I’m Not Here (Reputation)

Hi everyone,

As you read this, I’m not really here (spoooookyyyyyyy).

I’m in Lincoln, probably talking crap to a fellow author or artisty type in the Assembly Rooms as we wait for the hordes of people who will definitely buy our books and artwork…

…sure, sure they will 😀

Anyway, there isn’t much to tell you this week except where I’ll be and what I’ll be getting up to, just in case you feel like popping along to say hi and enjoy the event. At the end is a tip that has come to me out of this week. But first:

Steampunk Asylum is in it’s tenth year, this year. A full decade of taking over Lincoln’s historical quarter with Victorian Science Fiction splendour. I’ll be in the Assembly Rooms (timetable of events here)  with all the other authors and artists, trying to pretend I’m as smart as them (and failing :D).

And now the tip! It’s dead simple, but fundamentally important.

Be Nice

To every author who gripes, complains, or gets involved in things they shouldn’t, this does nothing for your professional reputation. I’m not perfect by a long shot, but I try to always be nice to the organisers of events, I’m flexible as to where they put me and infinitely grateful when they offer a free table or opportunity to do a reading or a talk (even though I still get nervous as hell, years into the job). I also don’t get involved in competitiveness and politics that can sometimes surround our work. There will always be a teeny group in your medium/fandom trying to be the Grand Overlord. No matter what your geeky sub-culture, there will be an elitist caste. These are not people to associate with. Be civil, and move away. It’s easy and good for you to just say, “I’d rather not get involved, thank you”. I’m here to enjoy my writing and have a chat with like-minded geeks and enthusiasts who come to say hello. That’s where the joy comes, and where my attention stays.

Your professional reputation is your entire existence. Be true to your principles, your ideals, but be the most civil and open-minded version that you can possibly be. People appreciate that. And, after you’ve been you for a while, the word spreads. I have had zero editing work from random people on the internet. I have had a lot from people I’ve met at conventions, had friendly chats with on Twitter, or from friends of those people. My requests tend to start with “Such-and-such who you met at time-and-place said you help people with their writing”. Word gets around, you see. And those little editing jobs are how I pay for travel costs, food, table fees and accommodation (I tend to sofa-surf where possible, mind you). Without the editing work, I wouldn’t be able to get to events. Without being friendly, non-competitive and avoiding the BS, I wouldn’t be able to follow my dream.

So, being nice is not only a way to live, but a huge boon to you being able to follow your dream, and possibly make a career out of it.

 

Thanks for reading!

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The Tao of the Author: Success!

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to The Tao of the Author, a new thread of blog posts that will address the psychological and philosophical aspects of being an author in an effort to help people like me with the mental health issues they might come across during the course of their career. Click the category over on the right side of the page to read the previous posts.

This week, I’d like to talk about success. That one, shining word that covers whatever it is you want to get out of being an author. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to remember what our idea of success is when the world/internet is telling you what it should be.

Let’s delve.

When you start on your path to becoming an author, or any kind of creative for that matter, you have two things in your head. The first thing is the idea; that little nugget of inspiration that you absolutely have to get out of your head and into whatever medium you want to work in. The second is the goal; where you want to be, what you want to get out of doing what you do. Some people write only or themselves. The love of it is what drives them. Some people want to share with others what they’ve done. They want to find a publisher, maybe even move on to getting a movie deal, or becoming a New York Times bestseller. That’s their ultimate goal, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is when people equate gaining their ultimate goal with gaining success. These are two very different things.

For the sake of your mental health, I implore you to learn the difference.

The internet/media deals in “success stories” when it comes to these things. We hear about “overnight success” an awful lot. What they try to tell us is that success is the end, the finish line. J.K. Rowling is considered a success because millions of people have read her books. Same goes for E.L. James (the less said the better about that one). They’re a success because they’ve taken their stories as far as they can go, into other languages, travelling across mediums, making millions.

But there are a lot of writers out there, and although most of them would love to walk the path of J.K. Rowling, statistically almost none of them will manage it. That’s a harsh truth but a truth none-the-less, a truth that shouldn’t stop you trying, anyway. But, if you only consider yourself to be successful when you reach the ultimate goal, whether it’s the one you set yourself or the one set for you by others, then you’re setting yourself up for what I can only describe as misery.

In an effort to explain, I’ll use myself as an example (eek!).

Am I successful? Let’s see.

I’ve been writing seriously for about nine years. When I started out, I wanted to get an agent, get a book deal, have readers and write awesome stories that people enjoy. Maybe I even dreamed of having a movie made out of one of my books. I certainly thought about writing a comic book at some point. I think I wanted to be Terry Pratchett more than anyone else. Maybe the ultimate dream was to be able to pay my bills with my writing. Now, almost a decade on, how much of that have I accomplished?

