Posts Tagged ‘advice’

Prompted by this article in Salon.

There are, perhaps, three good reasons to be a writer.

  1. You already are a successful writer and your public want more.
  2. Someone is paying you to do it.
  3. You can’t help it.

Hopefully you’ll get to 1 from 3. 2 is the territory of people who are already famous for something else and can cash in. TV chefs, politicians, porn starlets, that sort of thing. 3 is where most of us – including me – are.

You will drive yourself crazy if you pin your ego and your success to the number of sales you make. You will also piss a lot of people off by using every opportunity to sell your book. Twitter spam will drive people away, as will endless facebook updates. Every now and then, sure, but you don’t want to annoy your audience you want to bring them in – if you can.

Don’t write for success. Don’t write for respect. Don’t write for money or to impress someone. Don’t write because you think it might be nice. Don’t write because ‘its easy!’.

Write because you wake up at 2am with a great idea, a perfect line or a rhyming couplet going around and around in your head and refusing to shut up. Write to exorcise (or create) your demons. Write to share your consciousness, your pain and your pleasure. Write because it excites you, terrifies you and because its the only way to scratch an itch you have inside you brain.

Being a cynical, pessimistic depressive doesn’t have many up-sides but one useful thing it has taught me is to set low expectations which can easily be outstripped. A pessimist can only ever have a nice surprise.

Don’t obsess over what you’re not selling, the world is flooded with shitty self-pubbed novels at the moment. You could be the next Stephen King and the odds of your great work being discovered are low as hell just because of the sheer amount of noise to signal. Don’t feel too bad about it though. Babbage wasn’t a success in his lifetime, nor was Van Gogh. Talent and hard work aren’t enough, you still need luck.

Look at what you have accomplished though.

  • You actually sat down and you bashed out a story. No matter how good or bad it is you did it. You put fingers to keyboard and you spun something out of your imagination. That’s a wonderful and praiseworthy thing.
  • You put it out there. That’s not easy. Lots of manuscripts languish on hard drives or in dresser drawers. Some get deleted. Even if you don’t sell a single copy you put your story out there and that’s a feat as brave as any.
  • You learned. Your next story will be better.
  • Did you pay an editor? If you did then that money’s not wasted even if you never make a penny back. You supported that editor. You put food on their table. You learned to work with someone else and you honed you craft. If someone does find you book this puts you ahead of the pack too, through quality.
  • Did you pay a cover artist? That money’s not wasted either. Whether you succeed or not you helped someone live their dream and do what they love and that’s never a wasted investment. You’ve also learned to think visually about your novel and about presentation. Commissioned art, specific to the book, also puts you leagues ahead of he mob.

Even if you never see a penny or sell a single copy you’ve still made a positive impact. You’ve grown and you’ve helped others and they will remember and help you later on.

Oh, and lastly, don’t worry about your appearance on a book jacket. Stephen King looks like an over-nourished maths teacher. Neil Gaiman resembles a crow’s nest in a high wind. Pratchett looks like someone slapped a fedora on an upturned Action Man head and I look like Stig of the Dump‘s less evolved, older brother.

Words matter more.

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Amanda Palmer. Shit-stirrer.

So, the lovely Amanda Palmer was talking on Twitter the other day about piracy, streaming and so on and actively encouraging people to share and talk about and promote music. This was taken by some as advocacy of piracy and… then the slanging match got started.

The equally lovely Sarah Pinborough – a writer rather than a musician – surprised me by coming out against filesharing and so on, engaging quite strongly in a conversation about piracy and the problems it creates for creators.

Needless to say there’s some disagreement both within the musician community and the writing community about all this with people on all sides and battle lines drawn. By and large tough the kind of circles I move in have come to accept that piracy exists and that its the cost of doing business, a trade for the enormous benefits of the internet.

Those companies in gaming that have embraced the internet and changed their business model have made great strides (Paizo, Evil Hat, Posthuman) while those frozen in an older mode of business have been clumsy and have lost ground (Wizards). So, to say I find the more traditionalist attitude to the internet as badwrong perplexing is an understatement.

However, during the argument,  people linked to studies and gave reasons and, as ever, studies contradicted each other and the sources and sponsors were called into question. However, Sarah is a pretty switched on person, seems to make good use of social media, is delightful, interesting and sweary by turns and someone I had thought was ‘doing it right’ so – perceptions challenged – I had another look at things as they stand today and reconsidered where it is that I am on the nature of the internet and creative endeavour.

