Saturday, 13 August 2016

Writing groups - the good, the bad and the career-destroying

(I keep getting asked to write a book about writing, and I think eventually I'll do one - but in the meantime, I'll blog a bit about writing-related themes and topics. Feel free to share experiences and comments and questions below.)


Writing groups: the good, the bad and the career-destroying (*

It's one of those truisms that writers are "solitary creatures", as we're all really quite introverted (exceptions prove the rule). However, many writers though will open up and get quite animated when put into a room with other writers. Sometimes, alcohol is involved, and in the case of some meetings, a healthy dose of airing out dirty linnen, gossip and snark over whoever is currently seen as the "darling of readers" - ie, everybody who sells more copies/has better reviews, etc.

Also, definitely at the beginning of one's career, there are all these groups that promise relief from the alienation we feel when we come out as "writers" in a "non-writer" environment. We're craving validation, companionship, and answer. Oh, so many answers. For example, I went to an adult education institution to "learn" writing, only to be confronted with a pensioner's 700-page autobiography he was desperate to share, a number of entirely hopeless writers (really), and a couple ambitious ones. I hogged the ambitious ones - though none of them were particularly into speculative fiction, and LGBTQ characters wasn't what they were prepared to deal with. So that was a bit of a bust. I didn't learn a single useful thing, either.

Then I went to university and encountered a professor-run "Creative Writing" course. While German literature professors scoffed at the idea of "writing" being a skill you can learn, the US-born professor was actually looking at techniques and running a workshop on it. We'd sometimes meet at her flat, read work, get feedback. It was a lot more friendly towards speculative fiction, and the queerness wasn't a huge issue.

From that grew a private writing group. Four writers, two with ambitions to publish/sell, two who were happy just to write. This eventually went to sleep, and the two writers with ambitions teamed up to write some fiction together. Both of those groups were tremendously helpful - being able to discuss a story in detail with another writer who had been studying fiction with the express goal not to feel clever about literature but to "crack the code" of sellable fiction was very helpful. It made me feel as if it could be done, gave me somebody to talk to, and was very energising.

I also was one of the founding members of a writer's association. From that sprang my own project-based writing group; we all started unpublished, and most of us walked away with respectable deals, agents or at least a very solid background in deconstructing and building novels in essentially a group-based environment. From this grew an attempt to monetise those skills in a creative writing school which eventually broke up - also, at that point, I'd left the country.

Now based in London, I enrolled in a fiction writing course at the Open University, but didn't follow through. Several attempts to start a new project-based group failed - largely because of the demands of the day job and writing projects. Instead of learning, critiquing and feedbacking books, I was making them and sometimes worked on a one-on-one basis with writers - this eventually meant I got involved in the small press scene.

I also joined a face-to-face group in London composed of sci-fi and fantasy and horror authors. At this point, I had 20+ book releases to my name and was making hundreds of pounds a month off those. But there was a gap I couldn't close with that group. They all wanted to be "discovered" by agents and publishers (large ones, with large advances), while I was going to the DIY route and focused on production and sharpening my skills. Due to the queer characters, I was pretty much convinced that the big publishers didn't give a shit about me anyway, so I didn't even try. (They've apparently started to come round only recently.)

So, you could say, I've been around the block in terms of writing groups and what destroys them (or you or your book). So here's what I've learned.

1) A writing group, like any other group, has a kind of "base line" - expected behaviour, goals. Ask: what is the purpose of the group? 

It makes no sense to team up with writers who are not on the same page. If your desire is to get published, teaming up with "oh, maybe the muse kisses me next year" writers won't be helpful. A working writer is somebody who puts prose down and who eliminates sexual contact with higher powers as a reason to write. (Though Muse-kissing is really nice.)

At the very least, ensure that all members accept that it's a working writing group, with the aim to get work ready to publish and published. Avoid the type who shows up with their 2,500-page memoir about escaping Scientology (I wish I was joking.)

Avoid also groups that are "social" unless you look for companionship/gossip/reasons to get drunk. Those are awesome and relaxing - they won't get you closer to getting work published. So I'd say, keep "social" and "feedback" separated. At the very least, set time aside for both, and then enforce the division. I have writing buddies I hang out with, and I love talking to writers, and sometimes that means discussing finer points of writing/plotting/ways to bust through a block, etc. But I wouldn't call those "writing groups", more my "social circle".


2) A writing group as a source of treason, backstabbing, envy and sometimes valuable feedback

Let me question the value of writing groups as sources of feedback right away. I do this in spite of lots of advice out there to "find a writing group", especially at the early stages. Usually, members of a writing group, are NOT representative of your future or present readership. In my experience, especially budding and wannabe writers are still so caught up in getting their own stuff right that they're rarely equipped to give you feedback on yours.

What usually happens is this; they project their stuff onto you. So they end up talking about themselves and their own hang-ups rather than anything that's actually on the page. You end up learning a lot about them as readers, but rarely anything useful about your writing. Ooops. Not exactly the kind of stuff you want to base editing decisions on. Trust me.

This is due to the simple fact that as readers we never read the book the author has written - we project our own stuff, an the process of reading means the reader brings at least 50% of the story to the table. They'll see stuff in the writing that isn't even there. While all readers are prone to this, baby writers (by which I mean the inexperienced and wannabes) tend to project not what they want to read, but the book they would have written onto your book. NOT helpful when talking about what's on the page. 

Yes, you can get beyond this. If you analyse text dispassionately, discuss it, dissect it -- over time, you'll get what I call "red pen reading". I read everything - road signs, Shakespeare, Faulkner, blog posts, Twitter - with a red pen in my mind. How would I edit this? Make it better? Can we cut words? Why not?

This will either totally destroy your enjoyment of fiction ("oh dear, we're at 25%, that means we're now in Act 2") or shift your enjoyment from immersion to analysis ("I love how the author uses the tree metaphor in the opening sequence, transforms the meaning of the metaphor in the middle, and closes on a wood-related image in the last chapter, showing the emotional arch of the main character and the theme of individual versus society.").

These days, I read like an engineer - I see cogs spinning, and I look at a story like an anatomist or even taxidermist - I see muscles and tendons and the skeleton underneath where a normal reader would only see the nubile 18-year old gymnast and her grace. This isn't, however, a common skill in writing groups. But writing groups can help develop that skill.

What's worse, I've personally experienced so much envy and back-stabbing in writing groups (I was "outed" on the internet by a member of the speculative fiction group, for example), that I'd advise anybody to a) not make themselves vulnerable, thinking they're "among friends" (in fact, envious writers are tremendously vicious AND have a way with words) and b) guard their privacy carefully. I made both mistakes and paid the price.


3) What, then, is a good source of feedback? 

Personally, I'd use two. I've already mentioned the one-on-ones - find a fellow writer who shares your goals for your writing, possibly your genre (though I've received tremendously useful feedback from a writing mentor who writes hardcore historicals on my fantasy novels), and above all, knows what they're doing. Ideally, eliminate envy and competitive thoughts - so different genres could work.

Or maybe apprentice yourself to a more experienced, more successful writer who can hold up as a role model in the very thing you want to learn. Ideally, this is somebody you respect, somebody who respects you.

It's important that that writer doesn't do it to "lord it over you". There are some people out there who'll prop up their fragile egos by "taking down the competition", or sabotage a promising newbie's career because they feel threatened.

Do spend some time thinking what you have to offer them. Most writers at the "mentor" stage of development are generous and kind and happy to "pay it forward", mindful of how much help they've themselves received. That said, they might want to be compensated in terms of money. Agree rates, agree what you want. Out there in the real world, people pay mentors all the time, so it's not an outlandish thought. Lastly, focus on people who have experience mentoring.

If a mentor isn't available, then find somebody who shares your values and is roughly at the same stage of writerly development/career. You can learn together, though it's possibly harder. Be prepared to provide feedback for feedback. It'll sharpen your skills, too.

As we're already at the "paying" thing - I've learned a tremendous amount from professional editors. You can either pay them yourself, or submit to a well-respected publisher and see what comes back. Personally, I've had too many hit-and-miss experiences with publishers' editors (including some who were actively destructive and scornful of anything that didn't fit their tiny taste range or today's mood, or who were going through personal crisis and then lashed out at writers instead of helping them), I'd vote for getting an editor and pay them.

