Tag: backstage



Now here’s a novel idea:

It’s the unusual approach taken by Deanna Zandt, an American “media technologist and consultant to key progressive media organisations”. Last summer she issued a plea on her blog for donations to support her while she spent three months writing a book about social networking as a tool for social change and action, looking specifically at communities she says have too often been marginalised as social networks have developed: “women, people of color, queer folk, and more”.

Zandt has a publisher for this book, Berret Koehler, but they do not provide authors with advances to write their books. For some (unexplained, especially as the book is due to be published in June 2010) reason the book is “incredibly fast-tracked” and so she needed
“to stop working as a consultant for the next three months and do nothing but write the book. Thus, I need investors. I need you to help me raise $15,000 to cover my expenses, travel, and research. Please toss some money into a ‘Feed Deanna’ pot!”

Indeed. Feel free to send large cheques my way in order to fund any research I need to do. Given that I write about fantasy landscapes, I desire to travel to exotic locations to get a feel for other worlds. First up, the Bahamas.

More seriously, I think there’s a valid point with regards to marginalised communities in publishing – mass market publishing doesn’t exist to support niches, except when it suits a certain fashion or trend. But I’m probably very biased, being a writer.

What do readers think to supporting new authors in this way? You give them money to write about things you’re interested in. When you think about it, it isn’t too far removed from paying money for books written by your favourite author – because you’re funding them to keep on doing what you enjoy. These sorts of publishing models could help the small press authors thrive – because success in publishing, when it comes down to it, is deeply influenced by money.


Serious Fantasy Reviewing

I notice that Strange Horizons is getting to grips with some of the shortlisted titles from last year’s Gemmell Award:

The question that presents itself, obviously, is: how easily can any of these books be judged on their own merits? This, certainly, is what the DGLA administrators are aiming for, as noted on their website: “[P]lease remember the Award is for the Best Fantasy Novel of 2008—that one book that has been Nominated (whether or not it forms part of a series) and not the body of an author’s work as a whole.”

What do they mean by “in the spirit of David Gemmell”? According to the same web page, what they are looking for is something that grabs the reader immediately, with pace (“you know, books that you’re STILL reading at three in the morning!”), characters to root for, and convincing world-building. Stories, in other words, that take hold and won’t let go until the final page—the reason we all started reading fantasy in the first place.

Quality of prose goes unmentioned, but I’m afraid it won’t in this review…

This, it seems, is one of the only actual comparisons of the fantasy titles that were shortlisted. I made noises at the time that no one was talking about the content of the books, and so here we go at last.

I must admit to finding it bizarre that any award can have a shortlist where titles are barely compared to each other. How can you call a book the “best” without such an analysis? Getting as many people to vote online seems a spurious way to go about this, when clearly no one could have read so many titles.

I’m not being grouchy here – please don’t misunderstand.

This is where my arguments lie: we bitch and moan about why we – the fantasy genre – are not taken seriously. But when we’re not going to compare and contrast, and dig into the content of some of the big fantasy titles of the year, how can the fantasy genre expect to better itself year on year? How can it expect to gain more respect? (If you don’t care for respect, then I guess that’s the end to my argument.) But we all know that we posses rather self-conscious moments, we fantasy readers, if we’re honest.

As Niall Harrison remarked in an email to me, the UK fantasy genre is in dire need of at least one juried award. And, I suspect, separate to a convention (which is not something in itself that is a problem, of course) in order to make things interesting for the genre and for readers.

Still, at least it means people are talking about fantasy books, which is something. Right?


Things I Don’t Like About Writing

Don’t get me wrong, I love writing books, and wouldn’t want to stop doing it. You’ll have to take this MacBook from my cold dead hands. But the medium of writing is a curious one, and there are some parts about the process which I really dislike.

1) I don’t like that you can’t improvise with words. Not in any satisfying sense. I used to play a lot of music – guitar, keyboards, whatever, and I loved the fact that you could improvise melody or chords, make up the music on the spot. Cool little riffs that sent a shiver whenever the right notes came together at that precise moment. Words don’t do that so easily. Sure you can nail a good sentence at any one point, but the option exists to change it – always, until the book is done. And that’s a good thing. From nailing it, to publishing it could be months, years. With music it’s out there, for better or worse, in that instant. What’s more, there’s a whole new skill-level in that improvisation – not every musician can do it well. When you write, the sentences are worked over so many times, so the final product will rarely, if ever, possess that same sense of immediacy that you get with live music.

