Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Soul Crushing Lies Authors Tell Themselves When They Submit

Hi Guys,

New post this time, quite a bit different from what I normally write. This post is not about writing per se. It's about the submissions process. About putting your work out there, sending it off to agents, and then living in hope and fear as you wait for a response. It's about the myths and lies that authors believe about the submissions process. And mostly it's about not giving in to the dark demons that plague so many people and which can destroy an author.

Okay, submitting your work to an agent or a publisher is a difficult and sometimes harrowing process. In a very real way it's as though you are putting yourself out there, naked and in public, to be judged by others. And I would guess though as far as I know there are no statistics on it, it's the place where most authors give up and dreams die.

I can't stop that. I can't tell all you new and hopeful authors out there that you have a future. That your work is brilliant or terrible. But I can at least give you another perspective on the submissions process. A reality check if you like. And I'll do it by looking at the myths and lies that abound in people's thoughts about it. The ones that in one form or another seem to be rehashed on writing fora and elsewhere throughout the net.

So here it is - myth by myth.

Myth 1. If my work is good an agent will pick it up.

No. Absolutely do not ever believe this. This way lies the death of the soul. And it's a straight out lie. A big, fat porky. The truth is that your work might be picked up - but it is very unlikely. Agents are busy people. They are snowed under with manuscripts submitted to them. And they can only take a very few. Almost every author has a string of rejection letters for their work. I do. J.K. Rowling does. You are just one of five hundred others on their desks, and the chances are that at best they will read only a few paragraphs of your book before rejecting it.

Myth 2. If an agent doesn't pick up my book there must be a problem with it.

No! No! No! And a thousand times more, No! Do not ever assume this. We see this myth written in one form or another on every writing forum and in common conversation. And it usually goes something like - "well if I submitted my work to a dozen agents and heard nothing back, that tells me something."

No. It tells you precisely nothing. Your work could have a problem. It could be magnificent. You don't know. You have no way of knowing until someone gives you feedback. I mean if you played the same six numbers in a Lotto game all the time and won nothing would you assume that there was a problem with your numbers? No. You wouldn't I hope. Because if you did that would be a sign that you were a problem gambler.

The simple reality is as above. Agents are busy people. Maybe your work wasn't quite what they were looking for. Maybe they already had fifteen vampire romance novels on their desks. Maybe the writing style in the first two paragraphs simply didn't catch their interest. I don't know why they rejected your book. But the important thing is that you don't know either. You cannot assume that you do.

Myth 3. I know what's wrong with my book and why he rejected it.

No you don't. You might have an idea. But unless an agent actually took the trouble to send you a letter outlining what he thought any problems might be, then you are guessing. You don't know. You probably don't even have a clue. You are just guessing. And agents very rarely send these sorts of letters.

To give you my experience, when I was first doing the rounds in the early naughties with Thief I sent it off to maybe fifty agents. From them I would say I got perhaps twenty five rejections, and twenty five complete non answers. I did not get one single letter with words of advice. Now I don't blame agents for that. They're busy people and their job is not to be a writing coach. But it's important to realise that if they don't send you letters like that, you as the author are still sitting in the dark.

Myth 4. I can make my book better.

Maybe. But the one thing you can never do is make your book better so that it meets the expectations of an agent. Not when he didn't tell you what they were. Look you can join writing groups - I recommend it. You can discuss purple prose, passive voice, and the correct use of the apostrophe until you're blue in the face. And maybe you can improve the technical side of your writing. But you can't actually make you work so much better that the agent who rejected your book will say - that's what I want! Not when you don't know what he wanted.

Lets turn briefly from writing to acting for a second. And think about all those Hollywood actresses desperate for parts and willing to do anything. Willing to mutilate themselves with nose and boob jobs, oral surgery and whatever else, when they were all perfectly pretty to begin with. This is exactly the logic working through their minds when they go under the knife. I can make myself better. But there was never anything wrong with them to begin with. And it never seems to occur to them that the reason they didn't get the part wasn't because of them at all. It was because there were five hundred other actresses trying for the same part.

