Stephen is wondering why you haven’t subscribed to his newsletter.
I’ve launched a newsletter post on my novel and my novella. The good news is that it is good news, so read the post here. And subscribe as the best way to keep getting updates.
Photo S Dodgson. Me at York Art Gallery. The Lamp by Amy B Atkinson is poetic and evocative – she was a female artist who did quite well (exhibited RA at 17), unmarried, and toured Europe with her female ‘room-mates’ for many years.
The late Victorian, mystical, possibly sapphic vibe means I really like this although it doesn’t represent anyone in this book. Maybe the next
Just to say that it’s still out there, for sale, and getting the odd review like this:
Ben Jeapes gave Our Child of Two Worlds five stars
Carries on the story of Cory the alien from the first book, OUR CHILD OF THE STARS, with barely a falter in momentum. All the things that made the first book so charming and so strong are there: the golden age science fictional setting, updated with present sensibilities; the compassion and decency of the main characters; and above all, the intrusion of reality into the best-laid plans, making this feel like a story that is firmly set in the real world. Soon after the events of the first book, a new normality has just about asserted itself, people are getting used to it … And then the rug is pulled right from under their feet. There is no guaranteed ending, and whether the actual ending we do get can be called happy is a matter of perspective. I cannot recommend this or its predecessor highly enough.
Back in my home town and you can specifically find me at BristolCon – I believe you can book in advance or come to a panel on the day. The full programme link will be added when up probably 16th or so. It’s at the Hilton Double Tree Hotel, in central Bristol.
Friday 20th October
Launch of The Green Man’s Quarry by Juliet McKenna. The latest in the brilliant Green Man series which put a fairly ordinary bloke (except, he sees weird stuff others don’t) into a world where folklore is real and bloody.
15:00 – SG1 Interview skills for authors and other creatives – a workshop helping you be confident in interviews, dealing with media, identifying stories. Me! And my 30 years in PR!
16:00 – Room 2 “Point of View” – First, second, third person? Stories told in emails, or in stream of consciousness. Endlessly fascinating topic, actually.
(Yes, one panel after the other is going to be fun)
I was signing the paperback of my second book. A man came up to me, introduced himself as Owen, and said,
‘I love Our Child of the Stars! I didn’t know you had written a sequel.’
He bought another copy for a friend, and a copy of Our Child of Two Worlds for himself. So, lovely, but also, I felt like banging my head on the table.
I’ve named this the Owen Problem. Everything I did to promote the book for six months hadn’t reached an enthusiastic reader. In fact, sales suggest a great many Owens are out there.
186,000 books are published in the UK each year. Traditional publishers rely on the retailers to sell to individuals. Some small presses and some online retailers retain contacts for the purchasers – so Amazon can tell you a sequel is out.
Marketing and publicity is expected to reach the millions of Owens. But I believe 95% of marketing goes on 5% of titles. Not everyone reads book bloggers, and no one reads all of them. Not everyone reads the reviews in papers.
Furthermore, the traditional model relies on publishing the paperback six months later than the main publicity drive. (Some publishers now do eBook and paperback first, and then do a hardback if demand justifies it!)
Every commercial social media platform becomes progressively less effective, demanding more payment to make your content widely visible, or at all. TikTok (which only works for some books) is starting to go down that route.
The traditional publisher arguing the author on social can sell the books has never been brilliant and now looks very out of date.
Self-publishers of course have a similar problem.
Mastodon is a federated, non-commercial social media platform. I quite like it, it has potential, but it’s really not the main solution.
If I sold handbags on Etsy and the like, I would have emails from my buyers. I could warm them up for new products, within reason, and they’d at least know when the new one was out.
It’s why I run a newsletter and why I want to expand it. But still, I cannot expect people to follow me and 99 different authors. Our email inboxes are already very full.
If you like my content, sign up to the newsletter anyway! Free, special offers, not too frequent.
It’s one reason why I am moving into training authors in media skills, useful across a range of publicity activity.
Doug Johnstone’s The Shape Between Us has an alien land in Scotland, adding to the large number of alien landings whose story is shaped by where they land, and who finds them.
ET lands in Modesto California, since it is a story about Spielberg’s childhood. Superman in Smallville, Kansas, for his Jewish creators wanted him to be an immigrant but raised by an all American family.
I have often mused on how Pilot, Cory’s mother, might have landed somewhere else, and the infinite stories that flowed from that. To write is to choose.
