Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Why do you give your books away for free, Rik?

Let's talk about gardens.

I live in Hackney. Not the richest part of the capital. Yet, when I walk around Hackney, I often come across stunning examples of gardening. Sometimes an immaculate display fronting a council flat; sometimes a perfectly planned cascade of shape and colour from a window ledge.

Why do people do this gardening stuff?

Maybe they do it to increase the value of their home? Or perhaps they intend to sell the parts of their garden - professional gardeners in the making?

No. This is Hackney.

I ask people, sometimes: why do you do it? Some say they get a huge amount of pleasure from the act of gardening. Others take great pride from the results of their toil: a day is often made complete when a passer-by takes the time to congratulate the gardener on their efforts.

The fact is, gardens are part of our local environment. Through the efforts of individuals - for whatever reason - they add to the pleasures of Hackney.

And not a single gardener expects to be paid for their efforts.

As go gardens, so go books.

Literature is a part of our social, emotional environment. But at first glance it seems to be a very different sort of environment. Here, in the world of the imagination, great panoramas are locked behind cash chains. Entrance to view these image-driving monuments is exclusive, gated.

True, we have our bookish parks and verges, where public domain works by the graceful dead can be browsed for free pleasure. But to encounter anything less than 70 years old transactions must be entered into. Creators - and those who enable those creators - must have their wage.

It is an unhealthy environment. Especially now that the libraries are emptying their bookshelves for more immediate pleasures - assuming they still stand, of course.

This is why I give my books away. For free. I am not a professional writer, nor am I a 'mere' hobbyist. I am a gardener of words, and I want to make our collective, social environment a better, richer place. I enjoy the labour of creating stories and poems. I take pride in the finished products - verse chapbooks, a short story collection. Even my one-and-a-half novels (I'll finish writing book two next year. Promise!)

And, yes, if a stranger throws me a compliment for all my hard work, I find myself smiling for the rest of the day.

Such payments are worth far more than 'mere' wages!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Worlds within Worlds #10.3

Here is a rock I know. It stands proud above the shoreline, like a miniature version of Fol Huun's spire. Downwind lie the littorals and pools of my old gang – my real gang. The outcrop marked the upwind limit of our territory.
I hadn't recognised the landmark when I first saw it because I was approaching it from the wrong direction. The hinterland of my gang's domain is made up of a jumble of hills and ravines – a difficult terrain to walk, but the cliffs here are generally low and the beaches wide. We used to do a good trade with other gangs, and the women, in bladderwracks and kelps, and many flatfishes and rays made this shore their homeland.
But the shoreline upwind of ours was taboo: dangerous creatures buried themselves in those sands, and the rocks of the hills were too sharp and loose for women to tend. Other whispers, too, kept us away from the area: murmurs of curses and madnesses that walked in the mists and foams that flocked to the shore, and the fogs that lingered around the stunted trees.
Only when I drew close to the spire, and recognised it, did the shock of realisation smack through my limbs.
You must rest. My guardian was waiting for me to arrive. It perches no more than two feet from where I rest at the base of the spire. The crabs know you are here. They will forbear.
My journey has taken so long, I have almost forgotten my purpose.
'The man is still in his healing pool?'
I remember him. I do not know him. You will help him.
'How many men – people – are left?'
It is no use asking a guardian to count things. Vuanna had told me this.
I close my eyes and try to fish that memory into my mind.
'Why do you say this thing? Guardians do not talk.'
'Not to you maybe, little Kal. Not yet. But when they do talk to you, remember that they cannot count things.'
I open my eyes and look downwind. The shoreline here is low and flat, curving gently to form a wide bay. It was a good place for building feast fires – a place where my gang mates could gather away from the judgmental eyes clustered in the long house. Women, too, could come here and join us around the fires. Each of us would bring gifts to be shared among us all, and all would leave their weapons stacked here by the spire: it was a safe place for those who knew to barter, and trade comforts.
Your other nestlings still breathe. The short one makes much water from his eyes. The tall one comforts him. Feeds him rabbit. This news shall help you rest.
In my eyes I can see a vision of the fires dotted across the sands. It was our duty to light them, tend them, as we gathered the seaweeds washed up on the low humps of sand. The work was not popular; most were glad to see us leave the long house for a few sleeps. Jiar would come often, and Leic when he was not competing to be our leader. Geit would often come here on his own.
There is no rabbit here.
Vuanna was often on the beach, I remember. She kept a glade not far from here, a couple of thousand paces landwards over the rough terrain.
'Come,' I say to the gull. 'I know of a safer place than this spot.'
'Ak! Ak! Ak-ak!'
'There might be rabbit there.'

