Writer in Residence – good, bad, or just plain scary?

Yesterday I found myself confronted by half a dozen arrogant young men spewing resentment and repressed anger. They thought they had something to prove, though I’m not sure what. They were rude and aggressive and sometimes threatening. And the language they used toward and about each other was enough to make a wharfie blush.

I wasn’t roaming George St in the middle of the night, nor was I at a rugby league match where you might expect to see such behaviours. Nope, I was in a classroom in a local high school. Out front, actually, as a newly appointed ‘Writer in Residence.’

The young men were 16-year-old year ten students chosen to take part in a pilot program aimed at enhancing Social Media Literacy. I’d been told these particular boys struggled with basic literacy and might benefit from working in a context within which they were motivated to write.

They sauntered into the classroom with grunts and groans typical of the age group. They towered over me as I tried to navigate my way through the testosterone oozing unchecked from their pores. Like pack animals, they stuck together sniffing out the slightest vulnerability in their potential prey.

They found it in one of their own, turning on a gentler quieter boy, knifing him with intimidating stares, assaulting him with hurtful offensive comments. I couldn’t watch, it was awful. I intervened, drawing the focus away from the boy. That was the point at which they turned their aggression toward me.

I remained calm, repeatedly requesting that the behaviours stop. I started sounding like a broken record. I wondered whether I would be able to get them to write anything at all, let alone anything of quality. I decided to change course dramatically and told them they would be writing a blog about school.

“F***ing waste of time…”
“Place to hang with mates…”
“You got no f***ing clue…”
“Rather be sleeping…”

It took much cajoling and encouraging to get them to put these thoughts into words, writing in the first person. Clinging to their bravado they  managed to scrawl a few words here and there in between the rough-housing and belligerence.

It needed so much energy, but not wanting to show any sign of weakness, I persisted. I had to focus on my breathing so as not to dissolve into a pathetic blubbering mess. It took everything I had to hold it together and present an even-tempered fearless facade.

I’m not a teacher. I’m a writer with teaching qualifications who has spent the best part of the past six years sitting at a desk behind a computer, working alone. And for the last two years, working from home. Just me and the cat. And the cat never challenges me―unless he’s hungry, and that’s easily fixed.

I left that classroom exhausted. I had to go sit in the car for half an hour to allow myself the time and space to calm down. I decided enough was enough; that this gig was far too stressful. I would tell the Principal who had engaged me that I had had enough; that it wasn’t worth the stress; that I was far too sensitive a person to be dealing with unpredictable angry young men; that it took too much away from my own writing. I decided I would see the day out and  not return.

Then I read the pieces the boys had written, and everything changed. I melted. Though they struggled with the technical aspects of writing, they  wrote about their experience of school as an institution with insight and a sensitivity I had not afforded them. The writing was honest and raw and real. It conveyed fear and doubt and a level of vulnerability that would have horrified them if they’d been aware of it.

Unbeknown to them, their writing told of confused and frightened boys cowering in the bodies of angry belligerent rebellious young men,  battling the hormones coursing through their veins trying to make sense of the world around them.

Except for the quiet boy―he wrote of hate and anger and vengeance.

I’m going back next week.

Facing the Dementors

For the uninitiated, Dementors are those ghastly demons who suck all the happiness out of you. They thrive on negativity and relentlessly instill unspeakable doubt in those upon whom they prey. They can impose the ‘kiss of death’ and suck the soul and very life out of their victims, leaving nothing but a zombie where once lived hope and passion and happiness. Dementors are, of course, the creation of Author JK Rowling for her Harry Potter series.

I refer to them here because I think there exists within the writing community a pack of Dementor-like creatures who prowl cyberspace looking for victims. You might recognise them if you have had a book published electronically. They the ones who target specific authors in specific genres and zoom in multiples times to slam the author’s ratings. They conduct campaigns to rate the book with one star, often offering no comments to back it up.

Reading and writing are very subjective things. What one person enjoys, another detests. It’s the same with any creative pursuit. People’s tastes and preferences vary hugely.
And to reflect this there is a great variety of work out there, as expected. But not all of it is as polished as it might be. I’d have no problem if when rating a book the reviewer offers constructive criticism. But the Dementors to which I am referring are not targeting the books they feel do not belong online. They offer no such criticism, if they review at all it mostly has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the content of the book. It’s personal, and it’s nasty.

When people browse books online, they generally go for the highest rated or most downloaded. And it’s here to which the Dementors zoom. They band together to ‘mass rate’ with one star, thereby dragging down the book’s overall position―probably to improve the position of their own books which may be in direct competition to the targeted book.

