LONDON CALLING pt.1 – Thursday (Fantasy In The Court)

So the majority of the end of last week and the weekend was spent in London. Pull up a dalek, dear reader, while I recount the events. Bear with the length, for the events were many and the specifics (particularly towards the end of this entry) may be of interest.

Two years ago, in August 2014, my UK publisher Del Rey UK (now subsumed back into the parental embrace of Penguin Random House) took me to Fantasy In The Court, held at Goldsboro Books just off Leicester Square (one of my companions on that day was Django Wexler, whose fourth Shadow Campaigns novel The Guns of Empire I have just read in about seven hours and can heartily recommend, as with the rest of the series). One year ago, in August 2016, I went to Nine Worlds, my first ever convention.

This year, in August 2016, I went to both.

I travelled down to London on the Thursday, a daring descent from Nottingham to the very base of the M1 and then a trip around the North Circular Road before cutting up the A40 to places like Whitechapel, which you assume exist because they have a tube station but you never really think there’s actually anything there. I’m not fully convinced that anything within the M25 actually exists when someone isn’t looking at it, and I reckon that Watford might in fact be some sort of bastion against all that potential unreality sneaking out across eight lanes of traffic and infecting the rest of the country. I mean, I’m pretty sure somewhere like Mam Tor exists all the time, but Holborn? Not so much.

But anyway.

Nine Worlds was being held this year at Novotel London West in Hammersmith, and I’d managed to grab one of the “convention rate” rooms which meant that my stay would be considerably less expensive than if I’d try to stay in it at any other time. I’d even checked in online ahead of time so theoretically I could set my own arrival time rather than being bound to the tyranny of a 2pm check-in. I say “theoretically” because what actually happened was I arrived at 1.30pm and was told my room wasn’t ready yet because the hotel was completely full that weekend (of geeks) and that instead of ten or so online check-ins that day they had over sixty (geeks again – we’re wonders for doing things efficiently over the internet to minimise personal interactions). So I got into my room at about 2pm after all, then grabbed some food.

I then met up with Eleanor, who was my companion at Nine Worlds last year and this year was going to be exhibiting her Dragon Mouse (and friends) goods at the pop-up market on the Friday afternoon. A quick sidetrack: I LOVE Dragon Mouse. I have a knitted one, I have both of Eleanor’s comics, and I commissioned her to do a piece of custom artwork featuring him that I laminated and stuck on the door of my “study” (spare bedroom where I write, bite me). Dragon Mouse is one of the coolest things ever. Eleanor was also buzzing because after missing out on tickets to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child when they went on sale she had been offered a ticket by a friend only a few days before, for a performance taking place on the Saturday afternoon when she’d already planned to be in London anyway for Nine Worlds (please don’t send her envious/abusive messages). Eleanor was staying in a hostel just down the road where she said she was greeted with the information “If you come back after midnight you may want to use the side door” (so far, so expected) “because after 12 the ground floor is a nightclub” (not so expected). Eleanor agreed to come with me to Fantasy In The Court, and so off we went.

Fantasy In The Court was a weird experience last time I was there. For one thing, although I was there as An Author at the invitation of Del Rey UK, I hadn’t actually had a book published (and wouldn’t for nearly a year) so I was wandering around with a name tag on feeling a bit out of place. Also, the sheer amount of people packed into a small space made it very noisy and somewhat overwhelming for someone who’s hard of hearing anyway. That second part didn’t change this year, but at least I felt like I had some reason to be there since my books were actually on sale in the shop. I also met a bunch of other authors I’d either met previously or had interacted with over the internet: AJ Smith, author of the Long War series, whom I’d met two years before; Rob Boffard, author of the Outer Earth series, whom I once challenged to a fight over Twitter because our debut books came out at the same time and both had the words “In Space” on the cover (followed by different other words, but that’s not the point); Jen Williams, author of the Copper Cat Trilogy; Edward Cox, author of the Relic Guild series, whom I was introduced to on the night by Helena, whom I met at FitC two years ago when we ended up pressed next to each other as everyone sheltered inside from a torrential downpour; Jamie Sawyer, author of The Lazarus War, also represented by my agent Rob Dinsdale; Tom Pollock, who gracefully agreed to sign my copy of Our Lady Of The Streets; and Claire North/Kate Griffin/Katherine Webb, whose writing in the Urban Magic series is probably some of my favourite prose of all time, whom I’d met at a “kaffeeklatsch” at Nine Worlds last year, and who greeted me with a hug and a demand to know what my favourite swear word was (I think this was part of an ongoing conversation; I replied that it seemed unfair to the others to pick just one). I also remembered to tell her about Juliet d’Aubigny, although I’d forgotten the name (click the link: it’s worth your time).

The strangest thing of all was seeing how the wheels of publishing work, just a little bit. I met an editor and a publicist from a publisher (I won’t say which one), both of them female. When showing Eleanor and I the leaflet of authors whose books were going into the Nine Worlds goody-bags the editor observed “Hmm, we don’t seem to be publishing any women at the moment. We should probably change that.” Then she turned to Eleanor and said “Do you write at all?”

Now, I’m not thinking that had Eleanor said “Yes, I write epic fantasy” instead of “Well, I’m an independently-published comics artist” (and me finding pictures of her artwork on my phone) that it would have turned into a contract offer there and then, but it really opened my eyes to how this works. You have to think that had Eleanor been an aspiring author of some sort and she’d said “yes” that it would have turned into a conversation about her work, and if it had sounded at all interesting to the editor then something might have been said along the lines of “well, get in touch”. And that in itself means nothing if the work in question turns out to be rubbish (or even just okay), but never underestimate the importance of a personal connection. My agent noticed my work because I came recommended by Luke Scull, who had read some of it and whom I had given feedback to on his first novel before he’d even been signed by Rob, let alone by his publisher Head of Zeus. Sometimes just one thing – a personal meeting, a recommendation by a mutual friend – is all it takes to make you stand out in someone’s mind and get your work noticed as opposed to dropped on the submissions pile with all the others. And if you don’t believe me, listen to Jim Butcher: I’ve read an account from him before about how his first agent had previously rejected his work but then took him on after meeting him in person. When he asked her about what had changed, her response was something along the lines of “Well, that was before I’d met you”.

This, then, is the lesson to anyone wanting to break into being a mainstream published author: meeting an agent or a publisher in person won’t get you a deal by itself (especially if you’re an arsehole), but that interpersonal contact might just make you stick out the crowd a crucial amount. So it’s worth going to things like Fantasy In The Court, if something’s happening like that near you. Don’t stalk or harass people, obviously, out of general decency as well as the fact that it won’t help you, but publishing is not a meritocracy: not purely, at any rate.

The trouble is, of course, that so many of the sort of people (warning: incoming generalisation) who like fantasy and science fiction enough to write it may struggle with social interactions (see above about online check-ins).

Anyway, after Fantasy In The Court had wound down Eleanor and I made our way back to Hammersmith and went our separate ways, ready for the first round of Nine Worlds on Friday.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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