Contains mild spoilers for Our Child of The Stars and Our Child of Two Worlds – spelling out some things not spelled out before.
Cory’s mother, the Pilot, flies Forager Ship Four towards a lush world of green and blue and white. A world of war, a world of summer and winter. Her son Little Blue Frog is unconscious, and her best friend and her child are already dead. Her body is wracked with pain, she cannot shake off the pain from the wounds of so many deaths. She knows she is alone dying.
Behind her, the huge colony ship tries a desperate move. It launches one of its engines into the swarm of alien machines and detonates it…
A swarm of murderous alien machines heads for Earth, dragging a meteor as a shield. What havoc it could wreak… Can she, dare she, destroy them as they fall?
This is a primitive planet, gripped by the psychosis that violence is an appropriate response to feeling beings. She may need to hide. Where on that world does she land…?
In the beginning, was a small New England town. The characters were American, except for the small purple boy with a heart of gold and a dreadful secret. His adoptive mother named him Cory. The characters and the setting existed before there was thought of anything as fancy as a book or two. I had a short story that obeyed Aristotle’s unities – a few characters, and the whole action in one place and on one day.
What if Pilot, dying, bereaved, not wholly rational, had landed somewhere else?
Fellow writers challenged me why I did not move the setting – set it in the country I knew from experience, perhaps the Meteor striking somewhere in Somerset with an improbable name like Abbot’s Balcony or Fester St James, with the Ship down in the Bristol Channel. A story set in the UK in 1969, where the times were a changing too. I was a little younger than Cory is, not remembering the Moon Landings but I did remember Apollo 13.
How different the flavour of the book would have been! Maybe I should have written a book of optimism and starry-eyed hope about Britain…
In part I set it in Amber Grove, New York, because that was as exotic as I felt up to – and because the characters came as liberal North-Eastern Americans and weren’t up for changing.
Where does Cory land and who finds him first?
Infinite books spread out. In many, Pilot’s gamble fails and Cory dies. Where there is no medical attention, his death is all but certain. In many, the authorities learn of the boy, and in every one of those he becomes a plaything of the powerful. How many governments would rush to tell the world and how many to keep him a secret? How many keep him tucked away as Molly feared, like a lab rat? How many see him first as a person?
Perhaps some of these stories are not too dreadful for him. Maybe even in an unkind world and for cynical reasons, those around him are still kind. If the President’s scientific advisor Dr Pfeiffer gets hold of him… he’s an ambitious and conceited Cold-Warrior but a kind and almost indulgent father. Many options will be nightmares for Cory and for me thinking of them.
Of course, Cory is not human. He has ways to flee captivity, before his powers are known. Afterwards I see little chance.
Look at an equal area map of the world. Look how much is Russia, China and their satellites. Look how much of it is Africa. Imagine Cory on the Serengeti, laughing at elephants, or staring at the blazing stars in longing… not knowing which star is home.
Imagine Cory’s first Earth winter – sledding in Alberta with other children, or skating a frozen pond in some Communist dacha… He does not like the stern men who come, but the Grandmothers are kind.
He might have learned Danish or Igbo or Minnan or one of the countless tongues of Papua New Guinea.
He could have fallen into a hot war… into ignorant or criminal hands…
Cory is a child who has known nothing but love. He will be a challenge to all of us, our systems and our hypocrisies, wherever he lands. What would Harold Wilson have done, or Pierre Trudeau? Indira Gandhi or Seretse Khama? How quickly the great powers would move on a lesser power – with threats and bribes.
Cory in Japan, Cory among the Amish, Cory bought and sold…
Alien ships tend to deposit their precious cargo in rural places – not just because there is more rural to land in, but for plot convenience. Imagine the Ship being seen over a city. Imagine trying to hide him in a Brazilian favela, or Manhattan. But even cities have possibilities.
There are some stories it is perhaps not mine to tell. I have a secret wish, where a kind and strong-minded widow with children of her own takes him in. She has a small circle who know their place, how people like them exist under a ration of tolerance, who know how to keep their mouths shut. Her son is a hothead, a loudmouth who renounced the name she gave him for an African name, but he is smart and he knows people on both sides of the law. Her older daughter is sleeping with a white slacker, connected to the seedier bits of youth culture. She would use those connections, and her church. The youngest daughter would love Cory in this story as much as she does in mine.
Somehow the wheel turns, and Cory is taken in by Diane Alexander… a teacher, a Black woman, a widow, head of one of the few Black families in Amber Grove. Molly, her crazy friend and neighbour would soon find out, and help with this bewitching child, but Diane would be Earth Mom.
