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.

Author: 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!

    Cheers
    Ian

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