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’.

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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?

‘But editing,’ she hissed.

Last month I reported I’d finished the first draft of my new novel, working title In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea, and was letting it ferment for a week or so before cracking on with editing it.

I’m now stuck well into the editing process, trying to get it finished before my baby bump grows so big I can’t reach my keyboard. Ideally, I’ll have it finished by the end of June, and then give myself six months of maternity leave. Of course, things don’t always go quite to plan, so come September I might be trying to type re-writes with one hand while holding a screaming baby in the other.

One thing I’ve noticed when I discuss editing is that not everyone has a very firm grasp of what it involves – many people assume it’s simply a hunt-and-destroy for typos. That’s actually proofreading, a separate process which comes later.

So if editing isn’t looking for typos, what is it then? Well, the way I think of it is as a three-part process, each part of which involves making a pass over the manuscript and examining it in a greater or lesser level of detail.

The first pass is to check for basic consistency, pacing, and structure. Are there any plot holes? Do the characters’ motivations make sense? Does it have a ‘saggy middle’ where the story meanders around without much direction? Are there too many sub-plots? Or, as I’ve found this time round, are we spending too long with one character’s point-of-view and neglecting what’s happening to the protagonist? It’s at this stage that you might decide to make big changes like changing the order of the chapters or cutting out a big chunk of text.

The second pass is what I think of as the continuity-error search. In the movies, continuity errors are things like a character’s outfit mysteriously changing when they walk through a door, or objects on a table disappearing between shots. With books, you don’t have to worry about every tiny detail in quite the same way – but you do need to make sure that, if you’ve described a character as finding a knife in one scene, you don’t then have a later scene where the knife has gone missing without any explanation.

The third pass is the line edit – this is when you get really down-and-dirty with the details of your word choices, and tinker with your sentences to make them flow better. It’s here that you discover things like an over-excessive use of the word ‘but’ (but I need to use it every other sentence! It’s such a useful word!) or that you’ve described characters as ‘hissing’ lines of dialogue which contain no sibilants. You’re smoothing out the edges of the sculpture, if you want to think of it that way. And yes, if you spot any typos, by all means correct them.

I don’t expect all writers to agree with my three-pass editing structure – in fact, I’m sure each writer will have their own personal approach, and that’s as it should be. But (that word again!) every book is going to need structural and language checks at some point if it’s going to make sense and read well. And of course, once you’ve done all that, then you hand it over to your agent/editor/beta reader to see what they think, and keep your fingers crossed they don’t find too many serious problems…

Fantastic Fiction?

I’ve finished the first draft of my new novel, tentatively entitled In the Land Newly Risen from the Sea (I have developed a thing for titles being in iambic pentameter) and I’m currently letting it ferment for a week or so while I get on with some long-neglected real-life tasks. It’s another fantasy novel, and I thought I’d reflect a little on my choice of genre.

Fantasy fiction has become increasingly popular and mainstream in recent years, but it still suffers from a certain lack of understanding in the wider world. For every person who reacts with enthusiasm when I tell them I write fantasy, there are at least two people whose reactions are a bit more… puzzled. Some people assume that fantasy always involves erotic content, while others assume it’s always for children. One guy (I don’t know if he was joking or not) said ‘Fantasy – what, like Mills and Boon?’.

Um, no.

Besides being a frequently misunderstood genre, fantasy also gets unfairly maligned by literary snobs who consider it ‘trashy’ or ‘silly’. I’ve seen some fantasy fans respond to such criticisms by carping that all literary novels are tedious exercises in self-indulgent wish-fulfilment by middle-aged English professors with inappropriate sexual urges who write books about middle-aged English professors who have affairs with their students. Personally, I’ve never read a book like that, but I have read a lot of fabulously well-written and emotionally engaging fantasy books, so if anyone wants to have an argument about the respective merits of fantasy and litfic, I’d suggest sharing recommended reading lists first.

As for the criticism that fantasy is not good because it’s not ‘real’… well, neither is any other work of fiction. Any given novel is about imaginary people doing imaginary things, so why not stretch your imagination a bit further and have them doing awesome things like riding dragons, instead of boring things like drinking cups of tea on rainy afternoons? Why should the mundane be considered superior to the fantastic?

The fact is, I love reading fantasy, and I love writing fantasy, and so I’m sticking with it for at least the time being. I love the freedom it offers to create magical worlds where anything can happen, and the sense of wonder and excitement it can generate when done well. Sure, not everyone ‘gets’ it, but then there’s no such thing as a book that will please all readers, and the first person I need to please is myself. And then hope enough other people will like it too…

Crazy Crazy Golf

Today, caught out in the rain at the Quad cinema in Derby, I played a round of crazy golf with a difference. It was indoors for starters – inside the art gallery space at the back of the cinema. And each hole was designed as an interactive work of art, enabling you to putt your ball around the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, into the mouth of a kneeling man (who then pooped it out again) or through a maze of walls and barbed wire representing an armed border crossing. It was a diverting enough way to spend half an hour on a rainy afternoon, but the intention wasn’t just to be fun, but to make you think about the issues each hole presented – about police brutality, the environmental impact of cruise ships, and so forth.

The problem I found was that the accompanying labels for each hole were just a little bit too didactic, a little bit too telling me what to think rather than just telling me to think. Do football games between African and European teams represent the nexus of colonial exploitation and post-colonial struggle? Well, maybe, but while I’m nudging my golf ball around a mushroom-cloud shaped heap of miniature footballs covered in batik fabric, perhaps I’d prefer to make up my own mind about the symbolism.

