Corporate social responsibility

Don’t worry, I’m not about to change the direction of my blog and become a corporate motivational speaker using only buzzwords (what Matt Berry skit was that from again?), I promise this will tie back in with the business of writing.

But first: corporate social responsibility, to my mind, just sounds like a business trying to feel better about not changing anything about the way they work. A company I worked for talked about community work, while at the same time using whole forests of (largely not recycled!) paper on unnecessary printouts and not allowing their employees to work from home (despite it being cheaper for everyone involved, as all the systems were in place, not to mention better for the environment).

Most people, at least in the Western world, have gotten used to some kind of environmental work by now. Whether it’s separating out the recyclables, choosing public transport or simply taking shorter showers, most of us are trying to do something. And yet, even the companies that aren’t pretending climate change isn’t real or isn’t man-made are still making environmentally unsound decisions and using wasteful processes simply because that’s what they’re used to.

For there to be actual change and for us to stand even the slightest chance of slowing down climate change before it kills a vast number of life forms, including likely us, it’s not enough for each and every one of us to do our little bit. Corporations and governments need to change. Unfortunately, most seem to be too focused on profit to do more than pay lip-service to the environmental researchers and activists begging them to please stop and rethink.

Political social responsibility

The way I see it, in an ideal world we’d be able to think about the short-term only and live our lives because we have politicians and the government to think about the long term and make all the hard decisions that will ensure our survival – and the survival of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Unfortunately, there are too many politicians these days that solely think about the next four or five years, or however long their term is, leaving the rest of us to worry about the future, without having much power to change things.

(I mean, we do actually hold a lot of power, collectively, but that would require enough people to get together and say enough is enough, which is hard to accomplish in any except the tiniest of countries. It works, but it requires effort, and our leaders are very good at influencing the education system and media to make us just afraid enough to vote for them but at the same time apathetic enough not to protest when our rights are compromised to line their pockets).

The writerly bit

Now, you may think that I’m going to wag my finger at those writers who feel it is necessary to print out drafts of their manuscript to edit things, and yes you may want to rethink that strategy if you’re just doing it out of habit or because it’s worked well for someone else, but what I want to talk about is the publishing industry.

As writers, we’re told to not write for free, to not work with Amazon because it’s evil, to make all the right choices when it comes to picking a publisher, while at the same time, companies seem to be largely getting a pass. If Amazon’s publishing arm pays you better than a traditional publishing house and you enjoy working with the team of whatever imprint is offering you a deal, why turn it down just because the big boss is trying to deprive his employees of basic human rights? Surely it should be the task of other publishing houses to innovate enough so they can keep competing with the big scary giant… (also please everyone form unions).

While I would encourage everyone to not shop through Amazon if there’s an alternative available, for whatever you’re looking to buy, it’s understandable that sometimes you don’t have the budget to afford to go buy something somewhere else or even to spend the time to try and find it elsewhere. This does not make you a bad person. It’s still, quite clearly, the big corporations (by no means just Amazon, they’re just an easy and ubiquitous example) that are being bad people (at least in the US, where corporations appear to be treated as people, but with more rights than actual human beings).

So, as a beginning writer, don’t make your career impossibly harder by dismissing legitimate paths to publication out of hand; if someone wants to pay you (never pay a publisher!!) and you’re allowed to tell your story without compromising its heart (e.g. as long as a publisher doesn’t tell you to remove anything that’s not white, straight, etc.) and you work well with the team responsible for publication, why not say yes? Once you’ve got success and some more power, then you can start making the uncompromising choices and demand change from other people.

Don’t get me wrong, I highly applaud someone like Roxanne Gay stepping away from her publisher because they were planning to publish a Nazi. But if you’re not at her level yet, that kind of decision won’t make the news and therefore won’t make a difference (again, unless you get every other writer to agree to do the same thing). Wait until the right time to make your stand, or simply demand better from the people you work with. While it often seems like the writer is the one with the least power in the entire publishing industry, if you have a high enough profile or enough other writers to side with you, change can happen – eventually. Until it does, don’t blame yourself for the problems of the industry.

That said, if you have the choice between bicycling to work or taking your car, either metaphorically or literally, do consider going by bike. While it’s important to put pressure on corporations to change for the better, every little helps.

