To be a writer

Anyone can be a writer. All it takes is dedication and time and a will to learn.

To be a writer is the most beautiful thing. You live in many worlds simultaneously, can fly and swim in the currents of deep space and the darkest bowels of unimaginable hells. There is wish-fulfilment and anarchy and freedom and passion and dreams, dreams, dreams.

To be a writer takes work. It takes devotion, and sacrifice. You have to set priorities and stick to them. You have to give the words room, a safe space to explore. You have to be strong-minded and disciplined, and, if you ever hope that your words will be read more widely, you have to be able to take the blows. You have to be used to having your ego squished on a regular basis. You have to know how unlikely success (in many measures) is and you have to do it anyway. You have to hope. You have to both face and deny reality. You have to have a safe place to cry.

To be a writer you have to get better constantly. You have to push yourself. You have to sift out bad criticism and act on the good. You have to find an exit from the womb, your comfort-zone of safe, secure words, and taste the air outside. You have to read widely. You have to watch television and films and be uplifted by glorious songs and feel the pull of your soul in the orbit of some heavenly body. And then you have to replicate these emotions without ever telling the reader what it’s really all about, Alfie.

To be a writer you need to get used with having your guts torn out in front of you. You have to love your characters and then have them ripped from you and eviscerated. All you can do is take it – no fighting back – and accept that your beloveds are weak and fragile things. And then you have to take the pieces and stitch them back together until the thing you loved is a patched-up monstrosity, terrific, somehow beautiful but not the thinly-veiled metaphor you dreamt as a shadow of yourself.

To be a writer you have to know that there’s no money in the business. You have to know the odds are that you’ll never have the career – the full-time pays-your-bills career – that you’ve dreamt of all your life. To be a writer is to accept that you’ll probably be fitting your calling around paid employment for the rest of you life. You have to accept your vulnerability; you’re vulnerable to mockery, to dismissiveness, to hearing all the bloody time that other people write too – and they want to talk about themselves, thank you, not you. You have to take their manuscripts with a smile, as if you didn’t have enough to read already.

You have to be an artist and a businessman. You have to be a designer and an accountant. You have to be a salesperson. You need to be a CEO and a warehouse-monkey all in one. You have to devote some of your precious writing-time to blogging, to being on social media, to learning not only better ways to ‘word’ but also new technology, new apps (whatever they are). You have to understand search-engine optimisation and other esoteric applications that are far, far removed from the real world.

You have to want and you have to know that you may never get.

To be a writer you have to know all this and do it anyway. Because that’s what being a writer is.

To be a writer is to have the best bloody job in the world and to know that nobody can ever take that away from you.

The modern writer

I am a writer. I write, right?

I’m not too sure that the novelists of a hundred, fifty, even twenty years ago would recognise the job as it is now.

The clue is in the word ‘job’. In the current day and the current environment, writing is a job, a profession like any other. The days of an author producing his work and then returning quietly to his desk to crack on with his (or her – please excuse any lapses of this kind) writing are gone.

Once upon a time a writer could expect their work on a particular novel to end after delivery of the final manuscript to his or her editor. Maybe not quite end: there are always decisions to be made and publicity to attend, but they could rely on the publishing house to at least organise anything. The author might even get paid expenses.

Things are very different now. It’s not the publishing houses fault, more a condition of the industry. But these days the author is now expected to be an equal partner – if not more – in pushing their own work. The author’s job has changed. Now they not only have to produce a quality piece of writing, they’re expected to sell it too; to drum up their own audience.

So a writer has to produce their work and promote it. They also have to manage finances in a way they never had to before; writers are mostly self-employed, so they have to do their tax self-assessments and find their own expenses. And, unless they’re very lucky or very well established, they have to do all this whilst working a normal, paid job as well.

So why should we go through publishing companies at all? If we’re doing all the hard work anyway, why not just cut out the middle man and do it all ourselves?

It’s getting increasingly hard to give a convincing answer to that. Part of it, of course, is that there’s still a tremendous cachet to be published via the traditional routes, especially by one of the big houses. Another reason is that, although the editor’s role on individual projects may have slackened, they still do have many skills that most people – especially first-time authors – lack. The big publishers have copy-editors, art departments, legal teams, marketing and publicity sections who know who to go to in order to get good press. They can make it all happen in the way a lone individual simply can’t.

But how long will that last? In an era when you can pay $5 and get 1,000 Facebook friends, or where I could subcontract a stranger to write this blog, isn’t self-publishing the road to go down?

Hold on there, youngster. If you thought you had to do a lot for the traditional publishers, that’s nothing on what you have to do if you go it alone.

