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NaNoWriM-Oh My God!

I think my regular visitors might have an idea of my thoughts on Nano, for the newcomers among you, I am not a fan. Though I laud the idea to encourage creativity and structure in new writers I cannot, cannot, cannot overcome what I see as the risks involved to budding writers confidence, and the knock-on effect on the publishing industry as a whole.

You *might* not have heard of NaNo, an American nonprofit organization whose goal is to provide support for struggling writers and their event NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and it’s challenge to write fifty-thousand words within the month of November without stopping, reviewing or editing. But now you have, it’s a splurge challenge, Quantity over Quality.

I don’t have a problem with encouraging creativity, I *do* have an issue with forcing it. Many of us struggle, I struggled and yes, a structured approach to writing is a real help. Whether you schedule your time day-to-day or keep an accountability diary where you note down if you did any writing, whatever works, right? Well, no. Trying to force creativity can be damaging to your process, your confidence and your self-esteem. My continuing message to those who would be writers is ‘Be Kind to Yourself’, forcing One-Thousand Six-Hundred and Sixty-Seven words out of your brain each and every day of November is not kind. My best days to date I have written in the region of three-thousand words, but it is not a sustainable rate, at least not for me. For every day of pure flow there are days, if not weeks of zero-to-two-hundred and fifty words.

Beyond the harm you can do to your creative self if you get caught up in the challenge and take it too seriously (trust me, tapping my Duolingo ranking experience here) there is the further impact on the industry. Publishers effectively shut-down for four-months post November. Why? Because of the torrent of unsolicited, unedited NaNo submissions that probably don’t even follow their Submission Guidelines. If you saw NaNo on this article and clicked in for tips, Yes, publishers have guidelines for submissions. It’s a major part of getting your manuscript considered for publication.

Still, if you are taking part, remember. It’s a guideline. The 50k is a goal but you don’t have to hit it, any progress made is admirable. If you find yourself stuck, walk away and do something to renew yourself before you go on. Writing doesn’t all take place at the keyboard. Any and all experience is part of the process. Instead of locking yourself away for the month of November take some time to read, watch, listen to, speak to, or do the things that create the experiences that will fuel the writing.

So, maybe you can write a Novella in a month, maybe you get through it without quitting, tossing it aside as pure trash and vowing never to attempt writing a story again. Good for you. Don’t submit it to a publisher. Not yet. First, edit it, re-read it, spell-check it, check the continuity of events, names and such. You’ve just thrown it at the page, take the time to polish it. Then look for an appropriate publisher, make sure they are accepting submissions (you’ll have until March according to several publishers I’ve spoken to) and construct your submission package. Whatever you do don’t tell them it was your NaNo project.

I know that there are people out there, far more talented than I am, who can probably write true genius over the course of NaNo. Of course I hate them, and I don’t even know them, envious creature that I am. But, in the slew of submissions by others who, in a sheer fit of enthusiasm, contribute to the overloading of publishers post-NaNo, those works go unconsidered, unregarded and unread, and those writers might not venture to try again and that is a loss to the reading community.

Do I hate NaNo? Not really, its a grand idea, but it’s a victim of human impatience. The ‘Yay, I did the thing, now what do I get?‘ mentality. Making a career as a writer, or even getting your first book to print, is a marathon, not a sprint. So, as ever, Be Kind To Yourself this NaNoWriMo. It’s a challenge, not a task and no-one is cracking the whip over you but you.

Pro-nouns and Pro-gress

A while back I was part of a virtual panel for Chicago Worldcon 2022. The panel was called ‘More than Sex-bots and Slaves’ and focussed on the treatment of synthetic organisms in popular media. As we were talking I brought up the idea of using android and alien characters as a stepping-stone for the introduction of neo-pronouns into the public consciousness, to which the moderator immediately clarified ‘but that’s not how we see you.’ I understand that clarification, and there wasn’t time on the panel to expand on a point which might easily be misinterpreted in its intent, but it does make good grounds for a blog article, so, here goes.

Image Courtesy of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power – DreamWorks/Mattel

Firstly, it’s my belief that theScience-Fiction Community is one of the most forward-thinking and inclusive groups of fandoms there is. But even here, we see toxicity, we see bigotry and push-back against inclusivity, especially when people perceive inclusion as a threat to ‘their’ canon. Take the recent negativity around She-Hulk or The Rings of Power or the live-action The Little Mermaid. Bottom-of-the-barrel sexism and racism, and we haven’t even gotten into LGBTQ+rep territory. So, it seems that there is a ‘need’ and science fiction and fantasy are, very simply, the best place to ‘plant the seed’ (I’m a cis man, and even I’m staggered that I still have to use that kind of grass roots terminology and approach).

So what is ‘Normalising?’

Simply put, it’s exposing someone to a subject until it’s common enough that it becomes familiar or normal. When faced with profound change, it’s unfortunate, but the impulse among the majority is not to embrace it. A change to the status quo is something to resist, especially if it effects our day-to-day lives. It’s pretty complicated, many people who recoil at the use of non-binary pronouns didn’t bat an eyelid over the withdrawal of the right to peaceful protest. It’s nonsensical, but I guess that they feel the chances of having something to protest about is much less than the chances of them running into someone who prefers to be addressed ‘they/them’, and I can’t tell you why it angers or scares them, but it does. Still, by introducing characters in fiction who use ‘They/Them’, ‘Zhee/Zher’, ‘Xe/Xim’ or any of the neo-pronouns, we’re softening the impact.

