The best things in life are free?

I’ve been on holiday with my husband this week, staying at a cottage with no wi-fi in a remote corner of the Lake District. This experience has certainly taught me a lesson about what I truly find most valuable in life – ie, a decent wi-fi connection.

It’s annoying enough not being able to check Facebook or the weather forecast – or the tide-tables if you want to go bouldering at St Bee’s – but what especially got on my nerves was BlinkBox. Before departure, I’d downloaded a few things – the movie Interstellar and some episodes of Supernatural – thinking we’d be able to watch them offline. But when I settled in to see what oogly-boogly Sam and Dean have to deal with this time, the file refused to play unless it could access the appropriate media licence. Which it could only get via the BlinkBox website. Which I couldn’t get on, because no sodding wi-fi. Whaaat?! Dick move, BlinkBox. These were files I had paid for, files I had downloaded under the mistaken impression that I somehow owned them and would be allowed to watch them on my own laptop without any further trouble. Wrong! Stupid Digital Rights Management. I’ll bet you don’t have problems like this if you just PIRATE stuff.

Which brings me on to writing. While DRM is imho definitely evil – punishing as it does only those who have actually paid for things – many creators are understandably concerned about piracy, and that doing away with controls is just an invitation for everyone to help themselves to your intellectual property. On the flip side, an awful lot of writers have embraced the possibilities of the internet age to connect with readers directly, via digital self-publishing and websites such as Wattpad, which allows readers to comment on books and even help edit them as they are written. The problem with most of this stuff is that you don’t get paid for it, which I guess makes it a form of voluntary self-piracy. I’ve heard older writers – and the Society of Authors – complain that too many people giving their writing away for free has lowered prices for everyone and made it harder for writers to make a living. While I’m sure this is true, it also reminds me irresistibly of the case study in Superfreakonomics about prostitution in Chicago, which found that prices for sexual services had dropped dramatically over time as more and more women were prepared to sleep with their boyfriends without getting rings on their fingers first. Like the Chicago ladies of negotiable affection, professional writers can moan all they want about being undercut by the amateurs, but you can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle: everyone’s having too much fun.

And there are cases which show that it’s possible, if enough people like your writing, to monetise the giving-it-away-for-free model; bloggers and fan fic writers who’ve scored publishing deals, authors who’ve launched books via Kickstarter. My current obsession, the surreal comedy-horror podcast Welcome to Night Vale, is a good example: it’s available to download entirely for free, but they make cash via PayPal donations, live shows, and merchandise sales. Plus they’re bringing a book out later this year – the kind you have to pay for. Unless you pirate it, I guess, but don’t do that.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I suppose I sit in an interesting position; on the one hand, I’m trying to get a traditional publishing deal complete with actual, you know, money, and I’m certainly not about to post the full text of my novels online for anyone to download for free. On the other hand, I am writing these words on a blog, and I sure ain’t getting paid for them. I’m a firm believer in the right of writers to be remunerated for their work: and if you’re not prepared to pay for something, you have to be prepared to be given whatever people are prepared to provide for nothing. But there’s also something quite comforting in the thought that, if no publisher ever picks up my work, that’s not necessarily the end of the story.

Postscript: fear not, dear readers, I did eventually manage to jerry-rig an internet connection via my phone’s spotty 3G signal, and I got my fix of the Winchester brothers. But I’m never staying at a cottage without wi-fi again, that’s for sure.

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Questions and Authors

Writing is a bit of a lonely vocation, consisting as it does mainly of sitting at my computer, on my own, typing out whatever comes into my head. But I still occasionally get invited to events where I have to interact with other humans, practising my rusty social skills. When I mention I’m now a full-time writer, I get a variety of responses, some of them leading to better conversational results than others. Here’s a brief selection:

‘Have you thought about self-publishing?’

There’s been a lot of publicity around self-publishing recently, so it’s natural that many people ask me about this. The short answer is no. Sadly, I’m not very good at giving the short answer, so I find myself going into long and involved conversations about the publishing business and the rights and wrongs of Amazon while my companion’s eyes glaze over and they start wishing they’d asked about holiday plans instead.

‘Oh aye, 50 shades of Ruth is it?’

Certain people, when told I’m a writer, leap to the conclusion that I must be writing smut, presumably typing one-handed. Telling them that I actually write fantasy doesn’t seem to help, nor does telling them that I can touch-type with two hands. Sorry to disappoint, but no, I am not currently planning to make a living from writing erotica. But hey, if you’ve got a paid commission in mind…

‘I always wanted to write a book, but I’ve never got round to it.’

I appreciate this is an attempt to find common ground, but I’ll be honest, I find it difficult to answer. Am I supposed to say ‘Well get on with it then’? Or perhaps, ‘Funny, I always wanted to be a [insert other human’s job here], but I’ve never found the time’? I don’t know. Any advice welcome.

