How to write a generic SF novel

Paul Raven @ 05-04-2011

Paul McAuley runs you through the basics:

Traditionally, SF heroes solved problems by application of intelligence and scientific knowledge. These days, you can substitute lasers or AK-47s for scientific knowledge. Or swords. The equivalent of the internet or mobile phones are used only when the hero needs to find something out. Usually someone else does the actual typing. Don’t include any science that might frighten the readers.  Anything found in SF written before the 1980s is usually okay. Nanotechnology is basically magic. So is genetic engineering. Also quantum mechanics. Virtual reality is more or less the same as a video game. Planets can be treated as a single country, with uniform climate and culture, and no more than three unique features that distinguish them from Earth.

Very funny, with a slightly bitter aftertaste.


No, the other Hocking: interview with a self-publishing sf novelist

Paul Raven @ 28-03-2011

Déjà Vu by Ian HockingAll this talk about ebooks and the new tension (or is it an axis?) between traditional publishing and self-publishing (or, as I’m seeing suggested elsewhere, “legacy publishing” and “indie publishing”)… it’s hard to know what’s going on from a seat in the bleachers, with pundits and firebrands drawing conclusions from the roughly aggregated actions of hundreds of writers. So let’s step into the trenches for a moment and talk with someone who’s actually doing it; when there’s no universal narrative to be found, individual accounts become all the more important.

Long-term readers may remember Doctor Ian Hocking as a member of the now defunct Friday Flash Fiction crew, regularly linked to from these pages. Doctor Hocking, tell the nice people of the internet about yourself and what you’re up to.

IH: Hello, people of the internet. My name is Ian. It’s a long story – why I’m going down the self-publishing route, that is. A few years back – in 2005 – I published my first book, Déjà Vu, with the UKA Press. There were a few obstacles in my path (some laid by my publisher, many by me, some by the way that publishing works) but it was, by any objective measure, a success. I had great reviews in the Guardian, blurbs from Ken MacLeod and Ian Watson, and the odd bit of fan mail. (For completeness, I should say that I was treated to an absolute stinker of a review in Interzone – this guy seemed perplexed to the point of rage, like someone who ordered ice cream and got fruit salad.)

Anyway, while I started to finish the sequels, I garnered some interest from a traditional publisher, picked up an agent, and then, when the publisher pulled out, my agent began hustling. That hustling has been happening for five years or so. Last summer, I decided to retire from writing to concentrate on my career as a psychologist. There are more details in this blog post.

My plan is to finish editing the novels on my own and put them out as ebooks. I have two more in the Saskia Brandt series (the first of which is Déjà Vu; second Flashback; third The Amber Rooms) and comedy novel set in Cornwall called Proper Job.

After a disappointing result with regular publishing, and a recent decision to quit writing, what’s changed your mind all of a sudden? Would a certain newsworthy person who shares your surname have anything to do with it?

IH: I’ve quit writing and I’ll stay quit until something in my soul re-aligns itself, and I don’t see that happening for a very long time. The decision wasn’t made quickly. In short, nobody in the publishing industry (with the exception of my agent, John Jarrold) valued my work, so I stopped writing because nobody was ever going to read it. Déjà Vu is now out on the Kindle (and iBooks, with a bit of luck) and its sequels will follow. The sequels are not new books. They’re books I’ve written while waiting for Déjà Vu to take off from its particular runway – or, to quote Stephen King, to either shit or get off the pot. So I’m not writing. I’m editing.

The newsworthy person who shares my surname does indeed have something to do with it. When I first published Déjà Vu, it was so difficult to get hold of that it was barely published at all. This wasn’t a disaster; I still got a good review The Guardian, blurbs from writers I admire like Ken MacLeod, and these things matter.

About Amanda Hocking. Her success represents a watershed moment. To recap: Hocking has made hundreds of thousands of dollars selling her books as digital downloads, predominantly through Amazon (for the Kindle) and Barnes and Noble (for the Nook). Now, her success is not something that should make a sane person spit out their tobacco, shout ‘Gold!’ and run for their spade – but it does suggest that there is a market.

