Paul Braddon discusses the publication process for his debut sci-fi/speculative fiction novel, ‘The Actuality’, published by Sandstone Press in 2021 and optioned by BBC Studios.
Paul’s connection with Jericho Writers began with a series of manuscript assessments by Liz Garner. Paul also attended our Festival of Writing for several years and was shortlisted for Friday Night Live in 2013. He got his agent in 2018, and you can read about his journey to finding representation here.
Set in a crumbling future England where human life has been bioengineered and subsequently outlawed, ‘The Actuality’ follows Evie, an example of near-perfect AI, as her hiding place is exposed and she is forced to take to the streets and make critical judgements about who she can and can’t trust.
We loved that alongside explicit sci-fi themes, ‘The Actuality’ has notes of philosophy and human psychology which invite the reader to question what sets humans apart from machines. Its pace and journey-led structure would make it ideal for television.
We sat down with Paul to discuss his debut, his experience working with his publisher Sandstone Press, and what it was like to have his work optioned by BBC Studios.
JW: Hi Paul! When we last spoke, you had recently been signed by your agent. What role has she played since she took on ‘The Actuality’?
The first thing Joanna (Joanna Swainson – Hardman & Swainson Literary Agency) helped with was making the manuscript as attention grabbing as possible. One of the challenges was ensuring that none of the tension dissipated during the opening chapters. To achieve this, I made sure that a reference to accumulating events appeared on every page. We also added a prologue to provide a foreshadowing of events and a chilling strapline (‘Fear makes her human / Humans make her fear’), which is now on the front cover of the hardback.
Once the manuscript was ready, Joanna drew up a list of editors to approach and sent it out. We had favourable feedback from quite a few but Sandstone Press was first to the table with an offer. Joanna called to let me know in April 2019 – it was my birthday and the best birthday present I could have had.
We were very happy to go with Sandstone. They’re a great indie publisher and having recently won the ‘Not the Booker’ with the dystopian ‘Sweet Fruit, Sour Land’ by Rebecca Ley, were keen to build a thread around speculative fiction. They had great ideas on how ‘The Actuality’ could be given a final polish and their enthusiasm was infectious. It took a few weeks to finalise the contract, with negotiations handled by Joanna, and then it came through to me to sign.
JW: What has been the subsequent process of working with your publisher?
Once the UK and Commonwealth rights had been acquired by Sandstone, the editorial work began. My editor, the talented Kay Farrell, gave me as the main challenge the reordering of section 4 (the novel is in five sections). She was absolutely right – the flow here was not working as well as it could. After spending a few weeks on a revised draft, I returned it and to my huge relief, had nailed it.
The manuscript was then passed back and forth a half dozen times. It was all small things, like she’d challenge why a character was behaving in the way they were and I’d go back into a scene and try to understand her concerns. It was down to me to find solutions and make the changes. Kay’s role was to challenge but I’d usually find that she was right, and an improvement could be made. By October 2019 we had an agreed draft ready for proofreading.
The proofreader – Georgie Coles – did an excellent job tidying the punctuation and ensuring consistency. Her changes were largely invisible – just as they should be – but afterwards the novel felt slicker and smoother.
The cover then went out to the designer. I was asked to contribute ideas but had no expectation of what the creative mind of Heike Schüssler would come up with. The trade loves ‘different’ and her eye-popping, all-the-best-colours-from-the-children’s-paint-box design has garnered praise from all quarters and has been successful in heralding the novel’s literary ambitions. Christina Dalcher – author of the bestselling ‘VOX’ – submitted a lovely review and from it, the word ‘Exquisite’ was taken and added to the front cover.
Next came typesetting and I was sent a pdf to check. Whenever I read the text through, I saw little things I wanted to change and although at this stage I wasn’t meant to be doing anything other than checking for typesetting errors, I persuaded Kay to allow me a few more tiny edits.
Arrangements for the audiobook were also now completed. Sandstone don’t publish audiobooks themselves but sold the rights to W.F Howes – the audiobook specialist. The audiobook for ‘The Actuality’ is now complete and is read with great sensitivity by the actress Eva Feiler. Having been used to only hearing myself read my words, it’s such a pleasure to hear them spoken so movingly.
In January 2020, I met with Ceris Jones, the Sandstone marketing exec, to discuss promotional plans, including the venue for the launch event – we were assuming a central London bookshop – and in the background I was compiling a list of attendees…
…which is when the virus struck!
Initially Sandstone tried to stick with July but when it became clear that bookshops would be closed, deferred publication to February 2021.
The delay was a disappointment but also a silver lining, as it allowed time for an option for the TV/Film rights to be sold to BBC Studios, helping create a buzz ahead of publication.
