Thursday 31 May 2012

Dinosaurs ate my ebook

Yay, the digital revolution is here. The era of paper and cardboard books is over and soon everyone will be reading stories on their portable screens. Bookshops will go the same way as record shops and everyone will be carrying 150 novels in their hip pocket along with a month's worth of music listening and a couple of blockbuster movies. We'll also be wearing silver suits, eating three-course meals in a pill and flying around in cars.

The future's a bugger to predict and most predictions are driven by novelty. Once the novelty wears off the future turns out to look only a little different from the past. So it may well be with the advent of ebooks and self-publishing.

Ebooks might be revolutionary, but then so was television and cinema. Accessing a visual story on the big screen is much easier than ploughing through a book and when the medium first appeared there were undoubtedly some who decried the loss of a more thoughtful way of accessing a narrative - and in fact many still do criticise it. But books survived and, against the odds, flourished. Television was also supposed to kill off cinemas, but that didn't happen either. People also continue to watch stage performances, pantomimes and live music recitals. Each offers a different experience and it seems that, rather than replace one with the other, people prefer to have both.

Ebooks are limited in size to whatever e-reader you have. Large hardback coffee table books with lavish illustrations may well live on therefore. They make great gifts and are cheaper than an ipad. An e-reader that is as large as the biggest books would be incredibly expensive and limited in use if you don't fancy lugging it about on the bus.

The future of the paperback novel however may not be so rosy. Once derided by 'serious' readers (and writers) the paperback is now defended as the embodiment of the 'proper' experience of reading. Current generations who grow up addicted to smart phones and tablets may not be so nostalgic however and could well be happy to read (and then delete) bestsellers and pulps whenever they feel the whim. Second-hand bookshops will be the ones to feel the pinch there. Even so, reading a novel on a phone is not always a pleasant experience, especially if they are to remain small enough to be portable, and while hardcore readers will purchase an e-reader or tablet to optimize their reading, occasional readers may not consider the expense worth it for the two books a year that they consume. A paperback novel bought cheaply at the airport may retain its appeal. Whether the printers can keep the cost down for such small print runs remains to be seen. Paperback novels could become flimsy things that fall apart after the first reading - but for the type of reader who doesn't re-read, that probably won't be a problem.

The advent of digital self-publishing introduces even more controversy into the mix. On the one hand there are those who rejoice at this democratic way of bypassing stuffy and inflexible publishing houses and getting straight to the reader, and on the other there are those who say that the market is now being flooded with poorly written and badly edited tat. Both sides are right of course and, paradoxically, both may be presenting us with the future.

First, it is important to understand what 'traditional' publishers are. They are organisations staffed by specialists.

To some that is precisely why they are a problem, but the issue of generalists vs specialists was fought long ago in history when small societies competed with bigger societies: the specialists won. Bigger societies create more fertile ground for the very existence of specialists and thus benefited from their expertise, developing at an exponential rate when compared to small societies. That is the history of civilization.

Specialists know their stuff. The real problem facing publishing houses however is that specialists are expensive. When overheads are high and profits are low you cannot afford to have them waste their time if they cannot pay for themselves. This is why publishers reject far more books than they take on because, if they cannot see a surefire profit, they cannot take the risk.

Many of the books that they reject now find their way onto self-published digital platforms, like the ones offered by Amazon and Smashwords. Some of them do quite well, many of them do not.

Another problem for publishers is that they have to wait for creativity to come to them. Writers create the works and then send them to the publishers. A purchasing editor (another specialist) spends an incredible amount of time sifting through all these. Other editors or purchasing teams then have to agree with the original editor's recommendations before they go ahead with the purchase. That's a lot of hours with no direct income generated. And even then there's no guarantee that the book really will sell enough to merit their faith. It's why it's difficult to make a profit in publishing and why so many small publishers have gone out of business.

But that is a problem potentially of the past, when submissions to publishers was the only way for them to view the work.

