But what is this book about?

Often, when I consider a novel before I start writing, and especially if it’s meant to be a reasonably complete story within the novel even if it’s in a series, I think I know what the book is about. You know,

This book is about these character and they go there and do this thing which is going to be REALLY AWESOME and EXCITING!

And yes, that’s often what happens in the book. The characters do these things and exciting things happen. But often, and this usually happens not too long after I start writing, I discover what the book is really ABOUT.

For example for The Sahara Conspiracy, I thought it was going to be about desert bashing and the future Earth, and in a way it is, but it’s actually about the barbaric situation on Indrahui, a world many lightyears away. The book is about that in preference all the Earth stuff (it’s set 100% on Earth), because this is what drives the characters.

Similarly, I have now started writing Blue Diamond Sky. There will be a fair bit of jungle-tromping and shoot-outs and stuff. I thought it was going to revolve around the beauty of the wilderness around Barresh, and about the tribal Pengali. Yes, those are in it, but it’s actually about humans in Barresh, and why they live there. It’s about pioneers and why they left for a place that is not terribly accessible.

But what is this book about? was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Advertisements

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Writers, especially when they don’t see immediate success, often get told “It’s a marathon, not a sprint!” and this statement often leads to a discussion at least as heated as whether quality and speed are mutually exclusive or whether there needs to be one or two spaces after a full stop (Note: it’s ONE space, people!)

Anyway, the marathon vs sprint analogy is quite interesting.

What people often seem to *think* “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” means it that you can do things at a plodding pace and short term failures don’t really matter in the long run, and that it’s all about some nebulous future goal.

Well you know what?

These people couldn’t be more wrong!

For one, have you ever seen a marathon runner PLODDING? Sure it might look like it from the outside, but the runner is going at the maximum speed. When there is a hill, the runner will put in extra effort to keep pace, and at the end, the runner will sprint. In the long term, it matters a lot whether the runner takes the corners wide or makes them tight, or if the runner needs to go for a leak, time spent will be kept to the absolute minimum.

Marathon runners don’t plod. They don’t shuffle. They don’t look at the scenery and they don’t casually chat to other runners. They don’t think “hey, I’m tired now, let’s do the rest of this race tomorrow”.

THAT is the meaning of “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

As a writer, you keep going at a pace that you know you can sustain long-term. You speed up the hills. You go for little sprints, Tour de France-like, because there are little temporary rewards that will make you achieve your goal more quickly. And you don’t slack off and keep going until the job is done.

Note: the comment function on this blog has been fixed!

It’s a marathon, not a sprint was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Writing: Secrets of the World’s Bestselling Writer

I bought this book a few months ago, recommended by people at the Kindleboards, and finally started reading it last week.

The book deals with the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, and the fact that he was called “The World’s Bestselling Writer” on the cover made me curious, because I’d never heard of the man. The fact that I don’t read a lot of crime detective stories doesn’t help, neither does it help that these were stories and books that my grandparents enjoyed. The book itself was written in 1980, and I strongly suspect that the author lost the Bestselling Writer crown to one blond-haired female writer who writes, amongst other things, about a boy wizard. But we’ll leave that for statisticians to bicker over.

Perry Mason, I’d heard of the stories about him, but also only as something the generation of my grandparents and parents enjoyed.

What then, in this day of the internet and computers, can be learned from a writer who learned to write in seriousness almost 100 years ago, and whose writerly biography is so peppered with implied sexism (merely reflecting the day and age of course, but FFS, was there any purpose for women, in real life and fiction, other than to bring the tea or to be rescued?) that I almost gave up reading several times, were it not that the book is quite pricey for an ebook, and the people who recommended it are people I respect.

Anyway. Putting aside the fact that women didn’t exist back then, the book goes on to reveal a most interesting lifestyle with meticulous detail to fact and study. Also with incredible work ethic and how he went about using the latest technology to achieve his incredible output.

It was an interesting and inspiring read.

I didn’t learn anything major that I didn’t already know–watching people with this kind of inventory this make a killing on Amazon–but I found the book inspiring, because it illustrates so well how a dedicated work ethic pays off big time. Many writers wait around for the muse to strike, whittling away time while they could be writing something. Anything, really. Many writers revise endlessly, and quite possibly revise the death out a story.

As I’ve come to realise, as a writer, you’re not selling stories. You’re selling your ability to produce more stories.

