A couple of days ago, I was on the train and near to where I was sitting, a mother and daughter were having a conversation. I wasn’t deliberately eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help overhearing some of their conversation and at one point they started talking about the fact they were both writers aspiring to get published. The mother was talking about sending the work to agents. She said a few things that made me want to jump across the carriage to correct. I couldn’t do so at the time because it was a crowded train and there were people sitting between us, as well as it being awkward to just barge into someone else’s conversation.

But I’ve been thinking about that conversation and the things I might have said if I’d been sitting right next to them.

The woman said at one point that you don’t need to have a completed book to go out and hunt for an agent or a publisher. She said that you send out a synopsis and sample chapter but don’t need to have the rest of the book finished.

There is a grain of truth to what she said. When you submit a book for consideration, you do send out samples rather than the whole thing. Most publishers ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis (a summary of the whole book) but this can vary. Some publishers ask for a number of words or a number of pages instead, and the length of the synopsis can vary (500 word, 1000 words, 1000-2000 words, 2-3 pages, 1 page, etc.). If you are sending your book out, it’s vital that you check the submission guidelines of the publisher or agency you are approaching and tailor your submission according.

The main point I would question though is her assertion that you don’t need to have the book finished. If you are working on a fiction book, you should have the book completed before you send the samples out. There are a few different reasons for this. The first is simply: what will you do if they say yes? If you send out your three sample chapters and an agency or publisher comes back and says they like it, you have to be ready to send the rest of the book. You don’t want to get a positive response but have to go back and say that you’re only halfway through writing the book. The publisher is not going to wait.

The other big reason is that books change over the course of writing them. When I started writing Child of the Hive, Rachel wasn’t a character. I didn’t plan on her at all. I just needed someone to interact with Alex and Will at one point and I gave her a name. But then she kept coming back… and developed a crush on Drew… and insisted on being part of the plot. By the second half of the book, the story doesn’t work without her and I had to go and write her back into the opening chapters so that she wouldn’t just appear out of nowhere. If I had submitted the story when I’d only written the first three chapters, the synopsis and opening I sent would have only vaguely resembled the finished book. I had some major changes with Shadows of Tomorrow too. When I started that book, Cassie was the main character, but I realised a few chapters in that Gareth was the one making all the decisions and participating in all the action. I completely rewrote the opening chapters to focus on him as the main character to avoid confusing people as to who was the protagonist. Maybe writers who stick more closely to their initial plans than me won’t have this issue, but I wouldn’t be able to submit opening chapters at the start of the writing process because I would need to completely change them at a later point when the story changed.

A related point to this is that you shouldn’t submit the first draft of your book. When writing, you should go through different drafts. For me, the first draft is about getting the bones of the story down, working out the rough flow, and getting the plot sorted out. The second draft is about fixing the plot holes, making sure the whole thing hangs together, and, where necessary, inserting new characters into the beginning because they refused to get out of the story. The third draft is then all about tidying up. This is where I improve confusing sections, cut the boring bits, and fix the wording in places where it’s a bit awkward. I also attempt to hunt typos but I struggle with this. I only submit the story after all of this.

What you send to a publisher or agent should be the best book you can possibly make it and that means revising the book before you send it off. Not everyone needs three drafts. Some people who spend more time on the planning stages can probably do it in two because they have less plot hole hunting to do, but the fact remains that you still have to work on the story before it goes out. Just because the publishers and agents only ask for the opening of the book in a submission, it doesn’t mean you should submit when you’ve only written that far.

You might have noticed though that I specified ‘fiction book’ near the start of this post. The rules are slightly different when submitting a non-fiction book. Usually, you will submit sample chapters along with some information about the book (the target audience, what it’s similar to, what its unique selling point is, etc.) and a breakdown of what you will cover (similar to the synopsis). When submitting a non-fiction book, what you are submitting is a proposal for a book you intend to write. You don’t necessarily have to have finished writing it in this case, but as before, check the guidelines on the website of whatever publisher or agency you are thinking of sending your submission to.

The Confessions of Dorian Gray

I’ve just added some new items to my queer reading list – The Confessions of Dorian Gray (series 1 & 2, and series 3). I wasn’t sure about whether to list these as they are an audio drama rather than a normal book, but Amazon has them listed as audiobooks and the box sets have a record on Goodreads, so I figured they were close enough to count.

The stories are based on the premise that Oscar Wilde wrote The Portrait of Dorian Gray about an actual friend/lover of his, but that Dorian didn’t die at the end of the book and instead lived on until the modern day fighting demons, ghosts, monsters, and other supernatural threats. Dorian’s sexuality isn’t specifically labelled but I would describe him as pansexual because he will sleep with anyone he finds attractive, whether they be man, woman, or blood-sucking vampire.

