The difficult second album

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I have done what I promised. I have submitted Human Resources and now I have that vague feel of remorse that often follows big actions.

But it’s not a big thing is it, not really. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times. A rejection here wouldn’t be so different – would it?

Well, yes and no. A rejection here won’t make me poorer. It won’t knock me off what low-level perch I’ve managed to claw myself to. I won’t be back to starting from scratch.

But this is my difficult second album. It’s where the sales from my last release are compared with the quality evident in my work to determine if I have a future with this publisher. A rejection means they don’t believe I can sell enough to make their investment worthwhile. This isn’t necessarily down to me, or things I can control, but obviously I control the quality of my work.

Or do I?

As soon as you commit a story to paper, you are starting the process of fixing it into a set form. It’s fine and flexible for the first draft or two – it’s easy to change your mind at this stage – but the more time you spend on a work the more ossified it becomes. Soon it is a colossal wrench to make the smallest changes.

At some point you will come to a decision: continue wrestling with an intractable beast, start a new work from scratch, or declare it finished and move on.

I’ve had real difficulty in getting Human Resources into a shape I’m happy with. The wrestling has left its scars. Now I have declared it finished but I am still unsure if that’s because it truly is as good as it could possibly be or if I’m simply too beat up.

Time, too, is a factor here. Without an agent to tell me what is ‘normal’ for the delivery of a sequel, I imagine missed opportunities, publishing dates passing, other authors and novels by the same publisher dominating my news-feed. Have I been forgotten? Am I already written off as a flop? Why haven’t we got his next work yet?

Second-album syndrome. It shouldn’t exist. You’re always trying to do your best work; why should this one be so different?

It is, though. And now I’m nervously waiting the answer that could go a long way to determine my career as a writer.

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For the last time

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I am currently working through Human Resources for the last time.

This is, of course, untrue. There is no way in hell that it’ll be the last time I go through the manuscript, armed with a future list of corrections and clarifications and just a general sense of must-do-better-ness.

But it is the last time I’ll go through it before I send it off to my editor. I have no more to give – I’ve got my beta-reader’s feedback and, though I don’t feel able to address some of the larger points in the root-and-branch manner I should, this is one final pass to kill a few typos and to add a little bit of explanation where it’s needed.

This novel has dragged on for years. It has been through many different sets of clothes. Now it may not be perfect but I’m happy with its overall shape, the pose of the mannequin; and it’s time to dispatch it to my publisher in the hope that – while they too might not think it’s perfect – they can see enough good in it for it to be accepted.

It’s not a done thing. I’m talking about ‘my’ editor but I have no contract, no guarantees. This could easily die a death.

But there comes a point when one must draw a line under a project, bite the metaphorical bullet and move on with life.

I believe Human Resources is good enough to be published. But the journey won’t be over when I send it out into the scary world of editordom. Now…

  • The editor will read it and make notes
  • They might send it back to be to altered even if they want to sign it
  • It may go to a structural editor who will suggest changes
  • It will go to a copy-editor who will suggest changes
  • It will be proofread and there may be changes

So the work’s not done, not by a long shot.

But I can do no more. I console myself thus:

  • The novel is good enough to be published in its current form
  • It can be made better
  • I will be proud to see it released
  • It will not be a disappointment to those who liked the first novel

I believe in what I’ve done. I wish the road had been easier; I’ve found so much angst, so many hair-pulling moments through the process.

Now I have just another 130 pages to edit, then one more quick pass, and I’ll be done.

The last time until the next.

Work harder

Piracy, proofreading and podcasts

It’s been a busy few weeks. Podcasts, piracy and proofreading; all have distracted me from the important business of working out what to hell to say in this blog. So here’s another hastily thrown together post-cum-news-update in lieu of anything actually interesting:

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Piracy: Night Shift has been pirated. Copies were being offered free to download – without my or my publisher’s permission – on a notorious website that has, for now at least, been taken down. Now, as I said on Twitter, I’m more phlegmatic than furious. There is a certain sense of ‘achievement unlocked’ and a slight smugness that my hack-work appears above Stephen King’s book of the same name on the site.

