Hidden Gems: An Update at Long Last

So, I’ve previously blogged #onhere about my love for hidden gems – those books that I’ve really loved but I don’t think get enough appreciation from the wider community. The last HiddenGems post was about two books I wasn’t sure fit the remit, for better or worse. Two years and three more books later, I’m convinced they do – sadly.

The first was Adrian Selby’s gloriously grim Snakewood, an ambitious and mostly successful attempt to tell of the fate of a mercenary company through collected first-person narratives. I acknowledge it has some rough edges, but love both the ambition and the final execution, and keep recommending it to anyone after something different.

Selby’s second book, The Winter Road, proved that Snakewood was no fluke, but also that the author had learned some lessons. The protagonist here is a lot more admirable than the band of rogues in Snakewood, and her mission a lot more worthy. Where it doesn’t back down is how harrowing her journey is, as the author maintains his commitment to emotional gut-punches and brutal reversals. If you want to start with Selby, you could just as easily start there, as both books work as stand-alones – they are set in the same world but at different times, and The Winter Road actually takes place first.

There is also a third book coming, which I am hugely excited for, in the shape of Brother Red.

The other book, Scourge of the Betrayer, also had a first-person narrative about mercenaries, but this time through an outsider rather than the various key players. The other difference was that it kicked off a much more linear trilogy, through Veil of the Deserter to conclude in Chains of the Heretic, which I finished this year. As I describe at Fantasy-Hive, I wasn’t as enthralled by the two sequels, mostly because they expanded the story and moved it along more traditional lines. That said, it’s still a great series with memorable characters, gritty action, and some unique worldbuilding. Definitely recommended.

Revenge of the Indie

So, SPFBO has concluded for another year, and, I presume, is getting ready to launch again. As someone who once rushed to get a never-published book into the first SPFBO, I realised I had taken a step back from SPFBO and indie/self-publishing over the past year or so. My reading list has been mostly traditionally published (trad) books this past year, in part because I burned out a bit reviewing for last SPFBO and in part because my own priorities have shifted towards the trad route. I’ve also found that, by and large, it suits my taste better, and when there are so many great books coming out of trad publishing all the time, who needs to look elsewhere?

HOWEVER

I did, like a smug hipster, read The Sword of Kaigen last March, before the SPFBO hype started. I can remember it catching my eye on Rob J Hayes‘ monthly newsletter, and then I think an early review (and sale) got me to take the plunge. To start with, like many, I wasn’t fully convinced, but the quality of the writing and intriguing worldbuilding kept me going until – wham! – the story hit like an avalanche and swept me away. For the sheer, unexpected emotional impact it will stand out as one of the most memorable, and cherished, books I’ve ever read. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, however, and while no book ever is, there are definite ways you could sharpen this sword further. And yet I’m not sure if I would change anything.cover2

In this regard, SoK perfectly encapsulates the risk and reward in self-publishing for both reader and writer. Authors have the freedom to put out whatever they want, meaning books can be different, risky, challenging, and so very special when it works. 

HOWEVER

They can also go to print with fatal flaws – there’s usually one SPFBO finalist that bombs with the other 9 reviewers, for example, though I suppose it still had one ringing endorsement. Even amongst the top-ranked finalists (and winner!), there were comments about what might have been improved by even more rigorous editing. This doesn’t just mean spelling and grammar, but smoothing out (or speeding up) the pacing, cutting down the infodumps, or making sure it starts in the right place.

When even the good ones often have room for improvement, you start to see the advantage of traditional publishing – and there are now a few examples out there of books that have lived in both worlds, like Senlin Asecends, Grey Bastards, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro, and the forthcoming We Ride the Storm. Sometimes, not much changes at all, but I was fascinated to read both versions of Wolf and see how a big-house edit smoothed some of the rougher edges while preserving (and enhancing) the story – though I did like some of its edginess the first time round, I must admit. I’ve heard WRTS is similarly improved, and it was already good enough to come second in SPFBO 2018/19. (The impact on covers is a bit of a mixed bag, though!)

So, trad pub does add value, even to very good books. After all, that’s the whole point of the process – taking something exceptional enough to get noticed and polishing it until it shines, making it more readable for more people. And while the selection process isn’t perfect, at least they are starting to pick up the ones that slip through the cracks. This selectivity and (often brutal) editorial gauntlet means you do get a guarantee that each offering from a trad publisher is at least the best book it can be.