Things I hate about the current publishing scene

The following is an off-the-cuff list of things I'm currently hating about the publishing scene.

#10 - Only authors with a 'professional' attitude deserve to be taken seriously.

Okay, let's get this one out of the way straight off the bat. I loathe the word 'professional', particularly as it pertains to writers. When people talk about 'professional', what they're actually talking about is 'successful'. And 'successful' is their shorthand for 'sells lots of books'.

Jordan sells lots of books. England football players sell lots of books. These people are not professional writers; they are professional celebrities, whose key drive is to succeed at modelling or football (or both), and to make lots of cash from being talked about all the time.

I have a professional attitude towards my writing. I write damn good poetry, and damn fine stories. I am professional in that I take seriously my duty of care to the reader - everything I publish is proofread and spellchecked and formatted (as far as I am able to) to make the reading experience enjoyable for them, not frustrating.

People who tell me that not caring about sales, or not prioritising marketing over reader enjoyability, makes me unprofessional - those people can fuck off.

#9 - The best ways to build a publishing platform is to write lots of books.

Because writing lots of books builds an author's platform, maximises their exposure to potential readers, and generates sales from repeat customers.

Which translates as: if you're not writing/publishing 2-3 books a year, you're not taking this writing thing seriously. You're not being professional.

Fuck off.

Writing a book to a standard that is acceptable to me takes time. Heck, writing a good poem - a decent limerick! - takes time. To not put every last ounce of effort into writing the best story or poem that I am physically and mentally capable of ... that is to cheat myself, and my readers. And if that takes a lot of time, then so be it.

I spent the best part of seven years - on and off - writing Snowdrop, my story in verse. It is a slim book - just over 2,000 lines of poetry. But every single line, every word, has been considered and drafted and reconsidered and redrafted to make it serve my vision for the poem, and the story.

Writing my first novel - The Gods in the Jungle - took three years from first word to pressing the Publish Button on lulu.com. Since publishing, I've revised it twice, and I'm thinking of revising it again. Why? Because while the book is damn good, I want it to be better.

The world in which The Gods in the Jungle is set took THIRTY YEARS to develop. That work will continue until my last breath.

I have no respect - none - for people, writers, who dash off substandard work just to push up their book tally and book sales. Readers deserve better.

#8 - All authors must have a professional-looking website.

Here's a news flash: I've spent more time than I care to tally checking out author websites. They are all shit.

Why? Because they are all generic, based on the same outdated 20th century idea about what an author website should be: a bio; a link to the books; a (usually empty) events list; links to reviews; possibly a brief passage from a book, or a couple of poems; a (rarely updated) blog. Oh, and a photo of the author looking 'writerly'.

Oh, I'll accept that some author websites look prettier than others. A few are even capable of nodding towards current design aesthetics: a parallax header, a flat design, a considered palette, half-decent typography, even (gasp) a responsive layout.

Beyond that, they are all bollocks. A complete waste of time.

I don't have an author's website. I have websites for my books. Because at the end of the day it's the books that matter, not me. I just wrote them. I have a website for my poetry, and a website for my first book. I am planning to develop a website for my short stories and for my second book as and when I get round to it. If you want to know about me, the author of the books, you'll find a link to my bio somewhere near the bottom of the navigation pane. Right where it is supposed to be.

#7 - All authors must have a proactive social media strategy - twitter, facebook, blogtours, etc - and must work on it every day.

I think it is well know that I loathe Twitter with a vengeance. It has its uses, but book promotion is not one of them. Facebook - that's where I go and chat with my friends. Sometimes my friends have to put up with author-spam from me. I can only thank them for their forbearance: they deserve better than that from me, but sometimes I get a bit excitable about my writing.

