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ON THE COVER
His usual authors' blurb includes Editor of The Journal (once of Contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian Poetry), publisher of Original Plus books, and Poetry Editor of The Select Six (BeWrite Books). But there is much more to this man and his writing than first seen at a glance.
Born in Blackpool, UK in 1946, he now lives in Maryport, Cumbria, "Near the Lakes, by the Sea," UK as a freelance writer, author, editor, and publisher. He has been a psychiatric nurse, residential social worker, milkman, plumber, laboratory analyst, grounds man, sailor, computer operator, scaffolder, gardener, painter and decorator, working at anything to pay the rent. He has also taken good care of his family. None of these obligations have gotten in the way of his writing.
His novel Sister Blister was one of the first published on the Internet by Online Originals, and was one of the first to be entered for the then Booker Prize. However it wasn't shortlisted because it had to be read on a computer monitor.
That was no setback for Sam. He continued on, as a natural-born philosopher would, building his own website that he still uses today. This man of many talents and unrelenting tenacity humbly considers himself "the perennially broke poet, novelist, publisher, editor."
Let's cross the pond to England and see what this man has to say for himself.
SS: As a schoolboy I enjoyed the writing assignments. But I was classed – in class-conscious England – as a naughty boy. So, when for one assignment I handed in a poem, the master said that he would have included it in the school magazine had he been able to believe that a yob like me could have written it. In my pretentious grammar school, they wore gowns and mortar boards. I'd passed the eleven plus exam to get into the school.
Becoming a writer had not then seemed a natural career choice ... until I drifted into London after leaving the Merchant Navy. There I found myself living in Chelsea, making friends with painters, actors, musicians, and the like.
Having fought my way out of all other career expectations, feeling that I didn't fit anywhere, I found myself at ease in their classless company. I'd read many of the same books, been to the same art galleries, rated the same films, yet ... I wasn't quite equal in that I had no creative leanings.
This was sixties London and I had also got into the early drug scene. To get myself off it, I took myself to Devon, got a summer job as an engineer on a pleasure boat going back and forth across Torbay; I got myself clean. A girlfriend leant me Henry Miller's Smile At The Foot Of The Ladder. Sitting on a rock above the sea I read it cover-to-cover, and decided there and then that if I could write something as honest and true, and move someone as Henry Miller had - across space and time - moved me, then my whole life would have been worthwhile.
IN: You decided in 1969 to become a writer, and it wasn't until 1991 that you first became published. What writing roadblocks and problems did you have to overcome?
SS: Being in England, with quite a few rejections, I suspect class. Still do. Following all good writing advice and precedents, I try to write of what I know. What I know is of a life distinctly different to that of the college graduates who end up in the industry publishing and as reviewers in the national newspapers.
Of course my first three novels – written straight off within one year – were rightly rejected out of hand. I took a deep breath, looked at what I'd done, and realised that I needed to take more time and especially more care. I had a new addiction. Draft upon draft. So began my 21 year career of interested publishers and agents. My novels would pass the three reader tests with full marks, and then fail each time they reached the salespeople. What genre did they fit? How could they be sold? And that ultimate rejection happened about once a year.
Then one novel, Constant Change, kept coming back by return post and I couldn't understand why. I was living in the West Country by then, and the local Arts Council was offering a free manuscript assessment service. So I sent them Constant Change. Next thing I heard, they were considering publishing it. They had used the assessment service as a cover to look for books on which to set up a West Country publishing house. Out of 2,500 manuscripts received, mine and one other were to be their launch pad.
All went well. Publishers and editors were calling on me, and my book even getting passed around the House of Commons. And then the '87 crash came along and their backer lost all his venture capital.
At that point, to stave off suicidal depression, I knew that I had to have some work in print and that work would not, because of the expenses then involved, be a novel. So I switched to poetry. Within a year I had poems included in several magazines, and my poems were read on national radio. Two years later, I had my first full collection published.
SS: I don't have different methods. It's the basic discipline of draft upon draft and of making any piece of interest to the reader, and of making the prospective reader want to read it. Of course with nonfiction one has to be as certain of one's facts as one can be. Although, the same applies to historical novels and, indeed, to any factual reference within any written work.
With poems, I tend to read them aloud a few times as well, solely for the rhythm. But then I often do that for prose as well – to make sure the poor reader doesn't have to take a mental breath in the middle of a long sentence.
IN: As an editor, you have seen and worked the submissions side of the desk. What are the most common mistakes that new writers make when dealing with editors and submissions?
SS: Telling the editor how very good the submitted work is – most editors will instantly find reasons to disagree. Telling the editor how a piece of work should be read, or explaining the history behind the piece. The submitted work should be self-contained – all explanations inferred or implied within.