(Apologies here for perhaps being a little sexist in concentrating on women only. I'm sure men have exactly the same issues and do exactly the same stupid things.)

This of course leads us to the most damaging of all the myths. The one that destroys writers.

Myth 5. If I make my book better an agent will pick it up.

No! This is such bad thinking and on so many levels. First - see myth 4 - it assumes that you know why an agent didn't pick up your book in the first place, which unless he sent you a letter - you don't know. Second it assumes that there is a problem with your book - see myth 2. You don't know that either. And worst of all it contains the underlying assumption that you can make an agent do something. You can't. The power is not in your hands.

This is exactly the same poor logic that allows teenage girls to think "well maybe if I do my hair, smile a lot and stay close he'll love me." But they can't and their feelings get crushed. It's inevitable. Because it is completely out of anyones power to make a person love them. And it's completely out of anyones power to make an agent like your book. (Again apologies for the sexist stereotype. Boys do stupid things too to get girls to like them believing that the power is in their hands.)

Hugh Howey recently wrote that there is a false dichotomy between choosing to self publish and choosing to trade publish. And he's right. You as an author do not have that choice because you only have the power to do one of those things. Your choice is actually between choosing to self publish, and trying to get your work trade published.

Okay - enough ranting. My purpose in writing this post is to hopefully bring a little reality to the writing scene. To perhaps squash some of these myths a little. Because these myths are what destroy writers. They are what convince them to put away their books, lose confidence in their writing abilities and completely give up. And I don't know how many of those that do were brilliant writers who had a unique voice and a vision to share that would have enriched the world. Neither do they.

Cheers, Greg.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Yes! The SFWA Wants Us! - Oh Wait A Minute Should That Be No?

Hi Guys,


Well the big news this week - the SFWA wants us! Well wants may be a strong word. They'd consider letting a few of us indies in the door if we can meet whatever standards they deem appropriate.

Now I don't want to sound bitter, and if they do eventually decide to allow some self publishers in and assuming I have sufficient sales or what have you to meet their standards, I will give the option serious thought. But it occurs to me that this is 2014, and they are a few years too late for many indies. Worse than that of course for them the indies who will I assume make the grade by selling however many tens of thousands of books, will probably be wondering the same thing I am - what's in it for me?

The prestige of belonging to an internationally known writers association? Well much as I hate to say it as of last year the SFWA found itself embroiled in a bitter controversy over sexism - and some of that prestige has gone, no matter which side of the debate you find yourself on.

The connection to other well known trade published writers and other industry big wigs? Maybe, but at the same time it must be considered that many of the more successful indies already have those connections. And lets face it, if they can sell well as indies what exactly is the attraction of trade? Less money?

Legal advice? Yes, absolutely. But you still have to pay for it whether you're a member or not. So maybe on reflection that's actually a no. But the Grievance Committee sounds like it might be useful.

The emergency medical fund? It's not really on my radar at present and if one day I have to fly to the middle of nowhere and then become ill while there I'm sure I'll have arranged appropriate travel insurance first.

Their private discussion forums? Hmm? Since they're private I can't really comment as to what's on them. The secrets to the publishing universe perhaps? Their favourite chicken soup recipes? But there's an awful lot of public fora I can join and get I would guess, most of what's on them.

Look, at the end of the day I can't really advise anyone who's an indie sci fi / fantasy author which way to jump. That has to be up to each and every one of us. All I can do is say please do take a look at the site and be informed on the issue. Also leave a comment on their site. Let them at least know your thoughts.

And of course one other thing. Before jumping one way or the other ask yourself this question. What's in it for me? My view, four or five years ago there would have been a lot. Now, not so much. I think the ship has sailed and they've been left standing on the dock.

Cheers, and as always - be good or don't get caught!


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Villains - Sometimes We Don't Want To Understand Them!

Hi Guys,

Been doing a lot of writing lately, and the next book "The Godlost Land" is in the final stages of it's first draft.

I'm pleased with the way the book is going, and particularly with the way the bad guy - Terellion - has shaped up. He is a thorough going baddie which is what I wanted him to be. In fact to quote (or probably mis-quote) one of my favourite authors Harry Harrison, he is the perfect example of a complete freewheeling bastard!