‘Gosh, you’re brave.’

I don’t really feel that brave to be following my dreams – mostly I just feel very lucky to have this opportunity. But hey, it’s always nice to be complimented. And I’ll just ignore any possible glint in the eye which suggests that by ‘brave’ is actually meant ‘foolish’ or ‘downright insane’.

‘Oh, you write fantasy, that’s great! I love fantasy.’

I love you too. I mean, er, not like that. I mean I love people who love fantasy, because they love me. No wait, that’s not what I meant either. I mean, er, so who’s your favourite writer? Phew, think I saved that one.

‘Have you got a publishing deal yet?’

A fair and reasonable question, and yet it always makes me smile. Trust me on this one, if the answer to that question is ever ‘yes’, you won’t need to ask me.

A Leap of Faith

You may remember previous mentions on this blog of developments which were taking their time to develop. Well, they’re finally finished (I nearly put an elaborate analogy here about photographs, chemical baths, and dark rooms until it occurred to me that nobody under the age of 25 would know what I was talking about). No, I haven’t got that 3-book deal, but I am taking a bold step towards becoming a proper writer – yes, I’m giving up the day job.

Why now? After all, I don’t yet have a publisher, nor any sort of income stream from writing, so I’m taking a leap of faith, hoping that things will work out so I’ll be able to write all day and still pay the bills. Well, there’s nothing like an extended period of sickness to give you a new perspective and make you re-evaluate your priorities. When you can barely move, being able to afford a ski holiday suddenly seems a whole lot less important. So when, shortly after getting back to work, my employer announced a programme of voluntary redundancy, something clicked. Maybe, I thought, it’s finally time to make a real proper go of this writing thing, and that severance payment will provide a crash mat.

And so, by this time next week, I’ll have left my career in project management behind, and devoted myself to my hobby instead. Right now, I’m about 1/3 excited, 1/3 terrified, and 1/3 still in denial. I’m ecstatic at the thought of not having to get up early in the morning, of being able to spend as much time as I like doing what I love, of being able to wear my pyjamas until 4pm if I want to, of being able to tell people ‘I’m a writer’ and for it to actually be true… but then, if publication remains elusive, perhaps ‘writer’ will be a less accurate description than ‘unemployed person’ or, seeing as we’ll be living off my husband’s salary, ‘housewife’.

It might not work out. I might never become a ‘proper’ writer with books in the shops and royalties in my bank account. But I figure it’s worth a try. I’m allowing myself a couple of years to give it my best shot (health permitting) – even if I get nowhere near publication, I should be able to write one, two, or even three books in half the space of time The Heartland of the Winter took, so I’ll have something to (I hope!) be proud of. And, in the somewhat morbid words of one my former colleagues when I told him about my decision, ‘You should do what you want to do. After all, you’re a long time staring at the wood.’

At the crossroads

It’s been almost a year since I secured a literary agent, taking an important step on the road to publication, and I now find myself in an interesting situation. My first novel, The Heartland of the Winter, a coming-of-age tale set in a fantasy land with a harsh climate, has been doing the rounds since last July. It has attracted some positive comment, but sadly the publishing contract and cheque for that five-figure advance seem to have got lost in the post. Oh well. So it looks like I’ll need to write another book before those royalties start rolling in. This writing gig is starting to seem a lot like hard work.

What should my second novel be? When Heartland went off on submission, I had to decide what to do: get cracking immediately on the sequel and give myself a headstart on that trilogy, or try the ‘and now for something completely different’ approach. Of course, if the first book doesn’t sell, nobody’ll want the second, so rather than risk doing work on a project that would then end up on the scrapheap, I went for the latter option and started writing Forever 27 – a tale of sex and death and drugs and magic and rock n’ roll, inspired by the 27 Club of prematurely deceased musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. But then there were some problems with the plot, and by the time I’d ironed all those out, I was struck down with ill health, unable to write any significant amount, and the project ran out of steam. So the short answer to the question ‘what are you working on at the moment?’ is ‘nothing’. Now my health is in the process of recovery, and I’m faced with another decision: do I pick up Forever 27 again, or would one of my other ideas be a better bet?

 

Well, I think I’d quite like to finish writing Forever 27, but then there are also other considerations. I wrote The Heartland of the Winter – quite consciously and deliberately – without any concern for the eventual market whatsoever, and I’ve written here previously about the joys of being unpublished https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/the-joys-of-being-unpublished/. But now I’m at the stage where I’m thinking I would actually really quite like to experience the joys of being published, for a change. So, the short answer to the question, ‘what do you want to write?’ is ‘whatever is most likely to get me that 3-book deal’. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Nobody wants to work speculatively for a year, however much passion you have for the project. But if you try to write something purely for the marketplace, your lack of genuine enthusiasm will probably show through in the finished product, and you could well be left with something that won’t sell and which you didn’t even enjoy writing.

