Author Corner – Steven Boykey Sidley

Photo of Steven Boykey SidleySteven Boykey Sidley has divided his adult life between the USA and South Africa. He has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur.

He has published two novels, both with Picador Africa – Entanglement and Stepping Out. His third novel, Meyer, will be published in 2014.

1.       From first draft, to published book, how much editing do you do?

Steven Boykey Sidley's EntanglementMy first novel Entanglement started as a film script, which took me about 3 months to first draft. When I decided to turn it into a novel, the plot and dialogue were already in reasonable shape, so the real job was to build expository, internal dialogues, deepened descriptions and the like. So the whole process took about 9 months. Then I cajoled knowledgeable family and friends to read the first draft (my wife, Kate, is an editor), so there was about another 3 months of polishing. I did this in spurts, sometimes at sentence level, sometimes at paragraph level and sometimes major restructuring. The advice I got from knowledgeable amateurs and professionals was sometimes rejected and sometimes not. Defend your work if you feel strongly about it.

2.       What research do you do for your book?

My first book is about a grumpy physicist. I know a fair bit about science (I am an MS, and am an avid science reader), but there was some additional research I did about quantum mechanics and scientific method. There were also conversations around music and US politics and insanity, but I had enough background from my own reading to suffice (no, I am not insane). The protagonist’s girlfriend is a psychologist – I sent her interactions with patients to a psych friend, who made some corrections.

3.       How many words do you write, on average, per day?

Never less than 500, sometimes as many as 3,000 on a long day, if the muse is sitting on my shoulder.

4.       Explain your writing process – do you write an outline and fill in the story, or do you write from Chapter 1 and let the story and characters lead you?

Steven Boykey Sidley's Stepping OutThe latter. I start with a character that interests me, and let the plot coalesce around him. In my second book Stepping Out (now on shelves), I had no idea how it was going to end even when I was half way through. My third, Meyer, was without an ending until I was 80% through. It is an odd and magical process. If I was forced to plot up front, I never would have been able to write a book.

5.       Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing, and if so, how do you overcome it?

I do not find it challenging. I love every second of it, the process of writing comes easily. What is sometimes difficult though is to step back and adjudicate whether a section is Nobel prize-worthy or just embarrassingly bad. I can swing between these two poles in minutes.

6.       What do you do when you have writer’s block?

I rarely get it, except for the at the 40,000 word slump, which has happened on all three books. But that is because I was forced to start thinking about plot. It lasted no more than a week or two.

7.       When you submit your manuscript to a publisher, what information do you include in your proposal?

First novel – just the manuscript, and a recommendation from an important friend, luckily (Kevin Bloom). I have also now started writing an elevator pitch (somewhat like the back page blurb, but a bit longer). Of course, if there is praise from reviewers and writers for previous novels, this is also packaged.

8.       What advice can you give aspirant writers?

Write every single day, even if it is for only 30 minutes. Find any gap you can, including on the toilet. Oh, and manage your expectations. Assume the worst. The stats for ratio of submissions to publication is frightening, both here and overseas. You can always self-publish if the majors reject your manuscript. Your goal should be – write the best book you can, and expect it to be read by a maximum of two or three people, including your partner and parents. The rest will be gravy.


Getting your manuscript ready for submission

These days it’s unusual for writers to send off hard copy manuscripts and it’s unusual for agents or publishers to require this. A Word document sent as an attachment to a covering email is the norm. Still, do check the publisher’s or agent’s requirements on their website or wherever you’ve accessed their details, and do what they say. Occasionally, a writer simply doesn’t have access to technology and while this might present a difficulty or a chance of not being taken seriously, if you explain the circumstances, you ought to get as fair a reading as anyone else. Sometimes a publisher might even discover a gem this way, but this is rare.

This sounds ridiculous even to say it, but I have to say it anyway: before you send your manuscript off, in whatever format you’re sending it, read it through one more time from start to finish – you, personally, not a helpful friend who used to be a teacher. And make sure that it is as clean as you can possibly make it. These things ought to be self-evident, but having been at the receiving end of manuscript submissions, they’re worth noting again. It’s all about respecting the process and letting the publisher see that you do.

