Readings and Book Signings in February

I am planning several readings, workshops and signings. Details will be updated as I have them.

CENTRAL LONDON Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, (SRFC). 6.45pm, Tuesday 12 February, 

Venue is Gollancz (part of the same company as my publisher) Carmelite House, 50 Victoria Embankment, EC4Y 0DZ. The other reader is Adrian Selby

A venue they may use in future is the Star of Kings pub, 126 York Way, Kings Cross, London N1 0AX.

Book via the SRFC Facebook. Usual format, ie entrance fee (but free drinks and free books), books on sale, two different authors and a Q+A.  Friendly genre-literate crew.

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ENFIELD – Saturday 9 February – Signing at Waterstones 12-2pm, just turn up.

The manager is very supportive so please come and help her!

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BRISTOL – Max Minerva’s Wonderful Books. 7pm Tuesday 19th February

New independent bookshop close to ‘the famous Henleaze Waitrose’- yes, my mum gave that description. 39 North View, Westbury Park, Bristol BS6 7PY. Tickets from them, includes drinks, nibbles and a discount on the book

Signed copies; Forbidden Planet, Shaftesbury Avenue – can be ordered signed from local stores while stocks last; Goldsboro Books, Cecil Court; Waterstones Covent Garden and Waterstones Trafalgar Square. Max Minerva from the 19th.

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Students grill a new author about Creative Writing

I was delighted to be invited to speak to Woodhouse College’s Creative Writing Class.  This is an optional activity, and this particular meeting had 3-4 students who’d come specially.  Woodhouse combines a college-y feel and strong academic ambitions with a lot of societies and activities.  It’s diverse, smart, and I would have loved that option when I was 16.

I read, then talked through how I came to write it, genre, how publishing works, etc.  The students asked plenty of sensible questions, although the questions tended to need quite long answers.  Then we did a creative writing exercise around plot.

What did they think? Well, here’s one report.

…Stephen Cox visited the Woodhouse Plus Creative Writing class to give a talk. He read an excerpt from his book Our Child Of The Stars and spoke about writing and publishing the book, giving the aspiring writers in the room valuable insight and advice into the process. He answered our questions on a range of subjects, from finding your voice to how much do authors need to plan and world build in advance? He led a creative writing activity that he uses, that aims to help writers figure out a starting point for a story. It involves creating 2 characters who can be summarised interestingly in 1 sentence each, who have some sort of dynamic between them, in a setting, where one (or both) want something, and something that’s standing in their way. This exercise led to interesting starts of stories that we shared with one another. Stephen’s talk was interesting and insightful, it helped us understand the writing world to a greater extent and his advice and writing tips were useful. I for one will be using them in the future.

Will any of them get a book published?  They have plenty of time, and I hope I both encouraged them to work hard at the craft of writing, and gave a not too discouraging discussion about how long the path might be.

It was interesting that all of the plots generated that were shared, were genre or might well have been.

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Write what you know – Our Child of the Stars

This article appeared in the Jan 2019 Enfield Dispatch under the headline Written in the stars.  My thanks to the editor.

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How did I write Our Child of the Stars?  Did I stick to the old saying ‘Write what you know’?

I wrote a short story for Halloween.  A couple, Gene and Molly, and their strange but lovable son Cory.  It took me a day or two, and I was intrigued.  Obsessed.  There was tragedy in Molly’s past and violence in the family’s future. What an oddly likeable little boy he was.  Whole strands of the book come from single sentences in the story, like how Cory came into their dreams…

And it was clear the setting was rural New York and the timing was that great mythical decade, the Sixties.

‘Write what you know.’ I was brought up in Bristol.  It would have been easier to move the book to the urban England of my childhood and set it a little later.  The book would have been surprisingly different.

Yet the characters were very clear where they came from.

What I know, I hope, is people.  I have always been surrounded by strong, interesting women, which helped to write Molly, the main voice.  I know families, and bereavements, and arguments, and what it is to be a child, a sibling and a parent. I know what I care about, what I think of the world then and now, (war and peace, truth and lies), and what type of books I like.  I’m a kind of recovering science fiction and fantasy fan, I like some of it a lot, but always because of the people.

