappointing, but I guess that’s Ireland.

In terms of the marketplace, everybody wants the novel. ‘Vaguely contemporary stuff’ and strong, gripping stories are what’s being sought. One of the quotes from the day that struck me the most was, ‘Nice stories by nice people aren’t selling’. That’s not to say that everyone has to be Chuck Palahniuk, but it does mean that your lovely little novel about making cookies with Grandma is probably not going to find a publisher.

Humour is good, quirky voices still seem to have cachet, but ‘frothy, superficial humour is dead in the water’. We were advised to do ‘something similar and something new at the same time’, a statement so vague that I’m inclined to revert to the good old-fashioned ‘Be yourself’ instead. I think they’re both pretty valid pieces of advice.

Agents, providing you’re lucky enough to find one, must fit your personality as much as your work. This was mentioned by more than one of the participants as something of greater importance than first time authors realize. for the record, it’s also  something which came up in discussion when I attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD. An agent, we determined there, had to combine at least three different guises: a ‘friend hat’, an ‘editor hat’, and a ‘therapist hat’. In all, of course, the purpose of your agent is to be your representative; to find you a publisher, to negotiate your contract, and to fight on your behalf. A lot of agents will also help you edit your work, especially that – given the state of the industry at the moment – work publishers receive from agents has to be perfect. On the publisher side, many houses are looking for a two book deal, meaning two books in a broadly similar genre, the purpose being to try and establish an identity or a brand.

As such, writers need to be honest with themselves, which I think is tremendous advice. The question was asked: ‘What do you want to write?’ and I agree that it’s important for authors to follow where their ideas take them and to really embrace that honesty, particularly in the case of voice and genre. One also needs to ask: What do you want from your writing? Do you want:

  • To get published regardless of money, outlet and/or audience?
  • To make a living?
  • To write the best work you can possibly write?

While the workshop day offered these as absolutes in their own right, I reckon it’s more of a spectrum. I think you can want to get published and want write the best work you can (or, for that matter, the genre you’re most interested in). It’s pretty much how I feel about it, but it’s easy to have these ideas when one is outside looking in, huh?

Certainly I don’t expect to immediately make a living from writing, which is good, because this was presented as very much a long term project. No one at the workshop wanted anyone to have illusions about that, throwing around figures like ten to twenty years for a writing career to get off the ground. It was said that an author really needed nine or ten books in print and selling at any one time in order to make a living from their work. ‘In other words, keep the day job’. That said, ‘once you have a book on the shelves it opens doors’. Everyone was clear that patience and hard work pay off in this business just like any other, though let’s cross our fingers for a bit of luck along the way as well, yes? Thanks.

How much money can a first time author in Ireland or the UK expect to earn though? The figures mentioned were generally in the €2,000 – €8,000 range, with contract-stipulated royalties of about 7-10%. Your agent will take something like 10% too, so keep that in mind.

In terms of the writing itself, there was some discussion of structure early on in the day. ‘Feel your way through a short story; structure a novel’, was the advice. Though for best results I’d be inclined to structure both without ever being wedded absolutely to said structure. Naturally, the benefit of this is that you can see very quickly where the flaws are. Within your overall structure, the advice was to plan three to five chapters ahead in great detail while having a rougher idea of everything else. ‘Writers write from the back of their heads,’ someone said. True enough, though again I come down somewhere in the middle; somewhere between having a rough and a detailed plan of the whole thing. Many of the participants also wrote in depth character sketches at the outline/structure section. Indeed, some did this to the extent that they outlined the whole story from the POV of each character. A lot of work, but an interesting one and surely a productive notion.

What Happens Next:

In terms of traditional publishing, first time authors probably won’t land a contact based on a proposal or on a part-written work; they’re really going to need the whole thing. Once they have a manuscript, what’s required is a proposal in which, essentially, they’re selling an idea rather than a book. Their submission to an agent or publisher ought to include this in addition to:

  • A very well written, interesting cover letter (if it’s an unexpected story, maybe explain why you wrote the book).
  • A synopsis of the whole book (500 words was mentioned, though I have heard two-pages suggested before and have been sending off the latter).
  • A solid, intriguing one-line hook (often in the form of a question).
  • A sample of the book itself, usually somewhere from one to three early chapters.
  • An email address and instructions to dispose of your manuscript when they’re done with it. SAEs were discouraged. Welcome to the Twenty-First century, I guess.

