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.


On Artwork

Well then, I see that there has been quite the reaction to the new mass market paperback artwork of Nights of Villjamur. Some people like it, some not so much. Some want to frame it above their bed and kiss it before they go to sleep each night, others wouldn’t deign to use it as toilet roll replacement.

The biggest discussion has been over at A Dribble Of Ink, with all sorts of merriment in the comments section from not only my editor, Julie Crisp, but Simon Spanton from Gollancz and Lou Anders from Pyr. Much of the debate centres around having a character-centric piece of artwork.

I thought I’d clear a few things up about cover art, which have been touched in those comments, but I felt needed airing full, and putting in context.

* There is an audience of readers who don’t spend much time online, on review sites or blogs or forums.

* In the bookstore-world reality, that audience spectacularly outweighs the number of online fans.

* Online fans are, therefore, a vocal minority. A core market of fans that are very passionate (and one that I personally belong to).

* As Simon Spanton says (in the comments): “… much as it may be uncomfortable to hear, our job as publishers is to make that core market an increasingly small part of the author’s readership – for an author to sell big numbers we have to get their book in the hands of those people who maybe buy just one or two genre books a year, not just the dedicated fans who buy maybe 20 books a year. And that, essentially, is where the cloaked figures come in.”

* As Julie Crisp says: “The top three reasons for buying an SFF book are: read the previous in the series, read other by author and saw in shop. Most readers will experiment with a new author because it reminds them of someone they’ve read previously and enjoyed. I’m guilty of it myself. They want that simple association – something that’s immediately comparative. And we would be remiss if we ignored that… As an aside, it’s not just SFF – you look at most genres and there’s a certain style of covers associated with a certain genre of book.”

* So. I am a new author. The majority of people, particularly the offline world, will not have heard of Nights of Villjamur. They might not read the lovely reviews. All they have to go on is this:

What the book looks like.

I don’t know stats off hand, but I’ve worked in bookselling and publishing to know this much: the majority of readers will pick up a book because it looks like something they liked before. Publishers understand this psychology, and have to sell a new author with that in mind. They wouldn’t pump thousands of pounds into book design and printing and marketing because they want a book to fail, would they? Exactly.

So you can dream of having the most daedal piece of artwork on the cover. You can dream of spectacularly fancy cover treatments and post-modern flourishes in the detail. But if your cover doesn’t look similar enough to something out there already, something to trigger all the signs of what genre it is, what kind of book it is, then there’s a very high chance that your book will disappear without a trace – because the casual reader probably won’t pick it up.

This is just how the world of books works. This isn’t an exact science, it’s a industry trying to sell an art. That’s why it’s so difficult. That’s why hardcore passionate readers online, who have a very different book-buying psychology, might not like the new cover art. It’s not to say you can’t try new things – I happen to think the new cover of Nights is different enough from much of the character-centric pack – but hey, publishers want to make money. They’re a business, they’re not a charity. If their books don’t succeed at all, then those imprints go bust. And then we’d have nothing to debate in those forums.


On Tie-In Fiction

I’ve just posted the next blog entry up at Jeff VanderMeer’s site, and it’s on the genre’s attitudes to tie-in fiction, in conversation with million-selling author Dan Abnett.

In a previous life, I worked as an editor of tie-in fiction for properties of 2000AD and New Line Cinema – further adventures, not merely novelisations of screenplays. It was an immense amount of fun. The books were entertaining, the stories possessed many facets, and the authors were great to work with. They handled the job as seriously as any other writers I’ve met, and took immense pride in their work. For many, it was a stepping stone to getting their own work published. For others, they developed their craft in worlds belonging to others, exploring aspects that couldn’t be covered on the screen.

I’m now a writer of original fantasy fiction, and I’ve been hugely lucky in the reception to my work, and this difference in attitude between original and tie-in fiction has interested me, and even shocked me.

I think it’s an essential debate, and one of importance to readers. Check it out and let me know what you think.

EDIT: Here’s an interesting article from Emerald City in 2006. (Thanks to Cheryl for the link.)


Getting Used To Style

A fascinating extract from this interview with David Anthony Durham.

I’ll never forget an early review of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer found the language of the first part strange, convoluted and a bit hard to figure out. But then he wrote that by the second part the language had started to work to “greater effect”, and by the end he loved the book! He seems to have walked away thinking that the first part wasn’t as good as the following three parts. But I’d argue that the writing was consistent. What changed was that it took him that first part to get into the rhythm of my writing. After he did, everything got smoother and smoother for him.

Now, if I’d started the book with simpler language he might have been happier from the start, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have been using the language that he’d learned to love by the end. I think that’s often the case with good literary fiction. (And I do mean the “good” stuff; I’m not saying that all literary fiction is.) Hopefully, it holds you from the start, but in a great many ways full appreciation of it comes gradually.

I can’t really improve on what is said there.

When people read a novel, and say that the “writing improved” or the “second half was better written”, do they mean that they themselves had become used to the different style involved? I wonder how self-aware many readers (myself included) really are when they give their opinions?


Character and Backstory

America is kind of a science fiction novel in a way. Very weak on character and backstory, but very strong in concept and dynamism and cool ideas.

Jonathan Lethem

I find it very interesting that Lethem points this out – not the part about America, but the part about science fiction (and probably fantasy) being weak on character and backstory. I’m guessing he’s making this as a comparison with other forms of literature – mainstream fiction, the classics, whatever.

I’ve noticed this from forum reviews about certain titles, mine included – there seems to be a negative reaction to backstory. And character development combined with it – well, that just gets in the way of the concepts and cool ideas.

Do readers of SFF generally have this reaction, then? Is this one of the reasons that genre snobbery exists – because mainstream readers can’t connect with the fiction in the way that they’re used to?


