A passing thought on fashion in fiction
Among the photos of fashions at the Met Gala, this is what caught my eye. In 2022 singer/musician Lizzo wore a Thom Browne coat that took 22,000 worker-hours to create, including 1200 hours for the gold embroidery. Highly skilled needle-worker hours.
Epic fantasy (and other) writers should please note this aspect of the historical elite’s clothes/furnishings. These things are a visible display of wealth’s ability to command other people’s time and labour in a world without today’s brand name status symbols.
I have no idea of the price tag on Lizzo’s coat, and still less how much of that reached those needle-workers. I’m guessing the deal was as exploitative as that seems to be the norm in this particular area of the fashion industry. That’s a separate conversation.
I have written about this before – click here
A few thoughts on the reality of life as an author in 2023
My last post highlighted the biggest misconception I see about being a author these days. Feedback has included people asking perfectly reasonably and politely what I might have to say about the reality of being a writer in 2023. Fair enough. Here are some of the things that come up most often in conversations about this.
A lot depends on what you’re looking for as an author starting out these days. Do you have to pay the rent/mortgage/bills? Are you looking for a secondary income? Most authors start out part-time. A few go full-time later.
Authors supporting themselves through writing alone work extremely hard – and I mean flat out – at some combination of writing for multiple publishers, in multiple genres/media i.e. comics, film, TV, audio drama, computer games, franchise and tie-in work, ghost writing and more besides.
They often also write e.g. general or specialist non-fiction, newspaper features, articles for trade press and corporate in-house publications, advertising copy, greetings cards – anything that involves communicating with words basically. The list is endless.
Writing alongside a day job is absolutely valid. There’s a good chance your writing will be better for that lack of pressure. ‘Succeed or starve!’ is not a good motivator. Where access to healthcare depends on employment, you need a job. One day you will need a pension.
I know writers with just about every conceivable day job, including being house spouse/duty parent/carer. Writing around other responsibilities does not make your writing a hobby. Nor does having a supportive partner. Professional is a state of mind. It is not defined by earnings.
By all means submit to the big lists, but also look beyond the lure of the mass-market, global publisher deal. Find out about smaller presses publishing books like yours. Their deals may well offer better returns for the writer per copy sold and more regular payments, as well as more personal and committed working relationships. Initial publication with a reputable, professional small press is a well established and respected route to a deal with a big publisher. Writers can learn a lot and hone their skills. Look at recent literary and genre prize short lists and those authors’ subsequent careers.
Always do your research and never sign a contract without getting professional advice. Always remember if a deal looks too good to be true, then something somewhere is wrong. Beware of sharks and charlatans and just plain incompetence.
Print on demand and ebooks have changed the business models on backlist income and shorter form fiction. Digital audiobooks have changed that market. Digital-first publishing is another innovation. The pace of change is rapid, which is why you need to keep up to date.
Retain as many rights as you possibly can, grant rights for a defined number of years and make sure all rights have a clearly set-out reversion clause. If none of that means anything to you, or if contract negotiation really isn’t your thing, get professional advice. Talk to the Society of Authors or your local equivalent writers’ organisation. Contact some literary agents. Yes, having a agent will cost you, but having 75% of a decent chunk of change is better than getting 100% of a pittance.
By all means consider self-publishing, in this age of ebooks and print on demand. Be aware that success defined as making a living doing this means non-writing tasks will demand minimum 50% of your available time. Offering a quality product is crucial. You must pay for professional editing. Unless you have the skills, you’ll need to pay for layout, cover art, design. Discoverability is a massive hurdle. Marketing is hard.
In conclusion, bearing in mind I signed my first publishing contract is 1997? Write because you want to write. Write because you enjoy it. Write because other folk enjoy reading your stories, however long or short they may be. Write to make money on the terms that work for you personally. You don’t have to justify those choices to anyone. Good luck!
