Tag Archives: e-publishing

On book covers? Am I nuts? #notosexism #isitjustme #yesitisjustme

Today, McMini was invited to a tenpin bowling party and I went along. As we stood watching the kids bowl I was chatting to the Birthday-ee’s mum and we got talking about the portrayal of women in the media and how difficult it was to find books to read. Run with me, I’ll get to the point but the background makes sense, I promise.

It turns out that, as a teenager, she, like me, discovered fashion magazines. I enjoyed many aspects of them, as in, I loved clothes and fashion, but we agreed that both of us found them a bit depressing because the women in them were always the top 1% of beautiful and yet presented by the magazines as the norm. And because of that, we both found that though we loved clothes, and fashion, buying the actual magazines was a slightly depressing experience which left us wondering why we didn’t look like the glossy women on all the pages, whether we should, whether the fact we didn’t was normal, and whether finding out about clothes and fashion was worth all that shit; all that angst that we didn’t conform to the magazines’ idea of ‘the norm’ which wasn’t normal at all. As a teenager, I was pragmatic enough to decide that life was too short to feel shitty about myself. So I stopped buying them. So did my friend. For each of us, meeting another person who felt this way was a first.

As a kid, at school, my study walls were plastered with pictures of animals and stunning views clipped from the pages of National Geographic. The only people on there were the Beatles. Most other study walls in that school were covered with pictures of the kind of women my peers aspired to being; fashion models who were miles prettier than any of us … because well not necessarily because they were but because … Photoshop. And mostly, when they stuck them on the wall, that’s all my peers knew about these women. That they were pretty. And they thought that’s all you needed to be. Pretty. And I’m not 100% certain that magazines, adverts, book covers, or anything else that reinforces this view is a great idea. Because if you self actualise through your looks, you’ll never know who you really are, and when they start to fade it will do your head in.

You see, I’m older now, there’s a lot of spare M T where the bump was when I was gestating McMini and it has forgotten to spring back. I still have an hourglass figure but it goes further out and less far in. I need a lot more whalebone to keep my boobs in a place where they used to sit quite happily without artificial help. I often lose them under my arm pits at night and yes, dropping a couple of dress sizes would be convenient because it would make clothes easier to buy. And yes, some mornings, dressing myself feels like trying to find the most interesting and artful method to drape camouflage netting over a Zeppelin. But I’m OK with that because I may be a bit of a twat, a lot of a twat to be honest, but I am nearly fifty now and I’ve learned to like me, on the whole, and what I look like is just puff.

So, what worries me about all this body idealisation is that I can’t help wondering if the reason I’m content with my greying hair and ageing looks is because I was pragmatic enough, as a kid, not to buy into this women should be beautiful and look decorative shit; to avoid fashion mags and the idealisation of physical beauty for its own sake. And what happens to the folks who did? As their looks fade, are they hanging on by their perfectly manicured fingernails, surgically nipping, tucking and enhancing themselves until they finally wake up one morning, look at themselves in the mirror and think, who the fuck is this?  Is the loss of their looks like the loss of their personality for them? Is that what’s wrong with us today? Is that why the current POTUS would rather walk about looking like an oompah loompah with a brillo pad on his head than admit that he’s knocking on a bit and going bald? Fair play if he wants to but …

A few years ago, I read an article which cited a study into male eating disorders, needless to say I can’t find it now but, basically, the posit was that male eating disorders were growing. The article claimed the rise of eating disorders and poor body image in men was directly proportional to the increased portrayal of perfect six pack wearing chaps in lad mags. I admit I found it kind of strange, at the time, that there was more for me to ogle in a copy of Loaded than there was in Cosmopolitan, but I’m drifting off subject.

What my conversation, today, revealed was that I am not alone. That, there is another person who thinks that, self image-wise, fashion magazines are full of bollocks that makes us feel shit about ourselves, and therefore best read with the cynical goggles set to maximum, or, if that doesn’t cut the mustard and they still make us feel shit, not at all.

So we went from this to a conversation about book covers. Friend went on to say that she also hated book covers with people on, found them hugely off putting because:

  1. They’re always unrealistically attractive.
  2. Most of us want to imagine the protagonists for ourselves and if the image doesn’t match what’s in our head it will be annoying and possibly off putting as we read the book.
  3. Most women have trouble identifying with some pert, impossibly thin, scantily dressed, six foot teenaged girl model so it puts them off buying the book because they think they will not identify with the protagonists.
  4. It’s fucking sexist for heaven’s sake. Enough of the bowling ball bums in leather onesies or chain mail bikinis. It was shit the first time in the 1970s and guess what? Yep, it’s still shit.
  5. Same for the guys, but at least if it’s a ripped torso the head is usually cut off, because otherwise we can’t imagine our perfect man’s head on top. Well that isn’t a pleasant thought is it really? But it’s the truth and at least, on the upside, we’re not, by implication, telling blokes how their faces should look.

Or as my friend put it.

‘I won’t buy a book if I don’t like the cover and if it’s sexist or objectifies women then no, I won’t like it. In fact that’s the main thing that put me off reading sci-fi and fantasy books when I was young. Also, why would I be interested in reading about someone I cannot realistically identify with? If the cover shows a skimpily dressed size zero model, I’ll assume it’s erotica, or that these are characters I will have no sympathy with and I’ll move on. Where is the logic in cutting off half your readers?’