Various statistics have been bandied about showing that while growth in physical book sales is slowing, growth in ebooks is accelerating. As a person who owns a Kindle, it’s easy to see why. The buying is immediate, cheap, and frictionless; the device weighs less than my watch (so I have a heavy watch).

At the same time, I was emailing with fellow authors Michael Fuchs and Stephen J Sweeney about their experiences of ebooks. I decided to put Déjà Vu out for the Kindle. My intention was, and is, to ‘park’ the book. Get it out there and off the pot so I that can concentrate on the sequels.

In the first week Déjà Vu sold about ten copies. It’s now the second week (March 24, 2011) and it’s sold 120. As I write, it’s at number eight in Amazon’s science fiction best-seller chart. If it stops selling tomorrow, the experience has already been more than worth it.

Déjà Vu was dead; now it isn’t.

There seems to be a mad rush to re-brand self-publishing: my Twitter stream is full of talk of “legacy” vs. “indie publishing” (which, if nothing else, seems to have negated the existence of a thriving small press scene, but hey…). Are you self-publishing, or would you call it something else? Given Déjà Vu was published “traditionally”, you’ve got a good get-out if you need (or want) it, but the sequels – how would you respond to accusations of them being little more than a low-budget vanity project?

IH: Yes, the legacy vs. indie dichotomy is a strange one, etymologically at least. I’d call my original publisher (the UKA Press) an indie. It isn’t much fun being an indie in the traditional publishing game, as anyone who has to deal with a bookshop chain will tell you.

Labels – and, if you will, schmables.

I would call this self-publishing. I knocked up the cover myself, typeset the book, and made all the decisions about its appearance. It’s fair to say that I didn’t edit the book myself. (I’m not sure if self-editing is possible – insert warnings about blindness here.) One of the gifts of being traditionally published is that an editor was assigned to my book – the redoubtable Aliya Whiteley – and treated it like a hot-shot editor parachuting in to sort out a 10-hour rough cut of footage into 90-minute movie that would get bums on seats. And, boy, did my novel need it. There are few that don’t, I’ll wager, and they are easy to spot.

Are the sequels a low-budget vanity project? Ultimately, I suppose so. I’m the publisher (or Amazon is; depends how you look at it); I’ve made the decision to publish the books; and I’ll make all decisions about the layout. I do have one trick up my sleeve: Flashback and The Amber Rooms will be professionally edited. The proceeds from Déjà Vu should soon cover that cost, which is a nice bit of bootstrapping.

Vanity is an interesting concept. If it means that the books don’t deserve publication and the narcissism of the author warps his or her judgement, then let’s call it that: a book that doesn’t deserved to be published. Not a good thing, we’d probably agree. But if means that other people don’t the book is worth publishing despite the confidence of author…then we’re including a lot of books. Let’s call something a vanity project in retrospect and be optimistic in prospect.

This series of books is not a vanity project. They will either sell few copies or many copies. I’m defining ‘many’ as a very small number, because I only want that number to be non-zero. Zero is the number of readers the books currently have.

A refreshing lack of illusions! Zooming out from your own personal intentions, where do you stand on the afore-mentioned semantic schism between “legacy” and “indie” publishing?

IH: Well, the words don’t really make sense, but the ideas of a ‘pre’ and ‘post’ publishing distinction might have some worth. It’s certainly the case that something like The Guardian Review – which was part of my reading ritual every weekend – seems to be drifting away into something less relevant. There is, I think, a real distinction between the publishing model that involves giving an author a loan (i.e. the advance), front-loading all the publicity, kow-towing to the somewhat cheeky constraints of booksellers like Waterstone’s, and crossing fingers that an author can break out in something like J. K. Rowling warp speed, allowing all concern to laugh on the way to the bank, and a model that is more gradual, sensible and gives an author time to apprentice himself or herself. The former sounds like a caricature but it’s not too far from the truth. Traditional publishers need to make a lot of money. They are slow to adapt. They cling to older models because these offer certainty, and certainty is what keeps a business going. But it isn’t something that allows for growth.

Those ‘post’ publishing outfits – what you might term indie – are closer to the ideal of what a publisher should be for most people. How many cookbooks and celebrity memoirs come out of indies? ‘Philip Schofield Presents His Top Ten Tea-Time Treats’ – screw that. They are smaller, hungrier and more ready to adapt to new technologies.