If a publisher is interested in one’s work – and believe me I look forward to that day – the process then proceeds along these lines:

  • A discussion with the Commissioning Editor; what is their vision of the project, what is your vision?
  • Internal discussion within the publishing house.
  • Hopefully a letter of offer.
  • Then a contract… one with deadlines. It also goes without saying that this document should be read carefully.
  • Following this, you will work with your editor on polishing/rewriting the manuscript.
  • Once your manuscript is in the system it gets copy-edited.
  • Proofs arrive, meaning the time for anything other than minor changes (such as correcting typos) has passed.

Contracts, as I mention them, were also discussed. Generally the contracts on offer here and in the UK seem to be a kind of tripartite arrangement:

  • One-third of the money as an advance
  • One-third on delivery of the final draft
  • One-third when the book is published

at which point you might think you’re done but you’re not. When the book is published, its journey – let alone the author’s – is only just beginning…

Publicity:

The whole issue of publicity is one that’s very tightly controlled, with a detailed promotion plan put together by your publisher soon after they acquire your book. The media ‘do not attend book launches any more’ we were told, which probably is a general trend alright. Still doesn’t mean you’re off the hook though, especially when it comes to interviews, profiles, etc. There is an emphasis on the unique selling point of each author (something which, as you can imagine, is getting more and more difficult). Media and Features editors are looking for a complete picture of the author in question, which is interesting sure, but I think is something of a failure or a limited vision on the part of those editors. Certainly I would always be more interested in insightful criticism/analysis of a book rather than an interview about how the writer likes kittens, or what have you, but that’s hardly the first issue I have with the media in this country.

Anyway, the crucial thing is to work with one’s publisher. Follow their advice, don’t take off on any ‘solo runs’, etc. Every campaign is different and standing out from the crowd is difficult. The RTÉ Guide, for example, receives 50-60 books for review every week but only has room to run two reviews. Debut authors in particular need to work closely with their publisher’s publicist in order to exploit small publicity options.

For first time authors, a lot of that publicity energy will be directed towards local media outlets. No, you probably won’t make the literary pages of the Irish Times with your first book (and I saw some faces drop in the room when this was said) but it’s a reality and we need to accept it. As is usual in these kinds of workshops, authors were encouraged to develop their online activities with the rule-of-thumb that Facebook is great for direct contact with readers and Twitter is very much media dominated. We were also told that editors do look at blogs (here’s hoping!). The importance of the internet was also mentioned with regard to becoming more aware of the market…

The Market:

Eason’s, the biggest bookseller in the country, orders its books and organises their publicity three months ahead of schedule. Some figures from their Book Purchasing Manager:

  • The 2010 Market was 13.6 million books sold for a total of €147.7.
  • The 2011 Market (thus far) was 6.64 million books sold for €68.05. Though these, of course, were only figures from the first half of the year. Numbers will go up towards Christmas, though on average the market is down 7% in 2011.

Over in the UK, the 2009 figures could be broken down as follows:

  • 57% of customers bought a book that year.
  • 60% of these were women.
  • Largely they were middle and upper middle class.
  • On average, £83 (€93) was spent per person on books.
  • On average, consumers bought one book every six weeks.

In terms of finding out which books to buy, the breakdown was as follows:

  • Personal recommendation/word-of-mouth: 20%
  • Display in Bookshop: 17%
  • Media Reviews: 17%
  • Internet: 13%

The missing 33% wasn’t accounted for in the presentation (which was moving so fast no one thought to ask!) and the discussion soon moved on to the value of getting to know one’s bookseller, keeping them informed, offering to sign stock, etc. Again, excellent advice… Though no going into shops and rearranging the stock so your book is more prominent. That got a chuckle from the audience… then a number of guilty faces.

Conclusion:

So, a very informative, very useful day in all. Food for thought for all the participants and it has already informed a lot of discussion in the creative writing classes I teach, let alone the way I’ve been going about trying to find an agent/publisher for my novel. The gist of the day was that this is a very tough time to be trying to break into a very tough business (and so, counting academia, I suppose I’m two for two in that department). Nonetheless the tone was upbeat and encouraging: keep writing, keep submitting, and don’t give up! It may be more difficult than ever to begin a career as a novelist, sure, but somehow hearing that so many times only made me more determined to succeed at it.  Here’s hoping stubbornness alone will see me through!

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