Not Much of a Prize

19 Sep

Occasionally, you will see a writing competition sponsored by a big publisher. Frequently free to enter, these seem like a godsend to writers desperate for a chance at the big time. What could be better than to win a competition backed by a publishing ‘name’ or have your story or poem appear in a professional anthology? And, that’s before we consider the prize money, which is usually a decent amount. I’m certain they receive plenty of submissions from hopeful entrants.

But, read the small print and the prize is seldom as good as it sounds. Almost invariably, the competition rules state that the winner passes their copyright to the winning entry to the publisher. For some writers, this may seem small price to pay for a shot at fame and fortune (or the literary equivalent thereof), but, for a submission good enough to win such a competition, a rather small one-off payment and the kudos of winning and publication aren’t really good recompense for losing control to your work.

Even in these days of web publication, ebooks and print-on-demand books that can keep an anthology available indefinitely without necessarily providing additional payments to contributors, most publishers do not insist on perpetual exclusivity or the signing-over of rights, so there is, at least, the potential to resell your work, and small publishers generally aren’t making too much money from their anthologies and have a chance of going out of business and taking their anthologies with them. Big publishers are likely to be making enough to offer better terms and, if they go out of business, will almost certainly have their assets bought by another publisher.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely most people bother to read the small print and, if they do, probably don’t really understand just what they’re being asked to sign away or else don’t care, which is why these big publishers keep on promoting these competitions. As proper businesses, not amateurs, they really should treat writers better. Don’t be fooled.

Reviving Classic Sitcoms

30 Aug

The BBC has decided to celebrate the days when it produced high-quality comedy but reviving some of its classic sitcoms in a series of one-offs. The first two to be aired were revivals of Are You Being Served? and Porridge, and they ably demonstrated how to achieve success with a revival – and how not to.

The episode of Are You Being Served? was set in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, that was the first flaw, as it was assumed that nobody remembered the later series of the original series, let alone the sequel Grace and Favour (aka Are You Being Served? Again!). So, we had Mr Grainger back from retirement, despite Mr Humphries having become head of men’s wear (although Mr Peacock received that title, at one point, rather than being referred to as floorwalker – perhaps they had a further restructuring?) and the new recruit was told of Mr Lucas’s attempts to seduce Miss Brahms, ignoring the equally-futile attempts of his successor, Mr Spooner, while a previously-unhinted-at grandson of Young Mr Grace was introduced, despite his seemingly-childless death being the catalyst for the sequel series.

Given that the original cast were all dead, all the original characters had been recast. Mr Grainger was the only one who was near-perfect. Mrs Slocomb and Captain Peacock were bearable, while Niky Wardley was far from perfect as Miss Brahms (although with plenty of potential as a character in her own right) and Mr Humphries was pretty awful. Mr Rumbold looked nothing like the original and seldom sounded like him, while Mr Harman was nothing like the original in any way and an insult (why not just introduce a new character?). It was the new characters that had the greatest potential.

But, it may not have been entirely the fault of the actors or the person who cast them, as the biggest problem was the script which veered between being a third-rate pastiche and nothing at all like the original, giving them very little to work on. There were maybe four good lines in the show. Too often, it seemed they were told to say or do something solely because it was in the original, but without the flair. Which wasn’t a great surprise, given that the original writers are long dead, too.

Porridge on the other hand was written by the original writer and opted to be a sequel rather than a rehash, and, thus, was a far superior product. Instead of Norman Stanley Fletcher, we met his grandson, who was doing time for computer crimes. It captured the feel of the original, while also showing how prisons had changed since then, while managing to be its own product. Although not the greatest of comedies, it was funny throughout with a great deal of potential for more, and I would happily watch a series of it – and, I would expect a series to be even better, as it would doubtless move further out from the shadow of its original and find its feet. This is how you do a revival.

