About robjtriggs

Currently based in Cambridgeshire but with links to Belfast, Bradford and Norwich, I'm a writer of speculative fiction and a dreamer of dreams. Including that one which starts out nice and then turns on you like a twisty-turny thing

When writing groups go bad

I have taken a big step and decided to leave my writing group.

I can write this because I know that nobody from said group follows me in any way, shape or form; and, indeed, that’s a small part of the issue. I simply feel like nobody in this (small) group likes me or my writing.

That sounds very self-absorbed but it’s hard to shy from. I don’t feel supported or encouraged in my writing and, no matter how ‘big’ or experienced you get, an atmosphere of encouragement is important to help produce.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you might remember that I’ve mentioned some issues with this group before. So a fair question would be to ask why I’ve stuck at it so long. Well, this group contains at least two first-rate, better-than-me writers that I’ve wanted to learn from and to gain their advice and criticism. Plus there’s a great deal to say for stability. I’ve had a relationship with these people that I’ve always hoped might develop into familiarity, if not friendship.

That hasn’t happened and I’m left feeling alienated and, to some extent, bullied. Now I know, I know – I’m big enough and ugly enough to take some slings and arrows and not to take every little thing to heart. But I also suffer from depression, and when I’m reduced to tears after a particularly bruising session, it’s time for me to bow out and put my own well-being – and that of my family, who have to put up with me in that state – first.

I also have issues with the quality of criticism. Now I believe that all criticism should be weighted by the needs, level and personality of the recipient. I take heavy criticism; maybe that’s a reflection that the rest of the group feels confident enough in my ability to take it and use it constructively.

And I believe it’s fair that one of the weaker writers in the group should take lesser, more broad critiquing. What I don’t like is for that to become outright misdirection; telling her, for example, that a dream sequence works when I felt clearly that it didn’t. That sort of feedback isn’t gradation – it’s simply wrong and unhelpful.

There is an art to good critiquing. It’s not always easy to judge feedback-level. It’s a skill that can be learnt with experience and practice – and I don’t think my group has that down.

So it’s time for me to move on. I’ve had an offer to join another group – non-local, but in this Zoom-fuelled world, what is local? – and I’m minded to accept it. I owe it to my family – and my craft, and my sanity – to try something new.

Cover issues

Had another battering from writing group yesterday, but I don’t think I need to go into that right now. I need more time to decompress. So instead I shall return to the vexed issue of self-publishing.

Now that I’ve committed – in mind if not in money – to the project, I need to follow through and make sure it happens and that it happens well as I possibly can make it. I’ve been worrying at the issue with a little reading and it seems like the following stages are pretty much nailed down:

  • Writing the damn book
  • Editing the same
  • Get cover designed
  • Format the interior layout
  • Publish
  • Market

But the more you read into it, the more difficult each section seems to become. The big problem I have is that most resources seem to focus intensely on the marketing of the novel and neglect the technical aspect: just how does one prepare a manuscript for publication?

Luckily, this is where the lovely community that I mentioned last week comes in. I’ve been fortunate to get lots of help and advice and I know I can turn to friends for assistance.

As for New Gods, I’ve already completed the first two steps. I have a product ready to publish. Now I need to commit to a cover designer, and this is where all terrors stalk me. I’ve been put on to reedsy.com, which is, apparently, where all editors and designers hang out, just awaiting your special commission.

Unfortunately I’m awful at making big decisions. I’d much rather trust word of mouth that go through a big, impersonal site, even if there are artist’s portfolios just awaiting my attention.

There’s also the question of timescale. Getting a cover takes time – an artist can’t just drop everything to get immediately to your (fairly minor) commission. I’ve been quoted a turnaround of six months, which is probably perfectly reasonable and not atypical but which needs to be accounted for.

Fortunately I have time. Human Resources was only published in November and I figure October/November is not a bad time to aim for to publish its follow-up. I have to think in such terms in order to make this a proper business project.

Project management – another skill that the self-publisher must learn in order to produce a successful project.