Whereas the lack of “gatekeeping” and stringent (if any) professional editing means there are the legions of self-published books that are just…not very good. Whether this is because they are a generic tale we’ve all read before, or a decent concept but poorly executed, or an idea the world is just not ready for, they aren’t all rough diamonds. A flashy cover and a hired editor can give a bit of reassurance, but is no guarantee when the “publisher” is making the decision on their own baby. Is it any surprise so many book launches don’t live up to their author’s dreams when there are so many equally…average books out there?

HOWEVER

Even amongst the “average” books, even the ones without professional artwork and editing, I’ve found some really enjoyable reads. After all, what often matters most is matching the right book to the right reader. When that connection is made a few typos and rough edges can’t dull the joy of reading something that could have been written for you. This iscover1 what happened when I picked up Eternal Knight, on a whim, almost seven years ago. I think the author will be the first to admit he’s not the world’s most poetic prose stylist, but he can tell an engaging  tale with compelling characters. And, he knows his arms and armour, which is what spoke to me specifically at the time.

The fifth and final book, The Emerald Gate, came out yesterday, and I am so glad to have been along for the ride. I believe the first book is currently on offer, so now’s a great time to go check it The Orb Series by Matt Heppe if you haven’t already. And watch out for what he’s got coming next, too!

 

It can be hard sifting through the oceans of books out there to find the ones most worth reading. Not every “good” book is successful, and not every successful book is “good” (even accounting for subjectivity). Of course, the measures of success can vary as widely as “good”. Some authors might value connecting with a handful of readers who really “get” their book, sales be damned. Others won’t care if it’s the most derivative, critically-panned piece of cynical marketing, as long as it sells. In this sea of polished turds and ugly ducklings, word of mouth and efforts like SPFBO are vitally important in getting your hands on the right indie books – for you.

And yet, at the end of the day, is this so different than for trad pub offerings? Yes, they may be more consistently edited, more professionally produced, and, depending on your taste, more frequently reaching a particular threshold for originality and quality of writing. Then again, it’s not like trad publishing is averse to the odd cynical, big-money bandwagon, damn-the-critics-full-speed-ahead sales steamroller from time to time. There are no guarantees, especially as it still ultimately comes down to taste – and your taste may not match what the publishers are offering!

So, if you are looking for something really different, something that trad pub is often too risk-averse or too jaded to offer, you may find it among the indies, if you know where to look. Keep an open mind, and open ears – and every now and then, trust your gut!

What am I doing?

So, I finished another book.

That may come as a surprise, since this blog has been dead for a while and the last post (and several of the previous) were about my struggles with writing and how it probably wasn’t going to work out. Which is still true, on balance, yet the longer I went not writing, the more unhappy I got, no matter what else I tried to fill the time with. I guess it’s true that the only thing worse than writing is not writing.

I suppose I should be proud that this is my fifth completed novel, and potentially the best one yet. I’ve certainly learned a lot about writing (and shared some of those growing pains on here), which goes to show another writing truism is that the best way to learn is to write. Sadly, the only one I’ve “published” was the very first one, in a fit of cautious optimism, as if my cobbled-together military space opera based too baldly on too many influences would ever fly very far (especially with a cover I made in Paint). But that was just supposed to be the test flight, with the real stuff soon to follow.

Time is a strange thing, though. I finished writing that almost 20 years ago, about a decade before I published it through a now defunct e-publishing portal. I had spent that decade (plus) working on the next one, before finishing that and two others within three manic years. But then came the lull, when I tried to figure out what to do with three whole books, without the wherewithal to self-publish as originally planned.

Then the lull turned into a hiatus of sorts, and I didn’t write anything new for almost two years, snatches of editing aside. I don’t know what spurred me to start this one, at last, but one day I sat down with the spark of an idea and the words just flowed – almost 40k of them in less than two months. And then I stopped again, for six months. It’s hard to sustain writing with everything else going on, not to mention the disappointments of writing itself.

Then I started again, stumbling through another 20k in about four months, hitting the end of the second act (not that I’m sure it has a first) and then stopping again. I can’t remember what halted me this time, but soon after that I quit writing for good (again) and tried to get the rest of my life in some sort of order. That didn’t really happen the way I hoped, either, but almost a full year later I came out of the end of a long, dark tunnel and suddenly decided it might be fun to try to finish the story that was just sitting there. It helped to have that nagging question yet to answer – I doubt I would have started a completely new book at that point – and to know I only needed 30k or so more words to get there.