  • Agent? Nope. Skipped it.
  • Published? Yep! That’s a tick.
  • Readers? Not many, but the few I have are lovely, enthusiastic and supportive. I couldn’t ask for nicer people.
  • Movies and paying my bills by writing? Not even on the radar. The radar hasn’t even been invented in terms of this analogy.
  • Written a comic? That goes in the yes column, although it hasn’t been drawn, yet. Still, the work has been done and I had fun doing it.
  • Also, in case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t spontaneously become Terry Pratchett.

Now, do I consider myself to be successful?

This is a tough thing for me because, as you may know, I struggle with self esteem and depression. I want to say “no” very badly. But, I’m going to talk to myself like I’d talk to any of you: positively. For the last nine years I may not have reached my ultimate goal of world domination and financial freedom from my writing but, dang it, I’ve worked hard. There are ticks on that list. And, on the whole, I’ve loved the journey.

Am I successful by the media/world definition of success? Definitely not.

Am I successful by my own standards? Definitely yes!

Whether you’ve just put pen to paper, or you’ve finished your first novel. Even if you never get a publisher or an agent, if three people read your work and they’re your family, it doesn’t matter. A feat of creativity is a success by its very nature. I don’t care if it would win awards, and neither should you. You have done something that no one else has done or can do; you’ve told your story the best that you can.

You see, it isn’t about one huge, final success. You’re not completing a computer game. You’re not working up to the final scene in a movie. This is life. Every time you do something worthwhile, it’s a little success. Your life, and your writing career, is a series of those little successes. Extending that logic, you’re already a success. You can only get more successful because no one can take from you the hard work that you’ve one.

 

The Philosophy

Here we come to the real philosophy section of the post, where we try to find the things that have been said by much smarter people than I, that you might bear in mind when thinking about your own success:

“Comparison is the thief of joy” – Teddy Roosevelt.

That’s a good point. Why compare your own success to that of another? Get distracted by their success and it’s easy to miss your own.

“Success has always been a great liar.” – Friedrich Nietzsch

In case you hadn’t noticed, I think Nietzsche and the Stoics are pretty useful for authors:

“A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” — Seneca

And finally, this is another nice one, although slightly off-topic:

“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” – Henry David Thoreau

There was another quote that I had in mind for this post, but be damned if I can find it, now 😀

 

Thanks for reading, everyone!

Tao of the Author: The Recurring Question

Hi everyone,

Welcome back to The Tao of the Author, a new thread of blog posts that will address the psychological and philosophical aspects of being an author. The first post The Magic Bean talked about how it’s important to remember that there’s no quick track into authorship, and no magic ticket. This week, I’d like to talk about a question that I get asked a lot:

“How do I get published?”

My reply to this is another question which, in the moment and out of context, might sound harsh but I promise that I deliver it kindly.

“Have you finished our book, yet?”

The amount of people who reply “no” is overwhelming. To those people, and to anyone who is reading this who has the same question, I would like to suggest that you do so. Think about first things first. Maintain the dream of becoming published, but don’t bog yourself down with the mechanics of it. You aren’t ready if your book isn’t ready. Your author self and your book come as a package, you see?

To the rest of you who do have a book/comic/poetry collection/whatever completed, I would say this: Do your research. Because every track into the creative world is different depending on your product. But, from a philosophical standpoint, I think the mindset behind the question is an interesting thing to discuss. You see, people are focused on doing things “the right way” when there is only “your way”.

We are creative. Our minds are attuned to the world in a way that some people can never experience. Everything we see, hear and feel, while ignored by most, is assimilated by us. We see through the cracks, around the corners. We ask questions of society and normality and, when we realise there is no satisfactory answer, we create one of our own. Whether you write “Chick Lit” (a genre name that I don’t believe reflects how good it really is), Horror, Sci-fi or Fantasy, you are taking the real world, holding up a mirror, and either dissecting or representing it in a way that touches others, that brings people together who otherwise feel as if they exist alone. The nature of humanity is that we can never see what another is thinking, feeling or planning; we see only into our own minds. That can be lonely. Creatives bridge that gap, showing how we all share experiences in a way that everyone can understand. Art, in all it’s forms, is the closest we humans get to telepathy.

And yet, your standard creative will still fall into the trap of asking for a solid answer to shoehorn into our ephemeral world.

We are creatives. From the first time that we see a landscape, or the play of emotion on a stranger’s face and think “I must represent this with art”, we’re walking an uncertain path. But we don’t deal in certainty. Our currency is ideas. Everything we do is outside of comfort zones and social norms. It has to be, or we can never craft anything entirely new.

