Tag Archives: Writing

On objectivity

This essay by Cara Ellison is both a fairly bravura bit of internet-era confessional rage-ranting and an insight into the lifestyle and finances of the freelance games reviewer (which is much like that of many freelance writers, I suspect; I certainly recognise the bit about measuring gigs in terms of what percentage of one’s next rent payment they represent). For my money, though, this ‘graph is the slamdunk:

The necessary rise of the satirical website ‘Objective Game Reviews’ is enough to make me feel depressed, but if you want to see what an ‘objective’ review looks like maybe go and fud yourself silly on that site and come back to me when you are 1) older than sixteen 2) would like my goddamn experienced opinion on a game. The only reason game criticism exists is so that you can orientate yourself around a particular critic’s taste. If the critic is any good you can tell from their analysis whether you will like the game or not, regardless of whether the critic in question actually thought the game was any good at all.

Amen to that; I suspect there will be readers who misunderstand the role of criticism for as long as there are readers, and I am reassured to find that I give less of a crap for what they think as the years go by.

Oh, while you’re here — did you fancy buying a copy of Twelve Tomorrows so you could read my story, but didn’t fancy getting a copy shipped from the States? Well, everyone’s favourite disintermediatory retail-disruption corporation has got you covered with a £6.21 UK Kindle edition, available now. Let me know what you think, if you like.

Colinthology

Colinthology cover art (by Andy Bigwood)Here is an ebook you might consider purchasing. The Colinthology is an anthology of stories collated by Roz Clarke and Joanne Hall in celebration and memorial of Colin Harvey, a novelist late of the Bristolian SFF parish, and one of my clients from my webdev days.

Reasons to buy:

  • 21 genre fiction stories for just £2.99
  • DRM-free multi-format ebooks, bought direct from an independent publisher (i.e. “screw you, Amazon”)
  • All proceeds go to charity
  • An appropriate send-off for someone who went way too soon

If the reasons above aren’t sufficient, then I doubt this one will make much difference, but nonetheless:

  • The first story in the book is “Biz be Biz”, a collaborative story by myself and Gareth L Powell

“Biz be Biz” takes place in the (currently mothballed) New Southsea universe I was still playing around with at the time, and grew out of one of my Friday Flash Fictions. It was a lot of fun to write; I talked about the process (which ended up as a sort of brinksmanship tennis match, in the best possible way) on a panel about collaborative creation at Bristolcon this weekend just gone, and hopefully the audio will crop up online somewhere at some point, should you be curious to know more. (It was, by all accounts, a fairly interesting panel; I certainly learned a thing or two.)

I was asked to write a few words about Colin for the book, which I think would be suitable for sharing here:

I only met Colin two or three times in meatspace. He was a client in my webdev days, so we chatted via email — but email is no intimate medium, and we mostly spoke of business.

Colin at conventions was different thing; there, the easy-going character familiar from his emails was overlaid with a garrulous, generous bonhomie. The sort of chap who, on seeing you passing, would not merely nod but actively drag you right in to whatever conversation he was involved in; an extrovert, for sure (or so he seemed to me), perhaps with a well-leashed hint of Jack the Lad lurking behind the grown-up façade, but the sort of extrovert whose happiness seemed to derive in significant part from the happiness of those around him. A fun guy to be around, in other words — though tiring, unless you could match his herculean tolerance for alcohol in the early hours of the morning.

There’s a third Colin, too — the one I wish I’d got to know better, the Colin who blogged about rescuing injured baby blackbirds. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of his movie, so to speak; I never got to see the full range of his character, the depths and subtleties.

But you can tell a lot about a character from their final scene, can’t you? And that the writers and readers that knew him have come together to honour his memory with an anthology says, I think, a lot about a guy whose honesty and drive had a knack of making things happen — for himself, yes, but also for others.

He’s still doing it now, as you can see.

A good sort, in other words. The Bristol scene feels Colin’s loss very keenly, and the anthology is a testament to that. I’m very pleased to have my work in there.

#

Other miscellaneous updatery: I move house this Friday! I haven’t properly started packing yet! I have deadlines dropping on me like bat guano on a spelunker’s hard-hat! Everything’s going a bit mental! Nothing seems quite real! But yet I’m still oddly excited!

