15Jun

A Year Later

So, about a year has passed since Nights of Villjamur hit the shelves in the UK, and it’s now about to be launched in the US. What a learning curve this year has been. This blog has gone from being a quiet little corner of the interweb, to a gobby mouthpiece with a good-sized audience. I’ve made some interesting observations along the way; so here they are, in a full stream-of-consciousness splurge (well, with paragraphs), and with a little advice for any new kids out there.

You can’t control reader response. Believe me, I wanted to at the start – I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the text, and that kind of carried on to when the novel was on the shelves. But once it’s out there, it’s out there. There’s nothing you can do about it. You cannot control the response of reviews or on forums, but the Internet tricks you into believing you can by letting you be a part of the community. In reality the best you can hope for is that your publicist has a good mailing list (mine has) and that you have a shit-hot book cover (I think mine has).

There is no such thing as a good book or a bad book, only what people say about a book – and this is all outside of our own heads, of course. I’m working on a bizarre theory about book culture and what is perceived as a good book, and it has something to do with having enough of the right kinds of people saying positive things. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that a book is just there, neither good nor bad, just there for interpretation. I don’t for a minute believe my books deserve any more attention/praise than another. (Edit: for clarity, the important thing to note is we’ll never find objective truths in a comments thread.)

It’s better to be talked about then not talked about. Every little discussion of your career, be it in hate or admiration, on forums or on blogs, will keep you afloat. Only when you’re not talked about is your career over. Every time someone moans about one of my blog posts, they send a few hits my way, and some of these new readers stay. (Best thing to kill a book? Silence it.)

Never reveal your age if you’re under thirty. I don’t get it, and in discussion with other youngish authors, this isn’t an uncommon trend – people rarely take you seriously when you’re an author in your twenties. It’s absurd that anyone under that age should have the right to be published. What were you thinking? Because it’s not as though you sacrificed years of your life to get where you are, youngster. Oh hang on.

Being compared to great authors brings out the freaks. In online debate, that is. If some newbie writer DARES to have their work compared to MY favourite author, then I WILL DESTROY THEM, is pretty much the style of response. I like to think upsetting a few people is a good thing, ultimately – it keeps the conversation going, at least, and shows that people care enough to complain, but many readers are hugely territorial over their favourite writers. I actually think a bad thing for me was when The Times made a vague Gene Wolfe comparison due to the dying earth thing – he has a very particular fanbase, and they expect that same dense writing style in any text that dares to receive such a comparison – in the 21st century marketplace, to have a career, that isn’t really possible. I’ve think I’ve disappointed more than a few readers after that.

Do not feed the trolls. Just don’t. Don’t get into flame wars. Don’t get into debates you can’t handle. There are more haters out there than there are of you. Following such debates, Joe Abercrombie once told me, brings only tiredness. He wasn’t wrong.

That said, a little controversy goes a long way. So long as a) you’ve got the chops to back it up and b) you don’t deliberately set out to insult people. Miraculously, internet debate can be a good thing, with pleasant exchanges. That particular exchange brought me several thousand extra hits for the month, and most of them seem to have stuck around.

Blogs are as important as the books, and authors are a brand. Just looking at these web stats, over 80% of searches are for my author name (frequently misspelt…) and only a small percentage are for book titles. That in itself deserves a full blog post. And in meatspace, so many people have complimented me on this blog – possibly as many as have commented on the books. I don’t know if they’ve read the books afterwards and, to be honest, that’s not actually important to me. Blogging is a fun, instantaneous activity. (Though it’s far from the notebook I originally wanted it to be. Maybe it will change in the future.)

You can’t complain about the industry to anyone other than another writer. Who cares about the fortunes of a poor published writer? Never mind that it takes a year to build something but just a few minutes to take it down to Chinatown. You can’t complain about that. And who’s going to understand such moaning? Certainly not people who would love to be poor published writers.

No matter what you do, someone will hate you. They’ll hate you for having a book out, being on the internet, looking like so-and-so, engaging in debate, not engaging in debate, whatever. And Lou Anders once told me that if no one hates your book, you’ve not got big enough distribution.

