Monday, 25 February 2008

Margaret Dickinson- Advice from a Pro


Well loved novelist Margaret Dickinson was kind enough to speak with me yesterday while signing copies of her book Sing As We Go, which is out now in paperback from Pan Macmillan. I picked one up as a mother’s day gift and talked with the author. With such a rich and lengthy career in writing, I asked her how she started out as a writer.

Margaret: Well I had always wanted to write ever since I was fourteen years old. It wasn’t until 1968, when I was 26, that I had a novel published. Then between 1968 and 1984 I had nine novels published before taking a break due to family matters.

It was my agent, Davis Anderson, that suggested I try my hand at a regional saga. I did so, and out of the five publishers it was sent to, I was lucky enough to get four offers. I signed up with Pan Macmillan and have written a book a year for them since 1994.

What advice would you give aspiring writers who would like to get their work published?

Oh it always hard. You must always work hard, and be very thick skinned, as you will get knocked back a great deal. The agent route is the best way to do it today I’d say. Publishers don’t like unsolicited work, so it is best to find a good agent first.

It is best to make initial contact by supplying sample chapters of a book along with a synopsis. This helps the agents and publishers see whether you can actually write for one thing, and if you can progress the story satisfactorily.

Some agents, if they see potential in the writing, will work with an author to see if there are particular genres that the author would suit, be it sagas, romance, fantasy, children’s books and so on. There’s certainly a desire for children’s books in the post J.K. Rowling market.

Work very hard, and stick at it. Study the market- you always need to know what is out there and what is selling. The most important thing is; Don’t get disheartened. If something doesn’t work, write something new. I have seven novels in the loft that will never see the light of day. Just stick at it and don’t give up.

Thanks for your time and your advice Margaret. Good luck with the new release.

You’re welcome. I hope your mother enjoys the book.

With such a quality track record in general fiction, and Margaret’s grasp of characters and setting, I’m sure she will.

-Andrew Hawnt

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Nature of Science Fiction

Look at the stars. What do you see? Pin pricks of light against empty black sky? Or do you stare and wonder what is actually out there? Probably the former rather than the latter, but there are still a few of us who glance up there and wonder what is going on around those stars, or what went on back when they were still alive and burning brightly. How much of the science fiction pantheon we have collectively dreamed up has already been happening light years away? We’ll certainly never know during my lifetime, but it is dreams like this that have given science fiction its immortal appeal.

It is, at a very basic level, a beast of ideas and of comment. It is a forum where all of the ‘What if?’ questions are let loose upon the imaginations of writers, creators and fans the world over. The technology it tells of may be outlandish and far off being a reality (or not in some cases), but these trinkets are little more than devices to help the story along. While the science may not always be sound (or, in the case of franchises such as Star Wars, completely insane), the SF elements generally play second fiddle to the actual story and characters.

The ‘Hard SF’ genre may like its technology more, but it is still telling stories, albeit with a greater tendency towards techno-porn. Then there is Space Opera, which is a fantastic mix of as many genres as possible, again with the focus very much on the story, this time on a much grander scale. If a tale focuses too much on the tools and the ship and the guns, then it will lose so much in the way of pace and readability.

Science Fiction does what it says on the tin, but not always in a conventional sense. While the literal meaning of the term may speak of fiction with a speculative science element, it can be used in such a subtle way that stories can dwell almost in the urban fantasy genre. So what is it that makes something SF? An atmosphere? Spaceships? Perhaps an underlying feeling that something is slightly askew with the world? It is open to debate. What can definitely be said is that Science Fiction, through stories of the distant (and not so distant) future, helps us take a look at the world we currently live in now from a different perspective.

It gives us glimpses of what we could become, and how we might live and survive. It warns us of catastrophes that could befall us and how we could overcome them, or at least learn to live with them. Even the most outlandish story can have a basis in reality. It can help us learn more about ourselves from the ground up, and it can help us dream that little bit harder, push our minds that little bit further.

As the line between science fiction and reality continues to blur in our everyday lives (we do already live a much dreamed-of future, even without hovercars or omnipotent AIs), it is sometimes easy to take SF for granted, as if it were still something far off and intangible, yet here it is, within our grasp. There is still so much to discover and learn and wonder. Spare a moment and look up at those stars once in a while, and maybe even spare a thought for who, or indeed what, may be doing the exact same thing, somewhere out there.