Writing: Secrets of the World’s Bestselling Writer was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why I write: a major revelation

The question of why I write is one I have always struggled to answer. Usually, when writers are asked that question, they go into long-winded explanations of having to express their art and satisfy their inner gecko and other artsy-fartsy stuff like that. And that is just SO not me. As a consequence, I’ve always avoided answering that question.

(there are a few swears in this post)

Why I write? Because I want to.

But today, in the season where sales are shit and it is natural that you start to ponder the question “Why the hell am I doing this anyway?” I had a major revelation.

You see, a couple of years ago, an anonymous reviewer from Harper Collins told me publicly on Authonomy that my book Ambassador, known as Seeing Red was “well-written and well-plotted, but no one will publish this”. Seriously. That’s what he said. OK, I don’t know it was a he, but I’ve always assumed so. Certainly, this person had never read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles series, and maybe this person had the idea that science fiction needs to be literary and about ideas (I’d argue Ambassador is about ideas, but they’re not in your face, and they’re not the kind of ideas he would have liked anyway).

Anyway, this morning, I logged on to find that someone had reviewed Ambassador and has been tweeting it all over the internet.

OK, so we come to another old chestnut of the “why I write” canon: because I want to be read.

Yeah, what absolute brilliant fucking genius. Everyone wants to be read. But being read is a result of writing. If you don’t write, you’ll never be read (I’ll probably receive a Nobel Prize for this statement). Why write in the first place?

Why write hard science fiction and space opera when you go to the bestseller lists in both genres to see that 95% of authors in the genre are male? Why persist?

Why persist in using Australian idiom and spelling, when you know ignoramuses will come around and say “this book is so full or errors”. Why do it?

Why persisting to write hard SF when an industry person tells me not to bother submitting because I’m a woman?

Why self-publish and do all that hard work without the marketing nous of a publisher?

Why do all of this?

Because all those questions, thrown-together as they seem, are connected.

Because I am not going to let anyone, any company, any literary reviewer, any public opinion, any tyranny of majority, tell me what to do. And I don’t believe any of you should, either.

I hate mindless actions. I hate the tyranny of fashion (in the clothes variety or in wider meaning). I fucking hate hype. I hate the tendency of people to be lemmings and follow each other off a cliff.

“Because xyz says so,” is never, EVER, a good reason to do something without further research.

When self-publishing wasn’t a thing, I often used to complain about hideous response times and writers being dicked about by publishers and agents. Often, fellow writers were trying to shush me up, saying stuff like “That’s how it is in the industry”, and “You’ll get used to it”. Well, yes to both accounts, and I did submit, and did get used to it,but I NEVER considered it acceptable, and never let an opportunity pass to tell the industry at large that as far as business relationships with their providers was concerned, they were a big fucking FAIL.

Just because something happens and people get used to it is not a reason to consider it acceptable.

Sure, you can go all huffy and not submit at all, or you can take part in the process and remind the industry at times that “Hey, maybe it’s time you pulled up your socks on this issue.” I’m someone of the latter variety. And much pulling up of socks has already happened (not that I think I had much influence, but it’s the big picture that counts).

And that, people, is why I write.

Because I believe that people should wake up, cut through the hype and bullshit, and use their fucking brains to make their own fucking decisions. If people spoke out about shit (being asked to sign crap contracts, workplace bullying, racism, being underpaid and overworked, the list goes on), a lot of it would happen less often.

I believe that this needs to be done within the frameworks of the environment you are trying to change (as opposed to from the outside, which is a much more antagonistic position).

Because “someone says so” is never a good reason to do or not to do something

This is a theme that, in some form, can be found in virtually all my fiction. It is why in Ambassador, Cory stands up to both President Danziger and Ezhya Palayi. It is why he antagonises one and befriends the other. It is why in Trader’s Honour, Mikandra stands up to her abusive father. It is why the book is called Trader’s Honour and not Trader’s Honor, because I fucking hate being told to spell American. It is why I’ll have the latest computers but don’t care about the latest phones. Because I’ve thought about it, and it’s MY decision.

It is why I exist, and why I write.

Why I write: a major revelation was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

What is success in publishing anyway?

books

Last week, I picked up three large boxes from the post office. The above picture shows what was in them (more than the one copy for each title shown above, obviously). Real live books! To take to Supanova.

This, for me, is part of what makes a success. I had a one-day table at Conflux. I took four boxes of books. I came back with one small box.

Success? People are reading my books.

As I said yesterday, as soon as the mid-year (northern hemisphere summer) slump hits, people start navelgazing and wondering if success has passed them by. But it really depends on how we define success. Obviously, bestseller, household name authors are successful, but there are a couple of tiers of writers underneath those that can also be called successful to a certain extent.

