The first rule of contract negotiation for writers

The reality of life as a jobbing writer is that, like anybody running their own business, you have to do a lot of negotiating. Which for writers, all too often, means getting walked over.

The Society highlighted the case of Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon, who has not received any royalties from the television and film adaptations of her Horrid Henry books, despite the series being broadcast in 44 countries with more than 1.5m DVDs sold.

In an article last December, Simon revealed that she was missing out on the royalties because when she sold Orion her first Horrid Henry book in 1993, the book deal included film and television rights. A deal with Novel Entertainment for those rights was subsequently negotiated by Orion. “They did a poor deal. They did not use a lawyer,” wrote Simon in the Author magazine. “Not understanding their proper value led to the worst mistake of my career.”

I have only sympathy for Francesca Simon, and hope the show’s producers do the decent thing and offer her the deal she should have had in the first place. But the sad truth is, writers get stuck in horrible deals all the time. Which is because they don’t abide by the first rule of negotiation.

YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO SAY “NO DEAL”.

As a jobbing freelancer, who has made a living that way for over a decade, I say “No Deal” a lot. My freelance rates are relatively high, and no end of people feel I should be working for less. I always say “No Deal”. Often, people are surprised. They’re not used to writers doing that I guess. I also guess that’s part of why I make money when many others don’t.

This is undeniably harder when it’s your own creative work on the line. Some years ago, soon after finishing the Clarion writer’s workshop, I was offered a shot at a fiction book deal, based on a pitch and some hurriedly written chapters. Exciting right? Well, yes and no. Truth be told, my heart wasn’t in the idea, and the deal itself was so bad that I was actually angry reading the details. I would never, ever sign a contract like that in business, so why would I sell my creativity short? I said “No Deal”. Of course, I’ll never know for sure if I made the right call.

Which is exactly the psychological pressure that leaves writers in a hard spot when negotiating. These are your hopes and dreams on the line, if you turn down this deal, however shitty, will there ever be another one? The unhappy truth is, any experienced negotiator sitting across a table from a creative in that state will take full advantage of it.

Which is why agents exist, right? Not quite. Most of those awful deals were negotiated by agents. Yes, agents are on commission, and hence “in your corner”, but they have many clients and want to make many deals, so agents are also in the publishers corner, and likely to play along with the status quo if it’s to their benefit. As a writer, you’ll need to negotiate the right deal with your agent to ensure they do a good job on your behalf. And then, ultimately, you have to decide whether to take that deal. Or say, “No Deal”.

By being prepared to say “No Deal”, you reclaim the psychological initiative. Like a warrior accepting death before battle, you are taking control of a situation where control is limited. A good contract should be to the benefit of both parties, and lead to a healthy long term relationship. A good publisher will want to settle a contract like that. But it’s human nature to push for the upper hand. Unless you’re strong enough in negotiation to push back, even well intentioned professionals will walk over you.

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Read more at Guardian Books.

Non-Aristotelian storytelling is a thing. Just don’t expect it to box office.

To make sense of the world we tell ourselves a story. That’s the starting point of the Rhetoric of Story. As storytellers we imitate the kind of story the human mind tells naturally, which makes our stories seem real to the audience. It’s a conjuring trick, but one with some truly wonderful uses.

The first person to observe this kind of story was the philosopher Aristotle, in his little book on Poetics. The 3-act structure that is by FAR the most common shape of story told today comes from Aristotle. And so we call this style Aristotelian storytelling. Today nearly all cinema, a lot of theatre, and most commercial fiction is Aristotelian. Even if it doesn’t know it.

There are ways of telling stories that are Non-Aristotelian. To understand what that means, think about what your mind would be like without the story that makes sense of everything for you. In fact there wouldn’t be a you. You are the character at the centre of the story. No story, no you. Just a mess of sensory data, thoughts, emotions and the rest, all swirling around without any context or order. It might sound a little like this.

This is Not I, written by Samuel Beckett, and performed by Billie Whitelaw. Beckett was a modernist playwright, and like other modernist writers such as James Joyce, Beckett was interested in what was going on inside our heads. Our subconscious minds. Our inner monologues. All the stuff happening beyond the story told by our conscious mind.

If you’re like most people, you’ll find Not I hard to watch. Once you realise the mouth is reciting the internal thoughts of somebody in a state of high agitation or fear, it makes more sense. But it’s still hard to sit through. It’s like watching somebody vomit. You can’t help feeling the urge to retch yourself. It’s OK, you can switch it off now.