Why do I feel like this? Well, I might be wrong but I have the sense that I’m too low in the author hierarchy – I’m not even midlist – for it to matter that much. I’m not going to get many sales anyway, so I’m not going to lose much, if anything, if a few people take it for free.

I’ve also got people to go into bat on my behalf. My publishers are the ones who really will suffer and they’re the ones that are going to fight – have fought – to get the site taken down. The people I feel sorry for are the indie authors and the small presses. I have no idea how my book is doing; I won’t until my periodic royalty statement arrives. Indies count every sale are the ones who suffer and I feel for them.

This is also another reason to join any writers’ union or organisation you can. Strength in numbers.

Piracy genuinely hurts people – hurts authors, who are struggling enough as it is. If you really can’t afford a book, join a library. If you can’t get to a library, many offer ebook and audiobook loans you can access without ever setting foot outside your house. Plus there are sites like Project Gutenburg that give out kosher ebooks for nothing.

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From XKCD. And it’s one space after a paragraph

Proofreading: I’ve been kept busy with that annoying thing – paid employment – recently. Due to people mistaking me for competent, I’ve had a full load of editorial work on my plate. This has ranged to the book mentioned in this podcast – a cracking good read by a lovely chap – to an amateurish novella to my current job: a non-fiction guide on how to be a mayor.

It’s great to have work. I enjoy proofreading, and copy-editing, and picking up a few extra pennies is very satisfying. It has, however, distracted me from what I really should be doing right now.

Yes, folks, my betas have responded. Huge thanks to Geoff, Robin, Dave and Alex – Human Resources, the sequel to Night Shift has been eviscerated and awaits my delicate surgery.

So that’s next on my list. Or it wouldn’t be if yet another piece of work had not just landed on my desk. Still, actually getting Human Resources into vaguely publishable state is the toppermost of my personal goals – and it’s so, so nearly there. It’s just life that keeps inserting its great size-twelves in my path.

Life. Don’t talk to me about life.

Marvin

Cosmic Dragon

Folks! I did a podcast! Huge thanks to Sean Grigsby for allowing me to prove that, whilst I am no good at selling either my books or myself, I can blither with the best of them.

Check out this podcast I did for Cosmic Dragon and marvel at my inability to make any coherent points whatsoever!

Xyrlei

Cosmic Dragon, stolen from Xyrlei on DeviantArt

Conversations with ghosts

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What do Katie Price and Donald Trump and Alexandre Dumas have in common? That’s right, none of them wrote the books that carry their names.

In the aftermath of the #copypastecris controversy I got to musing about ghostwriting and the nature of ghosts. Now I should say that I’m currently leaning in favour of the ghosts in that particular plagiarism case and I’m not here to launch a diatribe against the practice. But, as a writer, I’ve never really understood why people (who aren’t celebrities, at least) hire ghosts.

And then I realised: I know a ghostwriter and she knows others. Why not ask her a little about the industry? Hell, I hardly ever do anything original on here. Why not use my powers for good and not fall back on my usual trick of lukewarmly microwaving other people’s leftovers and passing it off as original?

So, without further ado, here’s Ben Jeapes and Jan Greenough – excellent authors in their own right – to tell us a little about how they work. Jan works mostly in non-fiction and Ben in fiction:

Can you tell us how you got into the industry? I take it you didn’t start out with an advert on Fiverr

Ben Jeapes: Pure fluke. I did some work with Working Partners, which is sort of like ghostwriting. Their business model: think up a series; sell it to a publisher; hire an author to write the thing; everyone shares the profits, so no one loses out if you accidentally write the next Harry Potter. Publishers are fine with this because they know they’re getting quality work straight up that will require a minimum of work at their end. Then my Working Partners editor changed jobs and inherited a series by a well-known celebrity which needed a writer, and she thought of me.

Jan Greenough: I started out as a copy-editor in a distant outpost of the Pergamon empire – an educational publisher called Wheaton in Devon. When we moved to Oxfordshire and started a family, I needed freelance work I could do after baby bedtime (no nurseries in those Jurassic days). From contacts made when I was properly employed, I picked up copy-editing jobs from Hodder & Stoughton and a couple of religious publishers, one of which eventually emerged from various takeovers as Lion Hudson.