But why do these characters have to be aliens/robots? What does that say about your opinion of non-binary people? Does it mean that we see all non-binary people as aliens or robots? Of course not. It says a whole lot more about my opinion of the people who are resistant to treating other human beings with care and compassion. If a person is going to rage-quit because they don’t agree with a character in Doctor Who being a woman, or being queer, then they won’t finish a book where a human character is non-binary… but they *might* if that character isn’t human. That’s the point where it becomes non-threatening to their worldview and (much as I hate tip-toeing around bigotry) that’s the point where education starts. Confronting bigotry directly can just be pouring petrol on the flames, but slow and steady exposure might erode it’s
foundations. One of my major influences in my writing is Sir Terry Pratchett, who beautifully introduced the idea of a change in pronouns through the lense of fantasy species – namely the Dwarf character of Cherry/Cheri Littlebottom.

It is the place of speculative fiction to go there and ask ‘What if?’ and, by asking that question, challenge the world we know. Apparently ‘we’ know that ‘they’ and ‘them’ are plural terms, but they’re not. They’ve been used as singular since the 14th century. And language isn’t a fixed, static thing either. It changes and evolves, The Darling Buds of May (1991/1993), David Jason as Pa Larkin, was responsible for the addition of the word ‘perfick’ to the Oxford dictionary. The September 2022 update of the Oxford English Dictionary reported the addition of 650 new words, senses and sub-entries (since the June update).

Another push-back against representation of neo-pronouns in literature is the idea that using ‘They/Them’ as pronouns ‘confuses the reader’, as it becomes unclear who is speaking. I’m not going to pass judgment on the wider industry view but, in my opinion, it’s not elementary level language that makes a book ‘easy to read’. It’s a combination of language, context, sentence structure, rhythm and pacing. A badly constructed sentence will be hard to read no matter the level of language used, it’s more a matter of putting the work in to get the flow than just dumbing down the words.

Suffice to say that, we have enough cis, het, white fiction, and the rise of LGBTQ+ stories and stories by authors from diverse ethnic backgrounds is something to be celebrated, something to immerse yourself in and something to be supported whole-heartedly and there are clear signs of progress. Thor: Ragnarok grossed $112 million in China, Thor: Love and Thunder didn’t make it past the countries censors because Disney wouldn’t pull the LGBTQ+ content. If Disney can choose rep over profit, surely something’s going right. We had to have Korra and Asami to prove to the money-men that there was demand for Catradora.

Where Am I?

Alright, so, I haven’t been around for a while and that’s not so good for retaining a blog following. Also we’re headed into the darker months so things *are* likely to tail off until next year when I promise to try to do better (and, hopefully, I’ll be more active and have more to report upon anyway). I’ve also let the ‘Year in Review’ posts slide, maybe I should sort them into a seperate section of the index in order to remind me, that’s food for thought. However, the last two years have been kinda suppressed by Covid in anycase so lets do a look back at where I wanted to be and then look at how things have changed.

Gif Courtesy of ‘Phineas and Ferb’ Copywrite Disney Pictures

I had a four-year plan back in 2017 (the year I quit ‘regular’ work and focussed all my attention on writing). THe goal was to have a trad-pub title at the end of it. Four years, get traditionally published. Well, I’m happy to report that I smashed that. Renderred Flesh hit shelves in April 2021… mid Covid.

I wouldn’t say I ‘lost’ two years of progress to Covid, my plan to establish a list of trade and literature conventions to regularly attend certainly took a step back but, writing-wise it hasn’t slowed me down (I can do that quite effectively myself). So, what is going on, and where am I going next?

Projects in Process:- As you might have seen, I am currently under contract for a Science-Fiction Trilogy with Vulpine Press. Two installments of the tentatively titled ‘Riding the E-Rail’ series are first-draft complete and I’m hoping to steam through part three asap.

I am working on a very exciting collaberation alongside S.G. Mulholland, of the Puck and Stargazer series. This one might take some time, there are parts of the story centring around the fluidity of identity which are above and beyond anything I’ve ever attempted before.

Bentley. Some of my followers might have heard me wax lyrical about my ‘Lock-Stock meets Lord of the Rings’, Guy Richie infuenced urban fantasy series. Well, work has begun, words are being lain down. Eventually I hope this project will be a run of seven books (one for each of the ‘original’ stories).

Rendered Flesh, is it dead? Nope, noppity, nope nope. I have had an idea for another installement to Flesh-out the story as it where. I’m making notes and plans but stick close, I should soon have news to report about Rendered Flesh: Alpha Access.

Other projects:- Aside from these twelve, count-em, twelve books there are a couple of other projects that I’m casually considering, apocalypses seem to be something of a theme but there’s certainly a slow-burn sci-fi thriller in there, something I’ve been considering for a long time. Titles are flying around me brain like A Mind of My Own, Superior, The Vapors certainly horror, suspense and such figure quite prominently too.