  • Whether we think the changes are a Good Thing(TM) or not, they have changed. It’s useless to hope for the ‘good old days’ to come back and in many ways they weren’t that good anyway for a large number of people.
  • Realistically speaking there is no way to protect books, music, games. There will always be a way around it and attempts to lock down content only piss off your legitimate customers and make things more difficult for them.
  • As a creator, you are your brand as much as the stuff you’re creating. A presence and a personal connection with your audience fans is the best and perhaps the only way to make impacting on your living meaningful to them. Keep in mind that the average person can only actually relate directly to 150 others (the Dunbar number or Monkeysphere) so this is always going to be a little illusory but it doesn’t take much to make an impact on someone.
  • The idea of ‘1000 true fans‘ works in some arenas but writing has been devalued a huge amount. A novel is more like an album than a single and with both selling for a  buck its not hard to see that $1,000 per book – once or twice a year – isn’t a goer and even musically $12,0000 once or twice a year is better, but not hugely liveable. Even if you go the hermetic-artist existence.
  • The Long-Tail compensates somewhat for this as you’ll go on making sales at a lower rate over time, potentially for your lifetime. As you build up a body of work this makes creative life more sustainable long term and may be a viable retirement plan in a world where job security has the same mythological status as dragons.
  • One model that does seem to work in mobilising fans and getting money up front is crowdfunding and hostageware. That gets your 1,000 true fans to spend more on your projects, to promote your projects, to be activists for you and your work and all in exchange for a greater closeness to you, the work and a feeling of participation. It’s like old style patronage, but distributed. I don’t know how long this can hold out and how much use it is to new people but if you have an established presence it can equal an income AND you can give away the resulting work should you so choose. One major downside is the degree of entitlement and lack of understanding contributors have for delays or problems.
  • Piracy does help the little guy in getting known. Word of mouth is often all there is and people like to browse, to see something before they buy it. As the death of the UK high street is showing that’s becoming increasingly difficult. You’re not going to find new music or authors in stores. MTV doesn’t play music. The radio plays oldies or the most banal shit going. The music companies haven’t grasped that streaming is the new radio and are crippling services like Spotify and Grooveshark into unsustainable business models compared to the old media. So what other options are there?

So there’s the problems and the state of affairs as I think it stands and I really don’t think there’s anything we can ‘do’ about digital piracy without sacrificing a free and open internet and going the way of China and North Korea. I don’t think that’s very appealing whether its governments or legions of corporate attack lawyers doing the enforcement.

If you want to see how to succeed I think you need to look at the people who make it work. You can’t do the exact same things they do, you’ve got to be your own thing, but there’s pointers there. Look at Warren Ellis,  Amanda Palmer, Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, Adrianne Curry, Neal Stephenson, Fred Hicks, Notch, Adam Jury, Penny-Arcade (and friends) and hopefully, one day, me. I do suffer the huge disadvantage of being British and regarding self-promotion as terribly gauche narcissism, but we’ll see.

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It’s been said more than once that people who write role-playing games are frustrated writers. One need only read the turgid and horrible prose in many RPGs to see there’s some truth to that and the bastards make it worse by hiding nuggets of useful information in amongst the story writing, thereby forcing you to read it.

It’s not all bad though and there are plenty of writers who grew up playing RPGs and sometimes you can see that in the way they write or the things they include. Sometimes it spawns collaborations between the writers and RPG companies or at the very least, oversight, to ensure a product that passes muster.

I’ve written a lot of gaming material and a fistful of short stories. I’m also over half-way through my first novel and I’m noticing that there are useful things from writing and playing role-playing games that help in the writing of fiction.

World Building

Gamers occupy detailed fantasy worlds and construct them individually and collectively. Keeping it all consistent and plausible is what makes a world work in both fiction and in gaming. Games, necessarily, tend to have a broader reach and cover more ground whereas in stories tend to follow the experience of a very few characters – or even a single one. A story benefits, however, from taking place in a context. Even if you don’t see any of it, it creates a context.


When you’re the Games Master of a game you learn to think on your feet. You know how to react and how to get the game back on track when it starts to drift, without being too obvious about it. Written fiction can wander as well. Stories can get out of hand or you can get into a groove where you want to keep on writing and don’t want to stop to research or you’ll lose your flow. If you can improvise you can get it done and then you can always come back and fix it later, when you lose your flow.

Visualising the Space

Some gamers play with miniatures and boards, grids and landscapes but an awful lot don’t. When they play they’re imagining the positions of all the characters, the landscape and its features. In action scenes, especially, whether writing or playing a game, this is a really useful skill and one that transfers brilliantly if you’re able to both imagine and describe the scene.

Dealing With Renegade Characters

Characters can and will run off and do their own thing. This is supposed to happen in an RPG but not so much when you’re writing a story. Characters can and do gain their own voice and start to do their own thing. This can be a problem but, related to the usefulness of improvisation if you’re used to this happening you can go with it and let the characters be themselves, shifting the story to fit and keeping it going.

