writing & publishing


If You Build It…

First, my next Amazon.com post is online, where I talk about the similarities of mystery and fantasy fiction. Feel free to jump in with your thoughts.

Now to business. I thought I’d share the graph of my web stats, month by month over the last couples of years.

Pretty cool, isn’t it? Yes I’ve covered up the numbers, because I was questioning the etiquette. (If you do want to know, drop me a line.) The spike in December was the infamous Death of SF period. The leap in hits for this month is, I’m guessing, because of the US debut, combined with the UK mass market release, and everything reaching a critical mass.

The point is, given that authors are told to get out there and publicise themselves, you can go from nowhere to somewhere, just by sitting at your computer. I’ve been on a few panels talking about social media and all that nonsense, where people come for advice on this subject, but there’s no secret really. It’s like a relationship, and like in any good relationship, you should not look to see what you can get out of it yourself (I must blog to get sales! Uh, no), but you should look to nurture it for the sake of enjoyment – which means you must put in effort.

And before someone says, “But look, you are doing all this to sell books!” – well, if I didn’t want to sell books, I wouldn’t write them in the first place. Writers all have egos, let’s not deny it. We all want to be read – there’s nothing malicious about it. Blogging is not a direct way to sell books, and should never be looked at in such a way. It’s about a chance to connect to the community, and also it’s about the author brand, which I’ll mention later.

Making the assumption that, as a writer, you aren’t going to inherit a five-figure marketing budget to heavily promote your work across all media (welcome to the real world), here are the basic things I’d suggest to get nice, upward-sloping lines:

1) Blog regularly. I’m talking at least three times a week. We no longer live in the age of news items, but constant updates. It’s not rocket science – how many times are we ourselves put off by seeing graveyard blogs, updated once every two or three months? Exactly. It stinks. And that’s what people will think of you.

2) Put dark text on a white background so people can actually read what you’re writing about. The more readers are forced to squint to understand what your point is, the less they’ll want to come back.

3) Be yourself, so long as “yourself” is something vaguely interesting. Do I care how many words you typed today? Nope. Unless you’re George R. R. Martin, a few million others won’t care either. With all this white noise online, readers will need a reason to keep coming back. Your daily word count, or your grocery list, is not a reason to return. And “interesting” doesn’t have to be much: your thoughts, a video, a muse, something you saw, a funny anecdote about your editor, whatever. Just keep number 1 in mind.

That’s pretty much it. Simples. You can do other stuff of course – and for that, I’d recommend visiting Mr Edelman – but I’ve not consciously gone out to market myself. I’ve just set up a digital soapbox. Sure, you’ll get a few haters, but that will happen simply because you’re out there. It’s amazing how people can secretly be enraged behind their monitors, since it lacks the human touch.

It’s all about the author brand. My general observation is that – online at least – writers are viewed in the same way as brands (or music artists or sports teams – you get the idea). We might not like that situation, but it’s my gut instinct on how writers are perceived online. Or if you don’t like to think that, would style be a more applicable word? To authors who want to take advantage of the opportunities of the internet, you might need to think of yourself in the same way. Blogging is another way you can control your brand or style, outside of your writing. People might choose to listen to what you’ve got to say because they enjoy your blog style.

And luckily, authors also have books with which to build a brand – what you represent as an author with a particular style or niche of writing – but as I say, without a massive marketing budget or a commercial cover, there’s no guarantee your work will miraculously fall in the hands of readers overnight – it could take years.

So to deliberately misquote Field of Dreams, as the graph shows: If you build it [and maintain it properly], they will come.


Writing, Time, Age

Some random thoughts on writing and age. But first, you’re never too old to get a book deal:

An 82-year-old grandmother is celebrating after landing a book deal for her debut novel… Myrrha Stanford-Smith, a teacher and theatre director, said she was ”gobsmacked” to be handed the three-book agreement, which saw her first work The Great Lie start appearing on shelves last week.

