Charlie's Diary

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Sun, 27 Feb 2005

Why I am able to write

Last weeks' essay on how to whomp up a fantasy series notwithstanding, it occurs to me that this isn't how I normally write: nor were those books written entirely for the normal reason. Now I stop to think about it I'm not sure why I write. Some time before I was ten years old the idea that writing books was what cool grown-ups did sort of soaked in through osmosis; as my literary diet at the time was about 95% SF and fantasy, that's what I fixated on.

I cannot account for this fixation other than by analogy. Most normal kids decide they want to be a football star or a ballerina at some time; a few of them are stubborn enough that they actually persist with the ball-kicking or dancing for years after their less fixated peers give up on it, and get good enough to fully develop their potential. I just knew I was going to be a novelist. If I'd realized back then just how unlikely this ambition was -- and indeed, it's even less likely than becoming a football star or a prima ballerina -- I'd have settled for something reasonable, like training as a brain surgeon or running for parliament. But nobody told me until I'd already persisted for more years than was sensible, written probably a million words of complete crap, and was beginning to acquire some basic skills: by which time the thought of giving up on those wasted years was too depressing to contemplate.

Let me qualify the "less likely" I used in the previous paragraph. Very few novelists (as opposed to authors of non-fiction) begin selling books before their early thirties. The reason for this should be obvious after a little thought. Fiction (as Stephen King observed in his memoir On Writing) is the nearest thing to telepathy we've got. The skill in writing lies in taking your own internal mental states, and serializing them as language in a form that, when someone else reads the words you wrote, recreates those mental states (or something corresponding to them) in a pleasing form. To be able to fully conceive of the internal states of another human being takes a modicum of life experience. The mechanics of writing grammatical sentences and paragraphs, of generating interesting situations, of weird scientific ideas, were all things I got down in my teens; but the ability to get under someone else's skin (to whatever extent) is much harder to come by and usually only arrives once we've kicked around the world for a few decades. By the time I was 22 I was writing and selling short stories successfully, but I think I was closer to 25 before I wrote a novel that included something approximating real human experience, and even then it was badly flawed. I began work on the novel that eventually surfaced as "Singularity Sky" around the time I turned 30.

By that point, I'd been following that fixed irrational goal for close to twenty years. Your average professional footballer is nearing retirement by then, and your average pop star is either working behind the counter at McDonalds or -- the lucky ones -- earning an unspectacular living as a session musician. But as a novelist, I was only getting started. (I've put in another decade since, and I think I'm just about getting into my stride.) There are occasional young prodigies who succeed earlier: in the SF field the names that spring to mind (since the 1940's, anyway) are Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow. But in general this isn't a profession over-burdened with teenage stars, and I mention the exceptions to demontrate how rare they are.

So what goes into making a successful novelist? Dogged persistence taken to an irrational extreme: check. Willingness to work for years without reward: check. Crap wages: check. For every best-seller there are a thousand writers making £2500-5000 off their books. Even if you hit the jackpot, the return on your investment of time isn't that great. (Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a publishing sensation with a reputed million pound advance, but that's the return on ten years of work with no guarantee of success, and if it doesn't earn out (or at least deliver break-even to Bloomsbury) it might be the last novel she ever sells, in which case that's all she gets for her entire career: megadollar failures stain reputations indellibly, rendering it impossible for the writers to sell subsequent work however different it might be or modest their expectations.)

So let's add "selective stupidity" to the list of attributes that go to make a successful writer and move on.

Let's suppose you've got all these attributes. There's still a very important item missing off the list of ingredients for a successful novelist: a willingness to understand how the publishing industry operates. The romantic mystique of the artist starving in their garret while preparing a work that will revolutionize our conception of literature is, frankly, a load of rubbish: artists who starve in the attic either die in obscurity or eventually wise up and get a real job. Romanticizing deprivation and fetishizing ostracism is not the way to get your ideas in front of the reading public. While writing fiction is an art form, it's necessary to bear in mind that art is pointless without communication; if your form of art fails to attract people you have an audience for very long. Funnily enough, since editors are people too (in fact they're one of your two main audiences -- a point I'll get back to later), if they find your fiction repellant they won't buy it. If you want to revolutionize our conception of literature, it therefore follows that you must get us to pay attention to you ... which brings our romantic mystique into a headlong collision with the base requirements of entertainment, because there's a dirty little secret that literary columns don't make a big point of: people usually read fiction in order to be entertained.

I do not mean to say that entertainment is the only valid reason for reading fiction. Reviewers read it for money, academics to inform their theoretical musings, and one or two desperately sad people read it so that they don't feel left out of conversations at dinner parties. But in general, most people read fiction for fun. If it isn't fun, they put the book down and pick up another. The definition of fun varies from one reader to the next (that's the only way I can account for the enduring popularity of the Victorian novel) but it's still there.

So. In addition to the previous list of characteristics of successful authors, let us add: willingness to compromise on pure artistic integrity and go for base commercialism to at least the extent necessary to sell books.

Here's an odd little piece of folk wisdom; rumour has it that editors at publishing companies actually have to work for a living. To this end, they select, edit, and publish books which they hope will prove sufficiently popular with the reading public to repay the cost of production and a little profit on top. It is not their job to bring your work of undying genius to the attention and edification of the reading public. They are not the pastoral authorities of a grim-faced theocracy of fiction, placed in your service to drag miscreants up before the pulpit so that you can preach a fire and brimstone sermon at them. They hold no mysterious candle-lit conclaves at which they decide who's getting a turn in the best-seller barrel next month. Their weird and arcane business practices are merely the surviving subset of those methods that have been tried and tested and which didn't cause some other publisher to go bust. They are under no obligation to publish you. And they, not the reading public, are the first audience you must satisfy. If you don't satisfy at least one editor, you ain't going to get published and the rest of the audience won't even know you exist.