Maybe when the big money comes calling, the film will follow that story instead.
My two novels are suitable for strong readers aged 12+.
I don’t consider them to be Young Adult Novels.
I don’t have a problem with Young Adult Novels – I have read a good number which are as good as anything not labelled YA and indeed, address issues which are not often enough addressed in mainstream work. Famously the Hunger Games attacked class, poverty, and state inspired violence glorified on TV at a time when many adult novels were on much less political themes. I might write a YA novel.
The wikipedia entry for YA genre is good but to my mind does not go far enough.
“Young adult fiction (YA) is a category of fiction written for readers from 12 to 18 years of age. While the genre is primarily targeted at adolescents, approximately half of YA readers are adults.
The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist. The genres available in YA are expansive and include most of those found in adult fiction. Common themes related to YA include friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.
Young adult fiction was developed to soften the transition between children’s novels and adult literature.” (In fact, ‘juvenile novels’ were a thing long before the YA term existed..)
For me, A YA novel usually has one or more teenagers as the **main** protagonist, and contains in some measure that teenager working out themselves and their relationships with world. My work covers the following main characters
Gene and Molly start the book in their twenties
Cory an alien is a child in the first book and early adolescent towards the end of the second book – although exact matching with his species is difficult.
Dr Pfeiffer, an adult well into his professional career, at least his late forties.
An alien adult.
So I don’t mind Young Adults reading my books, I hope they do. But I don’t see it is a specific YA book written at least half for that audience. Hope that makes sense.
This post contains modest spoilers for Klara and the Sun, and The Fear Index.
Some people in the literary world are massive snobs. They assume that romance, or crime, which sell vastly more than other genres, must be bad.
It is interesting that Austen, Eliot and Dickens were not considered ‘great literary writing’ by the literary greats of their day.
Science fiction and fantasy are considered weird books for unwashed boys despite having many diverse enthusiastic readers. The genre feeds a great many successful TV series and movies, and the electronic games industry. And as a lifelong reader, it interesting to see journalists wrestling with issues of ethics and technology which I first met in ‘books with rockets on the cover’. John Brunner for example wrote books which kind of got how fast, disjointed, and alienated modern life might become. Where wars are fought online and while computers know all about you, they can be hacked.
People who write in genre can be quite prickly about it. A big chunk of the literary world puts it down. It can lead to genre peeps getting protective when people breeze in and talk rubbish about it.
For example, a literary author – let us call him Ian – who has stopped having much interesting to say decades ago – decides to write a book about a robot who develops feelings. To do this he has to explain that he is writing literary fiction and therefore addressing things much better than (sniff) science fiction. In further defensive interviews it appears he has not read any SF published in the last twenty-five years or any by a woman.
The moral question of what we owe a being we created is the theme of Frankenstein and its myriad successors. The issue of what happens when an artificial person develops feelings and seeks independence drives the plot of Rossum’s Universal Robots, the 1920s Czech play which gave us the word Robot. And myriad successors.
This and similar debacles fuels the idea that, say, science fiction is a body of knowledge only the adept should tackle. Enthusiasts say no one should write it unless they read it widely and know its canon and its roots. Perhaps we should go so far as to say you should read terrible writers because they were once ‘important’. We are a guild, with sacred mysteries, and people should stay in their own lane.
I think this is a mistake. It conflates three issues.
Should writers tackle themes they think are of interest? Yes. The creative imagination shouldn’t be full of demarcation disputes. It is good if people see the role of artificial intelligence and want to write about its possibilities for good and ill.
Should writers be informed about the existing works on that issue -, whatever that is? Obviously, that’s helpful. Is it essential? No. There are so many books on some themes I couldn’t hope to read more than 5% of them. But if you think you are doing something imaginative and new, worth checking?
Should writers puff themselves about their originality with no knowledge of the genre? Well, that’s a conceited belly flop into the cold custard.
A better author, the late, great Iain Banks, wrote in both literary and science fiction worlds, and he said that anyone can write a detective story. To have the butler do it as a brilliant twist, they must expect and deserve mockery. (1)
It’s a good sign of someone not having read widely if they claim originality for ideas which turn up constantly. (“Magic and science in the same book” and “orcs are good really” being two of them.)
I have just read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, whose narrator is an Artificial Friend, brought into the home of a teenage girl. It is science fiction because it asks – what are the consequences of scientific advances?