Contracts

29 Jul

There is one area of writing that I really don’t enjoy: contracts. It’s not the contracts themselves that is the problem, but the fact that so many are badly written and most are irrelevant. Of course, one might expect a contract where a lot of money is involved, but I’ve found absolutely no correlation between the amounts involved and whether a contract exists – I’ve had to sign contracts for stories where the odds of ever earning anything (such as an editor’s choice award) are low, while the highest paying stories I’ve sold didn’t involve a contract at all.

Given the small amounts of money involved, many contracts are effectively unenforceable due to the cost of court proceedings (especially as I’m usually on the wrong side of the Atlantic), making the signing of them a waste of time. (I’ve had one publisher apparently fold without sending the complimentary copy or payment specified in a contract, although the book remains available on Amazon, and been unable to do anything about it.)

Unfortunately, not only do many publishers insist on writers signing this pointless agreements, but a lot of them are badly written. Now, the vast majority of publishers are decent people who don’t intend to scam writers, but I’ve encountered more than one contract that, unintentionally, was worded so that I would lose control over my story, and some that are just plain incomprehensible or contradictory.

The problem is that very few writers are contract lawyers and, for most of us, writing is either a hobby or a very-low-paying occupation, making consulting a lawyer for every contract a financial impossibility given the amounts involved. However, there are three things you can do before signing a contract. The first is to ask a professional writer. Of course, we’re not contract lawyers, but we have the experience to spot the more obvious problems and offer advice. The second thing you can do is post your question in an online legal advice forum (just make sure you choose the right country, as laws may be different elsewhere). The third is to ask the publisher to clarify any points in writing and keep a copy (save a screen grab if it’s an email or online message); although this doesn’t override the contract you’re signing, if they later claim to control rights you didn’t realise you were granting, it may help prove a case of fraud if they misled you when directly questioned about the contract.

I hope any editors reading this will give consideration to whether they need writers to sign a contract and, if they do, whether it needs to be complicated. If all you want are first publication rights and a period of exclusivity, why do you need a dozen clauses? Nor does a contract doesn’t need to be written in legal jargon, so keep it simple!

Is It Racist?

12 Jun

Given her friendship with Gordon Brown and ties to New Labour, it is hardly surprising that JK Rowling has picked up the bad habit of accusing those who disagree with her of being racist. The casting of a black actress as Hermione in the new stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, has caused dissatisfaction for many fans who have a clear image of the character, which is of a white, middle-class girl who will grow into a white, middle-class woman, for whom Emma Watson was a good fit. Fans (and I’ll include myself here) would be no happier if she were portrayed as American or a natural blonde. A similar reaction can be found in the portrayal of MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin as a blonde in the Sky 1 series – nobody has yet levelled accusations of racism against blondes there, at least.

Really, it’s a compliment to the authors that they’ve so vividly brought a character to life in millions of imaginations and lashing out with nasty accusations at fans having for the temerity to love the characters they’ve created is, frankly, ridiculous. The problem isn’t so much the dubious casting; it is, after all, fiction, but the fact that disagreeing with the decision should spark such an offensive and over-the-top reaction is ridiculous. Except that such overreaction makes perfect sense if we realise this isn’t about the fans or diversity, but about white liberal guilt. JK Rowling is reacting to her own failure to make the series more diverse by lashing out at anyone who reminds her of the fact.

If only she had access to a time turner, she could go back in time and make Hermione black. There is, after all, no reason why the character couldn’t have been – unlike Harry and Ron with their connection to ancient wizard families and a stereotypical middle class English family, there is nothing about Hermione that dictates the characters race. Unfortunately, rather than having an unknown character that could be altered without issue, as happened, for example, to the title character in the Angelina Jolie movie Salt (originally male), she waited till Hermione had been established across seven books and eight movies and her appearance had been solidified in fans’ minds.

As I’ve said before, there’s also something patronising about this trend for trying to make established white characters black, as if no black character could conceivably be popular without white actors to lay the groundwork.

