Mapping It Out

Some time ago, the early Terry Pratchett Discworld novel Sourcery (1988) featured a quip early in the text that read: “This book has no map. If this bothers you, feel free to go and draw one of your own”. I remember being so pleased Pratchett wrote that, because it meant my mind was free to imagine where things were and make features as important or trivial as I wanted.

When the Discworld was eventually mapped and drawn and catalogued and defined and filmed and all the rest, it was as if that magical butterfly of my imagination was euthanised and stuck to a board with a ruddy great pin through it. I’m sure many lepidopterists are keen to have a record of a beautiful butterfly to study, but frankly I’d rather butterflies were left to fly free, since that’s what they’re best at doing. I’m not sure Mother Nature really intended them to be stuck with a pin and kept in a drawer.

I’m not sure my imagination benefits from being mollycoddled.

These days, a map in a book of fantasy seems to be mandatory, the lack of one perhaps considered heresy, or at least discourteous to readers. I’ve been asked a few times if I’d draw maps for writers, but I’m loathe to take such work because a) I hate doing art commissions; and b) I think maps in books are contrary to allowing the reader’s imagination to roam free. If a writer needs a map to ensure their geography is consistent and authentic within their writing process, then fine. Spelling it out to the reader with an illustration included in the book just feels like another form of excessive description. Tolkien had a map, but then the map was in the story. More maps came later, and while some maps can help clarify details, such as how arduous and lengthy a trip is from one place to another, the reality is so many maps in fantasy books are either superfluous or too-much-information or both.

Cover art can sometimes be a bit of a giveaway about how certain characters might appear, but maps and props and all manner of other things can—at least for me—dampen my mind’s eye and quell my imagination’s fire a bit. It just seems a bit of a shame. My imagination is special to me. It’s one of the few things I still have. It needs exercise and expansion, not suppression and frustration. To a writer, the scale of a mountain range or the breadth of a river might mean a great deal. World building is an art as well as a science and often such a tremendous amount of work needs showing off, but to the reader, does all of that really matter, especially when it’s already mentioned or observed by one or more of the characters in the text? When does it become too much information? Some books I’ve read seem to go overboard with adjectives, descriptions, outlines and illustrations. All I’m left with is wondering how one character is going to react to another, because that’s all my imagination has left to work on. The rest has been done for me. Ho hum.

To me, less is often more. Don’t give me a map. Don’t show every character on the cover art. Give me a hint here, a shade there, and let my imagination colour in the rest.

That will be a book I will appreciate more.

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Doing My Head In

Brain at 2:37am: Hey, you know that awesome music you were listening to while revising your manuscript earlier today?

Me: It was great, but please … I need to sleeeeep.

Brain: Here it is with the volume turned up to 11!

Me: Aargh! Nooo! Where’s the volume control???

Got It Covered

One of the more common words of wisdom imparted to up-and-coming authors is to never, ever try to do your own cover art. Always give it to a professional.

By professional, we’re not talking a well-meaning friend or relative, either.

Amazon is replete with ghastly attempts by some people to skip paying a professional, and really, their notoriety ends up not being about how wonderful their story is, rather how fitting it is their cover art ends up on lousybookcovers.com

It’s hard being an up-and-coming author. The all-pervading idea of self-publishing can happen for free is just plain wrong. There are expenses. You have to pay a professional editor to comb through your manuscript and fix anything that needs fixing. You have to pay a cover artist, even if your work is only an ebook. You have to pay for this and that and the other, and even then after you’ve doled out for paid promotions and goodness knows what marketing swag, you’re not guaranteed you’ll see any of that back in sales.

Getting published by a publishing house these days is no easier. Indeed, the general wisdom is any money you might receive as an advance is best invested in the same promotions you would have done as a self-publishing indie. Don’t go spending it on extra coffee or plans to go from one meal a day to two. Spend the lot (after careful research, of course) on anything that will help sales instead. On the plus side, you won’t have to spend any of it on cover art, interior layout, ARC or promotional copies or any of the other things a publishing house will cover for you (kind of—they simply take all those expenses out of any earnings), but at least you have a promotion budget! Yay!

