Sunday, 8 February 2009

Talking to Ian Hocking

Dr Ian Hocking's début novel Déjà Vu was published in 2005. Upon its release, Déjà Vu received something approximating critical acclaim. Here is one review from Ian Watson, who co-wrote AI: Artificial Intelligence with Stanley Kubrick: “I was enthralled and contagiously compelled to carry on throughout. The level of computerisation of daily life is plausible and handled with casual panache. It’s gripping, fascinating, and powerful, and really well written, with wonderful pace.”

Can you tell us about Deja Vu?

The book began life as a short story that I wrote in the first year of my undergraduate degree, more than a decade ago. I wrote a couple of duff novels during my degree and decided, in the summer after graduation, that I should try to get the initial situation as perfect as possible for my next. I'd sold a few short stores to magazines here and there and wanted to carry over what I'd learned to the novel. I trawled through my catalogue and came across "We All Breathe The Same Air", which described a retired scientist returning to the bombed ruin of his former research centre. I had another person in my head - a female German detective - and decided to include her in the story as a separate thread. I had no idea of the next scene for either storyline or how they might intersect, but I felt interested in the characters and wanted to see what would happen.
The initial draft was 140,000 words. After the UKA Press expressed a desire to publish it, they put me in touch with the author Aliya Whiteley. She was working for them as a freelance editor at the time. Together, we brought the book down to about 70,000 words.

Many writers find editing a painful process. How did you find working with Aliya Whiteley?
Bloody awful.
H'only joking. Actually, the presence of Aliya was one of the reasons that the editing process went so smoothly, where otherwise it might have been more painful. It's not easy when you're a first-timer. You think (because it's a useful fiction) that what you've got is the final product. After all, the publisher said "Yes" on the basis of the manuscript. But, as we all know, that's only the start of the process, and it can come as a shock. I stared forlornly at the computer screen for about an hour after Aliya's original report arrived. She wanted me to delete one of the major characters and cut away half of the book!
I went for a walk, came back, and realised that Aliya's email actually suggested deleting a character who cropped up many times throughout the story but did nothing to advance it. Not really a major character, then, so he had to go. And it turned out that most of the material Aliya wanted to cut comprised dead sections of exposition, awful chunks of scientific nitty-gritty and - gulp - two dream sequences. I mean, dream sequences? In a thriller? What was I thinking?
This is the strength of a good editor, I think. They suggest changes that you already know on one level (if you're paying attention). They're like the sensible authorial voice that you never listened to during the writing itself - so you'd better listen now, or else.
Elements of the editing were bloody awful, of course. It's great deal of work to implement changes. To an extent, you don't know what the changes are doing to the overall tone of the work. You're more distant.

From your blog and Twitter you seem keen to explore 'new' media opportunities. Is this true? Is the ebook the future?
I am keen to explore new media, but not in a very systematic way. My interest in Web 2.0 technologies like blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and so on stems from a mixture of geekiness - I've loved computers since I was a boy - and a wish to discuss and debate aspects of fiction online. I don't see this as marketing. Though, if you're genuine about your use of the technologies, there will probably be a marketing benefit.
One technology that particularly engages my attention is Print On Demand. This doesn't have a great reputation because of its association with vanity publishing and self publishing. And, OK, if everybody publishes a book, the signal-to-noise ratio will increase. But there are many people who write good books that will never get picked up by publishers. Niche authors, in particular. Or upcoming authors. Or authors who want somewhere to 'park' their novel, like me.
I'm sure that the ebook is the future, but not the immediate future. The technology of Gutenburg is still a much better fit for most people. However, it's worth remembering that written systems of writing are a comparatively recent invention. Humans are designed to speak and hear, not read. I'm equally excited about the growing popularity of audiobooks.

This is a common question but still a good one - What advice would you offer writers looking to get their work published?
That's a tough one because publishing means different things to different people. Generally speaking, start small and develop your skills along with your ambition; don't have unrealistic expectations. There are many smaller websites that need regular fictional content. They probably won't be able to pay you, but at least you won't have to pay them. Get feedback; listen to it only when you're sure that the person providing the feedback knows what they're talking about.
Approach a traditional publisher, or agent, only when you're certain that your material is the best you can make it. If you have contacts within the industry, use them. Don't be shy about emailing absolutely anybody. As long as you're polite, you'll get a helpful answer 90% of the time. Remember that the UK publishing industry is the same size as the bagged salad industry. What makes you tastier than the next cabbage? Understand that the traditional publishing model is not a fair game. It is loaded to the advantage of others. So you need to play more than one round. Stay in the game and keep writing your stories.

Thanks Ian.

Ian has recently produced a ‘special’ addition of his book that is available through Lulu and a free audio version you can download for free. You can download the audio, buy the book or find out more about Ian Hocking at his website.