This is why almost all the scifi and fantasy I enjoyed as a kid, short of a few titles, was stuff I saw on TV. There might have been scantily dressed ladies involved but the big difference is that they were never pitched as the reason to watch.

So, that’s two of us, then, standing alone among the sheep. That’s how it feels, anyway. At times like this I feel my fellow authors are bastards and my fellow humanity comprised of pliant idiots but that’s just hormones messing with my donkey.

Obviously, that isn’t how it is but oh how glad I am that, finally – probably thanks to some severe tweaking of the algorithm by Amazon, I am, occasionally, able to find fantasy book without a really off putting picture on the front of some young woman, who’s way more attractive than me, and far younger, pouting grumpily at me the way the girls who bullied me at school used to do, or a muscly torso, neither of which will encourage me to pick up a book. Maybe that’s why the main readership of my books turns out to be older, wiser men and ladies between 45 and 50. Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels the way I do about the images of humans that surround us.

There are so many ways to make a book look interesting. Fine, I know I’m on very shaky ground critiquing covers with the ones I have which I, personally, love but which, I appreciate, are an acquired taste. Also there has to be a grain of truth in the idea that having people on stuff sells, and my psychometric profile is rare: something like 6% of humanity – or was it 4% – so I’m unlikely to ‘get’ what the rest of the herd loves but guess what? Of the three books I have on instafreebie, this crappy home made cover is the one that gets the most downloads when I do a promo. Crappy home made cover, 6,000 words as opposed to 103,000 or 80,000 respectively. Hmm. Go figure.

9781907809125

Runner up for instafreebie downloads is this one, even though, from the point of view of appealing to American readers, I might as well have called it ‘Escape From B-Movie C**t’ since they seem to view the word ‘hell’ as about the same level. Null points for research there! MTM slaps own hand.

9781907809262_LowRes

So basically, I, the very very murky looking pot, am about to accuse a kettle trend of blackness. But the fact is, I would prefer to avoid contributing to the deluge of images of ‘perfection’ which, I think, cause damage to young women and men and cause mid-life suffering to the pretty ones who come idolise their looks above all else as a result. So I will not knowingly put attractive models on the front of my books, unless it’s really obviously a joke.

So, back to sexist book stuff.

Here’s an advert that made me think, eeeeesh.

So, it’s a great design, the colours are fab, the idea is great, and even though the actual cover of the book (bottom left hand corner) is fine. Even if it looks more like the cover of an issue of Cosmo than the cover of a book it’s a cool image.

However, back to the surrounding advert. There are some things about this advert that make my skin crawl. I feel really guilty about only picking the one I’m displaying here, because it is a very skilful drawing and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into it and the author is extremely professional and talented. But I think there’s a judgement error here.

First up, it’s quite a sexual image. There’s a LOT of flesh on display and there is also a hint of nipple, but our skimpily dressed elfin lady has the body of a teenager, a young teenager, and I think that’s why I find this image disturbing. Which side of the age of consent is she? I’m wondering. And the answer I’m coming up with is, the wrong side. OK, look, getting a bit basic here, but if she had any pubes they’d show at the bottom of that v in her trousers, so now I’m thinking please let them be waxed as opposed to not there yet. And worse, if you look at her, her features are kind of simplified, so not only does she have the body of a 12 year old and NO pubes, but she has the face of a child which is really freaky. I am absolutely certain that wasn’t how it was intended, indeed, I’d lay bets that’s a truly excellent book, but I just can’t bring myself to read it, because of the way that ad comes over. Am I the only one who thinks this is creepy, a bit paedo-tastic, and somewhat demeaning to women?

It is becoming a parent that has made me see the world differently. Or I am just turning into a massive prude. I probably need to lighten up. After all, t’was ever thus; catsuits, or the lack thereof, perky nipples and bottoms like two bowling balls in a sack have always been ten a penny on sci-fi and fantasy book covers.

But listen peps, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing, or that we have to carry on with that shit now many of us are in charge of artistic direction, ourselves. Three examples of buttock clenching cheesiness in the modern vein, though drawn with consummate skill, can be found under discussion here. I’ve included one of them here.

Hey big boy, if you think you’re hard enough, take your hugantic weapon and … yep. Freud would have a field day with this.

Hey big boy, if you think you’re hard enough, take your hugantic weapon and … yep. Freud would have a field day with this.

All three of the ones on the page linked, and this first one especially, would get a ‘not on your fucking life’ vote from me despite the artistic skill of the drawing – although on the poll in the article, many women really liked this image. At least it’s a lot clearer that this woman is not a minor.

Talking about cheese, if you want a good chuckle, there is a selection of amusingly dreadful sci-fi and fantasy book covers on display here – and yes those are the kinds of things I was trying to take the piss out of with B-Movie Hell.

So what’s to do? Nothing really, I can’t stop over-excitable folks from drawing shag-worthy fantasy vixens and I should probably be saying, ‘she can dress the way she likes even if the sword is a really cheesy metaphor for a schlong.’ Likewise, I can’t stop people thinking that a bitchy-looking pouty girl on the cover will sell books. Especially when it appears that they do, indeed, sell books.

And to women.

But why?

Heaven only knows.