I think my first book has its own Facebook page. I can't remember. I must have deleted the link from my left bar ages back, and I can't be arsed to check in on it.

Blogs - they have their uses. But they're shit for promoting stuff. Look at the lame attempts on this blog to promote stuff - sales generated: zero.

Facebook is for friends and family. Blogs are for bloggy stuff. Twitter is for twats. There's no more to be said.

#6 - If the book doesn't have a good cover, it's not worth checking out.

Apparently, there's websites devoted to taking the piss out of poorly designed book covers. Good luck to them: they'll have a fucking field day with my book covers - and I hope they get a good chuckle out of them.

If you're choosing which book to read based on what its cover looks like - you're nuts. Good book covers are made by damn fine artists and designers. Those artists and designers have ZERO input into the book's content. They didn't make any decisions on the story to be told, or the ordering of the poems, or the techniques and voices and characters used to convey reading pleasure to the reader. Not. One. Single. Decision.

All a good book cover tells you is that the artist is good at their job. And that the author, or publisher, was willing to pay good money for that artwork. Nothing else.

If you want to know how good the book is, ask your friends or colleagues. Alternatively, use the 'Look Inside' or 'Preview' buttons on the bookseller website to check out the blurb and the first few pages. If you like what you read, buy the book; if not, move on.

Buying a book because you like the cover is like buying a car because you like its colour. Serously, grow up.

#5 - Ebooks are secondary to printed books.

This peeve is directed mainly at publishers - big and small - who decide to publish eBooks without bothering to proofread them before pressing the Big Red Publish Button.

If this is you, you are a fucking twat. Be aware that I have hacked the internets to find your home address and I will be on your doorstep sometime in the near future with a baseball bat and an unquenched anger.

I pay money for these books. Money that I cannot really afford. And you sell me shoddy, unfit-for-sale goods. You deserve to be hurt.

And authors, if your publisher is doing this to your books? Sue their fucking arses to penury! Your readers deserve better.

#4 - Self-published books are shit.

Most self-published books are shit. Most traditionally published books are shit. Books that are written too quickly, that are edited and revised too clumsily, that are barely proofread - these books are shit. This is how much most publishers, and too many self-published authors, care about their customers.

If you, as a reader, come across a shoddily produced book, report it to your local trading standards office. Ask for a replacement of equivalent value. Or demand your money back.

People get away with selling shit books because customers let them. Authors, and publishers, will only learn NOT to sell unfit goods if there are real, tangible repercussions to their actions.

I leave this ball in the reader's court.

#3 - It is right, and good, to exclude self-published books from competitions and awards.

Fuck off. Seriously, fuck off!

I have no time for this stupidity.

#2 - Only people who win awards or who land big contracts with traditional publishing houses have the right to a point of view.

Yeah, right. How's that one working out for you?

#1 - If your books are not selling, you are a failure, a waste of everybody's time, a LOSER.

Can you tell from the last couple of answers that I'm getting bored of this rant? That's because it has cut into too much of my writing time. So I'm shit at marketing, and brown-nosing, and log-rolling. My websites are quirky. My cover designs are personal rather than professional. My books - all of them - are slow-cooked masterpieces rather than production-line tv dinners.

If that makes me a LOSER, I embrace it. I celebrate it! Because at the end of the day, only the reader matters - and I'd rather have ten utterly satisfied readers than ten million indifferent ones.

I can deal with it. Can you?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Worlds within Worlds #10.2

