Category Archives: Writing Journal


On the internet, hate pays

In the desperate contest for online attention, hate is a tempting weapon. But it comes at a cost.


Do we use the word hate too lightly today? I hate this book, we say of the discarded paperback. Being a less than compelling story seems a minor crime to punish with hatred. Hate comes tattooed on the knuckle beside love. Unfaithful friends. Cheating partners. The colleague who achieves the ambition you are still dreaming of. However hard we shout our denial of the fact, the things we truly hate are also the things we truly love.

It’s because we love them dearly that books so frequently become an arena for hatred. Introverted souls are drawn to the peace and solitude that escape in to a good book offers. But those who go on to create books find themselves drawn in to the cacophonous, sharp elbowed contest to be heard in a world filled with far, far too many writers. There’s only so much attention to go around, and what writers will do to get it sometimes beggars belief.

“if they are hateful enough, a smart writer can climb the online status hierarchy with the attention such reviews gain.”

Take #HaleGate for example. Novelist and confessional journalist Kathleen Hale scooped up a huge serving of attention this week when she detailed the obsessive relationship with her “number one critic”, Goodreads book reviewer Blythe Harris. Hale’s tale tells of a savage campaign of hatred conducted against her debut novel, painting Blythe as part of a culture of intensely hateful critics who perform for a a hooting mob of online haters. Blythe’s defenders, many of them members of that hooting mob, respond that she was merely an innocent consumer. Her negative book review was no different from downrating your local McDonalds on Tripadvisor, Hale’s vengeful behaviour the equivalent of finding an armed attack team of Ronald McDonald’s on your stoop.

Alternatively, both Hale and Blythe are participants in the endless war for limited human attention being waged online. Blythe’s hateful book reviews garnered her a loyal following on Goodreads. Reading an entire book is a hard sell in this age of diminishing attention spans. But a venous review of the same book can make a delicious snack between checking your Facebook status and that next crazy cat video. If published authors are the aristocrats of Goodreads, then hateful reviewers are the voice of the mob baying for their blood. And if they are hateful enough, a smart writer can climb the online status hierarchy with the attention such reviews gain.

Scale Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

The aptly pseudonymous hate reviewer Requires Hate did just that, before apparently disappearing from the community of sci-fi and fantasy writers she had so brutally critiqued. To call the RH reviews scathing would be to downplay their sheer vindictiveness. Their favourite target were white, male authors of “grimdark” fantasy, whose general incompetence at writing female characters, and frequent dependence on sexual violence to power their plot lines, made them sitting ducks. When I wrote at the time that this kind of aggressive reviewing was here to stay, precisely because it was a guaranteed way of grabbing attention, I didn’t know precisely how accurate I was.

“I suspect those most deeply hurt by such hatred will still be harbouring hate of their own.”

The short stories of Benjanun Sriduangkaew began finding publication and widespread acclaim in 2012. This year Sriduangkaew was nominated for the prestigious John W Campbell award for Best New Writer of SF and Fantasy given at the World Science Fiction Convention. After many rumours it was recently confirmed that Sriduangskaew was none other than the author behind Requires Hate, who had dropped from public sight just as Sriduangkaew appeared. Would Sriduangkaew have climbed to such rapid attention without first courting the clique of writers and editors who also loudly cheered her hateful reviews? Readers will no doubt judge the merits of her writing for themselves.

Of course, hate as a publicity strategy has some rather profound consequences. It does, after all, beget more hate. Rightly or wrongly, Blythe’s hateful reviews were ultimately turned to the advantage of one of their targets. Hale’s adept exploitation of her haters has in turn made her the target of intense outrage online. And Requires Hate / Benjanun Sriduangkaew this week issued not just one but two public apologies for her hate filled reviews. I certainly hope that’s enough for a young writer to be allowed to get on with their career, but I suspect those most deeply hurt by such hatred will still be harbouring hate of their own.

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Ethical publishing – now wouldn’t that be something?

UPDATE : Ghostwoods Books hit their target with 9 hours to spare. Woo-hoo!