All of which has set me to thinking about villains in general in writing. And of course how Terellion will fit in among them.

To give some background to my thinking on the subject, there has been a trend in recent years in a lot of genres to go for greater realism. Grimdark in fantasy and science fiction is an expression of this trend - the belief being that by making things somehow more horrible they will become more real. In my view this is a reaction to the unrealistic optimism, heroic victory tropes that dominated fantasy until the seventies. But also in my view grimdark is just as unrealistic as that which it replaces, and in some cases it can go too far. In science fiction the best example of this in my view would be the Gap series, by Stephen Donaldson, where the three main characters all go through cycles of being victims. And in fantasy I would argue that GRR Martin's Game of Thrones follows this same trope where all the heroes have feet of clay and the villains have reasons for doing what they do. (Except for Joffrey who is a truly horrible spoilt child king and needs to die a terrible death  in my view!)

As part of the entire movement towards grimdark and realism in the fantasy genres there has been one trend which has become particularly prevalent - the villain being another victim. Misunderstood and suffering from whatever trauma in his past, the reader is asked to "understand" and even empathise with the villain - because villains are real people too!

I understand this desire to humanise the villain, and to a certain extent I agree with it. After all in real life villains do usually have reasons for what they do. But it occurred to me as I was writing Terellion, that this is high fantasy. It isn't real life, it's escapism. And sometimes a villain should just be a villain - and preferably die a horrible death! Besides even in real life there are villains who simply are just villains. The mafia hit man Richard Kuklinski (the iceman) is a perfect example. He was a sociopath pure and simple. In every interview he gave it was clear that he never really understood the suffering of others.

So if in real life there are people like this, and if what I'm writing is pure escapism, why should my villain be more than just a sociopath?

That was the realisation that struck me as I wrote Terellion. Granted I gave him a back story to explain how he became what he did and explain his motivations, but at no stage did I as the writer want to "understand" him. I didn't want to sympathise with him. And while some readers may find my choice challenging in the face of modern grimdark fantasy which seems to be all over the book shelves, I'm happy with it.

I hope you will be too.

Cheers, Greg.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Angels On My Keypad

Hi Guys,

Original photo is 9 of 365 Frustration taken by Tanya Little.

Have just completed the second line edit of The Nephilim and thought I'd take a little time out to talk a little about the book. Or not so much the book, as a couple of aspects about it. Specifically angels and how I've represented them in this work.

Now those of you who've read some of my other works touching on angels, will know that I've used a couple of different conceptions of the Choir.

In Thief my angel Sherial was a creature completely in keeping with the modern interpretation of angels - basically a creature of love. This is of course in line with modern Christian doctrine (well some of it) and essentially New Testament. And in writing Sherial's character I was trying to answer some of the obvious questions that arise from having angels like this. Things like if angels are purely creatures of love how do they battle darkness in whatever form it might exist? Are they accessible to people in the way that people are to one another? Or are they completely beyond human understanding?

When it came to Guinea Pig I decided on using a more human variation of angels. Essentially angels being a lot like us with the ability to choose good and evil. This is in keeping to an extent with the Old Testament, given that in it angels did fall, suggesting that they had some form of free will, and it had the advantage of making them far more accessible to people.

Now in The Nephilim I have taken the conception of angels even further into the territory of the Old Testament. I've taken away the modern concept of creatures of love and replaced it with one of obedience. Note that I'm not saying that they don't have these sorts of emotions, just that their overriding character is that of obedience to God. Now for those of you familiar with your Bible you'll know that angels knocked down the walls of Jericho, locked Adam and Eve out of the Garden and carried the plagues of Egypt. In short they did what they were told regardless of whether it was carrying the word of God or destroying civilisations.

This of course gave me a whole new world of angels for my characters to interact with, which was sort of the point. It is this tension between the characters who have human needs and wants and the Choir who have only rigid obedience to the rules given to them that drives much of the emotion and plot of the story. It's what creates the frustration of my characters in dealing with the Choir. (I think anyone who's ever had to work his or her way painfully through complex tax returns will understand a little of what it's like to deal with rules that seem both somewhat arbitrary and at the same time unduly harsh.)

