Creativity vs Business

When my first novel came out, one of my first ‘reviews’ was a less than warm with approval private message from a reader. This person claimed the book wasn’t bad for a first novel — the best thing the reviewer said. I’ve since discovered that such communications are not unknown, although I and many authors wonder why a reader wants to contact an author to give them a bad day.

Fine, many books make even me grind my teeth. They deserve a few of the negative reviews which stop others from wasting their money because it’s an amateur author and/or amateur publisher. Saying that, I admit not all of my past writing has been exemplary, but I wrote according to demand and learned. My writing has seen vast improvements, mostly from various editing experiences. An equal number of those books are in mainstream publishing and on bestseller lists. It’s a grey area, one might say. Therefore, most books I dislike I choose not to review — I realise the story may not suit me, but someone else may enjoy it immensely. I wouldn’t contact an author with anything but praise or a sensible comment. Even constructive critique (critique not criticism — a subtle but important distinction) can be subjective and questionable. It’s all ‘opinion’.

I also accept the book isn’t ‘my’ book. There’s no point writing to an author saying one doesn’t like how the book ended. If a reader only likes books with happy endings, there’s no point to rule against every book that doesn’t have one. Better to read with more care, or write the books one prefers to read. One thing J.K.Rowling said that I love was she’s not taking dictation.  The work is the author’s vision, not the reader’s.

Or is it?

There were changes to my first novel. Some occurred because the publisher wanted a series from an envisioned one-off novel. I’m not complaining. I loved my characters and we’ve had a long and happy relationship. Some changes I wasn’t so sure of, but they were small and we compromised. Other changes didn’t happen, but with hindsight I would love to re-work the stories one day. The fact remains when a reader reviews a book, they’re not only judging the work of the author, but often an entire team of people the author has worked with. I found that first ‘review’ frustrating, not because the reader didn’t relish my story (it was MY story, not hers and I still feel much of the problem was the reader wanted more sexual content) but because some things the reader complained of weren’t down to me. Sometimes, the failure (or success) of a book isn’t down to one person.

A team of people have looked over the manuscript and the synopsis and decided whether they want to handle a story before it ever gains acceptance. Then the writer will work with an editor, and perhaps a line editor and proofers. These may give input. Their jobs are to catch weaknesses in the story, plot holes, typos, spelling and grammar errors. Even those small things can cause problems. For example, British spelling and grammar differ from that of the US (a subject for another blog). On top of all the ‘rules’, individual opinions creep in, as does house-style. I’ve had editors who want speech to be grammatically correct, when that’s one thing that shouldn’t be unless it’s for a specific effect. I’ve had editors who do or don’t like contractions. Editors who wouldn’t allow me to use perfectly acceptable punctuation because the person didn’t like it.

But… but… but the book belongs to the author, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t the author decide these things, or at least negotiate? Yes, but most contracts will state the final decision lies with the publisher. When contracting a book, the title may be up for change. The author may or may not get to approve cover art. The author seldom, if ever, owns the cover art. Once the book is out of print, be it paper or digital, often the writer can no longer display said cover art. As for the story… Fact: many publishers will let a writer know along with the offer of a contract what changes to the story the publisher wants to create a publishable book — to ‘fit’ their market. Many won’t. Often, the writer signs blind, and then waits with bated breath.

Even if the publisher specifies edits, that doesn’t guarantee an editor won’t cut lines and paragraphs, doesn’t guarantee he or she won’t cut entire chapters. Sometimes, the writer can complain and negotiate. This should involve give and take on both sides… but, remember, the publisher has a final decision. With or without previous agreement, they can change books. If the publisher decides a chapter needs to go, whether they’ve forewarned the author, the chapter may go. If they want an additional character or one removed or altered, then it may happen.

Saying that, any ‘good’ publisher will do its best to negotiate and compromise. They will explain why they feel the book needs the changes. Often, the reasons make sense. It’s painful for an author to have someone point out a weak spot in a work, but if the editor can support the argument, the author can grumble (quietly) and then yield to good sense. Sometimes the author cannot see or doesn’t agree with those reasons. I’ve had edits made to books that may best serve the publisher’s market, but don’t serve my intention behind the story. This is where creativity and business clash.

The writer wants to create. The publisher wants to sell. So does the writer, but the story is all important to the writer unless they are writing purely for commercial reasons. A publisher will follow the market trends, see what sells best, and follow those leads, accepting and altering work to gain the most sales. This is often why many manuscripts get rejected, regardless of the writer’s brilliance. A writer also needs good timing. There’s little point in writing a zombie novel when vampires are all popular and vice versa. Some books must await the right time and market. Sometimes a perfect market doesn’t exist, and it’s a case of tweaking a story to fit one that does.

