Wednesday, 11 September 2019


The further you are from something the smaller it gets until at last you can cover it with an outstretched hand and then a thumb and then finally not see it at all.

The further I get from the Broken Empire trilogy the smaller my description of it gets. Currently I'm at the thumb. Small doesn't mean inaccurate. There's a clarity in condensing.

Imagine how you would describe what The Broken Empire is about.

Here's how I do it:

It's about the anger he feels.

It's not about where it comes from, it's just about that raw, broken anger. What it does to him, how it feels, how he fights it, how he uses it, and where it goes in the end.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Writers' Pay

A writer friend recently told me that they had been offered $1800 to write a 30,000 word novella for a successful franchise of books. That's a one-off payment, no royalties.

A traditionally published author (and this writer has been traditionally published) normally puts out one book a year if they are lucky enough to have ongoing contracts. Some famous authors are unable to manage this rate.

A fantasy book can vary in length but let's call 120,000 words typical.

Note that it is harder to write four 30,000 word novellas than one 120,000 word book. Just like it is much harder to write thirty 1,000 word short stories than one 30,000 word novella. Each of these things requires a new idea, a beginning, middle, and end. An arc. A plot. A reason to exist.

But even if 4 x 30K word novella = 1 x 120K novel, then this still means for a typical year's worth of writing my online friend was being offered $7,200.

It's not possible to survive on $7,200 a year in a first world country.

$1,800 for 30K words is 6 cents a word. The better paying fantasy magazines pay 10 cents a word. Nobody suggests that a living can be made from writing short stories for them - even if placing every short story you wrote was a given rather than a gamble at fairly long odds.

The men and women who work at the publisher who offered my chum what is effectively an annualised salary of $7,200 all have jobs that pay well above the minimum wage. They can cover their mortgage and food bills, run a car etc. In the US they will have health insurance.

So, why pay so little? The person commissioning the writers will point to this:

There are, they will note, hundreds of other writers who will say yes if you say no. Toward the end of the virtual queue at their desk are people who will actually write the novella for nothing just so they can say they've been published and point to a book with their name on it. Right at the end of it there are probably people who would PAY THEM for the chance.

It has to be noted at this point that if the publishers also had a hole they wanted dug in the carpark outside their office then at certain points in the economic cycle they could assemble a similar real queue of itinerant workers and walk down that offering lower and lower wages until they got a refusal, then go back to the one before.

Of course, we have labour laws to prevent that kind of exploitation. Specifically the minimum wage.

The flipside of this coin is that lots of people like writing, whereas rather few people like digging holes. So this over-supply of talented labour combined with the enthusiasm for the work creates a situation where people are earning $2 an hour writing novellas for companies that make millions and pay their regular staff a living wage.

It's an old conundrum about where something that many do as a hobby turns into something that you should be able to make a living from. It's complicated by the fact that at the very top of the game you can make a ton of money. Many might point to something like golf or tennis, played by millions for fun, played by many very talented people for peanuts, and played by a few hundred people for large sums of money.

With that comparison it seems reasonable. You're gambling your time against the chance of making it BIG.

But I'll return to this business of franchise writing. Here you really are more like a regular worker. The publisher owns the IP, you will get zero or minimal royalties, and so there's no breaking big. The novella my friend could have written might have sold a million - he would still just have his $1,800. At what point is it just exploitation with the illusionary carrot of "exposure" dangled before the writer? At what point should they get paid a decent weekly or monthly salary for the agreed period?

I've no answers really. I wrote for fun chasing $10 and $50 a story in magazines (and not getting that many hits). And now I write for a living and make a decent amount of money. It's that middle ground - which thankfully I was lucky enough to vault over - where writers devote a serious amount of time and effort for very meagre returns, that prompted this blog post. If nothing else it lets readers know what's going on under the hood.

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Sunday, 8 September 2019

A map for The Girl And The Stars!

To ramp up the already sky-high expectations for The Girl And The Stars, First Book of the Ice, I thought I'd share the map with you.

It's mostly ice, admittedly, but if you look +really+ hard you can just make out areas of snow.

This series of satellite images of Greenland may help appreciate the finer points of the map.


And for the dedicated reader I propose to offer framed copies.

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Friday, 6 September 2019

Readers might steal your book but writers won't steal your ideas.

A message to new writers:

Nobody is going to steal your idea!

It's not uncommon for new writers, having written a book, to be terrified that someone is going to steal their ideas, write a different book based on them, and make a mint.

It may not be an uncommon fear, but it is an unreasonable one.

As I (and many other people) have said before: writing is the hard part, the ideas are easy.