I also have to produce something that matches in style the previous two volumes in the trilogy. I need an artist who’s prepared to be constrained by my history, and that (I imagine) is not a little thing in itself.

And that’s it for now – another week, another round of musings. If I actually resolve any of these issues, you’ll be the first to know. Promise.

UPDATE: I have chosen a cover designer. I have been in contact with her and she’s agreed to take on the project. This might actually happen!

Community

are times when it feels like one is totally alone in the world; when one is struggling on, trying to plough your own furrow in the teeth of glorious indifference. Please be reassured: help and advice and friendship is there, should you need it.

This week I find myself overwhelmed by the support I’ve received in my quest for self-publication. A few quick tweets and I found a dozen or so people who were willing and able to give me their valuable time to help me make New Gods the best it can possibly be.

I received links to websites, to authors, to workshops. I got connected with editors. I got quotes for cover art.

All this is useful, but it’s the knowledge that I have a community of friends that is the most important. So I urge you, if you’re struggling with some aspect of writing, of publication, or of any other field, to not agonise in silence. There are people willing to help.

Writers = bloody brilliant. And that goes for you as well, you lovely hunk of humanity, you.

The plan

So the votes have been tallied: aside from a few suggestions that I might crowdfund or Patreon – I think sadly my reach is a bit limited to raise any significant funds in this manner and I’m loathe to take money off my friends – everyone who responded thinks that I should self-publish. So I shall. Or, at least, I’m planning to at this moment in time.

Self-publishing is not quick, or easy. Nor is it necessarily cheap, not for a relative pauper like myself. I shall have to go for budget options pretty much across the board. I’ll also – and this is the big thing for a ditherer like me – have to trust myself; to back my belief that New Gods truly is the best thing I’ve written so far.

I also don’t have much of an idea of what I’m doing – not at the moment, at least. I know things like an ISBN and legal declarations are needed. I know the novel has to be typeset and formatted properly for Amazon/Kindle (I’m assuming I’ll go with Kindle Direct Publishing as it has the widest reach, but that is something else to look into). I know how to do none of these things at the moment.

So my next task is to research and examine and explore. I have the product, that’s one thing I’m happy(ish) about. The rest is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Thankfully I have plenty of friends who have self-published and, like most authors, they’re eager to help. I’ve already had offers of assistance and a quote for a cover. I can do this.

So that’s the plan. And, in the meantime, I’ll keep working on my other writings and I’ll try and get my next novel published traditionally, because why not have both? Hybrid authors: the coming generation goes both ways, don’t you know?

Thank you to all who commented/advised/reached out to me after last week’s post. You’re all wonderful people and I look forwards to buying you all drinks when we can travel/meet up/go to places where they sell drinks safely.

Next?

Now the dust has settled, it’s time for me to consider what to do next in my writing career. And, specifically, what to do with New Gods, the third in my Antarctic trilogy.

Having been dropped by my publisher after two books, it’s not an easy decision to make. No publisher is going to take on a single book in a trilogy – they wouldn’t have any share in the intellectual property (so no potential film/television rights, though that’s a very distant dream) and, with diminishing sales a massive probability, really what’s in it for them?

So my choices seem to be pretty much one of four. I can:

  1. Abandon the novel. This would be gutting, not only for me – I’ve put a lot of work into it and, as I’ve said before, I really regard it as the best in the series – but for the few fans who’ve persisted and really want to see the finale. But it’s perhaps the most realistic option
  2. Wait seven years. In seven years’ time I regain the rights to the first two novels. I could then try and find a publisher willing to take the series (though heaven alone knows how) as a whole and issue the whole lot as a reprint. Or I could self-publish the trilogy as a whole
  3. I could self-publish Book 3 now. There’s nothing to stop me doing this, as far as I’m aware – nothing except cold-hard economics. I’m under no illusions as to either my appeal or my abilities as an illustrator. I’d have commission someone – hell, I have to find someone – to do the cover art and that would cost money (all artists should be paid for their work. To hell with exposure). And even if I do all the typesetting and publishing and editing myself – a risky business, publishing without professional editorialness – there’d still doubtless be costs. I don’t believe that I’d ever cover these with sales as – at the end of the day – who am I? I’d sell maybe a dozen to family and friends, maybe a few more through this blog and via Twitter, and that’s all, folks
  4. I could release it free of charge, possibly serialised through this blog. I haven’t really thought this option through, yet. But I want to get this novel out there. It’s good. And, if I spend anything I’ll lose. So why not just save the costs and let you lot read it anyway? One potential downside is that my seven-year plan of reclaiming my rights and then seeking a fresh publisher might be harmed by this; I will have shot my bolt somewhat

