Category: creative writing
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.
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.
The Golden Rule – a few thoughts about writing steampunk
Today sees the publication of The Golden Rule, my contribution to a collection of four steampunk novellas from Newcon Press which can be purchased individually or as a set. These stories are linked by their cover art, but apart from that, they stand alone. The other titles are Under Pressure by Fabio Fernandes, The London Particular by George Mann, and The Visionary Pageant by Paul Di Filippo.
Steampunk is great fun, in comics, in stories, and in the cogs and goggles aesthetic of the terrific costumes people create. It also draws on the popular literature of the Victorian era that can be too easily overlooked as a significant forerunner of the science fiction and fantasy genres that have evolved in the last century and a half. So far, so good.
However… when I was first invited to try my hand at a steampunk story, revisiting a classic of such literature, I opted for the author H Rider Haggard. Rereading his work for the first time in decades, I was appalled by the racism and sexism underpinning the melodrama. It was scant comfort to realise none of this unpleasantness had made any lasting impression on teenage me. Hopefully, anyway. Certainly, I do know to check for any lingering echoes in my work these days. This rereading did alert me to one major potential pitfall of writing steampunk. While contemporary writers should have the sense to steer clear of the overt bigotry, I realised it could be far too easy to slip into an uncritical pro-Empire mindset, defaulting to Rule Britannia and all that.
Fortunately, as well as H Rider Haggard’s books, those library shelves I had scoured as a teenager held other classics of Victorian literature which offered no such rosy view of their society, such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I also came across non-fiction like Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa (1897) which gave a very different view of colonisation. So I was aware that critical voices were speaking up in that very era. That gave me the starting point for that first story ‘She Who Thinks For Herself’. As I wrote more late-Victorian stories, in the overlap between steampunk and horror, I continued to use the viewpoints of the overlooked and disregarded to shine a different light on the great deeds of the great white men who assume they are in unquestioned charge. You can find those stories in Challoner, Murray and Balfour: Monster Hunters at Law.
In the decades since I was a teenager, the Establishment’s vision of benign imperialism bestowing railways, democracy and afternoon tea on grateful colonials has been increasingly challenged by a wide range of historians and journalists. We are starting to see a far more complex and multi-layered picture of peoples, places and events. When I was invited to contribute to this quartet of novellas, I recalled one such book and wondered if that might give me a starting point for an exciting steampunk story with a different perspective on the alleged Glories of Empire. I found Anita Anand’s “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary” on my bookshelves and went from there. This story of an exiled Sikh princess, god-daughter to Queen Victoria, led me to the Golden Jubilee of 1887, where I found that celebration had dramatic facets I had never suspected. Here is a photo of the Indian Cavalry who played a central role in the procession. If you want to know their role in my story though, you’ll have to read The Golden Rule – now available from Newcon Press, and you can find the ebook on Amazon.
The J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature 2022
Last night’s thoughtful and thought-provoking JRR Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature by Rebecca F. Kuang is now available on the organisation’s YouTube channel – along with previous years’ talks from Pembroke College, Oxford, where Tolkien served as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon from 1925-1945. All very well worth your time.
You can find out more about Rebecca and about the lecture series here.
Here’s the link to this year’s video.
I went into Oxford to be in the audience, and it was great to see established friends and to make new acquaintances. I used the Park & Ride – and on the way back, I really thought I was going to just miss the bus and have to wait half an hour in the rain for the next one. But no! There is a special place in heaven* for a bus driver who sees you start running as he’s driven past, and so waits at the next stop for you to get there, even though there are no other passengers waiting to board. (*or equivalent spiritual reward)
Is it a steal? The questions to ask about paid-for publishing
The Society of Authors and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain have published a joint report looking into companies that charge writers for publication. You will not be surprised to learn there are a lot of shady goings-on in this area of the book business. For one thing, the sharks and charlatans like to muddy the waters with terms like ‘hybrid’ and ‘indie’ publishing. They’re able to do this because these terms mean different things to different people.
‘Hybrid’ originally meant authors self-publishing alongside working with a mainstream publisher. ‘Indie’ used to mean small independent presses not owned by one of the multinational conglomerates. These days, ‘indie’ has been co-opted by self-publishers (not with any underhand intent), while what used to be called ‘vanity’ presses would have you believe that ‘hybrid’ now means the author putting in money up front for a project, as well as the (alleged) publisher.