Contrary to rumour I don’t hate publishers. I understand that publishers are businesses, and as such they operate in their own best interests. The flip side of that is I feel it’s not just fair, but essential, to point out when the business interests of a publisher work against the interests of the writer. Which is often.

Ghostwoods Books are arguing – I think rightly – that there is a role in publishing for the ideal of fair trade.

That doesn’t mean writers are better off without publishers. The indie publishing scene is amazing, and the Amazon Kindle store now provides a superb new income stream for new and established writers alike. But the bottom line is that writers need time to write, and at some point that means handing over to someone else the numerous other tasks needed to publish a book. Division of labour and economies of scale dictate that writers will always need publishers – or something very much like publishers. What would an ethical publisher look like? This might be the most important question writers can ask at the moment. How would we re-shape the publishing model to ensure that, in this digital era of such great change, publishers continue to support writers instead of startling to exploit them? Across the entire publishing industry, the only people I see putting forward a serious answer to this question are London based indie publisher Ghostwoods Books. What does it mean to be a “fair-trade publisher”? You’ve probably seen Fair Trade stamps on tea, chocolate or other goods from the developing world. How could this possibly apply to a publisher working with writers? Fair trade companies are profit making businesses. But they recognise that their position in the supply-demand chain gives them far greater power than their suppliers. So while these businesses have the power to force down the prices of their suppliers in the short term, they choose to pay a much higher price in order to ensure the well being of their suppliers. They choose to trade fairly.

The Bone Clocks is the brilliant new novel from David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas.

Ghostwoods Books are arguing – I think rightly – that there is a role in publishing for the ideal of fair trade. Major publishers, as businesses, pay as little as possible for books. They spend as little as possible on editing and marketing, and only enough to maximise their return. Great for publishers, much less good for writers. Ghostwoods Books aren’t alone in thinking there is a better way, with writers like Chuck Wendig, Seanan McGuire, Warren Ellis and many others putting their support behind the idea. Ghostswoods Books are turning to readers for the second stage of their development, with a mid-size Kickstarter coming in to it’s last 48 hours as I type this. That Kickstarter will fund a year of work for the publishing industries only fair trade publisher. I think that’s a goal worth supporting. And I have a feeling, you will too.


The last days of #GamerGate

For those yet unaware, #GamerGate is an online campaign run by some fans of video games, a campaign directing a lot of anger at people who criticise video games for being violent and sexist. #GamerGate has been rumbling along on social media, Twitter being at the eye of the storm, for some weeks now. But today #GamerGate entered its final phase.

Is #GamerGate anything more than a pointless online squabble? I believe it is, yes. The real question at the heart of #GamerGate is this – are video games essentially an adolescent distraction, packed with sex and violence to capture a predominantly young, predominantly male audience? Or can video games, after four decades of development, become a mature art form? Just as novels, movies, tv and other kinds of mass media art exist to serve many kinds of audience, so should video games.

In it’s early days video gaming was part of the children’s toy industry. Consoles and other early gaming platforms like the Sinclair Spectrum were marketed to children, and games were largely focused on on kids. As those kids grew in to adolescents and young people, the games became increasingly violent and sexualised, simply because these are easy ways to capture the young male demographic many game producers see as their core audience.

So when Anita Sarkeesian points all of this out in her Feminist Frequency podcasts, or when Leigh Alexander explains that the audience for games is now much broader than just young adolescent males, and that the old “gamer culture” that exclusively served them is therefore dead, they are ENTIRELY CORRECT. And also doing video gaming a great service by helping it move on, and develop its full potential.

The #GamerGate backlash was entirely predictable, but its venom and nastiness was even greater than many expected. Of course there are people – some young adolescent males, some older men who haven’t grown up emotionally, and some developers dedicated to serving them – who feel threatened by all this. And they make a lot of noise. People looking at #GamerGate in recent weeks can be forgiven for thinking it represents what the majority of gamers think. But like many radicalised movements, it represents a small minority who make far more noise and attract far more attention than they deserve.