'How did you stop your brother's shouts?'
Four rabbits lie to one side of us in a bloody pile; for my own safety, I've told Maak-em-ay-are-see to stay on the other side of the hearth stone. He carries a stunned look in his face, as if it was I who had punched him.
He shrugs at my question. 'He'll start again when he sees me.'
'We should have hunted him.'
'... kill him?'
'Release him back to the healing pool.'
The man shakes his head: 'I can't ... this isn't the way it's supposed to be!'
I have no time for worries. I reach into my net and pull out the fire pot – all women kept a stash of these magic contraptions hidden in their glades, sealed from dampness and rain by clay and beeswax. I have no idea why they work, just how: drag the stick across the rough clay and a flame erupts from it. This fire box is almost done – only two sticks remain.
It is a moment's work to set a flame within the tinder stacked on the hearth stone. 'You cannot let this fire die,' I tell the man. 'I don't know when I shall return.'
'Why do you have to go?'
'There are things I have to do. You've watched me hunt and gather – you've near captured me in your bark work. You probably won't starve.'
'What things?'
I sigh. I have no desire to share the guardian's news with him. 'You have what you want. Deal with it.'
'I don't want Sam like ... like this!'
'Then pull a knife across his throat. Or smother his face with your hand. Or take a rock to his skull. Or drag him to the cliffs and drop him over. Burn him. Give him fruit laden with fretworms. Crush dagger berries between his teeth. Go look for a spear snail and set it on his skin. Or ... or just wait for the crabs to tire of his screams and let them snip him to shreds! Once he returns, his senses will be secure in his head again, and doubt will have been banished by experience.'
I don't realise how angry I am until I see it set in the shock of his eyes. I turn away to feed twigs to the new fire. 'There are things I need to do.'
I take the man's silence as consent. Already I've slipped the fire pot back into the net tied around my waist.

Worlds within Worlds #10.1

10. New Things

Your nestlings do not like each other.
I feel no need to reply to this comment. I am too busy trying to remember how to skin and dress rabbits.
Across the bay, Maak-em-ay-are-see has tied brother Sam to one of the struts that hoists the long house into the sky. Sam sits, bound and screaming, not far from where he had stacked my bones. My gang mate has not asked for my help in this, and I had not offered it; I'm keeping my words to myself.
The shorter one makes noises that interest the crabs.
The crabs can have them both!
The guardian perches on the lookout rock. It has been here for a while, preening feathers and watching my work. For once, it is more talkative than me.
The more that I stare at the bloody carcass in my hands, the more I forget what I am supposed to do with it. Making the snares had been easy by comparison: I had let my hands do my thinking for me. They had the knowledge of knots and shapes that created and tethered the noose while I had concentrated my ears and nose on sensing any approaching danger.
Not that I can smell now. It took a while for the blood to stop dripping from its broken shape, after Maak-em-ay-are-see had flattened it with his fist and dragged Sam's semi-conscious body through the water back to the long house.
The crabs thank you for your bones. What is this new thing in your claws? I do not know it.
I look up at the gull, surprised. Freed from my supervision my hands cut across the rabbit's belly, feel their way between skin and muscle, and rip the fur halves free in a single, even pull.
Guardians know everything!
'Ak! Ak! Ak-ak-ak!'
I have no idea what the gull's cry means, but the look in its eye is one of laughter. My hands take my surprise as an opportunity to decapitate the head and paws from my prey and slice into its belly, spilling entrails over my foot.
You have to know everything!
What is this new thing in your claws?
I resort to using my Outer Voice, forgetting my determination to keep my tongue still.
'They're rabbits. You know this!'
I do not know of rabbits, nor do I remember them. I shall not help them.
'You don't need to help them.' I take a slime of guts in my fingers and throw them towards the bird. 'You can eat them.'
The guardian stretches its wings wide, then folds them again when the offal falls short of spattering its grey-white plumage. The look it offers me now is hard, questioning. It cocks its head as if weighing options. Within three heartbeats it hops from its perch onto the pebbles and angles its beak deep into the entrails.
Across the bay, my gang mate is trying to tempt his brother with water. Sam sees the tattoos across the bag and screams louder: 'Get away from me, you fucking zombie!'
This offering is hot. She does not permit me to feast on hot flesh.
'Gulls eat everything. I remember this.'
I call to her; she does not answer.
'You mean the other guardian? The one that was with you when you reminded me of my brother Luntas?'
That one – no: she also is new. I do not understand her. It is the Great Albatross who does not answer me.
The guardian speaks of Fol Huun. I know this. The women often called Her "the albatross who stretches her wings between worlds," though never within the range of a man's ears. I have met few men who are brave enough to spy on a clan gathering, where women meet to sing and cast their spells. Luntas was one such man; Geyt another. And me.
Do you talk to my gang mates – the fledglings, I mean?
The guardian makes a decision, grasps at a loop of intestine and flaps back to its rock, trailing the bloody string behind it.
I do not remember them. I shall not help them.
'You remember me.'
I remember you, Kal of Tintuun. You I shall help.
'What is a "tin-toon"?'
The gull is huge; its beak is the length of my forearm and, by the way it rips so easily through the rabbit's guts, far sharper than my poor glass knife.
This is better than snail, or fish. The heat feels good in my gizzard. You must go and save your fledgling from the crabs.
'The crabs can have them! They are not my gang mates.'
The guardian is staring out to sea. 'Ak! Ak! Ak-ak-ak!' From beyond the bay's entrance, something answers.
There is another nestling, still in its egg. Downwind, beyond the cliff. The crabs grow impatient with it. Leave the rabbit here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Worlds within Worlds #9.6