14Jun

Giveaway Winners

I’ve selected the winners of the giveaway. Now, ultimately, I thought the only criteria I could possibly use was the amount of creative/typing effort involved in responding. I love you all really. You know I do.

First up was:

SMD // Friday, June 11th, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Dear Mr. Newton,

I’m going to be totally honest about my response. I feel you deserve it. I’ve hidden this from the public, but that doesn’t make it any less true. In fact, it’s very true indeed.

Ten years ago I was diagnosed with a very rare disease called librania neuroitus, which is an affliction of the brain. The disease is so rare that I am the only person to have been diagnosed with it. The symptoms include an innate desire to eat the pages from books, which, I might add, is a terrible thing for a book lover like myself because now my entire library has been ruined and I’ve been forced to replenish my book coffers and store the new books in a special location that is not made immediately known to me. There are other symptoms, but I won’t bother you with them.

The last ten years have been a trying time, but I have used the time well. I have dedicated myself, in secret, to researching this disease in order to find a cure. And I have found it in the most unusual of places: your book.

Only through the arrival of a signed copy of your book, with an inscription wishing me well and possibly a doodle of an amoeba wearing a viking hat and carrying a silly looking sword, can I be cured of this affliction. I won’t bore you with the details of how I know this will work (you will, of course, find the irony of this whole situation rather humorous, as I have). Needless to say, I will be attempting to publish a five-hundred page book detailing my research entitled “The Great Book Disease: Finding the Cure For the Worst Disease In Human History” under the pseudonym Virgil G. Coddlefoot. I will furnish you with a copy of the final product as a fair exchange, if you so desire.

That is why I want a copy of your book, and I thank you kindly for the opportunity to finally acquire the cure for this terrible illness.

Thank you very much for your time.

Sincerely,
Shaun

P.S.: Everything written above is absolutely, 100% true. I cannot stress that enough. I would not make up such a ridiculous story to get a book. Never.

How could I resist such an entertaining and well-written entry? Second:

minusakidney // Saturday, June 12th, 2010 at 5:56 am

Ready for the guilt? I live in Saigon and a couple of weeks ago I had a motorbike accident: I ripped a chunk out of my knee – you could see right down through layers of flesh to the bone, it was disgusting – which required surgery so now I can’t really walk; I broke my collar bone which means my right arm has to be immobilised for a month in a huge arm immobiliser harness that is far too hot for this climate and my collar bone (oh, I regret not appreciating how pretty collar bones can be back when I had a nice straight pair) has healed crookedly with a big lump in the middle that isn’t at all attractive. Also I cracked a rib but I don’t have gory details for that one, it just hurts like hell.

I’m from Bradford so you shouldn’t feel too sorry for me being stuck with serious injuries in a developing country. I’ve been pretty au fait with hospitals, surgeries, needles, drains etc. since I had kidney failure a few years ago so I didn’t expect to miss my mum or anything. In fact, since coming out of hospital, I do miss my mum because mums, unlike well-meaning but socially far too active housemates, don’t get bored running round after you and forget to bring you food. It’s lunchtime; I’m hungry; I’m eating dry corn flakes out of the box.

That all this has no connection or relevance to you, your book, impending ice ages or Russell Brand with a sword is OK. It’s entirely acceptable for me to expect people I don’t know on the other side of the planet to feel my pain. I’m stuck in bed watching a Grey’s Anatomy boxset even though I discovered about a fifth of the way into the first episode that I don’t really like Grey’s Anatomy and reading old, free stuff on my ereader which I dislike (the ereader that is) to the point of feeling a bit of my soul die every time I turn a ‘page’. It’s better than having nothing to read, which is pretty much the alternative in Vietnam, but it’s so aesthetically unpleasing I would shamelessly try and guilt almost anybody out of a real physical copy of an actual book that I’d actually want to read. Did I mention it’s my birthday in two weeks?

Nat

P.S. I had to laboriously type this whole thing with just my left hand.
P.P.S. I am not left-handed.

It’s heartbreaking, no? And finally:

Anne Slettli // Friday, June 11th, 2010 at 10:10 am

Right.