It was a struggle at first, let me tell you. A few hundred words at a time – and that was on a good day. But I was getting those muscles flexing again, getting the feel for the story, getting into the routine. And it got easier. Then came this lockdown, and – while I know it’s an unprecedented catastrophe that’s turned a lot of people’s lives upside down – it’s been brilliant for my writing. No distractions to break up the day, no obligations to take me away from the keyboard on weekends and holidays (I’m lucky enough to still be working my day job, from home, during the week). The trickle turned into a flood and there I was, staring at a finished first draft just four months later.

Now, who knows whether this latest endeavour will amount to any more than the previous four. I have to edit it, first, and as I’ve recorded on her, that’s where my books seem to go to die. It’s a bit of a mess at the moment – anything written in surges over two years is bound to be – so it needs at few passes before I could really consider it “done” anyway. There are a lot of CAPITALISED place-holders for various things I need to go back and figure out, or just look up. And there are a few notes I made while going along that I hope to work in. And it doesn’t even have a real title yet.

But it’s…if not finished, if not done, then complete. That’s the first step, and with that done, I can go back and tinker with the bits that aren’t quite there yet. There’s no time pressure, there’s no expectation hanging on it, now that it has ended. I can let it rest, let my brain come down from the writing high, and worry about finishing it properly later.

And maybe I should get cracking on the next thing while the fickle fires are still burning.

Vital statistics:

  • Title: nothing yet (I can actually use)
  • Words: 97,774 (currently)
  • Chapters: 33 (+9 short “Interludes” and an Epilogue)
  • Genre: Post-Epic Fantasy (that’s a thing, right?)
  • Style: First Person (main chapters anyway)

words

All Quiet on the Writing Front

So, I think I’ve come to a bit of a realisation today. Well, not just today, but it seemed to come into focus this morning, as I read a post on Reddit. I spend way to much time there now, having tried to ban myself from other social media, and therefore having no outlet for my need to talk about books. The upside of Reddit is that it’s just about books, and you don’t get those posts about how awful everything else is infringing on your escape. It’s a privileged bubble, but I need those safe-ish spaces these days.

Anyway, I was scanning through replies to a post on unpopular opinions (usually a mistake, but an amusing one), when an opinion resonated, and it reminded me why I’d written one of my books in the first place. In fact, each of my books has been born of trying to fill a gap in what I wanted to read. Unfortunately, I think that two factors in that have ultimately made it impossible to get anywhere.

The first is the gap, or the unpopular opinion. Yes, gaps in the market are supposed to be good, but actually what really works is more of the same, a book for all the fans of that other massively popular book. Sure, that Reddit post means that there are a few people out there who are, like me, searching for those edge-cases, those different takes. But I’m not sure there are enough. I’ve spent several years now watching all sorts of wonderful authors with those slightly different, deliciously interesting approaches to fantasy struggle to gain traction – and a few succeed, to be fair, if not enough. And I don’t know if I really want to be one of them anymore.

The second thing is the “what I wanted to read” part, which I always figured was a problem. If all my favourite books are anything to go by, what I want to read is not the same as most other people, and I’ve always worried how that would work out for me as an author. I’ll probably never know for sure, now.

In the end, I haven’t even got as far as testing the waters, because in trying to get my books “ready” to set sail, I’m broken them, and myself. I’m a rubbish editor, it turns out. Trying to change things – beyond tidying the odd sentence or cutting some redundant words – fills me with apprehension, confusion, and a sense of loss.

See, every book I’ve written, I’ve “pantsed”, not having a detailed plot beforehand, just a vague endpoint and an evolving set of theories. Finding out “what happens” is what drives my writing, and I can’t really see myself writing to a detailed, scene-by-scene outline. However, I’ve come to accept that it might make the books “better” or “stronger” in the end – at least, according to convention.

That’s not to say that those books came out badly. In fact, quite the opposite – for the most part, they came out exactly as I hoped. That’s not to say they were perfect, but they were right. They were the books I set out to write.

Which is actually the problem.

Since they were the books I set out to write, they didn’t necessarily do what they were supposed to, according to most writing advice. And even though they felt right to me, I could see their flaws. However, since I had discovered “what happens”, I couldn’t see a way to change it. “What happens” was set in stone, as a result of all the choices made up to that point, because I’d built it up choice-by-choice rather than in an outline with beats and arcs and whatnot.