And will I?

No.

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A question of perception

It’s another ‘I’m an idiot, learn from me’ post today. It’s also long. Apologies for that but there’s rather a lot to say.

Recently I’ve been trying to get the initial ideas and machinery in place to launch a new book. There are several places where I’m stuck, mostly the same, old same old: you know, stuff like actually managing to write a blurb that makes it sound appealing or coming up with a viable title. There is also the aspect of things I might unknowingly stuff up.

OK, so I try to act with professional integrity. This is the internet. Whatever I do I will offend someone but I try avoid any dishonourable, shabby, dishonest or generally reprehensible behaviour if at all possible. I try to love my internetty neighbour the way I’d like to be loved myself.

However, I’m a writer and a flawed human being. I frequently offend people without even realising. Indeed, if life was a game I suspect unwitting offence would be my Special Attribute. A couple of things have happened, recently, that have made me very aware of this and concentrated my attention on the matter of how hard it is to achieve a good reputation on the internet, how difficult it is not to cause offence, however well meaning your actions may actually be. And how difficult it can be to gauge how others will react to your actions when the only guide you have is to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end.

It’s not just about trying to act with decency and integrity at all times. It’s about whether people think think you are. A lot of that is about what folks believe your intentions are. I think that no matter how genuine you wish to be, how honest you think you are being, or how principled you aim to make your approach, if you are selling anything, however obliquely, there are certain quarters of the internet where any attempt to connect on your part will be considered a hypocritical attempt to befriend people in order to sell them something. So far with me, it’s kind of been the other way round. But a couple of things have really surprised me, recently. Stupid things I’ve done without realising they were stupid.

On the up side, since I’ve made these monumental fuck ups, it means that by describing them to you at length I can ensure that you don’t have to. Here’s what I’ve learned from this series of unfortunate events…

The dreadful truth about titles.

I’ll fess up. I got in a bit of a muddle publishing my last two books. The main problem was that when I finished the third book in the K’Barthan Trilogy (as it was then called) I discovered it was a snadge over 300,000 words long. What to do? If I produced a paperback then, by the time I’d factored in the kind of discount that would pay the middle men (60%) I would have a book that cost about £25. So there’s book 1 at £9.99, book 2 at £11.99 and book 3 at £24.99. With books 1 and 2 ending on cliff hangers it does rather look as if I’m holding readers to ransom to find out what happens. Luckily there was a point where I could split it. So I did. But that cost more. Another £800 or so to be precise and another £90 plus 20% sales tax to upload it to the print on demand distributor I use.

With money tight, the question raised it’s head of spending a further £90 plus tax per book to change the word ‘Trilogy’ on the cover and front pages of the first two, to ‘Series’ in print. Also, what little traction the series had was as the K’Barthan Trilogy. I asked folks, took advice and tried to imagine how I would feel if a trilogy I was following had four books. The folks I asked reckoned a 4 book trilogy was not unusual and that no-one would mind. Since I’ve read the Hitch Hiker’s ‘trilogy’ and was delighted when it kept growing, rather than upset, I saved the £180 and went for the 4 book trilogy.

How wrong I was.

A couple of months ago the third book got a blistering one star review, slamming me for writing a fourth instalment. I paraphrase but the gist was like this:

“I know your game,” it basically said. “You’re just going to write book after book and never end the story, because you’re just a bastard writer! And all you bastard writers ever want to do is rip readers off and make us pay and pay so you can buy another set of gold plated wheels for your Mercedes Benz. Well I’m not reading any more of your crap you… charlatan!”

Fair enough, this case, someone has clearly watched too many episodes of ‘Lost’, and that £50 a month I earn from my writing may well look like the gold-plated-alloy-purchasing big time to some folks, but I was completely thrown. First that they were upset, second by the enormous gap between their perception of my personality and the real one.

OK, we all know the golden rule is DO NOT ENGAGE. NEVER reply to things like that.

I broke it.

I commented on the review apologising for causing offence, explaining that it wasn’t intended, that the story ends at the conclusion of the fourth book (in case anyone else reading that review wondered) and then I offered to send it to them for free so they could find out what happened. They never replied. I went and changed the title from ‘trilogy’ to ‘series’ in all the ebook files and on all the listings on every retail site I sell through – it already said it in the product desription. Naturally the retailers all accepted my chages except for Amazon who asserted that if it said ‘trilogy’ on the book cover (even if it’s too small to read) it will be called ‘trilogy’ until I pay the designers to change the j-peg and upload the new one.

I chalked it up as something to watch and a change to do when I brief the designers about my next book.

During last year, I entered both books for the excellent Wishing Shelf Book Awards. When the feedback came through I was very surprised to discover that readers there, too, had commented negatively about my writing a ‘trilogy’ of four books.

Clearly, something that hadn’t registered with me was really pissing other people off. So what have I learned from this litany of amateurism?