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Writing podcasts: The good, the also good, and the different good

As I stated in my previous blog post, I haven’t been writing lately (though I did write a short story on a whim not too long ago, inspired by a submission theme, and naturally it got rejected because I didn’t start writing until four days before the deadline), but I have been listening.

To be a writer, you have to write (obviously) and read, but also to listen and observe human interaction. Sure, fiction shouldn’t be exactly like real life (in fact, fiction needs to make more sense than real life does at the moment), but getting a sense of real human interaction, and how to describe it, can add an important layer of authenticity to your work.

Another thing to listen to is advice. Yes, all advice is subjective, and every writer has to find what works for them, and you should never follow any professional writer’s advice without question, even if it is J.K. Rowling or whoever your literary god may be. In fact, a good writer will tell you to take their advice with a grain of salt precisely because it is all so subjective and everyone has their own process. That doesn’t mean they don’t have things worth saying. And if you’re lucky, they’ll share their wisdoms on a podcast. Here are a few I’ve listened to that I think are helpful, entertaining, or a good wake-up call. They’re all available to listen to for free on iTunes and via the handy-dandy links I’ve included.

The Writers Panel

Admittedly, Ben Blacker talks more to screen/TV writers and even comic writers than he does to novel writers, and you might be able to learn more about the actual craft of writing simply by listening to the superb Thrilling Adventure Hour, which he co-wrote with Ben Acker, but this podcast offers a lot of insight into the ways in which people get into writing, their different processes, writing with other people, and how the things you love get made. Seriously, just look through the long list of podcasts and find the writers/producers/directors of the shows that you love, and see what they have to say for themselves. Guaranteed inspiration.

This is also a good podcast if you want to get into screen/TV writing and are happy/able to move to sunny California to pursue your dreams. It has lots of hopefully helpful advice about writers rooms, etc. An alternative to this would be the Scriptnotes podcast, which talks more about the technicalities of screenplay writing.

I should be writing

Well, the name really says it all. Mur Lafferty is not only an excellent writer (I can highly recommend the Shambling Guides series for you fantasy/Buffy/mystery fans out there), but she’s also a well-seasoned podcast host, yet she still manages to keep her advice fresh. She usually does a special NaNoWriMo podcast (or series of podcasts) and generally just talks about the craft of writing, her own insecurities and problems, and she does some great, insightful interviews with writers in various career stages that may make you think, “Hey, I could be like that”. And of course, she always reminds you that you should be writing!

Ditch diggers

Another podcast by Mur Lafferty, but this time she’s joined by Matt Effin’ Wallace (yes, it’s a sweary podcast, so beware). Together, they are the ditch diggers, coming to you live from various rooms in Morgan Freeman’s expansive estate (allegedly). Unlike ‘I should be writing’, this podcast covers the practicalities of writing as a job. So, if you see writing as a hobby, stick to the previous podcast, but if you’re serious about making writing into a career, whether fulltime or not, then this is the podcast for you. Together, they offer lots of tough-love advice and again some amazing interviews with other writers from various different backgrounds.

There are many other podcasts on writing out there, for example Print Run if you want to hear about publishing from the perspective of agents/authors, and I would also recommend listening to fiction podcasts to get a sense of a good story in another medium – you might discover something new about writing that you wouldn’t have picked up from reading a book. My personal favourites are the above mentioned Thrilling Adventure Hour, as well as Welcome to Night Vale, Limetown and Within the Wires. There’s also Escape Artists and its various podcasts, which are open to submissions if you would like the chance to see your story audio-fied.

In short, there are many different podcasts out there to inspire, advise and otherwise give you fresh perspectives on this wacky endeavour called writing. So if you run, or commute, or have some other 30-minute/1-hour time window every once in a while that could do to be filled with some random people talking at you, why not give one of these podcasts a shot?

Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!

 

*And by you I of course mean I…

Diversity in writing and publishing

There is almost nothing more diverse than people’s opinions about diversity. In general, almost everyone agrees that a certain amount of diversity is a necessary thing; if everything and everyone was the same, the world would be a very dull, stagnant place. Yet everyone has their own unspoken limit about how much diversity they can handle. Some can’t even fathom how any movie with a black and/or female lead could ever work (hello Star Wars aka biggest blockbuster ever), while others might draw the line at equality for human-cat hybrids, to posit some extremes.

diluted-diversity

Diversity is all well and good, as long as everyone looks like John Malkovich, amirite?