A note on the importance of up to date info for novelists
The publishing trade press has been discussing the stresses and disappointments felt by debut novelists these days. The response on social media from established authors has been … not unsympathetic but it has certainly been bracing in offering a reality check. This article from David Barnett is a good reflection, and contains much good sense.
There’s one aspect I’m not seeing mentioned though, and this is important.
My greatest concern is the new writers I meet who have been taught by magazines, books and creative writing courses, to believe that the old business model of advances plus royalties from backlist will equal a modest living after a few years – as long as your well-written and edited book finds a readership and nothing disastrous happens.
That business model is dead as the dodo and has been for years. It relied on an ecosystem of multiple mass-market book shops in the high streets which has disappeared, and the book sellers we still have don’t carry backlist because well over a decade ago, publishers decided (for good reasons for their business model) to make titles over 18 months old firm-sale only. I frequently have to explain what that means. That came as a huge relief to one several-books published writer baffled by the lack of sales for her earlier books because no one had ever told her this.
The book trade has always relied on the 5-12 books a year reader, and a great many of those readers now make their choices from the limited selection of perfectly good books they are offered in the supermarkets. So the old rule of thumb that 20% of titles make 80% of a mass market publisher’s profits no longer applies. It’s more like 5% of titles bring in 95% of the revenue these days, and mass market publishers focus their efforts accordingly. They’re in business to make money.
Yes, this is a highly simplified view, and there are a whole lot of other factors at play, as I’m sure many of you reading this will be very well aware. The thing is though, I meet far too many new writers who don’t even know this much. Would-be authors have a responsibility to educate themselves about the realities of the book trade, from publishing to retail – but agents and editors could do more to check what misconceptions debut novelists have brought with them, and to make sure they’re up to date.
So that’s how the book trade doesn’t work these days. How can authors hope to make a living then? That’s a perfectly reasonable question, so I’ll consider that in my next post. After all, I’m still writing after all these years. Here’s my latest book for your consideration.
My Eastercon schedule
For those who might be curious, this is what I’ll be doing over the Easter weekend, as well as seeing established pals, making new friends and a whole lot more interesting things besides.
If you’re at the convention, feel free to say hello, and I’m always happy to sign books and chat – as long as I’m not actually on my way to a panel.
Hey, you! Pay me!
Balmoral – Fri 12:00–13:00
Even the most experienced authors sometimes find invoices unpaid. Our panel talks about the art of valuing your work, and getting what you deserve – and some of the barriers to that.
With Wendy Bradley, Mike Brooks, John Jarrold
Readings: Adult Orientated and the Fantastical
Balmoral – Fri 19:30–20:30
With F. D. Lee, Sandra Bond and Wole Talabi
I’ll be reading from The Cleaving, and remember, Books on the Hill in the Dealers’ Room will have advance copies.
GoH Interview: I have the pleasure and privilege of talking to Kari Sperring about her work and her involvement with fandom, and doubtless other things as well.
Queens – Sat 12:00–13:00
Thirty-four years, and an interim survey
Sandringham – Sun 13:30–14:30
In 1989, Paul Kincaid surveyed working UK-based science fiction and fantasy writers, and wrote up the results for Mexicon. In 2009, Niall Harrison repeated the questionnaire, and wrote up the results for the BSFA, considering the changes in the SF field during those twenty years. We’re not quite due another iteration, but this panel will ask some current writers to answer some of the questions.
With Niall Harrison, Stew Hotston, Anne Charnock, Neil Williamson, Nina Allan
Queens – Sun 15:00–16:00
As a canon written by many authors down the ages, Arthuriana is uniquely flexible in letting you choose which version canon you want, and how you want to adapt it.
With Russell A Smith, Gillian Polack, Kari Sperring, James Bennett
A week to go to The Cleaving – links round-up
This time next week, The Cleaving will be published. The Angry Robot team are doing splendid work spreading the word – Caroline and Amy are absolute stars.
Click here to pre-order the ebook or the paperback direct from Angry Robot.
