25 May, 2012

Bamboccioni Books Audio

For those of you who haven't yet found your way over there - and how could you not have done? -  you can listen to me reading an extract of my story, Keeping Mum, over on the Bamboccioni Books website. There is also a little mini interview with me. As much as it's always excruciating to hear my voice on a recording, I'd love it if you popped over to Bamboccioni and took a look around.

Keeping Mum appeared in Bamboccioni's inaugral anthology, Beyond the Horizon: Short stories of discovery. Derek Thompson has also recorded an extract, and over the next few weeks the other authors will be doing the same. If you like what you hear then you can buy the book in paperback, or you can wait until the e-book comes out later this year if you are better with technology than I am!

Bamboccioni Books are a new, independent publishers who welcome submissions of books by unpublished authors. They are especially willing to look at novels that might not fit into the specific genres required by larger publishing houses. If you think you have something that might interest them, then why not get in touch?

21 May, 2012

An Interview With... Andy Stewart

To mark the start of my occasional series of blog interviews, allow me to introduce you to Andy Stewart.

Andy's work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Big Bridge, with work forthcoming in ZYZZYVA. He attended the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop in 2011 and earned his MFA degree in Creative Writing from San Diego State University. He lives in Davis, California with his wife, a PhD candidate at the University of Davis, California. He works as an online Literature and Creative Writing Instructor and freelance editor, and also writes short and long fiction. He has accepted representation from Jason Yarn with the Paradigm Agency for his novel All the Night a Song.

Here, he tells us how success came knocking - but only after hard work, rejection and marrying the right woman...

Let's start at the beginning. How long have you been writing?

I wrote my first "book" aged 13, which was about 60 pages double-spaced. It dealt with psychic children, a paranormal investigator, secret organizations hell-bent on destroying the world--ya know, that old chestnut. Then I ducked out of writing for years in favour of piano and drama. It wasn't until the last few years of my undergrad that I came back to writing.

So when did you first know that you wanted to make writing your career?

Ask me in a year. Seriously, I would love it if my writing was able to bring in enough money to make ends meet, but I'm not counting on that right now. At the moment it's teaching, writing and being a freelance editor that pays the bills. And that's a good thing. When I was attending the Clarion Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers' workshop last summer, John Scalzi gave a great bit of advice: Don't quit your day job so that you never "need" the money and you can afford to say no to people. You can wait for better opportunities to come around.

How did you reach that first dream milestone of getting yourself a agent?

Just because I really want to brag a bit, I can say that I landed the very first agent I queried for ATNAS. But this isn't entirely true, because I spent the last two years beating the streets with another book. The number of rejections I got for that novel was about 70. But from them, I got partial or full manuscript requests from 14 agents. One of those agents was Jason Yarn, who took the time to respond to my manuscript in quite a bit of detail. He was the most specific, and the most excited about my writing. That's why, six months later, I sent him an exclusive query letter. Three days later, he requested a full.I got an email from him saying that he was greatly enjoying the book, and hoped to get back to me soon. And I was like--"What the hell does that mean?"  I had to endure about 4 days of nervous fretting and pacing before getting The Call offering me representation.

 For a while I questioned whether it was a bad idea to not have queried other agents, just to give myself options. But those doubts didn't linger. Sure, I could have tried  one of the top dog agencies, but have you taken a look at their client list?  Wow. I'd be one of a list of about 30 or more clients. As a new author, I'd have probably been swallowed up. Not to say that my agent doesn't have a healthy client list himself--but he handles lots of non-fiction, which doesn't take up as much time as fiction. But, most importantly, Jason loves the book. He's excited about it, and thinks that it will do very well out in the world, and I don't think I can ask anything more of an agent.

What was your reaction when Jason made that call?

I didn't actually go nuts initially. I acted like a pro (or tried to) and tried to keep one very key bit of advice in mind: "He is courting YOU! It is YOU, Mr. Writer, who will be his client, and it is his job to look after you." 

So, I didn't say 'yes' right away. He sent me the sample retainer, and I had my lawyer friend give it a look. Also, I asked to have a 'face-to-face' with him via Skype a few days later. After our video chat, I gave him the 'official' yes, and then we took a few more days ironing out the details in the retainer.

I was excited but I was also nervous about the next steps, and what it all meant for our life (my wife and I). An exciting, but tense time. I'm finally settling into it.  

OK, so tell us a bit about this novel of yours. What inspired it? 

