Want to Make a Living? Let’s Stop Undermining Our Own Profession

I was approached recently by a reputable company who asked me to contribute a piece for an anthology of contemporary Irish writers. There was to be no fee. They expected me to to provide the work for free, because of who they were and, presumably, the exposure I’d get for it. They were a commercial business, not a charity, though they said any profits would go towards supporting emerging writers – as if established writers don’t need ‘support’.

I said no, because I don’t work for free, but I gather enough other people have said yes for the project to go ahead. I don’t want to name and shame this company, because I do have a lot of respect for them (which is probably why others have said yes), I’ve done things with them in the past and probably will again. But it highlights a problem that’s as much to do with writers themselves, as it is the businesses they work with.

While writing as a career has become increasingly professional, with writers taking on more and more of the promotion of the work, we are also expected to pitch far more finished products to publishers, put up with smaller advances, less thorough editing, shorter shelf lives and income from our books eaten into by discounting in an online race to the bottom. Alienate 1-New RulesWe have to live with the fact that experience and expertise are valued less than a fresh face or a social media presence, that celebrity deals will put money in the pockets of people who, most of the time, do not write, and consider books sideline merchandise, depriving other books of marketing budgets and professional writers of income.

In the midst of all this, writers are allowing our expectations of what our industry owes us to be lowered, instead of raised, as the demands on us increase. Because people think it’s okay to ask a writer for free, we assume we have to accept this as normal. Do try this on any other profession whose services you pay fees for.

If you are a newly published writer, and you’re asked to write for free, I know how keen you might be for a chance to show what you can do, but I’ve been there, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can assure you, publishing works on a ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’ basis. If you work for free, you’ll just end up getting more jobs that pay the same amount – not a great foundation on which to base a career. It simply isn’t worth it in the long run. If you want to be taken seriously, take yourself seriously.

If you’re a well established, even an A-list author, please think about the environment you’re helping create and sustain for other writers. If you do work for free for a commercial business, because you caStealing Books-Printing Pressn afford to make the grand gesture, you undermine the ability of others to earn money from their work. If you don’t take a stand on this kind of thing, nobody else will and nothing will change.

I’m not anti-tech or against all the progress publishing has made, nor do I think there was some golden age when art was universally respected and considered a rational career. But even as writing becomes increasingly commodified and distributed with greater ease and less cost, the money made from it is being drawn away from the people who create it. Look at everyone else who works in the book industry: Editors get paid. Designers get paid. PR people and admin people and marketing people and receptionists get paid. Printers get paid. Distributors get paid. Booksellers get paid. Librarians get paid. None of these people would have anything to work with, if not for the those who create the stuff in the first place. Writers (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) are the only ones who can’t realistically expect to make a living in publishing.

Please, please, please, I’m asking you this not just for yourself, but for our profession, PLEASE DON’T WORK FOR FREE. If we don’t value our own work, how can we expect anyone else to?

The Wrong Kind of Attention

This is something a lot of writers must wonder about from time to time, particularly those who write crime, thrillers, horror, dystopian science fiction or other variously dark, violent, paranoid or unpleasant stories.

I am always a little curious, when doing one of my many online searches, about what kinds of flags I’m raising in the hypersensitive, communications-monitoring headquarters of the world. To give you a flavour, research for my stories has included: terrorists; a wide variety of experimental weapons; more conventional weapons such as guns, bombs and knives; instruments of torture; pathology; crime scene forensics; aviation engineering; surveillance techniques; hacking; radioactive material; police procedures; confidence tricks; and details about a whole selection of violent injuries. On the other hand, I have actually pulled short of looking for sites that show you how to make a bomb, even though it would have been useful in a couple of my books. That just seemed like a tiny step too far.

If you were to believe some films, this blog post alone would be enough to get me black-bagged and carted away in an unmarked SUV with tinted windows. Hang on, what’s that outside? Wait a minute . . .

No, it was nothing.

Colin Wratten, producer of the BBC series, Waking the Dead (one of my favourite shows, like, ever) covers this topic in one of his blog posts. I also learned from his post that there is such a job as a fly and maggot wrangler. I’ll be Googling that before too long. But it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one indulging in a bit of idle paranoia.

My new book, ‘Rat Runners’, is set in a near-future surveillance state, so I did a lot of reading on that kind of stuff. What I discovered is that much of what a science-fiction writer might dream up to feature in the kind of state apparatus run by WatchWorld is actually already in operation somewhere in the world. The kind of stuff that the East German’s Stasi’s wet dreams were made of. The more I read, the more I started thinking about what I was typing into that little Google box.