  1. Give yourself options.
    My four book ‘trilogy’ has royally ticked off a whole bunch of people. Folks I will never get back. Folks who will consider me a wanker forever and spread their opinions near and far. But the problem would never have existed if I’d had the wit to call it the K’Barthan Series from the get go. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so learn from mine: if you’re writing a trilogy then, in the name of the almighty don’t call it that. Call it a series unless it’s actually finished, has three books the same length, and you are about to publish the first one.
  2. Give yourself some slack.
    Accept there are some things you can cover with research and some things that only experience will show you but.
  3. When experience does kick you in the teeth, learn from it.
  4. If you can repair the damage, do it as soon as you can but think it through, don’t hurry it or you may just make things worse.
    OK, so I can’t afford to get rid of the bloody ‘trilogy’ moniker until the entire series is edited at the end of November. The covers, I can, and will, change sooner. For now I just have to accept that I’ve fucked up, chalk it up to experience and learn from what I have done.

The grim truth about interacting on the internet.

The second smack in the face from reality came this week.

Recently, I’ve had a facebook ad running which offers the first two books in the K’Barthan Series to anyone who joins my mailing list. I’d heard that a good way to identify a market of people to show your ad to is to choose an audience who like books by an author similar to you. It then suggests you make reference to the author you, and they, know and love and suggest that if they like that stuff they might like yours. I’m always a bit leery about this, I mean, all those reviews saying I write like Adams are just setting folks up for disappointment because I don’t. But I thought it might work with a humorous bent if I aimed it at Pratchett readers.

After a bit of tweaking and watching and tweaking I ended up with an audience who liked Terry Pratchett books and an ad which referenced CMOT Dibbler.

OK, in my defence here, I wrote the copy while Sir Terry was still around but this is what it said:

“If you like funny British science fiction and fantasy why not check out this freebie: The K’Barthan Series stands complete at four books and I’d like to give you two of them. Yes, this all sounds a bit CMOT Dibbler school of marketing but I’m hoping you’ll find a lot more quality literary meat in these books than there is REAL meat in CMOT Dibbler’s sausages.

All you have to do is tell me where to send them – the books, obviously, real sausages will not be involved.”

Then there was this picture and the title and caption below.

FACTWSfacebookAd

“I’M LITERALLY cutting my own throat here.

If you love a bargain, help yourself to two award winning funny sci-fi fantasy books, Few Are Chosen and The Wrong stuff, parts 1 and 2 of the best selling K’Barthan Series are usually £4 but they’re free for a limited time. To grab yours click here.”

To start with, I got sign ups, shares and a couple of joky quotes about the quality of the meat – is it named? Yes it’s called Bob. In other words, exactly what I expected. Then a few days ago, from New Zealand, this:

Pep A: Ripping off a Terry Pratchett character to sell your book? Poor form?
Pep B: Poor form? Fucking shameful.

And I looked at it and I thought… what happened there? And then the ad got this comment:

Pep C: Well. He’s dead now.

And the penny dropped.

Yes M T you daft, fucking moron! He died. And so suddenly this ad is not joking about characters we know and love from a favourite author. It’s trampling over people’s memories of a great man and maligning the dead. Events can cause changes in perception. And I completely missed that. So I’ve removed the ad. Because although it was working really well I didn’t think of that, and while, personally, I think it’s a bit weird to be offended, I do absolutely get why someone might be.

Have I replied or apologised? Well… no, because of another particularly important thing that I’ve learned about the internet, so that you don’t have to is that it’s bat shit crazy, and also:

  1. The international nature of the internet is a two edged sword…
    Yes, you can talk to the entire globe. Unfortunately, not all of it thinks the way you do. That means you can and will offend thousands of people effortlessly and unwittingly at the touch of a button: not just people in Britain but folks all over the world.Seriously though, I’m not American, from the RSA, Kenya or Zimbabwe. I’m not Australian, or a Kiwi, or Tasmanian or from India, Pakistan or South East Asia. I’m not from Holland, Germany, France, Russia or any of the myriad other places where people speak English and read my books, in English. I lack the instinctive grasp of other cultures that will enable me to see the point when funny becomes offensive to them if it doesn’t to someone British. But because I’m speaking English and they speak English too, THEY EXPECT ME TO.
  2. The internet contains a huge gap in perception.
    The aforementioned gulf between the spirit in which I act and interact on line, who I think I am, and what others perceive me to be. Frankly, it’s enormous. 90% of communication is non verbal and boy does it show on t’interweb – mainly through the medium of folks becoming very suspicious of one another. And what that equates to, if you’re selling anything, anywhere on line, is an assumption that nothing you do is genuine. That everything is crafted, honed and perfected with your eye on the next sale.So while you’re trying to just be, write a blog, do stuff, keep people informed, have a presence that’s just yourself: a benign and friendly presence, there are folks out there who will dismiss it as the work of a rapacious scammer who sees everyone as a potential victim (including them, unless they’re ‘careful’ a.k.a. prickly, aggressive and ready to take offence at the drop of a hat).
  3. 3. People are going to drop their weird shit onto you.
    There’s a saying, ‘you can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ I understand this but it seems that in today’s world, if you do anything that might put your name into the public domain, like paint, write, make music, act etc you are expected to please everyone, all of the time. Worse, if you don’t, no quarter will be given.Genuine mistakes, or simple errors of of judgement, far from being forgiven, are seen as an act of cynical aggression towards your innocent audience. A lot of people out there don’t really like themselves. They think they’re cynical, cold hearted conniving little shits, and guess what? Because they believe that about themselves they’re going to believe it about you too.
  4. Give them some slack. Try to stay positive and accept that sometimes you will offend others and it can’t always be helped.
    Long ago, I decided not to worry about the nature of the net. I am who I am and it’s hard to be anyone else. I know I will make mistakes and all I can do is try not to. It’s worth making peace with yourself and accepting that sometimes, no matter how benign you want to be and how hard you try to avoid hurting people, you will cause offence. Sometimes all you can do is apologise, chalk it up to experience, learn from it and move on. Sometimes our attempts to interact with people we don’t actually know personally, can be interpreted, by some as evidence that we’re out to get them in some way. It doesn’t matter how much cobblers that is, they’ve been burned by others and but there’s no way we will ever convince folks like that of our good intentions. There’s no point even trying. Indeed, the only thing you can do about them is hope to heaven that they never, ever find you.