This is quite simple, really. I work as a clerk in a very tiny bookstore specializing in fantasy/sci-fi books. Note the word “tiny”. Our coffee-machine is placed on the toilet as that’s the only free spot. Seriously.

I get all my books from my job though we seldom get pretty versions like the ones you’re so temptingly dangling in front of my nose. Especially not signed. NEVER signed.

And lets be honest, the odds of you arriving to the far north of Norway to sign books…it’s probably not very big, is it?

Did I also mention that I had to get my copy of Nights of Villjamur -used-? Yep. I did. We sold out really fast, had trouble getting more sent over, got fewer than we ordered and there was no end to the mess. My copy looks like it was chewed on by a crazed racoon and more importantly: it does not at ALL look nice when it stands side-by-side with City of Ruin.

Hopefully this heartbreaking story of a girl with an obsession for matching and pretty editions of books, who is drinking coffee made in a BATHROOM and sells your (and others, too!) books for a living will work.

I caved in on this one, because having my house redecorated, I know what it’s like to drink coffee in a bathroom.

I will be in touch with you all very soon!

13Jun

Good Hype, Bad Hype

There’s an interesting review, and discussion of hyped books here; of the review itself, I’ll say nothing, but it’s the comments section that has, naturally – thanks to Google ego search – got me interested.

As a critic, it raises my hackles and makes me feel a responsibility to cut through it. As a reader, I find it completely alienating. Simply put, I will never read anything by Mark Charan Newton simply because of the aggression with which he hypes himself.

Those of you with long internet memories will perhaps smile at the name attached to the comment.

But it is an interesting notion, isn’t it? All this talk of hype, and the sudden accusation that it’s the author’s aggression. Which, I think, is connected to deeper issues of approving an author’s relationship to the internet. Attached to some quixotic notion of writers and Bohemian cafés in Paris, and that it is below artistes to engage so dramatically with readers.

Perhaps it is a generation thing, even, though I don’t believe it’s that way for the most part. The fact remains today that if an author doesn’t engage with the community, he or she loses out – though to what extent remains uncertain. I’ve recently participated in a panel on this very subject of writers and their relationship with social media, and we couldn’t come to a conclusion on that point.

Another problem with the above comment is that it seems to ignore the fact that some authors are fans as well – some of us love the community, and I’ll be fucked if I’m drawing a line between me being a fan and a writer. It’s not mutually exclusive. The only difference between me being a writer and a fan, is luck.

In the book trade, there are two kinds of hype.

Good hype: this has always been a bottom-up kind of talk, word-of-mouth, whispers on the underground. This is the way the book trade has worked for decades in making books a success. It’s the internet forums and blogs that have been doing the hyping, and rightly so. Decentralised hype, if you will. Power to the people and all that jazz. Readers talk – and if a book is the centre of that conversation, then it’s one lucky author. Writers can do nothing about this kind of hype, and neither can publishers. Traditionally, it has always happened to them. It’s good because it causes discussion, gets people excited and, more importantly, is not influenced by corporations.

Writers can talk about themselves, of course, and link to some good reviews and kind words people have said. Neil Gaiman has been doing this wonderfully for years, and was a role model for authors who want to help publicise themselves. Is that aggression, or is that simply managing (clinging onto) one’s career? Anyone who understands just a little of the trade will understand, wholeheartedly, it’s the latter.

Bad hype: somewhere along the lines, publisher marketing blurbs started leaking into online expectations of a novel – naturally, publishers want to get reviewers excited about their books, so letters and emails from publicists begin to raise expectations, in the hope that reviewers relate this to their readership. It’s a fairly recent innovation to the blogosphere. Publishers are trying to seduce reviewers. They want you to shout about the books. In the old days, it would mean you got invited to parties and shared some cheap wine; but now it’s the freebies and sneak previews.

It’s marketing speak. Do not believe a word of it. Read the book and decide for yourself (which, incidentally, applies to the first type of hype).

But going back to the original comment – the most ironic thing of all, however, is the notion that’s so often true: it’s better to be talked about than not talked about. If no one talks about an author, the author is dead. All that such above moaning does, in forums or comments or wherever, is continue to spread the word of the very authors they wish to constrain, and provide us with blog fodder.

13Jun

Alt.Fiction

A very quick report on Alt.Fiction. A couple of hundred people gathered in Derby’s QUAD for one day of genre action, and this was not a leisurely convention by any means – the authors were worked very hard.

The good: this was the best Alt.Fiction to date. The bad: well, still essentially a good thing – for the first time, I was constantly being pulled in all directions to chat to various people. As a consequence, I didn’t get to speak to as many friends from the con circuit as I’d have liked. At a Worldcon or Eastercon you can arrange to chat at a more leisurely pace, but this was just one day. Despite that, I did manage to natter to the bloggers and reviewers who turned up, and also Cheryl Morgan, Lee Harris, Paul Cornell, Mark Chadbourn, Sarah Pinborough, John Berlyne, Conrad Williams, M. D. Lachlan, John Weir, Damien G. Walter, James from Speculative Horizons, and Mark Yon from SFF World. And I did meet new people (and fans – something I’m still not used to!) which is always lovely.

I did some panels and stuff, which went very well. A good crowd managed to turn up at the 8pm one, despite it being during the football. I signed some books (many more outside of the actual signing time). I talked – a lot. Kudos to Adele who sat assiduously throughout the podcast sessions all day, and which should be online soon, so if you weren’t there, you can at least listen to what went on.

Julie Crisp (a most definite non-mother figure (big frowns), but certainly happy to be a queen figure) of Tor UK popped along for moral support and a good schmooze. The highlight of the event was actually watching her approach Joseph Abercrombie, expecting him to be the real Joe Abercrombie and not, in fact, his Polish doppelgänger. Joseph merely looked up with a confused expression on his face, thinking Who is this crazy woman? whilst I chuckled in the background. I have never seen my editor so embarrassed – apart from, perhaps, when she reads this realising it’s now captured online.

Some folk mentioned the day had the vibe of a much smaller World Fantasy con, which for those of you who haven’t attended that event, means that there were a lot of industry professionals – editors, authors, reviewers etc – all in one place, and much more of a networking atmosphere was present. If forced to recommend three annual conventions worth going to in the UK, then Alt.Fiction, Eastercon and the SFX Weekender would be on the list – for thoroughly entertaining, smooth events, with lost of fresh faces and a great atmosphere.

11Jun

Giveaway!

The postman brought me many copies of the US edition of Nights of Villjamur, published by the delightful people Random House (Ballantine).

Though I’m not usually interested in the business of doing giveaways, because I’ve so many copies, I am going to give away THREE of these fine editions.

But you have to work for it.

In the comments section, simply tell me why you should get a copy. The three most entertaining/guilt-tripping/weird entries, chosen purely on a whim by me, will win one of the copies. You can ask for whatever you want to be written in it – be it a simple signature or whatever.

And what the hell, I’m in a generous mood, let’s open this worldwide (and no, I won’t pick winners from down the road).

Keep it clean, people.

10Jun

Stornoway – I Saw You Blink

Three posts today? Must be my week off work. So here’s some music for your summer evenings, when you’re reclining by a river bank, or if you’re generally into the New Folk. These guys are pretty good: they’re playing in a Fernery.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfI_dcH1d9U]
10Jun

Influences etc.

Over at Speculative Scotsman, I’ve written a piece on six books that are a direct influence on the Legends of the Red Sun series.

One of the things I’m conscious of, as a writer, is to leave a trail of clues littered through my books so that people can see where I’ve been inspired by other writers. It’s important to acknowledge these things. So, textual clues aside, here are six books which helped shape the construction of my own books, to varying degrees.

1) The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Now any such lists invite pretentious selections, but invoking this metaphysical classic of the 1950s isn’t me trying to appear clever – I learned a very important lesson about what book sequences can do from reading Durrell’s stylish masterpiece. Each book in the series undermines the previous novel, and minor characters suddenly become the focal point, giving the reader a completely different understanding on what went before. It was a revelation, and made me instantly consider such subtle tricks in my own books.