At this point in time, I make between a couple of hundred to a thousand dollars per month from my books. Not so much in this slow time of the year, but in March, I made very close to $1000. That is not enough to live off, obviously, but it definitely makes writing fun for me. It makes me go out and spend $4000 on a camera. It makes me not skimp on con costs, like getting a room by myself in the con hotel and not worrying about how much I spend on food while I’m there.

So yeah, I would call myself reasonably successful. I know that there will be money at the end of the month that I can choose to do stuff with. I also know that there are places where I haven’t yet gone (like, a deal from a major publishing house), but because this money keeps coming in and sales keep tallying up on my dashboard (mainly on Kobo), I feel relaxed about whether or not this will actually happen. I feel that I don’t need a big deal to prove myself, or to get some income from my writing (and seriously, have you seen the appalling advances lately?). I feel confident enough to say that I’m not interested in an ebook-only deal unless some amazing conditions come with it (that said, what is more amazing than getting 70% off each book I sell on Kobo? And I sold two while I was writing this post).

If your definition of success is mega-bestseller-dom, then you’re always going to be disappointed. Being a writer is about your body of work, not about writing the best-selling book since … [The Da Vinci code/Hunger Games/Harry Potter/Twilight]. Those best-selling books are freak occurrences. Many writers make a really decent income by selling much less.

You can’t control freak occurrences. You can’t control whether or not your work ends up on award lists, but you can keep expanding your body of work, and you will get a modest but regular income that keeps writing fun.

That is the baseline of what I call success.



Patty writes hard Science Fiction, space opera and fantasy. Her latest book is Trader’s Honour, in the space opera series The Return of the Aghyrians. If you’d like to be kept up-to-date with new releases, remember to sign up for Patty’s new release newsletter.

Why the hell would I want to sell a book?

ETA: Let it be VERY clear up-front, that I am talking about Big Publishers here. There are many smaller publishers that are wonderful, on the ball, and don’t leave their writers hanging. Tsana drew my attention to this post, which provides more arguments, if you needed any.

Beware, some puppies will be kicked in this post.

I had an epiphany on the weekend.

You see, I harboured a small hope that if only people like agents and publishers saw my bio and saw that I was writing a new book, they might offer me things, like, a publishing contract, and then I wouldn’t have to do anything to sell my books and Big Publishing Company would do it all for me. Yeah, right, I know.

There is also that issue of the Harper Collins open submission period. Do I submit something? Don’t I submit something? What the hey, what is there to lose, really?

Really?

It all comes down to the question: what do I want from my writing?

About two weeks ago, I met another writer, and as we were sitting and talking over coffee, we discussed submissions. Said writer hopes to be published traditionally and mentioned to me how utterly depressing it is to send something on request by an editor to then have it sitting on that editor’s desk for two years, only to hear back “we like it, but we’re not going to buy it.”

Well, crap. That’s two years of your life.

Two years of not doing anything with that manuscript. Two years of hope.

I understand how publishing works. I understand how and why things take a long time. I like book editors I’ve met. They’re nice people who genuinely go in to bat for their authors.

But man, two years.

You know, Big Publishers have audiences and all that. That’s something you can’t drum up on your own.

Yup, I know. So all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I uploaded the first three chapters of my book to a publisher site.

That of course put me straight in the path of a licherary snob (not an employee of the publisher, but just a random) who wrote a three-page review about the first three sentences and appended another standard bit of cut & paste advice to it. Yeah-blergh, like I really needed a dose of Creative Writing 101. Which part of WOTF winner and Analog did you not get, dude? Why ever did you think that minutiae of wording made that much of a difference anyway? I write as I write and if you don’t like it, go somewhere else. Tell me that it’s crap. That’s OK by me, just don’t tell me that I should Write Like You, because… well, fuck off, man.

I also poked about a bit in their forums, where I found some threads on people laboriously pontificating on the possibility of uploading their books to Amazon as if this was something they’d only heard about yesterday. And then the replies… urgh.

O.M.G.

I am SO over this shit.

I am OVER licherary snobs holding up self-imposed measures of quality. I am over old-school editors snooting on Twitter that they are God’s greatest gift to the literary world and their primary function is to save writers from themselves especially the eeeevil self-publishing hordes (insert sneeze that sounds like E.L. James). I am OVER non-responses, year-long waiting times and being fucked around by people. I am OVER writers clamouring for rays of hope while the traditional publishing model is fast riding off into the sunset.