If Aristotelian storytelling mirrors the order of our mind to create the seamless illusion of reality, Non-Aristotelian storytelling picks the orderly mind apart to reveal the seething chaos of stuff behind the illusion of reality. Humans don’t enjoy this experience, any more than we enjoy going under the surgeon’s knife. Beckett’s plays are hugely acclaimed, but they’re never going to be a challenge to The Avengers at the cineplex.

Great storytellers do use Non-Aristotelian techniques. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s soliloquies, the inner narratives of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, or the cinematic exploration of subjective viewpoint by director Paul Thomas Anderson, great storytellers know that cracking open the consciousness of their characters leads to places purely Aristotelian storytelling can not reach. BUT. It’s done sparingly, and almost always within traditional storytelling structures, so that the audience stay on board for the ride.

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Learn a lesson from the slush pile

​”the experience of reading mounds of badly written fiction gave him an an indelible lesson in what constituted badly written fiction”

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

There’s a lot to learn from awful writing. But the slush pile isn’t even awful. Awful writers, like great writers, don’t tend to submit their work to contests or open calls from publishers. What you find in the slush pile is mediocre. Average. Quotidian. Like an endless queue for entrance to Heaven, only people who feel the need to be judged volunteer to stand there. The slush pile attracts the writers who want affirmation, and who still think there’s somebody out there – an agent or editor – with the authority to tell them YES YOU ARE A WRITER.

Instead of submitting your work to the slush pile, voluteer to screen the submissions. What you’ll find is nothing you want to read. But once you’ve ploughed through 300, 500, 1000 submissions, you’ll see patterns in the failure. Stories that aren’t stories. Sentences deformed at birth. The standard issue opening scene where a character orders a latte. Dialogue between characters drinking lattes. People who submit to slush piles write their stories in Starbucks, you conclude. It goes on, and gets worse.

Don’t be discouraged. The tedium of a slush pile is a feature, not a bug. Editors and agents soon realise that there really isn’t very much interesting storytelling to go around, they’re going to have to spend a lot of time making the most of the mediocre. But the writers job is easy. All you have to do is write great stories. Stories with that extra…magic… that we all recognise when we see it. The only catch is, nobody can tell you what it is. Finding it is what all the hard work is really about. 

The shameful joys of the franchise novel…and why the force is with them

Snobby attitudes to sci-fi and fantasy can mean missing out on great stories amid popular book series – a publishing genre that is sure to grow.

Make of it what you will, but it’s a plain fact of publishing life that more people will read the latest Star Wars franchise novel than all the books shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize put together. The world is a noisy place, made all the more so by the democratising influence of the internet, where it sometimes seems that all seven billion members of the global village have self-published their own book. Confronted with this tumult of competing egos, you can hardly blame the average punter for sticking with entertainment brands scorched into their psyche by the lightsabers of multibillion-dollar marketing budgets.

“with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills.”

The parochial world of literary fiction tends to deal with mass-media franchises in the same way it deals with genre fiction, comics and the other narrative arts that eclipse it by magnitudes for size, influence and profit margins: by giving them the silent treatment. This isn’t an entirely stupid strategy. Literary fiction may very well touch parts of the human condition its more successful cousins fail to reach. But then it may not, and the arrogant assumption that novels published within a franchise that has touched the hearts and minds of millions have nothing to tell us is … well … arrogant.

What franchise novels can certainly do well is compelling storytelling. And at their best, they can do it much better than the franchises that spawned them. Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire introduces the malevolent Grand Admiral Thrawn to the extended Star Wars universe, where he remains hands-down its best antagonist. One of the many problems with the vastly overrated Star Wars movies (Empire being the moment of genius that rescues the entire franchise) is the absurd incompetence of their villains. Any evil galactic Empire that can be brought low with a missile up the exhaust pipe is not worthy of the name.

Set five years after Return of the Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy follows the painstaking progress of Admiral Thrawn as he leads the remnants of the Imperial fleet against the ascendent New Republic. Have no doubt, Thrawn is a merciless villain, but Timothy Zahn’s smart decision to cast the bad guys as the underdog gives the entire trilogy a compelling edge that the movies simply lack. With rumours about the latest Star Wars trilogy swirling, Disney even went as far as denying Zahn’s masterful narrative will play any part in the new movie. Which is shame, as the brinksmanship of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a lot more entertaining than the predictable in jokes and cheesy pastiche of yet another JJ Abrams fangasm.