In the end, I actually had to simplify some of the stuff I was putting into ‘Rat Runners’, because the real technology being used in surveillance was so pervasive and so sophisticated, that showing the ways of beating it would take pages to explain – not good for storytelling. And besides, I’m no Cory Doctorow. If you want to see proper anti-police-state hacking, check out his novel, Little Brother. It’s technical, but excellent. Doctorow knows what he’s talking about, and is passionate about the subject. He’s probably on some of those intelligence lists for real, the trouble-making sod.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write an entire story based on hackers, even if hacking was a necessary part of the storyline. It’s extremely hard to make a guy sitting at a computer sound dramatic, even if it can be in real life. It’ll only appeal to people who are into that stuff – people who most likely have heard a lot of it already.

So, there I was, researching surveillance so that I could write a story about a surveillance state, while becoming increasingly aware of how much surveillance I was under every day, and how much more could be applied to my life, without me knowing, if I attracted the wrong kind of attention. Observing something changes it. Observing the means of observing something – and realizing you could be the ‘something’, changes you a bit too.

Now, what exactly is a ‘dirty bomb’?

Let me Google that . . .

Head Space

For the sake of my sanity, I recently carried out a purge of stuff from my office. I find it very hard to think clearly with too much unused or unnecessary stuff lying around, but until we can convert the garage into my long-dreamed-of studio, I’m in a fairly small room in the house.

I also prefer to work standing up most of the time, and have two standing-height desks – one for the computer, and one for the drawing board. I’ve had the computer on a normal desk because this room was supposed to be a temporary measure . . . that’s now been in place for nearly two years.

In the end, I went ahead and put the other standing desk in. It feels much better already, I like standing up working – particularly writing or researching – because this sit-down job will eventually knacker your back and your circulation and profoundly affect the size of your arse. I also like to pace while I think.

I made both these desks myself; they’re each about 120cm high (the height of my elbows when I’m standing) and 2 metres wide. The materials for both cost me less than a hundred quid. Eventually, I’ll have fancier versions in hardwood with some nice drawers, but these do the job just fine.

As for the clutter, I normally do a purge on a fairly regular basis, but I left it way too long this time. As a result, the room had suffered a near-disastrous build-up of crap. Want examples? What follows is a list of Shit that Doesn’t Have to Be in My Office:

Large Peter Pan pirate ship. Black & Decker hedge trimmer. 20-metre extension cable. Exercise mat. A packed up co-sleeper (small baby’s cot to go alongside a bed – recently returned by Maedhbh’s sister). A box of toys, containing a large plastic dinosaur, a large Buzz Lightyear and numerous other items. Walking boots (currently used for working in the garden). Small suitcase. Ratchet and socket set. Curtain rail (was still in packaging – I’ve now put it up so I have curtains too!). One dumbbell (currently unused – the other one is in the garage). My old Mac. A piggy bank in the shape of a running shoe (empty). One pane of broken glass from a picture frame. The picture that’s supposed to be in that frame. One shoe rack (empty). Two pairs of shoes (not on rack). One unused computer monitor. An empty flowerpot. A pack of five fat-balls for feeding birds. Three boxes of comics. Box of loose screws. Box of loose keys. Pot of enamel paint. Pot of wood filler. Box containing two stress balls (not used enough). Cork noticeboard. Two boxes of my books (‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’ and ‘Merciless Reason’). The fittings for a cot (the cot is in the garage). Manuals for the lawnmower. Basket of Electronics-Stuff-That-I’ll-Probably-Never-Use-Again. Four cacti that refuse to die, no matter how much I neglect them. Small, attractive empty cedarwood box, the purpose of which is long forgotten. And finally, a four-foot-long Tunisian spear.

I can now get from the door to my desks without weaving around or stepping over anything. What bliss!

The New Arrival

I have to admit; even after twenty-one books, I still get excited seeing my latest one fresh off the presses. I get a box of author copies when the production run’s done and they’re all being packed up for distribution, but I normally get a couple as soon as my editor can send me them, maybe one or two weeks ahead of the ‘official’ ones.

It may seem odd, but it’s not the text I have a look at first in a book – it’s the illustrations. In this case, there are just the cover and the chapter icons, but I examine each one in turn to make sure they’ve come out okay. Before I can really enjoy the new arrival, there’s a short period of suspense as I search for flaws. It’s rare that I find any worth mentioning – I have the good fortune to work with people with a thorough knowledge of their business.