Now, there are currently a whole lot of different ways to work with a publisher. At the moment, I have five separate agreements on the go, and the details of each contract are different. For one, I have chosen to commission and pay for editorial input and artwork myself and to then supply the complete package to the publisher rather than have them undertake this part of the publishing process. These choices I have made are reflected in the royalty rate I receive. All of this information is readily available to me, the whole process is transparent, and at no point am I paying the publisher for anything. This is a legitimate way to do business.
Compare and contrast the sharks and charlatans. When I’ve been judging genre prizes and books come in from a publisher I don’t know, I go and check who I’m dealing with. Legitimate small presses I just haven’t come across before are easy to identify , but when it comes to vanity presses, the tell-tale info is often very deliberately and well hidden on websites. There are weasel words like ‘contributory’ and ‘partnership’ as well as hideous rights grabs buried under layers of obfuscation, just in case they are handed some real gem.
Though that is unlikely. When it comes to the books, vanity presses are almost always horribly, wretchedly obvious. I mean 99.99% of the time at least! I recall one first person narrative which included the detailed description of a knife that had just stabbed our heroine in the back where she couldn’t reach it. So… how could she see it then? The whole book – okay, the 65 pages I read before I quit – was full of these basic creative writing errors. There had been no meaningful editorial input at all – though I bet the author had paid well above the going rate for that, from what I read on the website. Things like this might be funny, except these authors sometimes contact prize judges, wondering why they haven’t been short-listed (yes, really) and it’s painfully clear they’ve been fed wholly unreal expectations by, well, con-artists. It’s awful to be the person trying to explain what’s happened to them.
So it comes as absolutely no surprise to me at all to see from this report –
• 94% of respondents lost money, typically in the thousands.
• The average loss was £1,861 with some writers reporting losses as high as £9,900.
• The median cost of publication was £2,000.
• A median of only 67 books were sold per deal, resulting in royalties of only £68.
• 59% of writers said their book was not available to buy in retail outlets
You can read the Society of Authors’ article here, and download the full report.
Do spread the word, and bookmark the info, in case you come across another writer in danger of being bamboozled.
A diary update
It still feels a bit strange to be putting in-person dates in the diary – in a good way. I’m also very pleased to still be putting online events into my schedule. We have learned how these can be done successfully now, and how important opportunities to participate have become to so many people who would be unable to join in otherwise. Hybrid events definitely need to be part of the future.
As far as my future plans go –
Thursday 7th April – London Book Fair
Talk: 10:45-11:30 Making a Living from Writing
along with Society of Authors CEO Nicola Solomon (Chair) Abie Longstaff and Katrina Naomi.
15th – 18th April – the 72nd Eastercon: Reclamation
I’ll be joining friends and fans at the Radisson Hotel & Conference Centre, London Heathrow for what promises to be an excellent programme.
20th April – an online talk and conversation session with the Chalk Scribblers Writers’ Group.
7th – 14th May – Milford Writers Retreat, Trigonos, North Wales
1st – 4th July – Westercon 74
Thanks to the marvels of technology, I’ll be part of the international online programming organised by this convention taking place in Tonopah, Nevada.
Friday 16th September – Boston Book Festival (that’s the original Boston, Lincolnshire, UK btw)
At 7pm I’ll be talking about Myth and Modern Fantasy Fiction, and how I write the Green Man books, as well as taking questions.
And there will doubtless be more to add in due course.
Guest post – Jacey Bedford on writing epic fantasy for modern readers
As a fan of her SF and her alternate-history-shapeshifter-fantasy, I was very interested to learn that Jacey Bedford’s new novel is a standalone epic fantasy. So I invited her to share a few thoughts on her approach to writing this sort of story for modern readers.
Writing Epic Fantasy for a Modern Audience by Jacey Bedford
You are what you eat, or should that be, you write what you read?
The Amber Crown is set in a historical fantasy version of the Baltic countries, in the imaginary kingdom of Zavonia.I have robbed history for the details.
I got into fantasy a little late in life, not reading the Narnia books until I was at least nine years old. Of course I’d been primed for fantasy from an early age with traditional fairy tales, the watered down Disneyfied versions, not the gory Grimm versions with the cutting off of heels – they came later. I somehow missed Tolkien in my teen years, being more into science fiction and then in my early twenties I discovered Andre Norton, especially her Witch World books. That was it, I fell in love.