More on this before the move. Or, if I manage to manage my displacement activities appropriately, after the move. One or the other. Ahem. Yes.

 

 

An open reply to a self-published author

Email in my inbox this morning; anonymised and dissected for reply here, because if this is indicative of what’s going on out in the ebook trenches, then we’re gonna need more mustard gas.

Hey, Paul Raven!

Hey.

So what kinds of promotional activities are legal, moral & ethical for the EBook Newbie like myself? I’m asking, because you look like a pro. Maybe you can point me in the right direction.

OK, so if I look like a pro, we’ve unearthed your first problem, which is that you don’t research properly. Pro author? Pro editor? I’m neither. Just a writer, and not even a very successful one yet.

But I can point you in the right direction, I think — that direction is best defined as “diametrically opposite the one you’re currently facing”. Calling yourself an “ebook newbie” (with caps or without) pretty much screams out a warning that you’re trying to run before you can walk. As does asking a lot of in-depth questions about promotion, but not a single one about writing, or a single mention of the presumably a-fucking-mazing ebook you’re trying to flog, here.

(Hence the public reply; usually I delete emails like this, because they’re alarmingly frequent, but yours had enough of an undertone of naivete that I felt you might not be too far gone to save, and that you might serve as a useful exemplar of a particular problem.)

I notice some writers asking for Facebook LIKES, promising to Like-Back-In-Return. Is this OK? I have never tried to LIKE any of my own eBooks on Amazon; afraid I would break some rule and get banned for life. I have LIKED all the books I review, however.

It’s very noble, the Amazon self-pub mutual-backscratch club, and a genuine community. I dare say you could accrue many likes and recommendations and linkbacks and hell knows what else by doing what other marginally more successful (or at least more assertive) self-pubbers suggest you do. Sadly, most of them will be from members of the same community… and speaking for myself, I find members of that community a) easy to spot, and b) well worth avoiding, because all they ever do is promote their own self-pub Kindle pages, or those of people in their network.

Take it from someone who went to boarding school: hanging out in a circlejerk is always an option if you’re low on real friends, but bear in mind that, by default, you will be sitting with wankers and talking about wanking.

Would a large number of LIKES on my Amazon EBook Page make my sales goup?

Maybe.

Are there Facebook rules against the I’ll-Like-You-If-You-Like-Me strategy?

Doubt it.

Why not start a Facebook Group: “The EBook Likers?” Join the group, and you pretty much agree to go around and LIKE all the other Member’s eBooks which are on Amazon. The Power of LIKE! (My guess is that Facebook would shut the group down, but there is no reason the group couldn’t organize off of Facebook; it could be done without even a website, strictly by eMails!) Brings me back to the earlier question: What are the Facebook rules on LIKES? Amazon may have its own rules on reciprocal LIKES.

This is one of the saddest paragraphs I have ever read.

Something like this goes on every day at Twitter. (My background is Twitter – **handle redacted** – it’s where I go to let off steam) The I’ll-star-your-tweets-if-you-star-my-tweets factor. Most tweeps on Twitter rarely, if ever, favorite any tweets at all. But there is an in-bred niche of super-favoriters who go to Favstar to track exactly how many stars and retweets each of their tweets get.

By analyzing the data, it becomes clear that the Favstar Superstars don’t achieve their status with superior content, but with superior networking. Take any Favstar Superstar and examine several of their tweets in detail, and you will find the exact same avatars always at the beginning thirty spots, with just a few odd avatars; the further up the number of stars a tweet gets, the more variety in avatars. But Always The Same Exact Gang At The Start. Favstar defaults to the 50 fav Leaderboard; but there are also 10-fav boards, 30-fav boards, and 100-fav boards. Once a tweet gets on these leaderboards, they glom extra favs from “outsiders” not in a person’s Fave-Back gang. I’m just a bit-part player on Favstar, but I have noticed that if one of my tweets gets more than 10 stars quickly, it ALWAYS gloms several extra stars from avatars I have never seen: usually 3-7. I imagine the 30-fave board gets a 10-15 bump: it explains the variety of avatars I see in the higher numbers when I analyze the Superstars. The 50-fav board seems to be the tipping point. Get to 50 quickly, and you are assured of an avalanche of extra Star-Love from the gazillion extra tweeps who see your tweet when they view the default Favstar Leaderboard. (I have noticed another strategy in operation – Favstar Superstars will delete a tweet if it doesn’t get a lot of stars quickly – so that their Gang-Of-Star-Backers won’t waste their starbacks on a tweet that probably won’t bust into the 50-Leaderboard.)

