Reading blind

There is a growing trend for publications to read submissions blind. They ask you to remove your name and other details that may identify you from the manuscript then assess that manuscript solely on merit in line with their requirements. This virtually eliminates the possibility of bias but does not guarantee a more diverse publication or increase sales.

What happens if all the work selected is written by people of a similar background? This is possible, even probable if most submissions come from that group. Some publications state that they welcome material from under-represented groups, whilst using the conventional cover letter approach. Others actively solicit writers from within, or with experience of, their targeted audience, which may be defined by gender, class, age or race.

Blind submissions raise the possibility of novice writers beating experienced professionals. That’s fantastic for the writer but not necessarily the editor because a big name attracts readers. How are likely are you to pick up something by a newcomer ahead of the latest from an established favourite?

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.

Check and recheck the facts

This week I was reminded of the importance to check facts. My big non-fiction project is an attempt to identify Mary Jane Kelly who was killed by Jack the Ripper in 1888. I have compiled a large database containing details of over 600 women and am slowly attempting to trace each one. This is often difficult, relying on reasonable assumptions.

For example one Mary Kelly  married Colin Campbell in 1876. She died in 1887 and then Colin remarried to Margaret Kelly whose father, like Mary’s, was a stonemason called John. Making a reasonable assumption that Mary and Margaret were sisters I found only one pair of siblings with those names and a father called John, in the right area and age range but John’s occupation was given as labourer. Stonemasonry was a skilled trade, not something picked up in later life. I searched again, finding two stonemasons called John Kellly. One had a daughter, Mary, and one had a daughter, Margaret. To confuse matters further the families lived in neighbouring properties ten years apart.

On the marriage certificate both Colin and Margaret gave the same address where the widow of the first stonemason was living a few months later. I’m now making the reasonable assumption that her daughter Mary was Colin’s first husband. When I’ve got through the remaining Marys I might come back and work out who Margaret really was.

Can Science Fiction be positive again?

I recently read an article which bemoaned the lack of positivity in modern science fiction. The golden age of the genre according to Robert Silverberg, others put it earlier, was the 1950s. Writers predicted technological advances, the conquest of space and innumerable triumphs for humanity. In a rather austere era between warfare and social change they believed in a better future. Today there is a lot of dystopia. Writers are reflecting the world around them, which may not be what their audience wants.

Our belief in unlimited progress has stalled, despite having access to technologies not dreamt of in the 1950s. An expanded media feeds us bad news and causes us to mistrust leaders. Critical and negative views can easily be published, without editorial input. To stand out in a crowd some writers see the need to be extreme. To shock and horrify readers they provide tales of humanity’s capacity to destroy rather than create.

My own published fiction in the last five years has largely been negative yet as a reader, and viewer, I seek out more optimistic material. Science Fiction at its best creates a sense of wonder and those who follow it often want to live in a better place. We need to imagine it for them.

The freelance employees

Sometimes legislation introduced with good intent has unforeseen consequences. California’s AB5 law restricts the use of contractors, aiming to give workers greater protection and make big companies pay more tax. Some writers and journalists have complained because technically they are now classed as employees, with an exemption that allows 35 articles per year. The American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Association have filed lawsuits, claiming that AB5 is unconstitutional. Legal challenges have also been raised by Uber and the California Truckers Association.

AB5 puts into law a California Supreme Court ruling which held that most workers should be classed as employees. Status has long been a difficult legal issue, with disputes about the tax position of taxi drivers pre-dating the rise of the gig economy. Writers who do not normally feature in the debate have suddenly been dragged in along with musicians and artists.

AB5 makes no real distinction between a freelancer who simultaneously solicits work from different places and a Uber driver who gets their work from a single source. As other legislators consider how best to classify workers, they need to accept that status is often defined by independence.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.

Getting the title right

This week I submitted a story, deciding to change the title at the last minute. This often happens. Sometimes it’s because of a change in direction but, more often, it’s about creating attention. Editors are inundated with manuscripts. Faced with one that has a bland, unoriginal title and one that sounds different they’re more likely to pick the later. If they’re persuaded to publish then you have to convince the readers.

Good covers used to attract buyers. Today an online list is often the starting point. I wanted to call my book about the Jack the Ripper suspects Mad, Bad and Innocent. Including Jack the Ripper in the title configured it for search engines. My PhD with the academic title of Cultural Connotations of the Man-Eating Wolf became Howls of Imagination, to appeal to a non-academic audience.

What makes a good title? As usual there’s no one answer. It has to sound intriguing and it has to be relevant for the people you want to publish and read your work.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.

Supporting women in horror

This month is the eleventh annual women in horror month, an international grassroots initiative that encourages people to learn about and showcase the work of women in the horror industry. The genre began in literature, arguably with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first published in 1818. Last year Frankenstein was listed by the BBC as one of 100 top inspiring novels. Forty-four other books by women made that list. An early reviewer of Frankenstein dismissed it, because of the writer’s gender. Today many female writers still encounter discrimination.

In last week’s blog I spoke about film makers not taking risks. Horror films usually cost less to make, so provide opportunities to blood new talent on both sides of the camera. Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron are among the directors who launched their career in this genre. Challenge yourself to name three famous female directors.

Hopefully initatives like women in horror will continue to thrive and help create an environment where everyone is judged solely on the merits of their work.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of the Jack the Ripper suspects.

The blockbuster and the intellectual

This week I had two different cinema experiences. I watched the second instalment of the Jumanji franchise in a local cinema, one of many daily showings. Jojo Rabbit had none, forcing me to travel to a smaller venue. Mainstream films, like television, now focus on satisfying existing demand, rather than taking risks with bold new scripts and ideas. This is an understandable commercial decision based on the assumption that audiences want more of the same.

Watching JoJo Rabbit with ample leg room and a beer, I can recommend the Elizabeth Picture Theatre in Brisbane, I found a better script than Jumanji with fewer unnecessary scenes. Jumanji was mindless escapism for the masses. Joko Rabbit provided intellectual stimulation and was often disturbing. There are similarities between the two movies. Both have themes of friendship and love. Both overdose on comedy at the expense of drama.

Some reviewers of Jojo Rabbit have complained about its comic depictions of the Nazis and of Hitler as an imaginary friend. I laughed at the television series Allo Allo, knowing that it was not intended to be taken seriously. Jojo Rabbit is a serious story, with executions and children handling weapons. It uses comic stereotypes to highlight and mock ideas about gender and race which were not unique to that time and place. The technique didn’t work for me, but it made me think. Unlike Jumanji.

Paul Williams is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, best known for his study of theJack the Ripper suspects.