30 July, 2012

Marketability Means Marketing, Part One: Don't Agonise

"Don't waste your talent," said Ian M. Banks.

As this is a blog for writers, let's begin with a story.  Starting from the beginning with our third topic, marketability, means making a simple point about being forthright, and I was fortunate to learn firsthand via a perfect illustration.

We'll begin with a setting:  Alt.Fiction, 2011. I'm sitting on a red chair only slightly nicer than those at the cinema, watching a well lit, dignified stage upon which some awesome writers and editors are making speeches and receiving awards.  After the ceremonies, I move to the bar, find myself next to a dude in glasses who asks if I've enjoyed the show.

"As an aspirant myself I've got to say, it's awesome to see so many great writers all in one place.  It's like seeing a future home from the outside," I said.

"Oh?" he replied.  "Like to write, do you?"

I told him about the MA, the MFA, Scott Bradfield and Paul McAuley and a few minor publications.  Next thing I knew this guy introduces himself as Ian Sales, editor, critic and writer.  He paid for my beer and brought me backstage.  I followed, dazed, wondering if this was a cruel joke or something.  I soon found myself surrounded by dozens of my favourite authors all in the same room!  And the really amazing part?  They all wanted to talk to me!

I was introduced to Ian M. Banks (for cryin' out loud!).  He shook my hand (I recall the man as a giant, though it may just be that I was feeling the size of a peanut) and asked how my work was going.  I told him I'd met Andrew Hedgecock at the Manchester Book Fair a month or so ago, and upon learning who I'd apprenticed under, he'd asked to see my work.

"Have you sent your story, yet?"

"I've been writing lots of stories," I said.  "I don't think they're ready, yet."

Ian stood up even higher, gave me a long critical stare.  "Don't waste your talent, boy.  If an editor asks to see your work, send them the best you've got, right away.  Let Mr Hedgecock decide if it's good enough, before he forgets meeting you."

I skipped away from this little conversation, bouncy-beans bursting in my brain like so:  "Ian Banks just implied that he thinks there's a chance I might be talented!!!!!!!"

So what's the point?  Don't agonise.  You should still re-draft your work.  Paul McAuley and Ian Banks would get their first drafts rejected, too.  (Paul actually said this to me in person.)  But don't agonise!  Once it's as good as you know how to make it, get it's a*s off the computer screen and into an email and/or letter box.  I actually received a prompt rejection from Andrew Hedgecock, but that's beside the point.  In truth, though I didn't realise this at the time, I'm almost certain he thought it very unlikely that he would publish my first submission.  In all likelihood, upon hearing that Scott and Paul thought I was worth investing some time and energy into, Mr Hedgecock just wanted to see my work for himself.

Try this exercise:  make a list markets.  This is time consuming and annoying, but it's worth the investment. First, pitch the ball to the highest mountain top.  Don't be discouraged if top markets reject your work.  Instead be proud to have competed for space with those authors you admire.  Even the best sometimes get their work rejected from those places.  Upon rejection take a brief, objective look.  (See next week's lesson:  "Write Every Day, Part Two:  Without Hope and Without Despair".)  Can you make it better?  Yes?  No?  Once your answer is "no", shove it in the letter box that same day to a slightly lesser market--so on, so forth.

Here's the best place in the world to look up markets: https://duotrope.com/.  It's clean, professional, free, you don't need to sign up to search, and every market worth their chops will advertise there.  It is the Google of the publishing industry. I've placed a link on my "Useful Sites" section (bottom right), too.

The point?  No one's going to send your work out for you until you have an agent, and no agent's going to want you until you send some work out.  So, if you're in the same position as I was, it's time to send some work out.

18 July, 2012

"Write Every Day"

Last week's post was on motivation, and this might seem like more of the same, but it isn't.  It's too important to find a place in our little cycle, so I must simply stick it here at the beginning:  this message pertains vitally to all three elements of writing.

On my first seminar on the MA, I sat with fellow students around three of the four large desks that made a square.  The walls were blank, everything smelled of carpet freshener, and the whiteboard was blank.  I eagerly awaited Scott Bradfield.  I'd already read his most famous novel, The History of Luminous Motion, and it blew me away, and this was the first time I'd see the man up close.

He burst into the room, seeming quite annoyed at having to take this hour away from his keyboard and his next novel. He turned his back on the class, grabbed the black pen under the whiteboard and scrawled: "Write a little every day, without hope and without despair." He turned back to us, sat and placed his wrists on the table. "I'm quoting Karen Blixen, here," he said. "If there's one piece of writing advice you need to take with you, this is it. If there's one sentence into which all writing advice boils down, this is it."

He stared at each of us in turn--that honest, emphatic stare he always gives. I was both glad and confused, because I'd been writing every day for years. So I'd been doing the right thing, but it hadn't gotten me anywhere yet.

I said, genuinely wondering regardless of how it might sound, "What if I want to write a lot every day?"

Scott turned to the whiteboard, one hand on his chin, stood up and began erasing the first half, "I've used this quote for years, but I think I'll change it. Okay." He turned back. "Write every day, without hope and without despair."

I mainly left that seminar full of beans because I'd changed the favoured paraphrase of a master of the craft. Me! I was special! Perhaps I'd make it after all! And I got back to writing every day. The reason I include this annecdote is to make clear:  write as much as you want.  It's actually a good skill to be able to write when you're fed up.  You'll probably have to from time to time if you become a professional.

To this day whenever I speak with Scott the conversation ends with him saying, "Keep on writing and reading and you'll get it."

The point? Writing is something you have to figure out for yourself. There's much good advice to help along the way (and far more terrible advice) but ultimately, you've got to figure this out. This is art, not math. There are no formulas here, only broad, human concepts.  I'll help point you in the right direction, and we'll return to this theme many times. This really is the most important writing advice you will ever hear or read.

08 July, 2012

Another Win for Paul McAuley

Paul McAuley, one of two amazing men who taught me during my MFA, just won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.  It's for a brilliant short story called "The Choice", which is the cover story of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine's February 2011 issue.  Paul's a terrific writer who deserves every accolade around.  I still think his "Rocket Boy" is the best smegging "Little Tailor" story ever, including "The Little Tailor" by Charles Dickens. 

Rocket boy can be read for free here:  http://www.omegacom.demon.co.uk/rocket.htm, and "The Choice" is available in all the Year's Best SF 2012 anthologies that I'm aware of.  Here's a great one:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Years-Best-Science-Fiction/dp/1250003555/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341254642&sr=1-1&keywords=dozois.

Every time I see Paul's success, I'm reminded of how lucky I was to apprentice under him.  Over three months I learned a tremendous amount, and I've carried his advice with me, gradually further comprehending the depth of meaning within even the smallest pieces, every time I write.

Congratulations, Paul, and, as always, best of luck from here!