Saturday, March 25, 2017

GUESTOPIA: Author and Publisher Keith Mansfield


Keith Mansfield is (currently) a failed astronaut. Rejected by ESA in 2009 and ineligible for NASA because his parents returned to England from the US in the 1970s, a key theme of his writing is the longing for humans to journey into space. Author of the Johnny Mackintosh series of children’s science fiction novels, he has also helped create exhibitions for London’s Science Museum and a six-part UK popular science TV series. A mathematical physicist by education and publisher by profession, he has worked for institutions such as the British Film Institute and Oxford University Press. In that latter role he hopes to have saved humanity from enslavement by our future robot overloads by publishing the highly influential New York Times bestseller Superintelligence, by Nick Bostrom. He is currently working on a novel about the nature of reality and the perplexing apparent absence of aliens in the universe. He is also writing a nonfiction book about SpaceX’s plan to colonize Mars. Like his idol Elon Musk, he hopes to die on the red planet, just not during landing.

How impressive is that bio! So, let's find out even more about Keith (and be sure to read because this truly is an honest and insightful interview!)...

Is this your first published book?

I’m currently working on my fourth book (and a fifth!). Because of where I stand with them, I think this interview will only make sense if I switch continuously (confusingly?) between that intended fourth novel and my first. Besides, I have a terrible habit of always jumping around with my answers in life generally. I claim it’s to do with creativity, though others might describe it as having a disorganized mind.

What’s it called?

The new book’s called Entanglement, because it’s a love story between two characters whose lives are entwined across multiple realities and they start to realize this through the scientific phenomenon of quantum entanglement (I’m proud of my title!).

Which genre?

This is a science fiction romantic thriller, I’d say paying homage to The Time Traveler’s Wife and linking that with Carl Sagan’s Contact. If you liked those you should enjoy the new book.

Which age group?

Good question. Publishers always want authors to specify their audience as narrowly as possible. Authors want
everyone to read their books. My first books (the Johnny Mackintosh series) were originally classed as “children’s” but I’d say “for ages 10–100”. Plus, the target age probably went up as you went through the series so they moved from “middle grade” firmly into “YA”. The new book will probably be classed as “fiction” rather than “YA fiction” but it’s the sort of thing I’d have loved to have read as a 15 or 16 year old.

Is it a series or standalone?

For the first time I’m writing a standalone novel.

Are you an agented author?

No, but I expect to change that and get an agent before the book’s published. Because I work in the book industry (see below) when I signed my original deal my editor suggested we cut out the middle man (or woman) and I kept the extra percentage. I did that but in hindsight I think it was a mistake (again, see below!).

How involved have you been in the whole publishing process of your book?

My first book, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London, was published by Quercus in the very early days of them deciding to create a children’s book list. And my book (and series) was signed to be the initial lead title. So far, absolutely brilliant. But very quickly the editor who’d signed me up left. The knock-on effect was that, back then, Quercus decided to reign in their children’s programme. All the wonderful publicity plans evaporated, oddly the book was announced to the world as the first in a trilogy without consulting me (it was never intended as a trilogy) and the title was changed to something I didn’t even understand! It was a sad introduction and meant I immediately felt I’d lost ownership of my book and became disengaged. Near the end of the process, almost as the printing presses began to roll, the bookshops turned round to Quercus and said their title didn’t work and needed changing. I insisted (and eventually got) my original title back, but only because in the two or three days the question was open we didn’t have time to think of anything better. Sadly, because the editor had left, no one edited my first book at all. Though at the time I expect I would have been an annoying know-all author, resistant to changes. I’m much more mellow and able to listen to other people’s good suggestions nowadays.

If you’re lucky enough to succeed with a direct approach to an editor, you only need to find one person who really loves your work and you’re away. But if you are taken on by a literary agent and then an editor, you’ll have two people on your side. The experience taught me the value of having an agent to speak for you if you need someone to do that, so they can play bad cop with the publisher and leave you, the author, to enjoy being good cop. Working in the industry I know changes of personnel and company priorities can happen, but it’s also made me a better publisher, teaching me never to impose titles (or covers) on my authors. I must say all my Quercus covers have been beautiful, though I think it would make more sense if they were linked with a series style, as has been done with the eBooks (but not the print versions).

I must add that the next editor who took over the list worked tremendously hard on Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze, my second book, even though I suspect it wasn’t her thing. Because of her invaluable edits, the book now has a completely new (excellent) ending going beyond the one originally planned. Very sadly there was a glitch with the computer systems that meant for most of the first year after publication it was listed as unavailable (even though Quercus had stock), so bookshops or readers couldn’t order it. I’d report it, and for a day or so it became magically available, but then whatever was causing the problem would overwrite the database and it would become unorderable again. You can buy it nowadays, but even today hardly any have been sold compared with the several thousands of the first and third books, which is very frustrating when they were meant to be read in order! The third in the series, Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth, went more smoothly.

