Keith Brooke’s most recent novel alt.human (published in the US as Harmony) was shortlisted for the 2013 Philip K Dick Award. He is also the editor of Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: the Sub-genres of Science Fiction, an academic exploration of SF from the perspectives of a dozen top authors in the field. Writing as Nick Gifford, his teen fiction is published by Puffin, with one novel also optioned for the movies by Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s Caveman Films. He writes reviews for the Guardian, teaches creative writing at university level, and lives with his wife Debbie in Wivenhoe, Essex.
GJ: Can we start by describing your journey to publishing your first novel, including securing your agent?
KB: Way back in the late 1980s my short fiction was just starting to appear in the magazines and anthologies. I was fresh out of university, and I’d given myself a year out to write. It was my equivalent of the gap-year: while my friends used their gap-year to travel the world, I used mine to invent new ones.
So, the stories started to sell, and I wrote my first novel and started submitting. The responses were mostly encouraging, but only along the lines of “Send us your next book, not this one”. By the time I’d written my second novel, I’d almost given up on that first book, but I decided to try one more publisher. In the meantime, I started submitting the second book. I was nothing if not committed.
I went to my first SF convention in November 1989, and spent some time with Rob Holdstock, who had co-edited an anthology that published one of my first short stories that year. Rob was very well-connected, and spent much of that weekend introducing me to people in the business. One of these people was a first reader at Victor Gollancz who had just read my second novel and put in a strong recommendation to the commissioning editor there. And another person who’d wanted to meet me but couldn’t get there was a good friend of Rob’s, who happened to be the senior editor at Transworld, the company I’d sent my first novel to. That weekend I discovered that two major publishing companies were seriously interested in two separate books I’d written. It was exciting, and potentially complicated… and so Rob introduced me to the guy who was then the top UK SF agent!
It really was a dream coming true, and I ended up with an agent, and with Gollancz signing me up for a three-book hardback deal (including my first two novels and a yet-unwritten one), and Transworld signing me up to do paperbacks of those three novels. They really were heady times!
GJ: Was the experience as you expected it to be?
KB: Not at all. It was thrilling, of course. I was an overnight success at the age of 23. But publishing is a real rollercoaster. My editor at Transworld left the company, and then his successor moved on; so by the time my third book came out there was no-one dedicated to SF there. These things really matter: a book has to be sold within the publishing company, as well as in the shops. Gollancz were taken over by a dictionary publisher (who ever thought that would be a good fit?), and cut their fiction publishing in half. Lots of fabulous writers with far longer track records than me were squeezed out. Me choosing to write a fourth novel that was a fantasy novel about the death of magic (and so which featured almost no actual fantasy) was not an easy sell, and I was dropped from both publishers.
Ever since then I’ve been bouncing around, publishing books independently, with small and medium independent presses, and then back with the big commercial publishers again. A fairly typical publishing career, but certainly not what I’d expected!
GJ: If you were to start your author career in 2019 would you do anything differently?
KB: Publishing is very different in 2019. It’s far easier to publish, and get published, these days, but it’s also far easier to publish badly. How damaging is it for a writing career that a writer’s bad apprentice-level novels can get published? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really don’t know the answer.
Until recently I taught writing at my local university. Part of that involved advising on getting published. Even a couple of years ago I still believed that the best thing for a serious writer was to try to get a deal with a traditional commercial publisher. Not just for the kudos, but because you’re working with specialised professionals on covers, marketing, editing, distribution, etc, and a new writer learns a hell of a lot that way.
But now? I don’t know. If you have the right mind-set and aptitudes, going the indie or self-publish route is viable, and some fine writers are achieving a lot of success that way. You need to be far more than just a decent writer to take that route, though.
I think if I was starting out now, I’d probably still try the trad route. Like many writers, my ego is brittle and fragile: I need the approval you get through established publishing mechanisms, editors to love what I’m doing, companies prepared to put serious money into my success, seeing my books on the shelves in a bricks and mortar bookshop. But if that didn’t work, as it so very nearly didn’t for that first novel of mine, plan B looks pretty damned inviting now!
GJ: I assume you are full time, but it is difficult to tell sometimes?
KB: That made me laugh, because yes, it is. Throughout my adult life I’ve swung between writing full-time and then getting a day job, or working in part-time combinations of the two. I took the plunge again almost five years ago, and so have been a full-time author ever since.
But what does that involve?
I run a publishing company, infinity plus, through which I’ve published an impressive (if I do say so myself) list of top authors, including Stephen Baxter, Lisa Tuttle, Anna Tambour, Garry Kilworth, Eric Brown and more. I take on freelance editing, proofreading and book design work. I do a bit of photography and web development. Oh, and I write. But even on a writing day, I usually take time out to go walking: friends often tell me how much they love/hate my ‘outdoor office of the day’ photos of wherever I’ve ended up walking. That’s just one of the tricks I’ve learned, though: I’m far more productive if I take time away from my desk every day to clear my head and do some thinking; it’s an outdoor office because I’ll often stop mid-stride to dictate notes into my phone because something has occurred to me, and because I’ve learned that not-writing is a vital part of writing.
So am I full-time writer? I guess, but it’s complicated!
GJ: Have you always written about the fantastic or have you written in the mainstream genres?