I’m hoping to get involved in more TTROG projects, I thoroughly enjoy working with others and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the release of Solemn Vale.

Camelot 2050, is still a title I’m pushing. I’m going to start submitting it again, this time to agents. If anything the responce of the readers I’ve met at conventions has increased my conviction that camelot could be a pretty big deal. There might be more material down the line, I’m still trying to come up wirth shorts to eventually combine into an anthology.

Conventions. Coming back to con’s has been a blast. I say that my Con schedule took a hit over Covid but, in the year we’ve been back I’ve made some good progress. Portsmouth Comic Con, YALC, Fantasycon, ShowMasters and UKCGF and Creed Conventions, I’ve come back pretty hard and mostly hit target. Although I didn’t get to go to Chicago Worldcon I will be at Glasgow in 2024 come hell or highwater and Dublin looks like a good bid for 2029.

The panel circuit continues to be kind, Dragonmeet last November, Eastercon, the Chicon virtual programme and, noteably, my first workshop at Fantadsycon was both well-attended and well-recieved.

So, there we are. Projects, plans, events. Everything to play for in the upcoming year and beyond. The thing to remember going ahead is this. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Getting a deal and becoming famous is the Extra-ordinary, not the ordinary. As Jasper Fforde once said to a workshop, “The thing about being a New York Times best-seller, is once you get there you have to go out there and do it again.” and I’m not a NYT best-seller… yet.

A Poli-ticking Timebomb!

When ‘Rendered Flesh’ released, I knew it was going to be divisive. It’s a book driven by the main character’s politics and their identity, a leftist, socially progressive, non-binary activist, of course it was going to draw criticisms. Luckily, to date, the most scathing response is still an Amazon review (no death-threats from Right-Wing Proud Boys yet), accusing the book of being a ‘vehicle for the author’s politics’. I don’t clap-back at bad reviews, not directly anyway, and I don’t advise you to either but…

We live in a time of weaponized ignorance so, for the record. Yeah, ‘Rendered Flesh’ is a political commentary piece, it is. Me and George Romero, father of the zombie genre we know today (in fact he wanted them to be known as ‘ghouls’ to tie in with Western folklore, not the Haitian tradition). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that, if you’re actively avoiding zombie horror with a sociopolitical commentary? You’re missing out on the best of the genre there, bud.

But it’s not just me, is it? And it’s not just zombies coming under fire, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds recently drew (much mocked) criticism for being ‘too woke’. On the 14th of May 2022, Fox News tweeted the headline;

Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura, Star Trek, Paramount Pictures

‘OPINION: Star Trek writers take Starship Enterprise where it’s never gone before – woke politics’

I’m certainly not the first to say it but, it has been “woke” ever since they included a Japanese-born actor, held in an internment camp during WW2, an actor depicting a Russian national at the height of the Cold War, and a black actress depicting the senior comm’s officer all as bridge crew of a space exploration vessel named for a Yorktown class Aircraft carrier that served in the U.S. Navy from 1936 to 1960, 7th of that name and the most decorated U.S. naval vessel to serve in WW2. Perhaps when they portrayed the first on-screen, interracial kiss between Kirk (William Shatner) and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the episode ‘Plato’s Children’ in 1968, the same year (and months after) Martin Luther King was assassinated.

You cannot have a deep, detailed, engaging story without politics. The way people read and interpret your work is going to be influenced with how their politics interacts with the politics within your setting. I keep going back to it (because I love it) but Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’, Orwell’s ‘1984’, Attwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, these books are held up, not because they are political, but because they are overtly political. Here is a great blog entry by Ann Leckie that covers this point excellently (with some extended reading by R.B. Lemberg).

Pretty much any element of setting or story can be picked at as motivated by the writer’s politics, you can’t write an apolitical novel. The simplest examples (and these are sweeping statements, not remotely the whole picture);

  • Female Protagonist – Feminist
  • Male Protagonist – Supports the Patriarchy
  • Multi-Ethnic Cast – Liberal
  • Single Ethnicity – Conservative/Racist
  • Socialist setting – Communist
  • Militaristic setting – Fascist

These examples are extreme and over-simplified but, more and more, the world we live in is become divisive and extremist in it’s perceptions. The division that Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Orangutan’ (The Murders in the Rue Morgue – 1841) causes between academics and the subsequent Reddit memes are illustrative of the trend. More recently the Manga and Anime ‘Attack on Titan’ (Hajime Isayama) has drawn criticism for it’s emergent Fascist undertones and messages and, despite looking long and hard for a final answer among the articles online, I couldn’t tell you if the show is an allegory for fascism or propaganda, is it so ‘overt’ as to be truly ‘covert’ just like Paul Verhoeven’s movie adaptation of ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997). This article in Collider gives the ‘cleverly subversive’ angle with supporting frames from the original text and is a direct response to a Polygon article (linked) by Tom Speelman that frames the opposite argument.

So, can you avoid politics in your work? No, not at all, it’s always going to be there somewhere. The only way to avoid getting called-out for being too political is to keep the focus away (if you can) and avoid commenting on hot-topic issues, or you could revel in it, be critical, be scathing, call-out the injustices and wrongs of the system, but do it though a lens of the fantastical, in the same way Sir Terry Pratchett did so well in the Guards books. The political content of any given piece makes people uncomfortable when it contradicts or opposes their own internal position. Although, I’m pretty sure we all know someone whom we feel would benefit from having their position challenged, don’t we?