  • Don’t leave track changes on the script
  • Check your chapter numbering to make sure it’s sequential
  • If you’re sending hard copy, don’t scribble over a line that’s suddenly struck you as wrong and write the better sentence above it or in the margin. Print out a clean page with your corrections and rewriting already incorporated. Don’t be lazy or sloppy. It will only tell the publisher that you are lazy and sloppy.
  • Number the pages. Some editors and agents still read hard copy and if your manuscript falls off a desk or is dropped on the ground in a car park on a gusty day …
  • Don’t send off one version and then sit down and rewrite it in a panic and follow it up with frantic Please read this version instead emails and three more Word attachments. There comes a point when you have to let your book out of your hands to sink or swim on its own in the powerful current carrying the 150 or so other manuscripts destined for the same slush pile as yours in any given month. Then try to put it out of your mind. Clean out your kitchen cupboards or something once you have sent it off. Don’t brood and don’t fret. And don’t rewrite – or at least not yet.
  • Try to avoid a sans serif font. It’s not that comfortable to read, especially for fiction.
  • Double spacing might mean more pages, but it’s easier to read (and to make notes on) than single spacing at this manuscript stage. Use 1.5 spacing at least.
  • Don’t think you need to be a typesetter or book designer and attempt to make the pages look exactly like you imagine they’ll look when the book comes out of the oven. The chances are they won’t. And just because your laptop came with 35 new fonts doesn’t mean you should try them all out at once. No matter how carefully you have input the manuscript in Word and might have done clever things with dropped caps and spacing, once the book gets to the production department, the look and feel is probably going to be different to suit the format the publisher decides is best for the book. Word is not the programme they will be using. This is part of the publishing process, not yours – yours is the writing and rewriting process.

Whether you send off the full manuscript or the usually required three chapters, don’t forget to send a synopsis as well, and also a brief biographical piece. The synopsis that publishers and agents always ask for is more to see how well you can explain your book reasonably succinctly than anything else. Personally, if the writing in the first three chapters doesn’t hold my attention, it’s unlikely that your synopsis is going to make me want to read them again.

Don’t send off three ‘representative’ random chapters. If the publisher’s or agent’s requirements say submit a synopsis and three chapters, take it that they mean the first three chapters. Don’t send Chapters 3, 4 and 7 “because that’s when the story really gets interesting” and you were into the swing of the writing by then. If your first three chapters don’t grab the publisher, they’re probably not going to grab anyone else either so they’d never have got to Chapter 7 anyway.

How do you know when the book is ready to go? The minute you triumphantly key in the final full stop? No, not then. The chances are that whether you have been writing your novel intensely for only six months or have laboured long and hard on the last section for the last four years, you are going to be very close to the book. This can be a good thing or a not so good thing. Somebody else should give it a read before you send it off (besides you, that is). Pick your reader/s carefully. You need a neutral reader, not someone who will feel awkward about telling you that they didn’t enjoy the book. Try to find someone whose opinion you value and trust, or someone who doesn’t know you and will do this for you professionally.


Franschhoek Literary Festival – Session Information

The programme for the 2013 Franschhoek Literary Festival is now available online.

Alison Lowry and Tracey McDonald will host a double session (taking place in the Library) on Friday, the 17th of May from 14h30 to 17h00, where they will give advice to aspirant writers on how to fast-track their publishing journeys.

Tickets are limited, so book fast (ticket sales open on the 15th of March ’13) – the session number is 28 (cost per person is R120).

Click HERE to view the full programme.


Research publishers …

Having spent a good few years in the publishing industry, it always surprises me how little research aspiring authors do before they submit their finished manuscripts to a publisher. Even now that I am no longer in the mainstream of commercial publishing, many writers who are nearing the end of their first drafts contact me to ask for the names of publishers who might be interested in publishing their work. And when I listen closely and then suggest a couple of names of houses who could be receptive, they come back to me and ask for contact details or phone numbers. I am usually more than happy to help if I can, but what the latter question indicates to me is a lazy lack of effort and a diffidence that isn’t going to get them very far. It’s a tough world out there and you need to equip yourself to weather a few slings and arrows. The best way to arm yourself for the fray is to gather as much useful information as possible before you send your memoir/debut novel/state of the nation treatise off to a publisher.