So we come to another item: you won't succeed unless you're willing to learn how the industry works and to work within it. It's that, or get a job in a meat packing plant and throw your surplus income at a vanity press who will reward your dedication by showering you with bills. This, too, is not the way to reach an audience: to quote or paraphrase Teresa Nielsen Hayden, the first law of Real Publishing is that money flows towards the writer. (If it flows in any other direction, it's not Real Publishing.)

Anyway. If you can get through a checklist consisting of all of the above points (willingness to understand how the publishing industry works in all its insane baroque stupidity: willingness to suppress your artistic ambitions in order to achieve base entertainment appeal: ruthless refusal to romanticize your life's ambition: willingness to work for no reward at all for decades and then for a paltry and uncertain income: selective blindness directed at the sheer insanity of what you want to do: and dogged persistence in developing your skills) then congratulations, you've got 90% of what it takes.

The other 10% is luck -- either good luck, or the ability to pick yourself up after a bout of bad luck and keep going until things break your way.

In my case, I had a couple of lucky breaks. (I had to wait about fifteen years for them, but by the time they happened I knew what to do to capitalize on them.) Break #1 was a near nervous breakdown, followed by my failure to sell a short story. I'd settled down to the idea of getting noticed by writing short stories around 1998, when I realized I'd sold one short story the previous year (a reprint from something I'd first sold two years earlier). And I was working in a high pressure job, as the very first programmer at a dot-com that was due to go public in another eighteen months. Some folks thrive on pressure. I don't; I eventually buckle. But before I buckle I can get a fair bit of mileage out of the weirdness and tension and loathing that comes from being right on the edge of going crazy. It's not a good place to live, but sometimes it's worth visiting. In this case, I visited it and came back with a short story called "Lobsters", into which I dumped all the weird tension that was then afflicting my life, as a way of getting my head out of a vice. "This is great, but only geeks who've spent the last six months reading slashdot will understand it," said one of my friends. But I sent it out anyway, to (I think) Patrick for Starlight 3 (the slushpile for which was reputedly three feet deep) and then to Paul Fraser for Spectrum SF. To my great and enduring luck both editors (assuming I'm not actually hallucinating sending it to Patrick) rejected it. My third choice was to send it to Gardner Dozois at Asimov's SF magazine, whereupon it got bags of exposure and made three awards shortlists and suddenly people had heard of me.

My other lucky break also consisted of not getting published. Around the time I was writing "Lobsters" I had an earlier novel in circulation -- the one written between 1994 and 1998. In April 2000, a small British publisher suggested I send it to him (this isn't how publishing normally works, but the publisher was Ben Jeapes at Big Engine, and Ben and I had known each other via a writers workshop years earlier). Ben read the novel and said, "if you do some re-writing I'd like to make you an offer for this." At which point I decided to go hunting for a literary agent.

The best time to get yourself an agent is when you have an unsigned contract in your hand -- it tends to concentrate their mind on the 15% of the advance they can pick up without having to actually shop the book around first. If I'd been young and naive I'd have gone looking for an agent to the stars, but being older and more cynical (and with prior unfortunate experience in that direction) I went looking for an agent who was, if not wet behind the ears, then less likely to have a long list of clients ahead of me in the queue. In general, by the time you learn that a given agent is any good, they've got a full client list and if you manage to interest them at all you'll be right down at the bottom. However, a bad agent is worse than no agent at all: you can end up with your rights tied up in legal paperwork and contractually obligated to an idiot who is randomly screwing your reputation with publishers, damaging your ability to sell your work in future.

In my case, I lucked out. I'd heard of an SF editor who was leaving their employer of some years to join an agency as junior partner -- someone who'd know the way the industry worked, who had a fair amount of experience already, but who wouldn't have a full list of clients. This sort of lucky timing doesn't happen very often, but when it does it's good. By virtue of having the unsigned contract I got her undivided attention and she subsequently sold the US rights to the book as "Singularity Sky", and did a much better job of managing the rights than I would have been able to. (After Big Engine shut up shop in the UK -- prior to publication -- she then re-sold the book to Orbit in the UK, hence the reason my books tend to be published first in the US, in case you were wondering).

The point of bringing this up is to highlight the effect of blind chance on your publishing life. If Paul hadn't hated "Lobsters" on sight, the story could have been published in a limited circulation outlet and subsequently sunk into obscurity (and you wouldn't be waiting for "Accelerando" to come out in July). If Caitlin hadn't been setting up as an agent at the precise same time that Ben offered me the contract, it's possible that "Singularity Sky" wouldn't have been sold in the US at all (because without an agent I might have ended up selling world English-language rights to Ben, who it later turned out was not in a position to effectively expoit them). I got lucky: not million-pound-advance lucky, but realistically lucky nonetheless, and most importantly, I was experienced enough to know how to handle the lucky breaks. If anything haunts me it's the possibility that I might have had bigger breaks years earlier, and not recognized them for the opportunities they were. (But I try not to lose sleep over might-have-beens.)

Luck. Dogged persistence to the point of insanity. Flexibility. These are the reasons I'm able to write fiction and you're able to read it (if you want to). But I'm still looking for the reason why I write fiction. If you find it, be sure to tell me?

[Discuss writing]

posted at: 16:04 | path: /writing | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Missile Gap
Via Subterranean Press (US HC -- due Jan, 2007)

The Jennifer Morgue
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The Clan Corporate
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The Hidden Family
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Iron Sunrise
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The Atrocity Archives
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Singularity Sky
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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
February 2003
January 2003
December 2002
November 2002
October 2002
September 2002
August 2002
July 2002
June 2002
May 2002
April 2002
March 2002
(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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