Un-Convention-al.

The two-year gap on public events was a big hurdle for me to get over. Much as I proudly announce my status as a ‘Hermit Author’ I take a lot more away from events than just sales. The convention scene helps me recharge my enthusiasm, it’s great to talk about my books and talk to other people about theirs. Before the break I was diligently trying to build a calendar of reliable events to attend through the year, partly in the respects of Profit/Loss, partly in respect of good exposure/networking and partly just seeing which events where good for creativity and meeting people, which ones encouraged me to write.

The break for Covid, and the rising costs of living that we’re currently experiencing, have essentially rendered me back to square one. So, here I am, trying to build a new list of Literary and Trade conventions to attend over this and the coming year and it’s that experience that I’m going to share with you today.

Trade Cons

One of the first events I attended as lockdown was easing up was Reading Comic Con by Creed Conventions (they also run events in St Albans and previously Bath). Reading is a good location and the venue was just outside the city centre, accessible by road and public transport. 2021 suffered a little from the general uncertainty and the weather. I’ll certainly be giving it another run but the venue’s being renovated for 2022 so 2023 it is!

Portsmouth Comic Con, run by the ever-fabulous team at GoGeek Events. This was the event this year that fully restored my confidence in the UK convention scene. GoGeek are an anti-bullying and inclusion group who run Portsmouth CC, the Retro, Modern and Board Guildhall Games Fest and Portsmouth Pride. It’s fair to say that, with an ethos like that? I’ll never *not* support their events.

Showmasters Events are possibly the only events team in the UK that rival MCM for size and draw. I’ve been attending Showmaster events since Sheffield Film and Comic Con back in 2018 if I remember rightly. Since then I’ve been a regular at London FCC (Spring) and, this year, I have a table across the hall in the Young Adult Literature Convention or YALC. Now, the outlay (especially for YALC) was significant but, having turned over healthy sales at Worldcon Dublin, I’m assured the YALC is bigger, the footfall is greater and it is primarily a sales event so, fingers crossed, I’ll have something good to report after the event.

Now, I mentioned Bath above and, this year I’ll be there at an event run by the UK Comic Con and Gaming Festivals or UKCGF. This group run events from Bath, to Brighton, to Truro, I won’t speculate on what other locations they might be adding to their roster but they seem to be ‘on the up’ to me. Bath in August will be my first event with UKCGF and I’ve got my fingers crossed for it.

Dragonmeet is an event I’ve attended consistently the last four trading years. I’ve had to postpone booking for 2022 so I’ll see if there’s space left when I have a little money spare. I know the con organiser is pushing for more literature rep (being primarily a board game convention) and now is a good time to hop onboard.

I’ve certainly dipped my toes in other smaller events, Norfolk’s Comic Con (Norcon), Sci-Fi Weekender and Worthing Wormhole (now Wyntercon under Worthing Events CIC) and had mixed experiences. Far be it from me to shoot down people’s events but, as someone paying for a sales pitch, none of these small events paid for themselves (even before Covid). But you take a chance sometimes. Worthing teaming up with Wyntercon certainly makes it worth reconsidering.

Going ahead I’ll be looking at whether YALC outperforms LFCC Spring, though I’m not ruling out doing both. I’m already penciled in for Portsmouth 2023, but in the meantime, we’ll see how Bath goes.

Litcons

In all, brutal, honesty, litcons are going to be subject to quite close scrutiny over the coming year. High prices and bad venues have hit the circuit recently, claims that there are only a select few places to host conventions ring quite hollow in many ears and events have suffered proportionally. While previously the costs of litcons have been moderated by sales, several events have suffered, I’m sad to say, by the traders being given a lower consideration than other aspects of the con.

Eastercon (2023 billed as Conversation) is an event I’ve attended since I released Black Knight back in 2018, however it is one that has suffered from rising costs, bad location and a distinct lack of consideration for the traders attending. While it is one of the larger events for the UK Sci-fi and Fantasy literature community, the costs of attending in the near future, at this point, certainly outweigh the benefits for a small hybrid concern like me.

Fantasycon is another markedly prestigious event on the UK Sci-Fi and Fantasy lit scene. While I have always had a table for Eastercon and attended annually for some years, I’m new to Fantasycon, only having attended/traded there once in 2021. I’ll admit I had a really good time and met some great people. While I was signed up for 2022, alas the membership hasn’t been there and the con has announced it won’t be running as expected. I’ll keep an eye on what form it does take, but it was booked in the same Heathrow Radisson that Eastercon has been suffering at, so we’ll have to see.

It’s not all bad news though, Bristolcon continues to be a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow authors from all tiers of success (I met Jasper Ffjorde at the last one). Regrettably I have an unrelated event conflict for 2022 so, I’ll see you there 2023.

Likewise Satellite in Glasgow (soon to be Satellite 8) introduced me to faces old and new and showed me a different way to approach the same old programme items and panels.

