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Authory Bits

There are two parts to the scribbling job.  Firstly, there’s the writing the book.  This is the Awesome Fun part.  Then, there’s being a Professional Author.  Which is a completely different cuppa tea.

The best author bit: lunch.

Sometimes, as an author, people have lunch with me.  Sometimes it’s my editor; sometimes my agent.  Sometimes, very rarely, it’s a producer.  My favourite is a lady from LA who’s adapting the Matthew Swift books for TV.  She’s been working on this for years, and it is a testimony to how incredible I think she is that I now give this thing a good 20% chance of success.  20% is HUGE; it’s astoundingly optimistic, given what the film industry is, and only a woman as cool as she could have achieved it.

When she comes to the UK, I will receive a text message out of the blue:

Kate, I’m in town.  Are you free for dinner tonight?

By the time I’ve replied, hopefully saying yes, another text message will arrive:

I’ve just been given two tickets to see something at the theatre this p.m.  Do you want to come?

Sure; why not?!

The first time this happened I rocked up at a posh restaurant in Soho (‘is this posh?’ she asked ‘I mean, is this what you’d call posh?’) to discover that the producer had, in the last 12 hours, had the plug pulled on a project she’d been working on for five years.

“The director got me tickets to see this play to cheer me up – the Ladykillers?” she explained.  “Do you know anything about it?”

“It’s based off an Ealing comedy.  It’s supposed to be very funny, and probably very British.”

“Oh,” she said, “That could be… good?”

The tickets were in posh seats.  I almost never, ever get to sit in the posh seats.  My view of a show is nearly always from the tech box, or standing at the back.  Just being in the posh seats made me feel a little bit giddy.

“I’m laughing a bit,” sighed the producer at the interval.  “But I’m not sure I’m in the mood for farce.”

I was laughing a lot, and barely judging the lighting, which reflects well on a play.  Two days later I got another text from her.

Saw Richard II.  When the king lamented the loss of his whole kingdom, I felt better about things!  Back in a few months to make more wonderful movies!

So saying, she vanished, only to reappear six months later, I’m in town, are you free tonight? with good news about the project that had been pulled, we’ve got a deal and a new director, and good news about Matthew Swift.  In my mind, over the years, she has evolved from being merely someone I trust with my work, to being something of a fairy godmother.  For lo: she appears out of no where, in a sparkle of fairy dust, she feeds me, takes me on adventures, tells me things will be awesome, and at the stroke of midnight vanishes again, doubtless to fly back across the Atlantic on the back of a pumpkin.  What more could a girl desire?

“Do you want to talk about books?” my agent, the other fairy godmother in my life, asks, when we meet up for grubs. “Or shall I just leave it in your hands?”

“Meh,” I reply.  “We could talk about books, but you know, basically, I thought I’d write some stuff, and maybe you could see if it’s worth selling, and that’d be… like… cool?”

“Perfect,” she replies, and have I mentioned that I love my agent?  “That’s what I was hoping you’d say.”

Meeting an editor, can be a different cuppa tea.  Right now, my editor is an amazing woman who I possibly love beyond all rhyme and reason, and who did one day take me out for a cuppa tea quite literally so we could watch the tea grow in the cup.  “It doesn’t taste like much,” she explained, “But look at the awesome!”

Then: “Do you wanna talk about books?” she asked.

“I thought… you know… I’d write some stuff?”

“Cool cool!  Lemme know how it goes!”

There have, however, been those awkward meetings where an editor turns round, lays their hand on your arm and says, “The thing is, Kate, I don’t think the idea for the book you’re talking about is quite right.”

“What do you mean, ‘it’s not quite right’?”

“It’s just… not right, I think we’d all be more confident if you tried writing something else.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Well I don’t know, really.  What other ideas do you have?”

“How about this….?”

“Hum.  No.  I’m not sure that’s quite right either…”

As a writer, I can write whatever I want.  However, as an author, as someone who has to live off the earnings of my enterprise, I am bound by certain obligations.  One of these is working intelligently with my publisher.  Sometimes this is easy – sometimes it’s more than easy, it’s fulfilling and does wonders for both my wallet, and, I think, the way in which I write.  Sometimes it can be tricky, as ideas you as a writer love have to be sacrificed for the sake of your advancement as an author.

“Surely, as a writer, you should just write what you want to?” are words I sometimes hear.