So what can we do? How can writers or artists or anyone creative who interacts regularly on the internet behave ‘well’ without becoming too slick, too spun and anodyne?

Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps all we can do is our level, genuine best to avoid saying anything that would offend us if you were on the receiving end. Do unto others and all that.

If you’re laid back and you write humour which, by its nature, is subversive you will undoubtedly prick the bubble of the pompous at some stage. But you may also stuff up and the way I have though sheer naivety, lack of foresight or plain ignorance and unwittingly offend many, many folks – good decent people who you don’t want to upset. When you do, I guess the only course is to chalk it up to experience – apologise if appropriate/possible and move on.

Few people do things deliberately to offend, whatever many internet users think. Most of us offend because we’re human, and flawed; and that’s natural. If we never cocked it up we’d be actual God. Because perfect is impossible unless you’re Allah, right?

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In search of a prince – or the ups and downs of frog kissing…

This week has been rather busy: recovery from half term, the production of the parish magazine which I now edit for my sins and a visit from McOther’s folks. As a result there hasn’t been time for much.

However, this afternoon, I got out into our garden for a spot of metal detecting. Our garden is a bit hit and miss. The first thing I found in it was a clay pipe head; early because it was small, from the period when tobacco was still expensive. The second thing was this.

IMG_2310Yep, believe it or not, that’s a bead which, upon presentation at my metal detecting club, was deemed to be Saxon. Yeh I was pretty gobsmacked and all.

So, this afternoon, I thought I’d go and have a look outside and see what I could find. One hole was left with the ‘treasure’ in situ because Harrison, our nut bar cat, wee-ed in it. Several other holes were left open so Harrison could dig vigorously in them, gnaw at roots and roll in the diggings, leaving me free to find more shite old nails treasure uninterrupted by the constant signal from the identity disk on his collar.

With a LOT of help from the cat, I finally managed to discover that our lawn appears to have been laid on a large piece of crappy 1970s carpet.

I also managed to dig up this impressive collection of total crap.

IMG_2312The nails range from modern to hand made and a couple of hundred years old. The round blob on the right is a lead thing and is… well I’m hoping it came out of a cannon because that would make it interesting to me even if it’s worth jack all and of no interest to anyone else.

So, in summary, metaphorical frogs kissed: 10. Handsome princes found: none.

Meanwhile sometime in the last two years or so, McOther had found a… um… metal thing in the garden. After a great deal of thought and brain wracking he has come to the conclusion that he probably found it while sieving the stones out of the earth for a flowerbed he made. After a few months of it lying about in his office he got round to showing it to me, just before Christmas.

“Can you show this to your metal detecting club,” he says.

“OK,” I look at it and shrug. It looks like a shite bit of faux old metal, the kind of thing that gets imported from China on pretending-to-be-medieval boxes and the like. “What is it?”

“If I knew I wouldn’t need you to ask them.”

“Fair point. Where did you get it?”

“I can’t remember.”

Then you know how it is, I was ill for the November meet, the Christmas one wasn’t really that kind of meeting, I forgot January and I finally remembered it last night.IMG_2309

“What do you reckon this is?” I ask the chairman of the club, who is pretty knowledgeable.

He perks up at once as I hand it over.

“This looks really old, where did you get it?”

“I’m not sure, McOther found it.”

“Hmm, I think it might be part of a Saxon cruciform broach. It’s a horse’s head. It’s got copper bug eyes, a stylised snout and those round things are it’s nostrils. There’s a line across his head where the browband* goes too.”

“Get away!”

“Show it to the FLO.”

* part of a horse’s bridle, brow band above the eyes, nosemband across the nose.

Shit.

“Right.”

So I join the queue for the FLO, that s, the Finds Liaison Officer which is always good because I get to see some of the amazing stuff my fellow club mates have dug up. In this case, highlight is a bronze age axe head, that another member of the club has dug up and he also has a really cool celtic coin.

“What do you think it is?” the FLO asks me when I present him with McOther’s piece of tat.

“I dunno, the Chairman reckons it could be Saxon, and a horse but I thought it was probably an arts and crafts bracket or some bit of Victorian shite.”

“Hmm… what if I told you the Chairman is right and your bit of old shite was actually over a thousand years old?”

“Fuckorama.”

Yes, so it turns out it’s a bit of a 5th Century Saxon cruciform broach and McOther found it on the surface of the soil, the way I found the bead. Yet when I get the detector out and dig, suddenly, I have a garden full of shite. Except that I know I don’t. The stuff is there and I will find it eventually. I just have to perservere… and find the cat something else to do while I’m going about it.

