Sunday, 23 October 2011

Ten Things the Small Press Can Do As Well (Or Better) Than the Professional Press, Part 7: Publicity

More and more these days, writers are expected to take a hand in their own publicity.  Gone are the times - if they ever existed - where you could sit back while your publishers did the legwork.  The price of having the power to go out into the digiverse and connect with your potential audience is that, with so many people doing it, it's increasingly hard to be a writer and choose not to.  You have to have a website.  You have to blog.  You have to attend conferences and do interviews and attack perfect strangers in the street whilst wearing a sandwich board proclaiming that your book is the only thing between them and the coming apocalypse.

Okay, so maybe that last one isn't mandatory.  But it can't hurt, right?

So I'm always a bit astonished when I come across small press publishers who aren't doing this things - or are doing them so badly that they might as well not bother.  Because when it comes to promotion, it makes sense that the rules that apply to the learning writer should also apply to the learning editor.  You can't assume people will hear about what you're doing of their own accord.  Chances are, they won't.  Unless you push your work into people's faces, you're far more likely to disappear amidst the clutter.  It isn't a question of how good your product is - or not at first, at any rate.  The clutter is vast, and your product, however good it may be, is small.  Too small for word of mouth.  Too small for your audience to stumble over it by accident.

Now you may not want to judge your readership in terms of numbers.  Because it can be kind of cool to have a tiny readership, right?  You may only have a hundred readers, but that actually means a hundred fans who come back month after month.  This isn't a casual audience; this is people who love the hell out of what you're doing.  Aren't they worth more than a few thousand half-hearted readers who'll be drifting onto whatever the next shiny thing to attract their attention is before the week is out?

Possibly. Only, readers are only one side of the equation.  Readers come for any number of reasons, the quality of the fiction you're punting hopefully somewhere high on the list.  Writers have two main motivations: they want payment or they want exposure.  And since this article is aimed specifically at the small press, we can assume the first one wasn't their prime motivation in seeking you out.  Which means, that writer whose story you just accepted?  They want you to get people to read it.

Not only that.  They want people to talk about it.  They want reviews.  They want comments on your website or blog.  They want evidence that you haven't just dropped their work into a deep, dark electronic hole and are now sat listening to hear if it ever hits the bottom.  Mostly, they want their career to be a little stronger, their readership a little wider, because of you accepting their fiction.

Which still shouldn't translate to, aim your magazine at the lowest common denominator.  By all means, gun for that smart, informed, confrontational readership; chances are, those are exactly the kind of readers your writers want to see engaging with their work.  But these days, however small your niche may be, chances are there are still a few thousand people out there who'll find it interesting.  Just because you only accept haiku about space-faring rodents, doesn't mean it's okay to have a readership in single figures.

On to the ill-informed advice section of this wacky diatribe!  And I don't remember doing bullet points in a while, so let's have some of those...
  • Keep a website and a blog.  Keep them updated.  Few things are more off-putting in the online world than the blog that has seemingly gone dead.  If you've nothing to say, come up with an excuse for a lengthy and rambling series of posts and work it like an eight year old in a Victorian cotton mill.
  • Network.  Be it Facebook, Twitter or fliers at bus stops, hunt your readership.  With night vision goggles and rhino tranqs if need be.
  • Find out what sites review magazines and submit to them.  Then post their reviews on your blog, website and social networking venues of choice.
  • Offer your readers somewhere they can talk about the fiction you publish - be it a letters page, a forum, or the option to leave comments after each piece.  Encourage them to talk at you.
  • Do one of those irritating newsletters that everyone deletes the absolute instant it appears in their inbox.  
  • Or else maybe not that last one.

You want readers.  Your writers want readers.  Your readers want fiction by great writers, but those great writers are only going to submit if you can build your readership, and...

Oh.  wait.  Catch 22.

Promotion, eh?  It's a whole big contradictory bag of monkeys.  But that doesn't mean you can get away with not doing it.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Are We in Hollywood Yet?

A few weeks ago, my mate Loz - the same one I recently blogged about going to Frightfest with - suggested we throw together a script for the Two Days Later short film competition, which he'd then go off and direct.

This isn't the first time Loz has entered a film competition.  Take this, for example, a mock-up trailer for a horror film I really goddamn want to see.   Nor would it be the first time we'd scripted together - but that's another story, that I hope I'll get to ramble on about at great length some day.

Apparently I was totally dismissive when Loz pitched his idea to me.  This was in Leicester Square, outside the Odeon there, after one of the Frightfest screenings.  I only vaguely remember the conversation.  Possibly it was after the Wicker Tree screening and I was hating on all things celluloid.

Whatever I said, Loz had enough sense not to listen.  The weekend after, he asked me to go over a rough draft he'd put together.  It was very neat, a simple setup leading into a creepy horror sequence that wasn't quite like anything I'd ever seen before.  But, like every first draft in history, it wasn't all there.  And the bits that ran away with my attention weren't always the bits Loz was focusing on.  Of the two characters, a young single mother and the deeply odd stranger she'd invited back after a night on the town, it was the single mum who drew me.  In my head, she quickly became a woman trying to balance boundless love for her child with the notion that maybe, just maybe, she shouldn't have to give up her whole life to motherhood.

