Breaking in to the market

It’s the one thing more aspiring writers want to know more than anything else. HOW DO YOU DO IT? I would have gladly caused physical harm in finding this out myself (possibly even to myself. It’s that frustrating).

Everyone’s experience is difficult, of course, but here’s mine. It refers particularly to science fiction.

“The Quest for St Aquin” by Anthony Boucher (reprinted in The Golden Age of Science Fiction, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is where I read it) is about a robot that uses Aquinan logic to deduce the existence of God, but this aspect of it left me cold at the time. More obviously, even to readers with non-philosophical and theological backgrounds, it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world where Christianity is illegal and persecuted. That story was the first to get me writing my own stuff, in the summer after ‘A’ levels — curiously enough, it was about a world where Christianity is illegal and persecuted, but this time where the Roman Catholic church has fled to a colony on Mars.

I never finished it, but that’s another matter. As far as I know, no surviving copies exist, which is very good news for me and very bad news for potential blackmailers, since I’d take out a second mortgage and pimp my sister if it kept that manuscript out of the public eye. But from then on I was writing as a hobby; and, thanks to Asimov’s encouraging little expositions, I knew SF could be sellable. So, I was writing with a possible view to finding a market.

Asimov was god (he shared this view) and I did what he said. He had started off by writing short stories; only later did he grow into writing novels. This is probably because when he started, the SF field was so new and so small that there were no novels being published. However, I got the idea — which I still stand by — that to get yourself noticed as a novel writer, break into the short story market first. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, since it’s a lot harder to develop characters and backgrounds and plots in 5000 words than it is in 80,000. On the plus side, if you write a short story that just doesn’t work, you’ve spent a lot less time on it than you have with a dud novel.

BUT: where the sod do you sell short stories? Names flowed from Asimov’s articles: Astounding (which became Analog), Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy. None of the above could be found here in the UK on the newsagents’ shelves. I suppose, thinking back, that I could have asked a newsagent, but this was far too good an idea to occur to me at the time. I didn’t know then about Forbidden Planet, the SF store in London (then in St Giles, now in New Oxford Street and well worth a visit) or any other specialist outlets. Until, the Sunday Times ran an SF writing competition, which featured an introduction by J.G. Ballard, who mentioned this magazine called Interzone. I’d never heard of it, but it was an English SF short story magazine.

Soon after that, I came across the first Interzone anthology in the university bookshop. On the strength of the contents, I took out a subscription.

Having failed my first year exams at university due to writing too much (a fantasy novel which I actually finished, and is now in a bank vault somewhere to keep it from the public eye [or should be]) I shelved the writing until graduating. But after graduating, the short stories began to tumble from my pen (well, Amstrad PCW) like nothing else; all of them aimed in the general direction of Interzone, poor thing. The editor David Pringle was very nice about it and the rejection letters were generally encouraging.

After graduating, I’d had a mind-numbingly tedious temp job doing data input for the MOD. Fresh from a degree course in Philosophy & Politics, I got to thinking of myself in Marxist terms, a modern day proletarian doing drudge work to eke out my existence, thoroughly alienated from what I was doing. This led to a story called “Input”, which assumed the technological revolution had happened a century earlier in Victorian England, and Karl Marx was rapidly revising his views. “Input” took the well-trod path to Brighton and David Pringle’s letter box; he returned it for being too similar in theme to William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, a novel from which he hoped to publish an extract.

When I had stopped swearing and peeled myself off the ceiling (like, Gibson & Sterling needed the publicity, and I didn’t), I read the letter further: David suggested I rename it “The Input Class” and send it to a man called David Barrett, who was compiling a collection of short computer-based SF stories to be published in a book called Digital Dreams. I promptly followed both suggestions.

David Barrett also rejected it, on the more enlightened lines that it wasn’t good enough — strangely, I had no difficulties with this concept. But because I’d heard of him, I sent him my next computer-based story, “Digital Cats Come Out Tonight”. David Barrett loved “Digital Cats” and bought it.

Digital Dreams appeared in 1990 (NEL, ISBN 0-450-53150-3), and carried stories by authors who included Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Garry Kilworth, Storm Constantine … and some bloke called Jeapes. A review by John Gribbin panned it, based entirely on its cover: this had originally had the words “original stories from Terry Pratchett and other writers”, in very small type, in a panel in one corner of the cover, printed with Pratchett’s permission. After all, if you’ve got a big name author, you might as well use him. However, without telling or consulting anyone, the publishers changed this to “exciting stories from TERRY PRATCHETT and the best of British science fiction”, and repositioned the text to centre Pratchett’s name under the title, thus making it look from a distance like Pratchett was actually the author of the book. No one was amused, least of all Terry Pratchett, but it was too late to change and that was the version that went out into the world.

Other reviews were more promising, and though I say it myself it was a good collection. David Barrett had done very well to get those stories together. “Digital Cats” itself was singled out for mention twice: Interzone (bless ’em) said it was “jaunty, original and amusing”; SF Eye said it took “first prize for twee nonsense.” Heavyweight, serious SF it ain’t, and I have to say my inclination is to go with the latter opinion, but it’s my first baby and I love it. Read it yourself and form your own opinion.

And then David put me on the invitation list for the Milford writers workshop which led to meeting lots of other writers which led to joining a writers group which led to meeting my agent which led to him placing my first novel with a children’s publisher which led to the ghost writing …

And here I am.