The kingdom of the franchise novel extends far beyond spin-offs from cinema and TV. You can keep your Lord of the Rings and even your Game of Thrones. If I could take only one fantasy novel with me to read in the dungeons of Mordor it would be Drachenfels by Jack Yeovil – better known to most readers as the redoubtable Kim Newman. In the early years of Games Workshop the creators of the Warhammer franchise it published a short run of novels that added some depth of charcater to the two-dimensional world of tabletop gaming. Drachenfels was by far the best, a little known gem of fantasy fiction still unrivalled in its canon.

Detlef Sierck is a playwright of Shakespearean talent with the ego of a young Orson Welles. He is pulled out of debtors prison by Oswald von Konigswald to recreate in theatre the prince’s youthful quest to destroy the great enchanter Constant Drachenfels. What follows is a taught phantasmagoria as the story within the story weaves itself back in to reality. Imagine the gothic horror of Hammer’s Dracula movies merged with the ironic humour of PG Wodehouse and you get a sense of Drachenfels. As with much of the best franchise writing, it’s the constraints and limitations of the Warhammer world that seemed to bring out the best in Newman’s writing.

star-wars-grand-admiral-thrawn

John Scalzi’s Redshirts boldly takes the franchise novel to explore strange new territory in a universe bearing some resemblance to that of the original Star Trek. The story follows the journeys of the low-ranking members on board a starship crew as they come to realise they are living in a television show. It’s a metafictional homage to the classic sci-fi serial, the writing of which gave Scalzi an insight in to the work of the franchise writer.

“I think there is a snobbery toward franchise writing that’s wholly unwarranted,” Scalzi says. “It’s a ridiculous double standard. Franchise writing requires flexibility, speed, the ability to adhere to canonical guidelines while still producing entertaining work. That’s a specific skillset.”

And writers with that skillset can make a solid living in the franchise novel market. That’s a reality that might come as a shock to their literary compatriots. The big names of franchise writing such as Peter David and Alan Dean Foster may struggle to command much literary respect, but with more than 20 million books sold worldwide, Kevin J Anderson can respond to critics of his Dune prequels while sucking on a stogie rolled from thousand-dollar bills. Of course that kind of success can become a honeytrap of its own, with success in the franchise marketplace rarely translating to acclaim for a writer’s original material.

As the world becomes noisier the franchise novel will only become more powerful, and take on new forms. Writing is seen as a solitary enterprise, but the shared worlds of franchises like Star Wars are one way that artistic collaboration can help to lift a creation above the high noise-to-signal ratio of modern life. Perhaps instead of dismissing franchises out of hand, the challenge for writers is to find ways to create much better art within them.

Originally published in The Guardian.

Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea

When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.

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The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid). The problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!

“something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being”

But but BUT Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! What did I just say? It SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.

All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce. But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family. It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.

How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyer characters about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring? Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people, because the novum is only intellectually interesting.

Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the HUGE problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.

What’s the solution? Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that, or another novum interesting, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being. Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum that inspire you. A portal that connects all worlds might give those who step into it the chance to be all people. That’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day shiver your audience’s soul.

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Damien Walter’s Extra Special Blog EXTRAVGANZA

My blog turned 10 years old earlier this year, and is barrelling towards it’s 1000th post (this is post 990). To celebrate this cornucopia of anniversaries, I’m announcing the next week will be dedicated to an EXTRAVAGANZA of blog posts. Here’s some of what to expect!

I’ve never restricted my blog to being about any one thing. I write a lot about sci-fi. I post thoughts on writing practice as I learn more. Now and again I comment on politics, and where geek culture meets political life. I write about life as a digital nomad. My blog reflects my passions, and over time of course, those change.

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How the Alt-right invaded geek culture

The Alt-right will do anything to outrage the liberal internet, knowing that outrage helps build their growing army of overwhelming white, male, and very geeky, supporters.

Star Trek gave television audiences their first interracial kiss in 1968, and Gene Roddenberry’s vision of mankind’s future continued to champion progressive ideas for many decades. Today “geek culture” is more diverse than ever, reflecting audiences’ hunger for a better world where the Ghostbusters can be women, and even Ms Marvel can be Muslim.

Read more on The Independent.