America fascinates me, because I was born there.  Research was talking to people, remembering stories from my parents, the books and films of the era, and of course, the internet.  And the wonderful soundtrack made music a character in the book.

I knew who to ask, intelligent readers of different ages, genders, tastes and nationalities who would give me robust feedback.  I learned what feedback is useful.

I wanted to try for an agent. A previous novel got nowhere but encouraged me.  It’s never been so easy to find what agents want.  This book interested three agents and one offered to represent me.  We didn’t know each other, he just liked the book.

‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, ‘but it needs more work…’

He sold it, and now it is in the world, and complete strangers love it.

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Twelve things a good writing group should give you.

Hat-tip the Big Green Bookshop Writing Group

Company. Writing is often lonely, and non-writers don’t always understand.  Attending a group gives the sense of shared endeavor , a place to vent your frustrations, and a place to share little triumphs that non-writers may not get.  It should be enjoyable!  You should leave powered up and determined.

Welcome.  People are interested in you and what you are reading and writing.  They explain the rules, introduce themselves by name and try to remember yours.  They make it clear that socialising afterwards is open to all.

Generosity of spirit.  Good groups are open to new people, new ideas, and new approaches.  Your personal goals are respected. They applaud your successes and mourn your disappointments.  They encourage you back on the horse.

A safe space.  They accept who you are and where you come from, and within any publicly stated terms of reference, support you in terms of what you want to read.  They have clear rules on what is appropriate to share when.  If you are wanting to read sexual violence, torture, etc, ask the facilitator first beforehand.

Some group discipline.  There is clear facilitating AND the group understands the boundaries.  Quieter voices are heard, discussion is focused but not military, friendly but not meandering.

It’s kind about how things are said, but honest about what is said.  

Critical skills. A good group encourages you to read and listen to other people’s stuff and develop your own critical abilities.  It is often easier to see and understand strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, before realising the relevance to yourself.  It should encourage you to learn from reading published work.

Both valid and invalid criticism!  Hearing criticism of your work is hard to take.  Being a writer will mean criticism before, during and after the publication process. (If you didn’t like reading to a group, oh boy, wait until you get edited!)  I strongly believe, don’t defend the work line by line, you need to learn the art of taking in the comments, processing them, and deciding if they are valid/helpful.

Focused feedback.  Criticism should be primarily about the craft of the work – factual accuracy should be flagged briefly for the author to check outside the meeting.  Don’t suggest making the main character a vampire, unless the author clearly signalled they wanted radical suggestions.

Accountability. A good group encourages you to keep writing, it will understand those periods when you are blocked or unhappy, but it will kindly push you in the right way.  Not every writer improves with practice, but no writer can improve without it.

A quest for competence.  The group share news about where you can hear industry professionals speak, they try to get that writer or that agent to come to a meeting.  They share what courses and books did for them.  They understand you can read too much advice and not do enough writing.

A mix of knowledge.  For Our Child of the Stars, I got to try out early chapters on men and women, on British people and Americans, on parents and non-parents, on people who have been in love with science fiction forever, and people who avoid it.

The thirteen point is perhaps a good method.  That’s a contentious matter for another post.

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All I want for Christmas…

Well, working on the Second Book, of which more later. I am at the stage of looking a vast pile of words which I am now looking to see if it is a polished train of narrative or just a heap of rusty wreckage.  This is an interesting point in the process.

I am in a Debut Authors group, which by the way of things is mostly full of Lovely Americans. Lovely Americans are lovely. Wouldn’t it be good if I got a US+Canada deal for Our Child of the Stars…

Being a debut author is interesting. The Quercus publishers team are working hard. Two months from Official Hardback Publication and you know, launches, articles, blogposts to write.  All of which is less stress than writing the second book.

Online reviews have been supportive and insightful.  I just need as ever the entire world to see buy the book, like it, and review it.

And to write the second book, so signing off now.

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How to help any new author

There are five easy things you can do to help an author that require no specific training or equipment.

Please buy and read the book! The main thing the author wants is for you to enjoy it.

Feel free to buy it as a print book, an e-book, or an audio-book. A smart author wants all readers.

If you like it, please, please talk about it – online and face to face.  Personal recommendations count.  If you’re a social media person, you know what to do.  You can help authors you like.