It may not have been the “best” outcome, but it was the right one, and any little change threatened to unravel the whole thing. Infinite possibilities exploded out of what had been constrained, making it impossible to see the path ahead. The thought of changing the direction of the story was overwhelming, because it felt like a lie. I already knew the truth, but now I had to deconstruct it and use the blocks for something else, something fake.

And yes, this feels a bit like a lot of pretentious waffle, but it’s the biggest struggle I’ve had. Everybody hates first drafts…except me. That’s the only bit I like (besides reading them back, to be honest). And people say first drafts are a mess, just get it down, but it’s also where the magic happens. I know I shouldn’t listen too much to what everyone says, since writing is quite personal, but when you feel a bit lost and you want so badly to “make it”, you can’t help trying to absorb advice.

Which is where it all starts to go wrong.

You realise the opening of your book is cliched or boring and you change it in the hopes that an agent won’t throw it away. And then you change it again. And again. And again, until you realise there are thousands of ways of starting this book, and maybe all of them are wrong, even (no, especially) the one you still think of as the “real” opening. Maybe the whole book is wrong.

Perhaps the protagonist is not active enough, or the antagonist is unclear, or any of the other elements that you are supposed to have is missing. But maybe that was the whole point in the first place, in which case maybe the point is probably rubbish.

Or maybe it’s the third act of the book that doesn’t really work, because it’s part of some larger story you’re never going to write anyway. Or maybe the central concept, that you came up with decades ago, really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And the foundations crumble, and the books are dust.

Sometimes you think that all it takes is another book, that you’ll get it right next time. But then you remember how hard it is, for so little reward. Or you wear yourself out trying to second-guess every choice, to plan something that’s both brilliantly original and reassuringly familiar. And you realise what’s really important is that it’s interesting to you, so that you can actually bring yourself to write the thing, because it’s way too hard otherwise. They say, “write for yourself first”, which makes complete sense…except when writing for yourself seems to make the whole endeavour pointless.

After all, the point of writing books is to tell a story to someone. And books only exist by being published, not just being written. And the publishing part isn’t within your control…except when it is, via self-publishing, but I’ve been over that before and it only raises other issues, and other questions. I mean, if you’ve admitted your books won’t sell to a publisher, and you are only writing them for yourself, then why publish them at all? Vanity? Hubris? I’m a bit low on either.

So, you come back to writing for yourself, writing the books you wanted to read but never found (though, now that you’ve found more books than you could ever finish, those “missing books” are getting rarer). That’s where it all started, after all, not in dreams of publishing glory, but in just wanting to see “what happened”.

But, in the end, you realise you’ve probably already written those books, the ones you really wanted to, the ones that were right, and that you probably don’t have any others in you.

Not right now, anyway.

The Classic Epic Fantasy Conundrum

So, I love recommending books to people, as you might guess from the multiple blog posts doing just that. I love books, after all, and I want to share that with people. Sometimes that’s books I love, as I did on Twitter yesterday, and sometimes it’s just trying to find the right book for the person asking.

I want to talk about a specific case of the latter which has been vexing me recently. For my sins, I frequent r/Fantasy on Reddit, which is a surprisingly great place to talk about books, largely because the Reddit algorithm helps sift the more interesting topics to the top. Or, the most popular – and popularity is the gist here.

In any community recommending books, popular books will have a much higher probability of being recommended. Some of that is because they are well-liked (they are popular for a reason), and the rest is simply due to the numbers. If the readers then go away and read the most popular recommendations, this creates even more advocates for those books, and the cycle keeps perpetuating. Which is great for those books, authors, and the readers who love them.

For me, who has found great books a bit off the beaten track, I’d like to see a bit more variety in the recommendations. Not just because it might better suit my taste, but because other readers might be in the same situation, waiting for those perfect books for them that they just aren’t hearing about. And also for those authors who have written brilliant books that nobody has heard of.

Now, to let the other shoe drop, a lot of these authors are women, and I hope we can all agree that women authors should have just as much chance of success as their male counterparts, if they’ve written comparable (or better) books. But it still seems that the recommendations are skewed male, as are the “Best of…” lists, the “Greatest Ever” lists, and so on. Even when women authors from previous decades sold just as many millions of copies as the men, they seem to fade from collective memory a lot quicker – at least, judging by the written evidence of lists and recommendation threads.