Not your usual view from the tee

Not your usual view from the tee

I’ve argued before on this blog that all constructed narratives, even supposedly escapist fantasy novels, are inherently political. Visual art arguably has the prerogative to be apolitical if it wants to, to be pretty pictures and nothing more, and yet I’ve frequently found that, as today, art galleries are keen to spoon-feed us the Political Messages behind their displays, usually some variant on post-Marxism. Now I’m an incorrigible old leftie but I find these messages irritating, and I doubt anyone with differing views is going to be persuaded. Books with a similar lack of subtlety – the one I’ve read most recently being Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, a piece of right-wing militaristic propaganda thinly disguised as science fiction – leave me similarly unimpressed.

Better, I think, simply to present a compelling story, or an interesting piece of art, and let people explore it in their own ways and come to their own conclusions. The problem with this approach, of course, is that they might come to the wrong conclusions. They might decide that, for example, your supposedly anti-war film actually makes war look really awesome, and where’s the nearest recruiting station? (Director François Truffaut famously observed that it’s impossible to make a truly anti-war film.)

Well, maybe they will get hold of the wrong end of the proverbial. But that’s the risk you take when you put your art into the world. Death of the author and all that – just because you’re the creator, you don’t get to decide what your work means. And, if my reaction today is in any way typical, if you try to tell people what to think about it, they’ll just get annoyed.

Still, the crazy golf was fun.

The Fantasy of Greater Britain

Or, a fantasy writer’s view of the referendum.

This Thursday is the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, and frankly, I’m worried about it.
I’m worried that my country’s future is going to be thrown into at best uncertainty and at worst utter chaos by a Leave vote.

The Remain campaign seems to have most of the facts on its side – the certainties of trade agreements and science funding and freedom of travel and workers’ regulations and all that stuff. It has the support of major political parties and most public figures for whom I have any respect.

But the Leave campaign has something intangible – something whose power I can’t deny. A fantasy. Now I spend pretty much my whole life either weaving fantasies of my own or losing myself in those created by others, so I know how powerful fantasies are, how they tug at the emotions and pull on the power of dreams. To a certain extent, fantasies are necessary – we all want a dream to chase, an ideal to aspire to.

Fantasies become dangerous when they turn into a substitute for rationality. And that’s what this referendum campaign feels like – when it doesn’t feel like a lot of low-grade squabbling with a big dollop of racism. A fantasy of Greater Britain, an idea of us as a shining isle, splendid in our isolation, with a God-given right to rule the waves. A concept that Brits should be able to live and work and boss people around wherever in the world they like, but that we should be able to stop foreigners coming here. A dream of the sun never setting. The idea that, split apart from the rest of the continent, we’d somehow recapture our rightful place at the head table of world politics.

Oh, it’s an attractive fantasy, there’s no doubt about that. All the best fantasies are. What avid fantasy reader doesn’t dream of going to Hogwarts, of visiting Middle Earth or Narnia? Unfortunately, it doesn’t bear more than a tangential relationship with reality. We don’t have an empire any more. We’re not the Big Bad Boss of the world. We’re a modern, multi-cultural nation, deeply intertwined with the other nations of Europe (and elsewhere) in myriad ways – culturally, legally, politically, financially. Attempts to extricate ourselves from these bonds would be drawn out and painful, and what would be left at the end of it? A country magically transformed into a greater version of its former self? It doesn’t seem likely to me. It seems far more likely that such a process would only leave us diminished in search of a dream.

Fantasies are great. I can hardly claim otherwise. But not when they intrude into reality and consume common sense.

Do Stories Matter?

This blog post contains spoilers for the Captain America comics, and Game of Thrones (sort-of).

I’m having a busy year. I’ve finished the final draft of one book and the first draft of another. Today, I reached the 25,000 word mark on my latest work-in-progress, The Only Thing That Never Burns In Hell. It’s the story of a young woman who, desperate for a job and unable to find one anywhere else, ends up accepting a role as the Librarian of Hell. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual stuff – less epic fantasy, more urban fantasy, laced with satire and dark humour, and it’s been fun to write so far.

Writing stories can be fun, but it can also be frustrating, and I’m sometimes nagged by the question: does what I’m doing actually matter? Obviously, I enjoy it – but will it ever matter to anybody else? Well, I hope so. And, looking around the parts of the internet I frequent, I see that stories obviously matter a lot, to a lot of people.
The Marvel character Captain America, aka Steve Rogers, has had focus on him lately. After the release of the film Captain America: Civil War, there’s been a Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend (I have to confess I had a moment of confusion at that hashtag, until I remembered that apparently some people still think Steve and Bucky are Just Really Good Friends).

Marvel’s response to this was not to give Captain America a boyfriend, but to make him a Nazi. Yep, you read that right. The latest issue of the Captain America comic outs him as a member of Hydra – the fictional uber-Nazi evil cult he’s been fighting since the 1940s.

Some people are quite upset about this, and I can see why. Captain America, after all, is the brainchild of two Jewish creators and was punching Hitler in the face long before Pearl Harbor. Making him into a Nazi for some cheap shock-value publicity is therefore… insensitive. For many people, he’s not just a super-hero, he’s a hero they can identify with, and making him evil feels like a personal betrayal.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 - a year before the US entered WW2.

The very first Captain America comic, published in December 1940 – a year before the US entered WW2.

On a more positive note, and delving into the world of fantasy fiction, we’ve this week seen one of George RR Martin’s key reveals from A Song of Ice and Fire adapted onto television before the book has come out. Unlike the ‘shock’ twist described above, this plot development is both devastating and fully convincing within the story’s context. If you want to make a Game of Thrones fan cry, just sneak up behind them and yell ‘Hold the door!’

Stories can be incredibly powerful. They might not be real, but the emotions they rouse – whether rage, sorrow, joy, terror, or anything else – certainly are. As I weave my own tales, I can dream of one day rousing a fraction of these passions.