John Jarrold has taught, taken part in panels and spoken at Swanwick before. He runs the John Jarrold Literary Agency, which specialises entirely in SF, Fantasy and Horror. He has around forty clients – and has turned down over 9,000 submissions to the agency. Alex Davis is author, editor, publisher, creative writing tutor and event organiser based in Derby. Alex, too, has taught at Swanwick before. He's also a short course leader at this year's Summer School.
Among the highlights of the discussion were:
What makes a successful Sci-fi book for young adults?
JJ (John Jarrold): It's impossible to give one valid answer – it's a strong, wide market
AD (Alex Davis): Hard to give a set answer. I'd suggest a young protagonist for sure, and dystopian work seems to be popular. It only takes one book to start a trend in publishing. Think about what you want to do and why. YA is a very popular and fairly new genre, so I'm sure there are many evolutions to come in time.
JJ: In some ways it's a good area. Less hidebound than the adult side can be.
Working with young writers, what advice would you give them to encourage them to look beyond simple gore when writing horror?
JJ: You need to be involved and not just write for the market.
AD: It's vital to have strong characters and believability in horror as much as any genre. Psychology is also key. Gore in itself isn't scary – well developed and built up situations will always be more effective.
JJ: Also be aware that a book one agent or editor loves won't necessarily suit another. Love your story and characters. I've done major deals for books that other publishers hated, there isn't only one way.
AD: Absolutely - as you said, there's a lot comes down to personal opinion from agents and publishers.
AD: Many genres get confronted with scorn – people tend to write what they love. I know I do. There are also huge and enthusiastic communities who love Science Fiction and Horror out there.
What would you say is the greatest sin to commit when writing SF, Fantasy and Horror?
JJ: As with any writing, it's rushing, not taking time to think about what you're doing. No one is writing in a vacuum, so be aware of whatever genre you're writing in.
AD: Writing in those genres without having read them previously! That's the easiest way to lapse into cliché and stereotype.
At first sight, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror seem so different. Why are they represented as a package?
AD: Probably because they all have imaginative and fantastical elements to them. Many of the fans read all three genres.
JJ: The book trade perceive SF and Fantasy as one market, though Fantasy sells much more. Horror is separate in retail terms.
AD: Good point John. Horror tends to live in its own section in bookshops.
Is your personal preference high-tech or low-tech Sci-Fi?
AD: As a writer and reader, I prefer low-tech, because the focus tends to be more on character. My first book is about a civilisation getting started, so it contains barely any tech at all.
JJ: It doesn't really matter. The story only has to feel real. If the society doesn't feel real, the author has failed. Robert Jordan worked for a year on his world before he wrote the first word of EYE OF THE WORLD. It's all about the story, characters..., and the author's voice.
AD: Absolutely - any setting needs to be consistent and believable to have any impact.
What crucial piece of advice would you give a newbie in that field?
JJ: READ READ READ, WRITE WRITE WRITE. It took Iain Banks 14 years and six books before his first deal. Don't rush. I see many submissions written as if the author were describing scenes from a film. No POV, no characters, no involvement. That's not how a novel works.
AD: What John said is absolutely true! Know your genre and take time to explore your style. Love what you do. Plus be sure to read plenty. Watching genre TV or film is no replacement for quality books. There are no overnight successes in writing!
We’d like to thank John Jarrold and Alex Davis for generously giving their time to answer our questions. And thank you also to Karin Backmann for moderating the chat.