Ignore the complainers, go ahead and tell your story

The Buddha offers some useful life advice to anyone trying to get anything done. People will complain if you do something wrong. More people will complain if you do something right. Some people will complain if you don’t do anything at all. People just like to complain!

Seven people signed up for my email newsletter in the last 24 hours. One person complained. The email pop-up goes away if you click the X, or anywhere on the screen, but sometimes people get confused and think they HAVE to sign up to read my posts. Occaisionally, people complain.

Here’s the thing. As a person trying to get thjngs done, YOU HEAR MUCH MORE FROM THE COMPLAINERS THAN ANYBODY ELSE. People who are generally happy with your efforts don’t often feel the need to say so. But people who are triggered by your actions often do. You’re out there doing, and taking the hits along the way. They’re not.
Of course it IS possible to market and promote your work counter-productively. BUT. Those people will just unsubscribe, or unfollow, or dump your email in the spam folder. Keep an eye on your engagement rates, that’s a useful indicator. Complaints, by and large, only tell you about the complainer.

I read the Sad Puppies. It was not a pleasure.

For the last few years, the Hugo awards for science fiction have been campaigned against by a group of writers and fans calling themselves the Sad Puppies – mostly male, very white, and overwhelmingly conservative. Unhappy with sci-fi’s growing diversity, the Puppies have deliberately block-voted for certain titles to get them nominated for Hugos at the expense of a wider field. They say it is their goal to “poke the establishment in the eye” by nominating “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy-handed message fic”. I say it is to sponsor awful writers.

Read more.

The Ted Chiang movie adaptation is on the way

Ted Chiang is, without any argument, the best science fiction short story writer of the last decade. He’s almost unknown outside the SF community, and is one of the humblest guys you will ever meet. Now there’s a film coming based on his work. Chiang is a clinical prose stylist, and a rigorous conceptual think. I do not know how well any of that will transfer to the screen, but I am very excited to find out.

What’s the number ONE reason you aren’t writing?

Because you aren’t reading.

The bar for entry for writers is so low that it might be better described as a line in the dirt. Got something you can type on and an internet connection? Then you can be a blogger. Or a Kindle indie publisher. Or @JohnDoeFantasyAuthor. But the washout rate for writers is up there with US NavySEAL training. So why is it so many bloggers end up with 3 readers a day (all of them Google search bots) or flatlined Kindle sales, and just up and quit? Or never get started at all?

“Books aren’t your pets any more, they’re your raw materiel, and you need to look at them in the same way a butcher looks at a cute little baby lamb.”

The British horror author (and comedy creation of Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade) Garth Merenghi often noted that he was the only author he knew who had written more books than he’d read. Sadly, that low bar to entry means I’ve encountered no end of authors who fall into the same category. Worse yet, in the internet age the totally clueless are able to form self-reinforcing cliques (see the Sad Puppies), echo chambering one another towards their doom.

But those who stick around soon hit an entirely different wall. You can have killer story ideas, and think relentlessly about one day writing them down, but if you aren’t reading you’ll find yourself completely unable to actually follow through and do the hard work of writing. And when I say reading, I mean consuming books in the way Olympic weightlifters eat potatoes…in bulk and with lashings of butter!

Forget the butter, but hold onto the point that as a writer it’s actually part of your unwritten job description to read all of the things, all of the time. It doesn’t matter that you USED to read a lot, any more than a pro.tennis player will win tournaments because they USED to be fit. Your brain, the engine that’s going to be doing the writing, needs to be constantly marinated in books, or it stops thinking in the bookish ways a professional writing brain needs to.

Garbage in, garbage out. There’s some benefit to reading bad writing so you can analyse the negative. By mostly you need to read books that are good at being books. Great sentences, good storytelling, brilliant characters. High nutrition health books to keep your brain WRITING FIT.

Television in, television out. Xbox in, Xbox out. Other things that are also stories do not count towards your book quota. Binging three seasons of Game of Thrones is not research. Chin stroking analysis of Pokemon Go doesn’t change the fact you’re wasting valuable reading time hunting Pikkachu. “I don’t have time to read” is code for “I can recite the URLs of every Hentai site on the internet”. Yes you do have time, but you also have many other pleasures you choose to prioritise ahead of reading.