Boring though it may sound, especially when excitement is building over the final full stop in your manuscript which may now be in your sights, some solid research and a dose of homework is recommended. These days you don’t even have to leave your desk to do this – that is, if you have online access, which you do have if you’re reading this – although it might be a good idea to get out of the house and go browsing. (Another thing that never ceases to amaze me is how many would be published authors rarely go into a bookshop and hardly ever buy a book themselves.)

Your first port of call, however, assuming that you have some knowledge of the local industry and know the names of the key publishers who operate in your home market, is their websites. All of them will have websites and a tab that tells you about their manuscript submission process. It will also clearly explain the kind of books they routinely publish and the kind of books they don’t. In a small market like South Africa, it is unusual for a publisher to specialise in a certain area – for example, publish only cookbooks – so most will offer a fairly broad range of fiction and non-fiction. Check, though, to see if your genre is listed. Their websites are usually clear about what they don’t publish – poetry or plays, for instance.

If, however, your genre is fantasy and your target audience is young adults, or you have a range of illustrated children’s books to offer, and these are not specifically mentioned on the site, ring them up and ask to speak to an editor. It will save you time and avoid a dispiriting standard rejection letter later on.

Another good exercise is to browse bookshops – bricks and mortar shops, on-line bookstores and other retailers. I would recommend going to your local bookshop, however, if you are able to. There’s something sobering yet exhilarating, if not a little daunting, about being surrounded physically by hard copies of the hundreds of books on shelves and front of store tables that have been released in a given month, but if you’re serious about writing, you’d better face up to it. This is the space you’ll be competing for one day, so pay attention. The names on those glossy hopeful covers will be your competitors for a reader’s hard earned cash. If you write crime fiction, you will be competing with every other crime novel out there for sales and space. Study your competition. How is your book going to be different, or “better” and how will you pitch it to the publisher you’re hoping to interest in taking it on? Make a note of which publishers’ books are prominently on the shelves and which local authors are being showcased. When you go home, find those books and authors on line and see whether they and their books have websites or Facebook pages. Make contact. Ask them about their publishing experience.

If you can, have a chat to a bookseller or the store’s manager and ask what’s selling well. Booksellers are knowledgeable people generally and they are in the business because they love books and they are readers too. Ask what authors and titles they have on their core stock lists. Ask them about local publishers and what they publish. They know all the publishers because their sales reps call on them every month to talk them through what’s new and what’s coming up. They often host author events and launch functions and know authors personally. Booksellers are a good source of who’s publishing what. They may even give you names and contact details!


Jo-Anne Richards’ new book, THE IMAGINED CHILD

Jo-Anne Richards is a South African novelist and journalist, whose work has been published internationally. She teaches creative writing through and lectures at Wits University in Johannesburg.

Jo-Anne has written four highly acclaimed novels – The Innocence of Roast Chicken, Touching the Lighthouse, Sad at the Edges and My Brother’s Book.  And this month her new book, The Imagined Child, will be released.

The Imagined Child - Jo-Anne RichardsA little about THE IMAGINED CHILD

Odette leaves Johannesburg to make a new start in Nagelaten, a small Free State town. A writer for a popular TV soap, she appears to be searching for a less complicated life. But others think she’s escaping – to a place where she knows no one and won’t have to share her secrets.

Life in Nagelaten isn’t as simple as it seems. The town also holds secrets. Why do people insist there’s no crime, all evidence to the contrary? Who is the strange outcast, whom she feels sorry for, yet doesn’t quite trust? And why will no one tell her his story?

Odette is caught up in two deaths – a baby in the United Kingdom whom her troubled daughter, Mandy, is suspected of killing, and a brutal farm murder. Both cause her ordered life to unravel, while a new friendship forces her to question the silences of Nagelaten.

Events edge her towards the most courageous act of her life: facing the truth in order to save herself and her daughter.

In this taut psychological mystery, Jo-Anne‘s trademark lyrical style is combined with tight suspense that will keep you guessing until the last page.


Picador Africa and Exclusive Books invite you to join Jo-Anne and Redi Thlabi at the launch of The Imagined Child.

Book launch invitation to The Imagined Child

To find out more about Jo-Anne visit her website – click HERE.