I've spoken to writers who are too scared to send their manuscript to agents in case the ideas are stolen. While this is to some degree an understandable novice fear, it's also unfounded. 99% of manuscripts that go before an agent get such scant consideration that stealing of ideas - even if it were a thing - would not be possible. The great bulk of manuscripts are rejected after a page or two on the basis that the writing is not strong enough. Many that survive that first hurdle will fall fairly soon after on the basis that the pacing is off, or the voice weak, or the characters unengaging etc.

On the rare occasions that an agent gets to the end of a manuscript what they then do is consider where they might be able to sell it and if they believe it to be saleable they will offer to represent the author. What they won't do is try to get another author to stop what they're doing and write a new book using the ideas from the one they've just read.

(warning: magic system spoilers for two books follow) 

The main (but still very small) danger is not that your ideas will be stolen but that if you delay sending out your manuscript because of this fear then eventually someone might just randomly come up with something similar.

Nearly twenty years ago I wrote an unpublished book, Blood of the Red (now available on Wattpad). The magic system is based on drinking the blood of dragons and thereby gaining powers that depend upon and are similar to the dragon's. So drinking the blood of a red dragon gives fire magics etc. Additionally, drinking the blood is fatal to almost everyone, but certain individuals can tolerate it.

In 2016 Anthony Ryan wrote the much better book The Waking Fire (first in a trilogy) in which the magic system shares exactly the same top-level description. Ryan didn't steal the idea from me - he had zero opportunity to do so, I didn't put the book on Wattpad until after his was published and I'd read it. It's just that if you wait long enough all possibilities will be explored.

But the bottom line is that if the most famous fantasy books in the world had not been published, and you came to me with the core ideas from The Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones, etc … neither I nor any other active fantasy writer would be snatching them out of your hands. We all have far too many ideas of our own that excite us. The difficult part of writing those books was not having the idea - it was putting words on pages in a manner that refuse to let readers go.

Once the book is published then of course the unfounded fear that other writers will steal the ideas can be replaced with the genuine knowledge that many readers will refuse to pay for your work and just take illegal copies off the internet.

So, bottom line, fearful writers: send your manuscript out to agents without fear. Nobody is going to steal your ideas, and they can't steal your skill.

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Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Torture Porn

A reviewer from the Guardian newspaper once tweeted that Prince of Thorns was torture porn written to entertain aggressive young men.

The fact is that there are no scenes in Prince of Thorns where someone is tortured. Possibly you could call it torture innuendo as the subject was definitely mentioned. But, if he had read on (which he didn't) he would have found a rather upsetting scene with a dog in the second book, and had the third book been published when he made his comment (it wasn't) then yes, there was an actual torture scene in Emperor of Thorns.

So the real question is not whether the trilogy as a whole contained torture (which is nothing new - one of my earliest fantasy reads, Moorcock's The Knight Of The Swords (1971) practically starts with the protagonist being tied down and having a hand chopped off and an eye put out), the question is whether it was torture porn.

Porn, as they say, is hard to define but we know it when we see it.

We could just say 'gratuitous' instead, but that's only shifting the furniture around. Who's to say when something is gratuitous. Is the ubiquitous fighting in fantasy books gratuitous? Well, no, it's generally the most likely solution to various disagreements. If the protagonist went to the library and challenged the librarian to single combat in order to take a book out, that would be gratuitous.

So, when is torture gratuitous? You could say that it is not gratuitous when there's a valid reason for it happening. If a cruel enemy got hold of a hated foe then they might realistically torture them before killing them. And thus a book could be as full of torture as it was of swordplay and might be argued not to be torture porn.

However, torture, like porn and a select number of other subjects, do not get an easy pass like this. For them the question shifts its ground and says not only would it happen but do we need to see it? We don't ask if we need to see the sword fight or be told mechanical details of the cuts and thrusts. But we do ask if we need to see beyond the bedroom / torture chamber door when it closes and be told mechanical detail of the thrusts (porn) and cuts (torture). Society has set a higher bar when it comes to these subjects. We have either to admit to a close interest in sex, or in torture's case we have to justify its inclusion in some other way since I will readily agree that whilst a close interest in sex is generally quite healthy, a close interest in pain is … less so.

The question has narrowed down to: was there a good reason you showed us that?

And for the times that I've written a torture scene (which depending on how you count could number as low as 1 and as high as 4) the answer has been yes, there was a good reason. First let's side step into "shock value" for a moment. I've blogged on shock value before, and although the phrase is offered as an oxymoron, I disagree with the notion that it is one. However, I won't focus on the fact that shock is actually valuable here. The times that I have written a torture scene there were good reasons (other than shock value) to include them. Specifically: I write character driven, character focused books. I generally only have one main point of view character per trilogy. I generally have that character grow up across the course of the books. Coming to terms with the real evils that are out there - which may involve encountering them - is a genuine and formative part of many lives. It's one thing to have monstrous adversaries but the "the real monsters are us" cliché is a cliché for a good reason, it's focused on a lot because coming to terms with the things we really do to each other is a big deal, a big part of the human condition. How we react to the challenge that such knowledge poses to our world view, our security and psyche, are key moments in deciding what kind of person we'll be. Yes in a drama of manners set in the 18th century we can present these challenges to a character in a more genteel way, but in a harsh fantasy world with medieval vibes … other paths can be taken.