2) I don’t like the fact that writing never goes away. Ever. You’re in the car, you think of a plot point, and you stop listening to your girlfriend or partner because that plot point has to make it onto paper somewhere. Or you’re thinking about the story and forget to ring someone when you said you would. A common mistake is to believe that writers just sit down and write, but I don’t think it ever stops. It takes over your mind throughout the day, probably nudging more sensible stuff out of the way.

3) I don’t like that writing isn’t all there is to writing. Writing is only half the craft – the rest is taken up by research, or planning, all the way through to doing promotion, interviews, guest posts, sorting out your website etc. Writers don’t just write anymore. They are a brand. And you have to deal with that fact.

4) I don’t like the fact that a lot of people tell you how you should write. Everyone is an expert on language and grammar and has a thousand suggestions. Listen to a musician and you can hear good notes and bad – they’re obvious – but language is more subtle, which turns concepts of right or wrong (and therefore everyone’s opinion) into a loud and messy grey area. The words are just there. However, there are a lot of people who claim that language is some rigid structure, dictated by the lords of a super-basic Creative Writing 101 classes (they’re usually the loudest crowd). Stray from their gospel and you’re fair game to them. Their way is right! These people, more than others, preach how to write. You probably shouldn’t listen to them either – you’ll end up writing like an uninspiring, soulless machine.

5) I don’t like that the behind-the-scenes people don’t get rewarded properly. There’s an awful lot of work that gets put into every sentence; there are suggestions and a thorough massaging of words, and this comes from people other than the writer. There are structural edits, then line-edits, then copy-edits, then a proof read. (And there’s designers and marketeers that help, too, in other ways.) There are a lot of people involved in presenting readers with a book, or making one a success, but they never get credited with their efforts. And they really should, because they make authors – if only more readers knew just how much it’s a team effort. My editors are Julie Crisp and Peter Lavery, and Chris Schluep in the US. Just so you know.


Tips For Getting A Novel Deal #3

I hate giving writing advice.

There’s something distinctly awkward about it. I dislike the fact that some people can dictate any one system for writing. You have to do what works for you. That said, continuing the Tips series of posting, here are some things that come from the old editorial/bookselling side of my brain. (I might not actually take any of my own advice, however.)

So, some random thoughts on how you approach writing, and for those who might ask where to get ideas…

• Shocking fact: you don’t have to be a good writer to succeed. You just have to tell a good story, the right story for a particular market, and tell it competently.

• Again, tell that story. That’s what it’s about in commercial publishing.

• Have lots of ideas—the genre is ideas based. If you struggle to think of ideas, writing will be a difficult direction to go in. Don’t be afraid to take things from wherever you can—be inspired by everything if you can.

• Get outside and talk to people. Listen. There are hundreds of ideas you can take for novels. Use things that happen to people. It makes for a realistic story. And stories are about people.

• Read newspapers or historical sources—these are plentiful supplies of inspiration, and ‘what ifs’.

• Know where the story is heading before you write it.

• Just write something. Every day if you can. Get a routine.

• Try not to get caught up in theory too much, too early on, because this will be apparent. Have faith in what you can do. (Tell the story!)

• When you read other novels, keep these things in the back of your mind. Analyse, become more critical. Suddenly it might seem like novelists you love aren’t that good…!

• Make sure the first few chapters has the best writing you can do. There’s no point saying that the good bits come later. Editors won’t read later. Most customers in bookstores will not read later. Get it right at the start.

Here are some common technical mistakes / things to bear in mind to make your writing stronger. (This ain’t gospel, but these are things that can annoy the hell out of an editor…) Many good writers will put down what you think is bad writing, but they’re still in control of what they’re doing.

• There are lies about having to restrict adverbs and adjectives. This is something every creative writing class tells you, for a good reason, but don’t eliminate them completely. It’s a simple trick to help over-descriptive writers to be more careful. So be selective. Use them in a surprising way. Unless you are writing in a noir style, deliberately hardboiled, and not the next Peake.

• When you put pen to paper, think—why am I writing in this style. Is third/first person present/past the right way to tell this story? Is it necessary? Am I showing off?

• Showing / telling – ignore a lot of the bad advice out there. Do whatever is right for the story. It’s simply to stop over description. Read what Ursula has to say.

