Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Authors Behaving Badly

Yesterday, during one of those periods of displacement activity that are a routine feature of an author's life, I decided to tackle a small mountain of paperwork that I'd allowed to build up over the past few months and see if I could at least reduce it to something more in line with a mole hill. During the course of this diversionary chore, I came across the Spring Newsletter of the ALCS (Authors' Licensing & Collecting Society), an organisation that champions authors by recovering royalties for things like the photocopying of our works across the globe. Anyway, their very worthy mission aside, shame on me, I don't ordinarily read their Newsletter. Indeed, normally, the paperwork involved with respect to their Newsletter would involve at most a quick glance over before tossing it out.

But on this occasion's quick glance over, whether out of some desire for even more displacement activity or genuine interest, my eye was caught by an article by one Joan Smith, authoress and columnist, who had much to say on the current state - or more importantly, attitude - of the publishing industry, a great deal of which struck chords with yours truly. In brief, she speaks of how

"Contemporary publishing is driven by an obsession with profit, celebrity and gimmicks, which has resulted in a cull of non-populist writers."

And she finishes by boldly declaring,

"We can react to this in two ways. One is as individuals, demoralised and struggling to find the energy to keep writing. The other is as professional writers who understand the vital role of literature in our culture. When publishers stop doing their job, ours is to get angry and tell the world."

Authors getting angry? Nothing could be easier.

This was, after all, the same week in which I'm preparing yet another round of submissions - albeit to agents, rather than publishers. Something I always drag my heels over, because it's so dispiriting and often quite damaging to that rather crucial 'other' side to what I do, the creative process. This was also the same day on which I happened to spot, in the window of the local WH Smith, an ad for the Times recommended Book Of The Week, Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips. More than striking a chord, that rang a very loud (Cloister?) bell with me because it was only four years ago that I entered a sitcom idea of the self same title in a comedy writing competition. Basically, it involved Ancient Greek gods faced with the ordeals of 21st Century life in a London flat. At worst, it might have reached our screens as a sort of Olympian My Family. But as bad as that sounds, let's set that aside and consider me, outside that WH Smith window, confronted with that ad. Of course, curiosity compelled me to go inside and read the back cover blurb:

BEING IMMORTAL ISN'T ALL IT'S CRACKED UP TO BE. Life's hard for a Greek god in the 21st century: nobody believes in you, your own family doesn't respect you, and you're stuck in a dilapidated hovel in north London with too many siblings and not enough hot water.


Based on which, curiosity further compelled me to look inside and read the author's biog, you know, just to make sure she couldn't have had anything to do with presiding over a Channel 4 sitcom writing competition. Apparently she used to work as a TV researcher, so nothing that would stand up in a court of law, and I'd like to make it immediately clear that I'm not accusing Ms Phillips of anything. After all, it's the sort of idea anyone could have quite independently, and it's not the sort of thing I can really get angry about: after all, apropos of Joan Smith's article, what it amounts to is that somewhere there are publishers who will take a chance on a good, original idea and go ahead and publish. (This is by Vintage, part of the Random House group, and no small independent concern.) I'd just like it noted for the record, I had the idea first. And if Ms Phillips' book translates into a TV sitcom, I'll be sorely mad, of course.

But in the meantime, I've bought myself a copy of the novel (curiosity compelling me again! - £2.99 with a copy of the Times) and wish her luck with it.

No, what matters, again apropos of the article, is that it reminds me the longer the hard slog of the submission process continues - and the longer the prevailing attitudes in the publishing industry persist - the greater the danger that someone else 'out there' will have the same or sufficiently similar idea. And you can bet your butt, that would be the one time the publishers stop looking for the Next Big Thing that's very like the Last Big Thing and start turning down your material on the basis that it's too much like author X's 'Blah' series, the very one that's so much like the idea you tried to persuade them was the Next Big Thing three years before.

It is, as we know, a minefield. And yes, minefields are something worth getting angry about.

Still, it's easier for the likes of Joan Smith, an authoress who's already safely traversed the minefield, to stand up and rail against the publishers. For those of us still knocking at those august (pearly?) gates, if we stand up and shout at the publishers, surely that's just going to invite them to scatter more mines in our path? To say nothing of the agents. If publishers are the gatekeepers to this prestigious world, then they're the gatekeepers to the gatekeepers.

And I'm no expert, but it seems to me that they are all plagued by the same thinking, as cited by Joan Smith:

"...what I see is a combination of deep insecurity and hype. Terrorised by accountants and marketing departments, mainstream publishers are desperately trying to work out what sells and the only way they can do it is by referring to something else."

And of course that thinking has filtered down and out, from publishers to agencies, because what the one is looking for, the others are looking to serve. Thus, the mentality becomes policy. Worse, it becomes the unthinking mechanics of the machine. And the machine analogy occurs, because I see little evidence of imagination or creative vision in the process.

The human factor still demonstrates a capacity to recognise the key ingredients - originality, imagination, good writing. In recent years the responses I get tend to be of that especially frustrating consistently positive nature, commending the quality while at the same time admitting to a lack of confidence in an ability to sell. My wife is keen to point out that this is a failing on the part of the publishers/agents - a lack of vision or an unwillingness to take any kind of risk - rather than any reflection on my work. And I nod and persevere, while it goes without saying which line my subconscious takes on the matter. To the sensitive creative soul, however you deal with the news - wine or whine? - it makes you feel you were that much closer, but couldn't quite make the grade. But the hurdles, rather than being raised, are being lowered, so that we aren't being asked to vault them so much as bend over backwards in a perverse limbo. Perverse, because limbo is precisely where most of us - along with our ideas - end up.

What the publishing - and movie - world has lost sight of is that the likes of Harry Potter and Star Wars only happened because somebody took a chance on them after a long round of rejections and disinterest. And the saddest aspect of that is that the Next Big Thing could break tomorrow, any number of the larger concerns could be left kicking themselves for having turned it down, but they would all carry on making the same mistakes. Rather than take a chance.

It's fair enough in some respects: neither studios nor publishers want to throw money after every project that lands on their desks, but an inability to think outside the box is leaving who knows how many great ideas in boxes, gathering dust.

Authors, I think, are being asked to embrace the same mentality: to begin tailoring our works to that commercialism, to tick certain boxes, to become mimics rather than artists, and make our stories more like The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter. It's the running joke all authors must have heard or even said at some point: be the next JK Rowling. Suddenly, we're like all those Pop Idol applicants queuing up to be the next Britney Spears or the next Justin Timberlake. When really, ideally, we should all be out to be ourselves. Carve our own niche, and leave the rest wanting to be the next us, if they so desire.

Me, I never saw myself like that. I mean, sure, I'd like some of the amounts on JK Rowling's cheques, but I've always been out to develop my own brand(s) of engaging, enduring fiction. But what good are such aims, if what I write is not sufficiently reminiscent of Potter, or Da Vinci or Spy Kids or whatever else the industry is set on emulating?

So what do we do about that? Sure, get angry. But if we fight the publishers, don't we just end up shooting ourselves in the foot? Anger, I've heard it said, is a signpost that, as well as pointing out that something's up, points the way ahead. Julia Cameron, in The Artists Way, says lots of good things about anger, not least of which is that:

"Anger is not the action itself. It is action's invitation."

The truth is, I don't have a clue what that action might be. My wife, on the other hand - long before I read the article and started thinking about all this - suggested I consider self-publishing. That is, going into publishing myself. Heck, she says, why not.