KB: I gravitated towards the fantastic when I was starting out, because that’s mostly what I read through my teens, and that’s what had inspired me to start writing. But one of my problems as a writer is that I’m drawn magpie-like to anything that strikes me as shiny. I read a crime novel and want to write crime fiction; I read something lit’ry and get lofty ambitions about getting ‘serious’ (it took me years to realise that I’d never not been serious in what I wanted to achieve through writing).
I say it’s a problem because publishers are far more comfortable with writers they can easily categorise. I turned down a major US deal early on (they wanted to put my first novel top of their list, something that editor had only ever done once before in a long career) because they would only do so if I would commit myself to writing a sequel and I wanted to move on to other things. Around the same time an anthology editor told me of a conversation he’d recently had with other editors about the new up-and-coming writers (as we were then). They’d all agreed that the thing they liked about me most was that when I submitted a story they had no idea what it was going to be. The editor wisely pointed out to me that while short fiction editors love that, it’s the worst thing possible for a novelist to do… I’ve carried that with me ever since, as I’ve flitted from genre to genre, and sub-genre to sub-genre (and from publisher to publisher, perhaps as a result).
In answer to your question, yes, I write all kinds of things. Publicly, I’ve written SF and fantasy as me, and teen horror and thrillers under the ‘Nick Gifford’ pen-name (my most successful career to date: major publisher, best sales, movie deals, the works); I also write under less-publicised pen-names in crime, suspense and even romance. I like to think I’ve been fairly successful building a career on writing whatever the hell I like, but I know I could have been far more successful if I’d been more focused!
GJ: I know it’s like picking a favourite child, but which of your novels are you most proud of?
KB: My most successful was Piggies, a vampire novel for teens written under the Nick Gifford name. That one came out from Puffin, was reprinted multiple times within six weeks of publication, and had a movie option with a big production company. I have very fond memories of that experience. And to think I only set out to write it because it was easier to fit in writing a 35,000 word novel for kids than a full-length one for adults!
I’m probably most proud of The Accord, though. I pushed myself to the limit with that one in every regard: technical, creative, ideas… It’s a love triangle with very strange geometry, a near-future thriller that takes us into the far future, and it contains scenes that shock me even now. One of my favourite review quotes for it is from James Everington: “One of my favourite headfuck metaphysical sci-fi novels.”
GJ: If you hadn’t gone into a career in writing, what do you think you would be doing now?
KB: Something creative. In my teens I played in, and wrote songs for, a succession of bad rock bands. I was serious about art, and even had a dealer wanting to work with me at one point (not bad for a seventeen-year-old), and I was very serious about my photography. By choice I’d probably have pursued the photography option. By apathy and bad university careers advice, I very nearly became a chartered accountant. Thank god I took my year out to write a novel instead!
GJ: What can we expect from you in 2019?
KB: I’m very busy, although most people wouldn’t know it, because a lot of my work is under pen-names these days. As me, though, I’m working on a series of SF novellas with my long-time collaborator Eric Brown. The fabulous PS Publishing (publisher of books by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and just about anybody who’s anybody in SF, fantasy and horror) have brought out the first two of these, Dislocations and Parasites, and the third, Insights, will be out in early 2019. The final volume will be out later this year. Collaborating with Eric is great fun; each of us always insists the other has done most of the work, and we always end up with something neither of us could have written alone.
GS: A question I always ask, what would your advice be to aspiring writers / authors?
KB: The obvious is to write, don’t just talk and think about it. In my teens I thought I’d had a great insight: most writers then didn’t get published until at least their mid-20s, so why bother even trying before then? I’d save up my ideas in a notebook and start when I was 25, when I thought that somehow I’d magically be good enough. I’d conveniently forgotten the whole business of actually learning the craft. Thankfully, a wet holiday in Yorkshire put paid to those plans and I started writing seriously in my late teens. As it turned out, I learned quickly, and got that first book deal early, but a large part of that came from writing a lot of words!
The second piece of advice is to persist. I came so close to putting that first novel away after several rejections. I had one major publisher left on my list of possibles, and I knew Transworld didn’t really publish that kind of thing. Why bother even trying? But I did, and I found a receptive editor, and I got my first big break. And in the meantime I’d already written my next novel, so I hit the ground running.
Oh, and be professional in everything you do. There aren’t many editors or agents in the business, so every one you alienate is a closed door (being a dick on Facebook, badgering them about rejections… there are lots of ways to alienate pros who don’t have much time to spare). Don’t give them reasons to reject you. The stupid little things matter. My first editor told me the reason he read the first page of my novel was because of my cover letter. I went back to look at that letter and it was nothing special: it said what I was submitting and thanked them for their attention. But it didn’t have any mistakes, no typos, no gushing self-praise, no attempt to over-sell myself. It was professional and competent. (And believe me, the vast majority of cover notes we see as editors, are sloppy and unprofessional.) Every single thing you get wrong in your initial approach is another barrier for your novel to get over.
I could go on. I used to teach this stuff. But it boils down to write, be professional, and stick at it.
GS: It just leaves me to thank you Keith for taking the time to talk with me and I wish you all the best with your continued career. Keith’s books are available from Amazon and you can keep in touch with him via Facebook and his website, www.keithbrooke.co.uk.
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