It’s in the best interests of the writer to get in writing an intimation of what edits the story will undergo before signing a contract. It’s in the best interests of the publisher to provide these. A publisher is nothing without its writers, and should a writer have an awful experience, the publisher can guarantee to receive no more works from that source… unless they’re tied in to something like a three book contract, but publishers shouldn’t really want to work with disgruntled writers. Some publishers don’t care — there are plenty of people out there who want to write — but in this era of the internet and information exchange, poor reputations can stick.

Giving Up

Some days I don’t want to write. Not a day off, but to GIVE UP the writing. I’m not the only author to feel this way. I’ve discussed it with others and we agree writers can sometimes ‘beat themselves up’ too much. There are days when a writer feels he or she isn’t writing enough and is not a writer at all, maybe because it’s easy to feel it’s impossible to get enough down on paper (or on the screen) in a day, or owing to a thousand other reasons.

Some days rejection causes this mood. Some days it’s self-doubt. Occasionally it’s stress, other things in life demanding attention. Or the sun is shining, and the temptation exists to be out and about, preferring to read a book instead of writing one. Or the writer may wish to talk to a friend, listen to music, watch a film, go to the gym, for a walk, cook the dinner. To do something, ANYTHING, other than stare at a blank white space seeking to fill it with words.

Words. I live with words. There’s seldom ever a silent moment of peace in my head. When I’m not writing I’m struggling to find time to read, so if I’m not with friends or doing several demanding chores, I spend my time with WORDS, so many words, enough to drive a person crazy.

Sometimes rejection or a critical review makes an author throw up their hands, cause them to wonder why they do this. Few ever see true monetary rewards. Financial success does and can happen, but most writers need a day job. Most need to hit the bestseller lists to make the true writing dream come true, and even then they have deadlines. That doesn’t mean those who need to subsidise their writing or use their writing to subsidise their life are failures.

It’s difficult to get published these days, even more so than at other times in history in some ways. Writers compete with music and movies, but also computer games and the internet, even social media such as Facebook. Any acceptance is a reason for celebration, but there will be days, even when things are going well, when a writer wonders why they do this. Life could be quieter, simpler, more ‘fun’ if they could just turn their back on this insidious NEED to write. It’s infectious for many, the need to write… yet that’s often the difference between someone who IS an actual writer and a person who dreams of writing.

Sometimes wanting to walk away comes down to having too many things on the go at once. A writer can feel unsatisfied. I once feared a market I wrote for would outgrow me, another would change in a way that didn‘t suit me. It’s why I’ve periodically followed opportunity rather than intent, though many reasons exist why writers have to do this. Other works I write to fulfil another part of me.

Here’s the hideous and wonderful thing. Writers need to be open to possibilities. For me I find one style of writing, one genre, too restraining. There have been moments when I’ve too many things on the go, things I ‘need’ to work on, things I ‘want’ to work on, things lined up, not enough time off and too many other demands on the sidelines. I know writers who might have considered my list meagre, and I admit to a little envy to those who are prolific and still manage a life. I can’t always do so, and the reason varies. Workload, health, emotional drive — all these things and more have an impact. The new writer may believe they can write when inspiration strikes, but the ‘business’ of writing doesn’t allow for that. Long gone are the days when a novel once a year is the normal expectation of most novelists.

Everyone needs time for themselves. To curl up with a book, to snuggle with someone important. As wonderful as being a writer can be, there’s always the risk of looking around one day and wondering what happened to life. When did it all rush by, and where did it all vanish? Everyone risks this, creative people more so. Writing, like everything, requires a balance. I’ve yet to find mine and it won’t surprise me if I never do. If you want to be a writer, don’t assume the pressures of life, of finding time, vanish. Spare time becomes a nostalgic memory, and, for a few, the desire to stop is haunting.

So many books, so few stars

We’ve all seen it. A book we’ve loved that may have excellent reviews, but the reviewer hasn’t awarded many stars, which to the writer is confusing. Perhaps this is a question of personal semantics. I have my marking system for books. Five stars are for an outstanding read. It’s one of those I wish I had written myself. Four stars are for a book I’ve found exceptional. It could have been something about a character or the plot, but something in the book has made me remember it. I usually say it’s haunting. Then, where most people would think three stars are for a mediocre title, I apply it to all the other good books I’ve read; sometimes the books I’ve truly loved and that will stay in my house, and I think worth anybody’s time of day. A three star review can feel like a letdown, but truly it’s a decent rating. Two stars are for something I may keep but probably never read again. It’s one of those ‘if you’ve nothing better to do’ categories. One star I seldom apply because, if a book is that unsatisfying, I’ll likely never mention it.