Now there's self-publishing. Traditional publishers can now wait to see what rises from the froth of 99c ebooks. They can leave it to the market to cull the books that aren't well written enough. They can wait and see which writers grasp the fundamentals of writing and marketing best. Then they can step in and offer the highest sellers a contract, with the idea that, with the help of their specialists, the books can do even better still. And that is already happening, with some best-selling self-published writers being approached by publishers.

In that sense it's very much like the way the popular music industry works (or did work). Young bands had to polish their own craft and book their own gigs to play their music. Reps from the music companies then went out looking for them, booking the ones they thought showed promise. It's not a perfect system by any means, but it has a higher chance of success than just hosting auditions, which is effectively the model the publishing industry has been using.

Publishers can therefore let the writers shoulder the expense of their early development, taking them on only at their more mature (and maturing) stage. All they have to do is follow the buzz. Creating an established readership for a new author has always been the hardest part of publishing. Now they can let the author create the initial readership for publishers to build upon.

Can it work? Who knows?

We'll just have to wait and see.

Monday 21 May 2012

Writing killed my reading

I read a book for fun the other day. I mean, not for research or analysis or anything like that. Just fun.

It's been a while since I've been able to do that.

You see, being a writer does strange things to your reading. As a writer I've had to learn about how to structure a plot, how to create characters, how to lay out scenes. I wrestle daily with how to insert this or that factor into the narrative without losing the flow; with crafting each chapter so as to encourage the reader to keep reading. With basically toying with the reader's emotions and perceptions to achieve particular effects.

It's an imperfect art, and there's always more to learn but the fact is, once you start doing it, you get curious about how other writers do it. So you pick up a book, open the first page and think, 'that's an effective opening, must try that one.' Reading a novel and spotting all the author's methods is like walking around a movie set during filming. You see all the tricks and you won't be so easily absorbed by the finished product because essentially you can see all the joins.

T'was not always so. Like many writers, I came to this from a love of reading. Books are gateways to different worlds and for many years they would utterly absorb me, transporting me someplace else for hours at a time. It's a magical feeling when that happens, and it is like a drug, but lately I just can't get high so easily. Maybe age has something to do with it. You read enough books and after a while they start to repeat themselves, so you become harder to please. But if that's the case then being able to see through the writer's veil only accelerates the process. Soon enough you get tired of the disappointment.

I did stop reading fiction for a while. Nothing grabbed me any more so I started reading non-fiction instead. This was essentially research for my writing and it was always interesting, because truth really can be stranger than fiction. But I knew I had to read at least some fiction - it's called 'researching the market' and is considered essential for a writer, so that they remain aware of current trends and such. I'd read a novel then because I had to, and I'd try to get myself through it. It was hard work though since all I saw was scaffolding and props. It was always educational, but I cannot say that it was a pleasure.

It was work.

Once in a while though you come across something that licks your senses the minute you start reading. You're grabbed by the throat and pulled through customs, your passport confiscated and your luggage thrown over the barrier, and before you know it you've been transported again, whisked through time and space in an out of body experience. That's when you forget to check for joins, you accept the scenery without wondering if it's real and you forget about interrogating the actors.

You're just there, and that's it.

And when it's all over, you remember what it was that drew you to writing in the first place. Because what one writer has done for you, you want to do for someone else. You want to have that effect too. And you know you need to learn it.

So then you start analysing, and the whole cycle begins again.


Sunday 13 May 2012

Shakespeare Cruz

"You compared me to what?"
Shakespeare Cruz is the lead character in my novel Even the dead dance to live. A brutal ex-cop with facial scars and tattoos, he's the archetypal hard man. Does he look like Danny Trejo above? I don't know, but it was Trejo I was imaging when I dreamed him up. When the director Robert Rodriguez was giving a lecture on digital movie making, he presented Danny's face as the kind of detail best picked up by the digital format. "Look at that face," he said. "isn't it beautiful?"

Not the kind of beautiful that most people were thinking of, but when I saw it I thought: yes, that's my man. Danny Trejo of course had a reputation for playing bad guys and anti-heroes, and Shakespeare Cruz, as it happens, is both.