One of the strangest things to observe over the past few years is that publishers haven’t really got behind ebooks. They are doing so now, and this is in large part due to Amazon, who have created a huge market for them by exploiting their position. It’s almost as if the traditional publishing industry is trying to emulate the death of record labels. It isn’t the 1970s any more. We don’t need the middle men to take the major slice of a retail unit. The distribution is free and it’s the Internet. Traditional publishers can still play a role – in editing and packaging – but they needn’t arse around with print runs (i.e. educated guesses of demand) and returns (the measure of much you got the demand wrong).

Would you care to re-don your science-fictional cap for a moment and speculate about the next five years of publishing? (Not to hold you to as a prediction, but just to get your opinion on self-publishing as viable strategy in the long term.) Is the new landscape starting to emerge yet, or are we only at the beginning of the Great Flux?

IH: That’s a good question. I’m sure there are many people in the industry better placed than me who are paid a great deal of money to think ahead like this…but I think the Kindle has changed the game. Remember that it isn’t *this* Kindle – the one on my desk, which I’m tapping. It’s the Kindle brand and the Kindle attitude. The device is only going to get sharper text, a better contrast ratio, and probably cheaper. We’re seeing something approaching that hateful phrase ‘iPod moment’. Technology presents the consumer with a possibility, and the consumer demands more ebooks.

This isn’t a younger/older generation split either, I think. When people like my grandmother see an ebook reader and understand they can get obscure books instantly, can increase their text size, and the rest of it,they tend to get excited. An ebook reader is a better technological to long-form text than dead trees (not in all ways, but most).

Five years’ time: Much the same as now, but with no growth in physical book sales, greater growth in ebooks, lower priced ebooks, more writers, and fewer mega-star writers.

There you have it, folks. I think it’s fair to say Ian’s a fairly unique case at present, but given the way things are moving, that may not be the case for very long. You can buy a copy of Déjà Vu for your Kindle for just £0.70 in British money… and whatever your position in the “how much should a fuggin’ ebook cost, anyway?!” debate, I think you’d find it hard to disagree that’s a price with very little risk attached to it from the reader’s point of view. 🙂

Are you a self-publishing genre author — whether completely independent, currently without a traditional publisher or just re-upping your backlist off your own back? Would you like the chance to take the mic here at Futurismic and talk about why and how you’re doing it? If so, please drop me a line and let me know.


How others see us (literary agent edition)

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

The aspiring writers in the audience may already be aware of QueryShark. If you’re not, you should be; few things teach more effectively in a creative field like writing (in my experience at least) than having a selection of negative examples to hold up against the positives, and QueryShark offers anonymous eviscerations of query letters that’ll show you how to do it properly. Or at least how not to do it properly, which is almost as useful.

But I mention QueryShark today for a different reason, namely one of the rarer successful queries. First, here’s the query sans critique:

Part warm body, part social chameleon, fourths have become an accepted part of the commuting landscape. Every highway in the newly-invigorated Detroit is restricted to four-passenger cars, Carpools that come up short must either take surface streets through dangerous neighborhoods or hire extra riders to fill their cars.

It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash–or to end up dead. Someone is killing fourths and the only one who seems to care is burnt-out homicide cop Francis LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

LaCroix discovers the dead fourths are terrorists sabotaging the highways, causing horrific crashes. Worse, his own nephew may be involved in the plot. With both careers on the line, LaCroix needs a shot at redemption, but continuing the investigation paints a target on his family and leaves the terrorists free to strike again. Suddenly, he isn’t so sure bringing the killer to justice is the right thing to do.

Sounds interesting, right? Here’s how the writer capped it off:

TAKING THE HIGHWAY,a science fiction novel, is complete at 93,000 words.

And here the bit of the agent’s response I’m interested in:

This isn’t science fiction. And I’d STRONGLY urge you to not call it science fiction even if you think it is.  There’s a lot of room for cross-over into crime fiction here, and by calling it science fiction you might miss an agent who doesn’t handle SF but would read this.   Like…me.