So what would you do? All opinions gratefully received – and any options not yet considered would be appreciated also.

In the meantime, what do I do? Well, I’ve got Oneiromancer to flog. I’ve got Our Kind of Bastard to edit. I’ve got an as-yet un-thought-through new novel to start thinking through.

In other words, I need to get back into the word-mines. It’s what I do.

Sayonara, lovely folks.

Thank you

Howdy, blog fans. At the moment I’m buried both in boxes – a consequence of moving house – and in copy-editing, a consequence of taking on more than I can chew.

I just wanted to say a big thank you to all of you who have read over the last couple of posts I’ve put up here and have given their support, either through the medium of likes, comments, DMs, retweets, or the simple act of still being here to read this now. I really appreciate you all because you’re great.

I’m currently sitting back and mulling over my options, which are somewhat limited but do, indeed, exist. I’ve been convinced of this by some of the glorious people I’m lucky enough to call friends, and by the people they in turn put me in touch with as a result of reading said posts.

Life is not an empty, ruinous black hole vortex of doom and despair. Being dropped by my publisher could, in fact, end up being a good thing. And I am reassured that I’m not a horrible bigot. There is sunshine and bunny rabbits and good Scotch and all of these things – and yet more – will keep me fighting.

So what now? Well, after this copy-editing is done with, I will return with a vengeance to the short story of alleged bigotry because I still believe in it. I will continue to consider what to do with New Gods. I will continue to turn over ideas for a new novel, because it’s what I do.

I am a writer. I may not, at present, have a career, but the fundamental fact remains.

Thank you all for reminding me of that.

Racist, sexist, homophobic

Note: this post was written at the beginning of 2021 but got delayed because writing about my publishing problems seemed more immediate. Sorry to begin the new year with two fairly downbeat essays, but that’s the writer’s life for you: ups and downs all the way. Hope you get something out of this; hopefully I’ll be able to present more positivity next week.

This isn’t meant as a moan or a whine; apologies if it comes across as one. But I was told at my last writing group meeting that I’d been imbibing – and regurgitating – racist, sexist and homophobic tropes, and… well, it’s been on my mind.

It’s not just one piece; it is, apparently, in my work in general. The accusation was made by the person who accused me of being racist – or at least colonialist – in my treatment of slum clearances, and this scene was certainly in her mind as she, once more, took me to task.

So what do I make of this? Has she got a point? She didn’t directly accuse me of being the ‘ists’ but she might as well have, as I flatter myself that I am a modern, well-balanced human being who is, if not immune to racism and sexism, then at least am aware of my flaws and my ignorances and try to work on them. The accusation stings and I’m not sure what to do about it.

First things first: is she right? This latest criticism came to over a short(ish) story that involves a central female character who is viewed through the lens of a narrator who idolises, almost worships her. My critic says that there is nothing to her but her looks and here she may have a point; I’ve almost deliberately not gone into her spirit and agenda as I want her to be ethereal, almost mesmerising, rather than grounded and gritty.

As for her looks, I wasn’t even aware that I’d portrayed her as good looking (there’s certainly no paragraph of description that could appear in the Men Writing Women twitter feed) but, looking back, I suppose I had managed to give that impression.

So I can just about see where my critic is coming from. I just don’t know if I should make changes based on her opinion.