There’s absolutely no reason why new lead characters, whether inspired by existing ones or wholly original, cannot be created who are non-white and not the usual crop of caricatures. Besides the presence of BAME populations in the UK and USA that would allow for non-white secret agents, wizards, etc, within a Western context, there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a film or novel about a Kenyan agent in the mould of James Bond or a wizarding school in India (although, perhaps best left to writers from those cultures, especially given the recent accusations of ‘appropriation’ levelled against the oh-so-politically-correct Ms Rowling).

One might also wonder why JK Rowling didn’t just create a new lead character for the play or for a follow-up series who isn’t white? This would have assuaged her apparent unease at not doing so earlier, and encouraged fans to adopt such a character as a favourite, rather than creating unnecessary tension involving race.

Perhaps, cynically, the entire episode is no more than a publicity stunt, knowing that fans would object to significant changes of any sort, whilst allowing maximum controversy compared to Agatha Raisin’s hair colour. I hope not, as this would be both an insult to the actress and a particularly vile trivialisation of a genuine issue.

It really is time that those authors who wish to see greater diversity in fiction started introducing new BAME characters in their own right and not as some sort of lazy afterthought or in the form of racial caricatures. There is a place for such characters, but hijacking Hermione isn’t it.

For a magazine that is working to create just such diversity, visit Black Girl Magic.

Marked By Scorn: An Interview with Dominica Malcolm

1 Jun

Dominica Malcolm is a writer, editor, and publisher at Solarwyrm Press, where she consistently focus on trying to highlight the stories of more diverse characters. Her novel Adrift is about a bisexual female time-travelling pirate. Then she published her first anthology, Amok: An Anthology of Asia-Pacific Speculative Fiction, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Aurealis Award for Best Anthology, and focused primarily on racial diversity. Now she’s crowdfunding the release of her second anthology, Marked by Scorn: An Anthology Featuring Non-Traditional Relationships, which features a range of characters of different races, sexualities, genders, ages, and relationship structures.

Questions by DJ Tyrer.

Marked By ScornDJT: Marked By Scorn is an anthology of fiction and poetry about non-traditional relationships. What inspired you to choose this particular theme and what do you hope to achieve by releasing the book?

DM: Originally it was just going to focus on polyamory and other non-monogamous relationships, because I wanted to read more stories like that. The story I wrote for my previous anthology, Amok, was the only one that featured a polyamorous relationship. But then I became close to a guy who was in somewhat of a relationship with a polyamorous married woman, and they were different races & nationalities. I learned of their struggles, and how even the racial differences had become an issue, specifically in how he worried about how other people would judge them as an interracial couple. That made me think more about the difficulties that come from being in any kind of relationship that differs from the norm. I also identify as bisexual, and though I’ve not really personally struggled with relationships in the same way as other people in same-sex relationships, I’ve read enough and heard enough stories from friends to know how difficult it can be. I understand how hard it can be to have to hide a relationship with someone who means the world to you.

Though not every piece in Marked by Scorn explores this side of non-traditional relationships – some of them just demonstrate the joyful sides of them – I do feel like it’s important for people who haven’t been in those situations to understand the struggles, and maybe judge less. Then there’s also the importance of providing content that is more representative of people who aren’t often shown in mainstream media. For people to see that these other lives exist, and maybe they’ll feel less weird, less alone. When I was a teenager discovering my sexuality, the lack of bisexual characters in the media, and even to some extent the lack of lesbians, made it harder for me to understand what I was attracted to. What was okay. I thought I had to follow the monogamous heterosexual narrative because that’s what the media showed was expected.

At the end of the day, I believe love is love. Someone might love differently than another person, but that feeling is universal, and I think it’s something anyone can relate to, regardless of whether they have the same kind of relationship. So one of my other goals is for people to be able to have that kind of experience and awareness.

DJT: The contributions are set (and contributed by writers from) around the world. What was the most surprising or unexpected thing about relationships in other cultures that you discovered from them?