As for my characters, I chose the nephilim because they have always struck me as being in a strange no mans land between humans and angels. Given some of the power of angels - in the Old Testament they were described as giants and mighty warriors - while at the same time having the free will of humans. In the best of all possible worlds (for them) they would have become kings. But of course I chose the other option - the worst of all possible worlds where their powers are limited and they may have free will but aren't allowed to use it. In this world of course instead of being able to make themselves kings they instead have a basic struggle to survive, worrying always about being discovered by the humans or breaking a divine rule and being punished for it.

I think in the end that's one of the things I love about writing angels. They can come in such diverse forms that it's often hard for them to be pigeon holed. Whereas when I write about elves in my high fantasy works, I often find my creations tied far more to the established tropes. It's easier to be creative with the Choir.

Cheers, Greg.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Best Book You Will Ever Read To Make You A Better Writer

Hi Guys,

I'm deep in the cycle of editing at the moment - and grateful that my hair is so short - it makes it harder to pull out! The Nephilim is going through its first edit at present, and will hopefully be published by the end of the month.

The cover image was taken from a photo in the wiki commons under a creative commons attribution share alike licence. The original photo is titled 9 of 365 - Frustration, by Tanya Little. It's been modified somewhat to reduce the biographic accuracy and concentrate on the angst and moodiness of the image.

Anyway while going through the editing process (a lot of which consists of sitting around waiting for copy to come back and fielding abusive phone calls from my editor) I spent some time going through my various writing fora and came across the above question. What is the best book you will ever read to improve your writing?

Now this is not a new question. Anyone who's been interested in writing will have seen it fielded in probably a hundred different guises by now. Everything from "I've just read book x,y,z by author a,b,c and it was great - what do you think?" to "Where can I find a good writing guide?" And usually I ignore these threads and move on. However this time for reasons probably most closely related to synchronicity - I read on. And as I read I knew the answer.

It's not any book on writing at all. There are a great many good books out there which all promise to give guidance on the topic, and only some of which I've read. But without exception I can say that none of them are the best. Many will talk about rules and guidelines. Many will point out common mistakes authors make when starting out. But in the end there is always one book that will help you as an author far more than any other. The book you're writing.

This may sound trite and flippant. It's probably both. But unfortunately it's also completely true. And it's important that writers understand this. The best way, probably the only true way, to become a better writer is to write. But I'll go further than that. To write and get feedback. (Now you see where the synchronicity comes in!)

There is no one great secret to writing. There is only hard work, a bit of talent, a lot of passion and criticism. And the process is simple - often simply painful, but still simple. It's this.

Write. Read what you write, rewrite it and keep going and going and going until you're finally satisfied that you can't go any further on your own. Then hit the critic groups and beta readers. Put out sample chapters etc and get feedback. As much as you can get. It may hurt and there is a reason that authors do need thick skins, but nothing else will help you as much in becoming a better writer. Then go back to the writing board, decide which of the criticism you think is valid, and rewrite. After that more critics of what you've rewritten, and more rewriting.

Then the truly painful stage, editing as someone good tears your work to pieces. It has to be done. So get it edited, then go through the process of rewriting it again, remembering always that some of what even the most capable editor will tell you will not fit with your voice or your vision. So edit and re-edit until finally you've reached the final stage. Publishing. Here's where the pain goes ballistic.

Publish - if you need help to put your book out as good copy with a good cover and blurb, get it. And then wait for reviews. Now you'd think that having gone through critics, beta readers and editing, your book would be beyond reproach. It isn't. You will get negative feedback. It's simply a fact of life. Your task as an author is to read it all and then ask yourself - is this right? Does it fit with my vision? Have I got something wrong? Remember readers can be just as wrong as you! But they can also be right.

And then write your next book, knowing that it too will be the best book you'll ever read that will make you a better writer.

Cheers, Greg.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Lyn Shepherd / JK Rowling Argument

Hi Guys,

Recently a writer by the name of Lyn Shepherd wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled that if JK Rowling cared about writing she should stop doing it.

