Somewhere Out There

I’ve just made my return to the world of (paid, grown-up) work by teaching some courses on creative writing at Quad cinema in Derby. As part of these courses, I always talk a little bit about the eternal question of How to Get Published (short answer: with difficulty). Many aspiring writers want to know more about self-publishing, although it’s not a path I find I can recommend whole-heartedly.

Why not? Aren’t there authors who’ve done well out of self-publishing? There are indeed – the most prominent in the SFF genre probably being Hugh Howey, Becky Chambers, and Andy Weir. But self-published writers are the opposite of aeroplanes – you only hear about the successful ones. There are many more authors whose books get lost in the depths of the Amazonian jungle, never to be seen again.

I often hear it said that self-publishing is a way to get your book ‘out there’. This is true – if you leave your manuscript tucked away on your hard drive or in your desk drawer, it’s never going to get any attention, whereas if you make it available, it just might. However, from what I can gather from talking to people who’ve tried self-publishing, books seldom gather much attention on their own – you have to put a lot of effort into marketing if you want to see results. And there don’t seem to be any easy shortcuts. On my most recent course, I had a student who had entrusted her book to a ‘hybrid’ publishing company. She was not happy with the level of publicity the firm had provided, and I suspect this is a common experience with people using such companies. Another student on the same course had self-published and done everything himself – he said he appreciated the level of control this gave him over the whole process, but that he’d found it very time-consuming.

Meanwhile, at my local writing group we had a visit from debut author Jo Jakeman (who was lovely). She has written a domestic noir thriller called Sticks & Stones which will be (traditionally) published later this year, although she told us that she had previously self-published a couple of historical novels. She said she’d sold around 4,000 copies of her first book, but commented she’d had to work almost full-time on promotion in order to achieve those sales. While she didn’t speak negatively about the experience, I think it’s telling that she eagerly took the chance to sign a traditional publishing deal.

Self-publishing: it’s a lot of effort. And I can’t help wondering if, especially if you’re only just setting out, that effort would be better spent on honing your craft, and then trying for a traditional deal with a more polished book. Because, let’s be honest, while I’ve met many people who are enthusiastic about self-publishing from the writer’s point of view, from the readers’ perspective… not so much. Indeed, I’ve heard several people say they avoid reading self-pubbed books because most of them are simply not very professionally edited and put together.

So my general advice for other aspiring writers is: if you really want to self-publish, by all means go for it, and be prepared to put in the work. But try not to be too impatient: putting your book ‘out there’ before it’s really ready won’t achieve much. For myself, I’m continuing to try to make myself the best writer I can be.


Writing and Motherhood

For the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to be able to dedicate myself to writing full time, and a great time it’s been too. Now, however, I’ve moved on from the full-time writer phase of my life to a new phase: full-time mummy. My beautiful baby boy is six months old, and, at the time when many new mums are returning to the office after maternity leave, I’m about to do my own version of going back to work: I’m teaching some courses on creative writing at Quad Derby. One has now sold out; tickets for the other are available here.

I’ve been squeezing the preparation for these courses in whenever I can, making the most of baby naps and willing grandparents to provide time for my own projects. In some ways this is difficult: never knowing exactly how long I have until my bundle of joy wakes up and demands my attention, never quite feeling like I can just kick back and relax because I know that book isn’t going to write itself.

But in other ways it’s a luxury, and one I’m very lucky to have. I don’t have to make stark choices about my career and child care options in a world which still isn’t really set up to accommodate mothers with jobs outside the home, and which can feel judgemental either way. As for the writing itself, having limited time can focus the mind. You don’t procrastinate when you know the next chorus of The Wheels on the Bus is just around the corner. Much.

Fandom or Fan Dumb?

First up, Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 make all your dreams come true. Except for the weird naked ones. (Unless you want them to…)

Second up, in February I’m teaching my first courses since I became a mama. I’ll be teaching folks at Quad in Derby how to write SF, horror, and fantasy, and how to create fantastic plots and characters. Tell your friends!