If you want to make the writerly pro.leagues you need to move reading from the pleasure category of your life and into the professional category. You can still enjoy reading that book, but you need to read fast, read lots, and analyse every word. What’s the narrative style? How are the sentences paced? Where are the set-ups? What does this character want and how are we shown that? How many scenes per chapter? And the list goes. Books aren’t your pets any more, they’re your raw materiel, and you need to look at them in the same way a butcher looks at a cute little baby lamb.

Read new books. Read old books. Read shorts. Read novellas. Read experimental lit fic. Read commercial bestsellers. Crucially, track down and read writers who are better than you are. Better stylists. Better storytellers. Better anything. When you find books that do something great and you don’t know how? Read them again and again until you do know.

And this doesn’t stop if and when you turn pro. I’ve watched some of the world’s best and most famous author read through waist high piles of stories at the Clarion writer’s workshop, because they were genuinely interested in what talented younger writers might know that they didn’t. The whole point of writing workshops is to READ dozens of stories, in progress, by your peers. There’s literally no better way to learn. Except teaching itself, which is really just a way for experienced writers to immerse themselves in reading and analysing stories.

So pick a book, any book, and get reading.

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Do not take the audience for novels for granted

I’m not personally tempted to play No Man’s Sky, even while I find the phenomenon of its release interesting. Video games died a death for me at around the same time I found meditation. I had played games quite intensely since I was around 7, but then at age 30 or so, while playing a hacked version of Elderscrolls III, it struck me that every single game I’d ever played was just a graphical interface on a database. And I didn’t want to invest any more of life’s limited time on experiences that seemed so shallow. The scope and scale of No Man’s Sky doesn’t change that dynamic for me. It’s a very big database, but that’s still all it is.

I am very much in a minority however. This well written report by Robin Sloan on  the experience of both No Man’s Sky, and the huge community of live-streamers sharing the game’s launch, makes me at least partially interested again in the gaming experience. While the game itself remains little more than a pretty fractal, the community gathered around it is quite fascinating. A modern cultural phenomenon that is clearly deeply engrossing to those immersed in it.

“Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention.”

It’s that aspect of community, or social engagement, and of human value, that has always made reading such an engrossing activity for me. Those words on the page come from another human mind. How fascinating to have that gateway into an alternative human experience, especially when that person is skilled at expressing that experience. There will always be people like me who find that experience through novels. But how many of us will there be?

As I’ve noted before, the novel is a very old medium at this point. Centuries old by any measure. And not all that much changed over that time. And it’s proved very resilient. But I suspect anyone who simply assumes the novel will remain quite as widely read doesn’t quite understand just how intense the contest for human attention is, or how many magnitudes greater that contest is becoming.

It’s not just that games – and there will be thousands of such games – that games like No Man’s Sky are INFINITELY large. Or that social networks like Snapchat have 100s of millions of users spending hours every day on their platforms. It’s that these kinds of things – and there are SO MANY of these kinds of things (don’t get me started on Pokemon Go!) – these kinds of things are profoundly changing how we all spend our time. And arguably, what the basic shape of our society is. And there’s really no reason to assume novels will have any significant roll in those new patterns of behaviour.

They might. The solitude of the reading experience might well be what saves it in a very near future we might call Massively Social (in the virtual sense of the word). Huge amounts of “content” are and will be, like No Man’s Sky, machine generated. The humanity of the novel, that it is written by one human mind and read by another, also give it value. And I do not see stories becoming anything other than more and more popular, in any form. But none of that makes the novel’s survival a sure thing.

What will kill the novel, and I believe is already irreparably damaging it, is a catastrophic rush to the bottom to meet the diminishing standards of most “content”. Traditional publishers, and the Amazon Kindle store, are both guilty of flooding a relatively small market with a huge number of novels, most far below any form of professional standard. The Fire-And-Forget model of publishing might turnover a a reasonable profit in the short term, but at big cost. Once people have bought a few duff books in a row, they find other things to occupy their attention. It happens. It is happening.

It’s why publishers are floundering, while individual authors, if they can establish a name, are doing very well. Once readers find you, and trust you to deliver, they are incredibly loyal to the authors they love. I think determined writers of really high quality – great storytellers, or authors with a wonderful voice, or a fascinating mind, are going to continue to do very well. But they might be more and more like islands in a sea of other distractions, rare outcroppings of enlightenment in an infinite galaxy of randomly generated planetoids, luring people to read those odd things called “novels” that otherwise only exist in the history…databases.

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Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.