Getting the Timing Right - Elizabeth Kay

     Bob Newman (Old Possums’ Book of Practical Pigs) wrote a 
delightfully surreal novel, with nods to Garcia Marquez and Conan Doyle. The characters ranged from a glyptodon to a javelin thrower from an obscure Amazonian tribe, and the story had its denouement at the 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately, he finished it too late to have a hope of publishing it in time. There are ways round it – a solution of sorts is the tag-line “…this book tells the full story behind the javelin final at the London Olympics – not as it was, but as it should have been…” But it would have been much better to get the forward planning right!

            Thinking ahead can be very important. Tying in publication to something you know is on the horizon can be a good move. Major anniversaries are excellent inspirations for non-fiction, and a quick search on the web can be very fruitful. However, it’s the monthly short story that I write for Magnet Magazine that has really got me thinking seasonally.

          The first story that I targeted to a specific month was one I wrote about bullying at school. In my youth, eleven-year-old girls weren’t too sophisticated to play in the woods at lunchtime. The woods were inside the school grounds, so no problem there, but I’m sure that these days health and safety would have had plenty to say about building houses out of dead branches and piles of ferns. We loved it though, and whole villages sprang up, populated by different cliques and gangs. Being of an artistic bent I rather fancied myself as an architect, and my group of friends built the best house by far, on the wattle and daub principle. It was trashed by the class bully one morning, and we were devastated. I decided to rename the girl concerned June, and set the story in the present, dealing with the retirement of the office bully who was, needless to say, one and the same person. This enabled me to title the story Flaming June, and schedule it for the June issue. It’s available to read free of charge in a back issue here.
            Since then I’ve written a Guy Fawkes Night story, centring on an unfortunate donation to the local bonfire, and a rather sentimental Christmas one about someone on their own being rediscovered by old school-friends via the internet. I’m currently working on a New Year’s Resolution story, and after that… well, I reckon it’s trawl the internet time again. It’s only possible to be this much in the here-and-now when you have a definite publication date – and that’s where self-publishing an e-book wins over the conventional route hands-down.
            I’ve frequently chosen to write in the near future, as it’s a way of addressing the potential outcome of issues about which you feel strongly, and letting your imagination have a field-day at the same time. The trouble is, you need someone with sufficient imagination to see that your scenario is a genuine possibility. What’s happened – more than once – is that the story/novel has been rejected, only to win a prize or get a publisher twenty years later when the plot has become a reality rather than a prediction. Very annoying. I postulated Damian Hirst-type art long before his shark in formaldehyde hit the headlines. This is a brief extract from Retrospective, a story that was a winner in a London Writing Competition, and eventually published in 1998, although it was written well over a decade earlier.

“…We humans deal with investments here. Buying and selling really modern works of art, and making a tidy profit in the process. We’ve got quite a few of the big names – Tadeusz Twardowski, who paints with body fluids; Roland Spickett, the one who uses microscopes and bacteria, and Donald Barnes. Donald Barnes was the really big money-spinner with his series on toenail clippings, and the fact that he’d died of a heart attack the previous week had made him worth considerably more…”

It doesn’t sound nearly as bizarre today as it did when I originally wrote it. I also predicted reality TV well ahead of its eventual appearance in a book called Missing Link (not available as an e-book, sadly)  – only to be told that it was too far-fetched ever to happen. One rejection said: “…I don’t deny that there’s a demand for voyeuristic reporting, but the idea of the Missing Link show seemed too awful to be true.” Trash TV has been part of our lives for some considerable time now, although it wasn’t around when I originally wrote the book. It was an extrapolation of the way things seemed to be going. I’m sorry I was right. The lure of unscripted confessional talk shows, resembling the style of the tabloid press, is undeniable now. The ingredients of controversy, confrontation, humiliation and exploitation seem part of our everyday lives, when the unspeakable is always available on the internet at the click of a mouse or even the wave of a hand. We’ve become inured to detailed descriptions and depictions of extreme violence. Images go viral with terrifying speed. And the end result is that we’re just about unshockable.
The near future, or the past, are safer subjects these days than the present. Technology moves so quickly that a book is often dated by the time it’s published. Crime films and TV programmes made only a few years ago seem hopelessly outmoded when most of us know about preserving crime scenes and the ins and outs of contemporary forensic medicine. Sometimes setting a book abroad gets round this in the short term - I invented an ex-soviet country called Karetsefia for my book Beware of Men with Moustaches, where I could get away with some things being a bit dated. It's about a group of poets on a cultural visit, and having at least one of them as a bit of a Luddite helps considerably. It was nice to be able to use details from my own visits to Ukraine, Poland and the Czech Republic, as the churches are just the same as they always were.

So any of you who are thinking about entering big competitions such as ABNA or Bridport – don’t leave it to the last minute. Put those submission dates on your calendar, and leave yourself plenty of time to edit in those latest inventions!

And I've now fallen into the same trap myself - I planned to put The Divide on free for Christmas Day, but

I'm going to be in Italy and I think the next lot of free scheduling is going to be whilst I'm away... Nope, all is well, I've just been able to arrange a free promotion for the 24th - 26th December. But I should have thought about all that a lot earlier, rather than leaving it to the last moment! Happy Christmas everyone, I'll be exploring Herculaneum...


8 days to Christmas!
And the Authors Electric Christmas Book Sale!


Jenny Alexander said…
The very first MS I sent to agents was about aliens coming to earth for their holidays. The agent who took me on didn't represent it because she said no adults would be interested in aliens. Within a few years, aliens were everywhere! X Files, documentaries, government agencies, all sorts, but by then I was busy trying to get my career off the ground as a children's writer . Really interesting post - thank you.
Elizabeth Kay said…
It's amazing how wrong publishers - and agents - can be about books. I think The Eyre Affair had 76 rejections before it made the author quite a bit of money!
madwippitt said…
Enjoyed this ... and yes, how hard it is to get organised enough to time things right! :-)

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