For anyone who wants to to see video games fulfil their potential, the last days of #GamerGate can’t come too soon.

And also like other radical factions, #GamerGate crossed some serious lines to gain attention for its lost cause. Members of #GamerGate issued bomb threats, not the first we should note, leading to the cancellation of a public event by guest speaker Anita Sarkeesian. In short, #GamerGate became such a hysterical overreaction to the issue of video games that its members HAVE ACTUALLY TAKEN UP DOMESTIC TERRORISM. In response, the vast majority of the gaming community have come out against #GamerGate, making the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag trend worldwide.

If you’re still in any doubt about which “side” is in the right in #GamerGate, ask yourself what happens if one side or the other wins? If #GamerGate wins, video games continue as a highly violent, highly sexualised distraction for adolescents. If everyone other sane rational human with an interest in video games is heard, then gaming has the space to grow in to something much more creative and valuable. #GamerGate suits the interests of a few game producers who can’t see beyond the quick buck they make selling sex and violence to teenagers, and a minority of gamers who are happy with that limited idea of gaming. For anyone who wants to to see video games fulfil their potential, the last days of #GamerGate can’t come too soon.


Art feasts upon its maker – is writing bad for you?

“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned.”

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

“Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

Stephen King, On Writing

One of the most rewarding parts of helping other writers is what you learn in exchange. One of my clients, the fascinating David Dakan Allison, sent me the quote above from David Mitchell, author of Ghostwritten, Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks. I’m in the midst of an email interview with Mitchell at the moment, and tempted to ask him about the idea of art feasting on its maker. It makes me think of the opposing quote from Stephen King, that art exists to support life IE the writer writes a book to get paid so he can live a good life.

I’ve wondered before if King’s On Writing is so popular with aspiring writers because it argues that writing can be all gain and no give. Mitchell’s position is less easy to hear – writing is a gift to the reader because it sucks something essential out of the writer. It’s hard, and possibly bad for us. But then don’t writers just love to mythologise, and what better way to self-mythologise than to claim our art is killing us!

Two great writers arguing two very different opinions on the issue of art. I suspect the one we prefer says as much about ourselves as it does about the argument.

Think more about advice for writers with these 5 indispensable guides for writing.

Digital Publishing – a thought experiment

Rewind your imagination less than a decade to late 2007. Amazon are making final preparations to launch the Kindle e-reader and the ebook store that would, in just a few short years, come to dominate digital publishing. Now imagine, in true sci-fi alternate history style, that the major publishers had actually taken up the baton of innovation and pre-empted Amazon with an ebook platform of their own. Over the next few years the publishers, with the massive advantage that they own all the books, push Amazon out of digital publishing and preserve their business for the future.

Hurrah! Right?

Let’s ask a few questions of this scenario. Would the publishers ebook platform provide affordable ebooks to readers all around the world? Would the publishers ebook platform be open, free of charge, for any writer to publish their work? Would the publishers ebook platform pay writers a 70% royalty?

Now tell me again, why is Amazon the bad guy?

Why is publishing so biased against Amazon? No one likes their own killer

Hugh Howey writes up a sharp piece on the massive bias against Amazon in the reporting of news around the publishing industry. Howey frames his argument in the bigger picture of technology disrupting industry. Tesla is disrupting the legacy car industry. Netflix is disrupting the legacy movie and tv industry. And the list goes on, in all of them we see the same tug of war between old and new.


Two forces tug legacy industries from opposite directions. On the one side, you have customer demand. On the other side you have a mix of fear and laziness. In-between is where corporations and industries find themselves, and they face a choice. Sadly, in most cases, the fear and laziness win out. It’s left to radical new upstarts to provide customers with what they actually want.

via Give Customers What They Want | Hugh Howey.