OK – that book as laid out in that query is definitely science fiction, even if only by the old Damon Knight “what I point to when I say it” rule of thumb. It’s set in a speculative future, for goodness’ sake; it may be a harsh thing to say, but using a reinvigorated Detroit as your setting puts you firmly into alternate world territory.

What actually I’m interested in here is the chicken-and-egg problem that sf has with mainstream acceptance. There above is a solid query for an interesting science fictional novel… but there also is a warning that calling it such will make it harder to sell. It’s an acknowledgement of industry prejudices, in other words, and the action of an agent who wants to see a good book get bought.

But what I see here is something similar to the way in which female writers feel pressured to write under masculine pseudonyms or use their initials; it’s an invitation that says “OK, look, we think you’ve got the beans to play the game, but you can’t come in wearing that outfit; it’s not that we’ve got anything against it, but, y’know, people will look at you funny…” It’s an enablement of prejudice, in other words, though it’s being done with pure motives.

Just to be clear, this isn’t me getting out my tiny violin and serenading the poor oppressed genre; as mentioned before, I think that’s a counterproductive thing, an entrenchment in one’s own cult of ghettoised victimhood. Nor am I raging at an agent for not understanding what science fiction is, or rather what it can be. But the query response above highlights the very arbitrariness of the distinction between sf and ‘proper’ fiction: in fact, it’s a note for note replaying of the classic “it’s too good to be science fiction!” riff.

So why mention it at all? Because it makes plain that the problem is with the label, not the product. Look at the commenters saying “ooh, I don’t like sc-ifi, but I think I’d love this!” Well, y’know, maybe you would like sci-fi if you read some of it. But you’re not going to do that when it comes with a label that says “sci-fi”. Green eggs and ham, innit?

I’m increasingly starting to think that advocating for science fiction (or even genre in general) is a failed strategy. If you want to conquer that prejudice, you need to start doing it with one book at a time. If labelling your work science fiction will exclude it from a certain venue, then don’t label it; submit it without its convention badge and Beeblebear, and see what happens. Give them a chance to bounce or buy it on its own merits, rather than the connotations of a label that even we fans can’t agree on a definition for.

And then, once they’ve published it, tell all the journalists about how it’s actually a science fiction novel. You’ve got to get inside the building before you set the bomb off, you see… 😉


The Hebras And The Demons And The Damned

Paul Raven @ 28-02-2011

Just a quick note to congratulate tireless Futurismic columnist Brenda Cooper, whose short story “The Hebras And The Demons And The Damned”appears in the TOC of Hartwell and Cramer’s 16th Year’s Best SF anthology… alongside some other very fine authors, I might add.

Bravo, Brenda!


Applications open for the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers

Paul Raven @ 07-02-2011

Do you know an aspiring genre fiction writer in the latter half of their teens, preferably somewhere relatively near to Pittsburg? I have a message in Futurismic‘s digital postbag from Sarah Brand, asking me if I’d consider mentioning The Alpha Workshop. Well, yes – yes, I would. 🙂

Put it this way, I wish something like this had cropped up in my neck of the woods when I was a teenager; I might have got started with my writing a lot sooner. This sounds like an awesome opportunity, sort of like a junior Clarion complete with professional writers in the mentor seats:

The Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers (ages 14-19) will be held July 13-22, 2011 in Pittsburgh, PA. At Alpha, students can meet others who share their interest in writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror. They can learn about writing and publishing from guest authors, including Tamora Pierce, Ellen Kushner, and David Levine. Also, they will write and revise a short story during the workshop. Applications are due March 1, 2011.

Says Sarah, “I attended Alpha in 2006 and 2007, and not only did the experience teach me a great deal about writing, it gave me a whole community of friends who love writing SF as much as I do, with whom I still keep in touch almost daily. I would encourage any young SF writer to apply.” Well, so would I – it sounds absolutely brilliant, and given it’s now in its tenth year, they must be doing something very right indeed. So spread the word, if you would. 🙂

[ Note for Brit readers: in case the same suspicion has crossed your mind that crossed my own, I’ve checked as closely as possible, and no, this is nothing like the “Alpha Course” pseudophilosophical indoctrination sessions run by some of the more evangelical UK churches. ]


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