And that’s not all. In the pipe we have Novacon running in Buxton. Again, much as I *want* to attend it comes down to how well things go at YALC, but I hope to be booking that soon. I’ll be getting onboard for Glasgow Worldcon 2024 in the next few weeks regardless and crossing my fingers for the Dublin’s Worldcon 2029 bid. Missing Chicon is going to be a big regret for a while but hey, I’m sure the chance to get there will come again. Maybe by then I’ll be Special Guest material.

Do Writers Need Help? (AKA Why I *Hate* Grammarly)

Well, obviously we do, just look at our search histories…

But, in all seriousness, yes, writers do need help from time to time but, it’s the source of that help that is important and, in this entry, I’ll be looking at some of the collective ‘Do’s and ‘Don’t’s that I’ve encountered in my journey to date.

One of the earliest areas where help is needed is, quite logically, spelling and grammar. It might come as a surprise to some but, not all authors are Language Majors, Academics or even Native Speakers. I’ll note here the growing market (in a mainstream traditionally dominated by works written in English and translated for foreign markets) for pieces written in other languages, from non-western perspectives to be translated into English (the most popular example I can quickly bring to mind being Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series, first published in Polish).

Most publishers will require a submission to be as grammatically correct as possible, they don’t want to waste time hunting down spelling errors. Errors in the text disrupt the readers flow, drop them out of their immersion and reflect badly on the publisher. The same is true of self-pub where you are the publisher. The spell-checkers and grammar algorithms of most commercial word processor programs can be quite limited, especially when it comes to writing dialogue, so you might be tempted by the shiny, all-singing, all-dancing programs of the likes of Grammarly. I would ask, nay beg, that you don’t succumb and I’ll tell you why.

The big selling point for the Grammarly platform is that, aside from spelling and grammar it can clean up your writing, make it more concise and help you get your message across which is great, for commercial businesses. As a writer you want allowances to change the ebb and flow of your prose. At times urgency and clarity are the order of the day, sometimes you want to be more languid, florid or, dare I say it? Flowery in your language. The biggest problem I see with using these programs as an aid is that, if you don’t manage just how much help you allow them to lend, your writing loses it’s voice and ends up reading just like every other author who uses the same Grammar engine. Don’t surrender your voice.

A quick tag-on for the above is writing in languages you don’t know, Google Translate is not the be-all and end-all of linguistics. Try and find a native speaker or, if you can’t, at least double-check your translations

Another area where we often need help is to communicate the voice of characters whose experiences are far removed from our own. Whether it’s cultural differences or life-experiences we haven’t had the only answer to making your characters experiences genuine is research, it’s kinda what the Internet was created for (aside from porn and cat pictures of course). It’s always great to speak to someone directly, it adds a real personal element that (when approached sensitively) can really lift your writing to the next level, but even if your research is all text-based articles it’s infinitely better that coming across as wrong or false.

Essentially, those two points are what it comes down to. Whatever world you’re building, whatever characters you’re introducing, whatever situation you’re creating? If the words are there and the experiences read true then you can encapsulate them in a way that ought to compel and entertain the reader and that is largely the point. If you can’t achieve those two things then there’s little hope of educating the reader or broadening their outlook because they won’t finish the book. Think on the overall story, but pay attention to the details and language mechanics. I cannot over-stress the importance of editing and beta readers, our brain gets very good at overwriting our mistakes for us, we see what we expect to see, perfect prose. We cannot operate in a vacuum (who would read our books?) but, with the ever-increasing variety of assistance to hand (and the associated cost) being selective and critical of the help we do draw upon becomes even more important.

The Hybrid Model (Not Just For Cars).

What, in publishing terms, is a hybrid model? Well, from my experience, I believe it’s the way forward for many up-and-coming authors. Rather than a mix of publication platforms and formats hybrid publishing is releasing your work via a mix of traditional and self-pub platforms and, honestly? It’s taken long enough for many of us to arrive at this point largely because of the stigma of ‘Vanity Publishing’ and how it has been linked to Self-Pub.

Here’s an example you might recognize, a young musician starts putting video’s on YouTube. They generate a fan base, a following, after a while, thousands of people are following them and they are trending on social media. At that point an agent picks them up and they go mainstream. It’s not even that new, YouTube is the new ‘Pub Gigs and Parties’ for starting musicians and it reaches a much wider audience. So, how does that apply to writing? We don’t exactly expect to make it big off of open-mic nights and public readings. Still, the internet plays a part, you can share your material online, Reddit or other fiction forums. You can self-publish and promote, you can take your work to conventions or all of the above. That is the publishing equivalent of YouTube (although, you could *also* use YouTube, a growing number of YouTube video’s are Book Trailers). Getting known and generating a following is your way to attract a publisher and, rather than the endless frustration of the submission/rejection cycle, you can channel your efforts into actual feet-on-the-ground experiences with real people.

Getting published right off the starting line is still a hard thing to do. The big presses are still looking for material based on familiar, popular properties, the next ‘Harry Potter’, the next ‘Game of Thrones’, new ideas are risks and, at this point, risk isn’t wise. Indie presses are a better bet, they’re looking for works that gel with their identity and are actually going to judge a manuscript on it’s merits (so long as the author follows the submission guidelines!) looking for something that’s going to capture the readerships imagination. Having a proven body of work is a good step-up and that’s where the self-pub comes in but it doesn’t end there and it doesn’t have to work that way.