Over at Lithub, Natalie Zutter includes The Cleaving in her recommendations for some spring reading, alongside books from Peter S Beagle, Emily Tesh, Fonda Lee, Vivian Shaw, Andrea Stewart, TJ Klune, and Catherynne M Valente.
“Juliet E. McKenna retells the familiar Arthuriana epic through the eyes of enchantress Nimue, who possesses the same magic as Merlin but has more scruples than he does about interfering in mortal lives. So while Merlin helps Uther Pendragon trick the lady Ygraine into conceiving Arthur, Nimue is by Ygraine’s side, disguised as her handmaiden.
While the saga’s familiar male characters—Merlin, Uther, Arthur, Lancelot, Mordred—make their big moves through the rhythms of war, The Cleaving focuses on the women’s work and equally vital intrigues back at court. When Arthur’s half-sister Morgana and future wife Guinevere are brought into the mix, Nimue’s interactions with each provide additional context as to why both women make such dangerous choices that will eventually spell the fall of Camelot.”
I’ve mentioned the various interesting and enjoyable podcast chats I’ve had recently, and you can now listen to a couple of those conversations at the following places.
And here’s where you can find me in person over the next little while.
Diary updates and online links to panel discussions
In a couple of weeks, 7th – 10th April, I’ll be at Conversation, the 2023 Eastercon in Birmingham. I’ll have the tremendous pleasure of interviewing Guest of Honour, Kari Sperring, as well as discussing assorted aspects of the craft and business of writing fantasy and science fiction with interesting people. I will also be reading from my new novel, The Cleaving, and discussing Arthuriana in its various forms.
The Cleaving is officially published on 11th April 2023, but Books on the Hill should have advance copies at Eastercon. If you want to buy sets of the paperbacks of either The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, or The Hadrumal Crisis trilogies, for the at-convention price of £5, email me – firstname.lastname@example.org . Then I’ll know how many books to stick in the boot of the car, and you can pay me at the Convention.
If you’re not at Eastercon, but you’re within striking distance of London, I’ll be at the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club on 11th April, celebrating the official publication day of The Cleaving, along with Anna Smith Spark, and Michael R Miller. This monthly event takes place as The Star of Kings pub near Kings Cross and I recommend you check it out regularly. We’ll give short readings from our upcoming books, and talk about writing, reading and well, whatever else comes up in conversation with everyone there. It’ll be a really fun evening.
In May, I’ll be at the Milford SF Writers Retreat in Trigonos, North Wales. As long as everything’s still going to plan, I’ll be polishing up this year’s Green Man book before sending the draft over to Editor Toby. No spoilers, but I am really pleased with how this one’s coming together…
Looking forward to 2nd – 4th June, I’ll be in Edinburgh for Cymera, Scotland’s festival of science-fiction, fantasy and horror writing, as a guest speaker. This will be my first time at this particular event, and everyone I know who’s been before has enthusiastically recommended it. It will also be great to visit Scotland again. We’ll take the opportunity to have a holiday there as well.
So I’ll be getting out and about. That’s not possible for everyone of course, and the SF&F genre is very fortunate in the range and variety of online events and podcasts that fans and creators now support. I’ve recorded a good few interviews and chats lately that will be coming your way over the next few months. I’ll post links when I have them.
Meantime, you can check out this year’s panels at TBRCon – there’s loads of good stuff. Scroll down and you’ll find me and others discussing ‘Slice of Life Fantasy’.
More recently, I joined children’s writer Abie Longstaff, poet Katrina Naomi, and crime writer Sam Blake in her everyday persona of Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, to discuss making a living as a writer, as part of the Society of Authors’ ‘At Home’ programme of events. You can catch up with the video here. Again, there are a whole of of other videos available, and you don’t have to be a member of the Society to access any of this invaluable advice. (You might like to think about joining the Society, do take a look at what membership offers.)
Diary updates – BFS Event 18th Feb, and more!