But that was the very saddest paragraph of all. It’s like watching an earnest young accountant, fresh out of college, trying to work out where all the free money is coming from in the departmental Ponzi scheme he’s just uncovered.

Forgive the digression; but it is in the nature of an analogy. It is an example of how the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine factor operates within Twitter.

It’s also an example of how completely you’ve missed the point.

So, are Review-Backs a thing? I’ll buy & review your book if you buy & review my book?

I fully expect people trade reviews for free, but I’d be surprised if you can get the reviewers to buy their review copies first.

What about a Facebook Group of authors that review each other’s books? Is this more bad EBook Newbie behavior? Or is this a valid networking strategy to help our eBook pages move a few extra sales? Again, if Facebook is not the place to “host” such a group, it could be done on any website, or again, it could be done in stealth mode, by eMail.

As to whether some sort of public behaviour is appropriate or non-jerky, here’s a handy rule of thumb: if you even have to ask, then it’s probably jerky. Corollary: the legality of a course of action is not the first question you should be asking of it (unless, I suppose, one is a career criminal, which I’m assuming you’re not.)

Hey, I’m asking questions! Cut me some slack! If these behaviors are ”gaming the system” then I will humbly add that many of todays ”Winners” gamed the system to get where they are. I personally believe that if you are going to speed in an automobile, that first there must be no children anywhere near, and second that I don’t want to be the fastest car on the road. I want someone else to be faster, so that they get pulled over instead of me.

Ah, OK – now that’s a genuinely illustrative analogy. What you’re saying is that you’re happy to reap all the benefits of cheating, so long as you can ensure there’s no fall-out or consequences. The good news is that demonstrates you’re not a natural born shit-heel; if you were, you’d just be out there doing it anyway.

The bad news is it demonstrates that you’re in the writing game for the wrongest of reasons.

[As an example of “speeding” I offer this: There are sites which track Twitter Users recent following & follower history. I happened to load up http://twitter.com/Scobleizer one night and the history was interesting. Within a 2 week period he dropped the number of people he was following down to about 20,000 (from something like 90,000). And in the next 2 days, followed about 40,000 more people! The time period was March, April, 2009, something like that. Social Media Whores can’t do that anymore on Twitter. Robert’s response to this change was to unfollow everyone and continue bitching because he isn’t on the Suggested User List.]

I know Scoble’s name and reputation. They’re contributing factors in my ongoing disinterest in his work. Scoble is a tech pundit. You’re trying to be a novelist. This is like a ballet dancer trying to improve by copying a door-to-door salesman.

I don’t know how much LIKES and Reviews even help a purchase, except to give whoever is viewing the eBook page a bit of “trust.” I have found the best predictor of whether I will enjoy an eBook is reading the Free Sample. Screw the reviews, if I like the sample I’m probably going to dig the book.

Amanda Hocking’s success strategy is interesting. She bombarded book bloggers and eBook reviewers and got them working for her! I’ve been wasting the last two decades querying agents and editors about my novels. Should I shift gears and focus on book bloggers & eBook Reviewers? There are online lists of book bloggers and eBook Reviewers. I can bombard them with eMail queries. Hell, with the help of PeekYou and some other services I can get their actual physical snail mail addresses.

Imagine how freaked out they will be when they get my physical promo package!

Yes, that’s the usual effect of an unsolicited package… people can get so uppity, just because you dug their mailing address up out of some service they never even signed up for and sent them something they didn’t want, can’t they?

Any thoughts? Or am I just another irritation?

Hooooo boy.

I’m gonna be totally straight here, my friend. You need to make a decision about what it is you actually want: do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a writer?

Reason I ask is because you’ve sent me close to 500 words here about the mechanics of promoting your self-pubbed books, but you’ve not even mentioned your actual writing so much as once. This means you either consider it worthy of publication already, or that the quality of your work is a secondary consideration to how you promote it.

And I dare say that may be why you’ve been querying for two decades without success.