Third up, I’d like to share with y’all a few thoughts I’ve had lately about the topic of fandom. There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about fan entitlement, and fans’ attempts to change things they don’t like. The latest iteration of this is the petition by some Star Wars fans to try and get The Last Jedi movie excommunicated from the canon of the Star Wars universe because they didn’t like what the film did with Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, many Harry Potter fans were vocally annoyed about the failure of Magic in North America to address crucial aspects of American history, and – more recently – about the continued presence of Johnny Depp in the Fantastic Beasts franchise.

These attempts to change things about beloved franchises can sometimes seem misguided – the originator of the Star Wars petition has now backtracked on the idea. But they show the depth of passion people feel about their favourite things, and if that’s sometimes uncomfortable for the creator, so be it.

Independently of all this, I was recently involved in a discussion on the Fantasy Faction Facebook group on the topic of fanfiction. Some people were pro, some anti, but what struck me most was the number of people who said something like ‘fanfic is fine so long as you don’t make the characters gay. If I wanted Character X to be gay, I’d have written him like that in the first place’. Which, well, anyone who knows anything about fanfic will tell you that making the characters gay is frequently the entire point of the exercise (see my own previous comments on the topic). And also, I feel these authors are deluded if they think they can control what fans do with their characters.

Once a book, or a movie, or whatever, is out in the world, then you as the creator to some extent lose control of it. We have copyright laws which mean people can’t just rip it off, but you can’t really predict or govern fans’ reactions. They might love it, they might hate it so much they start a petition to have it wiped from the face of the earth, they might decide it’s great but would be that *little* bit better if Harry ended up with Draco instead.
Various authors have tried in the past to exert a greater measure of control over their works’ reception, probably most famously Anne Rice, who has expended a great deal of effort trying to put a stop to fanfic of her Vampire Chronicles series (incidentally, there are currently 757 VC fanworks on Archive of Our Own, most of them gay). She also responded to poor reviews of one her books by posting a long rant on Amazon. Needless to say, this didn’t endear her to many.

My take on all this is simple: I would love it if people felt passionately about something I’d written. Maybe I wouldn’t agree with the direction of their passion, but hey, it’s their passion. Creators can start the fire – they can’t stop it spreading.

Goodness over Genius

Welcome to (probably) my last blog post of 2017. As we move into the dying days of the year, it seems to be the season of the sexual assault allegation. Many celebrities have fallen from grace as a result, and while I don’t know of any authors who’ve been caught up this time round, I’ve seen debate reignite online about the controversial behaviour and opinions of writers such as Marion Zimmer Bradley (child molester), HP Lovecraft (appalling racist), and Orson Scott Card (outspoken homophobe).

The debate is multi-layered, covering such questions as: Are reprehensible acts morally equivalent to repellent views? Do an author’s acts and/or views necessarily ‘bleed into’ their work or can you separate them? Does it make a difference if the author is long dead and no longer profiting from their work? Do you have a moral duty to avoid works by people you find unpalatable, or do you indeed have a duty to read the seminal works in your chosen genre however unpalatable you find the authors? Does being a genius mean you can transcend the normal bounds of human morality?

These aren’t questions I can answer. Everyone needs to make up their own mind whether or not they will read books by authors they personally dislike, and what – if anything – would cause them to make an exception.

But, for what it’s worth, here are my hot takes on the matter:
Firstly, being a good writer (or a good anything else) doesn’t exempt you from the requirement to be a good human. Nothing does. So far as I’m concerned, if you’re a garbage human, I don’t care how many awesome books you’ve written, you can go take a garbage scow out to the middle of the ocean and live on that giant island made of garbage.

Secondly, from what I can see, talent is cheap. There are hundreds – if not thousands – of unknown people out there who can write (or sing, or act, or play football, or whatever) just as well as the people who’ve become successful. They haven’t made it not because they’re not good enough, but because they were born in the wrong place, or time, or body, or because they’ve been discouraged by the actions of others. If all the talented-but-awful people were to disappear all of a sudden, then there are plenty of others waiting in the wings. I doubt we’d see much of a dip in quality, even a temporary one. We might even see an improvement if overbearing and/or predatory people were no longer in positions of influence, scaring off the good at heart. And I for one would rather we had art made by good people than by bad people.

Of course, maybe someone in the future will decide that they find me unpalatable and want to stay away anything I’ve had my hand in. Which, hey, will be fully within their rights as a reader.