Our journey into creativity is not an earthly thing. It’s born of a dream, and made of human connection beyond mere words on a page. That kind of connection doesn’t come from a 9-5 bubble. It doesn’t come from the classroom or from grades. It doesn’t come from manuscripts printed in 12pt, times new roman, double-lined spaced with generous margins. It comes in spite of those things.

What am I getting at? There is no certain path. My experience is not your experience. My path is not your path. And no one can tell you how to get published. I got published after years of hard work and then, when I was about to give up, I sent out a tweet. And got a publisher. Is that the “usual” way? No. But it was my path. And I can tell you stories of people who have gotten an agent before getting a publisher, some have self published and Amazon have bought their book that went straight on to a movie deal, other people self publish and sell copies out of the boot of their car on Sundays, more still have diversified themselves to the point that they can write simply anything and make a good wage from that flexibility.

There is no one path. Find yours. You do so by first preparing your equipment. Make sure your book is the best you can make it with the resources available to you. Then head into the woods. Veer off the track. Stumble through the undergrowth. Grow thirsty and hot and lost, and I swear to you, if there is a way for you, you will find it. But no one ever got anywhere by sitting down when the track turned uphill. And sometimes the old man who you meet, whose directions seem so useful, so easy to hold onto as a sign of some certainty in the vastness of the forest, are half remembered lies from when the forest was but a copse of firs.

How do you get published?

By keeping your boots strapped tight, and throwing away the map. You do it your way.

The Philosophy

And here we come to the real philosophy section of the post, where we try to find the things that have been said by much smarter people than I, that you might bear in mind when thinking about your creative path:

“No one can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

And what about if we go even further back in time? Confucius suggested:

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

And, equally important:

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

 

Thanks for reading!

Tools for writers: Do we need them?

So I’ve just got back from meeting with a couple of fellow writers. We descend on The Showroom in Sheffield now and again (we try to be more frequent but it never seems to work out that way) to talk about what we’re up to.

How’s that sequel coming along? How many days in a row have you procrastinated over shiny things on the internet? That kind of thing.

Today’s discussion mostly revolved around writing tools and technology. Pete and Christie are hardcore into their technology. They both use Scrivener, which is a writing tool that let’s you organise your manuscript with all manner of virtual post-its and bookmarks to make moving around your work easier. It sounds great. Anything that makes editing your own work easier is a surefire hit.

But, I don’t use it. For anyone who can remember my previous “planner or pantser” post, I don’t even plan that much.

I get an idea for a story, cook it in my head until it’s nice and brown, then hit the keyboard with nothing but the images in my head and a notebook, just in case.

It’s strange to think that we’re all striving toward the same thing. We all want to write stories. But we come at it from such diverse directions. And I don’t think any of them are wrong. My friends love their gadgets. I’m probably considered a minimalist. We all get the job done in our own way. So why am I so jealous of their ability to be organised? 😁

What’s your method? Let me know if I’m a complete literary mutant or not 😊
Thanks for reading

How D&D helped my writing

I’m totally addicted to Dungeons and Dragons.

I’d always wanted to play and never had anyone who knew how but, after dropping into someone else’s game for just the one session, I gave myself Gygax.

Since my exntded shore-leave from the blog, I now run two games, both very different, as Dungeon Master, and I play in another. I really can’t suggest it strongly enough. Especially for writers. There is no end to the creativity you can play out in the games. The story can be sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thriller, you name it!

I’ve found it’s a massive help to maintaining creativity. When my books are stumbling (all talk about the several projects I’m working on in a later post) and I can’t get my Auth-on, D&D has been exactly what I’ve needed.

Not only do I get to come up with ideas that don’t have to have every detail planned out, but the players do half the work for me! With a brief set-up, the players drive their own plot based on whatever they want their characters to do, often coming up with paths through the story that I would have never come up with

I would never straight-up novelise the games I run. Those are for me and my friends alone, to enjoy spending time together and having fun. But those little sparks of inspiration that playing gives me; those are priceless.

Being forced to think on the fly when a player takes a tangent, having to ad-lib and (my favourite part) playing all of the NPCs (non-player characters) is not only immense fun and such a rush, but brilliant for my story and character-generating skills.

Let me give you an example.

So, the players, who are a crew of a ship, have been attacked by an undead pirate and all of their belongings have been stolen. Limping to the nearest island and left to their own devices while their ship is fixed, they decided they wanted to head to a tavern.

While in the tavern, one player picks an arm-wrestling match with a local (who I had to make up) but the true moment of excellence was Eugene. A player asked if there were any locals at the bar, as he intended to fleece one of them out of some money (the players didn’t even have money to eat).