So I feel safe in saying that if you’re in this because you want to be known, because you want your name in lights, because you want the accolade and glory (and maybe a little bit of income) from Being A Published Author, then it’s time to quit.

Seriously. Two decades of writing and subbing and querying, and these are the best questions you can think of asking another writer? The questions you think will make the difference between fame and obscurity? I can’t begin to explain how badly you’re missing the point here, how much of a rod of misery you’re making for your own back. Quit. Stop wasting your time. Get a new hobby. Develop an alcohol habit, if you don’t have one already. Spend more time with the (grand)kids, I don’t know. Just get the hell away from your computer, if all you can think of doing there is finding ways to corner people into commending your work for any reason other than that they found it and genuinely enjoyed it. Seriously. You’re just adding more noise to the signal, and the signal’s hard enough to tune in on as it is.

Amanda Hocking is, probably quite literally, a one-in-a-million oddity; if you look at the numbers, the odds of visible success as a self-pubbed author are probably just as high as they are for one who followed the old-fashioned agent-editor-publishing-house model. Self-publishing is not a short-cut, not a tradesman’s entrance through which you might slip after being turned away from the front door. Sure, people have made fast money and overnight fame that way. Some of them have even done so with books of staggeringly poor quality. But the odds are spectacularly low, and the field incredibly wide. It’s a crap-shoot; you’ve been at the table twenty years, talking loud and walking proud, with nothing to show for it. Walk away, cash your remaining chips, sit down and enjoy yourself. You’ve played the game, and lost. There’s no shame in having tried and failed. Let it be.

There’s no magic marketing bullet that will make your book sell better. Luck and circumstance might, but if you can influence them, you don’t need my help or anyone else’s.

There’s one thing that might make your book sell better, though — and that’s making it a better book. Or making a new book that’s better than the last, and another one that’s even better than that, and then another and another. And sending them out, whether to agents or editors or straight into the whirlpool of the Kindle store, and letting them speak for themselves, while you wait at home patiently, writing the next one.

I’m no pro writer, my friend, but I’m privileged to know a fair few. And you know what pro writers worry about, ahead and in front of pretty much everything, from marketing and reviews right up to the household finances?

They worry about their writing. How to make it better, stronger, more compelling, more moving. And the worry comes out as work. The response to a book that doesn’t sell is to write another, better book. Rinse and repeat.

Writers write. Everything else is secondary.

So here’s your choice: you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because you haven’t plugged it enough, and as such you can use every channel of desperate huckterdom that the internet provides (and, by heaven, there are dozens more than you’ve yet discovered), you can do anything other than writing more and better in an attempt to shift that product, and you can send more emails like this one hoping for someone to tell you the magic answer to your problem, so long as that answer isn’t “well, you know, maybe your book just wasn’t actually very good?”, and you can spend the rest of your life blaming the unfair world for failing to recognise your genius, despite all the effort you put into telling people that you had it.

Or you can decide that your book hasn’t sold because it’s just not as good as its competition in the market.

And if you make that decision, and respond to it by sighing deeply, perhaps even railing loudly about the dearth of taste and appreciation in the reading public (ideally in the privacy of your office), before sitting down and starting again, then you are a writer.

But if that’s the last thing that you want to do, if you’re all done with the story-telling and ready for the phase where you sit back and let the accolades and glory and self-belief flood in, then it’s time to realize that you don’t want to be a writer; you want to be famous. The latter can follow from the former, but it’s the former that requires a steady input of work.

If you’re not willing to do that work, honestly, it’s time to quit. Writers write, and keep writing. End of story.

Yours sincerely, &c &c.

Reflections

It’s nearly three weeks since I submitted my dissertation and effectively finished my Masters. This is the seventh attempt I’ve made to write about what that means. I suspect it won’t be the last, though this one is actually going to make it past the draft stage; I realise I’m hesitating, and I want to step on that habit.

So, there’s a hook: what have I learned about hesitation in the last year? I’ve learned the extent of my fears and insecurities, certainly (and it wasn’t much fun at the time), but I’ve also learned something that it feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to learn: that the fear can be beaten.