Gradually I established myself as a safe pair of hands, which meant that the commissioning editors sent me worse and worse manuscripts to pull into shape. I was the Department of Silk Purses. You might ask why the publisher had accepted these nightmares in the first place, but religious publishers work to their own rules. They are more interested in people with an inspiring story than in whether the author can write. Writing can be fixed – but in the realm of ‘how my faith helps me’, the valuable commodity is the real-life experience.

In the end the job changed from ‘Please can you rewrite this poorly-written MS?’ to ‘Oops- there isn’t a manuscript at all. Can you go and talk to this missionary/reformed drug addict/survivor of the Killing Fields and write the story for them?’

Welcome to the world of ghostwriting.

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How do you get work? Do clients come to you directly or are you commissioned by agents/publishers etc?

JG: The above explains it, really. As a publisher’s pet poodle, I am sent opportunities and asked to meet an ‘author’ and get the story out of him/her. Sometimes I report back that there isn’t a worthwhile/original story at all, and the project folds. More often, I submit a brief outline and the publisher goes ahead and draws up contracts. These are almost always ‘autobiographies’, and mainly conversion stories.

I have been approached many times by authors wanting a ghost writer. Usually I assess the chances of their story being of interest to a publisher as negligible, so I decline. They can seldom afford to pay properly and think you should share the risk with them. DON’T! At one stage I kept a file called ‘Loopy Requests for Ghostwriting’.

BJ: So far I’ve almost always been commissioned by agents and publishers, though I am trying to drum up business with adverts and a dedicated website. The one exception is an autobiography for Lion Hudson that I helped with last year, where the original ghostwriter had dropped out. I had to hustle for that one, but I was still hustling at the publisher, as I also know the Commissioning Editor socially and he had mentioned the project. The author still had to approve me.

How much input does the client have? Do they give you character notes, plot outlines and so on or do you just have a brief to ‘write a novel’?

BJ: I started by being given character notes and outlines, though I was always able to make my own suggestions. Everything I wrote went back to the client for the final say.
As my familiarity with the serieses I’ve written has developed, so I’ve been given more and more leave to do my own stuff, and hence the amount of work and concomitant income has risen to the point where I can make a living out of it (see below). So, of late, it really has been a case of ‘write a novel’: but I still have to prepare an outline, get it approved and so on, and I know the kind of thing they’re after. And the client still gets the final sign-off.

JG: It’s generally someone’s life story, so I interview them at length, generally one visit per chapter, which I write up and return, so they can check that I haven’t got the wrong end of any sticks. I’ve also written some non-fiction Christian books where I have had more creative input, but everything is shared and discussed at length.

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How do you feel about seeing your book released with somebody else’s name on it? Do you think it’s fair that they get the acclaim whilst you’re forgotten?

BJ: None of the series I’ve written would have even existed without the clients asking for them – they’re certainly not the kind of thing I would have written off my own bat. One series happened because the client had fond memories of the Willard Price series he had enjoyed as a child, and wanted something similar in terms of good, wholesome, moral adventure for his own kids to read. I also enjoyed Willard Price, so it was a pleasure to be doing this kind of thing for a new generation.

All the series trade on reputations the clients have built up in other spheres through their own hard work, and they incorporate the clients’ own hard-won knowledge and experience. For instance, one of my publishers also does a series – not by me – by Sir Chris Hoy about a boy with a magic bicycle. You automatically associate Chris Hoy with bicycles, and you know a book about a magic bike will do a lot better with his name on the front than with yours.

So, long story short, I think it’s quite fair that they get the acclaim.

I’m adequately paid, and – equally important – everyone who actually matters, i.e. agents and publishers, knows it was me. I have to admit I did feel a little odd when the Willard Price fan started dedicating ‘his’ book to his kids. He was essentially saying “this is how much Daddy loves you, he hired someone to write this book for you!” And then there are clips of him reading it on YouTube. But hey, I could smile and shake my head and get on with my life.

I have a client with an absolute tin ear for dialogue, and his edits always take precedence over mine – so there are times I am actively grateful not to have my name appear anywhere, in case anyone actually thinks I wrote that.