Which publisher snapped up your book?

No one knows about Entanglement so far. You’re getting an exclusive first public reveal.

Do you have another job?

I’ve worked in publishing almost all my life, mainly as a publisher/commissioning editor. Though recently I gave up my job as science publisher at Oxford University Press so I’m now freelance. I’ve always dabbled in TV and since then I helped make a series called 'It’s Not Rocket Science' and a few other bits and pieces. As well as the writing, I’m toying with setting up a publishing company with an initial focus on important areas of popular science.

Did you receive many, if any, rejections prior?

I don’t think it’s possible to be a writer without getting rejections. With Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London I was lucky that I had a lot of thoughtful and constructive rejections – very near misses really – that encouraged me to keep going. Probably around twenty agents rejected it. With getting close but no deal, I took a decision to stop sending the book out and I completely reframed and rewrote the opening third. It meant killing a lot of my babies that had become very real to me, but also made the book an awful lot better and more distinctive. Once it was ready I heard in the trade that Quercus were setting up a children’s list so I sent it to them directly and amazingly was immediately signed up. Before anyone else does similar, they no longer take unsolicited enquiries!

What created/what were you doing or watching when the first idea for this book sneaked up on you?

For Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London it struck me one day that the books I really loved were what nowadays are called YA, yet I was trying to write the definitive modern novel. So, I went back to a story idea I had as a 15 or 16 year old that I’d liked enough to record onto an audio cassette and expanded that.

Entanglement is a coming together in a perfect storm of my OUP science and philosophy publishing, my love of cosmology and my dreams, to produce the definitive modern novel 😉. The first time that coalesced into the actual story was during a workshop on “how to pitch your movie”. I’d been working on a screenplay that, the longer the workshop went on, I realized was nearly impossible to actually pitch to anyone. Trying to think of a good pitch the story behind Entanglement came to me there and then.

How long did you plot/plan until you started writing it?

I chewed the story for Entanglement over in my head for a while, before going to a fifteenth century Scottish castle on a writing fellowship. Hawthornden is a beautiful isolated world, with no phones/tv/internet. There, I spent the first three or four days plotting and replotting and replotting some more, much of it on a ridiculously complicated spreadsheet covering the same two-month period over eight interlinked realities, making sure it all made sense. I don’t think I could have done it except for being in a place with absolutely no distractions. Then I began writing in earnest.

Once you started, did the story flow naturally or did you have to step in and wrestle it into submission?

The beauty of writing a book should be that it’s like reading your favourite book – one written especially for you. I think as an author you have to try to please yourself and then hopefully your readers will also enjoy what you’ve written. Naturally, you should want to devour it, so once I start it tends to flow reasonably well. Where it grinds to a halt, it means there’s a flaw in the story or the characters.

How many drafts did you write before you let someone read it? Who was that someone?

For Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London I made a schoolboy error I’m really embarrassed to admit to. When I first queried agents, I wanted to be sure it was worth investing time in the book so I only wrote the first three chapters before sending it out (explaining I was doing that in my query letter). I wouldn’t recommend this. My first query went to star literary agent Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann (very sadly now deceased) who immediately asked for a full read, but I had nothing to send. So I busied myself rushing a terrible first draft and no sooner had I typed “The end” I printed it out and popped it in the post to her. Naturally she wasn’t impressed.

Did you employ an editor/proofreader or did you have a critique partner/beta readers before you started querying?

As an editor who started out in the industry proofreading and copyediting I’m reasonably confident of creating a high-quality work that’s at a level agents will take seriously. I’m lucky nowadays that more and more people have asked to go on a list of critique partners/beta readers, so they’ll get the advance version of my new book. Just not quite yet.

Roughly how many drafts did it take before you sent the manuscript off into the real world?

For my later books I certainly don’t show anyone the first draft. If I’m happy with the third, fourth or fifth, I might let me friends see it. My test for whether a book’s really ready, is when I start to find myself changing words and sentences back in an edit to what I’d changed from previously. It’s as if the draft’s reached some sort of state of thermal equilibrium in which I understand further edits on my part have become pointless.

How many drafts until it was published?

I hate to say for anyone who thinks this is easy, the first Johnny Mackintosh book took around 40 drafts (or course some of them pretty minor edits). Happily, I’m a great re-reader (I must have read all the Harry Potter books about twenty times) so I’m happy to re-read my favourite book (my own!) over again. Philip Pullman has said the idea of daemons only occurred to him in the around the 25th draft of The Golden Compass/Norther Lights, so I’m in good company.

Has the book changed dramatically since the first draft?

Happily, yes. There were too many characters doing the same job, and Johnny started out living with relatives
when in the final book he’s in a children’s home.

Are there any parts you’d like to change even now?

There are still too many characters. Though I shall always remember my first review, eagerly awaited, read “too many ideas”. At least it’s better than too few. Also, I didn’t think about structure at all whereas after I’d written it I ended up thinking about structure a lot and now it’s become key to my writing.