So how is this relevant to writing?

Well, this week, I discovered that, like the second one, the last two books of the K’Barthan Series have failed dismally to make the cut for the Wishing Shelf Awards. I’ve kind of hoped that they might squeak onto the short list. I’ve kind of hoped that with all three because the first one came third, or second, they said third at the time but they say second now… the point is I was expecting it to come nowhere.

However, try as I might, the kids who voted the first one onto the list have not enjoyed the subsequent ones enough. Or maybe there are just a lot more books around that are way better than mine, or at, a lot more of the books that are miles better than mine are being entered. Or maybe I’ve lost my mojo. Or maybe there was a t in the month and an r in the day and I needed it to be the other way around. Who knows? Whatever it is, I have been unable to repeat the feat. Maybe the current work in progress will be good enough to get onto the 2015 short list… maybe but probably not. The thing is, I’ll enter it anyway. The feedback, alone, is worth the price of entry.

You may be wondering how this ties in with finding Saxon stuff when you’re not trying, and a selection of nails, three milk bottle tops, a lead thing and the head of  pitching wedge when you try really hard. Well, I guess my detectoristic plight reflects two tenuous and slightly contradictory lessons.

First thing: don’t force it. Sometimes, if you just relax and go with the flow you’ll hit gold… or at least second/third, or a Saxon copper horse head.

Second thing: keep trying. Because just as any detectorist will tell you, to find your gold stater you will have to dig up a lot of shite. So whatever it is you’re doing, trying to dig up Saxon stuff, trying to write a book – or at least one that you don’t wish someone else had written – or trying to write a book that’s good enough to get onto an award shortlist, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time trying before you get it right. Or, as any fairy godmother will explain, if you want to find your handsome prince, you are going to have to kiss a lot of frogs.

 

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What makes a good bad guy?

Recently, as my thoughts turn to planning a new book, I’ve been wondering what makes a good baddie? If you see what I mean.

In my current w.i.p. the baddie is a politician, and I suspect, he will be not so much evil as morally bankrupt. To make things right, our hero will have to manipulate things so that the politician, in getting what he wants, will unwittingly deliver justice for the goodies of the book. In so far as there are any. A bit more like real life then, even if it’s set in space.

But I do want my villain to be bad. And while you can fiddle with the circumstances and the dynamics; on their own, they don’t always make the actual being evil. So I’m trying to work out if I want my latest bad guy to be greedy and selfish and incidentally evil or whether I want to go for a full on supervillian: a being who is intelligent, pointy-brained, and who plans (and revels in) his malevolence. The first is more real, the second an absolute gas to write and great fun to hate.

To get my head around concepts and ideas of ‘evil’ versus ‘bad’ or just ‘greedy’ I have turned to current affairs. I find current affairs intensely distressing if I look them directly in the face. Even so, they seem to be even worse than usual right now. There’s nothing like a bit of economic trouble to bring out the hatred in all of us it seems.

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Here we are in a modern and supposedly enlightened world and the various peoples of The Book are still trying to kill one another with gusto – and anything else that comes to hand.

We have an organisation of people pretending to be Muslims who believe half the population is shameful and valueless. It’s better to be a goat than a woman under the Taliban. After all, even their livestock can roam freely to find food. But if the male folk in a woman’s family die, the honourable thing for her to do is stay at home and starve to death rather than go out into the world unchaperoned to buy supplies. Yes that’s how much a woman is worth to them. Nothing. Because having kids and periods makes us unclean – Lord above if ever there was a bit of biblical health and safety advice that went big time wrong it’s that bit – oh and we don’t have a cock to think with, which makes us bad. And heaven help us, the Taliban seem quite moderate compared to ISIL, the Islamic State.

And then you get Israel which has had it’s foot on Palestine’s neck for years and just. Won’t. Lift. Off.  I wouldn’t pretend to be able to fathom Middle Eastern politics, there is no knowing Who Started It because the fighting there began at the dawn of time. I’ve read enough of the The Book – Old Testament/Torah/Koran – to appreciate that. But historically, countries like Britain, America and Russia have exacerbated the problems in an already volatile area for their own gain; fanning the flames of enmity, promising everyone what they wanted and delivering it to no-one: for years. And in return we get ISIL, the Islamic State. I guess it kind of serves us right.

Then… enter the ‘Christian Right’ and holy smoke, there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – who vilify women and single mothers, not to mention the poor. They justify the hatred-filled crap they spew as the word of God when all it’s about is power and more money for them. I thought god was supposed to be a loving father – you know, ‘love they neighbour as thyself’ and all that – not a psychopathic, vengeful shit-head. Maybe I’m wrong. It would be funny if there wasn’t an actual, realistic chance of these people gaining power in America, a country which looks, from the outside, as if the political choice is between rabidly conservative and a few steps to the right of Atilla the Hun.

And when I turn on the news and see the latest venom-filled cleric screaming spittle-flecked hatred in the name of whichever version of God they purport to believe in, I confess I feel contempt. Contempt for someone who uses their intelligence, or presence, or social standing to persuade others to maltreat people in the name of a supposedly loving god. And contempt for the brainwashed sheep who follow them.

Which is where it all starts, of course.

