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.

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 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.

The joys of being unpublished

On Wednesday this week, after more than four years’ work on my novel ‘The Heartland of the Winter’, I finally clicked ‘send’ on an email submission to a literary agent. I’ve just taken my first step on the road signposted ‘publication’. It’s certainly a long and winding road, and it’s probably also poorly-lit and potholed. And the destination at the end of it might not be quite what I had in mind. But hey, you’ve got to set off sometime if you’re ever going to get there.

So what comes next? Well, I’ve taken the decision not to worry about that too much right now. Instead I’m going to take a well-deserved break, and enjoy being unpublished.

What’s that? Enjoy being unpublished? Surely being published is so much better? You get recognition for all your hard work, and of course payment. If you get enough payment then you can quit your day job and do nothing but sit around the house all day in your dressing gown drinking tea (or gin) and dreaming up imaginary people and their imaginary problems. Brilliant.

Well, maybe. But that’s all very much in the future, and instead of wasting time in daydreams, it’s better to enjoy the here and now. And in the here and now are the manifold but sadly oft-neglected pleasures of being an unpublished writer. To whit: you can write whatever you like, whenever you like, without worrying about whether there’s a market for it or not. You can write the most lurid fan fiction about Spike and Jack Harkness doing unspeakable things with that guy from accounts* without fear of being sued for copyright violation, libel, or indecency. You can come home from work, pour out your feelings and vent your frustrations without concern that you are exposing too much of your inner life to the public gaze. You can write in whatever genre and style takes your fancy – romance one day, gothic horror the next, medieval murder mystery the day after that. Short stories, flash fiction, doorstopper epics – all are within your remit.

Best of all, writing is always a pleasure, never work. Admittedly it’s a pleasure you sometimes have to force yourself to indulge in – rather like that run you know will make you feel great once you actually get off your bum and do it – but a pleasure nonetheless. With no agent, publisher and rabid fans clamouring for the next instalment, you can indulge yourself in flights of fancy which provide a delicious escape from everyday life. Once you get published, writing becomes your everyday life, and you’ll have to think of some other form of escape.

Does all this mean I don’t actually want to get published? Of course not. I’d love to see my work in a bookshop window. But with the future uncertain, I’m going to make the most of things the way they are, for as long as they stay that way.


*disclaimer: I have never written anything remotely matching this description. But if you have, I’m not judging.