Friday, November 18, 2016

Six Questions for Henry (Publisher) and George (Managing Editor), Unsung Stories

Unsung Stories publishes literary and ambitious genre fiction. As well as novels, we publish short stories up to 3000 words long every two weeks. You can sign up to the mailing list to get a free eBook and find our submission guidelines here.

As for what this means? We operate a very broad policy on genre, as long as it’s in some way speculative. We love the hardest of SF, all heights of fantasy, the weird, the darkest of horror and everything in between. The trick is that dragons, spaceships and monsters are all great things but too often people forget that they were metaphors first. Whatever your story, it’s most important to us that it’s well-written and exploring something in a meaningful way.

SQF: Why did you start this magazine?

US: Unsung Stories came out of our real love for genre fiction, the liminal and ambitious work, the books that refuse to be classified. There are a relatively small number of publishers doing SFF in the UK and whilst they all consistently put out excellent work we saw a gap, which we wanted to fill.

It’s maybe best defined with an example – Dark Star by Oliver Langmead. This is SF noir set on a planet with no light, a moody as all hell tale of corruption and redemption from the darkness. It’s hugely atmospheric, intensely visual and entirely compelling right up to the last page. It’s also an epic poem.

It’s an undeniably excellent book, as the reviews testify, but it’s a very strange thing to pitch to a publisher. A debut author with an SF epic poem? Imagine the marketing team trying to make a campaign around that.

We don’t think like that. For us, that lack of conformity is one of the best things about Dark Star. It makes it unique, and we are delighted to be publishing Langmead’s second book in 2017. The same is true of all our authors: their work is distinct, excellent and very difficult to categorise, and that is something we celebrate.

We carry this philosophy on with our short stories, searching for the strange, ambitious and unconventional. Good writing isn’t about conformity.

SQF: What are the top three things you look for in a submission and why?

US: The first thing that will get our attention is a strong style. That’s a hard thing to define because it’s a personal thing but it includes good and appropriate use of imagery, rhythm, pacing, choice of language and many more things. It’s easier to nail what goes wrong, things like baggy phrasing, redundant action, irrelevant details. When it’s good, it’s pared down to the essential and every word has a specific impact.

The other two are tied together, and they are the idea and the message of the story. Genre fiction lives or dies by the quality of the idea, so it’s important to avoid rehashing familiar tropes. Zombie stories have been squeezed dry, quibbling over vampire lore isn’t original. Some ideas that got our attention were multi-dimensional experiments on Facebook, talking bread products, chalk monsters drawn on pavements, a boy who eats books, the future of the dummy cosmonaut, Ivan Ivanovich, rewilding robots and more. Take a look at what we publish, see how they evolve themes, see places from new angles.

All of which leads us to the message. The story absolutely has to have a point. It’s not just entertainment for us, we want stories that make us think, ask us to look at an idea in a new way. The style and idea are skills, essential ones which can be learnt and refined – the message of the piece is what brings the story to life.

And all of that applies to flash fiction as well, no compromises because it’s shorter.

SQF: What most often turns you off to a submission?

US: The most common reasons we turn things down are baggy style and clichéd ideas. If we read the first paragraph, or sentence, and are noting things like redundant phrases, inaccurate metaphors, repetition (unless it’s for a good reason!), or even worse, spelling mistakes, it’s very hard to win us back. Really focus on making every sentence lean, essential. Challenge every word for its right to be in the story.

Clichéd ideas are the other most common offence – you can have a wonderful style, but if you use it to tell us about some beefy dude with a big sword slaying an evil wizard we’ll be moving on pretty quickly. It all comes back to asking yourself what the point of the story is – if you know, the clichéd ideas most likely won’t seem fit for purpose.

SQF: You also publish books of 30K+ words. What mistakes do authors make when pitching their manuscripts?

US: We publish a few books a year so it’s worth mentioning that we are really very selective about novel submissions. As for mistakes? The biggest one is sending it before the work is ready.

We’re writers ourselves, so we know how important and exciting it is to submit your book, but the truth is that it probably won’t be ready until you’ve been through at least five drafts and who knows how many readers – more if it’s your first novel. It’s a slow process, but you only get one shot, so make sure it’s a good one. Get as many opinions as you dare, be ready to kill your darlings, listen to feedback even if – especially if – you don’t agree with it. Leave it alone for a few months and come back to it. Read it out loud to yourself. Make sure it’s perfect.

Don’t agonise about the covering letter, and don’t oversell yourself. Mostly proclamations of talent, promises of success and the like come across as arrogant. It’s all about your work; don’t tell us what we’ll think of it. The best letters we receive are modest, concise and informative. It’s perfect to tell us a little bit about yourself, briefly pitch the book and give us any publishing credits (and we don’t mind if you don’t have any either, we all start from the same place).

Finally, read the guidelines carefully. They are there to help you, and us. And if we’re closed that means we’re closed. It doesn’t mean we were secretly hoping you would query us, or send in your book anyway. It means we’re not accepting submissions!

SQF: Who are some of your favorite authors?

US: Patron saints are M. John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin, with disciples including Iain M. Banks, Douglas Adams, Nina Allan, China Miéville, Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, Mikhail Bulgakov, Sylvia Plath, John Fowles, Shakespeare, Octavia Butler, Joseph Heller, Lavie Tidhar, Craig Thompson, Rupert Thompson, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis, Joe Sacco, Thomas Ligotti, Kathleen Jamie, Ramsey Campbell, Rebecca Solnit, Benjamin Myers.

That’s some of them…

SQF: What one question on this topic do you wish I'd asked that I didn't? And how would you answer it?

US: How can authors help?

So the thing is that there are a lot of short fiction markets out there. They’re opening – and closing – all the time. But the ones that really succeed do so because people know about them, think about them, and read the work.

I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this will write and submit more short stories than they read. I get why, it’s time consuming researching every market properly and the time can be better spent honing your craft. It’s just that this logic leads us to an ever growing cloud of short stories which no one reads.

Every indie press has exactly the same problem and the most powerful thing that you can do is to share the work. Your story, a friend’s story, just one you liked – tweets and shares, blog posts, even the humble +1, it’s all a boon to us. We love spreading good news about people we have published as well, so let us know when that happens and we’ll do the same for you! This is especially true of anything on Amazon as well – common wisdom these days is 30-50 reviews is the tipping point for a book – your reviews make a concrete, tangible difference to us.

Essentially, all the hard work in the world from an indie press doesn’t mean a thing without your support, that’s the irreducible truth of it. So if you love it, tell the world, stick five stars on it, get excited when we get excited - share it.

Thank you, Henry and George. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.

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