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Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Writing and Agents

I write. I haven't got one. An agent, that is. I did have one, sort of, for a short time, a nice lady in Perth, who did try, but didn't get anywhere with selling anything for me and went out of business soon after. Well, she wanted to concentrate on her own writing. among other things. I got her through an introduction from a friend who had already signed up with her.

All I wanted was to have someone to concentrate on doing the business side of things and send my stuff around so I could get on with the writing. For this, I was happy to surrender a percentage of any money they got for me.

Also, publishers even then were announcing that they would not deal with anyone who didn't have an agent. This is a lot more the case now.

Strictly speaking, as I discovered, this wasn't quite true. If they knew of you, they would at least take a look at your MS. And by the time I tried getting an agent I had already sold a couple of books. I had a manuscript for a novel that I felt passionate about. It was a YA werewolf fantasy called Bisclavret, pinched from the story by Marie De France and I still think it's good, having come back to it after years. In fact, I nearly sold it a number of times. Nearly.

But when I tried all the big names - you know, the ones people dedicate their books to, "To my wonderful agent Jane Smith, who believed in this book", etc. - the various Jane Smiths were simply not interested. I guess they were running a business and a business works best with a sure thing and a sure thing is someone who has a much bigger track record than mine. But you'd think they would have had the courtesy to reply, at least, or even look at the MS. Those who did reply said that their books were full, so sorry. One even said, "I know of you, you're a good writer, I just don't have space on my books." At least she gave me a little egoboo.

Then there was the Big Name fantasy writer who, having offered to introduce me to a certain Big Name agent who represented him, never replied to any subsequent emails I sent him about it. So I set out to find her myself.

She was Selwa Anthony, praised by so many writers. I Googled her and tried all my librarian research skills, but she was elusive. I finally managed to contact someone who did know how to get in touch with her and was told that she might at least consider me if I got a couple of referees. I did. One was my friend Natalie Prior. The other was Lucy Sussex, who had been the commissioning editor at Hodder and thought highly of my novel, though Hodder had not taken it for their own reasons, unconnected with the quality. At least Ms Anthony did take a look at the MS, though she wasn't interested. She was the only local agent who did give me a go. From overseas, there was Cherry Weiner, who did read three chapters, but said it would have to be at least 100,000 words long and a trilogy for her to be able to get anywhere with it and from what I have seen in recent years, she is right.

There was the Big Name agent who took a year to reply to my simple query, when I persisted, and then with nothing relevant to my inquiry. This was one of the Jane Smiths whom her Big Name clients so raved about in their introductions. Well, whatever her fine qualities, courtesy wasn't one of them. She couldn't just say no?

I contacted a couple in Melbourne. One said, "We're full." The other said no because while I already had a book contract and just wanted her to negotiate for me, possibly followed by other representation, she explained that it was an education contract and she wouldn't touch one of those with a ten-foot pole. At least she gave me a little free advice on the phone.

After doing the rounds for a couple of years, I simply gave up and have been doing it myself since then. It's not as hard as it seems, as long as you have already got some track record. If you haven't, agents are unlikely to take you on anyway.

Mind you, I have come across some abysmal first novels whose authors have raved about their agents, who must be pretty good to have gotten them through and they obviously had no trouble with agenting first books - but not usually by Australian writers. Maybe I should check those out, if I want an overseas agent.

I'm writing this after having seen yet another request for opinions on agents on the Pass It On e-newsletter. The last time there was such a request, I wrote a reply on why you can manage without one and it turned out the lady didn't really want opinions on the necessity of agents, she wanted an introduction to one. So I'm not going there again in Pass It On.

For anyone starting out and trying to get published, there are still publishers out there who will at least look at your manuscript as long as you send it according to their guidelines and as long as you don't mind waiting a while to hear from them. And they're not all small presses. Allen and Unwin's children's section in Australia will read your MS. So will Penguin. There are others. You need to check out their web sites.

Once you're a Big Name, perhaps the Jane Smiths will even come to you. But for the most part, you can live without them.