Now I don't know why she wrote this. Her thesis was that JK Rowling is so successful as an author that her books crowd the shelves and make it hard for other less well known authors to compete. Personally I find this argument incredibly weak, (I could use other words). And to me as an outsider it really does look like a case of sour grapes, or worse perhaps, a cynical marketing ploy to sell her own books through some negative PR of a successful author. However I don't know the woman and I could be completely mistaken.

Regardless of that my thought on the thrust of the article is that it's completely wrong. We as writers and authors should applaud those who are successful in the industry, and perhaps JK Rowling most of all. Maybe it's fine to feel a little envious, it's only human after all, but in the end I believe these authors do more to help the less successful authors than they could ever do to harm them. JK Rowling is a case in point.

Her Harry Potter books are widely credited as having revived a flagging genre - fantasy, as having brought people back to reading, and even as having helped with encouraging children to read. And this phenomenon has been studied by some accredited researchers:

So my view is that if JK Rowling puts out a new book say once a year and knocks a few other big named authors from their top perches, it doesn't really bother me. It's just part and parcel of working in a competitive industry. If on the other hand her books inspire children to read and bring people away from their tv screens to read fantasy, that is an awesome thing. It can only be good for the children, and for the rest of us authors as well.

So I say good on JK, and write, write, write!

Cheers, Greg.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Anne Rice's Petition To Amazon Against Anonymous Reviews - Why I Won't Sign.

Hi Guys,

Recently as many of you will be aware, Anne Rice, acting as a spokesperson for a number of authors on Amazon, posted about a petition they were putting out. A petition asking Amazon to stop the practice of reviews being posted as anonymous.

The reasons for this were mainly that anonymity allowed for posters to post reviews that were in some cases unfair, occasionally sock puppets designed to drive up (or down) book sales, often misdirected against the author instead of the work, and in too many cases actually threatening violence.

Look, I have respect as an author and a reader for Anne Rice's work. I have most of her Vampire novels on my shelves. And as an author also on Amazon who has taken a few hits from readers - some of which I regard as unfair - I have a fair degree of sympathy for the situation she describes. That being said, I will not sign the petition.

My reasoning is that anonymous reviews are simply part and parcel of the publishing world, and that to restrict the practice would be to restrict readers from having their say. Many readers would not post reviews if they had to use their own names, and I believe that most of them would not be those posting these unfair and sometimes threatening reviews. In the end we are talking about only a few reviewers who post inflammatory reviews under the guise of anonymity, but to take the action of stopping anonymous reviews is to punish everyone for their actions. That's unfair.

In my view the correct action is to directly target those who do post these reviews, and the way to do this is to ask Amazon to more strictly enforce their TOS. As part of that I would suggest the following:

First threats of violence. We live in a civilised world and there is absolutely no place for violence and threats. If someone were to come up to me in the street and threaten me, my response would be to go to the police. And if the medium has changed so that instead of a street it's on the Internet, the response should be the same.

Next reviews that can't seem to separate the work from the writer and end up in personal attacks. Look this again is a violation of Amazon's TOS. They should be reported and taken down as quickly as they go up. And if a particular reviewer seems incapable of avoiding the same mistakes repeatedly, they should be prevented from posting more reviews until they can.

Then the sock puppets. This is a complex problem and it actually occurs on both sides. Some sock puppets are actual attempts to drive up the rating and hence appeal of books. Others are by disgruntled readers who are so upset with a work that they believe just saying it once is not enough so they'll use multiple Amazon accounts and identities. In both cases this is a violation of the TOS and should be stopped. I understand that people on both sides feel passionately about various books, but in the end it's not about that. It's about having your fair say. And that generally means one review per person. Why should I or anyone else have more say than others simply because I have the skills to create multiple Amazon accounts etc? Why is my opinion more valuable than that of anyone else?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this particular petition. In a nut shell it's using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and it denies many readers the right to give legitimate reviews of what they read in the comforting embrace of anonymity. It discourages reviews, good and bad. And as a published author one of the things we should all want is feedback.

Cheers, Greg.