It’s all go at the moment, and in the best way. This coming Saturday 18th February, I’ll be taking part in the British Fantasy Society’s online February event. I’ll be on a panel at 1.45pm GMT discussing Hard vs Soft Magic Systems, with LR Lam and Steve McHugh.
Before that, at 1.30 I’m on the Author Readings schedule when I’ll be reading from The Cleaving for the very first time anywhere.
There’s a whole roster of great writers reading through the day, plus another panel on approaches to world-building, and an interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky, who is always worth listening to. You can find out full details and more besides on the BFS News page – click here.
On 14th March, I’m on a panel for the Society of Authors At Home event, discussing making a living from writing with children’s author Abie Longstaff and poet Katrina Naomi, chaired by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (also known as the crime writer Sam Blake). This will be a reprise of our very successful event at last year’s London Book Fair where we lay out the realities of the book business and suggest ways to maximise your earning opportunities. Full details here – and like all online SoA events (apart from the AGM) this will be open to members and non-members alike.
I’m also having a lot of fun recording some interviews this week, with the Fantasy Fellowship for their YouTube channel, and for the Read Write podcast. I’ll post links when those are available for you to enjoy.
And there’s more to come!
Recent reading and an online interview
The ongoing Twitter fiasco makes it harder and harder for authors to connect with readers in the ways we – and publishers – have come to rely on. So please share your enthusiasm for recent books you’ve enjoyed on whatever social media you use. Whatever the route, word of mouth recommendations sell books and those sales keep writers writing.
Another response seems to be a revival in blogging. Not that it ever went away. I’ve had the opportunity to answer some interesting questions from The Big Bearded Bookseller and you can read that interview with a click here. Readers, writers and illustrators as well as booksellers should definitely be aware of this website which offers a wealth of information.
I will now do my bit with a review of The City Revealed by Juliet Kemp, published by Elsewhen Press. The hardback and ebook are out and the paperback is published on 20th February.
I can’t recall if I’ve ever reviewed the fourth book in a series without having read the others. Why do that now? Well, I find Juliet Kemp an interesting writer to talk to, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen of their work. So when they offered me an advance copy of their forthcoming novel I was quick to say yes. Obviously, I could have gone and read the previous ‘Marek’ books first – The Deep and Shining Dark, Shadow and Storm, and The Rising Flood, but I decided not to. One of the serious tests for an author writing the next book in a series, is not demanding a reread of what’s gone before. I’m pleased to report that Kemp more than meets this challenge with unobtrusive recap which reads as naturally as backstory in a first volume.
The city of Marek faces multiple challenges. Declaring independence from the neighbouring ruling power hasn’t gone down well with those erstwhile overlords. Whose will now hold the highest authority in the city itself is hotly debated, and not only among the powerful Houses of the ruling Council. The Guilds are determined to have their say, while other factions in the wider population have plenty to say about the Guilds. There are different schools of thought on the different schools of magic which come with various limits and costs. When it comes to sorcery, what some see as opportunity, others see as threat. But magic is central to the city’s defences, and there’s every reason to expect an attack.
Marcia, House Fereno representative on the Council, is trying to handle all these things at once, while she’s in the final weeks of a pregnancy. She still has to work out how she’s going to co-parent the baby with her friend and sometime lover Andreas while sustaining her relationship with her girlfriend Reb. Just to make life that bit more complicated, Reb’s a sorcerer. This is one of a range of relationships among the characters, along with varied expressions of gender and sexuality. Why? Because that’s simply how life is in this particular fantasy world and it’s not the world we live in. This facet of the book shows how far epic fantasy has come since the days of white knights rescuing damsels in distress. Other aspects of Kemp’s world-building have moved on from such default settings. There are guns and broadsheets and the complexities of trade and geography, all conveyed with a deft touch.