The trained actress, who lives in Holyhead, North Wales, has always held a passion for creative writing.She decided to see if her talent could really take off after receiving positive feedback on a short children’s story she sent in to BBC Radio Wales last summer. The Brighton-born writer secured herself a deal with publisher Honno, for a trilogy based around her swashbuckling Elizabethan hero Nick Talbot. The adventure reignites, in fictional form, the rivalry between William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

Perhaps it bypasses the perennial Amis riff on Ishiguruo, where “a writer’s best work is produced in their youth”, to have one’s first work published at a later stage in life.

I like to think that many writers produce their best work at an older age. DeLillo’s Underworld being an exceptional example of this – almost a thematic culmination (or perhaps this is in Point Omega). I love seeing a body of work that, over the years, spirals inward towards a writer’s set of inner truths. Then again, it goes the other way, and the same old rubbish might drift around like flotsam.

I like to think that, for the most part, we live in a fairly apologetic literary culture – debuts are bound to be rough, many say, because writing is something that improves with practice; possibly – hopefully – leading eventually towards some kind of edification later in a writer’s career. (I’ve mentioned before about people attacking young writers merely for being young, but this is a different thing entirely.) Reviewers generally forgive the problems of debuts, and that’s something I’m glad about.

So aging allows us deeper contemplation; we have better perspective, more experiences, even – and more time to think about those experiences – and one would hope that reflects in writing. Then again, there’s something to be said for the youthful energies of a debut, that keeness to get across a set of different ideas or style. To be recognised. As an aside: can ideas improve with practice? Perhaps, to an extent, we become better at explaining them.

And we as a community also seem so enthusiastic about the Next Big Thing, keen to see what’s new on the horizon, which freshly minted name we can attach ourselves to, though that may say more about the internet than literature. Though it should be said that literary careers are generally slow growers, books resist being produced quickly, to the internet’s rate of change, and will likely therefore resist such demands.

I wonder which of the current crop of genre writers will improve with age and still be around in fifty years? Personally, I’m investing in a course of yoga, cod liver oil capsules, and immense amounts of luck to ensure I’ll still be here annoying you all in decades to come.


Show Don’t Tell, And Other Myths

It’s been on my mind, so I thought I’d dig up this old article on breaking writing rules, which is fantastic (and which I saw originally via Ursula Le Guin):

The three most often repeated “rules of writing,” recited by rote and left uninvestigated and unchallenged in virtually every writing workshop and English class are capable of doing terrible damage to good writing. The Terrible Three are:

Show, don’t tell.

Nonsense. Good writing involves “showing”–that is, dramatizing–as well as “telling”–employing exposition. An avoidance of “telling” may convolute clear motivation (exemplified by “showing”). It compromises setting. It obfuscates situation.

We do not speak of “story-showing”; we speak of “storytelling.” Many great works of literature are largely expositional, including Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and–try this one–Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” In the latter’s “Overture,” Proust roams, in exposition, through the inner landscape of the child Marcel’s need for his mother’s nightly bedtime kiss. Now he can move on to exemplify–“show”–the drama of his foiled attempts. Thomas Bernhard’s masterpiece, “Concrete,” is all gasping exposition until the end opens into eerie dramatization.

The effect of “scenes”–showing–may be created through refined “telling,” as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which is in major part exposition, with scant dialogue often used as dramatic punctuation: “The world is round, like an orange.”

A good way to add life to exposition is to capture a dramatic moment, to hear someone speak, see someone move, act–yes, show–since time is the accumulation of moments.

It is hammered into people (by other people – not by any writing authority) that you must show not tell. It’s rarely questioned, but it should be. This kind of stuff is often used to help start-out writers, taught in basic writing workshops across the land. It certainly has a place to be considered, but they probably forget to un-teach it.

Of course, you need to know when you’re doing it, and to apply it in a controlled manner. I’m reading the Man Booker winner, Wolf Hall, at the minute, and I’m being told rather than shown an awful lot. And it’s great, it’s rich, it’s multi-dimensional, it’s stylish – done under a well-controlled point-of-view character, it’s a powerful way to tell a story. And yes, I do it myself (from a character’s POV; I’ve not done the omnipresent exposition all that much).