In the leadup to publication, social media activity has mounted. ARCs (Advanced Review Copies) have been sent out to reviewers to drum up excitement. One highlight is a piece on the BBC Culture website which positions ‘The Actuality’ in the footsteps of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. I think this is lovely and works on so many levels, not least in that there is indeed something of the gothic heroine in my ‘electric’ character Evie.
The revised date for publication – Thursday 18th of February 2021 – is now upon us. As before, bookshops remain closed, but Sandstone have gained experience with online events and we have a Q&A on Twitter planned for lunchtime – plus hopefully an evening event to follow soon. I will also definitely have a proper launch party when circumstances allow and the wine can be safely shared around!
JW: How would you place ‘The Actuality’ within the sci-fi/speculative fiction market?
‘The Actuality’ straddles sci-fi / dystopia and literary fiction. What is rare about it, is that the story is presented through the point of view of the AI and maybe because of this, reviewers have engaged. In the words of The Publishing Planet:
‘As an exceptionally designed and advanced AI, Evie is outside the category of human but feels like the most human character in the book. Braddon’s ability to write about this rough and brutal world through the eyes of such an elegant and honest character is beguiling.’
I love that they love her.
JW: The world in the novel is quite bleak – does this reflect your perception of what the future could be like or are you more optimistic?
The setting of ‘The Actuality’ is 2135 and the impact of climate change has taken its toll on the environment and society. The UK has fragmented, suffers bitter winters and baking summers and the population has drastically shrunk as a result of a decline in fertility caused by unchecked pollution. All of this is completely plausible.
However, our potential saviour is science – technological advance has created this mess, but it is quite within our wits to use further advances to find our way out. The rapid growth of electric vehicles is testament to this and the implementation of artificial intelligence will enable machines to aid us in the quest.
JW: In very exciting news, ‘The Actuality’ has been optioned by BBC Studios! Can you explain what the process has been like so far?
It was amazing getting the news that we had an offer for the TV and film rights from BBC Studios. Joanna spotted the screen potential of ‘The Actuality’ right from the start. Her agency works with a specialist dramatics rights agent called Marc Simonsson who has all the studio contacts here and abroad and had been championing it, albeit the crucial lead came from a pitch made by Sandstone, with Marc expertly negotiating with BBC Studios to close the deal. The great thing about being optioned at this stage is that it gives us valuable pre-publication publicity.
JW: What’s next for you, and how are you approaching new projects?
‘The Actuality’ was written as a standalone novel but the potential to develop the story is part of the appeal to BBC Studios and if a TV series is commissioned I might well revisit Evie’s world. I love dystopian/speculative themes and hope to work more in this genre. The novel I am currently working on however is a bit different – I’d love to say more because I’m very excited by it, but it’s early days and I can’t risk jinxing it!
From Paul’s Agent, Joanna Swainson (Hardman & swainson Literary Agency)
JW: Hi Joanna! Thanks for chatting to us. What was it about Paul’s manuscript that originally drew you to it?
JS: I was initially drawn to Paul’s manuscript by the prospect of reading a novel set a hundred years in the future, in a ‘broken down England where technology has lurched forward then all but seized up’. This was how Paul described it in his pitch and although it sounds depressing, I immediately saw a vivid backdrop to a story with wonderful potential for exploring human nature. And then as soon as I started to read, I was hooked in by the atmosphere he creates and the protagonist, Evie, a beautifully drawn character who kept surprising me.
JW: As an agent, what kind of thing are you looking for right now?
JS: As an agent, I’m genuinely open to representing a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. Particular areas of interest in fiction are novels which explore the darker side of human nature, so crime and thrillers and horror (and folk horror). But I do also like funny and uplifting, too! And in fact, I think a book should put a smile on your face, whether it’s through humour itself, or irony, or sheer ingenuity of character or writing or whatever it is. We’re here to marvel and be entertained. I’m also a big fan of history and folklore, whether in fiction or non-fiction.
JW: Could you comment on what it’s like pitching work in the sci-fi/speculative fiction market right now?
JS: There are possibly slightly fewer editors you can approach for sci-fi/speculative fiction but pitching into this market is much the same as pitching in any other – it’s tough out there, but if the work is amazing then it should get the deal. If it’s speculative with cross over (i.e. book group or literary or other categories) appeal, then all to the better. But then sometimes you don’t really know if it will cross over until it’s published and embraced by the masses and it very much depends on how a publisher positions a book too.
About Paul Braddon
Paul Braddon lives in London with his wife Mary and son Thomas. He got the writing bug after coming runner-up in an essay competition as a teenager and went onto study English Literature at Reading University.
Links to buy ‘The Actuality’:
Hardman & Swainson Literary submissions information here.
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