Why did I make Cruz so brutal? Well, it was a strange journey, and I'll include it here as an answer to the perennial where-do-you-get-your-ideas question so familiar to writers.

Cruz first appeared in a fantasy novel I was writing about a gay warrior called Breht. I thought I was being original at the time in having a gay warrior as the hero (years later Richard Morgan would do exactly that), but the novel never made it past the first draft. I didn't have enough to build a story on and I was growing out of my sword-and-sorcery phase. I liked the character though - he was the first lead character I'd produced that wasn't just a slightly altered version of me, and in producing him I felt for the first time like a novelist, rather than an amateur writing some sort of twisted angsty diary. I decided to use him for an idea based on a gay version of Othello. That idea however never made it past my notebook. But it's that latter role that earned him his first name in the next book.

Even the dead dance to live began life then as a character looking for a story to star in. At the time however he wasn't the hard man thug he would later become - as a fantasy sword-and-sorcery devotee I was still wedded to the tame honourable and upright warrior stereotype. That idea hit the crash-pads after reading a James Ellroy novel.

The novel in question was American Tabloid, a crime noir set during the Kennedy years. One of the three protagonists was a brutal ex-cop with few scruples and a hardened view of, well, everything. He made movie action heroes look like the pastiches they were, and it was my first inkling of the fact that I really had no idea what a true 'tough guy' was. I hated him and hoped he'd die early on, but as the book wore on (and it's a compelling novel), he got more and more interesting. And the idea of sanitising Shakespeare Cruz got less and less attractive. So I started some research into real life thugs - gangsters, hitmen and, surprisingly, some frontline cops and elite soldiers. Up until then I had the naive notion that action heroes only exercised violence against bad guys. I learned however that, in order to get good at violence, you have to actually like it. And people who like violence aren't that picky on who they practice it on.

John Wayne and the character of James Kirk are sanitised purely for the audience, and even Mal from Firefly is given an honourable streak. James Bond has been roughed up a little for the new Bond movies, and that could be a sign of the times. But it's still rare in Sci-fi. Even in 'gritty' urban cyberpunk they remain socially conscious, which may well be a measure of the target readership. I mean, how could you like a hero who resembles the bully who gave you a hard time at school?

It was a challenge then, but a good one to get my teeth into. And the creation of Shakespeare Cruz was an important step for me in learning how to write compelling characters, for sure. And I got to like him a whole lot more.

But I still wouldn't like to be the one who spilled his drink in a crowded bar. Not without decent medical insurance and the service of a good plastic surgeon anyway.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Who's afraid of Science Fiction?

"Stop running away from me!!!"

Margaret Atwood claimed that she wrote speculative fiction, not science fiction. Because science fiction was about spaceships and monsters.

She got a lot of flak for saying that. And of course, she was completely wrong. On the other hand, she was also completely right. Or rather - she had a valid, if unpalatable, point.

You see, from the day it was born, science fiction has been trying desperately to get away from the sordid, squalid image of the 1920's pulps.

The roots of science fiction lie in the nineteenth century when the wonders of science became all the rage among Victorians, thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the optimism of Empire. Writers like Jules Verne and, later, H.G. Wells and Mary Shelley explored science in their writings. They were not however considered science fiction authors since, as a genre, it didn't actually exist. They simply partook of science as a theme whenever they felt like it. Most of their other writing was not science fiction at all and, like many other writers, they felt free to dip in and out in an eclectic manner that is quite rare today. There were simply fewer boundaries then.

By the 1920's and 30's the cheap pulp magazines were gleefully bringing sensational stories of monsters and spaceships to their avid readers, mixed in with romance and adventure stories. Even then science was simply a theme that was considered fair game for any writer to have a go at alongside their crime and adventure stories. It is only when we reach John Campbell in the 1930's that science fiction acquired its first definition - and its firm boundaries.

John Campbell is acknowledged as science fiction's most influential figure. He was also its jailer. Science Fiction had to meet exacting standards, and it was better served by specialist writers who knew their science, rather than fly-by-night hacks.