And my problem with that was that, in response to her "why not", I have too many answers. It's scary. I'm not a businessperson. What if it fails miserably? We don't have the marketing resources or know-how. We don't have the capital. We don't have the artistic talent to produce a suitably striking and professional cover. Etc. Combine that with just a general feeling that it's somehow not as valid as the acceptance and backing of a real publisher and you have some powerfully dissuasive arguments against such a rash course of action. To say nothing of the fear that in becoming a publisher, I would become less of a writer. Less time for the creative process, coupled with - horribly - the creative drive being overtaken by concern over profits, and before you know it you've become just a smaller version of the publishing world at large, governed by the same insecurities, the same hype.

So you see, I took Joan Smith's advice and got angry and told the world, but all my anger has produced is this rather inconclusive blog. Dipping back into Joan's article for further inspiration, I find that:

"The result of all this hype is a migration to small independent publishers by authors of the calibre of Francis King, Emma Tennant and Maureen Freely."

Is this an indicator that we should all be moving towards the smaller, independent publishers? Or, taking it further, becoming smaller, independent author/publishers in our own right? Should authors be mounting a wide-scale rebellion, publishing and being damned themselves? The world can offer us print-on-demand technology, so - apart from validation and recognition and distribution and marketing - what do we need the publishers for? And in this age of personal websites and blogging and the rest, should there really be any stigma attached to self-publishing? In theory at least, the author's percentage on individual copies would be greater, cutting out the middle men. And you could feasibly prove the commercial appeal of a book, where a publisher or agent was previously unable to see it. But you'd have to be - or at least I would - so scrupulous at self-editing - or pay someone else to edit you - and you'd have to be even more geared up for self-promotion than you are already - or pay someone else to promote you. The additional challenges fall far enough outside the writer's usual remit that I wonder if the writing wouldn't suffer. And the risks are not negligible and not within everyone's financial reach, it's true. To my mind though, by far the greatest risk would be proving to ourselves that, yes, actually, the publishers were right and there is no market for your work. And wouldn't that just suck. Then again, even if you sold only a few hundred copies and made a loss, all those ideas would be 'out there' and not sitting in a box or an attic or an office drawer or wherever we're currently filing away our dreams, waiting until we are confronted with a poster advertising something eerily similar and frustratingly by someone else.

Ultimately, it feels like one minefield in place of another.

Personally, I'm undecided, but while I press ahead with preparing this next round of submissions, I will be doing - as any good husband would! - what my wife suggests and considering the alternatives. And at the same time, my imagination wanders - and wonders, what would happen if every aspiring author went down that route? Is that what it would take to bring about a shift in attitudes? Or is it enough that, as Joan Smith says, we get angry?

I guess ultimately, in either case, that comes down to whether or not anyone is listening.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Clue D'oh!

Gareth Roberts. In the vespiary. With the same joke with which he bludgeoned us to death in The Shakespeare Code.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Doctor Pepper

Or, What's The Worst That Could Happen?

In the wake (entirely appropriate word choice, I feel) of Saturday's The Doctor's Daughter, I had a horrible idea. Some friends felt Jenny was a sure indication of another spin-off somewhere down the line. Whereas, my current theory on how this will all pan out, which is entirely wild speculation based only on what we know so far and thus not at all spoilerish, is:

Come end of series, they're going to do the unthinkable and kill the Doctor off, Jenny will step into his shoes, possibly inheriting the TARDIS (and I only throw that bit in because I recall that line about her being the reason the TARDIS went there), and we'll have a 'female Doctor' for a bit (possibly for the three planned specials?), but then after David Tennant's had his much-needed break, they'll regenerate the Doctor from his spare hand to which they keep returning our attention lest we've forgotten it.

Apologies to those who've read this before - sadistically, I posted it in a comment on Stuart's blog. But inspired by that, and because I'm having to amuse myself between arduous edits on an arduous project, I thought I'd invite other wild theories here to outdo the sheer horribleness of my own. So, as I said up top, What's the worst that could happen?