In this book Klara is a wonderfully off-centre narrator, and clearly sentient. The introduction of AI has led to widespread economic disruption. It is also revealed that society allows some children to be mentally ‘lifted’ – a process which is clearly imperfect – and which creates a divided society between those families which can afford the process and the rest. (Just because we could, should we?)
Many writers would have written big symbolic clashes about these issues. What we have is a story of how it affects a couple of families, seen through a sympathetic but otherly observer, and where we readers have to fill in the gaps. It’s science fiction in a literary mode. And like Frankenstein it asks what we owe the people we create?
Another example I quote is Robert Harris’ the Fear Index, a thriller about an AI which trades on the stock market which develops sentience. It is a wonderful monster, because it figures out a better way to do what it needs to than its creators. It has no interest in hurting humans or helping them. It just does what it needs to boost its returns… (Just as computers which play Go develop werid moves no human ever thought of, driving the human players to re-engineer their own game as they play.)
So science fiction is good and matters. I don’t think as a writer I should tell people what they can write. I reserve the right to mock them if they claim originality for well-trodden ideas. After all, science fiction writers often revisit well-trodden ideas themselves.
It is infuriating when a well known writer slums it in SF and gets paid well in attention, respect, and cash, when a far better writer does not. I don’t think our anger should quite extend to being against outside writers who make an effort and do it well.
My own books sought to reach a wider audience than convinced science fiction readers. I don’t think I have ever been guilty of running the genre down. It’s a big galaxy with room for a great many approaches.
(1) It is interesting that the first comment that the butler being the murderer is a terrible cliché appears to predate any real work in which this was the plot.
Photo of robot bewildered by literary snobs by Alex Knight Pexels
To Parliament for the launch of an ALCS report on writer incomes. And I used to nip in for work reasons and it is worth remembering what a strange building Parliament is. Kind of Hogwarts.
TLDR It is very tough living on writer incomes and much worse than even ten years ago.
ALCS is a body which collects secondary use income for authors, and they also commission the Uni of Glasgow to run an independent study of author incomes.
The headlines are that the typical (median) author who works on it more than half their working hours has seen their income drop 60% in real terms since 2009. That author currently gets £7000 a year from writing, which was said to be ‘shocking but not surprising’. Writing is paid a lot less than the minimum wage (and the amount of time required unpaid to promote the book is extraordinary.)
The number of writers for whom it is their full-time job has dropped from 40% in 2009 to 19% this year.
The creative industries are around £100bn. Less and less of that is going to the author, under increasingly tough contract terms and a worrying tendency to offer contracts which have no upside if the work does very well.
MP Giles Watling spoke passionately about the importance of the creative arts. An actor and producer in a former life, he said that young actors are notoriously poor, but their careers tend to build. He said that what the report showed him was that authors can’t assume the same will happen for them.
Amy Thomas who led on the research said that reward was very unequally distributed, with one percent of authors getting a quarter of total earnings, and the top 10 percent getting just under half the total earnings. Women, the very young and very old, and ethnic minorities were significantly less well paid. She said this was ‘a profession approaching a tipping point’.
A freelance journalist and author listed all the different things she did to make a living. Freelance rates have barely increased in ten years and she can’t tell young writers to ‘demand what they are worth’ because they won’t get the job.
During lockdown, we read, we watched, we listened. Were the writers seeing the benefits of this? Does it matter that authors are largely juggling the writing around other jobs or caring responsibilities – that the system favours those with private incomes and /or partners in secure middle class jobs? It is not a system set up to reward working class voices, for example.
I don’t write just for the money. I write because I enjoy the creation. It feels like my purpose in life. I enjoy people reading my work. But to be really good, and to stand any chance of having time to do it, I have to work hard and work within this difficult market.
The industry in the broadest sense relies on people of passion and creativity who do it because they love it, and who are over-optimistic about the returns (or cushioned against them).
There’s no obvious policy fix. Researchers investigate the world, other people must find solutions, or just shrug.
A Universal Basic Income would be great, exploitation would continue but we could still live. Ireland gives writers a significant tax break. France prevents book discounting in theory protecting small bookshops and authors incomes, although the impact of that might be less positive than you think. A campaign of public shaming around some of the worst practices might work – it has begun to stop literary festivals expecting authors to appear for free.
Making payment at the time the writers’ job is done would also be a start. After all, when you get a dress or jacket drycleaned, you don’t ask the drycleaner to wait for payment until a month after you wore it.