There have been many essays, many research papers, many discussions, about the necessity of diversity, in books, movies, boardrooms, anywhere. Most of these discuss diversity in terms of race and gender. I want to talk about a different kind of diversity, the kind that deals with biases in terms of people’s opportunities in life. Recently, RandomPenguinHouse (I so wish that was their merger name) announced that it would no longer require its applicants to have a degree. While this may seem like an insignificant, benign gesture, especially in Europe, where people are generally able to receive a lot of financial support to complete a degree, there’s no denying that fortune, i.e. degrees, still favours the fortunate. In fact, the current UK government is doing everything in its power to make university education just as expensive as the US, tilting the scales firmly towards the higher earners (which are still predominantly white males, so boring).

Let's help each other

Research shows that teams with a diverse mix of people are more productive

I’ve been researching ways to get a job in publishing. You can work in a bookstore, do an (often unpaid) internship, get a specific kind of degree, or…? And if you’re in the UK, you also have to be able to afford to live close to London, at least for most job opportunities. In the US, New York would be your very expensive destination. So what it comes down to is that even without a degree requirement, you still need to be able to fund lowly or unpaid work in a horribly expensive city. When you look at it like this, there’s still a long way to go.

I am interning at a company at the moment (paid, luckily), working with an editor that started off as a speculative intern (i.e. an internship not attached to a degree, like mine), who then decided to go get a degree, and a Masters in Journalism, to give herself some theoretical background. Plenty of other people at the company started as interns and worked their way up. I am also working with/for an amazing senior editor who started off in marketing. They hired me with a PhD and almost no editing experience (at the time). My point, aside from raving about my current place of work, is that diversity goes beyond whether someone has had higher education or not, whether they are a certain race, a certain gender (my current company only has 1 male employee, by the way, and it’s the most supportive, tough, hard-working environment I have ever encountered). Diversity, and this is why PRH’s decision is bigger than I’ve now made it seem, comes from first acknowledging that it is wise to hire people from different backgrounds. Technical people, artsy people, sciency people, they all bring different, fresh perspectives, which are what most companies desperately need to stay relevant.

From a writing point of view, some writers have MFAs, some don’t. It doesn’t matter as long as they can tell a compelling story. Compelling stories, they come from life, from different experiences. And so I come back to diversity. We’ve had so many stories about the plucky, muscled white guy who finds out he’s a hero and gets the girl as a reward. Just making this same hero black, or a woman, breathes so much new life into such an old trope, I frankly don’t understand why more writers don’t take this relatively easy opportunity to spice up their stories. Even the same plucky white guy, only he’s in a wheelchair – think of the story possibilities! I recently beta-read a story with a character who I thought was destined to be Mr Love-Interest until it was casually mentioned he was gay. Let me tell you, it was such a relief! Not that people have to be gay in order to not be forced love interests, of course, but still, + 100 diversity and interestingness points! It’s THAT easy.

 

P.S. Writing is clearly not that easy, or I’d be writing my book right now instead of this post, but you get the idea. The new, shiny, diverse idea.

If a draft falls in a forest…

There comes a time in every serious writer’s life, when they first have to expose their draft-baby to the outside world (and showing it to your mother doesn’t count, as parents in my experience usually provide nothing but false confidence). Although I’ve put short stories online, and queried a previous (mother-approved) version of my work-in-progress, I know in my heart-of-hearts that beta-readers, editors and/or proofreaders are a crucial part of the writing process. And so, as my current (and hopefully last) rewrite of The Painted Past is moving slowly towards the finish line, I am starting to think about the next step.

As any writer will tell you (my personal reference for this is Mur Lafferty’s You Should Be Writing podcast, available on iTunes), good beta-readers are hard to find. They have to be honest, critical and helpful at the same time. Telling someone you don’t like their work is easy, telling them what you don’t like in a constructive manner is hard.

Muppets

These guys are probably not the best choice for constructive criticism.