Even if you have been traditionally published there’s no guarantee that a follow-up work is going to be taken on by the publisher (or any publisher) but, if you believe in the work, the self-pub option is there again. You’re already being promoted, getting known via the trad-pub, setting up a title self-pub isn’t that hard. Again, the danger is that you mistakenly choose a vanity publisher over a self-publisher. Look at IngramSpark where you’re asked no subscription charge, file upload of $25 per file ($50 for internals and cover) and then pay per unit with a minimum order size of one book as a guideline when choosing a service.

The hybrid model extends into marketing, you’ll want to do some yourself through social media, paid-for advertising if you can afford it and, like me, attending events. My event model is a bit of a hybrid too, I attend literary cons but I don’t expect too much in the way of sales. I network, speak to people, look for contacts in the scene and the industry. I also compare my experiences, share what advice I can with others who are starting out and occasionally embarrass myself at karaoke. I intersperse Litcons with Trade cons, Film and Comic conventions are where I actually look to make sales to build the fan-base and public recognition of my works.

As I’ve noted before, the industry is in flux and no-one really knows the way forward. Some of us will be lucky enough to be those ‘out of the blue’ success stories, some of us will stumble onto and opportunity and some of us, through hard work and determination will make our own opportunity. There’s no ‘right way’ anymore, only how much work you’re prepared to put in.

Paneling, a Fine Addition to any Convention.

Not long ago (from the date of posting) I was at Satellite 7, a litcon in Glasgow and, as is my want, I had volunteered for the program. I’ve come away with some wonderful experiences and interesting discussions about the nature of panels at conventions and I feel inclined to share those thoughts and experiences with you.

So, way back when (the heady days of 2019) I had my first experience of paneling at a convention, and it was Dublin Worldcon. I mean, I’d sat in and watched a few but this was my first experience as a panelist. The first item I was passed by the program team?

‘How do Creators and Fans Respond in Times of Political Upheaval’…

I mean, ‘daunting’ was not the word, here I was, a middle-aged British National paneling about political upheaval beside two authors of colour and a non-resident living in the States at a time when ’45’ had ICE hauling people off to gods alone knew where. Luckily I was asked to sit in on a second item (taking place earlier in the con) to warm up, “Celtic” Mythology. Since then I’ve never looked back, I volunteer to sit on and moderate panels at almost every event I attend but, after Satellite, I want to do more, and I’ll explain why.

The process of appearing on panels is simple. Most often you fill out your attending membership form and there’s a tickbox to check if you’re willing to appear on the program. After that the team will contact you with a link to an online form. When I *have* struggled with program participation, this is where. I have an almost clinical aversion to forms, I struggle with them all the time and that has carried down from more complex, formal documents to even the simplest examples. The worst thing for me is having open ‘give your opinion’ boxes. Show me a list of program subject options and I’ll muddle through but ask me what I want to talk about? I freeze, like a rabbit in the headlights. But this is something I need to work on.

The standard format for panel items is three to four panelists and a moderator to guide the flow of topic and prevent any one person dominating the allotted time. I’ve had one situation where two panelists pulled from an item, citing no real experience so myself, as moderator, and the one remaining panelist just had an open discussion about the topic, Cartoons of the 80’s and 90’s, it was fun, it worked. Usually the moderator will contact the panelists beforehand, this can be a brief round of introductions or (for myself) a bit of pre-discussion of the topic and forewarning of the questions to give participants time to prepare their thoughts.

Once you get onsite it’s a simple case of turning up on time but, if there’s a Greenroom, do get there, there’s usually a participant registration where you can notify the organiser’s that you *are* there.

Now, this may all sound pretty dry so far, a roomful of people listening to your panel discussing a subject, but it’s very much dependent upon topic. Some items are, indeed, heavyweight, political, charged, even contentious but, others are whimsical, lighthearted, even fun, however the format remains the same and here is where Satellite comes in. Looking at the program before the event I saw a number of single panelist items and I thought ‘that’s strange’ but, as it turns out, while some of them were a panelist expressing their enthusiasm for a given subject, other were much more fun and varied. Quizzes and games, all sci-fi and fantasy themed, and it opened my eyes. I’ve seen these kind of items before, but only in limited numbers, at Satellite they where many! The workshops included knitting and painting rather than discussions of editing and publishing. I’m not saying it’s for every con, some are inherently more serious than others, some are aimed more toward people within the industry (but who couldn’t use a little whimsy after hours discussing publishing?) and some cater more toward those attendee’s interested in the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s’ of the industry, but that’s not to say there’s ‘no room’ at most con’s for a little fun.

So, moving on, I’m planning to cultivate a couple of ideas for panel items, items aimed at encouragement and engagement for the audience. Taking the old staple of ‘last 15 minutes, do we have any questions?’ and winding it throughout the whole item. This may involve practical, as it happens examples of the creative process or some other mix of the workshop/panel format.