I don’t really want to get into why this might happen, I just want to break the cycle, and bring these great books back. (And no, we’re not considering the hypothesis that men just write better books.)

One of the common “asks” on Reddit and elsewhere is for classic Epic Fantasy, the “like Lord of the Rings” sort where brave bands battle great evils, often featuring a farmboy and a wizard, or something similar. The usual response(s) often run the gamut of:

  • Terry Brooks – Shannara
  • David Eddings – The Belgariad
  • Raymond E Feist – The Riftwar Cycle
  • Tad Williams Osten Ard
  • Stephen Donaldson (less so) – The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
  • Robert Jordan – The Wheel of Time

I’m not including the more modern equivalents, like Brandon Sanderson and George RR Martin, because even they have started to breakdown the tropes of Epic Fantasy and the whole landscape has changed. You can still get some straightforward “classic”-style Epic Fantasy in the indie market, but I’m just looking at those from the 70s, 80s and, to a lesser extent, 90s that really fit that classic pattern.

Which may be part of the problem, because that stereotypical style may always just have been the above handful of Big Books, and not a lot more. Or, if there were, they might have faded from memory for good reasons. But these certainly remain, and in a big way too. Fondly remembered by those who read them at an impressionable age, perhaps. Hugely popular in their time because they are good stories, with memorable characters, and leaving a well-earned legacy behind. I’m not disputing that, necessarily. I just wonder what else was out there – and I can’t help noticing a certain similarity between them beyond the farmboys and wizards…

So I went on Twitter and asked, and got a tonne of responses. I’ll try to transpose the list here (with links) when I have more time. For now, here’s the thread:

One thing I did notice about all the great recommendations, almost all of whom were women (I did ask), was that very few of them were playing the format as completely straight as the above list. These were books you could call more challenging, perhaps, or more interesting. They play with tropes others are just presenting, with format, with style, with focus. Is that why they aren’t more popular, or is that just why they don’t spring to mind when somebody asks for more of the same? Do we need to be braver in our recommendations? I’ll certainly try even harder now.

The List:

  • Sarah Ash
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Jacqueline Carey
  • CJ Cerryh
  • Louise Cooper
  • Kate Elliott
  • CS Friedman – Coldfire Trilogy
  • Robin Hobb
  • Diana Wynne Jones
  • JV Jones
  • Jennifer Fallon
  • Maggie Furey
  • Katherine Kerr – Deverry
  • Mercedes Lackey
  • Tanith Lee
  • Holly Lisle
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Fiona McIntosh
  • Juliet E McKenna
  • Patricia McKillip
  • Robin McKinley
  • Andre Norton
  • Melanie Rawn
  • Michelle Sagara
  • Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
  • Sheri S Tepper
  • Chelsea Quin Yarbro
  • Jane Yolen
  • Evangeline Walton
  • Margaret Weis (& Tracy Hickman)
  • Janny Wurts

Another Year Done Gone

So, I’ve been really quiet around here, and that’s unlikely to change, but I thought I’d just prove I’m still alive and still reading (if not writing so much). Last year I managed to read a pretty good number of books, most of which were outstanding, and many of which I’ve been waiting to get to for a long time. That TBR is finally getting shorter – at least in terms of authors I’ve wanted to cross off my list.  Others were recent debuts and releases, some of which I actually got to read before they came out! Overall, it’s a been a great year for reading, and so I thought I’d share some highlights.

Without further ado, I’ll ado this in the laziest way possible:

Hope you could follow that. I’m mostly on Twitter and FB these days, so come find me there if you want to talk books!

Being a Writer, Reconsidered

So, a long time ago now, when I was new-born to the heady idea of becoming an author, I wrote a guest blog on a now-defunct self-publishing website. I had enthusiastically gathered advice from near and far, and figured I had enough wisdom to share it back. Among other things, it contained this:

Act like a pro even if you aren’t one.

