Thursday, 4 August 2011

Guest Post | M. D. Lachlan on the 'Poison' of Publishing

The mighty M. D. Lachlan - the genre alter ego of Mr. Mark Barrowcliffe - was kind enough, a couple of weeks ago, to volunteer his wordsmithing skills to The Speculative Scotsman in support of his new novel, Fenrir.

Fenrir is of course the cold-blooded successor to last year's brutal but beautiful Wolfsangel, and though both books can be read as standalone works of marvellous mythical fantasy if you're so inclined, I'd strenuously recommend you start this sequence at the start - if you haven't already - the better to see how the author bolsters Fenrir by building upon the firm foundation of that pseudonymous debut.

I'll be reviewing Fenrir in full tomorrow - and it's good stuff, so stay tuned - but ahead of that, as I was saying, a little while back Mark got in touch to ask if I'd like him to write up a blog post for you all. I'd have been absolute eejit to say no to such a generous offer, and from such a sterling talent... so I didn't! :)

Instead, I asked Mark if he'd like to talk about what all went on with Steph Swainston last month. That is to say - in case you hadn't heard - how the author of The Year of Our War and its assortment of sequels and prequels went on record, by way of The Independent, to decry the state of publishing today, in particular the expectation of new book on an annual basis, and in short proclaim her resignation from writing. Pretty much.

You can read her side of the story here.

Needless to say, some heated discussion followed. Some folks sympathised with Swainston, suggesting furthermore that the rise of social media has essentially sidelined the act of writing in the writer's career, leaving it a distant second to the time-consuming business of selling yourself, whether or Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or somewhere else. Others, of course, fell on the other side of the fence, vouchsafing the good a hard deadline can do, and the visibility some authors can conjure thanks to canny status updates. Not to mention the myriad other benefits of worrying away at the barrier between reader and writer, formerly practically impenetrable.

But enough of my burbling: the horse's mouth has it. Having been in the industry since the turn of the millennium, of late publishing - as M. D. Lachlan - under the selfsame imprint which brought us Steph Swainston (that would be Gollancz), Mark is here to explain how one man's poison is another man's meat.

Take it away, good sir!

Earlier this month author Steph Swainston caused a furore when she said she was taking a break from writing because she couldn’t face the ‘book a year’ commercial demands of publishers. 

From the uproar that ensued, you’d think she had decided to take up killing people for a living, rather than becoming a teacher.

Clearly, it’s up to Steph what she does with her life and good luck to her. I am going to offer a different perspective to the views she expressed in The Independent when she announced her break but I stress - I’m not attacking her. She said some thought-provoking things and here are the thoughts they provoked in me.

I’m an author in a similar boat to her – contracted to not one but two books a year with Gollancz – Steph’s publisher. I’m doing my ongoing Wolfsangel series and I’m shortly starting on a second, separate, historical fantasy [scoop! - ED].

There’s a lot to be said for giving work some time and attention – Tolkien took 12 years to write Lord of the Rings, Bulgakov took 12 years over Master and Margarita and George RR Martin took six years over his latest – finally bringing it out in the same month as my Fenrir. Thanks George. Douglas Adams, of course, famously said ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ All of these people have produced brilliant works that have become – to lesser or greater degree – culturally central.

However, there is another camp of writers. Ian Banks takes 3 months to write his literary novels, Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks and Alexander Dumas wrote Le Chevalier De Maison-Rouge in three days.

For me the tight deadline is something I thrive on – maybe a legacy of my time as a journalist, when the News Editor would often give me a story to write with the words ‘Any time in the next ten minutes will do.’

If I didn’t have a deadline then the work would never get done. And the tighter the deadline the easier the story flows. Why? Because it has to. Never mind ‘how shall I start?’ Just start.

The problem with writing is that you can often let ‘very good’ wait on ‘perfect’. That is, if you’re looking for the perfect plot point, just the correct phrase, then you can wait forever. Another newspaper saying comes to mind: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ This is no excuse for sloppiness. What it does is to enable you to have a framework for the really painful stuff – the editing. This is the point where you get picky.

I often find, though, that passages I thought would need a good going over when I wrote them actually work the best when I come to reread them. It also enables me to consider each aspect of the novel separately. OK, first I’ll look at plot. Then it’s language.