This is a lesson more general than just writing, though. This isn’t the time or place to rake through my past like the entrails of a sacrificial goat, in search of kinked loops or lesions that might auger how I became what I am become, so suffice to say that self-confidence and I are only recently acquainted. (Hardly unique among writers, or artists in general, of course.) To have been pushed to the edge of what I thought I was capable of, and then some way beyond that, and to have come through and delivered in the face of my own fears… “revelatory” is probably a shade too strong a word, but it’s close enough if you can stomach the cliché.

I find myself wishing I’d been pushed like that before, but realising at the same time that I wasn’t ready for it before now. The push is important (and in my case almost certainly vital), but the choice to allow myself to be pushed, to bend to the yoke willingly (if reluctantly and fearfully at times) – that was the most important thing, perhaps, and it had to come from inside of me.

I’m not used to valuable things coming from there. But damn, it’s fucking sweet when they do, isn’t it?

But enough with the wide-eyed self-discovery moments of an emotionally-underdeveloped introvert: what did I learn in terms of writing?

That’s a trickier question than it initially appears, which is why this is the seventh attempt at answering it. The obvious solution would be to list the module topics: I learned of voice and narrative, of character and of place; I learned of the short form, and of the long! But those topics are inherently fuzzy, more like a closely packed Venn diagram, crosshatched and overlapping like the petals of an orchid… and to be honest, they all revolve around teaching you how to read properly, how to read with an eye for certain types of effect (or affect) in the text, and how to see where and how such techniques might be reused in works of your own. A long, long way from “when [x], a good writer should [y]!”, then.

This is a good thing. (Or it was for me, at least.)

If anything, then, we might say that the most important lesson I took away from the course is that technique – or what I think Nick Mamatas means when he snipes at “craft” as a writerly shibboleth – is important only inasmuch as it supports the greater edifice of creation; that there’s sod all point in crafting lovely precise sentences if you’ve not got a story to tell with them, in other words.

But I also misunderstood story itself, I think, albeit in a way that’s remarkably hard for me to put into words. I guess the closest I can get would be to say that I used to think story was almost entirely what I now think of as plot, but now realise that plot is actually subservient to story, which is also inextricably bound up in narrative and character; that story is, in a way, everything but the words you see on the page. With hindsight, I’ve come to suspect that all those writerly advice books and blog posts that talk about how fiction is “driven by conflict” contributed to this problem; I was thinking of story as sequences of unfortunate events, rather than as characters experiencing the turbulent flow of their own lives.

Obvious in hindsight, sure. But internalising that old saw about characters “needing to be just as real as the people you know outside your head”, realising that it’s a description not of some sort of winsomely artsy manifestation of multiple personality disorder, not of hearing voices, but of a process of imagination infinitely more thorough than “oh, let’s say blonde, early thirties, works in a bank in West London, that’ll do”… it’s harder than you might think. Perhaps it’s even a subset of cognitive dissonance: learning to imagine the subjective experience of an imaginary intelligence while simultaneously taking into account your own subjectivity in observing them and the world in which you’ve created around them.

To be clear, I suspect this is a crystallisation of stuff that I’ve been absorbing for some time; doing the Masters has been like adding a catalyst in the final stages of a reaction. I also realise it reads a little like “ZOMFG narcissist discovers empathy!”, which wouldn’t be an utterly unfair way of looking at it; put it this way, I think it no coincidence that the last few years have also seen me becoming more politicised. (Opinions on whether that’s a change for the better are, I believe, somewhat divided. Selah.)

So, yeah: I learned a whole bunch of profound-seeming metastuff about fiction and subjective experience that I can’t yet explain very clearly, but which make me feel a) much more engaged with my art, and b) more confident in my ability to do worthwhile art (for values of worthwhile as defined exclusively, at least at the moment, by yours truly.)

I learned that I am capable of completing big and challenging projects, which makes me feel like I can do it again, and do it better.

These are valuable things. I feel like I got what I needed from the course, even though what I needed wasn’t quite what I thought I needed. I signed up for the course with the attitude that I wasn’t really bothered about grades, and at this level, I’m still not; I am a better writer, which is why I came. That said, I’d like to take home a top score, too, not just a mid-list pass. But if I don’t, well, what the hell. With my dissertation, especially, I had to take the decision that rather than worrying about what the assessors would want to read, I had to focus on doing something I felt was worthwhile, something I could be proud of on its own terms, no matter how it got marked.