Also, I think we each have a different meaning of “show don’t tell”. Dumping huge amounts of information, which characters obviously know but is a cheap way of delivering information about the plot, is famously not cool. There are many other examples of what’s not cool, and you should know the rules before you break them.

I don’t like giving writing advice – it’s a very awkward thing to do – but I do like telling people that they’re freer than they think they are when it comes to constructing fictional prose. Read the rest of the article here for the other myths of “write about what you know” and “always have a sympathetic character for the reader to relate to”.

What do you think? Is it something you worry about in your own writing? Are you even conscious of it?


You Think SFF Debuts Have It Tough

Try being a literary fiction debut:

The contraction of the high street and the dynamics of online retailing are putting extra pressure on literary publishers, with subscriptions plummeting to less than half their previous figures.

With Waterstone’s the only high street chain with a literary profile and Amazon working to a sales model with low initial subscriptions, publishers hoping to launch new names are facing particular challenges. Débuts which two years ago would have gained initial subs of 1,000–2,000 copies are now subscribing just 250–500. Established literary writers who would have gained subs of 5,000 copies two years ago are now subscribing just 2,000.

Hamish Hamilton publisher Simon Prosser said: “If you have established names, you can say to the retailers: ‘Look at their sales figures’ but launching new literary authors is a real challenge. You have to be more creative than ever.”

Let’s put aside the usual “What is literary fiction anyway?” nonsense. Here we can assume it’s anything mainstream which is not a perceived genre such as crime, thriller, or chick lit. Yeah, I know literary fiction a genre of its own, but they don’t know that yet. And with all this in mind, this situation is still shockingly bad.

Those numbers aren’t sales, by the way – those subscriptions are just to have copies in stores. They’ve still got to be put in the hands of the buying public, taken to the counter, and paid for. The best way to encourage that nice exchange is for publishers to spend money on promotion, that’s if the chains think it’s worthwhile. It isn’t cheap, either. Amazon charge publishers a packet just to send readers an email about a particular book, for example, and table promotions can cost hundreds of pounds per title. This is all on top of the costs of buying the book, editing it, and putting a pretty picture on the front.

It’s tough for a publisher: they’ve got a talented author they want to push, and that costs money. Lots of money. But how can such costs be justified against subscriptions which are so low?

This is one of many reasons I’m glad there’s a SFF blogosphere – at least we all talk about books and help sidestep a lot of potential pain for new authors.


Dying Art Of The Letter

In the Guardian:

Nobody writes letters any more: at least not the kind of erudite, humorous missives that are the hallmark of great correspondence. As we are so often told, we live in the digital age. Like the rest of us, authors now largely correspond with their agents, friends, contemporaries and, occasionally, fans through email, not snail mail (I’ve only encountered one writer who refuses to use what he called “that electronic mail nonsense”. Despite his illegible scrawl – and mine – he insisted that all correspondence be in writing. But this is most certainly a dying breed.)

Emails are great for getting in touch quickly and easily, but as literary vehicles they are severely lacking. Notoriously Manichean, digital messages tend to oscillate between the deathly dull and formal and the blithely irreverent (complete with BTW, FYI, LOL’s and garbled text-speak) with precious little middle ground. Letters can be revealing, expansive, humorous; emails, even at their best, tend to exhibit only one of these characteristics of good writing. Of course, many contemporary novelists use social media such as Twitter and Facebook, sometimes to great effect; but publishing revolution or no publishing revolution, I find it hard to imagine that generations to come will one day download the “Collected Tweets of Neil Gaiman” on to their e-reader.

The article is worth a read, if only for the nostalgia kick. I own very few author letter collections – though the Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961 are quite superb, and well worth dipping into. They’re probably only for the serious fan, too, ones who look beyond novels for more understanding of them. Or for authors who led exciting lives.