Angels Are The New Vampires (Apparently)

According to the wisdom of Anne Rice, at least. This is the same Anne Rice that did this but don’t let that colour your opinion of her. Neither should you let her last strange effort make you doubt this huge slab of self-promo article.

Angels are the new vampires of the literary world, according to the doyenne of vampire fiction Anne Rice, who is about to launch a new series of books starring a contract killer recruited by a seraph.

Taking their inspiration, perhaps, from Milton’s arch-fiend Satan, Rice and a host of other authors are plotting celestial assaults on the book shops this autumn, with angels in all shapes and sizes about to hit the bookshelves.

Well firstly, unless there’s some kind of Buffy-style cinema-enhanced multi-media decade-spanning phenomenon, then, um, no they’re not the new vampires. Vampires have swamped popular culture in a huge way, and have dominated urban fantasy for the last ten years, and have pretty much had it going for them ever since Dracula, to be honest – although the high point was clearly Count Duckula.

What is interesting, though, is the glut of books on angels that cram what we used to call back in my bookselling days, the “Mind Body and Spirit” section. It was the section that sat nicely next to religion, but wasn’t actually coherent or reliable enough to be part of it. Such titles have actually been around in the world of non-fiction for a heck of a long time, and are bizarrely popular to say the least. So, knowing this unsettling fact, maybe I’ll retain an open mind on this one.


Five Questions On Accusations Of Racism In SFF Publishing

Following on from my previous post. I’m not going to give answers to this, since I think the best line of approach is to ask questions. So, some things to think about:

1) If a publisher asks for changes to a manuscript in order it to be more commercial (remembering that publishing is a business) for a particular regional market, given that it might lessen the exoticness of foreign influences that were there originally, is that racism?

2) If those changes were to anglicise certain names (for example) to make it easier to read for fans in that particular market, is that racism?

3) If 1% of manuscripts submitted to a UK or US publisher are from foreign writers, and even fewer are good enough to accept, does that make an imprint racist, or is it merely a case of statistics?

4) If a publisher knows that a manuscript from a foreign writer does not fit in with a certain market, and chooses not to invest money in something that he or she knows they will struggle to sell in that market, is that racism?

5) If a publisher consciously favours a foreign writer over a domestic writer in order to make a publishing list more ethnically balanced in the US or UK market, is that racism, or do these things have to start somewhere?


Racism In SFF?

Someone asked me what I thought of this interview, what with me being a writer who is half-Indian.

I won’t mince words here: SFF publishing in the US today is the Klu Klux Klan of the publishing world. It’s anachronistically misrepresentational in its racial mix, religious mix, cultural mix. The few exceptions to the rule only prove the endemic, systemic and deeply bred bias in the field. There are even editors who claim to champion ‘coloured’ writing, by publishing anthologies that segregate non-white non-Judeo/Christian non-American authors of speculative fiction from their ‘mainstream’ genre counterparts.

There are editors who take non-white editorial assistants or even sponsor non-white writers in the name of progressiveness, and at panels in conventions, the non-white writers are often herded together conveniently. But where are the non-white Editorial Directors, Publishers, big-name literary agents, etc? For that matter, where are the non-white authors? In the ghetto, that’s where. And this ghetto is the size of the planet! SFF publishing in the US today is 50 years behind the rest of the world.

It’s fair to say that US publishers were more concerned about the content of my book rather than question my ethnic background, even though it’s mixed. We’re not dealing with the BNP here.

To address the main point, even back in my editorial days (I don’t think editors need defending here) such questions never come into thought. The only essential question I remember was, ‘Is their writing any good?’ (Ashok’s is, by the way – I’m not having a crack at him here.) And apart from ‘Can we sell this?’ that’s pretty much all the general bases covered in the office. And you know what, it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white or Tralfamadorian.

Cheryl links to some interesting responses.

UPDATE: I’ve had some more thoughts about how the question of ‘Can we sell this?’ be perceived as racist, which I’ll expand upon in another post.

UPDATE 2: Here’s my follow-up post on perceptions of racism.


Vampires As Gay Men

I shit you not. This is an actual article. I’m not even sure this counts as journalism anymore. Maybe the editorial assistant was up against one motherf*cker of a deadline and this was all he or she could find to fill the page.

Forget everything you’ve read about vampires so far. The current bloodsucking trend, achieving maximum ferocity in November with the release of the sequel to Twilight, isn’t about outsiders or immigrants or religion or even AIDS, as critics and bloggers have argued ad nauseam these past few months. There’s a much better, simpler, more obvious explanation: Vampires have overwhelmed pop culture because young straight women want to have sex with gay men…

Vampire fiction for young women is the equivalent of lesbian porn for men: Both create an atmosphere of sexual abandon that is nonthreatening. That’s what everybody wants, isn’t it? Sex that’s dangerous and safe at the same time, risky but comfortable, gooey and violent but also traditional and loving. In the bedroom, we want to have one foot in the twenty-first century and another in the nineteenth.

I think this misses a lorry load of points. It’s the kind of discussion that’s had in bars at conventions and maybe best left there, because it has more weight when you’re drunk.

I mean, aside from making sweeping generalisations about gay men and human sexuality, it misses the point that most boys that age probably aren’t iconic and super-preened and/or smell nice, so for teenage girls, vampires, in comparison, are worth a swoon or two.

Oh well, I knew I shouldn’t have written a vampire into City of Ruin


Kurt Vonnegut On Writing With Style

How to write with style, an essay by a guy who knew what he was talking about. It’s a fascinating read, although I don’t agree with everything he says.

Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writings. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.

These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful– ? And on and on.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.