Anyway, I said there was indeed a young elf at the bar. He seemed out of place, nervous, with a large backpack at this feet. This, as it turns out, would be Eugene. Over the next few minutes, the player decided to tease me by asking Eugene’s entire backstory (which I didn’t have prepared) but the funniest part was the voice that came out when Eugene spoke. Because I hadn’t written this character before hand and, perhaps because of his name, the poor NPC ended up with the voice of Professor Frink from Futurama.

I could barely hold it together. Eugene tickled everyone around the table. And every time they go into the bar, they ask if Eugene is in there. Probably just to mess with me, actually.

The moral of this story, is that D&D is a GREAT writing tool. You should try it.

 

Thanks for reading.

Selling books ain’t easy – How to get your books noticed at events

Well, The Adventures of Alan Shaw is out there in the universe now. I’ve had my first couple of signings and everything seems to be going well. Lots of folks who read Greaveburn came along to both Waterstones in Doncaster and Leeds Steampunk Market to pick up their copies of the new book, which is very nice of them indeed.

What I noticed, however, is that new readers were leaning toward Greaveburn rather than Alan Shaw. Despite the logic which would suggest that the next book would be better. After all, I’ve had a lot more practice at this thing I do, so I certainly hope I’ve learnt something (Jury’s still out, though). And I think I know why. Greaveburn is shorter!

Why would you start reading a new author, not knowing if you’re going to like it, and pay a pound extra for the larger book? Of course you wouldn’t! You read the shorter, cheaper book and, if you like it, you read more. I also noticed that as the pile of Greaveburn copies went down, people picked it up more. That would suggest readers believe the sales of books to be indicative of quality. So, the sales of Greaveburn perpetuated themselves.

Awesome!

Just when I thought no one would be interested in the older novel, it kicks serious ass at Leeds Steampunk Market.

Of course, for the author, you want people to read and review your new work, so it can feel disappointing. But once Greaveburn had sold out, people headed over to the Alan Shaw pile and they disappeared, too. That pretty much proves my point about reader psychology and the books they buy.

Also, everyone wanted to know if the books were part of a series. People want to read epic stories nowadays. Everyone is looking for their next 50 Shades of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series. For the love of God, if someone asks you if your book is part of a series, even if you’re still working on the other books and it’s just a possibility, tell them about it!

Another thing I noticed, which seems odd but is true, most people, on stepping through a door, will turn right. Don’t ask me why. They just do. Unless there is something staggeringly brilliant to their left that they just can’t pass up, they will go right. So, if you’re at a market, try to shift your stall over that side. You don’t want to be next to the door, though. People browse before they buy. Be the third or fourth stall. By then, readers/buyers will have got a feel for the room and be ready to hang around.

Another thing I’ve observed is how sellers present themselves. Over the course of any event weekend, you can observe people floating on by stalls. Why is that? There seems to be a correlation with how the stall holders were coming across. If you sit behind a phone/tablet/book, and look disinterested, why should the reader/buyer be interested in you? Also, if your stall is surrounded completely, new people won’t come over. If you’re lucky enough to have some lovely person come and have a conversation with you, then ask them politely to move over so that people can still get in. They really won’t mind. Then carry on chatting.

A similar point is to not have too many people behind your stall. On occasions where I’ve had myself, my shop girl (either my wife, or a friend who helps me out) and my publishers all behind the table, people feel overwhelmed. It’s like they’re having a job interview. So they don’t visit. I get more casual visitors when it’s just me, or me and my shop girl, than at any other time.

This post is turning into a thesis! Sorry.

On the subject of shop-girls…and don’t take this the wrong way…but a pretty face next to you is hardly a bad thing. Unless you have pretty face of our own. But I don’t. I’m more of a keep-the-kids-away-from-the-fire kind of face. And so a friendly, pleasant young lady with me helps to even me out. It also helps if that assistant knows their stuff. Make sure they’ve read the book! Let them listen to you sell your own material. My friend, Fran, helps me out regularly, and I’ve noticed that she pretty much directly quotes me when explaining the book to others. And it works! She’s read the book herself so she can comment on whether people will like it or not, and she explains the premise just as well as I do. Perfect!

A tip I got from a very nice fellow author, Sam Smith, was to use The Rule of Three to explain your book to other people. This rule is based on the magic number that makes everyone’s brain go wahoooHOOOO! But also on something I’ve mentioned before; that everyone is looking for the next book to read which they will enjoy just as much as their last one!