And a big no-no is telling the publisher how you are going to make his/her fortune, thus demonstrating your naivety regarding the publishing world.
The biggest mistake though is in not following that publisher's submissions criteria. If they say no email or no multiple submissions, then don't. If they say only six poems, don't send more. If they ask for a brief biography, keep it brief. Better too little at that stage than too much. And if they ask for SAE and/or IRCs, include them. And a heartfelt plea to all US submitters – the rest of the world does not use US postage stamps or US currency. This is the most common complaint among European editors about US writers.
IN: As both a publisher and an editor, how do you determine what is worthwhile to publish and what isn't when submissions arrive?
SS: Providing they haven't already got my back up with an arrogant submission, then it is simply if the work interests me. Does the work succeeds in what it has set out to do? If it's supposed to be funny, did it make me at least smile? Spelling and punctuation can always be corrected, so I try to see what the author was attempting to say. Does it intrigue? If descriptive, is it recognisable? And finally, if I include it in the magazine, or take on the book, will I be proud to have published it?
IN: What do you see as today's greatest challenges new writers must face on the road to success?
SS: Define success. If by success you mean becoming a bestselling author then that is reserved for less than 0.005% of published writers. And that will be for those books that will bulk sell, after hefty advertising, in multiple retail outlets. The day of the midlist author making a steady living from sales to libraries are long gone. The days of the retail bookshop are also numbered. The future for most authors is in Internet publishing – probably POD – where the only High Street bookshops will be second-hand bookshops, passed-on PODs being sold there. Authors will not make enough from primary sales to live on. Even the bestselling authors are unlikely to achieve a regular income. Most bestsellers are likely to be film and DVD tie-ins, one-offs.
But, if by success you mean artistic success, and by artistic success I mean gaining an audience, a following, a readership, then the first step to that should be easier. Start-up costs for a publisher are now considerably reduced; and, as most artists have to have day-jobs, so too will the new publishers. Satisfaction for these new publishers will come from having selected and promoted writers of their choice. While success for the writer will be in having someone, unknown to them, reading and – one hopes – being moved by their work.
SS: Most definitely. I'm a member of the Society of Authors, the John Clare Society, and the Anglo-Welsh Poetry Society. From all three I often pick up ideas, contacts, and learn of opportunities.
IN: What advice do you offer writers about the merits or pitfalls of taking writing classes and attending writing conferences and seminars?
SS: I've been talked into giving writing classes, which weren't a success. Not by my estimate leastways. What I have preferred doing is giving estimates of finished, or part-finished, works. That, according to those whose works I have criticised, has been considered a success. But I've never attended a writing conference or seminar. The fees have usually been prohibitive – at least on my day-job incomes. Although, some of my middle-class writing friends who regularly attend such affairs find them most useful. I can say no more than that.
IN: Have you learned, either through your own experience or through the grapevine, any fundamental differences between being published in the UK and being published somewhere else such as Europe or North America?
SS: Between the UK and the US, I don't think there's any fundamental difference. Apart that is from the necessary point-scoring for American academics in being published. If one isn't au fait with who publishes what, one can waste an awful lot of time approaching unsuitable publishers in the US. While in mainland Europe the fundamental difference is that of being published in other languages and all the problems arising from there.
IN: As already mentioned, Sister Blister was one of the first novels published on the Internet and having your own website is obviously important to you. What is the best thing to ever happen to you by having a website?
SS: Do you know, I can't think of one. It's just necessary nowadays to have a web presence, so people can find you.
IN: What keeps you motivated and directed to write in the three genres you've chosen?
SS: Anger. In our daily lives we are told so many lies and deceits, which can lead to wars or just simply ruin the lives of the credulous. I want to tell the truth – if only to one other.
IN: Last, but certainly not least, what's next for you?
SS: I've been talking to BeWrite Books about publishing a five-book SciFi series called The unMaking Of Heaven. Skrev Press have taken an option on my next poetry collection, An Atheist's Alphabetical Approach To Death, and that's supposed to be coming out in 2008. I have a historical novel, The Friendship Of Dagda And Tinker Howth, with a literary agent at the moment. I'm writing the first draft of a sort of detective novel provisionally titled Something's Wrong; and I'm slowly building another poetry collection provisionally titled Scenes From A Country Life. The Journal is about to pass its combined 30th issue, and I've figured out a way of reviving Original Plus's fortunes. I'm also bringing up to scratch two poetry collections – by Carol Thistlethwaite and Ben Stainton – that came through the Select Six website. Oh yes, and I'm currently serialising week-by-week an old SciFi book of mine, John John, on blogspot.
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