I like using freelancers, and I tell them what kind of feedback I'm looking for - story (does the plot work?), characters (do they work?), or copy-editing issues (find my over-used, cliched expressions, and straight-up mistakes, look at pacing on a paragraph level, etc), or just proofing (typos, missing commas). These days, frankly, I go only with copy-editing and proofing. I've studied narrative structure and writing for 20+ years, so chances are that I have my broad skills established. And I pay them.

In short, take care of predators, envy and politics - keep your eyes on the goal. Be kind to yourself, keep your mind open, be prepared to work hard, and you might find you attract the right kind of person at the right moment. Good luck!



(* Note: The damage a bad writing group can do is really manifold. In some writing groups you'll encounter old chestnuts like "write what you know"and the firm belief that it means you can't write about anybody or anything you aren't/haven't been proliferate. You'll encounter all kinds of bullshit rules and dogmas - when really a talented writer can break any rule/dogma with tremendous effects. But some writing groups cling to those rules and are unwilling to see beyond them - worse, enforce them. I've had awful experiences with people trying to enforce "show don't tell" on my writing, for example.

The politics are harmful, too. Gossip and sensationalism can destroy a community very quickly, can lead to massive public embarrassment, the end of friendships and relationships that might have been useful and/or fruitful, and create a climate of mistrust and paranoia. I got to disenchanted with my various communities/groups that I've largely distanced myself.

Bad advice or a public flaying of one's writing can also mean that people quit writing, certainly before they've grown the "famous thick skin", which, some might argue, is diametrically opposite what a writer needs to be to write about emotions. We have to FEEL, to examine the scar tissue in our own souls, and prod anything that twitches. I've encountered writing teachers/editors who were wholly dismissive of my writing - and they were right. BUT they were critiquing/hazing an 18-year old who was desperate to learn. They were scorning a 22-year old who hadn't found his voice yet. They'd attacked a 25-year old who wasn't perfect, who was still clearing the mine shaft of rubble. I persisted. Many don't. 

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Announcing Witches of London (Blurb teaser)

About Witches of London

Some problems you can’t solve with magick—and some you can.

After a homophobic pagan group rejected him, Lars Kendall is a solitary heathen on the Northern Path, loyal to the gods of the Norse pantheon. But being on his own sucks. So when he finally meets a mixed group of other queer witches and magick-users, it’s like finding family. If family involved exploring past lives and casting spells.

Rhys Turner quit a stressful job in the City after his high-strung boyfriend of six years walked out. He sold the expensive flat in central London and bought a run-down house out in the suburbs. Never mind that it needs walls knocked down, its garden landscaped, and what the hell is up with that carpet?

With his health failing, Rhys is desperate for a clean slate and a new start. He isn’t ready to fall in love with anybody, least of all the hunky builder who looks like he’s stepped out of a TV show about Vikings—tattoos, long hair, and all. But as strong and loyal as Lars is, he also has a very soft heart, which might be the hardest thing for Rhys to resist.

(Release date: 10 August) 



Monday, 11 July 2016

Incursion - re-release

Happy to announce that Incursion is now re-released in its second edition (I cleaned up some mistakes, but that's pretty much it). Cover by the amazing Tiferet Design. It's now up everywhere on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and various others. Amazon has already combined the various editions, so you can now take advantage of the whispersync offer and have Gomez Pugh read it to you. :)




In other happy news, yesterday I completed the first draft of Witches of London at 75,000 words. I expect to launch this on 10 August (yes, this year). I was originally planning to launch the book in July, but then Brexit happened and I was too shaken and upset to write. At the moment, writing is a welcome escape though, so my mojo is back.

Next project I'm working on is a small German translation and then Exile, which is the sequel to Incursion. I also have another Witches book to write, but Im' still chewing through the plotlines.

Have a great week, everyone! 