And, ultimately, I would rather be writing than not writing. It’s very hard indeed to make a living writing science fiction, which is where I came from, so if I wasn’t doing this then I’d probably be writing blog articles for a technical company, and I know which is more fun. However, if I was ever hired to ghost write science fiction then I would damn well insist my name was acknowledged!

JG: Christian publishers have an oversized sense of fairness. Almost all my books appear as ‘By A. N. Other, with Jan Greenough’ – after all, it’s their story. Occasionally, where I’ve had lot of input, it appears as ‘A. N. Other and Jan Greenough’.

Without going into too much detail about fees and costs, is ghostwriting worth it? Can you make a living as a ghostwriter?

BJ: I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. At first it was just handy pocket money, in parallel with the day job, which was a handy cash reserve for a man with a new family. Because I started doing the plot outlines as well, as mentioned, it became liveable-off just as I was badly needing to leave a terrible job anyway, and I’ve had an amazing 3.5 years since. Now that all the contracts that lured me out of full-time employment have expired … well, we’ll see, won’t we?

The doyen of ghostwriting is Andrew Crofts and I strongly recommend his books on the subject as a reference for anyone wanting to get in on the trade.

As shown in Robert Harris’s The Ghost, ghostwriting can also be positively lethal, but that kind of thing is probably rare …

JG: No, I couldn’t make a living from ghostwriting alone, but then I was swimming in a very small pool. Most of my books covered their advances, but except where the author was famous (Fiona Castle, wife of Roy Castle) or did a lot of speaking tours (Angus Buchan), royalty payments were minimal. It’s vital to get a decent up-front fee. Even then, you’d be better off (though more bored) filling shelves at Tesco. I supplemented the income with copywriting for a marketing agency, copy-editing and content-editing fiction. And I’m still not rich. But if you make your name, and write popular mainstream books like Andrew Crofts (author of Ghostwriting), you can make a living.

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Is it harder to motivate yourself to write someone else’s work than it is your own?

BJ: I’ve never found it so, since I always go into a contract with money and deadlines and outlines all settled, so I know exactly what and when I should be writing.

I’ve worked in publishing, so I’ve seen deadlines from the other end, and I firmly believe in sticking to them. Douglas Adams famously said that he loved deadlines – he loved the whooshing noise they made as they flew by. Ha ha, goes everyone, forgetting that this is a man who could have sold his shopping list and got it published. There’s people at the other end who aren’t multimillionaires and are depending on your deadlines for their own living – so I’m afraid that remark has always dented my otherwise very high regard for him.

JG: Nothing motivates a writer better than an electricity bill.

Do you think ghostwriting is ethical? Do you think legal steps should be taken to ensure that the ghost’s name should be on the cover?

BJ: You won’t be surprised to know I’ve thought long and hard about this … and come down in favour of it being ethical. Mostly.

For the kind of fiction I’ve always written, where I’m presenting the client’s experiences in different ways, or for autobiography – I think it’s fine. They are hiring my voice for their own thoughts. A positive worldview is being presented; customers are getting value for money; I’m supporting my family; I am telling stories exist that should, and otherwise wouldn’t, be told. There is no bad here.

I am surprised at one client’s insistence that my name not be mentioned anywhere. The artist, the editor, all fine – but not me. Again, I’m adequately paid, but it does leave an odd taste in the mouth. I think he just has overzealous, showbiz-type lawyers, and lives such a cossetted existence with ‘people’ who do everything for him that he thinks this is normal.

I’m not sure what ‘legal steps’ could be taken, but if, say, the Society of Authors pushed for all publishers to at least give the ghost a ‘With thanks to …’ in the front matter, I wouldn’t complain. For the Chris Hoy series that I mentioned, he apparently has no trouble at all about acknowledging the writer, and goes on tours with her and the artist. So, win some, lose some.