Seriously, what rock are these people living under? One that stinks of an issue with the sewerage, that’s for sure.

Why the hell would I sign a traditional publishing contract, especially ones of the kind that stipulate things like right of first refusal on other works? WTF? Are you with me and can you see the manuscript sitting there on the desk for two years? For every book I write? You got to be joking.

The money? Advances in the US may be in the five figures, but in Australia, they’re definitely not. The most I’m likely to see from a novel is a few thousand bucks. Well, you know what, the trilogy is ready well underway to earning that… this year. I’m not talking about next year, or the year after that. Why would I sign to receive 7% of RRP when I can get 70% or even 80%? Why the hell would I take books offline that are selling a couple of copies each day?

Quality? Well, people can look at my bio and see I’m not a doozy. In terms of whether or not I can write, I prefer to speak in terms of sales. Because no matter how much licherary snobs like to think so, there is no common testable definition of quality. The problem of getting sales is to find the people who like to read what you write. The rest of the world will probably think it’s crap, but that’s OK. They’re not, and will never be, your audience.

Marketing? Yeah, maybe. This applies for print books, though. Why would I sign a contract which pays me no advance to get a much smaller percentage of RRP for a book that will be sold at twice the price alongside my self-published books? The marketing drawcard will be my name, because who the hell looks at the publisher anyway? Why would I think it’s OK to sign a contract that buys print rights, even though they won’t be used? This was the reason my contract for Watcher’s Web fell through, btw. Because I wanted Australian print rights. Australian Only. Blergh.

Recognition? Well, that’s always nice, but if you feel you need regular confidence boost from a sale to a reputable venue, you’re doing it wrong. You do not want the publishers to approve of your fiction. You want readers to approve of your fiction. They do this by buying it. Whichever reader looks at the publisher when they’re buying… OK, OK, you get the gist. Your name is the drawcard. You. Not the publisher. What? Did I say that before?

Genre magazines are totally cool. They provide fast turnaround and fast reversion of rights after a sale.

Small press can be awesome. They can be easy to work with, can do things you don’t want to or can’t do, and contracts are negotiable.

Large publishers…

Bye bye for now.

Watch my fat arse as I skip into the big blue yonder.

Putting yourself in your writing

A thinky post for today.

While I’m writing and editing (and posting here) chapters of Shifting Reality, I often think of how much of ourselves we as writers put in our stories.

Sometimes this is visible in themes that keep coming back in our fiction, sometimes it is visible in direct scenes. But even so, truth is sometimes crueler than fiction.

I once wrote a scene about a boy in a primary school setting. The story started with the teacher, thinking to teach kids descriptive writing, setting the students the task to describe one fellow student without mentioning the student’s name. The students then had to take turns reading out their descriptions, and the other classmates had to guess who was being described. So one student gets up, reads, the kids guess. The next gets up, and reads the most vile diatribe on a fellow student that could cross a primary school student’s mind (and they can be vicious to each other), and everyone laughs. They know who it is. The teacher ignores the episode and moves to the next student.

I posted this on an online forum, and several people were all over me for making didactic mistakes. The teacher would NEVER be allowed to do this, they wailed. And this is against all educational guidelines. This is sooo unrealistic. Except it happened. Slight difference: it happened in high school (where the nastiness is even worse). The result was not a fight, as happened in my story, but a complete silence and ignoring of the whole thing. The student being described was me.

Incidents like these colour someone’s life. How could you not write about them? Similarly, I grew up hearing my grandparents’ harrowing stories from World War II in Europe. Some of the things they described were so horrible, they had an effect on me even hearing the stories second-hand. Backed up with some reading about the subject, they make for excellent story material.

Everyone has moving, traumatic, scary experiences, no matter how trivial they may seem in comparison to stories from other people. You’d go “How awful” about the class experience I described, but that would be chicken feed when compared with my mother who, as toddler, lived through bombings and raids. But my direct experience is no less valid.

Looking through my fiction, I can see many stories of my life smiling through the gaps. The small, spread-out family, the taciturn extremely introverted older members of society who will just not talk about personal stuff, the need to be independent, the notion not to take anything for granted, especially creature comforts, living in remote (and very hot) areas, scuba diving, and too many other things, big and small, to mention.

Mining your life, and that of your family members and friends, for story inspiration can be fun or can bring you closer to the subject in question. It can make you understand things you never saw at the time they happened to you or can bring you closer to other people.