Your only prize is the, er, satisfaction of being right by the season finale. But if your theory is that horrible, clearly your satisfaction will be as limited as mine when the time comes!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Miss Congenealogy

Georgia Moffett was pretty, wasn't she? The Doctor's Daughter, But Not Really might have been a more accurate title and the whole thing really wasn't helped by the fact that this potentially fascinating story was played against a scenario from the Ladybird Book Of Science Fiction Plots. If you want some idea of the shortfall between promise and realisation, you need only look to some of the comments that, along with the rest of us, looked forward to the episode:

"Out on the fansites, they're guessing aliens will pinch the Doctor's DNA. But that sounds too prosaic, and not enough to justify the hyperbole of a writer who saw part of the episode and calls it "one of the single most audacious moments in Doctor Who's 45-year-history... cheeky, hilarious and brave".

and from Rusty himself:

"Yes, that's the title. And it does exactly what it says on the tin!"

And then compare with what we got. But that's the way a con works: they razzle dazzle you, then slip you a cheap imitation. In much the same way the Ood somehow got the impression the Doctor was a great hero who saved their world, in much the same way this Hath-Human colony is told to found their new society on The Man Who Never Would - when in fact he's The Man Who Most Assuredly Would, As Long As It Was With Some Device Or Method He Could Safely Claim Wasn't A Gun Even Though It Was Just As Deadly And As Often As Not Twice As Cruel. They sell you a lie.

There were some nice touches, there were. But as soon as Jenny showed up, I don't know about you, but we were expecting the Doctor to reject her, then bond with her, then watch her snuff it by episode end. But, probably, she would regenerate - most likely, I thought, after he'd departed, believing her to be dead. Which should serve to illustrate how many surprises the episode had in store for us.

It did surprise me in some small measure that Martha could, at the same time, be such a spectacularly brilliant doctor that she could deliver the prognosis on Jenny - "no regeneration, no hope" - at a glance, while being such a spectacularly bad doctor that she a) didn't even try to save her and b) got it completely wrong. Likewise, it was of some passing surprise that Martha could understand the Fishmen, and no doubt we'll be told by supportive fans that the TARDIS was translating for her, but if so why couldn't we hear the translation as we normally do? But these questions, like most of the rest of it, were of no consequence.

Perhaps this one was really just about steering us into further spin-off territory, or maybe to that most ultimate of conclusions, the killing off of the Doctor and his replacement by this non-daughter, and Doctor Who finally gets to be more like Buffy with a fraction of the wit and ingenuity. To be honest, Jenny has a lot more charm on her side than her old man so would have that going for her. But I'm afraid I rather suspect she was right, when she launched herself off in that shuttle, and that, whatever comes of this, it will involve "lots of running around". The apple never falls very far from the tree, so basically expect more of the same.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Indifference Engine

Well, I said I'd post my thoughts on the Doctor Who Sontaran two-parter once both parts were in, but now that we come to it, I find motivation fading fast. But I'm persuaded I'll have forgotten much of the thing by tomorrow, so I'd best pass some sort of comment now.
It wasn't bad, it wasn't terrible. It was better than Helen Raynor's previous old monster two-part extravaganza. But that, of course, is about as faint as praise gets before it turns altogether invisible and, with the exception of a few select moments, it left me much like a parked car, in neutral.
So, I guess I'll just wrap this up with a quick game of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:
Good: Mike from The Young Ones as a potato-head, some nice emotional stuff between Donna and Grandpa Cribbins, UNIT making good by end of business and kicking Sontaran butt, the investigative journalist at the beginning who reminded me of Sarah Jane Smith because she was an investigative journalist.
Bad: the Sontaran second-in-command who decided not to act at all and stick with his standard toff persona, the useless but ultimately self-sacrificing prat from the League Of Less Than Extraordinary Geeks, baked-potato aliens in a half-baked plot.
Ugly: the Sontaran chant, the Doctor being such a prick in the first episode and continuing to be a bit of one in the second.
In the end though the copper was more excited than I was.