The first two seasons are a selection of stand-alone stories that take place over the course of Dorian’s long life, often jumping forward a few decades between them. The third season has a more long-term arc. The stories themselves are still episodic in nature but there are plot threats that span between them, including a romance arc between Dorian and a male character that crosses three episodes.

Dorian is written based on the hedonistic character of Oscar Wilde’s book. He gets character development over the series, but he remains in it for the pleasures of life – be they sex, drugs, alcohol, or murder. It’s very refreshing in this story how open Dorian is about his sexuality, talking about being attracted to different genders without any hesitation of qualms, but it’s hard to forget that he is also written this way to be amoral and his sexuality is part of that portrayal. It follows the trope of bisexuals/pansexuals being sex-crazed, party animals and there are times when Dorian talks about his “sins” (hopefully referring to all the murder, but vague enough that it could also be including his sexuality). Some listeners may have problems with this portrayl. However, what I think redeems the story however is that there are episodes and arcs where Dorian is shown to care for people as people. There are some stories where he falls in love and these vary. There’s a story where he falls in love with a woman, another where he falls in love with a man, and then there’s his relationship with the murdering vampire (lots of canon bloodplay kink in that pairing) who he describes as the love of his life.

The story also has minor queer characters who appear for an episode or two. One of my favourites is Simon, who has a fling with Dorian in one episode and falls in love with him only to end up jaded when Dorian doesn’t love him back and just perceived what they had as a casual thing. Simon ends up having a marriage of convenience with a lesbian so that he can get ahead in a business run by homophobes and so that she doesn’t get cut out of the will of a very wealthy but very bigotted relative. Then there’s the fact that Oscar Wilde himself is a character in the first episode. It’s clear that while Dorian is a horrible person (but a brilliant character) that’s because of who he is and not because he’s into men.

I do recommend this series as a great fun set of fantasy/horror stories. I haven’t listed seasons 4 and 5 on my reading list because I only list books I’ve read (or in this case listened to) but I have got those on order and suspect I will add those to the list once I’ve heard them.

Alien aliens

I recently read The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (UK link, US link), which is a great book for a lot of reasons, but one thing I particularly liked about it is that the aliens really felt alien. That may seem like a strange thing to say, but sometimes in science fiction you get alien species that are basically humans but with pointy ears or green skin. Some are given characteristics of a minority group for the sake of analogy, and some get exaggerated physical traits or, sometimes, mystical powers, but in a lot of ways they feel like humans.

One particularly common example of this is in terms of gender, sex, and physical relationships. In films in particular, but sometimes in books, alien women look like human women but with some superficial appearance changes. Alien races appear attractive to humans in standardly human ways. Alien races have two genders and follow stereotypical patterns of gender dynamics. It is as though every species in the universe is based on the template of white, European gender dynamics.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is a refreshing change from this approach. In this book, there are several alien species, and there is an emphasis placed on how different gender and sexuality would be for these different species. So there is a species where every member of the species starts out female but becomes male later in life. There is a species that coexists with a parasitic virus so they are all referred to as they because they consider themselves a joint organism – the host and the virus. There is a species that has three different families as a standard – the family that raises the children is not the same as the family that provided the genetic material. This species doesn’t consider children to be people until they reach adulthood.

There is a sense of a vast and complicated universe, with every species having their own biology that influences their behaviour and attitudes. This is a complete contrast to another book I read recently (which I won’t name because I didn’t enjoy it) where every single character from half a dozen different species would have fit right in with a gathering of middle class white Americans (plus every single character in the book was male, except for the protagonist’s love interest who showed up for about a page and a half).

When it comes to science fiction, that old adage of “write what you know” is less applicable than ever, because the point of science fiction is to explore the unknown. When writing alien species, we should think about the variety of biology that exists even on our own planet, and imagine the implications of a sentient alien race having more in common with say bees or clownfish than humans. Those differences can be in everything from their methods of communication (the aliens in The Bride by Janine Ellen Young (UK link, US link) live in a vacuum so they don’t have verbal communication but communicate using viruses), or in terms of family dynamics (in Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon (UK link, US link) the alien young are protected by an older person who doesn’t have offspring of her own), or in terms of gender and sexuality as discussed with regards to The Long Way To a Small Angry Planet. When coming up with an alien race, let your imagination run wild or look at some of the weirder species on Earth for inspiration and design aliens that really feel significantly alien from us.