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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Updates for this book and the next for reviewers and bloggers

I’m enjoy reading reviews of Our Child of the Stars on Goodreads and Amazon, among other places.  It’s not done to respond to those directly, even if I wanted to.

I’m writing a second book, which will strongly appeal to those who liked the first one.  To stay in touch:

Ideally subscribe to my newsletter – which only goes out when I have real stuff to say.

Drop me an email, if you only want the most significant developments.  That goes on a secure list. (The newsletter is easier.)

Follow me on twitter

Follow me on the journey and comments welcome.

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Giveaway: Three copies of the proof given away

I just tweeted this

GIVEAWAY DRAW.

Three signed proofs of the ‘wonderful, magical, gripping’ #OurChildOfTheStars to be won.

Follow me and RT this to enter

(UK post only)

details, offers, links bit.ly/2RPmOCS 

EDITED TO ADD CLOSES 12/13 Dec.  Sorry!

  1. People who sub to my newsletter are entered and if they follow me and RT on Twitter as well they get a second entry
  2. Anyone can sub to the newsletter so this is fair.
  3. The publisher only covers post within UK, sorry
  4. Sorry Mum, no close relatives, wouldn’t look fair
  5. Actually, Mum has bought a copy
  6. I use a random number generator to pick the winner. Woo, Science!
  7. If you haven’t followed me on Twitter or subbed to my newsletter you can’t win
  8. I’ll try my damnedest to run a clean fair comp, but my decision is final
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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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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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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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Backstage: Editing A Book is Not Ruining It

I’m due to get my latest set of edits soon.  When I signed with Jo my editor for Our Child in the Stars, I knew from day one that she would want three broad things.

  • A developmental edit, which suggests changes to the structure and tone of the book at a para, line, scene, page, chapter level – character, setting, stylistic choices all up for comment – phew;
  • When that’s done, a copy or line edit, which literally goes through the book line by line saying delete this, unnecessary repetition – phew;
  • and finally, proof-reading, which a fresh set of eyes takes on, checking again eg grammar and consistency about italics etc.

[Added: of course these phases are not rigidly separate.  Things occur to editor and author in the discussions.]

Typewriter sends pages flying into air
Editing can feel like…

No surprise that people have said things like, ‘Won’t this ruin the book?’  ‘Will it still be your book?’

The core thing is that my editor and I share a vision for the book.  What Jo is doing is helping make it happen.  Following untold years in the book mines, her experience helps shape delivering the story well (pace and structure), dialling things up where needed, bringing things out.  If we did not share a vision, then the discussions would be short.

So, ‘There is too much warm family stuff’ is not a line I could work with.  ‘This bit could be faster’, I could.

Imagine you write and direct an amateur play.  You plan to put it on, at your own expense in the local Scout Hut.  Local rehearsals go well, your friends are impressed.  Then an impresario is given a copy, and they want to pay you to put it on.  Bigger theatre, bigger budget, paying the actors, the stamp of success.  How exciting!

That impresario likes it, they really do, they read hundreds of plays before picking this one.  But they have put on the odd play or thirty before, and they know what works.  They will come back with a string of points.  All that comic stuff in Act Two slows the pace and reduces the drama.  Do you need both the heroine’s brothers?  They seem very samey, and it’s boring when they talk to each other.  You need to work on the final speech, which seems to cut across the theme.  The set design is very bland.  Is there a reason the period is so vague?

Some of this is so obviously right you nod.  Some of this might be very challenging.  You had some clear ideas right back at the beginning you might need to give up on.  Some comments you vow you will agree to only over your dead body.  Some involves looking up the first draft again and getting out bits you’d abandoned.

Your initial response might be to Google ‘How much assassinate theatre person London?’  Or that it would take a year to do all that, so the play is doomed.  But you remember that Shakespeare probably had the same thing, and less time to do it in.

So, you muse on it all.  Somewhere, some of the more critical points start to strike you as having the ring of truth.  The editor’s suggested cuts in Act Two miss the mark, but you realise a much better way of addressing her concerns.  You find you don’t care that much about one brother or two, and just roll over on that.  The finale speech is really important, you will need to discuss what she means further.  If she didn’t understand… that means you need to flag the theme up even stronger and earlier in the play.   And she’s just factually wrong on Norfolk sheep farming.

You see the point.  Of course, in a play, the actors are important co-creators, as is the director, the designer and a host of other people.  A book comes down to you and the editor.

What you end up with, you both hope, is a work which delivers in the real world the characters, story and themes of your play/book, but more effectively.  So, during the edit, there will be cursing, but you are working with a professional who after all, is investing time and money your book’s success.  To stretch another metaphor, it’s like a marriage.  If you ask ‘who is winning’ the relationship is in trouble.  The book ought to be winning, and the readers.

An agent tweeted recently that editing was ‘enjoyable’.  I’d say it’s more like doing a run for charity.  Some of the training, some of the post training, the run itself, the aftermath – some of this is enjoyable.  Some bits aren’t, some bits involve sweating and swearing, but you know you need to see those through to do what you want to achieve.

All these books were edited…
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Backstage: Why does publishing take so flipping long?

Everyone is astonished that a book accepted in Summer 2017 won’t be out until Feb 2019.  And I’ll be honest, I gulped.  Naively, I was hoping Our Child of the Stars would be out for summer or autumn 2018.

Reason 1: traditional publishing takes time.  If I was self-publishing, you’d be reading it now.

Reason 2: most books in the UK are sold ‘for Christmas’ and ‘for the beach’.  Tons of books are published to grab the shelves for those times.  October 5th, 2017 was this year’s Super Thursday, the day the largest number of titles hit UK shelves.  505 new books were published in that one week.  I mean, Jo Fletcher Books could launch a debut novel, a bit unusual, into a Hurricane Pullman of new books.  That might work.  Better chance for a quirky debut they don’t.

Reason 3: they really like the book.  But editors don’t buy a book and say, it’s fine, we can go straight to copy editing.  They bring their own commercial and artistic insight to it.  It needs some work – not massive but not inconsequential.  And it’s not, wouldn’t the trousers in chapter six be better blue.  Or change that character’s name.  It’s more like, bring this up, bring this down, I need to believe this character would do this.  When that’s right, there’s copyediting – real dots and commas – then proofing.  I will do a piece on Editing is not Ruining.

Reason 4: Covers.  People judge books by their cover.  It sells you the book before you even pick it up.  The wonderful draft design I saw really gives the feel of the book – the hope, the wonder, the beauty and the tinge of danger and darkness.  All that without spoilers. Publishers must factor time to get the cover right, and they need the cover right long before you see the book, to sell into the trade and to talk to foreign markets.

In short, they think the book will do better with more time.  They’re paying.  And as they cheerfully say, ‘You’ll never get this much time with a book in future.’   No pressure there.

The good news is that some lucky people do get to see it a lot earlier, when advanced copies become ready.  That’s for another time, but a very good reason to subscribe to my newsletter.

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