Some sites, like Goodreads, have a recommended meaning for their ratings (there three stars are a perfectly decent score), and that can help, but I believe we all mark books based on personal expectations. This means the ‘score’ may not accurately reflect content.

I seldom give terrible reviews for two reasons. I know how I would feel if it were me and I know what I dislike someone else may well love. It’s all opinion. As a writer, I think sometimes it’s best to be careful what I say, but we all know there are some deplorable books out. Many on bestseller lists. I’m sorry to say publishing (especially in digital form) has opened doors for many good writers who may not otherwise have a chance, but many unscrupulous individuals have also seized the opportunity to set up as publishers and will take any standard of work to market.

This isn’t always the fault of the inexperienced author. Whether a person can write without the right guidance, they may never realise the difference between genuine talent and a gift that needs nurturing, though the truth is all writers need cultivating. An unscrupulous publisher will heap praise on the unsuspecting where it’s not warranted, and how is the writer to know? Please, as a reader or writer, one awful experience must not discourage, deter, or dishearten. There are reputable publishers out there, and there are excellent authors. Many of these books are as good as anything in print, maybe better. The format doesn’t change the quality of the work. Only the publisher does. When I give a review, I seldom only award stars unless it’s where I must. I say what I think of a book and why.

Word Count

I’ve received this query before so thought it makes a suitable topic. What is my word count? Do I strive for a daily figure?

A spinoff from that is to ask whether there’s a wrong or right way to do this thing called writing. Most courses and advice books will tell the writer to write ‘every day’. I believe this instruction is erroneous. Truth is, most writers work more than anybody. Many have day jobs, family, friends, need to do the washing, get food in, and clean the house same as everybody, but they write and see to those necessities. Once you’re a writer, and once you’re serious, there’s no such thing as having ‘spare’ time.

I think writers need to make time. I’ve promised myself to be productive, but also to take time off… a subject on which I could fill another blog as I live in the vain hope of doing so. The point I’m making is that writers get sick, they get beyond tired, and can get exhausted. They get annoyed, frustrated. Everyone gets time off — why not the writer?

Mostly because it’s difficult to stop our brains from ticking along. We can take a holiday and get ideas every day we’re away. Fine. Jot them down, only try not to begin the project. What these courses should say, and often mean, is that a writer needs to write regularly. For many writers, this means a daily word count.

What that word count should be varies. I’ve known writers for whom 500 words feels like a huge number. Many settle for 1000, but for me, 1000-1500 words feel as if I’ve barely got started. Stories often come as if I’m reading. The only difference is that the ‘book’ I’m reading from is inside my head. I need to ‘fall into’ the story the same way I do when I’m reading, forget time, block out everything around me. I often write from A – Z, page one, to infinity.

At around 2000 words, I feel as I’ve put in a good day’s work. I aim for 2000 words a day, five times a week. Many have told me that’s a huge amount, but let me add that I’m a fast touch-typist. If the story flows (a big IF), it’s surprising how fast I can put 2000 words on the page. An average document in an office can be longer than that, and it wouldn’t take a professional typist long to transfer. If I have the time and the story is streaming, I have written more.

The most I’ve ever written in a day was around 10,000 words. On holiday, I woke up one morning with a story fully formed in my head. I spent 8 hours typing, scurrying to grab drinks and a sandwich and taking bathroom breaks only when necessary, but I don’t recommend it. I found it exhausting, mentally, emotionally, and worse of all, physically. Not a good idea to spend those hours sitting in a chair. Still, I have managed 4000-4500 words on a sunny afternoon feeling nothing other than accomplished. That makes up for the days when I’m unable to write.

It happens to most every writer. There are days I can stare at a blank page on the screen, and I’ll be lucky to write a sentence. James Joyce apparently once said if he wrote a couple of sentences in a day, it was a good day. So I may say I’m aiming for 2000 words a day, five times in a week, but if I get a day where nothing comes I seldom try to catch up. Sometimes I catch up naturally — a day of high-productivity can follow a torturous one — but I never push for it, because it feels too much like forcing the story. That’s not the same thing as trying to force oneself through a block. Sometimes the writer must insist on sitting in that seat with fingers on the keyboard and lump it. That is often the contrast between a wannabe writer and one who has any hope of making a career from their writing.