But I think Howey misses the brutal truth in his analysis.  Amazon isn’t just disrupting publishing, it is butchering it before our eyes. The bookstores still in business like Waterstones in the UK are on their last legs.  Established mid-sized publishers like Quercus and Osprey hit major financial problems this year, making redundancies and selling off imprints in recent months, with many more in extremely difficult circumstances. The entire legacy publishing industry is at risk, because Amazon stole the digital publishing market out from under them and is exploiting this to the full. Why is the publishing industry so biased against Amazon? No one likes the person who is murdering them.

The lesson of Authonomy? Good writing has great value

Does anyone remember Authonomy? The site launched by HarperCollins back in 2008 was supposed to revolutionise and democratise how new writers were discovered. I try and keep track of new talent entering the writing field, and it occurred to me recently that I couldn’t think of a single writer to come out of Authonomy and become an established author. Maybe I’m missing something, but after some time researching, I still can’t find any true Authonomy success stories.


Let me suggest that Authonomy is based on a profoundly inaccurate assumption. It’s an assumption that the publishing industry has good reason to believe, and that aspiring writers are happy to buy in to as well. The assumption is this – that there is far more good writing than can be published. Picture a world crowded with talented writers, either naturally gifted or rolling off the production lines of MFA courses and the like, but with far too few opportunities to publish to go around.

Well. If this assumption was true, wouldn’t Authonomy, and many other web sites and publishers claiming to promote new talent, have actually turned some up by now?

Here is an alternative possibility. Good writing is rare. In fact, so rare that there is far LESS of it than the publishing industry needs to thrive. In fact much of what the publishing industry does is find ways to promote and make money from not-so-good writing in the periods between the rare bits of good writing turning up. And because it is rare, when good writing does show up, it has value.

Which is really the point. Too many writers proceed on the assumption that their work is good enough, but valueless. The healthier and more productive position to take is that your writing is not good enough, that you need to keep improving, but that when you do make good writing, it does have great value. The difference between these two poles is often the difference between success and failure as a professional writer.


The one technical skill no writer can do without

Technology and the internet have changed writing and publishing forever. Way back in the mists of time copying a book meant paying dozens of monks to sit and transcribe each word by hand. It was expensive! Around 1450 the Gutenberg printing press made it much easier to print a few hundred copies of a book, but it was still a laborious process.

Fast forward to 2014 and digital technology lets us copy an entire book in moments, and send it to nearly anyone in the world via the internet. If you want to work as a writer in books, newspapers, magazines or any other part of publishing today, it’s essential you understand how digital publishing technologies work. And the one skill I recommend time and time and again to new and established writers alike is…


WordPress is best known as a blogging tool, but that disguises it’s real value as a publishing platform. Want to set up a blog to publicise your latest teen vampire urban fantasy novel? Sure, WordPress can do that. Want to publish your episodic techno-thriller online? No problem, WordPress can do that too. Maybe you want to set-up a community news site for your home town of Palookahville? Yup, WordPress can do that. How about an image rich celebrity gossip magazine to share your secret photos of Miley Cyrus? Absolutely no problem. And here’s the thing, WordPress is free and open source, so all these publishing projects can be done for a fraction of what they used to cost.

But doesn’t this all take mad technical skills?

No, it doesn’t have to. You can sign up for a free blog at that you’ll be able to start using in minutes with no technical knowledge. But if you take a little time to learn about using tags, categories, and some fundamentals of online writing, you can start to unleash the full power of WordPress. I’ve coached hundreds of writers in WordPress skills, and even the biggest technophobe can be up and running in a few hours at most.

You can take WordPress up a level by having your own custom installation. This allows you to access a host of plugins and themes to make WordPress even more powerful. Advanced plugins like BuddyPress can let you craft your own private social network, a great way to build community among your readers. WordPress can even be extended as an online store, to let you sell items like e-books and branded merchandise directly from your website. Take a look at a great WordPress resource like WPMU Dev to see the hundreds of different jobs WordPress can do.