In Jorg's case, he is a youth who has from an early age armoured himself in a very goal-focused, self-centred personality, viewing others as a commodity to be spent. This personality is one that he has either chosen or had thrust upon him as the best way to insulate himself from the horrors of his childhood and to ensure he will never again be so vulnerable. In Emperor of Thorns his very close encounter with the sharp end of the instruments of torture is one of a small number of major blows that begin to crack the shell of not caring that he's built around himself. It forces him to re-examine himself from a new perspective. He doesn't have an instant epiphany, but it's part of a his growth process, that carries him from who we see on page 1 of book 1, to who we see on the last page of book 3.

To conclude - torture porn is hard to define, but I know it when I see it (I'm looking at you Saw), and I don't see it when I look at what I've written.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Thursday, 8 August 2019

The Girl And The Stars ... ARCs!

The Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) for The Girl And The Stars are done!

Voyager will be giving some out at WorldCon.


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Wednesday, 7 August 2019

BREXIT (no not really) - YA fiction - and the SQUEEZE

I was recently told by a publisher that the YA (Young Adult) fiction market was in collapse. Later someone pointed me at this article about the trend.

For me the most interesting point in the piece wasn't about the declining sales in the sub-genre, but about the effect that was having. Given the tougher time selling YA books the consequence appears to have been (according to the article) to squeeze British authors off the bestselling lists, leaving them stacked with Americans.

You can see why this would happen. In fantasy writing (my genre) the setting is typically a secondary world. Everyone who comes to it as a reader needs to be (gently) educated in its ways and introduced to new ideas. Part of the reason fantasy settings have traditionally been so medieval Europe-based is that the readers are accustomed to it and less time has to be spent on world building. Of course, of late there has been an explosion of more diverse settings, which is all to the good, proving that the readership is prepared to put in a little more work, knowing that the reward will be worth it.

In YA the setting is often a real world one, and the larger US population, buying a larger proportion of the books sold in English,  are more comfortable with familiar settings - i.e. America. Writing is hard. It's easier the more you share in common with your audience. If you have the same cultural references, can describe the same neighbourhoods, the same experiences of growing up, then your words have more power to resonate with the readers. Sure, with sufficient skill you can get powerful resonances just playing off your common humanity and emotional response - but it's easier with the tide flowing in the right direction. British writers tend to write in British settings - you write what you know. Publishing wisdom is that this will sell less well to Americans.

My fantasy books are available in 25 languages and a great many countries. My real world sci-fi books are selling very well but are available only in English. A significant part of the reason is that they are set in London and thoroughly plumbed into the culture. That's a learning curve for a reader in India or Russia. And whilst there is an appetite for fiction from other cultures, it's normally in the literary fiction genre. Folks who want some sci-fi want some sci-fi, and they're less amenable to anything else "getting in the way".

Now here's where I join the (apparently) growing trend of jumping off the YA ship, although as far as I was concerned I was never really on it. One Word Kill and the Impossible Times trilogy have been labelled as YA because they focus on young adult protagonists. I've no problem with someone calling the books YA, but the truth is that I've never written a book that I didn't also want to read. I'm over 50 ... shit ... anyway, I'm over 50 and these are books I want to read. They concern young adults but they are set in a period when I was that age - the 80s. I had imagined that main audience for this story would be people old enough to remember the 80s or at least be close enough to them to understand the references and have an opinion about how well the vibe was captured. If someone in their teens or 20s enjoys the books then that's excellent, an added bonus, but I never wrote the books thinking "now how can I entertain 'generic teenager?'".

It does seem sad though that, with 60 million Brits as potential readers, authors are being told that should they want a shot at hitting the top of the charts then they'll have to do the equivalent of when British actors adopt an American accent to get ahead. I know it must seem like a small problem to an author from an even smaller country with a different language struggling to break into the English speaking market, but there it is.

Films have been the same way forever. I grew up knowing the ins and outs of American youth culture because Hollywood made all the films. I knew about proms and baseball and what suburban America looked like, what the houses and road and schools were like. While my US counterpart neither knew or likely cared what the equivalent experience in the UK was.

Anyway, I wrote what I know, and I know 80s London. So there it is. And actually the books seem to be selling very well in America. So maybe the publishing wisdom is beginning to be undercut as part of a new willingness on the part of readers to go to new places. And whilst London isn't as big a step experientially from New York as Tokyo or Nairobi, it still a step I hope readers will enjoy taking.

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