Questions by Gary Oswald
Hello. First of all, thank you so much for talking to us. How did you get into writing Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
I guess it’s the worldbuilding, although that’s something Alternate History has in common with the other Speculative Fiction genres. And then there’s the “What if?” aspect, which is always fascinating.
The work you're probably best known for is A Kill in the Morning, which is a cold war spy thriller set in a world where the Nazis rule Europe. A Nazi victory is probably the most common AH setting, what do you think the appeal of it is?
Nazis do seem to have become all-purpose ‘bad guys’ in fiction, and it’s true that "Nazi victory" has been used as a setting for many Alternate History novels, Fatherland and The Man in the High Castle for example.
However, in the 1955 of A Kill in the Morning, the Nazis haven't achieved "victory". Britain and the Soviet Union are still opposing them, but not in open warfare. Instead, there's a three-way Cold War. That gave me a lot of scope to write the kind of classic spy story that was written during the Cold War, but with the Nazis as antagonists.
A Kill in the Morning' was published by a division of Penguin Random House but started as a thread you made on alternatehistory.com. How different are the two audiences: amateur alternate historians and mainstream readers?
I’d say there are two main differences.
Alternate History enthusiasts are interested in detail. Things like timelines, maps and documents from the alternate world (all of which appear in AKITM). They’re often not that interested in the quality of the writing. For example, many alternate histories are presented as history books, with no real characterisation or dialogue. They’re interesting, but they’re not creative writing.
Some mainstream readers have trouble understanding what alternative history even is. A friend of a friend who read AKITM sent me a message saying, “Your book is bullshit. It’s set in 1955 but it has Nazis in it. Don’t you realise that Hitler died in 1945, you moron?”
More seriously, my publisher said to me, “alternative history just doesn’t sell”. It’s not a mainstream genre, even compared to science-fiction and fantasy. This might be changing slowly, with alternative history TV series like The Man in the High Castle, SS-GB and The Plot Against America.
How much rewriting did that story have to go through between being on alternatehistory.com and being commercially published?
An enormous amount! For one thing the published novel was about a third longer.
Between AKITM being on alternatehistory.com and me entering it for the Terry Pratchett Prize (being shortlisted for which led to Random House buying the novel) I’d done an MA in creative writing. That encouraged me to up my writing game dramatically. I’d also put much of the novel through online and real-life writing groups. They pointed out innumerable opportunities to improve the story and helped me hone the opening in particular.
Once I sold the book to Random House, it was really interesting to go through a professional editing process. The development editor made some useful high-level suggestions, the copyeditor really improved the novel’s flow, and despite the fact I’d checked the manuscript thoroughly, the proof-reader found hundreds of typos.
There's been some speculation online about where the world of 'A Kill in the Morning' would go after the book finished. Do you have any plans to come back to that world in a later book?
I’d love to, and I’ve written most of a prequel, revolving around the backstory hinted at in the epigrams in AKITM and with a couple of crossover characters. I’ve also worked out the plot for sequel.
Unfortunately, AKITM was only a cult hit. Some people absolutely loved it (it won multiple literary prizes) but it didn’t sell well enough for Random House to be interested in publishing a sequel.
You regularly share writing tips on your website, what would you say are the most important points in terms of getting pieces published?
I spent quite a while investigating how commercial publishing really works, which involved surveying over a hundred and fifty commercially published authors.
The surprising thing my investigation showed was that the classic route to publication—unsolicited submission to an agent/publisher—is not the only way people get published.
The survey also identified what actions help authors to get published. You can see them at: How to get your book published.
Your website is full of writing tips and reviews and articles from it have been re-posted in websites like Slate and Forbes. Do you think that online presence helps you as a writer in terms of getting your name out or is it just an end in itself?
I’ve had paid work that stemmed from people finding me online. Mostly, though, I write my articles because I’m conscious that in achieving commercial publication I’ve been incredibly lucky.
Most of my articles aim to help other people get published, because lots of aspiring authors get into writing in quite a naïve way. They have great stories to tell but are not good (or even interested a lot of the time) at editing and presenting their work in a way that works in the industry. I hope that my advice will give them a chance of avoiding the heartbreak of endless rejection.
Also, many aspiring authors would be better self-publishing, so I try to help them see how easy it is and how to produce something they’ll be proud of.
You played a major role in the two Revolutions anthologies that featured speculative fiction set in Manchester. How did that project come about?
I run a writing group called Manchester Speculative Fiction. The idea of doing an anthology of stories emerged and we decided to open it up to people from around the world, because we wanted it to be high quality. I edited both anthologies and wrote the forewords.
Editing other people’s work is certainly eye-opening, and it was interesting to see things from a different angle.
I was pleased with both the anthologies, which got complimentary reviews and continue to sell respectably (by the standards of these things, they didn’t trouble the bestseller lists). Several people have said that reading the anthologies encouraged them to join Manchester Speculative Fiction, which is great.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Most of my paid work now is screenwriting. There’re a few things stuck in development hell that may emerge eventually, but we will see.
I’m also working on a series of sci-fi novels called The Rise and Fall of Sentor. This is the logline for the series, produced using my Killogator Logline Formula:
On a hostile alien planet, a human colony reaches the brink of destruction. The colonists must put aside their feuds and seek out the ancient sentient spaceship their ancestors betrayed and left for dead and whose resurrection represents their only hope for survival… if they can persuade their newly awakened god not to destroy them itself.