For me, this means making sure you give the process the time it deserves, as if it were a second job (which, effectively, it is). This means things like setting writing targets by the day or week, and sticking to them. It means working on your blog, twitter, website, etc so that you seem like a real writer rather than an ‘aspiring’ one. Watch how the pros do it, read the advice, and try to live the writing life, because if you want to be a writer, that’s what it takes. Most writers don’t get to do it full time (at least, not on their own books), so don’t wait for your ‘big break’ to give you the free time to write–do it now. Unless you are incredible lucky, you aren’t going to strike gold with your first submission of your first book, or sell a million copies of your self-pub masterpiece overnight with no promotion. (Unless, of course, you story is the autobiography of the secret love-child of David Beckham and Lady Di).

In the past year, I’ve come to realise that was perhaps not the best approach. While I did get a lot of writing done (two and a bit entirely new books, and several editing passes), I hadn’t achieved my goal of becoming a published author (either self or trad, I couldn’t pick). Most of the reasons for that fall on my own insecure shoulders, though I did eventually begin to query one of the books I’d “finished”. However, I’d also reached a point of complete burnout.

Now, that burnout and subsequent depression may have had more than a little to the dumpster-fire raging around us in the wider world, but my plan of “living the writing life” before I was actually seeing any return from it did not help. I’m not sure why I thought I could go on burning the candle at both ends, neglecting almost all other aspects of life – work, family, health – in the meantime. I fought for every hour I could (just like they tell you to) and raged or pouted when I couldn’t get it (not gonna lie), but then found myself staring at the screen without the energy to produce. Or staring at the ceiling, numb.

Would this have been different if I’d self-published, and had a few sales? I don’t know. If I’d queried more persistently and hooked an agent? Maybe. I’m not confident either was ever particularly likely. That’s not (just) self-deprecation, that’s simply knowing the odds. Chasing the almost-impossible dream too hard can crush your soul pretty quickly – though that’s not to say you should give up.

Not writing was even worse than writing, and for a while the only thing that helped was the immersive distraction of a video game or two. Replacing one addiction with another isn’t really self-care, though, and it doesn’t help repair the damage done to the rest of your life. I tried to take a social media break as well, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I’m not sure I needed a break so much as a re-configuring.

Skyrim1

Staring into the abyss, or, you can’t stay in Skyrim forever.

So, what did help?

  • Reading, even though it was hard for a while, difficult to stop reading as a writer and remember how to simply enjoy good books.
  • Remembering that social media should be about friendships, not about performance. I have met a lot of great people on-line, and I found I just had to interact with them in the right ways. This can be tricky when a lot of them are writers and talking about writing all the time, but the great thing about social media is you can curate your feeds. This is absolutely necessary for mental health, so don’t feel bad about cutting out the posts and posters that are making you feel inadequate. Find your happy place (or, at least, a happier one) if you can.
  • Recovering some of the things that you did before you devoted all your time to the word-mines. Even housework made me feel better, knowing that things weren’t being neglected any longer. Listen to music – actively listen, not just for background noise. Spend time with family and friends. Go out for the day, guilt-free. Do fuck-all for an afternoon and don’t feel you’ve wasted the time. Let go of the guilt.
  • Rediscover, if possible, why you wanted to write in the first place. It probably wasn’t because you wanted to publish a book as soon as possible. For me, I had some stories to tell, and I think the more I tried to think about making them publishable, the farther they strayed from that. Instead of the stories I wanted to tell, they became the stories I thought people would want to read, and I fell out of love with them – and with writing.

I’m sure there were other things in here – a key ingredient being time – but eventually I had the urge to write again. I also went to a convention and met some of those great friends I’d made, and some authors that I admired, and remembered that they were just all normal* people, too, with real lives and partners and families and jobs. They loved writing, and books, but also other things, and for a lot of that weekend we didn’t talk about writing or even books at all.

And that was great.

So, while writing (and reading, which I can’t really separate from it) remains the all-consuming passion of my life right now (there have been others), it’s not my whole life. I am still working on my stories, still planning to write new things, but I’m not pushing it, not pursuing it to the exclusion of all else.

It turns out it’s okay to write when the inspiration takes you after all.

Until you actually get those deadlines, of course.

 

* OK, maybe not RJ.

The Sound of Silence

So, it’s been extremely quiet on here for a while, and that could mean any number of things:

  • I’ve got fed up with blogging that nobody reads
  • I’ve found better outputs for my writing energy (like, you know, an actual book)
  • I’ve found worse outputs for my writing energy (like, you know, Reddit)
  • I’ve been too busy reading and working to post
  • I’ve hardly been reading or working, so there’s nothing to post about
  • I’ve been kidnapped by aliens and have only just returned
  • I’ve found it hard to blog about fantasy books when the world is falling to pieces
  • I’ve considered giving up completely but didn’t want to announce it officially
  • I’ve had to get “real life” in some sort of order, rather than “wasting time” on here
  • I’ve run out of interesting things to say or Hidden Gems to review

Many of these things are at least partially true. At least one is definitely false.