And I did – but that’s probably another post (or three) for another time. For now, I have vague ideas for two novels fighting for position in my backbrain, an imminent moving-of-house to Sheffield to arrange, and an academic paper on sf prototyping to finish… so I’d best be getting on with it, hadn’t I?

**

Oh, yeah: I also learned just how far I can take procrastination and displacement activity in the face of intimidating deadlines: while in the middle of doing my dissertation, I somehow managed to research and write a ~10k piece on Nordic LARP, the first part of which is now up at Rhizome.org

Notes from Babylondon

Everyone was so pleased when I announced completion of my first draft that their responses have totally crashed Twitter, apparently. Ahem.

Twitterbork

I’m no expert, but that’s looking like pretty bad news. It didn’t take long for spectacular un-graceful failure states like this to disappear behind web2.0’s equivalent of the hold music, our old friend Fail-whale. Where’s he today, huh?

(Just occurred to me that half the problem is probably down to millions of people hitting refresh or their devices hammering the APIs. I’ll bet there’s some wailing and hair-tearing in that datacenter right now. Or has it gone down under the weight of some 9-11 grade Bad News Item?)

Of course, the really scary thing is how much I feel its absence, leering at me out of my second monitor. The cyborg’s augmentations fail; what does he do next? Life as cliché cyberpunk101 vignette.

PLOT NOTES:

protag. rolls cigarette, thinks nihilistic thoughts, hates on traffic hovercars armed kid gangs on scooters the gov’t.

Maybe he edits a magazine – yeah, a zine, but it’s IN CYBERSPACE! [need good neologism for this, something really cool-sounding] So he broods, writes his zine thing; he’s not found much time for it since he got his new implant. What next?

** Get milk, bacon. CAT FOOD Email [redacted] about that bloody invoice they got a month ago

So, yeah. Sure is warm today.

Thought occurs: make periodic catastrophic failure a feature of Twitter. Every three months, complete reset, all old tweets killed off, all connections erased; only your handle remains the same (though you can change it, if you like). Be interesting to see which were the people of your follows and followers would find themselves following again the soonest, wouldn’t it?

Update, 17:51GMT – Twitter appears to have reappeared, though it’s still struggling under the wave of returning users. No cataclysm tweets… but then I guess you can’t livetweet a cataclysm for long, right?

So, anyway, first draft – complete! Not the first draft of my dissertation, though. Oh no. Totally different project. Pitched an article on Nordic larp to Rhizome back in May and got it accepted, foolishly overlooking the fact that I had a rather big project to be going on with already (in the form of said dissertation) plus my day job (which has kinda taken a backseat for the last fortnight, so to speak). Worse still I had to ask for two extensions on the deadline, partly because it rapidly became a huge fascinating monster of a thing, and partly because my time-management skillset has been tested to destruction. I’ve not touched my dissertation in the last week.

But now it’s [edit for clarity: the Nordic larp piece, not my dissertation] in first draft form, all 11.5kilowords of it, sat in the editor’s inbox… and the editor is going on holiday for a fortnight starting tomorrow, so I get to let it simmer until then, while I get back to, erm, all the stuff I’m meant to be doing right now.

First draft of a non-fiction piece is always a sweet moment, because that’s the hard pushing done, the baby delivered into the waiting arms of the doctor/editor, who takes it off to be examined… and then returns, solicitous above a steely core, to discuss which organs and appendages need to be surgically removed before it can be seen in public.

What would we do without them? Hug your editor today! Or buy them a coffee, maybe. Not everyone is digging on random hugs. Or coffee, for that matter.

*

Postscript – it’s none other than Bruce Sterling, ladies and gents, reproducing a string of sullen tweets I sent from the bowels of Tuesday’s London heatwave as… prophecy? Poetry? I dunno. I’m just amazed he noticed; to my shame, I totally failed to mention drones. But then again, I doubt they’re deployed around here; Chelsea comes with its own brands of privacies and surveillances, and it’d take a long time to get the locals hungry enough to riot. Selah.

In a fit of total vanity, I’m gonna embed those tweets below. Wouldn’t put it past CondeNast to just disappear Chairman Bruce’s blog one day, and I am passing proud of these. I do all my best poetry when surly, y’know. *flounces off*