What part of writing do you find the easiest?

Unquestionably I enjoy writing dialogue. I have to resist the temptation not to do everything with speech. I think I possibly read too many screenplays.

What part do you find hardest?

The middle section of any book. The more I write the more I tend to structure things within three acts. You’re always buzzing to start something, and again when the finishing line is in sight, but keeping everything on track, interesting and page-turning in the middle can be a challenge.

Do you push through writing barriers or walk away?

I wonder what people mean by a writing barrier? For me, if I hit some sort of wall with my writing it’s a sign that the story isn’t working so I have to change it. And it’s always important to bear in mind that, just because you’ve written something in the story, doesn’t have to mean you keep it. Everything is malleable until your book goes into production. I find you can’t force a story to work when it doesn’t, so I stop and backtrack and try and resolve the issue. It’s very important to me that my stories make sense, both logically and also from the characters’ perspectives.

How many projects do you have on the go at the same time?

At the moment I’m slightly actively working on three which is more than enough: the novel, the nonfiction book and the screenplay that I can’t pitch. But the focus is very much one at a time. I’m aware I’m easily distracted, so it’s important to try to stay as focused as possible.

Do you think you’re born with the talent to write or do you think it can be learned?

Interesting question and a topic of debate among writers. I think plenty of people are able to write reasonably well, and that can be learned. But what singles some out is the instinctive ability to understand story and narrative. I probably bore a lot of people by telling stories instead of holding a conversation. It’s a curse as well as a talent. When I start reading a book or watching a film I can very quickly see how it’s going to end. Only the best stories surprise me.

How many future novels do you have planned?

When I started writing properly (as opposed to simply telling people I was a writer but hardly ever doing it) I knew I could write pretty well, but where I struggled was coming up with ideas. I’d start books that I thought should work, but they always petered out because the ideas didn’t excite or interest me enough to keep going to the end. And if I wasn’t that fussed, why should any readers be? Happily I was saved by Johnny Mackintosh. But the more you write, the better you get and the more the ideas flow. Whenever I have an idea I work up a plan in a computer file and also make sure I email it to myself so it won’t be lost, but now there are more ideas than it’s possible to write in a lifetime, so every book should, in theory, improve in quality.

Do you write other things, such as short stories, articles, blogs, etc?

I have a website that I update far too sporadically. Writing time is so precious that I’d rather spend it on books rather than other things. Also, though, these things are cyclical. In the run-up to publication you will find yourself writing a load of pieces for publicity, whether it’s for blog ours or op-eds. I do write TV scripts sometimes, for entertainment shows. And I’d like to write movies so I have tried my hand with screenplays.

What’s the highlight of being published so far?

It’s always wonderful seeing your books in store and amazing when readers make contact. It would have to be one of those things. As a UK author the highlight may be when I came to Australia for the far north Queensland total solar eclipse in 2012. I hadn’t had room in my luggage to bring copies of my newest book to give to (long suffering) friends. In Sydney I walked into a small bookshop and there was Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth, piled high in front of me! Seeing my books unexpectedly on the other side of the world is probably the best.

Give me one writing tip that work for you.

Writing time’s precious so before you start writing, make sure you know your ending and make sure it’s really really good as that will be the most crucial part of your book. Also, it’s so much easier to plan once you know what everything is working towards.

And one that doesn't.

Tough one. I think most standard writing tips are actually well worth following, but there’s no way I could “write every day”. I need time to chew over a story if the writing’s going to be sufficiently rich. It’s like filling a reservoir as high as you can until you’re ready to breach the dam and have the words splurge out onto the page.

Can you give us a clue or secret about the next book?

You’re saying it was meant to be secret? Oops! Seems I’ve let the cat out of the bag above. I would add I’ve been very lucky to mix with many of the world’s greatest thinkers for my day job, asking them to write books based on their wonderful but sometimes whacky ideas. But at the same time, if their ideas are really out there, I do think “I could use that in a book”. Entanglement is part distillation of some of my exceptional authors’ brilliant ideas, weaved into a love story.

What question have you always wanted to be asked but never have? What would the answer be?

Ooh, lovely question. There are loads, but it’s especially a shame (probably because of the “trilogy thing”) that no one’s ever asked how many Johnny Mackintosh books I have planned and do I know how it ends?

There are meant to be five books and I’m so proud of the ending which is brilliant, epic, perfect, explains everything and achingly sad, but kind of happy at the same time. I hope one day I get to write it.

Wow! What a pleasure it's been to interview Keith and find out more about him. We hope you've all enjoyed today's Guestopia as much as we have. And we wish Keith, and Johnny, all the luck for the future! If you want to find out even more about Keith and follow him, here are some links that might help!

Stay tuned, as later this month we're welcoming another amazing author to the YAtopia stage!

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