Why? The best I can come up with is this issue of competition. And jealousy. Awful, huh? Many authors don’t have big publicity budgets behind them so rely on their own capacities to promote their work. And they work incredibly hard over long periods of times to create and distribute their work. As anyone who has ever written a book knows, an author is not made overnight. And despite rejection after rejection and suggestions to ‘get a real job,’ and general negativity ―often self-imposed― they persevere. That there are people who in the writing community who think the only way to succeed is to destroy someone else’s dream, is just miserable.

There are eBook distributors popping up across the cyber world as the popularity of ePublishing increases. Some are more vigilant than others at noticing the occurrence of this unethical and destructive practice. Smashwords recently deleted the accounts of those identified as participating in the practice and rectified the ratings. Other distributors are not so proactive. Authors need to be vigilant and notify their publisher and/or distributor if they become aware of the practice. Not just for their books, but for their writer colleagues as well.

What about literary agents?

What role will the literary agent play in the New World of publishing? I wonder if they’ve given much thought to how they may need to adapt their roles, or whether their roles may even become redundant.

Incomes of literary agents are attached to the income of the author, usually around 15% of author royalties. The success of the author (and the amount of money they earn) can be enhanced by effective representation from the agent but traditionally has been determined by the capacity of the publisher to promote the author’s work. Of course, the bigger the publishing house, the greater the resources they’re able to throw behind book promotion and the safer it is for them to take a risk on an unknown or previously unpublished author. Still, many first time authors get their first break with the smaller publishers.

This is all how it traditionally happens. But will this way of working in the industry remain profitable, or even relevant through the next few years? I have a feeling that in as little as five years time we will be looking at a very different industry. Where publishers once controlled access to the printing and distribution of books, technology is now such that everyone has access to methods of getting their work out there.

Distributors such as Smashwords and Amazon, make it almost easy for indie authors to create and distribute their work. And social media puts promoting books within reach of every author. With royalties of between 35% and 70% on offer, compared to the traditional 5% to 10%, ePublishing makes it an extremely attractive option for authors.

We’ve seen the demise of book sellers, we’ve heard the rumours about traditional publishers being in trouble, especially the small ones―particularly if they can’t adapt. But what of agents? Is there a role for them in the eBook and ePublishing context?

Perhaps. But they too, will have to adapt their practice. As with traditional publishers, I think the survival of the literary agent will depend on their capacity to redefine the role they play. Maybe it becomes about sourcing graphic designers for the eBook covers, the social media campaign and online launch, the book trailer that is becoming a necessary promotional tool. Maybe the the role of the publicist will merge with that of the agent, maybe it’s a necessary  metamorphosis. I don’t know. But 15% of net royalties from authors ePublishing (offering 30% – 70%) with no advance has to better than 15% of royalties from traditional publishers (offering 5% – 10%) with little or no advance.

What do you think?

New media book marketing

The publishing world is changing―there is no doubt about that. Borders going belly up took with it 30% of the book selling market, spelling disaster for emerging authors yet to break into the market. The game is changing. Publishers are fighting for their lives, and don’t want to take risks.

Being an author is increasingly about more than just writing the manuscript. It is about building a platform for your brand. Those of us published in the new market ― the eBook market ― are responsible for the marketing of our books. This means being prepared to embrace Social Media like we have never had to before.

Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts, and using them properly, are a good way to start, but are they enough? Book trailers are featuring more often on author blogs across the globe and I thought I’d try it here.

This is the new trailer for my novel Fake Profile. Have a look and see what you think; I’d love to hear from you!


happy birthday #amwriting

This post is for my writer colleagues across the globe who inspire, encourage, rejoice and commiserate with me on my writing journey. It’s been a year and a half since I quit my job to be a full time writer. And I have absolutely no regrets! But writing is a solitary pursuit. Day after day I sit in front of my computer completely immersed in worlds I have created. Some days the only voices I hear are those of my characters ― in my head! Try telling that to just anyone, I’m pretty sure they’d think you needed help (of the psychiatric type).

The #amwriting community is an online community that connects writers via the twitter hashtag. It’s a conversation any writer can dip in an out of at any time of the day or night. You can post frustrations or queries, successes or failures; you can get advice or give it; you can encourage and empathise; so long as it’s all in 140 characters or less!

It’s handy when you’re suffering from a heavy dose of insomnia because that darn character has been throwing up blocks all over the place, or you can’t see your way clear to finishing your novel, because, well, that would mean it’d be finished. It’s of particular use when you’re bursting to tell someone something related to your writing project that no-one else would get. Things like ‘had to write a letter to [insert main character’s name here] to say goodbye so I could start my next novel, [s/he] just wouldn’t leave me alone otherwise!’

Ah yes, only another author would understand the significance of that.
Happy Birthday #amwriting.

Next stop on this progressive blog party is: Johanna Harness