There are a few ways of finding beta-readers. If you happen to be friends with an established author, feel free to harass them, although don’t expect them to have the time to help. For the rest of us who aren’t so lucky, friends are usually a bad source of beta-reading, unless they happen to also be writers and/or avid readers, because our friends and family members are usually not only more invested in not hurting our feelings than in providing honest, brutal feedback, but also don’t tend to have the right kind of background to help us become better writers. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but these magical critical friends can take a lot of time to find. In short, while you should share your work with as many people as possible, don’t expect your friends to have any in-depth advice.

A writing group, online or IRL, is a better alternative for finding beta-readers. The people there already have an established interest in writing and have their own work that they would also like to have critiqued. The trick here is to find the group that’s right for you, which can also take some time. Every group has a different dynamic and focus. Some groups consist of people who thrive on pointing out mistakes, which isn’t a helpful goal. Some groups are in contrast too supportive, acting like your mother. A group of writers that are all serious about publishing their work, write in the same or similar genre, and are of compatible personalities, is the ideal. Depending on where you live, you are more likely to find such a group online, on the forum of a writer you all love or a publishing house perhaps. While Absolute Write is often hailed as the go-to destination for newbie writers, it can be difficult in such a large group to find someone who is compatible and willing to read through your work. Finding a beta is a lot like dating, really.

There are professionals you can hire, people paid to read through and edit your work. Personally I would hire these people only after you’ve had some people tell you that your work is worth the investment. An editor can provide an invaluable service, since they know the industry and how to make your work shine. But they can’t make something that is never meant to work shine, or at the least it will cost a lot more money. To give yourself and them the best chance of making your work work, it is important to provide them with the best draft possible. It is important to note that there are also scam-editors out there, trying to take advantage of the despair of hopeful writers convinced they have a bestseller on their hands. Always make sure any editor you decide to hire is associated with a legitimate editing society or comes with personal recommendations from people you know before you hire them.

Of course the ideal situation any writer hopes to find themselves in is to send their polished draft to an agent or publishing company, have it accepted, and then work with an editor paid for by someone else to fine-tune the work. Agents are often the best beta-readers. But we have to find out if our work is good enough for them first, and we can’t do that on our own.

I have no idea which of the options will work best for me, probably the second one, but I do know that it will be very scary to let someone I don’t know very well read my novel for the first time, and that it is absolutely necessary for me to do so before I query it.

Editing versus Rewriting – The great slog onwards

In 2009 I completed my first novel as part of National Novel Writing Month.

In 2012, after 3 more NaNo-wins and in my opinion completely unsalvageable but finished first drafts, I finally got up the courage to go back to that first novel and start editing it.

I went through the novel, editing and shifting and refining it over the course of several months. By the start of spring 2013 I thought it was time to show it to other people. I even took part in PitchMas, a twitter agent/editor pitching session.

I am very grateful for this, because it taught me two things:

1. My novel idea can generate interest

2. It needs a complete rewrite

Now the agent I corresponded with only suggested changing the start to be more dynamic, but it opened my eyes to a whole load of other problems that my friends would have never pointed out to me. So now I am starting from scratch, which is terrifying in itself, and adding a new POV character, which will be very challenging, and just generally trying to avoid making the same mistakes I did last time.

The reasons I am sharing this is because I want to learn from my mistakes, and maybe you can too. So next time, I will:

1. Look at the big picture; does the story stand out among everything else on the bookshelves right now?

2. Create more emotional distance. After the first draft is done, it’s ok to accept that you need to start from scratch and rewrite the book with a clearer picture of what’s going on. Like Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

3. Not waste time polishing a turd, even/especially when people close to you say it’s not a turd at all. Sure there might be hidden gems in the text, but that doesn’t matter if the overall plot has holes in it as big as, or just lacks action in general.

4. Trust my instincts. When a novel is worth editing, then it is worth rewriting as well. It shouldn’t take 3 years to figure that out.

Now I’m sure there are people out there who can write something on the first go, and only have to edit it later on, but I am not (yet) one of those people. And even though I’ve written other novels since, this is still the one I think is most likely to be published (based on nothing but instinct and years of reading). So I am diving in, scared but determined, convinced that I have something worth saying. I just hope I will manage to convey it on the page.

Wish me luck!