And yes, absolutely.  And I DO write what I want to, but I also sometimes write this instead of that, or a book which I would have loved to be this as well, but won’t be for now.  I want to live able to write books forever, and to do that requires a basic understanding of commerce, as well as a love of words.  It’s part of the job.

Other parts of the job less fun than all the cake:

Endless email.  The amount of logistics it takes to sort out almost anything is mind-blowing.  Events, signings, talks, meetings, editorials; every morning I lose at least an hour or two just on clearing the inbox.

Editorials.  No one loves editorials.  My copy-editor has, for 16 novels, patiently put up with my epic essays in the margins on why I want to say ‘lilac’ instead of ‘purple’ in a bit of prose, or why a suggested substitution is the wrong ‘music’.  But no one loves slogging through proofs.  Or if they do, then good on them, but they’re perhaps a bit peculiar.

Author events.  99% of the time I love going to author events.  I genuinely enjoy Nine Worlds, particularly when the awesome people who organise the book track plonk me on a debate panel where it’s my job to be belligerent and cause chaos.  I love meeting people and talking about stuff, I’m even sorta coming to terms with signings, which are usually a weird experience.  It’s only very, very rarely, 1% of the time, when I find myself sat on an Author Panel of Doom, that I repent of ever leaving my flat.

“Well, in my book, I don’t actually talk about the issue you’ve raised,” says the author sat next to me, “But what I did talk about were giant robot spiders.”

My eye wanders round the room, and I wonder, how many people here are actually that interested in giant robot spiders?  Not that many, I begin to suspect…

“When writing my novel,” adds the author on the other side of me, “I just really wanted to write something set on a steampunk submarine in an alternative world where there are dragons, and my inspiration was dragons.  I’m not explaining it very well but it’s really great.”

How, I wonder, can steampunk submarine dragons be dull?  Well, perhaps they lose their sheen when they’re invoked in answer to such audience questions as, “why do you think there’s such a slim representation of ethnic and gender minorities in mainstream fantasy/sf?”

By far one of the most uncomfortable panels I’ve ever sat on, was one where the moderator didn’t know who I was.  A moderator who hasn’t done their homework is one who cannot send appropriate questions at a writer, or ask questions to stimulate debate, and under these circumstances, both content and energy begin to flag.  My kingdom, oh my kingdom, for a flaming (yet civilized) ninja-fight!  (Equally, I have turned up for author events to discover my bio contains information about the wrong Catherine Webb or Kate Griffin.  Under such circumstances, the wisest thing to do is laugh.)

Research.  I both love and hate doing research.  I love it, because the historian within me always rejoices at a primary source, and because the world at large is full of incredible stories and wonderful ideas.  I sometimes hate it, because it gets in the way of writing words, and slows down everything I do.  It’s part of the job; it’s not a glamorous bit.

PR.  If you don’t understand marketing, then you’re not being a proper author.  You want to eat?  You want someone to pay for you to have the time to actually write books?  Then you better understand how publishing works, and you’d better appreciate marketing.  Which isn’t to say you should go to the extreme: I wince every time I hear about writers, particularly untested writers, hiring PR people with their own purse, or attempting to relentlessly promote themselves, badly, on facebook and twitter with the immortal words, ‘you should all read my book, my book is great’ or variants on that effect.  Marketing is best done by professionals, and the smartest you can be is helpful when required.  Sometimes it’s cringe-worthy (I for one hate having my photo taken) sometimes it’s funny (try being interviewed in Dutch) and sometimes it’s delightful (I am still waiting for a pingpong match with Blood and Feathers author Lou Morgan).  Most of the time, it’s a necessary part of the job, and one which again, will eat up more of your life than you imagined.

That said, something not to do: do not seek out your own reviews and in the name of all that’s holy, do not, do not, do NOT engage with them!  Critics are entitled unto their views; no book is an island unto itself but rather a thing seen through the prism of a reader’s universe.  Do NOT start kicking up shit because someone said your lyricism was lame or your style was slovenly.  Just nod and smile and carry on, because by definition, this is a subjective business baby, and people are people, diverse and true.

And remember also, that the purpose of PR is to promote your book, not the author.  I would be thrilled if all my books do well, and thrilled too if no one ever knows my face.  I have met a couple of massively-successful writers who complain that they haven’t received any great commendation for their efforts, either critically or in the press, and I want to laugh and exclaim, ‘but people buy and read your books!  Dude: people buy and read your books.  There is no higher accolade.’