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Letter I just sent to the local MP (Brexit)

Dear [Name] MP,
I’m writing to you after the political earthquake that shook the UK and the tremors I’m already beginning to feel in my own life and that of my partner and friends.
I’m a German national who made [borough] their home in 2005. After having met on the internet, my English partner first came to live with me in Germany as I needed to finish my degree. Germany was going through one of its mini recessions; as a history graduate, I couldn’t find a job, and neither could my partner. I was then looking to join the German army as an officer both for the job security and because I believe in the mission of peace-keeping and reconstruction that the German army was largely devoted to, but when I faced the choice between possibly leaving my partner behind while I served an 8-/12-year term, my partner told me: “Why not move to London? You’ll find a job there. You have a degree and you speak English.”
I didn’t at first believe him. I’d been disheartened by too many “Do you want to make pizza or drive a taxi” jibes from the German equivalent of the job centre. Leaving my family, my life, my friends, my language and my country behind with nothing to go on but my partner’s optimism was scary.
I arrived in [Borough] in March 2005. I was determined that regardless of my education, I’d take the first job offered, regardless of pay, and had a job not six weeks later. I ended up translating German product descriptions in a data farm, doing very basic, very repetitive work for £13,000/year as a bilingual graduate. Within a couple of weeks, management realised my potential and I was quickly promoted into quality control. At £17,000, that was a big step for me, but the boost was mostly psychological. This land of opportunity for hard-working, honest workers my partner spoke about – that apparently actually existed. Within a year, I’d moved on to the research team (22K), but then I realised that data farming wasn’t what I wanted to do.
So I moved on into financial journalism (20K) – and I was hired because I’m German. The job required talking to financial professionals in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, hobnobbing at conferences, watching both the UK financial markets and what was going on “at home”, building relationships between German-speaking Europe and the UK. Everybody in that team was from elsewhere—Swedish, Dutch, French, even our editor-in-chief was American.
And I loved it. I loved telling people, no I hadn’t studied journalism and economics (as would have been required if I’d wanted to get a similar kind of job in, say, Germany), I had my job because UK company took a chance on me—that I could learn the skills necessary.
I was a good journalist, though the financial crisis made it difficult at times. I was then hired as an editor for a small financial magazine based on that experience (27K) and eventually was head-hunted by an Italian/German bank to work as an editor (44K), which was also the time when I bought a little “two up, two down” Victorian house with garden in [road].
After escaping a difficult situation in Germany, my “gamble” had paid off. We’re now a happy couple of 15 years or so, living in our little house, paying our mortgage, pursuing our careers. I’ve started a small side business in publishing and contribute to UK culture by writing novels in English.
When I attend author conferences in the States, people seem to often mistake me for British due to my accent. It’s a little strange to be mistaken for British, and while I correct them, I also make sure that I bring honour to the UK. My own identity as “German” has softened sufficiently that I considered becoming fully British. After all, my partner is English, I bought a house here, I owe any career progress I’ve made, any professional success to the openness of the UK and the flexibility of its job market, I pay my taxes here, and I wholeheartedly embrace all the values of the British. I was proud when my gay friends were finally allowed to marry—while Germany has a civil partnership, but not full marriage.
I’ve never applied for or taken any benefits, even while I was entitled to them when I was briefly unemployed. I had savings and duly lived off those, doing anything else would have felt dishonourable as there were others much more in need than I.
Last year, I was hired by a German-owned, private investment bank in the City—it’s a job I love, with a team I love possibly even more (all English, with one a second-generation Serbian immigrant). My bank employs 40+ nationalities. We all pay our taxes, contribute to our communities.
I’m paying a number of English people to help me with the garden, with the household, to edit and design the books I’m writing and self-publishing. As I’m fortunate and on a generous salary, I pay them what they’re worth, not what I could get away with. It’s my way of paying back for my good fortunes.
I never wanted to leave. I wanted to work in London until my professional life is over, then maybe retire somewhere in the beautiful English countryside (I love both Kent and Yorkshire, different as they are) with my English partner, get a couple of cats and write more books.
All of this has now been drawn into question. The disastrous EU referendum outcome, based on lies, misinformation, fear and xenophobia, is already having a negative effect on my life. Over the past few weeks, I responded to every negative comment against immigrants with, “But I’m an immigrant.”
The response came in one of three shapes: a sheepish lowering of the gaze and a quick change of topic, or a quick assurance that, “Oh, no, I don’t mean you”, or “Oh no, you are the right kind of immigrant”, or even, and I can barely get myself to type this, “Oh no, not you, you’re white” – as if it makes me feel better that xenophobia is actually naked racism with a coat on.
The third type of response is just a bit more troubling: hatred and ignorance spewed forth – such as the UKIP canvasser who tried to explain all the evils of Europe to me, a German who’s grown up in a country that only survived its own love affair with right-wing extremism because the Allied forces bombed our cities and infrastructure until we couldn’t go on fighting – and then helped us rebuild it all.