• Be careful about telling around dialogue that already tells: “ ‘Don’t do that,’ he said, warning her. ”

• If the first chapter begins with a lot of introduction and a lot of dialogue, the reader has very little to no sense of place, nor any sense of what the characters are like as people (beyond their role in the story). Also called ‘White Room’ syndrome.

• Starting sentences with –ing words. ‘Running up the stairs, he opened the door.’ At the same time? Really? Not possible…

• It is not necessary for characters to open each door, walk through it, and then close it behind them unless it is important to the story.

• Be aware of points of view, which character is ‘seeing’ what. Don’t forget, we see a scene through one character’s eyes. We’re not in the Victorian age anymore… Read George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series for a good example of this done properly, and effectively—because readers can be shown the whole picture through many different viewpoints, whilst characters suffer in ignorance!

• Watch out for ‘drama queens’ – people whose voices hitch, who sob or well up with tears every time they say something serious. Sometimes not reacting can effectively make a situation more grave. You don’t want every dramatic scene to turn into a soap opera.


Tips For Getting A Novel Deal #2

Continuing from the previous post, here are some more rough notes. This time, on submitting to agents and what kind of things to put in a synopsis.

The submission stage

• Use professionalism, first and foremost. Treat this like you would other business – that means, be polite to people.

• Lose your ego! You’d be surprised at how many people think they deserve and demand publication, and kick up a right old fuss.

• Know what an agent and publisher are looking for with respect to the genres they represent. Look at what they have already bought, or on their list. Look and see if they’re accepting any submissions.

• If in doubt, just get in touch with the agents. (Most publishers ask for submissions only from agents; some will allow unsolicited manuscripts to be sent in.) Email or phone; they’re usually very helpful. Or send a covering letter.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook—contains thousands of names and addresses of publishers, agents etc. It’s the best resource for this. Alternatively, use Google to find out information. Look at their clients. But also, beware of some bad agents…

Never part with cash for an agent before a deal is done with a publisher. Agents work on commission from what they sell. Don’t be too desperate for an agent to represent you that you make this mistake.

• Make sure your work is formatted properly. That’s in a legible font—no pictures, no fancy colours, please—and that is double spaced. Make sure you have a significant amount to send in the first place, even though they’re most likely to ask for the first few chapters and a synopsis.

Be prepared to be turned down dozens of times, but don’t take it personally. Publishing is one of the most subjective businesses around. It’s an art, not a science. Agents and publishers will take work on that they have a passion for, personally and commercially. Rejection is the norm. If you ask any writer, they’ll have been turned down dozens of times. Don’t let it upset you.

What to put in a good synopsis

• Be concise as you can for the length of the work. Three or four pages should be the limit, although it’s useful to include a general one paragraph summary at the start.

• In this first paragraph, compare your book to others which are selling well—this will help the editors (more importantly the marketing department) understand how to sell it. That’s the most important decision at the back of their mind. Make it clear what it is you’ve written. Think of this as a brief sales pitch.

• If you can help it, don’t compare your work to something too obscure, or something that has bombed recently. This comes back to market awareness.

• Just write about what happens in the book, what the characters go through. Keep it simple.

• After you write everything that happens, take out all useless commentary. Be brutal. Make sure all that you describe is key to the story, nothing more. If an editor likes the concept, they’ll start reading. They’ll most likely judge you by the first page of what you’ve written.


Tips For Getting A Novel Deal #1

This is me talking as an ex-bookseller, one-time editor with a mass market SFF imprint, and a fantasy writer with a commercial deal. This is not me spouting rubbish about how to write, because, well, there’s something distinctly awkward about giving such advice. You do what you have to do.

So I sometimes use these notes if I’m talking to groups about increasing your chances of publication – because being able to write well is often not enough to succeed. This might sound dirty, but for a moment, put art and style and craft to one side. That comes when you’re writing the damn thing, and for me, personally, those are hugely important qualities.

There’s a lot to think about before you even put pen to paper. You might know a lot of it already.


So before you write anything seriously:

Read ferociously, various types of fiction, especially what’s selling at the moment. Understand what makes a story work at the commercial level. Read out of the genre, read in the genre – it’ll all be useful.