I love doing panels, I do. Sometimes I’m daunted by the other panelists and think ‘why am I here’ but then, having people at different levels of (dare I say it?) ‘fame’ or experience of the writing world broadens the basis of experience for the audience (since not everyone’s experience of publishing is the same, especially these days) and also increases the relevance of the panels discourse to the individual members of the audience. I do think that the scene could use a little shakeup, a little more variety if it’s to help draw new faces and help increase the draw of the modern literary con, but that’s not so much down to the event organisers as it is down to us, the program participants. So, I’ll be trying to get a handle on my anxiety in the face of the pro-forma and exercise my creativity in trying to put forward fun, informative and engaging program items in the future. I hope you’ll join me.

Good ‘Guys’ Doing Bad Things…

CW: Spoilers, Marvel Civil War, Dresden Files: Battle Grounds

So, a really good friend of mine linked me to a YouTube video about ‘Allowing good MC’s or characters to do ‘bad’ things and asked me for my take on the subject. Afterwards it occurred to me that I haven’t posted a creative themed blog for a while now. Luckily the whole discourse happened across Discord, so I can share my take with you.

The original video ‘Let them be bad’ is by Bricky, and can be watched here;

So, Bricky makes some very good points here. Moral absolutism can be boring unless it goes counter to the status quo. A ‘good cop’ who does everything by the book is only compelling when they’re surrounded by corruption. Likewise the gung-ho loose cannon only plays if they’re surrounded by straight arrows. But, we see lots of characters who operate from a standpoint of moral absolutism and, when done correctly, they can absolutely compel the viewer/reader. We take characters like The Punisher (Lee, Conway, Romita Snr & Andru) and Judge Dredd (Wagner, Ezquerra, Mills, McCarthy, Spurrier). Both have survived for decades operating within a very narrow purview (it helps that both are anti-heroes). However, in my humble opinion, they work at their best when the stories aren’t actually about them, when the focus shifts to the colorful ensemble cast arranged around them and the very villains that they chase. Both Punisher and Dredd work at their best when treated like the shark from Jaws (Peter Benchley, 1974) as an orbiting threat, a figure of legendary proportions and iron resolve.

But, that’s not the question here, the question is about ‘Good’ characters, the ‘boy-scout’ stereotype, infallible in their moral compass. We’re talking about Captain America and Superman here however, in recent years, even Superman has benefited from a shift of focus. Another great position for moral absolutism is as the antagonist (I know we’re talking about protagonists here, but it’s worth mentioning). When, in the ‘Injustice’ universe (or as part of the mirror-verse Justice Lords) Superman tales a zero-tolerance position on crime, then that unyielding position becomes a terrifying thing, especially in the hands of a set of super powered individuals who can easily subjugate the entire globe. For Cap we look to the Civil War story line where the very structure the Avengers work within makes a decision that Cap finds unjust. The comic arc in Civil War is work of high standard narrative, bringing complexity to the existing relationships between various superhero groups and the authorities, fractures within the groups themselves, the existing relationships between characters and even with those characters themselves. The scene where Cap tries to bolster the anti-Super Hero Registration movement, by taking in super-villains (because the pro-faction have started to) and Frank Castle, the Punisher, (who saved Spiderman from a group of those enlisted villains as the wall-crawler defected, turning from Tony Stark’s side?) executes them out of hand, brings the two to each others throats as their moralities conflict. Of course, Frank won’t raise a hand against Steve since, as he puts it ‘You were always my hero’.

From a narrative standpoint, having characters who can’t adapt to changing moral situations can be a major hurdle, especially with audiences demanding more complex plots with deeper moral ambiguities. It’s like the ‘Lawful Douchebag’ Paladin stereotype in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign who stalls the story because ‘my character wouldn’t do that’. In stubbornly refusing to engage with particular story steps (even if it opens up the way for ‘good’ choices later) they stonewall any progress of any kind. In reality life is complex, it doesn’t always work out how you want and sometimes it all gets a bit mucky or murky. In story terms pushing a ‘good’ character to do ‘bad’ things is how you introduce conflict either into the characters social group, or into the character themselves. It has the benefit of generating complexity in the character. The other aspect of that is ‘Fallout’, both social and emotional. Was the ‘bad’ act witnessed by others? Is the character hiding their ‘crime’ from their team? Are they simply struggling to accept what they did?

It’s something handled very well in the TellTale adventure games, especially their Walking Dead series. As the Bricky says though, such events are not something to be dropped out of the blue and then immediately resolved. Gradually building up to the breakdown of a character’s guiding morals can be a deeply satisfying narrative route. Don’t get me wrong, when our hero finally gives in to their baser instincts and commits (or attempts to commit) some grievous atrocity against a figure who’s been tormenting them for a while, parts of the audience are still going to scream in frustration, and cry, and react, and that’s the important part. In establishing the circumstances in which this bad thing occurs, or the reasoning behind it (defending a loved one, punishing a villain etc) you want to hold on to the uncertainty, the question of what your character is going to do, or even if they *can* go through with it. Either that or the provocation has to be so immense that the character has nowhere else to go, and that’s when the after effects of whatever they did become so important. In the instance it’s a spur of the moment decision it’s the fallout that becomes the narrative payoff. I think it’s certainly a story arc that benefits from a slow burn, timing and pacing are key, the weakest examples come when a villain kills a hero’s friend/love interest, the hero bests the villain but restrains themselves from dealing the deathblow *all in one scene*. Which isn’t to say it can’t be done. Jim Butcher handled it beautifully in The Dresden Files: Battle Grounds when Rudolph fatally shoots Murphy and Harry *nearly* kills him in revenge but! That scene isn’t just that scene, it’s the culmination of a storyline running through seventeen previous books so, in that sense, it is anything but rushed.