Indonesia was another element that ran through much of my family life. I remember feeling dismayed that none of my friends had family members who had lived in Indonesia. How, for one, could they live without the food and the giant family cook-ins we had? How could they not be looking for the best toko to buy all their stuff?

For this latest novel, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Indonesian culture (or, I should say cultures), and I am grateful for all those stories I heard when I was little. Sadly those relatives have all passed away, but the spirit of the stories lives on.

the green-eyed beast: how do you deal with writer envy?

Hands up if you’ve never suffered writer envy.

OK, you there in the corner with your hand up, didn’t your mother teach you not to lie?

Everyone suffers writer envy. If you think you don’t, you either have no ambition, or you’re living under a rock. Most vulnerable to crippling writer envy are writers who haven’t yet made a sale to something they consider a good venue. Next would be writers who haven’t sold anything for a while.

You know the feeling. You’re happily plodding along, coping (or so you think) with rejection and then you hear that so-and-so writer (often someone who’s coming up the ranks with you) has made a sale you would kill for. Well, almost. Don’t kill them for reals, though. You think this person has it easy. You think this person is not as worthy as you. You think your work is better. Or something. In any case, you’re angry, you’re depressed and you feel like making snarky comments all over the internet.

Everyone feels like that sometimes.

What to do?

Well, don’t deny it. The writing gig is hard and filled with ups and downs. Give yourself the day off, or do something that takes your mind off writing, until you’re ready to tackle writing again.

Don’t forget to congratulate your friend. A simple ‘congratulations’ will do. Don’t add a backhanded compliment, or some sort of whingey statement, like ‘All I get from this magazine is form rejection’. Congratulating someone with their success is not about you. At all. Pretending you didn’t hear the news only prolongs your own agony. Congratulate them, and move on.

Use the anger. That so-and-so who made the sale is obviously a hack, and you could do sooooo much better. Well, do it, then. It shows if you use emotion to drive your writing.

Different writers have different career paths and find different niches. There are places where I would love to sell, but I probably never will because of what I write and how I write.

Also, successes and failures tend to come in bunches. Next time you sell something, think of the other writers who are in the middle of a rejection-fest. Know that next time it will probably be you.

Remain true to your style and your choice of genre. There is no point trying to run after trends just because you want to sell something so you can out-bluff your friends.

Patience, batman. I know that’s hard, and some people won’t believe I even said this.

Eventually, time will heal everything. And a sale or two. For that to happen, you have to write. So if you feel envious? Easy. Write more!

Mediocrity is not an option

A bit about my non-writerly life.

When I was in high school, I used to play the recorder. Not the cheap plastic variety, but proper wooden ones. I have a selection of nice concert recorders of various sizes. I played for about ten years before the rest of my life started intruding. Moreover, I didn’t really know/didn’t have the opportunity to play in an ensemble, and it gets kinda boring to play on your own.

Fast forward way too many years. At my kids’ high school, they have a very good band program. Part of the program is a concert every term, and they usually invite a guest ensemble to play. One evening, this was a local community band. I noticed one of the school’s parents playing the clarinet, and talked to him afterwards. It turned out that this group was starting a new ensemble just for people like me. Well, of course, recorders aren’t very loud and unsuitable for a concert band, so I started the flute. That was a huge load of fun. The other people in the band were similarly lapsed musicians, and some people who had never played before.

But. Fast forward three years, and I found myself increasingly impatient at some band members’ inability to grok the general concept of music. Coming in at the wrong time and playing in the wrong key signature are things that can be forgiven, for a new piece, maybe once or twice, but a number of people kept doing this, over and over and over again.

*cue in me rolling my eyes*

The music we played was kinda-OK, a bit too easy for me, but fun. But it required me to do no practice whatsoever. I had become lazy (hang on a tic, I’ll get to how this relates to writing in a minute).

So, I decided to quit that group and go to another group within the same organisation. This group contains a number of people who have serious musical experience. The music is like AARGH OMFG WHAT ARE ALL THESE NOTES??!! But today, I went through all the sheets and sorted it out at my own pace and I actually think I can get up to manageable level within a month or two.

The lesson for writers? Say, you’re in a crit group, and you’re all of the same level when you start. But over time, while the other members are choosing to stay mediocre writers by not working hard at their craft and not challenging themselves (for whatever reason, and I’m not challenging the validity of those reasons), you do work hard and make a few decent sales. Very soon you’ll find that the benefit you get from the group is not what it used to be, apart from the social aspect. If that happens to you, for crying out loud, go and find another crit group.