Taming the TBR

So, things have been a little quiet lately. I don’t want to get into why, but I thought it worth talking about one of the things that I’ve come to realise lately: the massive TBR is both a blessing and a curse, and I needed to get it under control.

For those that don’t know, TBR is shorthand for “To Be Read [Pile]”, and can either be a real stack or virtual list – or, probably, both – of books waiting for you to read them. For myself and other readers whose intentions outpace their actual reading, these TBRs can stretch to hundreds of books, and usually grow over time as books are added at a faster rate than they are read (easily done, for most of us).

Social media certainly doesn’t help, with suggestions around every virtual corner, or announcements by authors you have read or keep meaning to read of their shiny new books, all of which sound so good. Then there’s Goodreads, which makes it so easy just to add books to an infinite “To Read” list with just one click. Compounding this is the ebook; with it’s one-click ordering and frequent 99p sales, the number of books you own can skyrocket, let alone all those you want to read but haven’t bought yet.

pile-of-books

But, you say, how could this be a bad thing? Books are great! The more the merrier!

When you love books this much, it can be comforting to have a huge TBR pile. You are stockpiling books for a rainy day, each full of potential enjoyment and escape, or challenging ideas and mind-expanding information. I certainly know people who are jealous of my reading list, since they read so fast (and rather narrowly, to boot) that they regularly run out of books (the horror!).

But for me, reading books became an obsession in reducing the pile, and finishing books – instead of being a pleasure at both concluding one great story and getting to start another – meant confronting that massive TBR pile (real, electronic, virtual). It all turned into another source of stress and anxiety, not escape and enjoyment.

So, I was probably doing it wrong, and needed a change. But how did we get to here?

Several things contributed to my growing TBR, the first of which I’ve already mentioned: social media. Not only had I immersed myself in (fantasy) bookish Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Goodreads, and Reddit (not Instagram, sorry), but it was as more than just a fan, as well. I started down the social media rabbit hole more as a prospective author, which led me into contact of hundreds of other authors (both published and aspiring). This means that quite apart from getting recommendations of great books, I was getting asked to read books for friends and contacts as favours, sometimes even generously given free copies. Knowing how important exposure, buzz, and reviews are to any author, I felt guilty when I simply couldn’t keep up.

The other side of trying to be a writer, was that I felt the need to read certain books out of more than pure enjoyment. I wanted to stretch myself, learn different styles of storytelling, experience different perspectives – none of which are bad reasons to read, but when you start to treat your leisure activity more like work, it inevitably becomes a chore rather than a joy (I’ve always been bad at assigned reading). That’s not to say I haven’t really enjoyed a lot of the books I “assigned myself”. I have some new favourite authors, in fact. But as the TBR grew ever higher, I started to resent this self-imposed “work”.

So, step one has obviously been to scale back a bit, reset, and try to rediscover my love of reading with the books I’ve been looking forward to the most. I’ve also had a small clear-out of the TBR, getting rid of a number of books I would only probably have read if I won the lottery and moved to a desert island. Parting with books is never easy, and I probably should have cleared twice as many (or more!), but it’s a start.

The second step has been to choose the books I really, really want to read most, just for pure enjoyment, and put those to the top of the list. Even if, in this case, it was two books I didn’t even own yet, and they would be leap-frogging hundreds of others waiting patiently for years, in some cases. Oh well, books keep!

I’m still not out of the woods, however, because I’ve found it’s not that easy to read for enjoyment anymore, even when I want to. When you spend years learning about the writing craft, analysing what you value most in stories, reading endless advice of what to do and what not to do, it’s hard to read a book and not notice a hundred little things here and there.

Of course, if the book is really good, it will be easier, but even in really good books, you can find flaws if you want to. And some part of my brain clearly wants to, a green-eyed little critic that says, “How come he gets away with this ridiculous error and still gets published?” or “How come nobody sees through how derivative this character or that plotline are?” But you realise that you’ve been in too deep, you know too much, that 99% of readers aren’t going to even notice, let alone care. You start to worry that you’ve ruined books for yourself forever, but of course, these things just take time – and a few good books!