There were a few last minute changes before we went to print: the blurb got shortened down, I added a couple of bits to the background piece at the end, as well as a scatter of other minor alterations.

In a way, I’ll stop thinking much about ‘Merciless Reason’, as I do with all my books once they’re done. I’m about to start editing the next one, and I’m getting on with some other sideline projects, so that’s what’s going to occupy my mind for the next while. But I’ll still pick this up from time to time over the next few weeks. It still feels good.

Thanks to Lauren, Sue, James and everyone at Random for all their work.

Here’s the new, shortened blurb:

‘There’s no escaping this family. I’d have an easier time shaking the plague.’

It has been three years since Nate left Ireland, and his ruthless, feared family, behind. But the Wildensterns are not finished with him. When he discovers that his treacherous cousin is still alive, he is drawn back into their world of plotting, betrayal and murder.

At home, Daisy and Tatiana are among the few who are trying to stem the damage the Wildensterns are doing. The family has become even more hated by the people it treads upon in its thirst for power.

One thing is for certain – the Wildensterns are back. Violence will ensue.

Gearing Up for October

Children’s Book Festival – in terms of events, it’s the busiest time in the year for most children’s book authors (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) in Ireland. Officially, it runs from the beginning to the end of October, although it tends to bleed into September and November too. Libraries, schools and bookshops all over the country will be running all kinds of events to celebrate children’s books. There are also bigger gigs, staged in theatres, run by the libraries or by Children’s Books Ireland. CBI produce Bookfest, collating reviews on the latest books, as well as the posters and other marketing material. They also act as hub for the festival, helping connect up the country and make this a national thing.

For any writer or illustrator who does talks, workshops or shows, this is the time everybody wants you to come and visit. World Book Day in March is the next busiest part of the year, but it’s just not the same as facing into the marathon month that is CBF.

I’ve had a few events since the beginning of September, but in October, it’s going to be a bit mental. I can start getting inquiries for CBF as early as March or April – sometimes earlier.

I normally need a few sessions to get me warmed up after the summer break. So far I’ve done the Monster Book Lunch in Dun Laoghaire for the Mountains to Sea Festival, I’ve been to Bush Post Primary near Dundalk and Skerries Educate Together. Yesterday I gave a talk to student teachers in Froebel College in Blackrock. All four of these were different types of events, so I should have well and truly shaken the rust off by the time I kick off CBF with two days in libraries in County Clare next week.

Over the next month, I’ll also be travelling to Tipperary, Cavan, Kildare, Monaghan, Kerry and Leitrim.

I don’t get much writing or illustrating done in October.

I’m grateful that the invitations are still coming in, because libraries and schools are having a really tough time of it. But it’s a testament to the importance given to children’s books that in many counties, they’re making a real effort to keep their part of the festival running even though they’ve got much less money to do it with.

So now I’m making sure I’ve sharpened my pencils, I’ve got my drawing materials, my easel and my books packed in my sessions case. I’ve a few new t-shirts and  some new notebook-enabled combats in the wardrobe. The roadmaps sit ready in the car – which stands cleaned out and scrubbed up, as it’s going to be my mobile command centre for much of the next month. I keep promising myself I’ll learn some voice exercises to keep my throat in order through the month – which I have yet again failed to do.

I’m taking on a few different things this time round too, so I’ve some more prep work to do yet: some comics workshops for primary school kids in Meath; ‘The Ideas Shop’ theatre show with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Bray and Navan; a workshop on plot and structure, in the beginning of November, at a seminar run in Swords by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I find that, most of the time, I have to think just few days ahead at any one time. I have to deal with October in manageable chunks.

I remember when I first got published, and I had visions of me sitting in quiet contemplation all day, writing and drawing and painting. Happily shutting the world out so I could produce my masterpieces. Since then, I’ve seen more of Ireland, and the UK, then I’d ever seen before. It’s cool, and exhausting, and stimulating, and bewildering, and it flattens you, but lifts you onto your toes again. And it’s all to get kids to read books. My books, obviously, but any books too. To get them to look into other people’s heads and find all the brilliant stuff that lies within. And really, that’s what it’s about.

And maybe out there, just every now and again, some kid will see what I and others do and will say to themselves in that quite, resolved, determined way: ‘I’m going to do that too, some day.’ And that would be pretty cool too.