Piracy and Heresy 

Several people I know recently shared this article about ebook piracy. The basic argument, as made by fantasy writer Maggie Stiefvater, is that you shouldn’t pirate books because it jeapardises authors’ livelihoods and hence ability to keep writing. She makes the point that her own Raven Cycle of novels nearly came to a premature end because of piracy affecting sales.

The argument boils down to this: if you like something, you should pay for it, so you can get more of it.

Now as an aspiring author I’m hardly going to argue in favour of piracy. I am, however, going to commit heresy. Because I don’t actually find this argument that persuasive.

Why not? For two reasons. Firstly, because the stuff-for-free genie is already out of the bottle. There is now so much writing available online for free – even without pirated ebooks, there is loads of fanfic, and loads of self-published writers who’d rather give away their writing than keep it in a desk drawer – that many readers have simply become used to getting stuff they like without having to pay for it. And secondly, because paying for an author’s books doesn’t always mean you get more of them.

Look at fantasy writers George RR Martin, Scott Lynch, and Patrick Rothfuss, and litfic writer Hilary Mantel. What they all have in common is that they’re currently disappointing their fans by failing to produce the promised next instalments in their respective book series. I don’t want to throw these authors under the proverbial bus – I’m sure there are good reasons for the delays – but the fact remains that paying money for books is not a guarantee that the author will write another one.

Here comes the heresy (brace yourself!). If writing really is a business and not a hobby, then shouldn’t writers be obliged to fulfill their end of the bargain? And if for some reason they can’t do it themselves, shouldn’t they subcontract to get the work done on time?

What!? Subcontract the creation of a novel!? How can I suggest such a thing? Well, it seems to work for James Patterson. And yes, I know many people are sniffy about the quality of his thrillers, but he keeps his readers happy. And his publishers. And his bank manager.

Collaborative works don’t have to be low-quality. One of my favourite books I’ve read this year, The Medusa Chronicles, is a collaboration between Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds, based on a novella by Arthur C. Clarke. And let’s not forget that Brandon Sanderson finished off the Wheel of Time book series after original author Robert Jordan failed to complete it before he died. I’m sure Wheel of Time fans are happier with that outcome than with being left hanging. Co-writing books with more established authors can be a way for young unknown writers to learn their craft and build a reputation, as well as for the established writers to expand their own brand. (Yes, I said brand. I can feel the shudders). Collaboration is so common in the world of TV and film script-writing that it’s amazing it’s not more prevalent in the world of books. And fanfic is now so widely accepted I’m expecting to see more and more of it published under licence.

I know, I know, this is all highly heretical. But let’s be honest, authors and publishers need to do something to combat the threat of piracy, and unlike musicians, they can’t really rely on live tours to make ends meet. Whether the future holds more collaboration and licensed fanfic, more Kickstarter-and-Patreon funded books, fewer writers making any money at all, or all of the above, the times they are a-changin’.

The Gift of Giving Up

Last year, I read 100 books. This year, I’m well on my way to repeating that, with my official Goodreads counter sitting at 92 as of November 4th.

However, I have recently had a rash of giving up on books before reaching the end, which has slowed my reading rate. This has made me wonder: do I have issues with my stamina and my attention span? Should I be less of a quitter and stick it out even when I’m not really enjoying a book?

Intrigued as to what others thought, I fired questions at both the Fantasy Faction group on Facebook, and the Sword & Laser discussion group on Goodreads, to find what other people thought about giving up. I rapidly got back a whole load of responses (thanks, guys!). My favourite response on Facebook was from one Miguel Angel Martinez, who memorably said: “Never give up, never surrender! No matter how much of a slow ride to Hell it may be. I am 200 pages into the *last* Sword of Truth book and have been there for two years! But I am going to finish it, g’damn it, even if it costs me what’s left of my sanity.” Most others, however, were of the opinion that, while they didn’t like to give up on a book, they would do if it annoyed them enough. There was also some discussion about whether how much you’ve paid for a book does or should make a difference – Michael Rowe said that he likes to get his money’s worth by finishing everything he’s paid for. Not everyone agreed with his assessment of what constitutes getting one’s money’s worth.