Who knows, I may one day even be able to write again?

For what it’s worth: on controversy and harassment

So, we’re here again, still fighting a phony war between people who live in the real world, respect each other, have hope for the future, consider the impact of their words and actions, and generally want to make a positive contribution; and…some dickheads.

It’s a particularly pernicious war, in that every battle seems inconclusive, every engagement results in stalemate and entrenchment, and any breakthrough seems to be met with an even bigger backlash. It’s hard to see if anyone is winning, only the casualties, and therefore it can be hard to see the point. But it’s not about winning, it’s about progress. It’s not about defeating the “enemy”, it’s about securing the future we want to see (and as much of the present as we can get, as well).

This is not a war being fought just in genre circles, by any means, but it’s no surprise that it has a particularly strong resonance within a community concerned with literature that is, and has always been, about the human condition, whether in an imagined past, present, or future. These are not just “stories” – no stories are – and anyone who claims such a nonsense is being willfully ignorant.

Willful ignorance is indeed a large part of the problem. Lessons are out there to be learned, but people are refusing to listen. Or, they are choosing to listen to dickheads who are enabling their ignorance – and, in the worst cases, weaponising it.

It’s bad enough to see this in the wider world, but all the more astounding that it can happen within the community that, apparently, grew up reading the same “stories” about heroes and villains, about good and evil, about dystopias and utopias, about potential and pitfalls…and somehow miss the messages that are there, for me, in black and white.

So, why not just feel pity and move on?

Well, we all know why, unfortunately. These are not mere academic debates or teacup storms in online fora. The issues at play here have real-world consequences for people, not just in the mental fatigue of waking up in the trenches every day, but in the ability to have a viable career in a genre they love and contribute wonderfully to, or simply to live their life as they deserve to, free of fear and harassment.

Some of us wake up with only the barest knowledge the war is going on. Sure, you might hear the echo of artillery from over the horizon, or have to duck into a bomb shelter now and then, but life goes on much as normal (though, admittedly, normal is never normal these days). We can check the dispatches if we want, but nobody is lobbing grenades our way. It’s a nice position to be in, and certainly nobody should feel obligated to enlist if they haven’t the spoons for the fight, but neither can we leave the fighting to those who have no choice but to be on the front lines.

I wish I could abandon the war metaphor. I wish I could see this another way. Neither do I want this to become a real war. I don’t wish for the destruction of my enemy, I just wish he’d go away, contemplate his actions, perhaps look around him at the ground he’s fighting for, and realise that it’s not the idyllic fatherland that he thinks it is.

Books

Look, I’ve tried not to go into specifics, but here are a few points:

  • Diversity is not a zero-sum game, nor an assault on white men.
  • Racism and sexism are about power, and therefore there is no “reverse”.
  • Nobody* is trying to ban your problematic faves; there are no sacred cows.
  • “No platforming” is not censorship.
  • Women, POC, LBGTQ+ authors exist in SFF, and write awesome books. (Fans, too.)
  • “Political correctness” is not the quashing of debate, it means the debate is over; people don’t have to listen to your shitty opinions because they have thoroughly examined and rejected them already; it’s now on you to do the same.
  • Privilege is a thing, and if you can’t grasp that, it’s probably because you’re up to your neck in it. It’s also not your “fault”, unless you refuse to acknowledge it.
  • The world should be a safe space, and creating pockets of safety is no bad thing.
  • Harassment, of any kind, is never acceptable. This includes “trolling”.

Apparently there are people out there who do not understand these things, but the good news is that it’s never been easier to educate oneself. I’ve tried to help in the education offensive – if not for the people in the debate, then for those around it – but it amounts to repeating the same self-evident truths over and over again, and at the end of the day, it’s not my responsibility (nor anyone else’s) to show anyone the error of their ways.

Seems clear to me that, while the war is worth fighting, the individual battles may not be. If people want to remain willfully ignorant, they can do so outside the community, until they learn. I know a lot of people have got here faster than me, but there we are.

(Maybe SFF has some answers. When trenches cease to work, you can always build a huge fucking wall. Or, if you want to be sure, there’s always the Ripley option…)

Right, this has gone on too long already.

 

* OK, some people are trying to ban things, but a lot fewer people than generally get accused of it. Don’t believe anything you read in the Daily Mail.