The point is that, it’s all well and good to make your audience scream ‘WHAT?!’ at a characters actions. Heck, it’s the name of the game at times, media in any form is about provoking a response, but you can’t just drop a bomb on the audience and immediately resolve it or worse, walk away from it without dealing with it in a narratively satisfying way. Bear in mind that ‘narrative satisfaction’ has nothing to do with the outcome being ‘happy, ‘sad’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, simply that the matter resolves in a way that satisfies the reader and that can involve either rage or tears as much as smiles and laughter.

The final point I’m going to leave you with is this, the very nature of good or bad is itself subjective and entirely dependent upon your genre. In Militaria the act of killing enemy combatants isn’t considered ‘bad’ (although having a character struggle with it is a valid narrative avenue) but giving in to cowardice or worse, betraying comrades is. In anything tagged with Noir beating up an informant is generally not considered bad (as long as the snitch is set-up to be a weaselly stereotype), but taking bribes (as the ‘good’ guy) is a cardinal sin. During the Camelot 2050 trilogy the MC Rosalyn kills a whole mess of people but, since they are enemy combatants in a war setting, it doesn’t play as ‘bad’ to the audience, it’s necessary. The ‘bad’ thing that she does, the thing that is out of character, the thing that she agonizes over and eventually rationalizes to herself, is countermanding a direct order, going against the King’s authority, stealing Excalibur and charging off, half-cocked, to fight the dragon and, for her at least, the fallout from that is pretty big.

So, having ‘good’ characters do ‘bad’ things? Absolutely, it’s a mechanic that works across genres to promote story and rile up the audience. It is those reactions that we, as creators, are actively trying to provoke. The failure comes when these events within a story are seen as a gimmick, or a cheap gag without grounding or consequence and that foundation, or ongoing price are the hallmarks of good storytelling. There are plenty of instances in the world around us, in history, in our own lives when we, and others, have done bad things, either for good or bad reasons. Whether we’ve been hailed for them, villified by them, or still struggle to cope with ourselves over what we did, those are part of a shared human experience and a keystone of narrative conflict. So, yeah, let them be bad from time to time, just remember the keyword, ‘consequences’.

Is… Is This Thing On?

Okay, I *know* I’ve been quiet for a while and I *do* have a good explanation. Producing weekly content about my experiences in writing and publishing is only feasible when I’m having experiences in writing and publishing which, over LockDown has been a bit of a problem. So, let’s have a quick look back at whats been happening over the past two years, shall we?

Rendered Flesh released with little to no fanfare (I’m doing my best) back in 2021 by LevelUp Publishing, but it was still a huge deal for me because it is my first, traditionally published novel and it has opened the door for me with Ockham Publishing. I’m now contracted for a three-book series, my Riding the E-Rail project, with Vulpine Press and I’m looking forward to a long and happy association with this publishing group, I assure you I have *many* more ideas that I am working on across quite a diverse collection of genres.

Events! Well, what to say. I appeared on a few virtual panel items at the online Eastercon 2021 (notably, and to my great frustration, alongside several talented 2000AD writes, including Dan Abnett! Virtually! ARGH!). I attended Fantasy Con (with limited tickets sales capping attendance), Reading Comic Con, Dragonmeet and Eastercon 2022 ‘Reclamation’ and had to can plans to attend Worldcon 2022 Chicago in-person.

I know it’s a little crass to talk in terms of sales but honesty in regards to the self publishing experience is an integral part of this blog and, while said conventions were all to the good when it came to networking and meeting people and such, the physical cons where lackluster in terms of actual sales. This was not new, I’d noticed a downturn in spending at events leading into LockDown but I had hoped, once events started running again, that the audience would be eager to spend a little money. While none of these events was a complete write-off the difference in trade between, for example Dragonmeet 2019 and Dragonmeet 2021, was around 60%, in that I only turned over a third of the trade I did in 2019 in 2021.

However! All is not lost. Just this past weekend I attended the second Portsmouth Comic Con, organised by GoGeek Events CIC and hosted by the Portsmouth Guildhall. The event was a resounding return to pre-Covid form and an incredible boost to both my confidence and my motivation. Satellite 7, Glasgow’s sci-fi and fantasy con, is in two-weeks and I’ve got my fingers crossed for good returns here too. The next event down the line is the Young Adult Literature Convention in London, running alongside LFCC Summer and, fingers crossed, that’s going to be a big return in the ticket.

So, whilst my previous posts about getting back to events might have been a *little* premature I do now have hard evidence that, post Covid, events are getting back to normal. Looking ahead I’m dabbling in a new promotional platform so I’ll hopefully have something to say about that in the weeks ahead and I’m following avenues on the ‘how to win awards (or even get nominated!)’ front as well. So, buckle up, knuckle down, and get those ideas out there, a lot has changed, but a lot more remains the same and the most important part of that, is readers gonna read!