What if?

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

On Writing Podcasts

Writing is largely a very solitary endeavour. It is often a lonely thing to do, and when things don’t go to plan, or fail completely, the writer feels remarkably isolated amidst friends who, while caring, don’t really understand the frustration. You can work for hours on a story, sitting after sitting, and then it hits you after six thousand words that it is going nowhere and should be scrapped. Thankfully this rarely happens to me, but when it does, I take it as a weird personal affront. How DARE these words deny me their fruits? See? An angry writer is far more pompous than a calm one.

It does feel from time to time that there is nobody out there that can understand the problems involved in writing, and in certain cases this can lead to people giving up altogether, unable to get past the mental blocks they have raised around their projects. I am blessed in that my girlfriend is a regularly published writer, who is more than happy to go over my work, even if she does have a grinding dislike of science fiction that always makes me nervous to show her new material. She endures it, and is a great asset and source of discipline.

But not everyone has someone to bounce new work against, which is why the current crop of podcasts in relation to writing are an absolute essential thing to get. You don’t need a n iPod to listen to them, just iTunes. In many cases, podcasts are offered as free direct downloads from websites, but the easiest way to get them is to subscribe via iTunes. Just go to the podcast directory and search for Writing.

My iPod currently gets about a dozen of these delivered to it on a regular basis, all of which are valid in their own way, but there are a few I’d really like to talk about a bit.

The first would have to be I Should Be Writing, presented by Mur Lafferty. This long running show deals with a wannabe fiction writer, Mur, and her adventures in getting work done and out on time. She’s had several fiction sales and a growing catalogue of other published work, and is a pro at the podcast game. Her shows are informative, funny, and inspiring, even when the guests go off at a tangent, as they are sometimes wont to do. The thing is, it is a positive show that points out to all of us wannabe writers everywhere that we aren’t alone, and there are indeed others that understand what we are going through. This is my favourite, and the one I find myself going through repeated listens of.

In fact, it has been ISBW that has opened my eyes and ears somewhat to the actual Podcast market. She’s had work produced by Escape Pod, which I checked out and discovered to be an entertaining, partially dramatized series of science fiction stories, which instantly had me hooked. While the stories aren’t always what I’d particularly go out of my way to listen to, they are well written, well produced and a valuable asset to the SF fan who wants something other than endless TV themes on their iPods.

One brilliant discovery I made in the iTunes podcast directory was a regularly updated podcast under the name of the Odyssey Writers Workshop, which features excerpts from speeches made at the annual Odyssey workshops in the US, focussing on helping people whose work is approaching publication standard write convincing Science Fiction and Fantasy. The speeches, while not always 100% audible (as they are recorded in a classroom) are informative and very useful indeed. A wide variety of authors are presented on the podcasts, meaning there’s generally someone on offer that will interest a listener.

iTunes itself provides a ‘Meet the Authors’ podcast, which is recorded at the Apple store in Soho (US), which is a series of lengthy interviews with popular authors and writers, and a useful resource. It doesn’t concentrate on the business or practice of writing as such, but it is still an important listen for the aspiring writer.

The Writing Show’ is also a good show to get, if a little bit ‘daytime TV’ for my tastes. The writers featured and interviewed are interesting, but the delivery is a little slow for me. The most recent one I heard was fascinating though, featuring a writer who has supplied a great deal of dramatic work to the BBC and Channel four. Hearing a British writer on a US based podcast is a refreshing thing, and the advice given in that most recent episode was very enjoyable and eye opening.

There is a wealth of inspiration to be had out there. If you’re struggling to overcome a block, desperate to find someone out there that understands, or advice on what to do next, these podcasts are a great starting point for listening at home or on the go. You’re not alone, you really aren’t. We may be spread out few and far between, but we’re out there, and we know just how much that character or that scene is frustrating you, and we all know, some of us rather greatly, what it feels like when the rejections come through. Just keep on trying, and if not trying, at least keep on writing, and don’t stop. Never stop. Get those ideas down. Enjoy them. Lose yourself in them, and if you struggle, work at it. When you need a little extra help, just go into iTunes and discover all those people that know exactly what you’re going through, and how to further yourself.

New issue of POWERPLAY out now!