DM: Well, there wasn’t really anything I was particularly surprised by. I lived in Malaysia for five and a half years, and the way the government treated LGBT people there came up in the news frequently enough. Part of that was because sodomy is illegal there, and so in the strict political landscape, the opposition leader was often fighting sodomy charges. I travelled to other parts of South East Asia enough to know it wasn’t much different there. Malaysia is also a predominantly Muslim country, and I was aware of how that influence can affect people who are raised in that religion but identify as homosexual – I have a friend who talked to me about his experiences with that. So having a story in Marked by Scorn that highlights two Muslim men in Malaysia & Indonesia was great because it meant I could share that with other people, but it being written by a Muslim meant it could have more depth and detail to it than something I could write myself. The theme of the LGBT stories set in Asia all follow the thread of having to be secretive in different ways. The one set in the Philippines explores a relationship between an openly gay man and his partner who wants to be perceived as straight. The one in Cambodia is about two men who clearly care very deeply for each other, but can’t tell people exactly what their relationship is because of their culture. The list goes on.

DJT: And could you share why you chose some of the submissions you did and what they illustrate about non-traditional relationships?

DM: I already talked a bit about why I chose the Asian stories that I did. There were a few stories that ticked multiple boxes of the types of non-traditional relationships I was looking for. For example, Mirror Sunsets by Kelly Burke is about an interracial homosexual couple in South Africa. It’s an adorably sweet story about their romance. No Magical Vanilla by Jo Wu is about a bisexual Asian-American woman who is in polyamorous and interracial relationships, and also explores consensual BDSM. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was why I decided to open and close the book with those two stories. Though the majority of non-traditional relationships explore the QUILTBAG spectrum, there is plenty of diversity amongst them, across different age groups and levels of secrecy and location. One of my favourites was Roulez by GK Hansen because it discussed pronouns and the difficulties experienced in Louisiana between an intersex person and a transgender woman. Intersex characters are so very rarely seen in media, even less than transgender now, so it was great to be able to have that. The characters range in age from being in high school to the end of their life, so even though age diversity is not something I consciously think about as much as racial and sexuality diversity, I loved being able to read and include that variety.

Ultimately, what I did with my selections was show how much variety there is in relationship styles and difficulties even in relationships that fall under the same category of non-traditional relationship. Also how the level of acceptance you receive from others can vary immensely based on where you live and who you surround yourself with.

DJT: Diversity in fiction is clearly important to you. How would you encourage a reader to explore more diverse fiction and what books or other media would you recommend?

DM: I do think it’s important for people to seek out those stories to learn more about them, and find common ground to judge people with different backgrounds less. But it can be daunting to start out, knowing how many different types of people there are in the world who don’t live similarly to yourself.

I presume most people might find they’re more interested in understanding specific cultures or themes over others, though, so it’s easier to search when you can narrow it down like that. For example, I started out exploring various Asian media and culture simply because I lived in Malaysia and enjoyed stand-up comedy, so I learned a lot about what life was like for Malaysians through the local stand-up scene. Some of the comedians were also actors, so that led to me watching movies like Crayon and Relationship Status. If you can get ahold of either of those films, I would definitely recommend them.

If you wanted to understand more about why the Black Lives Matter movement came about, then it would be good to search for black writers who explore themes of oppression. As an Australian, I had little historical knowledge about racial tensions in the US, so after moving here, I watched movies like Fruitvale Station and Selma, which were both heartbreaking and stories that I could connect with even though I’m white. Of course, black people have as diverse experiences as white people, and Asians, and other races, so I think it’s important to not limit that narrative. I also recently read The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae, and there was so much I could relate to because we’re a similar age and grew up in families with similar incomes. Of course, these examples are all non-fiction, but I think non-fiction narratives are just as interesting as fiction ones.

Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series is great to see a couple of different Asian races and how their cultural background affects who they are, and also explores interracial relationships. Margaret Cho is another great comedian to check out, and she’s bisexual, I believe, so she explores sexuality as well as race. I recently watched her film Bam Bam & Celeste, which was a lot of fun. I’ve only seen a few episodes of Fresh Off the Boat, but I liked what I saw of that and was excited that someone greenlit a sitcom starring an Asian family for the first time in 20 years in the US.

Checking out film festivals and crowdfunding campaigns can be a great way to find more diversity, too. Last year I saw a brilliant Vietnamese dystopian film called Nuoc 2020 at CAAMFest in San Francisco, and I’ve backed projects like Someone Else, which is a Korean-American film that is now available to buy online.

In books, I know Crossed Genres is a publisher that focuses a lot on diversity much in the same way I like to do with Solarwyrm Press, so that’s a good place to start.

If you’re interested in learning more about types of non-monogamous relationships, Thorntree Press has a number of publications, mainly non-fiction, that explore this theme. More Than Two is a great book about different ways to structure ethical non-monogamous relationships, and Stories From the Polycule is an anthology that includes multiple authors of different ages and relationship stages who discuss their experiences with polyamorous relationships. I’d also recommend Home by Nicole Berman for polyamorous fiction.

Visit the crowdfunding page for Marked By Scorn.

All Just A Dream

20 May

The other day, I read a comment on Facebook about the annoyance of discovering that a significant chunk of a novel was nothing but a dream. Now, I quite like dream sequences, but I also agree with this assessment because, when we learn that “It was all just a dream,” it very often is nothing but a cop-out, a means of avoiding the fall-out from events.

Of course, handled well, such a discovery in a comedic story can be amusing, but done clumsily or used in more serious works, it is frequently a letdown, effectively either invalidating a storyline you’ve enjoyed or forcing you to wade through rubbish for nothing.

But, I don’t think that “It was all just a dream,” which is usually a sign of lazy writing, should be confused with dream sequences generally or narratives that call into doubt what is real.

A dream sequence, even if it misleads by not initially appearing to be a dream, isn’t a copout: it should further the plot, rather than merely seeing the ‘reset button’ being hit at the end. Of course, events may be ‘reset’ at the end of the dream if it seemingly altered things, but, unlike saying “It was all just a dream” (although the character, in the story, may echo just that sentiment), the dream should have an impact, such as containing a prophecy (or what they believe is a prophecy) or the dreamer gaining new insight or being forced to confront something as a result. A well-written dream sequence should have an effect on the story or, at least, tell us something new.

Then, there are those stories that, at first glance, seem no different to dreams, but which are actually calling into doubt what is and isn’t real. In a sense, they end with “It was all just a dream. Or, was it?” albeit, one hopes, more subtly than that! Although some readers may lump such narratives in with the former unsatisfying sort of story, most will come away questioning just what did and didn’t happen and, perhaps, will even ponder how we define reality. To offer an example, the movie Black Swan includes many scenes that may not have happened, or not as we see them occur on the screen, yet the doubtfulness of what we’ve just watched doesn’t invalidate the events of the movie as they convincingly demonstrate the mental breakdown of Natalie Portman’s character through her reactions to those, possibly nonexistent, events.

Thus, it should be summed up that it’s not the presence or absence of dreams that makes or breaks a story, but whether their presence actually effects the narrative or not, just as the inclusion of any element that doesn’t further the plot or develop its characters, no matter how brilliant, is ultimately a disappointment. What matters is that what is included matters…

Of Interest…

12 May

You may be interested in the following couple of blog posts…

Monster Librarian has a review of Dark Tales from Elder Regions: New York, an anthology to which I contributed, here.

Dominica Malcolm discusses the anthology Marked By Scorn (yes, you’ve guessed it, I’ve contributed to this one, as well) here.

In addition, you can find the Tigershark Publishing website here with details of the ten (to date) issues of the ezine and calls for submissions to future issues. You can request copies of the issues (for free) by emailing tigersharkpublishing@hotmail.co.uk