And now I’m shaken. I have many, many flaws, but I didn’t think I was a bad person. I’ve reviled groups like the Sad Puppies for their right-wing agenda. Am I now to see myself in such company? Hell, have I been lying to myself – and the world – all this time? How do I become the person I imagine myself to be?

Writing is an intensely personal business. That’s why criticism hurts. We lay ourselves out there on the page and receive what slings and arrows come our way. I’m constantly afraid that my Antarctic trilogy, in particular, will fail one of these acid tests because it’s consciously multinational and I’m writing outside of my own experiences.

Now I’m being told that my writing in general fails. And that means I’ve failed as a person.

I don’t think I’m in the best position to evaluate my flaws, but I’m not sure there’s anyone else. If anyone out there feels they’re better placed, I’d love to hear from you.

Dropped

It’s finally happened. It’s over.

How to talk about this without overstating or making this into a bigger thing than it is? First of all, the bald facts: I have been dropped by my publisher. They have decided that sales of Night Shift and Human Resources aren’t good enough to justify picking up the third novel in my Antarctic trilogy and have decided to move on from me.

This is perfectly fair and, really, it’s hard to argue against. I too have been disappointed with sales (of NS; I’ve not seen any for HR yet) and I suppose the writing has been on the wall. I bear no ill-will to the publishers and wish them well. They gave me my chance and – hey – there’s nothing to say I’ll never work with them in the future. I still want people to rush out and buy my books from them!

My publisher’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of writing; they were keen to emphasise that. It’s purely a business decision, and I respect that.

But it is heartbreaking. I feel like my career is done. I don’t know what to do with myself.

Most immediately, I have the third book in a trilogy that I desperately want to get out there. I feel it’s the best in the series and provides a neat, satisfying climax to the story of Anders Nordvelt. Without it I’ll always feel like my work is incomplete – because it is. I want readers to know that there is an ending; there is happiness, of a sort, for my protagonist.

I have also lost my safety net. I have another complete, ready-to-go novel that I’ve been unsuccessfully hawking to agents. This now becomes my primary weapon. I now should be putting it out to publishers as well – but now I feel a much greater vulnerability. Without the option of Flame Tree Press, I feel rejection to a much greater degree, especially if my primary choice, the company for whom I do most editorial work, should take a look and turn me down.

I don’t dare send it out. I can’t bear the pain.

So it feels like my career is over. And I just don’t know what to do with myself.

Books of the year 2020

My reading has been desultory this year. I’m sorry. Changes in work patterns and getting out of the habit of listening to audiobooks – it’s cost me.

So this year’s Best Books list is a little thinner this year. Not that the books I’ve enjoyed have been any worse than they have in previous years – the recommendations are as strong as ever – just that I’m drawing from a shallower well. Mea culpa.

But still, without further ado…

My eleven favourite reads of 2020, in rough order of reading:

The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man – Rod Duncan

The third book in the Map of Unknown Things trilogy sees Elizabeth Barnabus travelling across America in search of her missing family. Crossing the border into the wilds of the Oregon Territory, she discovers a mustering army, a king who believes he is destined to conquer the world, and a weapon so powerful that it could bring the age of reason crashing down.

The future of the Gas-Lit empire rests on the back of a conjuring trick.

A superb finale from Rod, which explores ideas of gender and gender-identity, of family and missing mothers; and the intrigues of court-politics and the essential glamour and fakery of magic.

Gideon the Ninth – Tamsyn Muir

The Emperor needs necromancers.
The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.
Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

I didn’t like this at first. There just weren’t enough empathetic characters – every was bitchy and snarky and, whilst fun, I didn’t feel like I was going to fall for it as I did. Just as the enemies-turned-lovers(?) trope turns, so did the alienation-turned-admiration work in the reader, and, by the end, I was rooting for the characters to solve the mystery.

It’s not perfect and won’t be for everyone. It relies on roguery rather than humanity. But it won me over and earns its place on this list.