Some ghostwriters clearly behave very unethically. For a start, some people looking for a writer are clearly complete newbs who don’t know what they’re doing. I regularly peruse Freelancer.com (not Fiverr …) for writing opportunities, and time and time again I see someone looking for a writer for their novel, for which they will pay peanuts. These people obviously think that the idea is the big thing in a novel and the writing is just a tedious formality, when a (good) novel is in fact a combination of the writing and the idea. I’m sure there are ghostwriters who take the gig and just churn out text that is worthy of the sum being paid. Okay, you could say both parties are grown-ups, it’s not illegal and no one is being hurt, but the writers in that case are taking advantage of fools who are easily parted with their money.

Even worse is plagiarism. I hadn’t heard of #copypastecris until you mentioned, it but, now I’ve looked it up, this kind of thing isn’t new.

TL;DR – the ghostwriter for a fantasy novel simply copied the entire first chapter of a David Gemmell novel, changing the names … and (as, allegedly, in #copypastecris) the client didn’t notice. So what have you here is a perfect storm of unscrupulous shark meeting complete ignoramus who has no idea of how this business actually works.
There’s no regulating body for ghostwriting, but I suppose an advantage of always having dealt with agents and publishers is that I am dealing with professionals and – in the unlikely event of my copying and pasting David Gemmell, Courtney Milan or any other writer – they would put a stop to it pretty sharpish.

JG: Worthy Christian publishers ensure that both names are on the cover and copyright page. This is important when you claim your PLR and ALCS (you do, don’t you? Register your books at once!) No, I don’t believe it’s ethical to hide the ghost’s name – and the published book is your advertisement for getting more work.

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Is there a point, legally, when a work is determined to be co- and not ghost-written? What’s the minimum contribution a ‘writer’ can make before it becomes not their work?

BJ: If I ghostwrite, I sign a contract drawn up by publishers and agents that clearly delineates exactly how much of this work will be reckoned to be mine (none) and what my rewards for it will be. So, I don’t believe there is a maximum or a minimum. You’re being hired to do a job, and you do it.

If I was working on the basis of an informal gentleman’s agreement then that would be another matter. But it would also be the sign of a rank amateur. I will help family members and good personal friends of long standing out with writing work: anyone else, it’s the contract.

JG: Interesting. In my experience the terms are exchangeable – my publishers stopped mentioning ‘ghostwriting’ and started calling it ‘co-authoring’, but as I say, ours were non-fiction, and the ‘author’ was the one who lived the life, often of considerable hardship and trauma. I have always wondered how ‘authors’ live with themselves when the book is fiction, to which the author has contributed nothing.

Why, in your experience, do people hire ghostwriters?

BJ: For reasons stated. They have a story to tell but don’t have the voice, or the time, to tell it. (I’ve recently taken on a sequel half-written by an actor whose burgeoning career means he simply doesn’t have time to fulfil his contractual obligation to the publisher. The first book was genuinely all his own.)

If you’re already famous then of course there are commercial reasons: for the publisher it’s a guaranteed sale; for you it consolidates your brand.

And some people just want their name on the cover of book, and aren’t fussy about how it gets there.

JG: My publishers hired me – not the authors. The publishers knew they had located an individual with a good story to tell, but the person lacked either the time, the inclination, or the education to write. They were persuaded into print by the offer of someone to shape the story so it read well, and to put in the tedious hours at the keyboard.

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What do you do if you think that the brief you’ve been given is… um… dumb?

BJ: Thankfully I’ve never been there! There have been glitches in the plot that didn’t make sense, or the plot develops in such a way that a previous idea will no longer hold, but editors are amenable to logic – whenever I’ve pointed out something like this, they’ve always been happy to go with my suggestion. Again, an advantage of getting the outline signed off first is that it minimises this kind of thing when it comes to the actual writing.

JG: I was always free to reject a job. It sometimes happened if I really thought I couldn’t get on with an author – for autobiographies you’re going to live inside their head for the best part of a year. More often I found that the story was dubious or boring. One author who had been in the backing group for a Famous Name wanted to describe a tour, but since he was fairly grumpy, it would have amounted to a long moan and was definitely not inspirational. It was never written.