ATNAS started as a novella idea-- a girl and her eunuch friend seek out to kill a giant in the desert. And then that world really blew up on me. It wasn't until October 2010 that the rest of the story began to come together. I had just had my wisdom teeth out, and had to take really strong meds for a week. While riding the Percocet wave, the full scope of this invented world came to me. My wife and I lived just beside a  canyon in San Diego at the time, and a big church sat at the opposite end of the canyon. During the afternoons, the music director of that church would work with an Opera singer. So, this slightly disjointed, ethereal music drifted in through our windows. Put all that together, and bam: you have a strange new world, interesting characters, and unusual goings on.  *Just as a note, I don't condone the recreational use of drugs to induce creativity. Other than caffeine, anyhow. 

In the last few months you've taken a definite step from amateur to professional. What was the most important factor in that journey?

I consider the successes I've enjoyed over the past few months to have come from years of actively pursuing a writing career. I spent 3 years getting an MFA degree. My wife and I decided that I would have about 2 years after graduating for me to work piecemeal jobs in which I would put the writing first, and she would be the major breadwinner. And in that time, I wrote my ass off. I picked sci-fi/fantasy as an entre into the publishing world and I geared myself toward selling to those markets. We spent a great deal of money for me to attend the 6 week long, immersive Clarion Sci-fi Writers' Workshop--that was an investment that really paid off. It's no coincidence that I started selling once I finished that program. That was probably the most important step, but all that other stuff had to happen for me to be ready for that experience.   

How have your nearest and dearest taken the news?

General love and excitement all around. Anyone who is close to me knows how long and hard I've worked toward this goal. I have a wonderfully supportive family and friend base (and an amazing wife!), and they helped me to get past the nervousness and really celebrate this win. Especially my wife.

I've been trying to think of a way to describe your style, but I can't! How would you describe it?

Speculative fiction in which emotional authenticity and relationships trump plot?

What would be your top piece of advice for other writers going through the sometimes disheartening submission process with stories or books?

Find someone who's better than you at writing and write with them. Do your research, find out what the different mags/journals/agents want, and find the best fit. That's all you can do other than being professional and courteous. And when I get a rejection, I send that story right back out, on the very same day in most instances.  Yes, rejections still sting, but there's a bit of fun in sending it right back out there, playing the field once more. If the story is good enough, if it fits what the editors are looking for at that time, if, if, if. Sometimes you strike out and sometimes you win big.

Which book do you wish you'd written?

A toss up between Lois Lowrey's The Giver or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  And a close runner-up is Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl. 

Tell us something about you that not many people know, so we can be smug when you're famous.

I considered myself a musician for a few years in my undergrad days. I wrote my own songs--played piano and sang. I took it really seriously for a long time, but then decided I probably couldn't hack or. I recorded a few of my songs, and sometimes listen to them, cringing all the while.   

Now for that obligatory, end of interview question... What do you wish I'd asked you in this interview?

Hm. Good question. Guess it would be something dealing with the role music plays in my creative process. I am very selective about what I listen to when I write, as my writing is pretty informed by what I'm hearing. For ATNAS, I listened to a good deal of Bjork, Sigur Ros, and Joanna Newsom. I'm not sure if you would ever be able to identify what or how they were influential when reading the book, but I can . And that's important.

Thank-you to Andy for answering these questions. If you have any more for him, pop them in the comments and maybe we can bully him into answering them. Better still, if you get a chance to check out any of his work, grab it - I thoroughly reccommend it!

16 May, 2012

The Shortest Story Ever Told

Happy National Flash Fiction Day everyone! Don't tell me you don't have the bunting out?

In a busy world, flash fiction - ultra-short stories - are becoming increasingly popular. For a generation used to using 140 characters to communicate with each other via Twitter, it's only natural that we should want our fiction to come bite-sized as well. Last year, I read the longest novel ever written in English (A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth) and loved it, but I can still appreciate the beauty of flash, micro and even nano fiction.

The shortest story ever produced was supposedly written by Ernest Hemingway  to win a bet:

"For sale: Baby's shoes, never worn."

How awesome and beautiful and tragic is that?  

Knock byFredric Brown (1948) is another great example. The first two lines of that short story also stand alone to make the shortest horror story known:

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door..."

Now I'm no Hemingway or Brown, but I have had a little success with short shorts (of the literary variety - there is nobody on Earth who has had success with short shorts of the clothing variety). The first thing I ever won was the monthly competition Txtlit, where you are required to write an entire story in the length of a text message. Each month has a theme, and when I won it, the theme was 'Biography'.