The Gutter Prayer – Gareth Hanrahan

The city has always been. The city must finally end. When three thieves – an orphan, a ghoul, and a cursed man – are betrayed by the master of the thieves guild, their quest for revenge uncovers dark truths about their city and exposes a dangerous conspiracy, the seeds of which were sown long before they were born.

A beautifully-written and imaginative dark fantasy in which the city is a real character in itself and which brings genuinely new ideas into the genre.

Small Robots – Thomas Heasman-Hunt

Well, how to write about this? If you’re not following the @smolrobots Twitter-feed this might not make sense to you.

Part art, part therapy project, this is simply a collection of Very Useful Robots (apart from the ones that aren’t), who are resolutely monopurpose, often to the point of being faintly (or gloriously) ridiculous. Simple drawings filled with character and humour, it’s just a lovely thing.

The Last Emperox – John Scalzi

The final part of John Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy, this is a wonderful finale, filled with shocks and revelations and a conclusion that is utterly convincing. aPlus there’s the benefit of Scalzi’s effortless prose that keeps the pace moving throughout. He’s simply a very good writer, damn him.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Okay, I really don’t get why this exists.

This is the ‘literature’ entry in this year’s list, and it suffers from the problems of all its type: just…why? It’s the tale of three generations of a family, from their forced migration from Greece to America, their growth into solid, prosperous citizens, and the final emergence of the intersex character to whom the title belongs.

As I said, I don’t really get it. There’s no real purpose to it, no great challenge to overcome (save one of identity, in which case why not focus on Callie/Cal and drop the preceding generations?); I just don’t understand the purpose behind writing this story in this way?

But I can put this down to being a genre writer, and, more specifically, a genre-reader. This book is here simply because it is so beautifully written. It carried me with it through its sections, ages and many, many pages because the prose is lovely and effortless in the way that good writing should be; not drawing too much attention to itself, just picking the right words at the right time.

The Fun Stuff – James Woods

Another book I found beautiful in its prose and yet wouldn’t recommend unreservedly. This is a collection of essays written by critic and columnist James Woods. You might find it heavy going; for me the subject matter was all a little too worthy – I’d not read a single one of the reviewed authors save for a single book my Ian McEwan. Oh, and I’ve seen the TV adaptation of War and Peace.

Even so, I now feel I can have a conversation on any number of the featured authors – or at least nod along intelligently – because Woods constructs his arguments so well. As I said, his writing is virtually faultless and I find myself swept up in admiration for the author. Maybe if I exposed myself to counter-arguments I may re-evaluate this, but I’m not especially likely to and so this stands as a uniquely elegant book of criticism.

Composite Creatures – Caroline Hardaker

Ah, this is a wonderful, heartbreaking piece. It won’t be out until 2021 (thus neatly escaping the HellYear) and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye out for.

It’s a simple tale, all told. In a hostile world (though no obvious dystopia) the rich can buy themselves exclusive medical treatment and – for some – this means matching you with your exclusive genetic partner and getting your own little bundle of joy which will… what?

That’s the beauty of this novel; the gradual unrolling of the details both of what Norah and Arthur have signed up for and the gradual reveal of what Norah has given up to get to this point in her life. And what she continues to lose.

A beautiful, haunting novel that is wonderfully written and will not leave you alone.

Flame Riders – Sean Grigsby

Ah, Sean Grigsby; top chap and top writer of dragon-based action. Flame Riders is the third third-in-series book in this list and it’s certainly involves the kicking of most ass. Another novel set for 2021, the story revolves around the misadventures of a New United States Army deserter and possible smoke eater (one immune to the effects of dragon smoke and partially resistant to flames) in a world where smoke eaters are persecuted and the army little more than mercenary thugs.

Of course, wouldn’t you know it, but the scene is set for a brutal confrontation between the NUSA and the smoke eaters… plus dragons. Always dragons.

Witty, sarcastic and inventive, with excitement aplenty. What’s not to like?

Oh, and if you want to hear me and Sean chatting (a long, long time ago now), check out this link.

