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.

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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