I reckon more writers should play games, but the only problem I see is that they’d all want to be the Games Master!

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I normally write role-playing games, not fiction. The ebook revolution has, in many ways, already happened to the RPG industry and a lot of the problems and concerns that regular publishing – and authors – are now facing have already been faced by that niche industry. There are some big differences, of course, as a niche RPGs have a close-knot and incestuous community, even more so than genre fiction, and while the output is quite big and quite creative it is not as easy to get lost in the crowd in gaming as it is in writing.

Still, I think there’s some lessons to be learned that might travel across to e-publishing on a more general basis.

Sturgeon’s Law – Or how I Learned to Stop Worrying about other People’s Crap

Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of anything is crap. 90% of what’s on television? Crap. 90% of what’s published? Crap. This hasn’t necessarily changed with the advent and ease of epublishing, it just means that there’s a much bigger volume of stuff and that makes it much harder to get noticed. While that means numerically there’s a lot more crap it also means there’s more gems and that’s going to include your stuff and mine, because we’re awesome.

You just have to trust that people are capable of separating the wheat from the chaff and knowing crap when they smell it. Persistence and quality pays off in the long run, it’s paid off for me in producing RPG material and good rep builds on itself over time. Reviews, samples and endorsements help a hell of a lot.

The more you produce, the better quality it is, the more likely people are to find your work and the more likely people are to check out your other work. The ‘long tail’ as its called. After all, it doesn’t really cost anything extra to keep an ebook in ‘stock’.


It’s been really helpful and useful to build an inward community of like minded writers, designers and so on. Nobody has every necessary skill and working together acts like a ‘force multiplier’ for skills, contacts and so on. A strong in-community that is known to be associated with one another also creates a crossover for promotion and reputation that can be useful for everyone involved.


The more you talk about what you’re doing, your ideas, what’s coming up the more interest and excitement you build up and the more opportunity there is for interested parties to spread the news. Talking about your ideas, your products, why you wrote them, what you were thinking… this all takes up time but it can pay off in a big way if you genuinely manage to engage with people.

You’re Not Just a Writer Now

You’ve got to do so many things, especially if you want to minimise costs as much as possible, which is going to be important especially when you’re starting out. In RPGs we can skimp on the editing, people’s standards aren’t too high, you can’t do that in conventional writing so much – it’s one of the main markers between a professional and an amateur, but you can do a lot of other things yourself.

Publicity, sales, presentations, conventions, online presence, all of this you’ll need to do yourself and it eats time and often enthusiasm. It’s exhausting and not what you get into writing (or game design) for by any means but if you want to make any money you’re going to have to.

I suck at selling myself, so much so that I took on someone else to do that for me on a semi-voluntarily and in exchange for help/mentorship. Most of us have reticence about that and unease about spamming and so forth, but to an extent you have to, if you’re going to sell.


Gaming benefits to a big degree from its incestuous community. This isn’t a bad thing, really. A lot of the consumers of games are also designers of games. The community is informed and mutually supportive (much of the time). They get excited about each other’s projects and talk about them which helps spread the news and up sales and exposure for everyone. Provided an incestuous community is not also an insular community, it can help everyone involved.

Don’t Sell Yourself Short

Low prices can be a driver of sales but won’t do it by themselves. People will pay more for quality and can perceive higher prices as an indicator of quality. If everything by everyone is selling at the lowest possible price there’s no real benefit to be had.

Paradoxically if you have a reasonable or good name you can do a lot better by dropping your prices. More people want it, more people are willing to take a risk.

Bits & Mortar

Lots of people still like to buy hardcopy. E-versions should be cheaper but they’re also so cheap to send/provide that they can supplement hardcopy sales. There’s no harm in sending someone an e-book version free of charge if they’ve bought the hardcopy. They get their book instantly and don’t have to wait and that can tide ’em over until the physical book arrives in the post. It adds value and accessibility.

In Conclusion

I think there’s a lot that ebook fiction writers can learn from the experiences of the RPG industry. We’ve been through a lot of  and the same growing pains. Paranoia about copies and piracy (short version – fuck DRM, it ain’t worth it for anyone). Inappropriate pricing (e-versions should be at LEAST half of the hardcopy cover price).

There’s a lot that can be learned that’s advantageous. Creating community ‘brands’ from like-minded people, finding outlets that work for you to sell and directing custom there and, over everything else, I think the main thing is to have patience.

I know a lot of these sorts of things have been said by others, so you can view this as practical confirmation of those ideas. I’m sure there’s things I’ve missed and I don’t claim to be a guru, but if anyone has any questions I’m happy to answer them in the comments.

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