Above all, do your level best to avoid anything you create going anywhere near lousybookcovers.com. While a one-star review on Amazon might be easily brushed off as the ravings of a lunatic, it’s hard to argue with lousybookcover’s reckoning.

To Market, To Market

Did I say “Happy New Year”?

No?

Oh.

Happy New Year.

There. I’ve said it now.

Satisfied?

Good.

In the week-and-a-bit since all the excesses of ringing in the new year, I’ve been head-down. I promised myself (not a new year’s resolution, I swear!) I’d make more art this year. The trouble with that is it means less writing. I’m awake for only so many hours in the day, after all.

Sydney’s way too hot to be sculpting wax or firing up the foundry just yet. I’ll wait until the weather cools a bit before I get into bronzes this year. I have plans for some calligraphy, some oil painting, some pen-and-ink drawing, some pencil drawing and maybe a piece of jewellery or two, but the biggie is a set of bronzes.

When I’m not writing.

Writing has dominated my time, and continues to do so.

The anniversary of Terror in the Ranks came and went, but still with no interest. That’s the price I pay for not having a marketing budget. If anyone tells you self-publishing can be done for free, they’re technically correct, but incorrect if the idea had been to earn anything from the writing. To make a self-published novel work at making money for its author, said author needs anywhere between $800 and $2000 to pay an editor; and a further $1000 for paid promotions across social media. Add another few hundred bucks for hard copies mailed out to advance readers who can provide legitimate reviews, a few hundred more for promotions in traditional media, such as the local newspaper, printing bookmarks, flyers, posters and all the sundry collateral, and you’re talking a few grand all up. Costs usually covered by a publishing house if you go the trad-publishing route.

I don’t have a few grand.

I don’t even have a few hundred, so marketing and me are not a happening thing.

Spamming my contacts and friends on social media isn’t really helpful, and paid promotions on Facebook require cash and cleverness I can’t focus on in my current state. So … my book languishes at the bottom of Amazon rankings. What do I do? I simply ignore it and move on. I have other books to write, other stories to tell. I’m a writer, not a promoter, goddammit. Hell—I even have a sequel in the works for Terror in the Ranks. It’s unlikely anyone will read that either, but that won’t stop me cranking it out. One person who did read Terror in the Ranks reckoned it would make a great movie. My eyebrows shot up at that one, and I’ve been left bemused at the idea. Bemused, and indolent, unconvinced any studio would back a story based on a book that went nowhere.

If I make artwork and sell it, maybe then I’d have a budget to promote the book. If I could find an expert in book marketing, someone who can do all the necessary things for me, it would be even better. Not just someone who spruiks on Twitter. Not just somone who books ads on Facebook. It would need someone who does the lot—social media promos, keyword optimisation, SEO, brick-and-mortar placement, the whole shebang.

I wonder if anyone like that exists?

’Tis the Season

Now the crass commerce of American Thanksgiving and its shadowy cousin “Black Friday” have permeated every corner of the globe thanks to the internet, the stage is set for the crass commerce of the “holiday season”, which seems to span the month of December. Merchants and retailers the world over sweat bullets in anticipation of the biggest consumer spend of the year. Giddily, they line up yet more junk nobody needs but so many want because it will make them look better, nicer, and—most important—richer to their friends and colleagues.

Here in Australia, hot on the heels of adopting Halloween as a worthwhile event, some retailers thought they should cash in on the American “Black Friday” phenomenon, completely ignoring Australian custom of naming any day of bushfire tragedy as a ‘black’ day. Oops. They also conveniently ignored Australian custom of heavily discounted sale day being Boxing Day (i.e. 26th of December), but that probably won’t stop them providing sale opportunities at that time as well. Two for the price of one, so to speak. As long as the money flows. Looks good for the economy, and augments the myth the 99.9% are well off enough to permit tax cuts for the 0.1% and all that. The politicians and their owners must be in serious danger of breaking something from laughing so hard, but since folks are sheep-brained enough to vote for them, they thoroughly deserved to be fleeced.

In these difficult times of predatory online discount sellers like Alibaba and Amazon, many brick-and-mortar retailers have every right to be nervous about the changing landscape of consumerism. Booksellers have been a miner’s canary for retail, demonstrating just how much of an impact a well-positioned mouse click can have on the real world. Of course, the demise of so many, wreaking havoc on real estate, experienced staff, logistics specialists and sundry others who made their living from the sale of books in the pre-internet days, in favour of a few, seems to be the way of things now. Why worry about a thousand people losing their jobs across one nation when a handful in a single city in a completely different nation can add a few extra million to their bank accounts every few days instead? Living the capitalist dream, after all. Yet in all this, the underlying constant is the actual books themselves. The books remain, whether they’re sold online or in a brick-and-mortar shop. Printers might be missing out as more people opt for ebooks, while requests for hard copies are fulfilled by print-on-demand (“POD”), which can now crank out a paperback, but it’s about adapt-or-die. Why pay talented specialists to run printing presses when an underpaid spotty 19 year old can press a button on a machine instead? Think of the savings!

What comes out at the end of the POD process tends to be comparable to the cheapest of pulp paperback of the 1960s, whose pages half a century later, brown and brittle, are easily forgotten and crumble to dust if they’re not binned first. It’s anyone’s guess where an ebook might end up half a century from now. Gone are the days of widespread quality book production. Quality books are still produced—the bookshop in my favourite art gallery stocks luscious titles in scintillating binding, with paper so tactile the pages make love to both your eyes and fingers as you fondle each word—but the cost of doing so tends to be so prohibitive, only the most exclusive titles celebrate such treatment. Thus exclusivity becomes the norm. Books become a luxury, and reading survives chiefly via self-published ebooks. The problem is those very same self-published books struggle to gain eyeballs as authors are left to promote their own work in a sea of voices clamouring to be heard. As a result, the next Shakespeare, the next JK Rowling, the next Edgar Allen Poe, the next new voice capable of shaping and challenging and improving the world gets lost in a morass where commerce is king and content is commodity first, concept last.

Do the world a favour. If you feel compelled to give something to someone this holiday season, make it an original work of art or a book. The world doesn’t need another piece of moulded plastic. What it needs are ideas. Thoughts. Emotions. Humanity. Fewer beneficiaries might be in the chain leading from author to reader these days, but the reality is perhaps someone who has suffered a job redundancy might read new words which provide an idea or inspiration to set them on a new path in life. Books can give hope, just as they can share wisdom. In a world now seemingly led by crass, self-centred and stupid people, now more than ever the world needs intelligence. Don’t be part of the problem, be part of the solution. Give a book, and may a wonderful, life-improving, inspirational book come your way too.

Uh-oh … Cynicism Time…

Note: parody! Not a challenge to be like this!

“We at Mega-Super-Awesome Literary Agency want strong fiction and narrative non-fiction for adult and young readers (no picture books, no screenplays or stage plays, no poetry, nothing religious, no science-fiction, no fantasy, no adventure, no romance, for God’s sake nothing with vampires or werewolves, nothing with more than four syllables and nothing Beryl in accounts receivable thinks might be particularly tawdry or immoral). We prefer writers rather than categories though, so those who have the potential for identifiable, long-term career-development we can mercilessly exploit are welcome to apply.

We want authors who are committed to being life-long professionals with unique storytelling talents. If anything you’ve written remotely resembles anything anyone ever throughout history has ever written, we’re not interested. If you’re a new writer, sucks to be you. We want authors who have already published. We’re not spending our precious time worrying about some gormless git under the age of sixty who can’t already pull in six figures writing flat-pack instruction pamphlets. Already self-published? Stay the hell away from us. We have no interest in any of that newfangled internet crap.

Are you the next Tolstoy, Dickens, King or Austen? Let us be the judge of that. Neville in Human Resources claims he owns a box filled with the entire works of Lady Blitherington-Smythe’s “Nursery Rhymes for Special Needs Children Except Roger Who’s a Deviant and Has to Sit in the Corner (Third Edition)”, so we know what we’re talking about. We’ll balance the entire worth of your literary career on your query letter where you’ve had to condense your entire life’s work into two sentences we won’t read anyway because you haven’t addressed your letter to Beryl in accounts receivable as stipulated in the footnote on page thirteen of our website we haven’t bothered to update since 2002.

Yes, we are that good.