It was in fact he that invented the ghetto that many in science fiction complain about. And for all his standards, this Golden Age of science fiction is still characterized by spaceships and monsters (aliens and robots) and lurid covers with scantily clad ladies on them.

From the sixties onwards authors tried to get away from this narrow focus, declaring an interest in non-space speculative fiction, better written 'Literary' fiction and more socially oriented fiction. The genre also got a lot more political, attracting Libertarians, Anarchists, Marxists, Feminists... you name it, science fiction got it - a whole bunch of earnest writers eager to broadcast their ideas to the world. Science became just a vehicle, rather than the point of interest, because, after WW2, most people had become accustomed to what science could do. The 'sense of wonder' that is often talked about in SF became less valid to the masses than it was to the Victorians. Dresden and Hiroshima had already been bombed. Airliners already crossed the oceans.

Apart from odd spikes of interest during the space race and, later, the release of Star Wars, science fiction never again reached the heights of popularity, in relative terms, that the Golden Age reached.

But far from shrinking, science fiction as a genre ballooned, spawning categories, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, all playing a zero-sum game of defining what science fiction was.

It was no longer a genre, it was a battlefield. With Science Fiction's intense colonisation by sub-genres and special interest groups, and with all of them eager to bend the title around to represent their interests, the very term 'Science Fiction' became problematic, meaning different things to different people.

Science Fiction today is a corpse that's been left over from the Golden Age, and the only reason it's standing up and tottering about is because the maggots inside are standing on each others' heads, fighting to control its direction.

To writers and critics outside the genre, science fiction is disappearing up its own ass and becoming a literary black hole. No light escapes from it and writers are fearful of being sucked in lest they never get out. Hence Margaret Atwood's reluctance to become soiled by the term. And considering the number of SF writers who complain about being typecast and kept out of other markets, it's perhaps a valid fear.

And what do the readers think? Well, the hardcore insiders still cling to their fragment of SF as a means of identity. The rest don't care so much and will read anything provided it contains characters they like and a plot that keeps them turning the pages. If SF stops providing that then they'll stop reading it. Science Fiction will become synonymous with insular or boring writing and will echo with the sighs of publishers as they pulp unsold books and write off their investments. 

Oh wait... that's happened already.

So what now, eh? Well, personally I think we ought to stop running away from science fiction's origins. It was about space and adventure. And in the movie and game industry it still is. There is no shame in the term there, no kiss-of-death when someone mentions the word during a conceptual stage. Viewers lapped up Star Wars, Alien, Avatar and, if it's as well made as the others, will lap up Prometheus. And Gamers can't get enough of Mass Effect, even though it treads the same old ground of planet hopping, blaster packing, empire trading, yada yada yada. No movie or game producer who approaches backers with an idea for a kick-ass-thrill-ride-in-space idea will be met with sneers of, oh but what about new ideas, or a new concept, or a vision of a progressive future that we should be encouraging, or a utopia of equality and feminism or blah blah blah?

No, the first critieria of any new project will be, will the audience love it? Based not on views of what the audience ought to like, but on evidence based knowledge of what they actually like. It's crude, but it remains a good starting point. If a movie is based more on concept than appeal, it's arthouse, for which there's a select audience. But arthouse isn't enough to support the whole movie industry - it's the industry that enables arthouse. 

I think science fiction should be defined exactly as the public think it's defined - as about space and monsters. Speculative and pseudo-political fiction should be separated out from the term. I don't want to cause offence, but frankly I think they should fuck off and create their own genre to exercise their angst in. And we'll see then whether they sink or swim, rather than hitch a free ride on us and causing us all to drown.

But realistically we're probably too intertwined, and the term science fiction too compromised, for that to actually happen. We can't escape our own history.

What the hell. I'm going to do a Margaret Atwood - I too am going to distance myself from the term SF. Speculative Fiction that is, and its colonial grip on the original genre. Sod the concept of utopian ideas, political propaganda and Booker Prize ass-kissing. The story, and the characters, come first. Because that's how every other genre operates.

So I declare: I don't write science fiction. I write space fiction.