It’s also - for me at least – not difficult to produce enough work of the right quality. If you write only 1000 words a day – very little for a full time writer – then you’ll write 250,000 words a year, presuming you’re one of those weirdos who likes weekends off and has two weeks holiday in the summer. That’s three average novels, two of mine. Of course, you might write much quicker than that and I do. If an idea seizes me I can write 5000 words a day. Not for long periods, but I have written an 80,000 word novel for a major publisher in a month. Would it have been better with a year? No. It was a thriller and the pace of writing reflected the pace of the book.

What does the need for speed do to the quality of the writing? Well, for some people it undoubtedly wrecks it. Some writers – most famously James Joyce : ‘I wrote seven words today’ Friend: ‘But that’s good for you!’ Joyce: ‘Yes, but I haven’t figured out the order’ – find it impossible to produce good work quickly.

But for some of us pressure improves our writing. The worst thing I ever wrote was 1500 words long and took me six months. Fenrir – which I think is the best thing I’ve ever written – took exactly the same amount of time.

Writing quickly requires a weird sort of level of concentration – almost trance-like when it’s working well. Being forced to come to decisions about characters and plot means you can surprise yourself. I never feel like I’m in control of my characters, I honestly feel they make up their own minds about things. And that’s the way I like it. They come bubbling up from my subconscious and I’m using a different part of my brain to create them to the one I would if I planned them out and agonised over every choice. I think the pressure of time turns the book into something organic, strange – written by me but not quite of me. I love it when the characters surprise me or something I haven’t seen coming occurs. I think these things happen because I write quickly.

So I like the ‘one a year’ imperative. In fact I like the ‘two a year’ imperative even more and I honestly think I could squeeze in three if I really tried. My fingers would probably fall off, though.

This, of course, is dependent on having the ideas. And it’s ideas that are the killer. If you don’t get one of those then you can get bogged down and I can see why you might want more time. However, I find that the act of writing often produces the idea. I might have to throw away 40 or 50,000 words – as I did with the book I’ve just finished – Lord of Slaughter (third in the Wolfsangel series) but – if I write 2,000 words a day, that’s only 25 days work.

Steph says: ‘Writers have to have something as well as writing, something which feeds back into their work and makes it meaningful... well, look at Stephen King. All his characters seem to be writers.’

I do disagree here. I only ever wanted to be a writer, I love writing so the more I do of it, the happier I am. I don’t really see how going back to a newsroom with all those demands would improve either my life or my writing. I don’t think this means I’m divorced from the real world. I have two small kids, a wife, a social life (of sorts) and my professional life – interacting with agents, editors, fans. I go to the supermarket, coffee shop, gym and encounter all sorts of people. Is that any less ‘real world’ than being a security guard or a doctor or a teacher? It’s a lot more ‘real world’ than being a journalist – and I speak from experience.

I do have some sympathy for Steph’s view of the internet that it’s ‘poison to writers’. She, I think, was complaining about feedback – criticism and discussion of the author’s work on the internet. I’m not bothered about this myself as I enjoy reading people’s views and have a relatively thick skin when it comes to bad reviews – I either agree with the review and decide to learn from it or I don’t and I think the reviewer is an idiot.

Social networking is more difficult. On the positive side, it gives me a chance to connect with fans in a way I never could when I began my mainstream publishing career 12 years ago. Then, if your PR department weren’t doing much for you as a writer, there wasn’t much you could do about it.

Now writers can take much more responsibility for their own visibility. It’s time consuming but it’s rewarding and fun. You get to meet some interesting people and they can even influence your work. Steph doesn’t seem to like this but, for me, it’s fascinating to hear what fans would like to read or what they particularly enjoyed and to shape stuff accordingly (only if I agree with them!) . After all – this is what Shakespeare did.

Some authors – Steph among them – hate the publicity side of things and think they should be left alone to write. Just like celebrities don't make good authors, authors don't really make good celebrities,’ she says.

But many authors – including many great authors – have taken to the self-promotion side of things brilliantly. Wilde, Vidal, Terry Pratchett, even, seemed or seem to thrive on the promotional aspect of writing. Personally, I love it. There’s not one personality type that’s a writer – some are extroverts, some are introverts some vacillate between the two.

There is a negative side to the publicity aspect of a writer’s career – particularly social media. I do spend much too much time on Facebook and Twitter. I’m a writer, I like to write and these media enable me to do just that. It can distract. I have a program called Self Control that bars me access to these apps during the day. But this is nothing new – Evelyn Waugh had similar problems with crosswords.