I happened to be hanging out at Loz's house that weekend, and I spent a couple of hours hammering out a second draft.  Mostly I just tweaked, trying to prod it towards that idea - that you can love someone and still resent the hell out of them for the hold they have on your life.  That maybe, just sometimes, you wish they'd go away and let you have a little fun.  The result wasn't exactly Mamet or Sorkin, but it was a nice vignette, with one two-line exchange at its centre that seemed to sum up everything perfectly.  Here it is, completely out of context: 

(Hopeful, yet suspicious)
Yeah? Ever think about being a dad?

Ever think about not being a mum?

I think the first line was Loz's and the second line was mine.  Our contributions pretty much balanced out that way.  After my pass, we went for a walk - in the rain, as it turned out - and wrestled with what we figured to be the remaining glitches.  Despite the rain, it was a lot of fun.  If I remember rightly, we finally figured out the end while sheltering under a tree, trying to balance the risk of getting wet with the risk of getting fried to a crisp by lightning.

A week or two later, Loz (who I should probably have mentioned, is a professional video editor by day) went off and hooked up with a couple of other mates who also happened to be professionals in the film and TV industry and roped in a couple of professional actors and all together they filmed our script.  Then Loz and his co-editor / director Slade spent twenty three solid hours editing their raw footage within an inch of its life.

The result is Match.  And - not so surprisingly, I guess - it looks pretty damn professional.  Mid last week, I found out it had been shortlisted for the competition.  Having seen what Loz, Slade and crew managed to throw together out of our script, I wasn't a bit surprised.  So in a couple of weeks, I get to go to Kent and watch the first short film I've had a hand in writing on a cinema screen.

Which, when you're a complete film nerd, is just absurdly cool.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

For Reading: Flash Interview, Never Published

Given the fact that not a lot has been happening this week and that I've been suffering with some kind of quirky post-Fantasycon lurgy, tonight's blogticle is going to be a particularly lazy one.

About a year back, I posted about how I'd been approached by a student named Heather Vann, who asked if I wouldn't mind her writing an article on my story Strive to be Happy and then for the story to be republished alongside her article at

Well, I didn't mind and Heather wrote her piece.  But a further part of the plan was that she'd ask me some questions to serve as a companion to Strive, and this last bit, so far as I can tell, fell through somewhere down the line.  Well waste not, want not, right?  So I've decided I might as well run the interview here, on the grounds that someone somewhere might find it interesting - but much more so because I've had lurgy and nothing much is happening and it took me bloody ages to come up with the answers.

Thanks to Heather for the questions, me for the answers and Ernest Hemmingway for the post title.


How long have you been writing?  Can you pinpoint a certain source, moment, etc. when you became involved in writing?

I've been writing off and on since I was at school, but it was about five years ago that I really began to take it seriously.  I'd reached a point where I didn't feel my life was going how I wanted it to go, and I realised that for a long time my writing career had been more talk than action.  So I started thinking seriously about what I'd need to do to make it a reality, the kind of commitment it would take, and what I'd need to change in the rest of my life.  The answers I came back with were pretty tough.  But the more I considered it, the more I realised it was what I wanted - and needed - to be doing.

What drew you to writing flash fiction? 

Truth be told, it's not as if I write flash more than anything else.  I've written novels, a whole load of short stories - and even, at the other extreme, I've even had a couple of Twitter stories published.

Looking back to when I was regularly writing flash, though, I think the biggest appeal was the quick win aspect, closely followed by the scope for experimentation.  Flash is a brilliant learning tool, because you can get a complete first draft down in a single session.  If you're lucky, it might actually be publishable and if not all you've lost are a couple of hours of your life.  Plus, you get to take risks, have fun and try out things that couldn't sustain a longer story.

What advice would you offer to those who are new to flash fiction writing? 

That's a tricky question.  It's tempting to say that the advice for someone just starting to write flash would be the same as to anyone new to writing any kind of fiction.  But I guess there are specific challenges, and therefore skills, to writing very short stories.  So the first thing I'd say is that flash isn't necessarily a good starting point if you're new to writing.  It can be a quick option, but it certainly isn't an easy one.

That said ... I think flash perhaps rewards planning more than the average short story.  There are clear limits to what you can accomplish in what amounts to about two pages, and going off on a wrong tangent can be disastrous.  So take some time thinking through what you can realistically achieve with the wordage you have.  Every extraneous scene, character and sentence you put in will end up being cut at the redraft stage, so keep your concept simple and plan tight from the beginning.

Do you think there is a consistent theme or image you focus on throughout your different writings? 

No, not really.  I mostly write genre fiction - Horror, sci-fi, fantasy and a little bit of crime - and in genre fiction the story has to come first, you don't get to impose yourself in quite the way you perhaps can with literary fiction.  