Okay, setting up internet payment systems is (probably – I don’t actually know) straightforward these days. Building a website won’t break the bank. Yeah, you can get open-copyright artwork fairly easily and you can find free software to format your book so it appears ‘right’ on the page. But are you prepared to phone up all the local bookshops in the area (or country) to get them to stock your book? That’s assuming you get physical paper copies at all: first you had to make the decision to trust a self-publishing or print-on-demand company with what, to me, would be a huge amount of money. Even here you have to know what you’re doing as the horror-stories, even with the most reputable self-publishing companies, are still doing the rounds. Make sure you know what you’re paying for. And whatever you do, don’t cough up extra for ‘publicity’.

As an aside, I’m aware of authors whose sales have mostly come from car boot sales, conventions, craft fairs and the like. Are you prepared to give up all that time to flog your masterpiece? Or would you prefer to be working on the follow-up?

So are e-books the answer? Well, I don’t know of any author who’d say they’d not prefer to have a physical copy in their hands, but, leaving that aside, the main problem with e-books is their invisibility. Do you know how many e-books are released each year? I don’t (and I did just try and check – honest – but my mammoth 5-minute search failed to reveal anything easily digestible). But it’s a lot. And believe me when I tell you that the big success stories (I’m looking at you, EL James) are very much the exception.

So you still have to do the work – you still have to do the publicity, to write your press release, to push your blog – whether with a publisher or not. This is where the publisher has the advantage, as their publicity departments will have the names and numbers of people in the media, the right contacts for endorsements… And they should be able to compensate for/work around/train you in any skills you lack.

So I’m a writer. I write. I’m also financier, lawyer, accountant, art director, publicity agent, relentless self-promoter, ego-maniac, schizophrenic.

Don’t call me an artist. I’m an entrepreneur. I am the brand.

I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you here…

Hello all. Welcome to my blog.

Let’s be up-front about this. I’m writing this in order to promote myself. I don’t see any point lying.  The fact is that I’m an author, that I have ambitions to be published, and in this day and age, you need to be able to promote yourself.  Hence a blog – the fashionable weapon of choice.

It’s a horrible thing, really; I’m in a position where I have to talk myself up at every opportunity.  That sort of thing doesn’t come easy to me. I am, after all, British – home of reserve, modesty and concealing one’s true feelings. For example: I said above that I’m an author. But I’m not published – does one need to be published before you can call yourself an author? When people (rarely) ask what I do outside work I tell them that I write. Not that I’m a writer, but that I write. And it’s taken me many years to get to that point, to remove the apology from my voice and be confident about it. For there does seem to be some sort of stigma attached to any creative activity done without recompense: it’s still not the sort of thing that leads to drinks being showered upon you in the pub. Not in a good way, at least.

So. Yes. Newly confident writer.

This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but what do you write? And what can I expect to see in this blog? Will it be worth my time and the wear and tear on my mouse-finger?

I write genre-fiction. That’s the broadest answer I can give. More specifically, I write a mix of science-fiction, crime and adventure, emphasising human relationships in pressure situations. It’s also my eternal ambition to write a quality historical novel at some point, probably set in Saxon times.

Slightly less broadly I like the term ‘speculative fiction’ to describe my work. I only came across this concept a few months ago; roughly speaking, it means that the starting-point for the novel is a ‘what if?’ question.

So, for Chivalry (my third novel) the underlying idea was: what if a game could start a war?

For Night Shift (fourth, and the one I’m currently promoting): what is the next step for humanity in an overcrowded and resource-poor world?

Speculative fiction could be taken as simply a new term for science-fiction and fantasy, but I think those terms tend to be straitjackets, especially for new authors. I ran into this wall especially painfully when I was trying to market Chivalry. This is not science-fiction. I am determined on this – digging in and preparing to face enemy fire. But because part of the action is set in a computer-recreation of twelfth-century Syria (and also because it’s over 140,000 words long) it has immediately become labelled as such.  Nonsense, I cry! I don’t think any serious science-fiction publisher would be happy if I sent it to them. Although that hasn’t stopped me trying.

No, it’s speculative fiction all the way for me.

And what’s in it for you? Well, I hereby promise that I’ll do my very best to post an entry a week on this site. I’m hoping to give free samples of my writing – although I’ve no idea what, yet – along with musings on life, love, and the pursuit of liberty. Hopefully this will be typo-free and vaguely interesting. I’ll probably ramble on about life as a writer as well as more everyday concerns. I reckon you’ll get a pretty good idea of myself and my style as the weeks roll by.

Well, that’s probably enough for now: in these days of short attention-spans this is probably all I can get away with. Please, check back next week for another exciting instalment of This Blog.

Cheerio

Rob