Please think about rating and reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads.  It’s easy – giving a star rating takes less than a minute.  Reviews do help readers decide; also, more reviews make the book more visible online.  A review never has to be an English Literature essay.  A few quick lines would be great.

Libraries and charity shops serve the broader purpose of promoting literacy. Most authors use them and encourage them.

Here are five things NOT to do when an author has a book out

Please don’t worry if you haven’t time or energy.

Don’t send bad reviews.  They’ve seen it.  You’re rubbing their face in it.

Don’t tell them their book is not being stocked in any particular shop. No shop can stock more than a minority of titles, and 99% of the time there is nothing the author can do.

Don’t be rude to booksellers or anyone else; don’t move their books in the shop.

Forget to buy it.

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More about Our Child of the Stars

A lost child, the family who try to protect him and the secret that refuses to stay hidden . . .

Molly and Gene Myers were happy, until tragedy blighted their hopes of children. During the years of darkness and despair, they each put their marriage in jeopardy, but now they are starting to rebuild their fragile bond.

This is the year of Woodstock and the moon landings; war is raging in Vietnam and the superpowers are threatening each other with annihilation.

Then the Meteor crashes into Amber Grove, devastating the small New England town – and changing their lives for ever. Molly, a nurse, caught up in the thick of the disaster, is given care of a desperately ill patient rescued from the wreckage: a sick boy with a remarkable appearance, an orphan who needs a mother.

And soon the whole world will be looking for him.

Cory’s arrival has changed everything. And the Myers will do anything to keep him safe.

A remarkable story of warmth, tenacity and generosity of spirit, set against the backdrop of a fast-changing, terrifying decade.

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Pompous letter to Society of Authors magazine

Our hero got annoyed at articles in the SoA magazine referring to wooden books as ‘real books’.  They published this…

Those of us who wish to write in the new reality should distinguish between personal taste and a universal moral law.  Printed books, e-books, and audiobooks are all ‘books’.

I like the physicality of a printed book, and of browsing a bookshop.  I read a lot on computer screens for my day-job and I don’t enjoy novels on a Kindle. I think I skim more on screen [1].  I loathe the idea that, like my daughter, I should read novels on a smartphone.  I don’t listen to audiobooks.  As a reader, I have a preference.

However, as a writer, I wish to get my story into the heads of the reader without dilution or intermediary.  All these means of delivering a story are fine by me.  I have no intention of lecturing complete strangers with different tastes, if they will buy and consume my book.

Those who like the cheaper e-book are in my experience, prolific readers and given to online reviews and discussion of the books they read. 

I suggest the Society of Authors adopt a house-style under which ‘books’ refers to any of these delivery methods, and then run a competition for the best term for the traditional version.  I vote for ‘dead tree books’, which to be clear, are one of the truest loves of my life.

The Society of Authors offers excellent advice and support, grants and networks.  It’s a bone fide trade union for authors.

[1] I think I skim more reading novels on screen.  I edit my books on screen and I am not sure I notice the same effect

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The Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Writing Groups

Even a terrible writing group can spur you to write more.  But having sampled many groups over the years, here are some real problem areas.  Even a good group can drift into these problems from time to time.

(tongue in cheek)

Unwillingness to be critical.  You could read the telephone directory and get a chorus of ‘Oh, that’s lovely.’  If people won’t or can’t give constructive feedback, just buy a dog instead.   Dogs give unconditional approval and you can think about story ideas when walking them.

Ignorance.  The one person who sold a short story once (to Wee Scottish Fluff) dominates discussion of the market, even when they are wildly wrong.   There’s uncritical recycling of unattributed stuff. Spreading myths about writing, agenting, self-publishing when clear, reliable and disinterested information is available.

Lack of ambition.  No-one talks about personal goals, or cares if you are meeting yours.  After a while you realise people don’t act on feedback.  But ambition should be personally decided and owned.  To me, ‘I just want to finish this memoir for my grandkids’ is as worthy an ambition as ‘I want to win the Booker.’

Poor discipline.  The loudest voice dominates.  People are interrupted. The first to leap in sets the tone of the subsequent discussion, no matter how ill-considered their comments.  People talk about the content of the writing, not the writing.