Are blogs the modern-day equivalent of letters, just read in real time? I mean, they’re incredibly less interesting for the large part – a lot of author blogs seem to be graveyards of irrelevant news updates. Some do it well. Jonathan Carroll’s blog is a very good comparison to traditional letters, or even notebook. (As it says in the header: “A friend asked yesterday if this blog is addressed to anyone in particular? I said yes– it’s a love letter to someone I haven’t met yet.”)

Digital collections are often compiled in print form – John Scalzi has done so. And while there is a lot of white noise out there on social networks, which makes it difficult to find content that is profound enough, even Tweets can be collected and sold these days.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out over the years, and how future author non-fiction will be assembled.


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.


Get More Fantasy In Your Life

Dear struggling writers. What’s the best way of getting your fantasy novel published? Well, the obvious route would be to spend several years pouting up and down catwalks and generally selling your soul to the fashion and media gods. Just like Tyra Banks did.

I’m so EXCITED!! I said I was going to do it, and here it is! It’s for all the girls and guys who want a lot more FANTASY in their lives… and some fierceness and magic, romance and mystery, crazy and wild adventures, and yeah, some danger too. It’s my novel called Modelland (pronounced “Model Land”) that takes you to a fantastical place you’ve never seen, or heard about, or read about before… Where dreams come true and life can change in the blink of a smoky eye. 😉

I think Modelland is going to really touch the dreamer in all of us, whether you’re aged anywhere from 8 to 80. (Please don’t be mad if you’re 7 or 81, but “eight to eighty” sounds better!)

Isn’t that sweet. I liked the way she had to stress the pronunciation of Modelland. (It’s Model and Land, get it?)

Ever since I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to pick up a new book and see what worlds the writers had created for me. I especially loved books with strong girls and women – you know, girls with guts, smarts and attitude – and then one day it came to me… MODELLAND!

You know, girls, because “Intoxibellas are drop-dead beautiful, kick-butt fierce and, yeah, maybe they have some powers too.”

I, for one, can’t wait for the fan fiction.


Writing Manuals

Amusing little article in The Atlantic:

no, I’m talking about straight how-to books, most of which claimed to offer shortcut advice, practical instructions on “writing your say the genre,” and even in some cases “secrets” of the novelist’s or story writer’s or poet’s trade. That day, with Delores, I stood among the titles, amazed. Stack upon stack of them.

“These sell really well,” she told me. “You wouldn’t believe how many people want to be writers out there.”

I said, “Damn.” That was what came out of me. We were looking at 50 different titles—a lot. More than I would’ve believed existed. And in the next moment, she offered me $10,000 to write one. “Really,” she said. “These kinds of books sell better than the fiction books.”

“Well,” I said. “Lordy.” I picked one up and put it down, picked up another and turned it in my hand and put it down. “Lordy.”

“Ten thousand dollars,” she said. “And I’ve heard you lecture. You could knock one of these off in a few days, I’ll bet.”

I’ll be honest with you. I am not a fan of writing manuals, and articles like this don’t make me want to change my mind. There’s nothing so annoying as having someone tell you the right way to write a book, right? Because I don’t think there is one, you learn by doing, and I’ve always suspected there’s some kind of exploitative subculture on the fetish of being a writer.

I guess there’s some kind of therapeutic, we’re all in this together kind of value to be gleaned from such books, but hey – when it comes to doing it, there’s just your way, and what works for you, so I say ignore all this distracting white noise. The more time you spend worrying about writing, the less writing you do. Having said that, James seemed to enjoy this one.

How many writers actually use manuals, out of interest, and how useful are they to you? I mean, I could totally rant about how useless I’ve found them to be, but I’m sure I’ve annoyed enough people by now. I’m happy to be humbled and proven wrong on their true value.

I’ve had a few emails recently asking about getting published, and I hold my hands up and shrug. I can only talk about the things you can actually write about, things to increase your chances, but there’s no golden ticket, just years of graft. Admittedly I did write this post a year or so back, but the more I get into writing, the more awkward I feel about giving advice.

Just write.

And enjoy it, yeah? That’s the fun part, the thinking-up-mad-shit.