That aside, I'm always trying to push myself, so if I thought I was putting out the same ideas time and again I'd deliberately try and shift away from that.  A big part of the appeal of writing for me is the imaginative scope.  There are no end of things to write about or ways to write about them, and every story has the potential to be a unique challenge, so why limit yourself?

What do you find the most challenging about flash fiction?

The challenge is the same thing that I love about it - you have to do everything in a thousand words or less.  It's not okay to say, "I didn't have any room for characterisation" or "I had to just skip the middle section," you have to do it all and you have to do it with far less words than you're accustomed to.

I've literally spent hours shaving away unneeded words and contracting phrases to keep a story under that magic thousand word mark - and I learned a lot in doing it.  If you want to tell a good story at flash length there's no room at all for waffle, and that's a valuable lesson, one you can take back to fiction of any length.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Fantasycon 2011: I Was There and I Even Remember Most Of It

I should probably start by admitting that I saw next to nothing of Fantasycon 2011.  For that reason - and also because it's only the second one I've been to - you might want to take it with a pinch of salt when I say that it was the best Fantasycon EVER.  But, you know what?  You'd be wrong.  Because it really was.

For a start, there was the weather.  A seafront hotel in Brighton, on the hottest weekend of the year?  That's a good start right there.  Compare that with the concrete gulag that was last year's venue and you've already hit the ground running.  But the Royal Albion was a damn fine choice of venue by any definition.  Good food, nice staff, decent rooms, a floor plan that would have given Theseus a seizure, a reasonably priced bar (I'll be returning to this point later) ... I may not know a great deal about conventions or the organisation thereof, but I think those things pretty much speak for themselves.

Then add to that a load of great-sounding events - like those masterclass things I only managed to hear about after they were all booked up - and a ridiculous industry who's-who guest list,with not only famous FCon regulars like Ramsay Campbell, Mark Morris and the lovely Sarah Pinborough, but guests like Joe Abercrombie, John Lindqvist and Brian Aldiss (Brian bloody Aldiss!)

So how come I saw hardly any of the 'Con then?  I mean, if it was so great and there were so many exciting things to do and so many neat authors to be in awe of?  Well, unfortunately, this is where we come back to that reasonably priced bar.  Okay, that and the fact that my friend and Endangered Weapon B artist Bob Molesworth happens to live in Brighton and most of Saturday was taken up by him and his girlfriend taking me to a fantastic pub and introducing me to Dave's Comics, the greatest comic shop I've ever seen.

But ... yeah ... mainly it was the bar.

That said, it seems only right to focus the rest of this post on a handful of the people who kept me company through my Fantasycon 2011 experience:

First up has got to be Lavie Tidhar.  If you don't know Lavie then you almost certainly weren't at Fantasycon; if you do know him, it's probably because he's one of the most reliably fascinating writers (notice how I didn't say genre writers) working today.  To me, though, Lavie's my Zeno and Angry Robot stablemate and the guy who kept me company throughout much of the weekend, shared his encyclopedic knowledge of everyone there and introduced me to most of them, and generally entertained the hell out of me.  My biggest regret of the conference is being too broke (and okay, too cheap) to buy his latest, the fascinating-looking Osama.

Then there's Alison Littlewood, who I've known for a fair old while now and been published besides on more than a few occasions, and who really couldn't deserve her recent deal with Jo Fletcher books more.  A Cold Season is going to be an absolute stunner.  And I'm damn glad we're not working in the same genre, since in the freakiest of coincidences, me and Ali are launching on exactly the same day*, and she would totally steal all my readers.  Ali, if you read this, apologies for missing your reading like I promised not to do.  At that point, I'd been asleep for precisely three and a half hours.  It was a long Saturday night.

But if there was one thing that really made the hell out of my weekend, it was meeting Mike Carey.  And not just meeting him, but getting to hang out with him for about an hour at the Jo Fletcher launch, drinking free wine and anatomising his career in great and minute detail.  Following on from my similar idiocy last year, my way of introducing myself to Mike was by professing my admiration for something he never actually wrote, and the fact that the conversation didn't end right there is testimony to the fact that he's - and I don't say this lightly! - the nicest person who also happens to be one of the top five writers working in the comics industry working today I've ever met.

Of course, I ran into a whole lot of other people, and most of them were completely brilliant.  The fact that I don't know their names has no relation to the merits of their conversation and everything to do with the fact that my memory is crap at the best of times and even worse when drowned in alcohol.  That and the way the name badges had apparently been designed to turn around at the slightest excuse, meaning everyone ended up being called           .  So ...              whoever you were and wherever you may be, thanks for hanging out and listening to whatever alcohol-fuelled ridiculousness I happened to be coming out with.

(Odds were, I was boring the hell out of you about how I met Mike Carey.)

So next year?  Next year I'm going to actually make some events.  And readings.  And signings.  I'm going to do all those things that make a convention a convention and not just a load of industry folks propping up a bar like it's the last bar on earth and if it should ever fall the sun will immediately implode and annihilate all life in the universe.

I will.

I'm not even kidding here.

* (that'd be the 2nd of February 2012, incidentally)