My family on my father’s side is from the area around Dresden, its world-famous church only recently rebuilt with the help of donations from former “Allied” nations. My mother’s side hails from the Ruhrgebiet—the area subject to the Dambuster episode that killed French forced labourers and lots of women and children. Essen, the city I was born in, was called “Fortress Essen”, because 1 in 4 planes attacking it was destroyed. If you look at photos of Essen after the war, 90% of its centre was destroyed (60% of its suburbs).
Our church, built in 800-1,100 AD was badly damaged, but eventually rebuilt. When in crisis or before major life decisions, I used to go there and pray (even though strictly I’m an atheist), aware of the history, the destruction, and then the mercy and goodwill shown my city and my nation.
Every time I visit the Imperial War Museum (which I support as a “member” as I believe it’s an amazing institution that educates on the terrible price of war by presenting a balanced account of all sides without hatred or rancour), I spend a few minutes in contemplation in front of the display that shows a bomber’s tailfin and other artifacts from the period. The tailfin has dates and places painted onto it—the city where I was born, the city where I lived, the city where I went to university, the city where I used to study for my exams in the library. It’s a sobering thought, and a deeply contemplative one.
Being aware of all that history, I want to tell you there’s not one decent German alive who doesn’t remember and who isn’t grateful for having been liberated from the Nazis by the Allies. My area was liberated by the US Army, but then ended up in the British Zone of Occupation, and successfully rebuild, no doubt with hard, collaborative work from all sides. Essen, with its coal and steel works became one of the main “industrial hearts” of the newly democratic Germany and in part powered what we Germans call the “economic miracle”—enabled because the victor nations allowed us to scramble back to our feet and re-take our place in Europe after we had proven we could be trusted again.
Based on our shameful history of extremism and right-wing nonsense, Germans have fully supported the European Union as a project that ensured peace and prosperity across a continent scarred by nationalism and boundless destruction. When you speak to Germans, many will tell you they feel European first and German second. “Proud to be German” is a slogan that is basically unacceptable outside the football stadium. In part because our modern democratic state was built in the image of the “victor powers” and to avoid a nationalist takeover of power ever again, Germany is the economic and political success story at the heart of Europe it currently is. Even my grandfather, who fought the Allies, never said a bad word about the English, and was perfectly happy to communicate, with hands and feet, with my English partner when they met. You created our modern, democratic state and enabled our powerful economy, and we’re grateful.
I have nothing but the greatest respect for Britain as I know it. Business-minded, fair, tolerant, open to different ideas, without religious extremism of any colour, and a job market that, I think, rewards hard work, skills, self-application, initiative, and “getting on with it”. I would be a very different person had I not come here. Every immigrant I know – Americans, Canadians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Polish, Germans, French, Costa Ricans – loves this country and works hard to contribute to it in return for the generosity and openness shown us.
So it is with unspeakable horror and heartbreak that I’m seeing this terrible EU Referendum shaking the UK. I have Polish friends who are in tears over it. They fear being deported to a Poland that has become nationalist and racist and is curtailing women’s rights right now. Personally, I have put all plans to take UK citizenship on hold – I might need to marry my boyfriend so he can live with me in Germany if I’m forced to leave.
The City of London, where I work, is already in turmoil – the Financial Times is reporting that the asset managers are making plans to move staff and offices to Luxembourg and Dublin, and the big American investment banks are set to move staff to Dublin, Frankfurt, and Madrid, so they retain “passporting” rights. Our head of research on Friday said she expects a large round of layoffs (there are rumours regarding a large Swiss bank), and she’s very plugged into the rumour mill and very well connected. Efinancialcareers, a website that is dedicated to financial careers, is citing consultants who are right now helping banks and other financial institutions to move staff out of London, and they expect losses of 50,000-70,000 jobs.
The longer the uncertainty goes on, the worse the blood-letting in terms of jobs – 1 in 8 workers in London is an immigrant. Many of us are highly qualified, optimistic, hard-working, dedicated. None of us wants to leave.
Personally, I will need to follow my job in case my bank decides to move offices, sell my house in [borough] and face possibly years of uncertainly or all the effort of having to establish myself again somewhere. I’m financially strong, I have a passport that allows me to return to Germany if I absolutely must, and I believe my job experience in the UK will place me in good stead with other German banks, but that also means ripping my partner out of his life here, his friendships and forcing him away from his two very young god-children who live in [borough].
And all of this pain and insecurity is so unnecessary.
I know I don’t count for much as a voter – all we immigrants had to watch helplessly as the UK made a decision that has a massive, negative impact on our lives and futures and that of our friends and families. So I ask you as the MP for [borough], please do what you can to stop “Brexit” and put the UK back on an even path. I pray to every divinity out there that the British values of openness, fairness and pragmatism will prevail.
Thank you for reading and kindest regards,
[name, postcode, address]