One of the comments, by Juhan, points to this interview with Roger Zelazny, who also describes the influence of The Alexandria Quartet on his own writing.

I liked that particular series just because of the way he retold the same story from different characters’ viewpoints. His was a more general comment on the fact that you can’t know everything. He could as easily have written a fifth book or sixth book and kept changing it.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s a fantastic series. If you can cope with the occasional headiness of the writing (personally, I adored it), and don’t mind a spot of complexity, then it’s well worth your time. Series writers will get a lot out of it.

10Jun

Cuts & Myths

A wonderful letter in the Guardian:

Let me just make sure I’ve got this right. First of all, a bunch of bankers lose unimaginable amounts of our money by making bets on a bunch of dodgy mortgages. Eventually the banks realise the bets are based on worthless assets, and that technically they are bankrupt.

The government bails them out with billions of pounds, transferring the debt to the public sector. The bankers, full of gratitude, pay themselves multimillion-pound bonuses which they invest in such a way as to pay as little tax as possible.

We express our anger by voting out the government and replacing it with a new one, which promptly blames the debt on the profligate spending of its predecessor, and tells us that the only solution is to cut public services. Civil servants lose their jobs, unemployment rises, libraries are closed, support services for the very poor, the dispossessed and the desperate disappear. Those who caused this mess in the first place get away with it, and are probably already planning the next disaster.

Are we really that gullible?

It looks like it, doesn’t it? And there’s not a lot that can be done, especially when loan sharks start huffing and puffing. (Are the world markets not structurally adjusted enough already? Clearly not. Get cutting!)

The situation is a wet dream for those who preach liberalisation, seduced by having less reliance on the State. Spending on public services must be cut, but no, no, don’t cry, it won’t be as bad as Thatcher – Cleggeron tells us – where the public spending cuts were severe.

A retro aside. Even in the 80s, under Thatcher, the “government cut overall spending in only [the] year – 1988-89 – and froze it once – 1985-86. Overall, current spending under Thatcher – from 1978-79 to 1989-90 – rose by 1.7% a year. This is only a smidgeon less than the 1.8% annual growth under New Labour’s first term.” If public spending wasn’t being cut, where was some of the money going? Sweetening arms deals with “aid” offers that were “unlawful”? Maybe the money was spent on sending forth warships to open up (supposedly free) markets? Surely not? Maybe the State isn’t so bad when it’s opening up a neoliberal dream.

Back to today, the cuts, and to the effects. We can rule out defence money being touched. It’s all right to preach the free market, so long as we lean on the State when it suits – we can’t make those defence cuts, old boy – they’re good for business, as we’ve seen, and have been so for years.

So our taxes must be put to better use by cutting back, so we can help those financial firms (who, incidentally, with their table magic accountancy, have managed to avoid helping us for years). This means that, yes, the people that must take one for the team are… the general public, the ones who pumped £27bn into Northern Rock in order to rescue it from the neoliberal mess.

Yes, you, the general public. You’ve been having it too easy. You must pay for the unregulated sins of the ultra rich, but it’s okay – here’s the wonderful, Blofeldesque rub: you can decide what appendage to chop off first.

9Jun

The Rural Fantasy Reading List

In response to the debate generated by the previous post on Rural Fantasy, which was reposted on io9.com, I’ve compiled a starter list of Rural Fantasies (both adult and children titles), for anyone interested in reading more – and it’s worth adding that this isn’t a comment on quality either. I’ll edit this post continually, adding more titles, so do pop further suggestions in the comments section. (I want to keep it to books that don’t merely use the rural setting as a backdrop, but actually engage with it in some way.)