Brutality.  People are destructive, personal, and unpleasant in their comments.  Maybe they are frightened of new people, or worried other people are better than they are, or they are just horrible people.  They don’t understand the difference between ‘I’m sorry, for me this paragraph came across as racist’ – about the writing -and ‘You are a racist’.

Mine is the One True Way-ism. People should offer freely what worked for them and what didn’t, but step back if you are doing it differently.  In turn, be open minded about what they say works for them.

Unsafe.  Some groups are bigoted, or unwilling to protect individuals from inappropriate comments or readings.  The group has no clear rules about what can be read, and any necessary warnings.  Your working assumption must be if you read about sexual violence, at least one person in the room has direct personal experience. In here I throw the usual unfortunate dynamics: men talk more than women, and interrupt more.  Regulars may dominate newcomers.

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Salvaged from the Agent’s Slushpile

The Bookseller refers to a recent debut as ‘salvaged from agent […] ‘s slushpile.’

Every trade paper develops a slang, a jocular shorthand.  But to refer to the process of getting an agent as being ‘salvaged’ is a little harsh.  I am worried it might confuse people who want to get a traditional publishing deal.

An agent works for you.    They try to secure a deal with a publisher (or a series of deals regarding overseas, film, etc.)  They get paid only if you get paid, so they obviously have to be picky who they represent.

Most people who try to get an agent don’t succeed, certainly not on the first book they submit.  But when an agent does sign a debut author, the ‘slushpile’ – unsolicited contributions from people the agent doesn’t know – is a major way they find talent++.  JK Rowling was ‘salvaged from the slushpile’.

An agent usually advertises as being open for business, or not.  Therefore, if you send them your novel as a submission, when they are open, and if they represent that type of book, you are literally doing something they have asked for.

Since the arrival of The Internet, what an agent wants and who else they represent is usually findable online.

Typically, British agents ask for a short letter, a synopsis, and three chapters.  Anecdotally the majority of submissions to agents are doomed to fail.  They fall into one or all of the following errors: the agent is not currently taking submissions, the agent does not represent this type of book at the moment (or ever), or the submission is not what they ask for on their website.  And many of the books that are left are somewhere between dreadful and not at all bad but not quite there.

Given this, I understand why agents call submissions slush, but it might be better called the crude ore from which the agent will find their next nugget of pure gold.

So, in my case I sent my first novel to a dozen agents and got nothing back but a little useful feedback.  Rather than revise that book to the degree it clearly required, I finished the second, Our Child of the Stars.  I sent to a dozen or so agents, one of whom, Rob Dinsdale, told me he was closed.  (His website was down so I’m not apologising.)  Now, living in London, I had been to events and talked to a few live agents, but there are events outside London.  I participated in #askagent on twitter.  One agent advertises that she takes questions via email, so I asked her a question.  This was all mostly to make sure I understood the process.

Wow, a well-known agent, who I had met socially, asked for the entire manuscript.  I chased everyone who hadn’t actually said no, including Rob, who also asked for the full, loved it, and offered me representation.  We talked through what his vision was for the book, which matters.  I shook hands, and he got me a two-book deal with Jo Fletcher Books. (There’s quite a lot of work hidden in that last sentence.)

Lessons:

You can get an agent through ‘the slushpile’, aged over fifty with sum previous publications experience, three short stories in US SFF mags, and no high profile social media presence.

I hadn’t met Rob, and I hadn’t sent him the first novel.

How the industry works is probably more obvious now than it ever has been.  Meeting agents helps understand the process, but they will make the decision based on the book – and whether you share a vision for it.  That’s code for, if they have editorial suggestions, will you work with them on it?

Being polite, researching the process and having a great book mattered.

There are all sorts of things that are unfair, and that’s for another post.  But the point about submissions to the slushpile – one can hope this is the process LEAST open to favouritism, old boy networks, etc.

There are also alternatives to traditional publishing deals secured through an agent.  Some publishers take direct submissions.  Self-publishing is a viable and honorable route.  There are crowd-funding options etc.

 

Edited to add.  Some weeks later I saw two agents talking on Twitter.  One said all but two of her fiction clients came through the slushpile.  The other said 80%.  Of course, mileage can vary.

 

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