The minute we stop seeing extremists as human beings, we become like them. Because that’s what they’re doing to us. That’s how they can justify massacring whole towns, that’s how they can justify institutional peadophelia – selling 12 year old girls into sexual slavery because they dare to get an education: learn to read, learn to think, is peadophelia in my book. No wonder extremism is so attractive to every tinpot fuckwit with a Kalishnikov. What better excuse for violence, bullying and sexual depravity than ‘god told me to do it’? Even if it’s patently, bollocks. I really feel for the world’s quiet, moderate people of faith, who have to put up with people thinking that nutters like the Islamic State and the Christian ‘Right’ represent religion.

What the angry rationalists fail to realise is that using religion to manipulate people is a completely different from having an actual faith. I suppose that’s what a lot of the K’Barthan Series is about: that just because the extremists are in power, it doesn’t mean everyone is one. Even so, it seems that nothing is more guaranteed to make you despise and kill your neighbour than a jolly good argument as to whose philosophy you should employ to go about loving him. Weird isn’t it?

You know, I wanted to make my villain female in this next book – think Servalan out of Blake’s 7 – but, in light of the state of world affairs, I really don’t think I can. There’s enough hatred directed at us women without my making one of us a love-to-hate baddie. The saddest thing is that every time I make stuff up, on the grounds that it’s chillingly evil, I find someone, somewhere, is already doing it.

Servalan: Scary baddie from Blake’s 7 Image: from http://jasonnahrung.wordpress.com

Stepping off the soap box and dragging this back to the point, apart from depressing me profoundly what does the state of world affairs have to do with writing credible bad guys?

In a nutshell, because what current affairs show us is that contempt is the key. A good look at history is an excellent place to start if you want to analyse the subtleties of evil. All you need to do then is give your baddie a healthy dose of idealism at the expense of any practical consideration whatsoever. He doesn’t have to be all-other-beings-are-inferior-my-pawns-to-be-used-and-discarded, supervillain bad. All he has to do is believe, passionately that the ends justifies the means and forget that the populations of the nations he is playing with are actual real humans. There are many faces of evil and often one begets another. So you can have some seriously bad karma starting off with deeds done with good intent.

Hmm… for all his supercilious air I think I prefer the supervillain like Lord Vernon. At least he’s honest.

So, what are your thoughts folks? Who’s the baddest of the bad? Love-to-hate superbaddie or vainglorious politician. More to the point, which one do you most like to see in books?

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I am now, officially hybrid… I think.

That’s right I run on oil AND gas. Sorry, no. What I mean is that the good folks at a small publisher have accepted a short story from me for an anthology. In the process of this they have sent me a publishing contract to sign and there is talk of a small remuneration, depending on sales volume. I think that does officially make me, in the proper sense of the word; with publication pending.

Which brings me neatly onto the other thing. I was looking at Chuck Wendig’s excellent blog today and he was talking about keeping your writing true. Writing who you are rather than what you think people will want. It’s a fantastic post, link to come. The gist is that you can only write for yourself, from your heart because if you write to please anyone else or to follow a trend your writing can lose its conviction. I particularly liked his take on that. Writing a book about something because everyone else has achieved success with it is like being a dog chasing a car.

‘Don’t be the dog, be the car.’

But that made me think because the biggest reason I’m self published is because I write stuff that isn’t really mainstream. I believe it has mainstream appeal but only on an incremental basis with lots of time for people to get used to the idea. And I don’t believe any publisher will take a punt on it until it’s already successful.

That’s not to say I don’t experiment with writing different stuff. My accepted story at Awesome Indies Publishing is one such. And this writing what you, yourself, would like thing, I really have no choice.

Any M T attempt at erotica would be the literary equivalent of this. Thank you http://2makeyoulaugh.blogspot.co.uk

Can I just go off on a tangent here for a minute? Do you ever wonder what writing is like for authors in other genres? I mean, say you write erotica. If you write decent erotica, presumably it turns you on – I mean, that’s what erotica is supposed to do, right? So what do you do about being in a permanent state of arousal, I mean, does it cloud your judgement? Do you end up needing a cold shower to view your work objectively. Or, when you’ve finished a scene do you just have a quick wank, while the cat looks on disapprovingly, and then move onto the next one? It’s not a question that’ll be troubling me. I quite like reading good erotica from time to time, so I did try writing it once. It was one of the funniest things I have ever written but, unfortunately, in absolutely the wrong way.

So for the moment, I’ll carry on writing Bond meets Adams (but without the spies) and see what happens.

Right now, I see what I’m doing as positioning12052012068.

It’s as if I’m leaving my stuff, with artful, care on the bank of the mainstream. To start with there’s just one corner in the water. I imagine the paper waving about in the passing current but each papery wave represents a minuscule tug towards the water. Slowly but surely (I hope) the current pulls it down the bank, tiny, tiny nth of an inch at a time. There’ll be more of it floating in the water now, semi submerged, gently slipping further out into the stream as the current draws it in. Then, it’ll be hanging there for a few seconds, with nothing more than a fraction of the corner stuck to the side until… oops yes it’s floating away and everyone’s a bit surprised because although it’s waterlogged and moving a bit slowly, and shouldn’t really be there, it hasn’t sunk.