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Risk Return is live!

I'm happy to announce that Risk Return, the sequel to Return on Investment, is now live (Amazon first, and later I'll wrangle the other retailers and get the book into "wide" distribution).

This one is a lot more about the relationship of Francis and Martin than the first book. And to celebrate the release, I've pushed down the price of Return on Investment. :)




Six years ago, young and bright investment professional Martin David got exactly what he wanted—a relationship with Francis de Bracy, his boss at investment fund Skeiron Capital Partners. Having now started their own business in Germany’s banking capital Frankfurt, Martin and Francis’s life is sweet and easy. 

Until the Jesuit Emanuel, Francis’s former mentor and teacher, shows up unbidden and unwelcome. Emanuel brings with him a devil’s deal: Charles de Bracy, one of Francis’s most unforgiving enemies, has sent the Jesuit to broker peace between himself and Francis. And Emanuel does not come empty-handed—Charles is offering Francis the family fortune if Francis travels to the US and reconciles with his estranged father. 

Martin knows how proud and headstrong Francis is. No amount of money will bend his will. But as toxic as the past is, maybe facing it will finally give Francis peace. Yet, if Charles is anything like his son, he’s a formidable foe, and Francis’s scars and bitterness run so deep a billion might not be enough to even the scores. 


Thursday, 7 April 2016

The big decluttering

I have a friend who's very into Feng Shui, and she mentioned how good it is to clear out some old stuff. Lets the energy flow better, etc.

So, I just spent a few hours de-cluttering my website and this blog. I deleted quite a few blog entries (lots of them were really boring), and edited others. Mostly, I removed names and mentions of entities that cause me pain/anguish/anxiety or that I simply do not wish to be associated with any longer.

They are no longer welcome in "my space", where they block energy and remind me of awful times in my life, massive mistakes I've made, my naive belief in some people or things. I've also gone through the files on my computer and deleted files - editing and proofing I did for publishers, now ex-friends, and assorted people I no longer want in my space. I've already thrown away the books written by those people, and that already had a huge positive effect. I've most definitely deleted those books from my Kindle account. Deep breath and sigh of relief. Getting there.

If possible (and feasible). I'd have put all that to the flames. If this were a paper diary, I'd most definitely have burned it.

I've removed a great deal of my books from my website - all this is in preparation of the big relaunch. Other books no longer reflect who I am as a writer/person, so those won't re-appear. I'm also sorry to announce that some sequels won't be written, and some series will be suspended - I expect to relaunch the Scorpion series in late 2018, but Market Garden has no date yet.

2016 is definitely a transition year for me. A lot of stuff will be very different when I look into 2017, and I'm looking forward to it.

My day job remains intense, and I like it that way. My company is great, my team is great, my pay is great, and things otherwise continue happily and pretty smoothly. I hang out more on Twitter than Facebook, and I fully expect to go exclusively self-published now - I've had too many awful experiences with publishers, and the insecurity about the future of some publishers I DID like and respect only adds to that.

That said, Risk Return is definitely moving ahead, and I'll write a new contemporary series once Risk Return is published. And there's a prequel that I'm looking at, but one step at a time.