Over at the Sword & Laser, as Brendan pointed out, there’s something of a culture of celebrating giving up on books – there’s even a cutesy name for it (to Lem a book, after the Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem). One thing I found interesting was the relationship between how picky you are in choosing your reads, and how likely you are to ‘Lem’ something. Colin said he almost never gave up on books and commented ‘Maybe this means I’m not daring enough in my selections’, while others said that doing extensive research before starting a book meant they rarely left something unfinished.

The consensus on both sites was, that since life is already far too short to read all the books you want to read, it’s not worth carrying on with something you hate.

As for me… well, I tend to read just about anything that comes to my attention without bothering with a lot of pre-read research, and I try not to play it safe with my selections. Inevitably, this means that I’m not going to enjoy everything I read. I do often feel slightly guilty about giving up on something, especially if it’s by an author I usually like and/or want to support. Recently, for instance, I had to give up on Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, despite having enjoyed the previous books by her I’d read (including the prequel novella The Book of Phoenix). Frankly, I found the relentless violence against women (rape, genital mutilation, more rape) hard to stomach. I tried to continue, telling myself that it’s based on recent real-life events in Sudan and that such stories are important, but it was just too much for me, and so I noped out.

My latest Lem was A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. At first I liked the Oxford setting, but once I’d got beyond the ‘I’ve sat in that library! I’ve drunk beer in that pub!’ I realised it was Another Sexy Vampire story – not a subgenre I find interesting. Having given up on it, I felt vaguely guilty – but then I started reading Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, a book I absolutely loved from beginning to end. And then I felt thoroughly vindicated.

That’s the thing about giving up on a book you’re not enjoying. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a gift to yourself – of more time to read something you *do* enjoy. And isn’t time to read a good book the most precious gift you can have?

Writing Mistakes

Writers are, contrary to what you may have heard, only human. As such, we make mistakes. I know I’ve made plenty, and I’m trying to learn from them so I won’t make the same ones again – instead, I’m progressing to exciting new mistakes.
In the hopes that some others may learn from my experience, here’s my personal selection of Writing Mistakes:

0) Not writing.
Writing is so fundamental to being a writer that it might sound stupid to even mention it. And yet. There have been times in my life when I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about writing, reading about writing, going to workshops about writing, but not actually writing. Needless to say, the only way to be a writer is to write. Which leads me on to…

1) Being too fussy about when you’ll write.
It’s great to sit down in your favourite spot at a convenient time, with a cup of your favourite beverage, feeling relaxed and inspired and ready to create. The only problem with this picture is that – as I’ve previously found – if you only ever write when time and circumstances and mood are all in perfect alignment, you tend not to write very much. Getting a serious amount done requires a more serious commitment, even if not everything is perfect. In fact, not having everything perfect can actually help avoid that constant curse of the writer, procrastination. If you don’t have much time or you don’t feel quite comfortable or you have a slight headache, that can help you focus on getting the most important stuff done as quickly as possible.

2) Having too many projects.
Starting a writing project is easy. Finishing it – once the first flush of happy inspiration has faded – is hard. There’s a temptation to put a project to one side, and start a new one. Now, having more than one thing on the go at once isn’t necessarily a problem – in fact it can be very helpful to keep thing fresh – but if you end up (like me a few years ago) with loads of first-chapters and no finished novels, then it might be time to focus on one thing until it’s done.

3) Taking too long on one project.
I’ve also made the opposite mistake: spending years perfecting one thing. A perfect novel is great, but if you’re at all interested in progressing as a writer, four not-quite perfect novels are much better. Like any other work of art, they are never quite finished: at some point, you simply need to stop working on them.

4) Not knowing anything about the marketplace
This was an interesting mistake, inasmuch as I made it consciously and deliberately because I wanted to concentrate purely on creativity until I’d finished my first novel. Which was fine, but combined with the other mistakes above, meant that it took me a very long time to get anywhere approaching a breakthrough.
If you’re writing purely for your own amusement, then it doesn’t matter how wacky and unsellable the results are. And if you’re too obsessed with trying to write ‘to the market’ then it’s likely your writing will lack originality and spark. However, if you want your writing to have a fighting chance of getting somewhere once you’ve finished it, it’s a good idea to have at least a vague idea of what the marketplace looks like and where your work might fit into it, before you get stuck in.

Does anyone have their own writing mistakes they’d like to share?