Monday, December 21, 2009

MY LOVE LIES BLEEDING By Alyxandra Harvey. London: Bloomsbury, 2010

Lucy and Solange have been friends since childhood. Lucy’s parents are hippyish New Agers who make her eat tofu. Solange has a large number of gorgeous brothers, including the especially yummy Nicholas. Solange’s parents have always been good to Lucy. So far, so teen romance. Only one problem: Solange’s family are vampires.

Hey, it’s a medical thing. You’re born with it, though it doesn’t take effect till your sixteenth birthday, around when you hit puberty (perhaps immortal vampires hit puberty late). If you survive it, you become immortal and lose your ability to go out by day or eat anything but blood and maybe human flesh if you’re a nasty vampire. Otherwise, you just die. And Solange’s sixteenth birthday is fast approaching. As the only girl born in her family in 900 years, she’s the subject of a prophecy, which means any number of bounty hunters have been sent after her, as the vampire queen, Lady Natasha, doesn’t want any threat to her power.

And then there’s a secret society of vampire hunters called the Helios Ra, who might consider breaking their treaty with Solange’s family, who don’t kill humans (and why would they when their pheromones just allow them to seduce people and when there are blood banks for emergencies?)

While this is an entertaining teen romance with a variation, plenty of strong female characters and ass-kicking, I don’t think it’s any threat to Stephenie Meyer, if only because it’s so short. It may be a small snack for fans of the Twilight saga who have run out of reading material. Mind you, what with the number of teen vampire romances out now, they’re unlikely to run out any time soon.

As a grumpy old librarian who reads a lot of spec fic, though, I have to ask: what’s with the sixteenth birthday? In all fairness, this one merely has the bad luck to be the umpteenth novel I have read in which the heroine is in danger because of something that is going to happen on her sixrteenth birthday. A curse, such as the one in the novel Beautiful Creatures, is okay. And I suppose there needed to be a deadline, to move the action along.

However, I think this writer ought to have decided on fantasy or SF and stuck to her choice. Puberty doesn’t turn up on a specific birthday, it just turns up when it feels like it. Unless there’s magic, of course. And wouldn’t immortals be a lot less fertile, to avoid overpopulation? Yes, there are Tolkien’s Elves, such as the Sons of Feanor, but they tend to kill each other a lot, so that’s okay, and Tolkien never pretended it was anything but fantasy anyway. When one of Solange’s uncles, a scientist, explained that it wasn’t quite magic and it wasn’t quite science, I thought: ”Cop-out!” Just as well we never found out the formula for Hypnos, a very convenient spray drug that makes the victim do whatever the caster wants.

That said, I suspect young readers will mostly not notice or worry about it. But the only YA vampire novel I have ever read that has believable science elements was one by Scott Westerfeld in which vampirism is caused by parasites and can be spread by breath and touch. It’s a lot of work to research for science fiction and most people can’t manage it. Alyxandra Harvey, alas, is no exception, at least so far. With a deadline to meet for her next novel she may simply not have time.

I really think the next volume in this series should stick to the fantasy and play down the supposed scientific elements. I just don’t think they work.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SLUSHPILE#2 By a grumpy Andromeda Spaceways slusher

I am still reading slush for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine (aka ASIM). I read them as a reader, not as an editor. I ask myself, “What would I want to read in a magazine?”

People are still asking me why I do it, given how many of the submissions are truly awful. And I’m still saying it’s because I’m an optimist and always hope that the next story I open is going to be wonderful. And I have still not found more than a handful of wonderful stories in all the years I have been slushing. Some are good, or very good. But very rarely do I come across one that moves me deeply, or touches me, or makes me laugh for all the right reasons.

Still, you never know - the next one, maybe...

Meanwhile, here are some things I love about slushing and far more that are pet hates. Hopefully, someone thinking of submitting may be reading this and it will perhaps give them food for thought. We do buy good or very good stories, after all; it’s too much to expect that every piece is going to be a potential Ditmar or Hugo winner. There is a blurb on the web site about “what we’re not looking for right now” but there are still people not reading it before sending us their works of genius. Maybe a surf for markets might find this.