At the same time, Kemp understands and shares the fascination with the core themes which have sustained this genre for so long. We see different characters’ responses to change and upheaval. We see tensions between moderates and radicals, and the struggles of those longing for progress with those who seek security in the status quo. Some people look for allies, others only want personal advantage. Others just want to shut their eyes and hope it all goes away. Kemp makes these people solidly believable, in their flaws as well as their strengths, through well-written dialogue and convincing interactions. Readers will care about these characters, even when some miscalculation leaves us wanting to shake someone till their teeth rattle. This makes for an eminently satisfying narrative where the personal, the political and the magical are multilayered and interlocked. A book – and a series – well worth checking out.
A Reading Recommendation – The Tangled Lands from Glenda Larke
A major plus of being an author is reading new work from other writers ahead of publication. I thoroughly enjoyed The Tangled Lands from Glenda Larke, published by Wizard’s Tower Press on January 26th 2023. The story starts with the birth of a royal heir to the realm of Talodic, but it’s clear the king has enemies who are hatching an audacious plan to force his hand to – do what, exactly? And who are these sorcerers the plotters hope will help them, and where have they come from?
Before we find out any of this, the story leaps forward eighteen years. We meet Taygen Hervan-Gariane, locked up in the King’s Keep, and awaiting execution for treason. King Edwild’s historian Lady Sianta has ordered him to write an account of his crimes. That’s quite a story, thanks to Taygen’s propensity to make bad choices for what seem like good reasons at the time. Since he’s quick-witted as well as quick on his feet, he mostly manages to outrun the consequences – until now. He finds himself facing no good outcomes. Worse, his family have become enmeshed in his misfortune and he brings down disaster on them.
Then – a different character entirely takes up the narrative; Haze, the wanderer whom Taygen unwisely befriended. We see events through very different eyes, enabling the reader to piece together more of the underlying mystery that swirls around Haze’s travelling companion Innata. Not even Haze knows this mature and alluring woman’s true identity, or her connection to the dreaded Red Weaver sorcerers.
Larke is a skilled and experienced author. Her characters are rounded and convincing, from the major players down to those who come and go in the course of a few pages. She balances supremely well-timed revelations with twists that throw up new questions. The highly inventive world building is as unobtrusive as it is coherent, giving readers crucial context before they realise they need it. As with all good fantasy, these people and places also hold up a magic mirror to our own world, giving the narrative depth and relevance, though always with a light touch.
The story takes classic epic fantasy ideas and turns them into a fresh new story that’s as uncompromising as it is satisfying. Dangers here are very real and so are deaths. What’s done cannot be undone, as long as Innata can stay a few paces ahead of her enemies at least. If not? All bets are off. The story gathers pace, with surprises right to the end. Though Larke always plays fair; everything that happens is rooted in what has gone before, even if only hindsight that reveals this.
If you’re an epic fantasy fan, you won’t want to miss this. If you’ve drifted away from the genre, finding stories becoming too predictable, take a look to be reminded just how powerful such tales can be when they’re this well crafted.
You can purchase it from your preferred store through the links at the Wizard’s Tower Press website.
Dates for the diary
On Tuesday 24th January – 7 pm GMT/2 pm EST. I’ll be part of TBRCon’s ‘Slice-of-Life Fantasy’ panel alongside Tom Bookbeard (moderator), Travis Baldree, Rebecca Ross, Stephanie Burgis, Travis M. Riddle and Quenby Olson. This will be a live panel, lasting no more than 90 minutes, streaming on the FanFiAddict YouTube channel.
#TBRCon2023 takes place January 22-29, 2023, and is an all-virtual SF/F/H convention with 30 author panels, 25 author readings/Q&As, 3 live podcast episodes and 3 live D&D sessions. It will be absolutely FREE to watch live or catching up later. Check your social media for the hashtag and marvel at the full programme.
On Tuesday 14th March – 10 am GMT. I’ll be online again, taking part in the Society of Authors At Home panel discussing ‘Making a living from writing’, alongside Katrina Naomi, Abie Longstaff and Sam Blake.
As far as other travels and events are concerned, I plan on being at Eastercon and Fantasycon, and I’ll doubtless be heading elsewhere as well. If our paths cross, feel free to say hello.