Er yeh… That’s the way I see my books inveigling themselves into popular culture. But no-one is going to risk picking up my work and chucking it in until at least some of it has been proved to float on its own. So getting the mini-est publishing deal feels as if well… it’s probably not sliding down the bank yet but maybe a couple more pages have gone in.

Sure, one answer to this question might be to write something that has broader appeal. Perhaps one day I’ll manage it. But if I want to write with conviction I have to write what I write. I know there are many multi-genre authors who would regard that as unprofessional of me, so it is a huge relief to find the particular approach I use endorsed by Mr Wendig. You can find his post, which really puts it very well, here.

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Amazon is not your friend – reblogged from Chuck Wendig

Except he doesn’t have a reblog button but readers, writers, anyone, read this because what he says is true. Amazon has been involved in a giant price cutting war to annihilate the competition. Once that’s done. Once it’s the only option, it’ll do what it likes. That means if it decides to give self published authors a 1% royalty and keep the rest, it will. Or if it decides to move to a standard model and set it’s royalty rate at 10%, it will.

The competition needs us but more importantly, we need them because we need a free market and we’re close to a monopoly. If you have an iPad, use iBooks, if you have a kindle, buy your .mobi files from Smashwords and send them to your kindle, yourself. Mr Wendig is bang on the nail with this one free trade has to survive or we’re stuffed. So if anyone out there has any ideas as to how we can attract the customers using these other retailers answers on a post card please!

Here’s the post, warning, if you are upset by that kind of thing, he’s quite a sweary bloke. Think that man I can never remember the name of, Cardinal Richleau, Dr Who… oh yes, Peter Capaldi, doing In The Thick of It. Yeh… like that only less angry and not nasty. You can read the post here.

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Hybrid. Not just for cars.

This post, on Chuck Wendig’s blog, got me thinking today. (BTW I can thoroughly recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog, unless you’re sensitive to swearing but then, if you’re sensitive to swearing I doubt you’ll be here either).

He was talking about hybrid authors. That is, those of us who self publish their work and also have a trad deal. Apparently, these folk earn more.

You know what. I’m not surprised at that.

Frankly, I would kill for a trad deal, so I could do both. Unfortunately it’s never going to happen. I used to have a reasonably high end business job, and I know how business works. I’m a really crap proposition. It won’t always be that way, but right now it is. A stay at home mum who takes two years to write each book. Even if I managed to pen a query letter covered with just the right amount of fairy dust and unicorn pooh to score that magic read (yes even with an ‘in’ I failed to the point where they sent me a letter back with comments that showed, quite clearly that one of the readers hadn’t even read the book). Even if an agent or a publisher, absolutely loved my stuff, there would be somebody who could churn out a book every 6 months, whose work they loved just as much, who’d get the deal. Geesh! I mean seriously, I wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole, so I don’t expect them to.

If I want trad, I’ve got to have a ‘proven track record’ – ugh I loathe and detest that phrase – and to get one of those, I’ve got to make it the hard way; as a self published author.

However, at least with self publishing, I do have the option to get my books out there and, possibly, succeed. It will be much harder – although not as hard as getting someone to read my query letter – and if I do succeed it will happen in slow motion. But the opportunity IS there.

This is what I love about self publishing.

What I hate is that anyone would bung their first attempt at a novel out there unedited, unrested, without thought. It absolutely amazes me – and gets me into a bit of a frothy mouthed rage, to be honest – because they’ve turned the only route to market for many of us into a slush pile that no-one will touch.

Thanks you bunch of complete and utter bastards.

The K’Barthan Trilogy (actually it’s four books so I’ll have to call it something else, ideas on a post card please) took me 25 years to write.  That’s if I count them from the first attempt. Although I admit I’ve done the donkey work in the last few, between 2008 and now. A lot of people, who would probably enjoy it will never will never find out about it, and others will never touch it because I’ve committed the terrible sin of publishing it myself.

Whatever people say, the prejudice has not gone away, with good reason (cf the complete and utter bastards mentioned above).

That is pretty galling.

Which brings me neatly onto hybrids and why I think they do better.

They’ve sidestepped the prejudice.

Those who ‘don’t read self published books’ will read the self published work of a traditional published author. They’ll pick up that author’s work in the first place. Those book shops who ‘don’t stock self published books’ will stock the self published work of someone with a trad record. It really is all about the brand. It’s the same road; getting to the point where there are enough people out there who trust you to write a good book, who will be confident giving them to their friends to read.

Hybrid is win-win. Hybrid authors have the endorsement of the establishment, they have fans from the normal off line world and they bring them with them. Those fans give the author the momentum to get their books up the listing past the glass ceiling of other authors, amazon book police and jaded, indie author loathing forumites, into the light where the ‘normals’ who are just looking for a book to read, see them. Their trad pub background gives them the golden key onto the review sites and into magazines that ‘won’t accept self published work’ but will from someone with a trad pub background. It’s definitely where I want to be.

In short, the way I see it is this.

If you’re a hybrid, you get to keep the cash and sell without the prejudice.
If you’re trad published you get to sell without the prejudice but there’s less cash to keep.
If you self publish you get to keep the cash but you earn less because until you’re seriously established, everyone you approach will assume that your work is sub standard, poorly edited crap.

It’s a conundrum. Hmm… would knowing what I look like help?

Well, you asked...
See how trustworthy I am.

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