Further work to prepare myself for visiting the London Book Fair.
I have looked through the list of agents who are attending and researched which (a) are open to submissions (b) are interested in science fiction (c) which agents within the company are those who hold that brief (d) what books they like and other interests (e) were they are based. The idea is to have a short list of a dozen or so who seem a good fit – they would potentially like the book and could we work together.
I’m not expecting to get signed up there and then, but want to have a better chance of being looked at if they agree to receive the manuscript. As it inevitably says in most of the rejection letters I have received, whether an agent decides to take on a client is as much about “fit” as the quality of the book. Do they personally like it, does it fit the current marketplace, and are you the sort of person they will be happy to work with.
The marketplace issue is an interesting one. Publishers need to signal to potential readers why they should stump up the cost of buying the book. If they can describe it as “like a, b or c” that make that job easier. Everything from the blurb to the cover to the media releases will then be geared to make it look as much like other books you like as possible. Breaking through a book that doesn’t fit that easily into a category is that much harder.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus was a wonderful book but not one that slotted comfortably into an existing genre. The hardback was therefore heavily discounted when it was launched and a lot of effort was put into getting advance plaudits from people who the public recognise and like. Once it had taken off, it opened the door to market other books as being “like The Night Circus”. Almost inevitably there will be a lot of books over the next few years that are pale imitations and dilute the genre. That category of novels will either grow if there are sufficient which are good enough to build a market, or will wither away leaving Morgenstern to stand alone.
A good example is steam punk, which my novel The Revolutionary Tapestry shares elements with. The initial examples by Tim Powers, James Blaylock, K.W.Jeter, and the one off collaboration by Sterling and Gibson “The Difference Engine” used the idea of an alternative Victorian setting in interesting ways. Most of the subsequent works have taken the superficial elements of the setting and lost what the originals were about. That doesn’t mean they are bad books – just ones that are comforting rather than challenging. One of the joys of the Difference Engine is that it makes you look at not only Victorian England but the present day in a new way. I hope The Revolutionary Tapestry does the same, but also incorporates the fun element of Steampunk at its best – Powers The Anubis Gates being the best example of this.
The same goes for alternative history. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle was a brilliant novel which asked important questions about being human in a world under a malign government and the nature of reality. Just as with Steampunk, other worthwhile novels in the same genre are fun explorations of “what if”. However there are also scores of novels that simply write a straightforward narrative with some historical research for seasoning.
I have always loved the writing of Alfred Jarry and the many other movements and artists he has inspired. His life is as fantastic as any of his writings and he lived in a period which not only was filled with equally enthralling people, but contains the seeds of our world today in the issues it faced. The scientific advances, the political challenge of anarchism and communism. Imperialism and its effect on the subjugated populations. The enormous gap between rich and poor. Struggles with equality and sexuality and what it means to be a man or a woman. Not to mention the anti-Semitism and general racism. At the same time people were investigating the nature of mind with neuroscience, psychology and altered states of consciousness as well as exploring the works of eastern science and esoteric beliefs.
An alternative history novel where the Paris Commune of 1871 didn’t fall but succeeded and ran France seemed a good way of exploring some of these themes and the idea of the Tapestry – a proto internet based on a combination of radio and punch cards gave me not only a way of looking at information, disinformation and its political effect but also a metaphor for the way the story weaves together different lives and plot strands as well as themes. I also stole a few techniques from John Dos Passos (without the level of skill or complexity I fear) to paint the society in both width and depth.
Most of all, I wanted it to be fun – not laugh out loud funny but fast paced, exciting and witty in both the overall story and lots of the details. It is not Jarryesque in its style (I am definitely not worthy) but hopefully it has his sense of invention and playfulness. Some of the jokes also come from weaving some of the ideas in his writing into the plot and scenes.
One of my pre-readers suggested it could easily be taken as an historical novel if you didn’t know enough about the period to see where the timelines diverged and where the real ends and extrapolation begins. However Alastair Brotchie’s marvellous biography of Jarry and Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years do such a good job of describing the reality it would be pointless retelling the truth.
Jules is doing a wonderful job re-reading it to identify issues (as well as the typos etc I have inevitably still missed so I will do the final revise today, cut it up again into the various different sizes that are needed for different agents, and rehearse an elevator pitch so I can make the best first impression I can.