Women in Horror Month

It’s time to celebrate the 10th year of Women in Horror Month. Many may not have heard of it. Others may question why it’s necessary. Women writing horror are often underappreciated. Alas, it remains a fact some women and men writing certain genres are more likely to be passed over. Men have often written under female pseudonyms because of the perception men could not write good quality fiction in genres such as romance. In the world of horror, the same mistaken impression often applies to women. I’ve heard the most common accusation being that women ‘hold back’ when writing anything bleak or nasty, a claim I refute. It’s a perception error that means many excellent authors risk being overlooked.

To those who’ve read my softer titles, my interest in horror may come as a surprise. My appreciation began with the first horror book I found hidden away on my parents’ bookcase — books shoved together in no particular order, which to a booklover is next to sacrilege, but its odd, all black cover drew my attention. Had it not, I may never have come across Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT. The black cover revealed an embossed face with a single spot of red; the tongue. I’ve never seen this edition since.

I was of an age where I wasn’t supposed to read such a book, so I squirrelled it away, read it under the covers, took it to school where no one ever asked what I was reading. Next, I discovered James Herbert’s THE RATS trilogy and did nothing to hide my choice. In my teens, I was reading Mills & Boon’s (because it’s what all the other girls read) along with John Steinbeck, Stephen King, and James Herbert. I’ve never looked back. My interest has wavered somewhat — I remember a period where I favoured fantasy — and I admit my reading activities have always been eclectic, so my choices remain diverse, but the writing I love the most always seems to carry a dark thread. Though I’ve yet to finish writing my first horror novel, most of my short story work carries this darkness. Why horror appeals to so many, I’ve my own theories I may address sometime, but not today in this blog. Today I want to raise a toast to all the women who work and promote in the horror field. Join us. Buy a book by a female horror writer this month.

The Beholder’s Eye

We’re told beauty is in the beholder’s eye, but awful book covers exist and, for a peculiar reason, a high proportion of poor art has appeared on romance books. I’m glad to report this trend is shifting and, as with the content, many covers reflect a discerning audience; good news for writers and readers.

If you’ve not read a romance in a while, they have changed. Aside from classic literature from authors such as Bronte or Austen (my first literary introduction to a romantic heroine was Jane Eyre), most young girls of my generation had their first taste of romance in the form of a Mills and Boon’s book. At age fourteen or fifteen, this gave girls a perverse view of romance and of what men expected of women. For those that love such books, I’m not knocking them. There are many good examples and they are intended to be fantasies.

I’m referring more to a sign of the times and of how things have developed from when I was a teenager. As a friend exclaimed there was never an erection in a Mills and Boon’s when she was young, and while I am sure that despite our feminist backbones, many women appreciate the image of a handsome man sweeping them off their feet, these days it’s more a case of mutual support. Today’s heroines are as likely to pick up a baseball bat, or gun, or sword, or high-power laser particle whangamado gadget in defence of their man should the need require they take action. Heroines and their heroes now stand together (or a hero with a hero, and a heroine with a heroine or whatever combination one wishes), as, in an ideal world, love should conquer ‘all’. In love, both parties fall at the feet of the other. Equality is the key and, even in surrender, both can stay equal.

This new era of romance crosses age, class-distinctions, social taboos, even universes, for it crosses genres. If you look for the animal in your man or woman, you will find them as vamps and shape-shifters of every description. Whether you read sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or westerns, if you can think of it, likely there’s a romance to suit your tastes. These stories now contain adventure, danger, excitement, and a soupcon of erotica.

What has this to do with the cover? From the writer’s point of view, one of promotion. People often ‘do’ judge a book by its cover. What caught my attention was during an author chat someone raised the question: how do authors ‘choose’ their covers? The simple answer is that they don’t, and this goes for all genres. Sometimes, an author may even face having their beloved title changed, either for better promotional purposes, or, in a case of a publisher having two books with the same title, a wish not to confuse readers; they will ask the second writer to choose another option, but I have heard cases of publishers doing so without consultation.

The same applies to book covers. Many publishers will do their utmost to create something pleasing to both the author and the expected readership. Others… well, even with the best of intentions mistakes happen, and, depending on the company’s policy, the author may have no say, no comeback, not even see a preview of the work before publication, which can lead to proofreading errors that are beyond the writer’s control.

Fortunately, many reputable publishers consider their authors’ feelings. A poor cover is terrible news for everyone — the publisher wants a book to sell as much as the author does. Mostly, yes, a suitable cover can be a good indicator, but deciding purely on what the eye sees is risky. I’ve discovered treasures hiding under awful wrapping paper and some dreadful works presented with spectacular artwork.