Gollancz Book Festival 2016 Reviewby ray burke on 09/20/16
Saturday Sept 17th:
At Foyles, Charing Cross Road.
25 fantastic authors were divided throughout the day in various themed panels of 40-minutes duration. They discussed themselves, their books, and ideas, plus general anecdotes and lots of advice.
It was held on the 6th floor above the cafe which was spacious enough, though the chairs were packed closely together for a guy with long legs. While I was meeting a friend, Nick there, I was surprised he was talking to another friend of mine, randomly they had sat together - so there's the world of writing for you, it's a small world! A goody bag was provided on the chair containing a programme and copious amounts of free slimline samples of books, an indispensible SFX 'ultimate sci-fi quiz' book (watch out Lotna!), and other ads for books. It was a real bumper crop.
So after a brief wait and chat with seat-neighbours, the 1st panel consisted of moderator/author Mark Stay with authors Catriona Ward, Tom Toner, and Alister Reynolds. The theme was: 'Why so Early?' why are the authors there so early attending fests and talking to fans? Fan engagement, as sci-fi/fantasy genre seems to engage fans more readily than other 'sub-cultures'. It's one of the few times in the year authors get out and meet fans. At the opposite end, author Catriona Ward stated she writes anytime an idea arises such as when she met her boyfriend's parents for the first time and she spent a lot of it in the loo writing a story on a napkin! Tom Toner said he was a late riser, while Reynolds said he wrote mostly in summer evenings. In regards to deadlines and word counts, there was a feeling of a pressure of time. Ward wrote her first book without publisher in 6 years, while her second was expected in 18 months by the publisher. But their work ethic and accumulated knowledge on the publishing world made it a bit easier.
With social media engagement, what was their timing? Did they make time or just get online whenever? Was it better to just opt out? Reynolds structured his writing environment to avoid distractions. They were also asked about strange sci-fi books written or anything they wrote 'which the world was not ready for!' Strange question, which baffled the authors, though they mentioned works ahead of their time (where they talked about Gene Wolfe and Bruce Sterling).
On the second panel - 'More Than a Story', Stephen Baxter, Pat Cadigan, and Bradley Beaulieu discussed books which changed the world. They started off which books that changed their lives or influenced them, Robert Heinlein figuring hugely (with his diverse characters long before it was de rigueur). Cadigan noted William Gibson's Neuromancer which predicted so much of the cyber-world, but 'missed' the mobile phone/camera phone.
There was also a discourse on 'danger points' in books forcing a message or propagandising or preaching. There was a difference between a plot/idea which served the story rather than served yourself. Books should concentrate on character depth, flaws, goals and conflict.
We had a break and everyone bomb-burst for the cafe where Nick, Kate and I were caught in the long cafe queue. We got back slightly late for the next segment.
Round 3 - 'Awards, huh! What are they Good For?'
Wow - sparks and controversy! What were their role and impact? Woman had gained more wins and nominations. The Arthur C Clarke Awards had done more to promote the genre, though other awards seemed to have lapsed into specialised niches and sub-genres. Even the Hugo awards had partnered with NASA.
Then Scott Lynch sparked critical debates on what were the 'best books' compared to which books won within campaigns, judging politics and infighting. There ensued discussions on what award committees were like, the compromises and horse-trading, and the books that mostly won were most judges' second choices. To me that brought into question the value of awards and the subjectivity/objectivity of such committies. Lynch was really vocal on this, though he was checked on his comments about some awards being subservient to other media, criticising the Hugo awards showing clips from nominated films and not reading from nominated books, but Pat Cadigan (in the audience) stated it was for the MCs to have a bathroom break! Lynch demurred, but insisted some awards were losing out and that even big film studios seemed to snub such awards. Also, that other literary awards carried much bigger kudos and better financial rewards. Cadigan was happy that other awards, such as the Sterling Awards had joint-winners, which seems a sensible thing.
So what were the awards good for? Some influential and famous authors had never won. Lynch stated being on the short-list was enough for him to be recognised and could be a good as being the winner as you were a talking-point, especially if the choice was close.
Panel 4 - #amwriting. The online presence discussed with Gollancz editor Gillian Redfern, authors Rob Abercrombie, Gavin Smith, and Antonia Honeywell. What was their online activity like versus their actual writing? Antonia Honeywell said as a new author she felt it was her responsibility to promote herself and connect with people and fans. She would rather talk to people rather than hard sell her book. On the other hand, sites such as substantive blogs and even short-form Twitter were time-sinks taking away time from actual writing (er, like I'm doing now!). Rob Abercrombie said he started out being obssessed with twitter followers (as was I) but others weren't so bothered.