 

The good news is that there’s no shortage of ideas, of possible books I want to write – some I’m keener on than others, of course, but then, concentrating on one project doesn’t mean you can’t have something else on the back burner. So my latest work has been to collate my hopelessly disorganised mass of ideas into a semi-coherent list, ranging in level of detail from ‘I have a six-page outline, 3 chapters in first draft, a character list, loads of background, and a bunch of stuff I wrote in a sleep-deprived haze for NaNoWriMo 2011’ to ‘well, I had this nightmare…’ And now I’m awaiting a steer on which one to pick. I don’t yet know whether that steer will come from my agent, a publisher, my own feelings, or possibly a roll of the dice, but in any case, I’m hoping to get going within the next month or so.

It’s nearly the end of another year, and time for a few reflections before I have to start panicking about hosting Christmas next week (Can I possibly cope with making bread sauce? Especially when bread never lasts for long enough in our house to actually go stale? Will 12 bottles of wine be enough? For four of us for two days? When one of us doesn’t really drink? Maybe I should go and get more?).
Well, if 2012 was a transformation, and a vintage year, 2013 can perhaps be best described as ‘mixed’. In the winter, I moved to a four day week at the day job. In the spring, I lost my beloved Nan. In the summer, I finished one book, The Heartland of the Winter, secured an agent, and started another book, Forever 27. And in the autumn, I strained my back so badly that I’ve been essentially out of action for seven weeks and counting. Out of my creative writing and my husband’s rock climbing, who’d have thought my hobby would turn out to be the more dangerous?
Overall, I’m not sure I’m going to be looking back at 2013 with great fondness, but it hasn’t been a total annus horribilis. The last couple of months have been painful and a bit surreal at times, but it’s at least been a chance to rest and reconsider, and I’m trying to take away a few lessons. Bittersweet lessons about the important things in life, about the need to be patient and enjoy things for what they are, as they come. And harder lessons about the need to make choices, to prioritise the things which are really necessary, work hard at what matters, and accept that sometimes, you have to let go. To quote the Rolling Stones: no you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need. This can perhaps be summarised by my reaction to my injury: at first I wanted to just let it get better by itself, without actually doing anything to help it. Then I tried throwing money at the problem: massages, chiropractor, private yoga tuition. But then all these people I was paying to make me better told me that, in this instance, I have to heal myself. Exercise, posture, breathing technique, not overdoing it, all that stuff. Boring, maybe, but necessary.

And so another year will shortly begin. What does 2014 hold in store? A publishing deal is too much to expect, but not too much to hope for. Completion of my second novel, Forever 27, should be within my power. And also, perhaps, some refocusing, a bit more yoga and a bit less time slumped over a hot computer.

I’ll leave you with some half-baked homilies, fresh from the same oven I used to bake the loaf of success in a previous blog post. If you have to do something, do it with a smile. If you don’t have to do something, don’t feel bad about not doing it. All things in moderation, including moderation. Enjoy the good things, and remember, you don’t need to leave room for dessert, because you have a separate stomach for that.
Anyway, a merry Christmas to all, and a happy and productive 2014.

Flash blog – exciting news!

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had some exciting news brewing – and now that I’ve signed on the dotted line and it’s all confirmed, I can share it with the world. I am very, VERY happy to say that I am now represented by a literary agent – specifically, Meg Davis of Ki Agency.

I first met Meg at the Swanwick writers’ summer school in August 2012, nearly a year ago. I had signed up for a one-to-one session with her at the cost of £20 – which, it turns out, was perhaps the best-spent £20 of my life so far. To my surprise and delight, she really liked the first three chapters of my fantasy novel The Heartland of the Winter – and asked me to send her the rest. Of course, as previously chronicled here – https://ruthdehaas.wordpress.com/2013/01/24/the-heartland-of-the-winter-final-draft-version-2/ – the book needed quite a lot more work before it was ready to go anywhere near the light of day, and Meg’s advice helped me get it into shape. Then, a few weeks ago, I sent her the finished version -THoTW 2.0 (now with 10% more plot!). And the rest is history. Or rather, a lot of time spent trying to get my head around a) some scary-looking contractual language; and b) the concept that my book – MY BOOK – could soon be sitting in the inbox of an actual editor, at an actual publisher, together with a letter from an actual agent telling her it’s actually worth reading. Gosh.

I’ve been having a pretty manic time lately with both work and non-work, so I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet. Life goes on much as before, with the difference that I get a big grin on my face whenever I remember that I’ve got that little bit closer to my dream. Of course there are no guarantees of anything: securing an agent does not necessarily mean I’ll go on to secure a publisher. But it’s a step in the right direction. A big step.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has helped me reach this point – I certainly couldn’t have managed to finish the book without all your advice, encouragement, support, beta-reading, proof-reading and the occasional cup of tea.