Since this is now the age of do-my-job-for-me-yet-still-pay-me, you’re going to be responsible for all the marketing of any book we assist you in getting published. Doesn’t matter what any publisher might want. We’ll get them to send the entire marketing budget to us, and hold it for you while you toil in futility at social media and self-funded book signing tours to whatever godforsaken patch of nowhere you can find that still actually has a bookstore. Of course, our holding onto all that cash will incur various fees and a special reserve tariff (which invariably ends up costing more than the funds we’re already holding for you).

We aim to respond to queries within three to four years. We’re all terribly busy here dealing with people far more important than you (especially Beryl in accounts receivable, who can be positively insufferable if she doesn’t have her cup of tea at precisely 10:30am … and woe-betide anyone who forgets her shortbread biscuits and lemon-scented refresher towel). Any submissions found to have spelling errors, grammatical mistakes or words of more than three syllables will incur a special query proof-reading charge of $95/word.

We don’t provide feedback on submissions. In fact we don’t read submissions. We just look at your email and if it’s more than one sentence, we hit ‘delete’ and laugh and laugh and laugh at all the good times we’re having at your expense.

Have a nice day.”

Beggars Can’t be Choosers

There’s an old saying: “Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I guess for most of human history that’s been true—people asking for something without paying should be grateful for what they do get. In this age of mega-corporations masquerading as charities though, it’s a case of beggars get to demand what they want.

When a truck arrived at our house to accept a load of surplus furniture, electrical goods and soft toys we thought would be helpful for those in need, they went through it all and ended up taking only a couple of things. The rest they left behind. What they chose was based purely on what they could make money out of from re-selling, rather than taking everything to hand out to the needy. Yes, they’re a registered charity. WE could have sold everything on eBay or Gumtree, but we decided to donate to help the less fortunate. Turns out we were helping those way more fortunate than most others.

How times have changed.

The same could be said for publishers and literary agents. More than a few websites I visit to find an agent for my own work, and all I see is “we don’t want this, we don’t want that, and if you’re an unknown, we don’t want you unless you’ve been through hoops A, B and C; or you could pay our subsidiary assessment company wads of cash to go through your manuscript and tell you after months of nail-biting we never wanted you anyway”.

Self-publishing never looked so good.

I understand why some agencies do this. I imagine if I was bombarded by so much purple crayon get-rich-quick aspirants I’d become a bit guarded or jaded as well. The recent controversy on Amazon where the purple-crayon-brigade were artificially inflating their readership numbers to score “bestseller” status merely proves there’s always a few rotten apples prepared to game the system for their own benefit at the expense of everyone else. I don’t doubt agents are vulnerable to those seeking to game the system somehow as well.

So how, in amongst all this noise, is it possible to be recognised and appreciated as a genuine writer with a genuine manuscript (plus several more waiting in the queue)?

To me, an agent is an important component of a winning machine. Self-publishing aside, a writer can’t publish all by themselves. They need marketing experts, distribution networks, beta readers, editors, printers and e-book formatters, and a host of other things to make a success of their hard work. If I come across an agency website where there is snobbish dictatorial attitude oozing from every syllable, I move right along. I have no intention of calling such people my colleagues, confidants or team-mates. What comes across is not a collaborative attitude, it’s snide bullying that wins no friendship or allegiance from me. If an agency is so accomplished and filled to the brim with winning authors, hooray for them, but why are they still advertising for more? Is it like the charity, combing through what’s on offer and simply cashing in on what they can lay their hands on rather than recognising what’s in front of them is useful to someone somewhere? I don’t get it, but then I’m a simple fellow with simple needs.

My current problem is I’m too simple. I don’t have the aptitude to adequately self-publish. The technical side is—for me—a doddle. Cover design? Interior layout? Professional typesetting? Graphic design? No problem for me—decades of experience in desktop publishing has that covered, no dramas.

It’s everything else.

The marketing. The paid promotions on social media. The newsletter lists and email addresses harvested from free handouts. It’s the cross-promotions, reviews on well-patronised blogs and all the other places where people can find out about your writing. It’s effusive Goodreads coverage and Amazon star ratings. In this brave new world where expert literary critics have been put out of work by everyone’s-a-critic, the signal to noise ratio has skyrocketed, and meaningful cut-through is hard-earned and rare.