So, described your books by comparing them to three other things. Let’s use Greaveburn as an example to make it easier to explain:

It’s like Frankenstein meets Les Miserables with a hint of The Hunchback of Notre Dame where every character is a villain.”

See the three elements? That gives a really good idea of what the story is about, the feel of it, and then finished off with something unique to the book.

Let’s try to do it with The Adventures of Alan Shaw:

“It’s like Indiana Jones is thrown into an H.G Wells novel and travels the world having Pulp-style adventures, where you get to see how the Steampunk era develops as the character grows up.”

An easy sentence to memorise, and it lays it all out for the potential reader. Then, once they’re hooked, you can tell them a little more.

Try it out, it really helps to explain a complex idea such a novel to someone, and can help maintain your focus when writing a sequel too.

And last but not least… a tip on setting up your table. People seem to think that if they touch a book, they have to buy it. I once jokingly suggested to a potential reader that the cover didn’t have glue on it and I wouldn’t be offended if he put it back down after reading the blurb. He did NOT find this funny. So, now I have two cheap book stands to make my stall look a little more three dimensional and interesting and I always lay one book blurb-up on the table to people can read without having to pick it up. I’ve had more people doing the bent-over-scan than I can remember. It really works!

I hope that’s been helpful.

Embrace the weird, my friends.

Public appearances

Hi everyone.

I’ve been a busy boy lately. In the last few weeks I’ve been to talk at my local college about writing, another workshop with a group of young writers, had a radio spot and I’m headed toward another event next weekend.

This all sounds awesome. Except for that I have zero confidence in public appearances and I’m absolutely terrible at talking to large groups of people. Small groups? No problem. Get me stood in front of a class or give me the need to be articulate in the slightest and I’m completely lost. That’s why I write things down!

image

^ That’s me looking a Goon at the college talk.

But lately the deep end of the pool has risen up to claim me. It started with a talk at Doncaster College as part of the Turn The Page festival run by local libraries. It seemed like a great idea. Go talk to aspiring authors, maybe sign some books, and hopefully not have a heart attack in the process. But it was oh-so-much harder than that. The college had the lovely idea of setting up the room in which I would be talking in a university lecture-style with me at a pulpit and host of faces staring down at me. I became acutely aware of how Loosestrife felt on page 3 of Greaveburn with all those students looking down on him (Which gave me a giggle as life started to imitate art). What made this particularly interesting and a real learning experience, was because most of the atendees didn’t have English as their first language, and as I talked I became acutely aware that either my accent or vocabulary wasn’t getting through. And so I had to change tack half way through and start re-planning on the fly. Yikes.

It was an absolute blast. I got a little adrenalin rush like jumping out of a plane without the parachute. But I survived it! Hell yes, I did. And I reckon I nailed it…or maybe not…

Anyway, the next event, on the very same day in fact, was a radio interview where I had to review someone else’s book as well. That part was kind of fun apart from when the interviewer started asking me historical questions about when the first dirigible was used and what the difference between an airship and a dirigible was. Just for the record, I am neither historian or engineer. But I am the King of Blag. And so I winged it. And I think I didn’t sound too much of a complete idiot so I’m chalking that one up as a win, too.

Don’t argue, just let me have it, ok? ;D

With that done, next came my talk with a local Young Writer’s group this week. As my girlfriend (scratch that, fiance, since I got engaged recently and completely forgot to blog about it. Naughty Craig) is an English teacher, I figured I would be prepared for talking to young adults (read: teenagers) by her stories and advice. Oh, how wrong can you be?

I had lots of fun and we talked about all manner of geeky things, but there was absolutely no order to the proceedings at all 😀

Dear Lord, I’m not ready for children yet.

But they were brilliant, enthusiastic, and extremely insightful and clever. Much more than I was, to be honest. But I think I made them laugh a few times, which was good, and they seemed to really grab onto the idea of Greaveburn being inspired by a funky “cheese dream” which ended up being the catchphrase of the whole evening. So what did I do wrong? Plenty. Afterward I was acutely aware that some of the particularly astute members of the group were very quiet and overpowered by some who were louder and perhaps had a lot less insight. And I did nothing to help those poor quiet kids. To them, if they’re reading this, I apologise profusely. I’m still learning. And I hope you’ll contact me so I can maybe help you on a one-to-one basis as you deserve.

Anyways, what I’m getting at is that public appearances are full of pitfalls for authors. No matter the preparation, something will come up that you can’t account for. Expect the unexpected. And if all else fails, just relax and have fun. I certainly did, and maybe next time I’ll even be better at it. Who knows?

But if nothing else, I hope this blog post helps you to realise that someone else is always worse at public appearances at you. And that person will always be me.

 

Thanks for reading!