And there we have it. A little insight into the world of ghostwriting. Hope it’s been interesting and informative. Huge thanks to Ben and Jan for answering my hopefully-not-too-dumb questions; if it’s peaked your interest, Jan is retired but check out Ben’s website for ghostwriting at http://www.oxfordghostwriter.com/, or for his (excellent) fiction go to https://www.benjeapes.com/

And, just a tiny reminder, Night Shift is out now and is totally ghost-free! Unless one counts the input of all the beta-readers, editors and freelancer commentators who helped bring the damn thing to publication.

All my own work? Don’t make me laugh!

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What’s it all about, Alfie?

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I’ve been musing, recently, on something you’d probably think I’d have worked out years ago, and that’s what I write about.

I’m not talking about that complex and ill-defined area of ‘theme’ that writing manuals always go on about – or, at least, not in the way that I interpret it.

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Theme is, I think, what your story is about; what’s the thread that runs through it? They often say that you don’t know until the first draft is finished. Well, Night Shift is a murder mystery set in Antarctica (and is available from at least some good bookshops) and if there’s a theme…

Well, maybe I am talking about theme after all. It’s terribly complicated and, clearly, I don’t understand it at all. But I’m here to talk about two things that I’m slowly realising are significant influences on the novel and the trilogy as a whole. One is poverty. The other is mental illness.

Let’s talk about mental illness first because it’s simpler: I didn’t realise it when I was writing the early drafts at least, but Anders Nordvelt, my protagonist, is mentally ill. Childhood trauma leading to long-lasting depression and possible borderline personality disorder or Asperger’s. To what extent he’s a proxy to me you can decide yourself.

As I said, I had no plan to do this. It’s just how he came to be written. What pleases me immensely is that the trilogy in which he stars shows a clear progression in his mental health until, by the end of the third book, we (will) see…

Hold on their, youngster – let’s keep this spoiler-free, shall we?

As I said, that’s simple. It’s a character arc, albeit an inadvertent one. The issue of poverty is harder to explore.

One of the things that interviewers are fond of asking is if I’ve been to Antarctica. My stock answer has been to say that no, I haven’t, but whilst I was writing the first draft I was working in a building that lacked heating. Ah ha ha ha, how funny and disingenuous, let’s move on quickly, right?

But now I’m realising: Antarctica is poverty.

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Antarctica is a character in my novel and I’ve come to believe (not ‘realise’ because even now I’m not 100% on it) that it is based on my experiences of being poor.

Now I should say that I was never truly hungry. I always had a roof over my head. I had family to fall back on, loathe though I was to do that.

But I felt the constant pressure that poverty causes. It’s not necessarily about feeling a physical chill – not in my experience, at least – but it’s about constant stress, of worrying whether or not you can afford any luxuries at all. It’s having to carry a balance-sheet in your head at all times. It’s about being drained. Poverty is a vampire that sucks you dry and leaves a bloodless corpse in its wake.

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@Mark Parisi; OffTheMark.com

And somehow these emotions became embodied within the frozen wastes. I don’t know how it happened and I don’t think it’s obvious in the novel. But that’s what it is to me as I now look back.

Antarctica, in the story, is context. It’s the matrix in which my characters operate; and even when it’s not mentioned it’s implicit within everything every character does. This, is realise now, is exactly how life was for me when I was flat broke.

Again I must say that there are a lot of people who have it a lot worse than me. This probably says as much about me as it does my economic state.

But every day was difficult. Every day was stress.

In Night Shift, when the chill of Antarctica starts to break through the walls and reach its frozen fingers into what was previously held safe, that how I felt when some unexpected expense undid all my hard-worn calculations. The retreat deeper into the bowels of the base was mirrored by my own retreat into home-life and hibernation.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way. Maybe I should forget about ‘theme’; maybe instead it’s a perverted version of ‘write what you know’ (and see also here). My subconscious took an innocent story and twisted it into a nightmare of its own neuroses. And by telling you this I wonder if a) I’m putting off potential readers, or b) making everything worse.

But then, isn’t the subconscious responsible for all writing? Doesn’t it drive all our decisions, for better and for worse, and don’t we just try and justify the outcomes? I don’t know. This is all a bit too heavy for me.

So I shall sign off here, leaving only a vague sense of anxiety in my wake. Am I oversharing? Have I alienated you all forever?

I worry about these things. But I also hope. And wish you, as always, happy writing.

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