Issue 95 of POWERPLAY ROCK AND METAL MAGAZINE is out now, and I am thrilled to be writing for them. I first came into contact with the magazine back in late 1997 if I remember rightly, and after the demise of magazines such as Frontiers, Hard Roxx and The Rock, it became the only source in the UK to regularly get news and info on traditional metal, power metal, AOR, melodic rock and the like. Where other magazines are intent on the next fad, trend or flavour of the week, Powerplay always concentrated on finding acts and music that the UK audience would otherwise not hear about much, if at all. Their regular CDs in the POWER FILES range are a constant source of new discoveries, indeed, I heard many of my current favourite bands for the first time on these sampler CDs. I am honoured to be contributing, and am having a great time doing so. It may seem a small thing to some people, but seeing my name listed in the 'Powerplayers' section with the staff made me grin like a child.

I have two reviews in this issue, namely for the new Khymera album and the new Waysted. I've written eight for the next issue and I hope they all make it in! Go check out a copy in WHSmiths, or visit the magazine's website at http://www.powerplaymagazine.co.uk/ for a look at what's in the rest of the issue.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Getting stuck in

The writing of my anthology is almost complete. The covers are done, the stories are being finished and polished, and I'm starting to get excited again. I'm 25,000 words into the book, and the target is 30-32,000, so I'm nearly there. I have been asked, quite innocently, why I am publishing it through lulu.com and not sending stories to publishers and contests and the like. This is a very good question, which I'd like to answer here if I may.

I am working on material for submission to magazines and publishers as well as my ongoing fiction projects, but I wanted to put out a short book via a Print On Demand source for the simple fact that I wanted to train myself a little in getting something completed and out. The stories that are contained in Across the Seas of Mind are primarily written for my own satisfaction. I know that it won;t sell many copies and won't catapult me to superstardom, but it is helping me gather the stamina and discipline to complete a work that I am proud of.

Writing at least 1000 words of new material a day, be it fiction or non-fiction is helping me hone what skills I have. Writing for the pages I do for my dayjob is great fun; I get to spread the word about the cool stuff coming out, which is always a good thing. Writing reviews for Powerplay and Subba Cultcha is a bit more of a challenge as there are rules and each one is a challenge. It isn't as easy as you might think to review an album in a fair manner. Sure it'd be easy to say 'this is crap', but that's an album someone has worked hard to create. The least people like myself can do is give it a fair hearing and an honest opinion, which is what I try to do.

The new draft of my novel is just under 9,000 words long so far. There are many projects I have written chunks of, but this is the one I keep coming back to (two screenplays and various earlier drafts have been created around it), and it will find its way into the hands of a publisher as soon as there is enough of it written to form a submission pack. It ois proving to be a wonderful experience writing it. The characters are taking on definite personalities, which is something I've fretted about in the past. Things are coming together nicely.

This is where it begins for real. It has been a long time coming, and I'm thrilled to be making the effort. It is effort that makes all the difference in this game.

I think...

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Life in the Geek Lane

Salutations, fellow travellers along these pixellated alleys. It has become clear that I need some form of repository for the stream of consciousness that seems to be unendingly rampaging forth from my fingers.

A little about your humble host; I'm Andrew Hawnt, Andy to you, and I write rather a lot. I freelance for the rock and metal magazine POWERPLAY, the pop culture website SUBBA-CULTCHA, and I write for my dayjob at the comics/film memorabilia site STARSTORE.COM and its various blogs. My science fiction antholgy, ACROSS THE SEAS OF MIND, will be available soon via the Lulu publishing site. I wanted to be able to offer up writing here that will be of interest to people outside of my circle of friends (LJ can only offer so much exposure!), and also wanted a place where I could put the writing that I am proud of, as well as emptying my head a little every now and again.

A former production assistant/camera operator/composer/screenwriter/actor for numerous no-budget independent films in the late 90's, I now make my way through life as a professional geek, Mac addict and film nerd. I've dabbled in music, releasing three albums with the Industrial rock band RED20 as guitarist, various side projects and briefly playing with metallers DESCENT TO COCYTUS.

I am fascinated/addicted/enthralled by science fiction, fantasy, horror, geek culture, crime novels, comic books, and all the other trappings of someone brought up on a diet of Ghostbusters, Transformers and Stephen King.

This place? Articles, thoughts, the odd interview, reviews, and much more besides.

I hope you enjoy your stay.

Your host,
Andy