This was before the advent of easy internet access, Google, Amazon and Abe Books, so when I first travelled to Canada in 1995 I thought I’d landed in heaven when a friend introduced me to (what was then) Bakka – Toronto’s specialist SF/.F book store (now Bakka-Phoenix). I bought so many books, many of them Andre Nortons, (then unavailable in the UK) that I shipped half of them home, and bought a new suitcase for the other half which then cost me $100 in excess baggage. It was worth every cent.
I loved Andre Norton’s Witch World with a deep passion, though not blindly. They were generally much shorter than a lot of SF/F today. Her dialogue was always a little stilted as though she was trying to mimic older patterns of speech, and there was romance, but no sex. It didn’t matter, I loved them unconditionally, but when I started writing my own stories, I didn’t necessarily want to emulate them.
For starters my books are relatively hefty. The Amber Crown is 469 pages, that’s 160,000 words. Luckily my editor said she doesn’t mind a lot of words, as long as they are good words.
Dialogue is so important. It not only moves the plot forward but it says a lot about character and emotion. I try to avoid the kind of dialogue that screams, ‘Prithee, sirrah, I am writing a story set in ye past.’ (OK, I’ve never quite come across that kind of dialogue but you know what I mean.) At the same time I try to avoid more modern slang words. When Valdas curses he often uses, “God’s ballocks!” – religious curses being more likely than sexual ones.
I avoid longwinded descriptions. I haven’t a clue what colour Valdas’s eyes are, but I do know that he shaved off his drooping moustache so it wouldn’t identify him as a renegade army officer. I do know that Lind has golden curls when he lets his hair grow out, and that he was pretty as a boy apprentice, which is what earned him the trouble which has clouded his life ever since. I needed these bits of description to advance the plot.
Pacing is so important for a modern audience; less infodumping and more dripfeeding of background information as the story progresses. My books are long, so I try to make every word count.
With The Amber Crown I wanted to write something that was, if not pacier, at least racier. I’ve never shied away from writing sex in my books (to the consternation of my son, though not my daughter). Can you imagine if Tolkien had written sex scenes in Lord of the Rings? No? Me neither. And any sex in Witch World books happened tastefully off the page, though it must have happened or how else did Simon and Jaelithe produce triplets?
I decided not to be coy about it. The Amber Crown has got plenty of sex in it, though it’s there to drive the plot, not to titillate. My three main viewpoint characters have vastly different attitudes towards sex. Valdas loves and respects women, every part of them, fat, thin, young, old, pretty or plain. He likes what’s between their ears as well as what’s between their legs, and he’ll take no for an answer. When the book opens, he’s captain of the King’s High Guard, responsible for the king’s safety which means he spends a lot of his time at court and in the palace, but he’s sensible enough not to form liaisons with court ladies, or even palace servants. He takes his pleasure in the whorehouses of the Low Town, often with his favourite, Aniela. Occasionally whores are smuggled into the palace by the turning of a blind eye by one brother officer for another. This becomes a plot point later in the book, as does Valdas’s relationship with Aniela. But I’m getting ahead of myself, Valdas’s life changes in an instant when his king is assassinated. I’m not giving away spoilers, it happens on the first page.
Mirza is the shulam (witch-healer) of the Bakaishans, a Landstrider band of travellers. She’s loved and feared in equal measure for her ability to walk the spirit world, and her scolding tongue. She has a port wine stain on her face and neck which the band thinks is a witchmark, and the men firmly believe that if they bed her their kok and stones will shrivel and fall off. Unsurprisingly she’s a virgin, and so approaches sex as a voyage of discovery. Other issues arise further into the book and, again sex drives one aspect of the plot, but if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.
Lind is the clever assassin who worms his way into the palace kitchens as the fishmonger’s delivery man. He was a fascinating character to write. He has more hangups than a closet full of coats. Due to an appalling history of childhood abuse, he can’t bear being touched and the last thing he wants is sex. He rents a room in a whorehouse because it’s a place he feels safe. He reasons that the whores only want sex if he pays them, and since he’s not going to do that, they’ll leave him alone, which is largely true.
I try to write honestly about sex. It’s part of life and it’s part of the plot – but only part. So, what else to expect in The Amber Crown? Political machinations, strong female characters who play an active part in the story, dark magic, natural magic, a cranky horse called Donkey, a missing queen, bandits, betrayals, diverse characters (white, black, brown, straight, gay, asexual), an epic sword fight, and an unexpected villain. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
The Amber Crown is out today, Tuesday 11th January 2022, published by DAW
Do check your own preferred retailers as well