Doors of Sleep – Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt has never let me down. After his Axiom series, upon which I had the fortune to do a small amount of work, I was shown a pre-release version of his latest, The Doors of Sleep. It is a wonderfully inventive tale of a man who wakes up in a new universe every time he sleeps. All is transient: utopias, dystopias, rural paradises or urban nightmares: all are gone after a few days maximum.

Accompanied by the wonderful Minna (human, plant, or something in-between?) – the real star of the show, along with the AI Vicki – Zax is desperate to stay one step ahead of the maniacal Lector.

Always moving forwards, sometimes isolated and never able to build more than one relationship at a time, this as much a study in loneliness as it is an adventure. A wonderful tale.

Within Without – Jeff Noon

Let’s finish on the weird, shall we? Jeff Noon does weird well. Another 2021 release, this is the fourth book in the Nyquist series of fantastic adventures. The previous one Creeping Jenny was set in a small village where every day was a saint’s day, which had its own actual, physical ‘law’ that must be obeyed. This is set in the city of Delirium, a place defined by borders, each one different and shifting.

Nyquist has been hired to find an actor/musician’s ‘image’; his glamour, the thing that gives him that extra 20%, that has been torn from him. Thus begins a tangled tale that sees Nyquist confronted by rogue enchanters, kingdoms within kingdoms, his own literary self, and always, always, the boundaries that separate them.

Magical, mad and magnificent, that’s Jeff Noon for you.

***

And there you go. Hope that’s given you some inspiration for those last-minute Christmas presents, even those ones labelled for yourself, as well as some things to watch out for in 2021. I’m off until the new year now; have a great holiday, those of you who get one, and have a great few weeks those of you who don’t. See you in a little while; be well x

PS: I nearly forgot: feel free to add this to your Christmas lists as well…

Slow

I’m currently listening to an audiobook that I started at the beginning of the first lockdown, so it’s fair to say that it’s not entirely grabbed me. A gap of over six months is partly explicable by my discovery of certain podcasts, which eat into book-listening time, but that’s not the whole story. And firing it up again has sharpened my discontent and made me try and put my finger on the problem.

I think it comes down to this: the whole thing feels slow.

It’s not that nothing’s happening. There is action and there is drama and there is mystery, and it’s also fair to say that, at two and a half hours’ in to a 14hr story, I’m still only scratching the surface.

But the whole thing seems slow. There is little room for nuance as everything is spelled out for us. All decisions are shown, clearly and without room for error, and in a way this is a good thing. But it really does sabotage any sense of momentum and imperative.

Who am I to be saying this? After all, I am the one who’s been outed as an over-writer in recent months; I have my troubles with quiet scenes. So it’s not like I think I’m any better.

Perhaps recognising the condition in other writers is a sign that I am learning. I am seeing in others what I am guilty of myself, and the first step towards solving a problem is to admit you have one in the first place. In a way, this particular story has come at the perfect time for me, when I’m examining my own flaws and looking at paring back my writing in general.

Perhaps it’s just that this audiobook has flaws sharp enough for even me to scrape my numb feet upon, but I don’t think so. It’s not bad, not that I would like to determine it thus.

Anyway, isn’t it possible to learn from weaker stories just as it is to find inspiration in masterpieces? I think so, though I don’t go so far as to seek out bad books in place of quality; I have (sadly) limited reading time and my primary focus is on pleasure, even in my non-fiction.

And, on that note, let me recount my experience with 50 Shades of Grey. Whilst walking to work one morning I chanced upon a copy sitting on a bench by the river. Aware of its reputation, and in search of cheap (free) thrills, I picked it up and started to flick through it as I strolled onwards.

I abandoned it on the next bench I came to. That was enough for me.

I happily imagine the life of that copy as it journeys along the riverbank, one bench at a time, as it passes through many hands from sea to source, and then, and then…

What next adventure can a poor lonely copy of a truly bad book have? That, dear reader, is entirely up to you.