Imagine if JK Rowling had the first Harry Potter book ready to go today instead of twenty years ago. It’s a book aimed at middle-grade readers (9 to 12 year olds). It’s urban fantasy. Imagine she’s still a struggling mum, living on welfare in the boondocks of an English town. She hasn’t the finances to pay for Facebook promotions. She has a couple-hundred contacts across Twitter and Facebook, most of them friends and family with a few mildly interested onlookers. Agent website after agent website tells her they’re not interested in urban fantasy that doesn’t have vampires and werewolves, especially from a first-time author. She might come across a few who are, but they prefer a female, LGBTI or “diverse voice” perspective (i.e. not a white male protagonist). Some agents prefer women’s romance where the most money is made, and could Harry be a 20-something woman maybe. Some might be looking for Young Adult opportunities, but Harry’s too young, despite possible subsequent novels (which can’t be mentioned in the pitch) qualifying. After careful consideration and refinement of her query letter (which costs her the equivalent of two week’s rent to get looked at by specialists), she sends out pitches. Rejection after rejection, and that’s not to find a publisher—that’s to find an agent who will represent her to a publisher.

She can’t find anyone. There are lots of “not taking submissions at this time”. She still sends off query after query to those who have their door open, each pitch carefully customised to the agent’s preferences as laid out on their website. It’s a lot of work. This isn’t writing, but it’s an essential element in getting writing recognised. A lot of agents don’t even bother to respond, while others send form letters to let her know she’s not what they’re looking for. If she’s lucky, she might get one or two who ask her why they’re reading about the Dursleys and not Harry in the first chapter. If she’s really lucky, she might have an agent offer a critique and perhaps recommend she get the manuscript looked at by a professional editor.

She looks to self-publishing again (after writers groups on Facebook warn her of the dangers of vanity presses). She hasn’t the money to promote, nor does she have the resources. More importantly, she knows middle-grade literature requires specialised marketing to parents looking for a book for their youngster, and even more specialised to youngsters capable of the “nag” factor, neither of which is available on social media, but is available in bookshops (conducted by publishers, not the bookshops themselves). Where does she go from here? Does Harry Potter ever see the light of day?

Now, I’m not saying my own literary work would be the next Harry Potter, but that analogy is where I’m at, and I really don’t want to try and self-publish middle-grade. I’m at a bit of an impasse. Agent after agent either aren’t looking for submissions or what I have to offer. So what does one do? The first answer to come to mind is: be patient. It’s a shifting landscape out there. What’s good one year becomes passé the next, dictated by the whims of consumer-spend statistics combined with whichever way the wind is blowing, or chicken entrails or whatever horse wins the derby or how hot the agent’s cup of coffee was that morning.

I’ve kept a record of all the agents and agencies I’ve sent queries to, partly to make sure I don’t send the same thing to them a year or so later, but mostly so I can work out who’s worth dealing with and who’s not. Like being completely ignored, a form rejection letter three months after the promised eight weeks is a definite black-lister for me. A kind “I’m not looking for this kind of thing right now, but I encourage you to consider re-submitting in a year” rejection definitely goes in the ‘potentially awesome’ list. A punctual rejection is somewhere in between. It’s a growing list but there will come a time where I will have exhausted the possibilities. I’ve been through the query letter refinement process. I’m not fielding rubbish, and I’m certainly not a purple crayon writer. I’m a serious writer with a growing portfolio who will consider themselves an ‘author’ once I have a published work in my hand. I’m also perfectly capable of researching how to write query letters, and have refined and refined to the point where I don’t believe it’s possible to further refine. The cruel twist is many agents judge a writer’s work not by actually reading it, but by how the query letter is worded. It’s like judging a painting by how good its frame is. For some, they simply don’t have the luxury of time. For others, it’s because they can’t be bothered.

My self-publishing attempts have been expensive and futile. I know where I need to be. I might personally have not even two pennies to rub together, but I refuse to beg. I’m not begging for my manuscripts to be published, I’m offering a partnership, a collaborative relationship where everyone involved wins. For those who think something like that is too hard, good luck to you. For those with vision and heart enough to recognise it, I’m here, and will continue to be here for as long as it takes, or I die in the process.

Just please don’t be that charity and take what’s on offer for granted.