Anway, must end now as I have to proofread Lord of Slaughter. And yes, I’m a month behind deadline! 

Thanks for stopping by, Mark.

So. Who has thoughts?

Is there something to the idea that writers should be writing rather than relentlessly marketing themselves, as so often seems the case these days? That on those occasions when writers are able to get down to business, they're open now to influence from far and from wide? Should fans be trusted to wield such power, even collectively, or is the author's original vision paramount?

I'll be fascinated to hear which side of the fence you all fall on -- and I'm sure Mark will be too, presuming Self Control hasn't locked him out of the comments. :P

Riddle me this, readers: was publishing before the rise of the internet and its so-called poison in an age of innocence, or are the attitudes of today where the industry should have been at all along, had only technology allowed it?

See you all tomorrow for the Fenrir review! 


  1. Poisonous or not, attitudes are the same; they have just been given free reign by access to nearly instantaneous communication. There have always been public feuds between authors themselves as well as their critics. Two example that spring to mind are Byron's harsh critique of Keats and the vicious backbiting that often showed up in Edinburgh's very own Blackwood's Magazine.

    Some researchers speculate that Byron's commentary wounded Keats's so deeply that it contributed to the final decline in his consumption. While that may seem romantically dramatic, I feel that the froth of the internet mob today can have just as dramatic an effect in that it is essentially peer review. Whether is done on personal blogs, forums, e-mags or in print judgement is being passed and THAT is rarely comfortable for the individual under scrutiny.
    I've cited Blackwood's to also draw attention to the fact that peer review can most definitely be motivated by outside agendas. I know that a good number of reviewers are ethical about the work they put out however we all know there are several that are either blatantly biased or have private axes to grind. The internet just magnifies that attitude to 'Epic Dick' status which isn't helpful to or healthy for anyone.

  2. Great post. This is something I've given alot of thought to, as I revise/edit my WIP and wonder (daydream) about the things like marketing and self-promotion while writing the (notably more complicated) future novels in my (imaginary) 3 book deal.

    On my most productive days, I probably spend about 5 hours a day writing/revising/rereading. Productive being the key word there, i.e., producing quality stuff that makes me happy. That seems to me to leave a bit of time for "living".

    I relate to the aforementioned "trance state" of creative writing - but I need to have my mind cleared of other things... eating, worrying about my friends and loved ones, going for a drink and blowing off steam, reading other blogs and such... all those things help me produce creatively and without distractions.

    And oft as not, provide notions or ideas for the creativity, or (ala House/Wilson) give my mind time to percolate on its own and recall some brilliant (to me) idea for this or that plot/character.

    I agree that the downtime is necessary. GRRM watches his NY football teams. But, I also have to agree that what constitutes downtime can vary from one person to the next.

    As far as self-promotion, this seems likely just an emphasis on the wrong aspect of social media. Whether you're on FB, Twitter, G+, etc. - even fifty years ago, you'd still have to go out of the house on occasion and meet people, socialize in one form or the other. If the focus is on socializing vocally, rather than "Please like me and buy my book." then it seems to me that it would be less of a burden, more fun, and maybe just inspiring and diverting enough to fuel the creative process.

    Mind you, I'm just guessing. Feel free to ask me again after my (3/6/8/12) book deal. ;-)

  3. If Swainston feels that she can't handle the public and fan pressure, nor the stress of deadlines then that's fair enough. Why she'd decide to go into teaching, as a "less stressful" job boggles the mind, but nonetheless.

    It feels like she's just to caught up in too romanticised a view of writing and was not prepared for professional writing actually being a job. Being an author is like owning your own business, and selling your work and keeping to deadlines is pretty important if you are running your own business. Just all sounds like her expectations of the job were more than a tad unrealistic.

    I can see how fan pressure can be scary, and hard to overcome. Some authors seem to relish it - memories of Joe Abercrombie eagerly replying to them, insisting that he far prefers venom-filled reviews to ones that just find his books unremarkable - but I can imagine for the majority it's something they just have to learn to deal with.

    Well, good luck to Steph Swainston in her new vocation; I can't help but feel, however, she is lashing out at the people in the industry to cover up her own inability to adapt.

    Not that I have any real expertise in this, not being an author nor someone with any position within the industry.