There was also the issue of the false positivity of some authors stating how good their lives were and how much they were writing. Honeywell believed using #amwriting was a call for help (not sure why) and stated social media was just a tool. She felt readers wanted to connect to authors, learn more about them and their background, their book ideas, and opinions. The panel also talked about the polarisation and echo chamber of social media, the attacks and disagreement.
There was comic relief from Gavin Smith who stated he had next to zero online presence and was made to be on the panel by his editor, Gillian.
Lastly they were asked if they put on a professional front or were personal. Abercrombie talked about his joke Twitter name as Lord Grim Dark which stuck and befitted the nature of his book content. Smith joked he should be Lord Space Opera. Abercrombie talked about another 'famous' author who now blocked him on Twitter for whatever reason. He says his online presence is now an adjudged performance.
So ended the panels. Time for lunch and Nick, Kate and I headed to a nearby Wetherspoons and a good chat. After, while they attended the afternoon panel sessions, I was booked in for the Writers' Workshops in the Phoenix Artist Club across the road. A kindly Big Issue man showed me the entrance as it was hidden around the corner in an alley.
Downstairs was an eclectic setting with photos of actors over the bar and strange objects on the walls like a Darth Vadar helmet over a crocodile head. What better place to inspire an author's imagination.
The first part of the afternoon was a sort of 'speed dating' with authors. 12 tables each with 4 attendees were joined by one author where we could ask them advice. The first at our table (#6) was Tom Toner. We had general introductions and what each of us were doing. Next was Catriona Ward. She gave us advice on writing a synopsis - just tell the story, strip everything out (adjectives and descriptions). With characters, to make them interesting you can use contrasting adjectives as with someone like Oscar Schindler - compassionate Nazi! You then get the conflict in the character.
James Barclay then had some great advice for those troublesome scenes you can't finish - bullet point them. I usually just left a large blank space, but even just sketching out/bullet pointing will help. Elizabeth Bear had advice on worldbuilding, to spread out the info and cut the exposition. On my question about prologues she stated sometimes they can start the main story off cold again.
After that exercise, we attendees were ushered into the adjoining room where were heard from Elizabeth Bear, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, and Justina Robson. Questions from the audience included how important is the setting. Setting is important, but the character has to develop from the setting. While the background can be a character in itself, character comes first. Another factor is to edit/smooth out incongruous and inconsistent facts.
Lastly, was an ask-the-editor segment. They talked about how they got into the industry, and what they do in the editorial process. What grabs them? Gillian talked about 'vibrating' editors; they know when they read a good book, it excites them and they boot it up the line and can't contain their excitement. Sounds like an extraordinary process. Then their dislikes: gratuitous, shock value rape scenes, lovingly created extended sex scenes - especially on page one! Females looking in the mirror stating how hot they are, action scenes which then descend into discourses on anything else (the grab them then talk about it). Luckily my books don't contain these, but Gollancz had still turned down my book. Time for a rethink, methinks!
Book signings and Party time!
Throughout the day, Gillian Redfern did her best to implore us all to buy books. There were stacks and stacks on the tables and other Gollancz books along the stairs all the way down, plus in the Phoenix Artist club. If I didn't already have a ton of books on my shelves and on my wish list, I would have gone home with more. Gavin Smith's books looked good and I had a quick chat with him. So there was a bit of a wait while the authors signed books in both locations, Scott Lynch seemingly the most popular.
We were finally ushered back onto the 6th floor where wine and snacks were served. At the beginning, Gillian had Lynch, Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd talk about each other's books as they had been published at the same time 10 years ago. For the most part people were in groups, but for us loners we wandered around pretending to enjoy the wine! Then I struck up a conversation with Izzy (IKS Andrew), a Doctor of Agriculture and great fan of Scott Lynch's books. She had the great idea to sit in the authors' seats on the stage, so we brazenly did so (with a quick chat to Gillian who was passing by). We declared we'd be in the seats for real in 5 years!
Later I spoke to author Al Robertson and when I mentioned Olaf Stapledon, he was surprised as he had just spoken to another attendee who also admired his work. He later introduced us and I met Michael and then Jonathan. Now friends with Michael, Jonanthan, and Izzy. It was a good night mingling and at the end of the night at 8.30pm, I saw Ed Cox. I'd be seeing him and Al Robertson at the next BSFA meet.
And now after that, I realise how much I'll have to re-tool The Starguards. It needs to be ripped up and and rewritten. It's a juvenile, written when I was a juvenile and it hasn't grown up. It needs to, to match the more mature nature of the current 2nd book. So, for everyone waiting for the 2nd book, it'll be a while - not a George RR Martin while, but within 2 years!