By mutual agreement, we have both trekked around the bay to the place of rabbits so I can set traps. It will be good to taste a roast of meat after our meagre diet of moss and fruits.
In the absence of men, the rabbits have grown both in size and in numbers. They haven't, however, lost their senses of smell and hearing so we were unable to catch them unawares.
I've made Maak-em-ay-are-see a good spear with a sharp stone tip, far better than the weapon he used to help separate his Vital Breath from his flesh when he and Sam were camped on their beach. He told me he has some skill with javelins – whatever they may be – so I've set him to be lookout, stood atop a rock that pushes into the water.
My traps are simple nooses looped around the rabbit holes and staked securely at one side. They will not be pleasant for the rabbits, but will hopefully hold them long enough for me to reach and dispatch them with my knife. There are so many of them here that it is difficult to choose the best holes to snare; their tracks are a mass of confusion.
Brother Sam, too, has left a number of tracks around the long house. Few of them seem to lead round to this side of the bay. Mostly, he seems to stick to the shoreline nearest the long house, with some longer expeditions to the head of the bay and the processional avenue beyond it. I had spotted the rotted remains of a brelfruit bush near to his tracks when we first approached the long house. Brother Luntas would not have had good words to offer if he had seen the mess Sam had made when he tried to harvest them.
Sam has made many messes. I was alone when I found the remains of my bones, stacked in a pile beyond the reach of the water, my skull between my feet. I felt nothing when I threw them into the bay. I could have left them, I suppose: the bone worms had already hollowed the longer shafts in preparation for their final work. But bones would lead to questions; better to let the crabs finish the job.
I am setting my last trap when I hear branches crack. I glance towards Maak-em-ay-are-see, and see a gaunt shape of mad intent rushing towards him.
My sentry is more interested in watching me!
But it is not my shout that makes him turn.
'You're dead! Dead! Get away from me!'
Sam throws something – a rock – at his brother ... who doesn't even bother to duck!
'Use the spear! Throw the fucking spear!'
I watch as he lets the spear clatter out of his hands.
'Sam! It's me, Sam. Marc!'
Sam is not interested in listening. He barely broke step when he threw the rock. With nothing left in his hands, he chooses to throw himself at his brother. I watch them both topple as I sprint across pebbles.
They splash together into the water, Sam's arms wrapped around Marc's hips. And Sam is the first to surface. He may be famished, but his rage makes him quick. As soon as he has disentangled his arms, he pushes them straight down into the water. He screams as loud as the flayman when I took my knife to its neck!
He doesn't notice my approach. When I reach the sentry rock I drop my knife and net and dive in, trusting that the water will be deep enough to receive my body.
It is: I remembered well. I angle my body into a curve even as I descend: my run has taken me past the men and I must turn quickly.
In two strokes I pull alongside the men fighting on the submerged bank of pebbles. Without thought my hand scrabbles for a rock that fits smoothly in its grip.
Without hesitation I smash my fist into the back of Sam's head and thrust him to one side as he starts his collapse. Maak-em-ay-are-see resurfaces in a fit of coughs; I offer him my arms as he struggles to find his feet.
His fist is swift into my face.