"He hung out with all the wrong crowd. He was a rebel-rouser, a misfit and an uncomfortable dinner guest. He was homeless and hated, adored and crucified."

So if you are a fan of reading, but don't have a lot of time, there are plenty of resources out there for you. As well as anthologies of short stories, how about trying Everyday Fiction. As the name suggests, it's a website that posts a new piece of flash fiction everyday - perfect to read over breakfast or during a five minute coffee break.

The world would be a sadder place without novels great and small, but I am a little bit in love with Novel's baby cousin Flash Fiction. It's something that just about anybody can enjoy reading and it's a great place to start writing too. Be warned though - getting flash right is harder than it looks! But then, without flash how else could you read a blog post that contains three whole stories in it? In fact, make that four. I'll leave you with something a little longer - but only a little. It won the 2010 TinselTales competition, only took me an hour or two from first idea to edited final draft and was great fun to write. So why don't you use National Flash Fiction Day as an excuse to try your hand at story-telling's tiniest art form?

Dead Cert

There was a crowd inside the betting shop when he entered; the Boxing Day races had drawn the usual optimistic suspects. Cheers and curses filled the cramped space in not-quite equal measure. He pushed his way through the steaming punters to the counter, the icing of snow melting from his jacket.
It wasn’t fraud, he told himself as he waited for the attention of the harassed bookie. Not really. He could have fleeced them for a lot more. There was a time when he would have bled them dry if he thought he could have got away with it, but he wasn’t like that anymore. And besides, it was for the children, not for him. With his winnings he would be able to buy little Timothy that game he wanted and make sure the girls had new coats to see the Winter through. Then there was that children’s charity he liked the sound of – where was the harm in it?
When he finally caught the proprietor’s eye, the man gave a resigned sigh and began to count out the cash.
“Right again,” he said. “Snow on Christmas day just like you predicted.” He handed him the money. “I don’t know how you do it, Mr. Scrooge.”
Pushing his way back out into the cold, Scrooge split the cash in two and handed half to his accomplice.
“See you again next year?”
And with a nod and a wink, the Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come disappeared into thin air.

08 May, 2012

What Makes a Person?

No, this isn't deep philosophy here, nor even biology for that matter. I am simply wondering, what makes a collection of words on a page into a real person in our heads. I'm no expert in characterisation, so I'm not going to bore you with my opinion on how to create believable characters. You either already know, don't much care, or can find out from a more reputable source than me!

Instead, let's just celebrate our favourite heroes of literature. Who are your favourite book characters? What was it about them that has kept them alive in your head?

In terms of pure skill from the author, I can name several characters that stand out for me. In previous posts I've mentioned Snape from the Harry Potter series and Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities, for example. Unlikely heroes or loveable villains make for much more interesting characters than two-dimensional bad guys and good guys, but I'm not really talking about interest here. I'm going for something much more low-brow - which characters did you enjoy getting to know, regardless of how skilled, or otherwise, the author was?

It seems to me that there are a few reasons why we fall for certain characters. Here are my suggestions, but feel free to comment with you own as well.

  1. The one we want to be. These characters are people who do and say the things that we wish we could. For me this category includes William Brown from Richmal Crompton's Just William books. Running around in 1940s rural Britain being a kid, with no technology, traffic, or battery-operated toys. Just make-believe, gobstoppers and friendship. Ditto George from the Famous Five and Anne of Green Gables. But you might have a more grown-up suggestion!
  2. The one we want to be friends with. In this category I'd also include characters who wish were our parents or grandparents etc. Sherlock Holmes would be pretty neat (as long as you were handy with a service revolver) and if I were to choose a grandpa, Badger from The Wind in the Willows would be a strong candidate.
  3. The one we're a little bit in love with. Forget Mr. Darcy, it's all about Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen's Emma, right ladies? Gentlemen, you'll have to make your own suggestions here - I'm too busy thinking about Mr. Knightley right now.
  4. The one that haunts us. They may not be our first choice of best friend but we won't forget them in a hurry. People in the category are almost entirely unlikeable but  stay in our heads long after we put the book down and we still enjoyed finding out about them. They might be dashing villains, loveable rogues, or they might be downright nasty. Kevin from We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is my nominee.

Who would you put in each of these categories?

Most of my most memorable characters come from children's books - proving, I suppose, that we are much more impressionable as kids. There are probably as many reasons for remembering a character as there are characters to remember - irritating characters can be just a memorable as heroes (Beth from Little Women anyone?) - so please share your own favourites. Let's wallow in nostalgia together!