Questions by Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a relatively tight-knit online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result a lot of our members and writers are involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion either with a counter factual focus or not. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on the rest of this community.
Hello David, thanks so much for agreeing to speak to us! So you launched Sergeant Frosty Publications, which covers Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults, yesterday. To what extent do you think that younger audience has been neglected by writers of alternate history and other historical fiction? One only needs to take a look at the book produced by mainstream publishers for historical fiction, alternate or “real” history. Nearly every book is aimed at an adult audience, and I’m struggling to think of mainstream historical books that are intended for a younger audience. Which is odd, because the success of things like Horrible Histories demonstrates that there is a demand for such books from a younger audience.
I get the impression that a number of authors feel that they can write either historical fiction, or fiction for a younger audience, but feel uncomfortable trying to combine these.
A quick glance at Amazon’s recent releases in AH reveals that there is a shortage: of the books in the top 50 of new releases, precisely none are aimed at a younger audience. Ordinarily, this might indicate a lack of demand. And yet the success of things like Horrible Histories suggests otherwise.
I guess that this time next year, I’ll have a better idea of whether this is a hole in the market, or simply that there is limited demand. My research to date suggests that there is a market, but in the end, the only way to know for sure is to try. Ask me this question in a year’s time, and I’ll have solid information to go on rather than just market research surveys and “asking around”.
The fact of the matter is that there is precious little historical fiction for children and young adults currently available. Sergeant Frosty Publications will produce 4 books a month, and we’ll see how well they do.
As someone who has written many books both for Sea Lion Press and elsewhere with a more adult audience, how much did you find yourself having to shift your style for a younger audience? For me personally, it’s almost the other way round. For some years, I’ve been telling bedtime stories to a young audience (slowly getting older and now pretending to humour me by having bedtime stories told or read, although they complain bitterly when there’s the hint of a suggestion I stop).
In the end, all stories come down to people (or approximations of people) doing things somewhere. If you’ve got interesting characters that the readership can relate to, doing interesting things in interesting places, then you’ve got a story worth telling. That’s true whatever the target readership is. The only difference is in what the readership finds interesting.
What exactly is the biggest difference between writing a SFP book and a SLP book, in your opinion. Is it mostly the content that is different with a younger market or more the language? Pacing. The main thing with a younger audience is that the story has to keep moving. It might be movement backwards or sideways, but lengthy prose that is purely descriptive is a quick way to lose a young readership. You need the descriptive element, but it must be used in advancement of the story.
To take an example: the start of The Hobbit and the start of Lord of the Rings. Within the first thirty pages or so of The Hobbit, we meet Bilbo and Gandalf, we meet the dwarves, we learn about the quest to recover the dragon’s horad, there’s an amusing tea-time scene, and then the characters set out.
By contrast, Lord of the Rings takes forever to get going. Essentially, in the same number of starting words, you get an introduction to the preparations for a party. The party itself is essentially a vehicle to allow Gandalf to give a very long exposition of the background, and even after this, nothing much happens for a while. Eventually, Frodo and Sam set off, but by now, the younger reader has well and truly lost interest.
Some authors think that because younger readers tend to have a greater ability to willingly suspend disbelief, and accept an unlikely initial premise, that means that both logic and cause and effect go out of the window. The reverse is actually true. However implausible the premise might be, you have to follow through on that premise with logic. For example, say the central character is a snowman who is, in effect, Father Christmas, and who can use Christmas Magic. A story simply doesn’t work if you try and force it into a Halloween tale. It doesn’t work if you establish early on that the character can’t fly and needs a magical dragon, and then you just have the character fly later on.
“Daddy, how can Sergeant Frosty fly?”
You can guarantee that the question will be asked. You’ve got to follow through with the logic of the premise. More so than in adult fiction, quite honestly. It’s quite possible to find plot faults in, for example, episodes of Dr Who that simply wouldn’t be tolerated on comparable episodes of the Sarah Jane Adventures.
Another important thing that many authors used to writing for an adult audience get wrong when writing for a younger audience is a tendency to write in a patronising manner. That’s one of those things that is hard to define, but it stands out when you come across it.
But, above all, an author has got to enjoy writing for their audience. If you’re not enjoying writing it, you can be certain that no-one is going to enjoy reading it.
Do you find that with a younger more general audience, you can assume less knowledge and so need to lean in more heavily on the exposition? Yes and no. Yes, you can assume less knowledge, both in terms of factual knowledge and of life experience. A younger audience may very well not know the difference between Operation Unthinkable and Operation Corporate, or they may think that Rome has to be part of the Holy Roman Empire, or they may not know the difference between the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the First Lord of the Treasury of the United Kingdom.
But, and it is a great big but, while exposition is important, and there’s all this information that needs to be imparted, this has to be done in a way that doesn’t interrupt the telling of the story. It is the classic example of “show, don’t tell.”
For example, if you want to explain how strange things were for children being evacuated from British cities during WWII, what you don’t do is put in a section on how many children were evacuated from which cities and where they went. Instead, you have a scene as part of the story, with a handful of children waiting to be collected at a rural railway station, unsure what’s going on, probably scared and certainly nervous. You show the selection process, the misunderstandings, the pathetic little suitcases. You incorporate the exposition into the story.
The other key point is vocabulary. It’s important to be able to judge the complexity of the language you use. Too simple, and you come across as patronising; too complex, and you lose the audience.
Another aspect that can be toe-curlingly dreadful is when adult writers writing for children or young adults try to use expressions and phrases currently popular. It’s quite simple. You’ll get it wrong. It will be painfully obvious to the reader, and they will feel as though they are being patronised.