Things I Love About Slush Reading:

1. Every now and then, there is a truly wonderful story to read (see above)

2. Sometimes there is a good or very good story and it might even be the next one you open.

3. Once in a while, a story I got in Round 1 slush (we have two rounds - the second is “refined”) wins an award and I know I chose well. Of course, I didn’t select it for the magazine, because I haven’t edited an issue yet,, unless you count #38, which I finished off, with a lot of help. But I know I helped the story get into the slushpool, where it was chosen by someone else. (The slushpool is where we keep the stories that are considered good enough to be published).

Things That Cheese Me Off When I Am Slushing:

1. Non-spec-fic stories that I just know came from some mainstream writing student who has simply fired off the piece to every single market on the list supplied by the writing class, whether it’s appropriate or not, in hopes that one of them will take it.

Come on, guys, didn’t your teachers ever tell you to check your market? I bet they did tell you how much publishers loathe multiple submissions. Okay, there are times when multi-subbing is justified. I’ve never done it myself, but I know the frustration of waiting six months and sending inquiry letters only to get the thing back squashed and not reusable, with a printed slip.

But this is not a problem with ASIM. The very most you will ever wait to hear from us is two months and that’s only if your story made it into the slushpool. Otherwise, you’ll get a reply in a matter of a few days - by email, so you don’t have to buy reply postage (and there are plenty of publishers who still want their submissions by snail mail). And you get it with helpful comments.

Of course, you know all this if you’ve bothered to check us out. Also, I repeat, we are a speculative fiction magazine. Don’t send us your mainstream fiction. We won’t buy it. And don’t multiple submit. Keep that for the markets that make you wait six months.

2. Stories that are full of mistakes in spelling, grammar and/or punctuation. I see red when I get a story that can’t even punctuate dialogue correctly. I reject them automatically, only allowing a couple of mistakes in case they’re typos. If you think I’m nitpicking, I’d like to point out that editing is not about fixing your errors, it’s about making a good story look its best. If you don’t care enough about your work to check it or have a friend check it, I don’t care enough about it to finish reading it, let alone pass it on to the next round.

3. One-joke stories that go for several thousand words. Even if it’s a shaggy dog story, you shouldn’t telegraph the fact. It should be a good story that suddenly hits you over the head with an unexpected punchline.

4. Stories that assume you know what the author is talking about, but which only make sense if you come from the same country. I’m sorry to say that the worst offenders in this category - at least in the slush I have read - are Americans. We certainly see a lot of US films and we get a lot of American fiction too, but in the end, a story that has them rolling in the aisles in New York may not make a lot of sense in Sydney or Auckland or London. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your culture with others, but remember you are writing for an international market and don’t assume we know what the joke is.

5. 20,000-word stories which should have been about a quarter the length. Sometimes a story has to be long. Most of the novellas I have slushed are just self-indulgent, written by someone who hasn’t edited. Bear in mind, too, that while we have occasionally published stories of this length, they have been brilliant. Each issue of ASIM has a fiction “budget” of 40,000 words. If your story is going to take up half of that, it has to be something about which the editor is passionate. After all, how would you like to buy a magazine which had one very long story you hated? A story that took up half the issue?

6. Cutesy themes that are the entire point of the story (see above, one-joke stories). It can be short. It can be very short - as long as the punchline suggests there is more. For example, the famous world’s-shortest SF/horror story. “The last man in the world sat alone at home. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.” Think about it.

7. Really good stories that are let down by their endings. When a story has kept me gripped right up till the last page, then suddenly ends illogically, I say, “Huh?” Then I leave it overnight just in case, but thinking about it, I usually realise that there are other bits of illogic in the story. Before you submit, put the thing away for a few days and re-read.

You may find the same thing I would have found if I had read it, and have time to fix it before this grumpy old slusher rejects it!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

UNSEEN ACADEMICALS By Terry Pratchett. London: Transworld, 2009

Who would have thought it? They play football in Ankh-MorporK! Well, there were those street urchin games run by Captain Carrot, it’s true. But in this novel, we learn that not only is the game played, but there are teams and passionate supporters of one or another. It’s not the kind of football(or even soccer) we know. It’s the early form played out in the street hundreds of years ago in our world.