Be savvy as to what’s going on in bookstores. It’s the business end of things, where trends occur. Look at books, what’s being published. Look at the backs of books and see what they’re about. Get a feeling for what publishers are looking to buy. You’re not writing novels from the Sixties or Seventies.

Understand your genre. Links in to the above, but more specific. When you know what you want to write – SF/fantasy/horror/crime – take a detailed look. Spend some time in big stores. Look at the promotions. This is useful so you don’t end up copying what’s been published completely. It’ll act as a guide as to what you think you can write. It shows you what is also expected. Follow what each publisher is taking on and moreover, follow this up online – there are a list of great genre news sites which give constant information.

• Be aware that sometimes similar books will sell. Look at chick lit, for example. Some clichés are useful in this publishing business, when given a unique spin. Many science fiction and fantasy novels at the moment are very similar. Cover art is designed to capitalise on this. (Yes, to cash in – publishing is a business.) Understand what it is that certain books have in common; and how they differ. This doesn’t mean you write a clone novel – Banks, Reynolds, Hamilton, they’re all writing widescreen space opera, they’re all different.

• So, when you sit down to write a project, you should have some awareness of where it’s going to fit in the market. This is crucial, because publishing is a business and I can’t say it enough: publishers exist to make money, as well as promote good art.

• Know what is selling well (and what’s selling too well). These are the things that, in your synopsis, you want to compare the work to (unless in the selling too well category, then don’t compare to these writers, because Pratchett and Rowling are industries in their own right).

• Many new novel decisions are made not just by editors, but by marketing departments. Their job is to make money. They too have pressures for results, and the bigger the company, the more commercial decisions they will make, so marketing and sales people have a large say in what gets accepted. You might not like it, but I wouldn’t want to lie about the realities of publishing.


More Things I Didn’t Know About Being A Writer

The last post proved popular. Here are a few other things I didn’t quite know about being a writer. Perhaps I’ll be a little more open. You might not like what’s said.

1) Spin matters more than you think. Sometimes it matters which major magazine or newspaper reviewer is given your book. Like a lot in life, these things can be about who you (or your publisher) know. Getting the right people to say the right things about your book can really help new writers out, and the general public sees only the results. But it’s an often-undeclared fact that many book reviewers might know an author well. Some of these prominent reviewers are even friends with authors, and then review their books. Is that wrong or right? That’s not for me to say – I would hope when it happens to me the reviewer, even if a friend, is honest, even if they don’t like the book. But of course, in an industry where everyone mixes freely, this situation is difficult to avoid, and not necessarily a bad thing. We are a close family after all.

In fact, this is why I love the blogosphere – the classes of blog reviewers have risen, taken much of the power and diluted it amongst the many, and the industry has been forced to react accordingly. Publishers begin treating bloggers with as much respect as old-school reviewers, inviting them to parties or being rather lovely to them – all in the name of good networking, and maybe a better review or two.

The paradigm is shifting.

2) Money matters more than you think. The books which often do really well are those which receive advertising spend – and more importantly are those which get submitted for in-store promotions.

It costs publishers a lot of money in merely presenting the consumer with the opportunity to buy the book – to have that book on offer, or on tables, or front of store. What, did you think they got put there for nothing? Some stores charge a lot of money for that to happen, just for the book to be there. (Here, having a good cover can help, as can deep discounting – the amount of money that’s taken of the RRP of a book.) I’ve been lucky to be with a big publisher like Tor UK, who put effort behind my book (in many ways), got it discounted on Amazon and in bookstores, and I’m ever-thankful for all they do.

There might be some literary gems which never sell well because they’re not considered/put into promotions. Publishing is, of course, a business, and we’ll miss out on these examples of high art. No matter what developments there are digitally, nothing much beats putting money behind a book to make it succeed.

3) Cover art matters more than you think. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what’s in a book to make it sell. It’ll help, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the cover is commercial. And I’m not talking about the buying habits of genre fans online, but the massive casual readership that strolls into the store on a wet weekend to pick up something that looks interesting. This can be hugely significant. Sometimes it’s the most significant thing about establishing a career. This realisation frightened me at first.

Notice that none of the things I’ve talked about reflect the content of the book. I don’t want to be misleading at all – of course having a great book helps. Having talent and time and charm and luck helps.

But in 2009, in the land of commercial publishing and establishing careers, it’s the bare minimum a writer needs to get by. Things are only going to get tougher – the writers of the future will be defined by those who can still afford to have careers.