Book Factories

I find some of this incredible, so I’ll highlight a big chunk:

In the heyday of pulp fiction, writers churned their books out at a great rate, usually to earn enough money to live on. Prentiss Ingraham wrote more than 600 books, 200 of them on Buffalo Bill. Occasionally, he wrote a 35,000-word book overnight. This was before the days of laptops and I hate to think of his writer’s cramp.

Writers whose progress is slow usually grind their teeth on hearing these statistics, but comfort themselves with the thought that the more prolific the writers, the more likely they are to produce rubbish.

Alas, this is cold comfort when they remember Joyce Carol Oates, considered one of the world’s finest writers. This brilliant and (to rival writers) perpetually infuriating woman has turned out more than 100 books in 45 years, many of them big, fat tomes. Other prolific literati include Georges Simenon (500 books in 70 years), John Updike (at least 60 books in 50 years) and P. G. Wodehouse (about 100 books in 75 years).

Apart from the truly manic fringe, what makes authors prolific? Sometimes the market demands it. Best-selling genre authors are expected to produce a new book at least every second year or so. Thriller writer James Patterson subcontracts other authors to compose first drafts from his outlines, which means he can produce several books a year.

And I thought I was doing well for my 1,000 words a day.

The first thing that comes to mind with all this is – quality. Is it possibly to write so much, so quickly, and for it to be of decent quality, knowing how thorough the rewriting and editorial feedback process can be when done properly? I guess most readers won’t even notice how the speed of a novel affects the final product, and I’m sure many writers’ minds work quicker than others. Also, there are market pressures for all of this, as the article states. Readers want more of the same thing and they want it now.

As an related aside, I do find it amusing when some reviewers say “the book could have done with more editing”. An editor (not mine) commented on this at Eastercon recently – it’s ridiculous for people to say that, because have they any idea just what work went into that manuscript in the first place? That an editor could have reduced a novel by half to have some clown still say it needs a good edit (when they might also mean, for example, that they didn’t agree with the pacing).

No. People are only ever presented with the end result, and just connect with that.

So no matter how slowly a novel may be written, no matter rigorous the editorial process can be, no matter how many years are spent working on it, most readers will only see it on an equal level with something that is churned out quickly. Few people see what goes on within the book factory.

P.S. As you can see, any of you struggling writers who take more than a year to finish the manuscript, you’ve got to be quicker than that…


Tie-in Fiction Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

I just wanted to post a note on tie-in fiction, because Graham McNeill’s Empire has been shortlisted on the online poll for the David Gemmell Legend Award. It very much has my backing to win, not only because Graham is a good chap, but because it’s about time the world acknowledged tie-in fiction as proper fiction. Secretly, I think if this book wins, they’ll change the rules to not allow public voting, perhaps not even tie-ins.

I know that a Warhammer book on the list will surprise many people. Many won’t know Empire even exists, but folk in the genre need surprising by the fact a tie-in book is indeed popular. To cast a blind eye to such fiction is called snobbery, and given that huge swathes of readers look down on SFF, I find it incredulous such an attitude persists.

Quick note: Technically two tie-in books are on the Gemmell Award shortlist – the Sanderson/Jordan Wheel of Time book is another author writing in someone else’s creation – there is simply no difference. Tie-in/franchise/creator-owned – it’s all the same zone of literature.


You know, major genre publications have spent years not even acknowledging tie-in as real fiction, refusing even to have conversations about it. Tie-in fiction is hugely important, and keeps people reading SF and Fantasy where they otherwise might not, and the novels themselves are entertaining and well-written – on average – as much as an original SF and Fantasy novel. The worldbuilding can be incredible, the detail way beyond anything most authors can manage because often it’s had years of organic evolution. You want immersion? Visit a tie-in world. I’m chuffed that many bloggers review tie-in fiction. I keep going on about how there used to be review “gatekeepers” to opinion a few years ago, but the blogosphere has changed that, and tie-ins have benefited.

Check out this chat I had last year on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog with million-selling author Dan Abnett for more detail on what I can’t distill here. Read to the bottom.

Go on. Because tie-in fiction doesn’t mean what you think it means.