The many lives of a writer – 5

Most people are like cats – they live not just one life, but many. Writers are no exception. Here’s the introspective sprawl of my fifth writing life.

Life 5 – Diversification

Writing diversity

So this is me, now, live and uncut, smack in the middle of my fifth writing life. In my past lives I’ve written stories both short and long. I’ve experienced exultation and despair and about a gazillion emotions between. I’ve hacked out prose by the yard and written with tears on my cheeks. When the punches have rained down I’ve come close to throwing in the towel but always, at the last moment, I’ve tightened my grip on the sucker. The reason for that is (a) simple and (b) entirely out of my control: the urge to create is powered by approximately the same physics as an active volcano. Put a lid on that mother and sooner or later it’s gonna blow a heap of shit into the stratosphere, taking the top of your head with it.

This latest writing life is harder to categorise than any of the others, simply because there’s lots of things going on. Here’s a few of them:

  • Italian publisher 40k Books has been rolling out my fantasy detective novelettes as ebooks, in a series called The String City Mysteries. Some are reissues of short stories previously published in Realms of Fantasy, others are brand new.
  • I’ve written outlines and chapter samples for a number of novels, which my agent has been pitching around. My ghostwriting experiences with Working Partners taught me a lot about outlining so now, when I get a good idea, I’m more able to put it in a presentable form. I’m exploring a variety of genres too: recent pitches include a historical adventure, a series of murder mysteries and a wild-west steampunk romp.
  • I’ve written three novels to first draft stage. Two are speculative and one was completed as a result of interest from a publisher in a pitched outline.
  • As you may have noticed, I’ve been blogging. I started the blog somewhat reluctantly a few years ago, largely because every other writer seemed to be doing it. Since then I’ve come to love the thing. Sometimes I’ll do a series of themed posts like the one you’re reading, other times I’ll just blather on. I might indulge in a little shameless self-promotion. If you choose to ignore me, I’ll understand.
  • Thanks to the blog, I’ve discovered a whole new world of writing non-fiction, in particular my ongoing series of Cinefex posts – retrospective reviews of the classic visual effects journal. The history of visual effects has always been a passion of mine, and what started as a nostalgic personal odyssey has now become a regular feature that’s read (and this still amazes me) by a number of people who work in the industry. The popularity of the series is due in no small part to the terrific support I’ve had from Cinefex publisher Don Shay and the rest of his team.

When I add all this up, I realise I’m busier than ever. You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that I’m still working full-time as a graphic designer and squeezing the writing into the corners of the day. Well, the reality is that most writers have day jobs. Yes, I know it’s a painful truth, but there it is. If you’re just starting out as a writer, it’s something you’re going to have to get your head around sooner or later. So I’ll say it again. Most writers have day jobs.

‘But why don’t you self-publish?’ I hear you cry. ‘You could at least get that backlist out as ebooks. How hard can it be?’

Okay, here’s another truth: at best, self-publishing is empowering; at worst, it’s self-delusion. The one thing it is not is a magic bullet. Yes, it’s now relatively easy to package up your book and get it listed on Amazon. But, as Han Solo’s literary cousin said, ‘Who’s gonna buy it, kid?’ And if you think you can do without a good editor to point out all the mistakes you made in the first, second and third drafts, think again.

As far as the backlist goes, there’s the not insignificant fact that, because my early novels were written some time ago, I don’t have clean electronic copies of the texts. So turning them into ebooks means lots of scanning and OCR … and that means time and money. Then there’s the business of creating the ebooks themselves (not too tricky) and marketing them (as I’ve already suggested, extremely tricky). Since there are only so many hours in the day, I have to balance repackaging old material with creating new. Right now, my priority is the latter.

I see you have another question: ‘Given that you’ve lived five whole lives, what have you learned about writing and publishing so far? Go on, buddy, spill the beans.’

Ah, you would have to ask the difficult one, wouldn’t you?

Well, I’ve learned that, when I was a fledgling author, I tried too hard. In my early books I favoured complex prose. I tried to be clever when staging scenes. I liked fireworks. Now there’s more grey in my hair, I strive for simplicity.

I’ve learned that what screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood – that ‘nobody knows anything’ – is more or less true of the publishing industry as well. Editors have no more idea than the rest of us about what the Next Big Thing is going to be. So I’ve stopped trying to second-guess what people want to read and started concentrating on what I want to write. If it’s cream, I trust it will eventually rise to the top. If it sinks to the bottom, that’s probably because it’s a rotting corpse riddled with squirming maggots and noxious gases. (Yes, I know the gases make the corpses bob up to the surface eventually but run with me on this, okay?)

I’ve learned that, just because I had some early success writing fantasy novels, that doesn’t define me forever as a fantasy author. I still tend to promote myself as one because that’s the genre in which most of my published work lies – and I confess it’s a genre I don’t see myself ever leaving for good. But I have other interests too. Crime fiction. Historical fiction. Fiction that doesn’t fit into any damn genre but exists simply for its own sake (never forget that genre isn’t real – it’s just a fabricated concept that makes it easier for booksellers to shelve their stock). Non-fiction is increasingly of interest to me. There’s that screenplay I want to write …

So these are my insights so far:

Hang in there. Open your mind. Defy expectation. Be true. Write.

Yeah, I know. Nobody’s going to scribe them on a gold-plated disc and send them spinning into deep space as a summation of the wisdom of humanity. But they’re what I’ve got right now. If you take them, I’ll be delighted. If you leave them, that’s fine too.

As for what comes next, who knows? While it’s been convenient to divide up my writing experiences into a number of separate lives, the truth is of course that they all blend together. The chances are I won’t know when my sixth writing life has begun until I’m right in the middle of it. It might be a long way off. It might never come. Maybe it’s started already and I just haven’t realised it yet.

One thing’s for sure. If the next life’s anything like the five that came before, it’ll catch me completely by surprise.

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