I set up my first WordPress blog in 2004. In the decade since then I’ve gone from amateur blogger to professional writer for publications including the BBC, The Guardian, Wired UK and many others. The WordPress skills I learned early on have helped every step of the way along that path. If you have questions or would like some 1-2-1 help getting the most out of WordPress just shoot me an email on:

Being a professional writer is…kind of bullshit

The incorrigible Will Buckingham here literally de-bullshits the increasingly bullshitty idea of being a professional anything, and in particular a professional writer. Not because it’s bad to be a professional, but because our entire idea of what professional means has become corrupted away from it’s true meaning, to profess a commitment to a skill…


But what about professionalism? Let’s go back to the etymological dictionary, for the following…

professional n. c.1200, from Old French profession, “vows taken upon entering a religious order,” from Latin professionem “public declaration,” from past participle stem of profiteri “declare openly”. Meaning “any solemn declaration” is from mid-14c. Meaning “occupation one professes to be skilled in” is from early 15c.; meaning “body of persons engaged in some occupation” is from 1610…

What I love about this yes, I love it, because I’m an incorrigible amateur is that if you strip away bullshit going forwards, if you forget about suits and ties and stale-coffee boardrooms, you get to something much more existentially meaty: vows or commitments that are taken upon entering an order. In making such vows, you are not just saying “Oh, I’ll do x, y, or z” but you are making a much bigger commitment, a commitment that is public, one that marks the fact you are joining a community albeit a loose-knit one, and one that may change the direction of your life. In other words, you are making a commitment with a degree of existential heft to it. This deeper notion of ‘profession’ has two aspects: the making of an existential commitment, and the public declaration of this commitment, the willingness to say, “Yes, I have committed myself to this, and I’ll see it through.”

It is in this sense, I think, that it can be of use to writers to be not just amateurs, not just lovers, but also professionals. Love is a more personal affair. And love comes and goes. But as a writer, you may find that your writing really starts to bite, really starts to go deeper and further, when you decide that you are going to commit yourself to the act of writing, and when you make this commitment known to others, be they writers i.e., members of the loose-knit order of writers, or non-writers.

via Amateurs, Professionals and Bullshit Going Forwards | Will Buckingham.


On not being a hack

There is a story that the young Plato, being gifted with an excellent intellect, wrote a play to submit for the Athenian Dionysia. Taking it to submit before the judges, he found Socrates meditating upon the steps of the theatre. Having been told the play was good by friends and family, Plato was only too happy to read parts of it to Socrates. After Plato was done, the older Socrates – already a famed teacher of Athenian nobility – agreed that the play was good. The he asked Plato a single question about the meaning of his play. Plato found he could not answer, and as he considered the question, he realised that the play was unfinished. As it was, it could never answer Socrates’ question. So rather than be shackled by the chains of the failed play, Plato decided to begin again. That night he had a brazier lit, and burned his first play as an offering to the gods.

There, that’s what it takes.

Why Ello’s $450,000 in funding is a really, really good thing

Ello is the hip young social network that this week seemed to cross the threshold, from one of many, to the single most serious contender for Next Big Thing in the social online world. It has picked up an unknown but significant number of new users, many of them power user migrating from Twitter. And, of course, it’s been given some money by the Powers That Be in the form of venture capital.

Quite rightly, this has lead many folks if Ello has already departed down the slippery slope to evil, despite its charming manifesto packed with good intentions.

Here’s another way to look at the same data. Ello has one thing, and only one thing going for it. It has declared on the side of privacy – and the rights of its users – at a time when outrage at a lack of privacy and the exploitation of users for commercial gain is peaking. In short, Ello is the ethical choice. This is the only reason it now has users, and the only reason it now has money.

Ethics are Ello‘s unique sales point. They are its killer app. Ethics are the product the money is invested in. If that trend continues, we could quickly see a flip towards ethical business models – that preserve privacy and protect users from commercial exploitation – not just in social networks but in all forms of online services that have previously relied on data mining.

Oh, and we’ll be paying for them all directly…hurrah!

(Will ethical services dominate? Who knows. Historically the ethical choice tends to be the third choice. But it’s a topsy turvy world we’re living in!)