I’ve digressed rather. The short answer is that exposition is important, but it has to be contained seamlessly within the story. Easier said than done, of course. And yet there are those who say it is easy to write for children because you can just make things up. As the song has it, it ain’t necessarily so. They’ve got to have good pacing, they have to have solid internal logic and consistency, they have to convey information within the context of the story, and they have to pitch the vocabulary at the right level.
Obviously you're not the only writer published in SFP, you're also offering new books by Andy Cooke and Simon Brading, both also published by SLP. What can pre-existing fans of those authors expect from their new offerings? Not just Andy and Simon, of course. Over the first six months, there are quite a few authors lined up, some of whom will be familiar to SLP readers, Nick Sumner, Charles Moore and Andrew Brooks, as well as others who will be less familiar.
But Andy and Simon are in the launch month, both with exciting tales.
The Cave Between Worlds, by Andy Cooke, is the first book of the Shadowland Chronicles. This is the story of some teenagers from our world who slowly learn of the existence of things that have emerged into this world from what can only be described as a kind of parallel fantasy world. Dreams become a reality, and the reality has teeth.
The second book of the Shadowland Chronicles, Secret of the Citadel, will be published in November, and Trail of the Intruder, the third book, in December.
I feel that it is important to keep continuity of a series. I remember reading serials back when I was rather younger than I am now, and I was always very keen to find out what happened next. Therefore, I’ve made it SFP policy to publish books in a series in as quick succession as is reasonably possible.
Fight to Dance, by Simon Brading, is the first book in the Twin Ambitions series. Eleven-year-old twins Max and Emily have a love of ballet dancing, but circumstances conspire to make it difficult for them to keep learning to dance. Simon has, in the past, been a professional ballet dancer himself, and he’s put his love of dance into this work. Back to Basics, the second book in the series, will be published in November.
There are plenty of other stories in the pipeline: The Time Traveller’s Tour Guide to Pompeii, by Andrew Brooks; Young Caesar, by Angelo Barthelemy; How to Build a Moonbase, by Andy Cooke; Why Did the Titanic Sink, by Brad Rousse; the Pendragonling, by Joe Belanger; Simon and Sir Gawain, by Charles EP Murphy ... The list goes on, and it’s all terribly exciting. There are a lot of talented authors out there.
But one thing that my time being an editor of magazines has taught me is that an operation like this can’t run on a wing and a prayer. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for new blood.
And what are the key points you are looking for when considering pitches from other authors? First and foremost: a good story told with enthusiasm. If the author isn’t enthusiastic about the story, you can be certain the readers won’t be.
Secondly, a clear idea what the story is. A concept is not a story. A school for the children of the Knights of King Arthur is a concept. Who are they? What do they do? Why should anyone care?
And thirdly, an indication that the author understands what is involved in writing for the age group.
It’s quite simple, really. Forget technical jargon; a good story told well. Interesting and relatable characters, and a plot that holds together.
What have you found the most rewarding about moving from an author to a publisher? The power. No, but to be serious, the feeling of being responsible for putting together all the disparate elements that go to make up a book; the author, the cover artist, the proof-reader, and the advertising and marketing, the market research, everything that has to go together to make a book, and realising that I’ve been responsible for putting it all together, that’s a good feeling.
Another rewarding element is the ability to do some good. For example, a lot of the cover art has been done by people right at the start of their career, students just heading off to university, for example. One of the hard things at this end of a career is that one of the first questions that employers ask is: “What experience have you got? What have you done?” My cover artists can pull out a portfolio of professional work, and answer: “This.” I’m not giving them a job, all I’m doing is giving them the opportunity to have an edge in starting up their career. It’s up to them to make what advantage of it they can.
A third rewarding element is that I get the chance to help some children. As some of you may know, earlier this year I was undergoing treatment for cancer. The details of that aren’t important, and it looks like there has been a happy outcome to the treatment. While I was undergoing treatment at the Royal Marsden, a specialist cancer hospital, I came across the children’s ward.
Children with cancer. It’s just plain wrong. There’s nothing I can do to stop it, and very little I can do to help those people trying to stop it. There is one thing I can do, and that is to make sure that the children’s ward at the Royal Marsden Hospital gets a free copy of every paperback book SFP produces. It might not be much, but if it gives a bit of pleasure to the children there, then it will have been worth it.
And conversely what have you found most challenging?
Now this is the easiest question of them all. Scheduling. As an author, everything you do is under your own control, more or less. You write the words; you send them off to the publisher, and you wait, usually starting on your next project.
By contrast, as a publisher, the role is coordinating different aspects of the work. The author produces a manuscript, which has to be proof-read. A cover artist needs to produce a cover that is suitable for the book; interior art has to be commissioned and incorporated; the book needs to be formatted and prepared for publishing; advertising and marketing needs to be arranged ... The list just goes on and on.
What’s more, the actual doing of the work isn’t under the control of the publisher. You can ask the author or the artist if they could hurry up if the schedule is under pressure, but you can’t compromise on quality, so if something is going to be late, you’ve got to juggle things around. There are ways of providing a safety margin, but it’s unprofessional not to release a book when you say you’re going to. You can’t just wait until the book is ready before announcing it either, because you need to market it. Simply launching a book and hoping for the best is a recipe for disaster.
Luckily, I’ve done something similar when I edited magazines. That involved a lot of coffee and cajoling and back-up plans to the back-up plans. Luckily, I’ve been able to get prepared, and I know who can be relied on to deliver on time, and who needs a little margin built in to their estimates of when they’ll be ready.
As a result, I’ve got a rough schedule of books to be published out until June 2021, although I expect a lot of juggling of the schedule between now and then. There’s a lot to look forward to.
David Flin is the owner of SFP, the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and the Editor of Comedy through the (P)Ages