Richard Adams – Watership Down
Piers Anthony – Xanth novels (warning: horrific gender politics)
James Baylock – The Elfin Ship
Lois McMaster Bujold – The Sharing Knife books
Orson Scott Card – The Tales of Alvin Maker
G.K. Chesterton – The Flying Inn
John Connolly – The Book of Lost Things
John Crowley – Little, Big
Stephen Donaldson – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever
Lord Dunsany – The King of Elfland’s Daughter
Neil Gaiman – Stardust
Alan Garner – The Owl Service
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows
Barbara Hambly – Dragonsbane
Robin Hobb – The Farseer series
Robert Holdstock – Mythago Wood (and the rest of the Rhyope series)
William Horwood – The Duncton Chronicles
Brian Jacques – Redwall series
Guy Gavriel Kay – Ysabel
Paul Kearney – A Different Kingdom
Greg Keyes – The Briar King
Stephen King & Peter Straub – The Talisman
Ursula Le Guin – Always Coming Home
Charles de Lint – Someplace to be Flying, The Little Country, Over Sea Under Stone
Jeremy Love – Bayou (graphic novel)
Patricia A. McKilliip – The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, The Changeling Sea
Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan
Hope Mirlees – Lud-in-the-Mist
William Morris – Well at the World’s End
Garth Nix – The Abhorsen Trilogy
Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man is Hard to Find
Nnedi Okorafor – Zahrah the Windseeker
Terry Pratchett – Lancre sub-series of Discworld
Spider Robinson – Time Pressure
Mary Stewart – The Crystal Cave
Thomas Burnett Swann – The Forest of Forever
J.R.R. Tolkien – The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit, Tales from the Perilous Realm, Smith of Wootton Major & Farmer Giles of Ham
Manly Wade Wellman – The “Silver John” books
Sean Williams – Books of the Change
Terri Windling – The Wood Wife

Note: a lot of horror novels cross the threshold, particularly books by Stephen King, which are set in rural locations, but I’ve kept them out of the list for the time being. There’s just the one King novel on there for now.

8Jun

They Do It With Whisky

This arrived today, a lovely bottle of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, in celebration of publication, courtesy of the lovely Team Tor. How nice! None of this champagne nonsense – Julie Crisp is all about the hard stuff.

And now to business. Do you fancy getting your hands on a SIGNED ARC of the US edition of Nights of Villjamur? Do you? Well head over to the Scotsman: he’s giving one away.

And while we’re north of the border, here’s part one of an interview, which I actually think is my most interesting so far (perhaps because I’m not waffling on about my books specifically). We cover all sorts of topics, from blogging to bloggers to prose and the wider genre, and what I was delighted about was that I was put on the spot with a tough question or two:


Do you think bloggers perhaps find it easier to overlook a problem with your work than they would the work of someone who doesn’t trade Tweets with them, and indeed engage in the dialogue we spoke of before, because they’re afraid to jeopardise your interest?

Possibly. The same opportunities have existed for decades, for authors to be friends with reviewers, though at least the internet is more open about it. You see reviewers and authors mingling at conventions all the time. I like that Twitter and blogs are honest and open – these aren’t the unspoken liaisons in a hotel bar.

But I suspect this is something to deflect to reviewers – because the question is, are bloggers likely to let the fact that they know someone (albeit digitally, in most cases) interfere with their reviews? Would you let your relations with authors get in the way of what you had to say about a book? Only you can answer that. As an author, I’m just out there having fun.

Read the rest of that here.

There’s another interview in local arts mag LeftLion, courtesy of Adele, and this was also very fun one, where we talked in more detail about themes within City of Ruin.

You touch on tolerance issues in NoV but expand much more on that in CoR, you already mentioned sexuality and politics, but also racial tensions and without giving too much away also dramatically differing moral views and other weirder differences. Were these issues something you actively wanted to engage with or was it simply that they were right for the characters?

Absolutely I wanted to engage with them. Fantasy fiction doesn’t have to shy away from the real world. In fact, surely it’s more powerful if it engages with it? I don’t think all fantasy novels should just be only entertainment or what used to be called simple escapism. Entertainment is cool, the bare minimum. If you can engage with real world topics on top of that, if you can try to expand someone’s horizons with regards to tolerance, then that is certainly a good thing, and it might also raise levels of respect for the genre. All ambitious stuff, of course, and I’m sure many will always see fantasy as meaningless literature despite that, but I wanted to at least try.

Read the rest of that here.

And don’t forget to book your tickets for Alt.Fiction on Saturday.