And the wizards of Unseen University have discovered a clause in the will that gave them quite alot of money - only on condition that they play football. They have no choice, really; the bequest pays for most of their food - and what would the wizards be on a mere three meals a day?

Although the closest thing to a protagonist in the book is Night Kitchen chef Glenda (who makes the best pies in the city), there are plenty of other characters of importance. There’s Trevor, who is fabulous at kicking cans, but won’t play a game that killed his father. There’s his beloved Juliet, who isn’t too bright, but just might become a Discworld supermodel. In this novel, we find that there is actuazlly a Dwarf fashion scene, and all Juliet has to do is put on a fake beard to join in.

And there’s Trevor’s friend, Mr Nutt, who is believed to be a goblin, but may be something more. Even Mr Nutt doesn’t know. Yet.

This novel is as strong as ever, possibly better than Making Money, the last one. We get to take a good look into the kitchen of Unseen University. Some characters from other books appear (Rincewind, who appears briefly, seems actually to have succeeeded in living the boring life he wanted). There is a mention of Mightlily Oats, who appeared in Carpe Jugulum, and, it seems, has turned out to be the kind of decent holy man we hoped he would become. The only minor disappointment I felt was that, with the factor of awful pies at the football, mentioned early in the book, Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler only appears once, and he’s selling souvenirs rather than pies. But there’s an emphasis on Glenda’s superb pies and perhaps the author didn’t want them to clash.

Normally, I wait for the paperback, but I just couldn’t, this time. And I don’t regret it. Another fabulous Discworld novel!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Of Qualified Teacher-librarians

Below is a link to a petition that has been running on-line in Australia. I am a qualified teacher-librarian. In Victoria, we've been a dying breed since the previous Premier gave State School Principals the control of the purse strings in their schools (something the current government has not changed back). Well, I say control, but in the end, they have to find ways to save money and they save it by cutting library staffing and employing people who are less qualified or not qualified at all. It's easier and less noticeable, unless you actually work in the school.

I believe in California, the "Governator" is trying to get rid of libraries altogether - at least it hasn't gone that far yet here, although it's not for want of trying; some years ago, I heard about a school where they planned to get rid of the library altogether, buy a lot of computers and replace library staff with a computer technician who could not only help kids do their web searching (after all, nobody reads books any more, do they, they just go on-line) but could fix the computers and would cost less and have to work longer hours!

It didn't happen, thank heaven, but we're not far off. The other day we had a college-wide planning day. One of the things we discussed was a unit of work centred around research skills and I suggested that the folk from each campus worked with their teacher-librarians - of course, there's already one campus where a good quality teacher-librarian, who had been involved in curriculum planning, was replaced by an unqualified library aide - not a library assistant, because you need a certificate for that. An aide. She does what she can, but she is not a teacher or even a librarian. She can't plan or help in planning curriculum. She can't teach.

If you read this and live in Australia, and you want your children literate, please
visit this site and add your signature. Then let your friends know about it and ask them to spread the word in their turn.

Online petition - A Qualified Teacher Librarian in Every School

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

PASTWORLD By Ian Beck. London: Bloomsbury, 2009

The year is 2048. Daily life is a bore - except in Pastworld. The whole of London has become a Victorian-era theme park, complete with nightly fog, old-style technology and (robotic) rats and pigeons. Most of the residents have chosen to live in the past, accepting old-fashioned laws, and put up with tourists who pay big money to visit and enjoy the Victorian lifestyle for a while.

The whole thing is run by the sinister Buckland Corporation, which is constantly coming up with new entertainments for the tourists, known as Gawkers.

So what happens when their designated Jack the Ripper gets out of control and starts killing whoever he wants? And what is the mystery behind seventeen-year-old Eve, who can’t remember anything before two years ago and thinks she is living in Victorian London?

This cross between The Truman Show and Westworld is a nicely-gripping thriller. It is fast-paced, bouncing around from one drama to another till all the ends are tied. The pace is speeded up by the shortness of most chapters.

I worked out what was happening well before the end, but I’ve read far more than the average teenager for whom the book is intended. Chances are that they won’t work it out so easily.

Recommended for mid-to-late teens.