Pencils Down

I’ve never been one for obfuscation when it comes to the writing process. I don’t want to start now.

When I retired from writing and prepared to let my books lay down and die on the Kindle, I was as surprised as anyone when they did well. Since March 2011, I’ve sold almost 20,000 copies, and they’re still selling.

I’m now out of books to publish and it’s good time to take stock.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. You can read more about my personal history in this post, which is rather more emotional than this one, partly because it was the first time I’d voiced those thoughts, and partly because it’s now a Sunday teatime and we all know how dampening to the spirit they can be.

So, one the positive side: I have many readers. It’s been a pleasure to receive their emails and respond to them. They’re nice people. Can’t have too much of that.

On the negative side, writing exacts a toll. I spent the few days before Christmas sorting out my taxes, for instance. I spent the entirety of yesterday sorting out formatting issues with The Amber Rooms. In the months leading up to now, I’ve organised my own editing, proofing, typesetting and all the other crap that comes with publishing a book—even one published for the Kindle.

Parenthetically, I should say that the publication of The Amber Rooms has not been pleasant. This is my fault. While I think that each of my books has been better than the last, my idea of what makes a good book has changed somewhat between writing Déjà Vu (finished when I was about 27) and The Amber Rooms (a grand old 36). There’s a good decade of life and writing experience between the two. The Amber Rooms is too different a book to work well as the third in a series whose readers probably think it should continue on a Jason Bourne-meets-Back To the Future theme (not denigrating either of those; they’re great movies). You can read the extent of the difference between my expectations and those of my readers in the Amazon UK reviews (as of writing, there are six; four of them trash it.) I’m not so flighty as to down tools in reaction to so few reviews (like most writers, I’ve written for years in the total absence of feedback other than my own, which is largely negative), but I have a feeling that subsequent reviews will be of a similar nature. It would have been better to write the story as a standalone. Either way, it’s a lesson, and doesn’t bode well for any future Saskia Brandt novels I have in mind, which would be more like The Amber Rooms than Déjà Vu.

Reader, it’s a seesaw. On the one side, we have the joy of actually publishing the books. On the other side, we have the paperwork, the usual artistic frustration, and the complete absence of anything approaching a spare time. Since August of last year, finalising The Amber Rooms has taken up most of my evenings and weekends. Routine: Come home from work around six, eat something, play one of three musical instruments for a bit, work from seven until nine, and then relax. I could just about manage that for one academic term, but I can’t keep up that kind of pace for the next one. And bear in mind that I have day job that regularly requires me to work evenings and weekends; indeed, it’s expected, and I can’t perform on par without doing so.

I could probably write fifteen minutes a day, but God knows what kind of rubbish I’d produce under this circumstance. I could write just for myself, a la Salinger, but that would be equally pointless. Real artists ship. Am I going to write my own bedtime stories? What about the spoilers?

The seesaw is further weighted on the negative side by the continuing absence of any interest from traditional publishers. I joke about this a lot, but it is frustrating because I don’t have any wish to organise my own cover, editing, typesetting, and the thousand other smaller things you need to do when shipping a book. These are far more time consuming than the actual writing. They’re one of the reasons I’ve been writing The Amber Rooms since 2007. Over the past couple of years, my hardworking agents in both the UK or US have had no interest whatsoever from any publisher beyond, wait for it, ‘interesting’. I find chaotic processes in connectionist models of artificial neurons easier to understand than the editorial decisions of publishers.

There is one more positive thing; a production company in the US may option the film rights—but (i) that’s ‘may’, (ii) we’re talking about an option, not the rights themselves, (iii) the probability of a film being made is vanishingly small.

There was a Steve Jobs quote I always liked. I believe it’s taken from his Stanford graduation address. To paraphrase, he said that your job is something you’ll do most of your working life, so you might as well do something worthwhile. For me, writing is a job, even though it is synonymous with my spare time. I have to ask whether it is worthwhile. I feel more worthwhile playing music with my friends, or holding a Beaver by the ankles while he coughs up glitter, or reading fiction that isn’t my own.

I won’t say that I’m never going to write again. I’ll revisit the situation later in the year. September, perhaps. But if you ever see a new book come out with my name on it, I will be surprised; more likely, you’ve misread the latest from Amanda Hocking.

Thanks to all those who’ve read my stuff. It’s still out there.

Published by

Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

8 thoughts on “Pencils Down”

  1. There will be many who recognise your position, Ian. When I took early retirement I thought writing would be a ‘breeze’, but words are stubborn and often stay put, even when I have considerable time on my hands. I can only conclude that successful novelists pay a very heavy price to see their work in print. As ever, I wish you well. Things may change.

  2. Hi Ian
    I’ve found time is the biggest killer for writing; not just the lack of it but the length of time it takes for a writer to get out books in a series. That change over a decade or so in terms of the writer you are now as well as the person (in my case it’s been 12 years since I started to write the Secret War book 1), impacts greatly on how a series continues. As a writer, your agenda changes. You may become less interested in a single point of genre or genres, and just a slight shift in interest is like only a degree or two at the centre, but many degrees at the circumference. The direction changes and you have to make a choice to stay true to yourself as a writer or give your readers what you think they want, not what you hope they want. I’ve been in that situation too and it cost me my publisher, but I still think I made the right decision. When you start writing for someone else, and not yourself, you’re not being honest with anyone.

    Personally, I would keep on writing. Your non-SF books such as Proper Job and A Moment in Berlin might not have as big a following, but they are still well-loved and great books/collections and serve as a good platform to keep writing what you want …

    … And over whatever period of time, regardless of the direction it takes you …

  3. Thanks, Matt! Giving up writing is getting to be a habit with me… I think that the difference between my book The Amber Rooms and the previous ones isn’t too much of a factor in my decision at this point, although it is a bit annoying. I think I’m really just fed up with the whole enterprise. If I can muster up enough bother, I might try to finish off the series in a style more consistent with the first book. But I’m not sure.

    Heavy sigh. We will see what the future brings…

  4. I found that getting over the brain barrier of the correct “length” for a novel to be a good way to break the distance between releases. Ebooks don’t have to be a set length.

    I’ve gone back to the days of Charles Dickens and started writing in episodes. Instead of 80k words I go for 10k-15k, and I can manage at least one or two of those a month, sometimes one in a week.
    If the story carries over to more episodes, then I leave it on a cliff-hangar and pick it up again in the next episode.

    It also means you end up with way more “books” in your list.

  5. Both sad and annoyed that you have reached this point – I’m annoyed that how you feel will deprive your readers (hopefully only temporarily) and sad that it may prove permanent. Is it because you’ve had to handle all the production stuff that (in the print world) is done by others? Don’t misunderstand me, I understand, I work for an academic publisher and handling the technical as well as creative stuff is no trivial matter. As you not doubt discovered, you have your creative ichor saying “ooh try this, this’ll work” and your commercial/effort management ichor eventually chimes in with “is it worth the hassle…” Me saying “things may change” seems a bit trite but I’m sure you will come to a decision which is yours (could that be more cheesy). Best wishes.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Ian. At the moment, the problem is holding down what are effectively two jobs, and it’s just not possible. The solution is a getting someone to take some of this load off my shoulders – i.e. a publisher! Maybe I’ll get back to it in a few months, but it’s not looking likely.

  7. Hi Glynn – Thanks for your comment, which I’ve only just saw. I like the idea of writing in smaller pieces. As long as you know where the story is going to end up!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *