I often see indie authors bring up the fact that the audience for their books seems to be composed of other indie authors. I’ve written a bit about this before, but now I feel compelled to do so again.
Also, I will be making some assertions that I don’t have hard numbers to back-up. If anyone does have numbers that either support or contradict, please say so in the comments.
Fewer People Are Reading
There’s little doubt fewer people read for pleasure than in the past. In 1900, for example, your options for in-home entertainment were much more limited. After a century that has seen the rise of radio, television, and of course, the internet, it’s impossible to imagine books not losing some market share.
Media like television and online videos are also inherently easier than reading. Watching is a passive activity. You don’t have to engage the imagination to the same degree as you do when reading a book.
This also means that now, more than ever, the people who are reading must really like reading. Because if you just kind of like reading as a way to pass the time, there are lots of other things tempting you. The people who are reading books now are people who are serious about it. Which leads to a second point…
More Readers Are Writing
As Mark Paxson pointed out in the foreword to The Marfa Lights, readers, like pretty much every consumer of media, believe at some level they could make something better than at least some of the material they’re getting. But whereas with, say, movies, it takes a lot of money and buy-in from other people before you even get the chance, publishing a book just requires that you have the ability to save a Word file and upload it to the internet. Of course, publishing a good book takes a lot more than that, but the fact is, publishing has never been easier than it is now.
As a result, readers who in past eras might have had no viable path to publishing their work now have the ability to do so, and consequently, more readers are also writers. Or more accurately, published writers.
Is Any of This a Problem?
The simple answer is, “Duh, of course it’s a problem.” Fewer people read, and if you’re trying to sell books, that’s obviously bad news. And I’ll agree that, for a number of reasons, it would be better if more people read. But that isn’t something we can do much about, at least not in the short run.
I think many people still have in mind, at least subconsciously, the model of The Famous Author and Their Readers. I know I did, and this is probably because the most well-known current authors—Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, to name a few—fit into this mold, and by definition, they and others like them are the authors we hear the most about.
However, these are exceptional cases. Many authors, including some who became quite famous, often did a great deal of their work as part of small groups of writers who shared their writing with each other. H.P. Lovecraft, whose name is now synonymous with a whole sub-genre of horror, was part of one such group, which also included Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch. (Psycho)
More generally, good things seem to happen when you get a small group of talented people working together. One person alone usually can’t create something great; if nothing else, they need the support of their friends and peers. Likewise, large groups of people struggle to do anything at all, which is why big governments and corporations alike are famously inept.
In this regard, indie writers are actually quite well-positioned. The set of people who read is being whittled down to those who really care about it, and we have more ability than ever before to share our work.
Mais il faut cultiver notre jardin
What I’m saying here probably runs contrary to the general feeling among most indie authors. No matter how much we (and I include myself in this) may say, “We write for the sake of writing,” the truth is, we want to be read by people. Hopefully, a lot of them. I don’t think any of us expects to reach Rowling or King-level fame, but it would be nice to have a following of people who, of their own free will, read our work regularly.
At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to wish for that at the expense of appreciating what we have. A community of writers, even a small one, is a recipe for producing great work. And, in my opinion at least, it can be satisfying in ways that having a lot of readers wouldn’t be. I may not be a famous writer, but unlike King or Rowling or Martin, I can count on the fact that all my feedback, whether positive or negative, will be thoughtful and well-considered.
I realize that by writing all this, I may be coming across as a “Professor Pangloss,” the absurdly optimistic character from Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide. But if by doing that I encourage my readers to continue their writing—as Voltaire was supposedly encouraging his readers by writing Candide—it will be worth it.
Noah Goats’ latest piece, in addition to providing a tantalizing glimpse into some of his unpublished work, also raises a great point about writing: often the best way to come up with a new story is to find a way to combine to seemingly-unrelated drafts. He writes of his book, Incomplete Works:
The book was nothing but stitched together chunks of three abandoned novels, but despite the Frankenstein origins, Noah was proud of the result. Evelyn Waugh had used similar methods to put A Handful of Dust together, and Raymond Chandler had stitched his way to two of the greatest crime novels of all time.
I find this is usually how an idea that I’m able to successfully turn into a story comes together. I generally have a number of ideas I’m working on at any one time, and at some point all of them have run aground and appear stuck, when suddenly I see a way of combining two or more of them.
I know I’ve written about this before, but that was what happened with The Directorate that ultimately allowed me to finish it: I was trying for about the fourth time to write a story about a space station with a space elevator, and I decided to make the protagonist a character from a draft of an unrelated story.
I’m working on a story now that combines elements from ideas I’ve wanted to do forever with a relatively new one. Once again, I was only able to produce a complete story after I said, “Aha! I can interpolate my old concept into this new one.”
This is why it’s important to write down and keep old drafts, even when they initially seem to have stalled out. You never know when you may be able to use them again down the line.
On the face of it, it hasn’t taken me that long to write any of my books. The long short stories are very quick: I wrote the first draft of 1NG4 in about three days last year, and had it published in a couple of weeks. Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival took about two weeks to write, and about a month before I finally published it.
As for novels, I started writing The House of Teufelvelt in mid-February, and had it finished by late July or early August. And The Directorate, my longest book, as I have recounted before, I started on August 17, 2017, and finished a first draft by October 5 of that year. For the next two months, I did revisions and gathered feedback, before publishing it in January.
Looking at the start and end dates of when I began writing something and when I finished, it seems logical to conclude that a long short story takes about a month to produce, and a novel takes maybe 4-5 months. Not too bad, right?
Except this is deceptive. Because when I first began putting down the words on what would eventually become a recognizable first draft of something is not really when I started working on it.
Take 1NG4: I’d wanted to do a weird, cyberpunk-ish story full of mystery and conspiracies for years before writing that. My 2014 novella Start of the Majestic World is a primitive forerunner of it. The November before I wrote it, I wrote a complete first draft of another story full of weird conspiracies and hints of the paranormal. And I was completely unsatisfied with it. Only one line from it lives on in 1NG4.
Vespasian Moon’s Fabulous Autumn Carnival is another example: I’d been obsessed with doing a story about a mysterious cryptid living in rural hill country since reading Lovecraft’s The Whisperer in Darkness in 2009, and doubly so after discovering the Mothman legend in 2013. A lot of the scenery and descriptions came from trips to West Virginia and Southern Ohio made in 2012 and 2015. (Again, my less-successful attempts at these ideas appear in Majestic World.)
With novels, it gets even more dramatic: The House of Teufelvelt was also the title of a short unpublished novella I wrote in 2013. It also featured a character with a dark past named Roderick Teufelvelt, a place called Leviathan State University, and a few other shared story elements. But it was very different in a number of ways, and I was a not happy with it, even after reading every bit of Gothic literature I could find for inspiration. I had to let it simmer a bit, and come back with a fresh perspective.
Taking this more expansive view, the true “production time” on 1NG4 goes from two weeks to at least five years, Teufelvelt’s goes from six months to six years and Vespasian Moon’s goes from one month to ten years.
And then, of course, there’s The Directorate. I’ve discussed this before, but to recap: In 2002, I tried making a stop-motion film with action figures about a station, accessible by a space elevator, that had an ulterior purpose unbeknownst to most of the occupants. In 2007, I made another animated film around the same theme. In 2012, I wrote yet another outline of the same plot, but eventually abandoned it.
I essentially kept playing with the same idea for fifteen years before I finally told the story in a way that satisfied me. I didn’t realize this until after publishing The Directorate, but in retrospect, it looks as if I was on a schedule where I would try telling a new version every five years. That wasn’t deliberate, though; it just worked out that way.
In summary, while the time from when I began writing might seem short, in reality there is a much longer, less obvious stage of storytelling, during which ideas get generated, examined, changed, and in some cases, thrown out and replaced with new ones.
This isn’t a huge revelation. Indeed, it may seem quite obvious to creative types. But to their audiences, it may be completely invisible. This, incidentally, is probably why sequels are almost never as good as originals, and why artists so often “burn out” at some point in their careers: they amass a stock of ideas they work on in the back of their minds for years, and finally are able to mold them into a coherent whole, which they are able to show to the world. And if their work is popular, people immediately want more, not realizing that what they have just enjoyed is the result of years, or perhaps decades, of the creator tweaking various aspects of a concept.
It’s commonplace to hear of creative people being “out of ideas” or feeling like they’ve lost their creative energy. I wonder if this is actually because it’s not obvious, even to them, how long it takes their mind to create ideas. I know I didn’t realize how long I’d worked on some ideas until I made a conscious effort to remember. An analogy: if you were used to going out to harvest the crop from a flourishing garden, and then one day you arrived to find that it was all gone, it would be kind of a shock, especially if you’re not aware of how the growing process works.
Generating ideas—for stories, for music, for art, for new inventions—takes a long time. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our brains do it best when it’s not their primary focus. The idea of a flash of inspiration is largely an illusion—but it’s a powerful illusion, because the moment the “missing piece” clicks into place and you have a great idea is so exhilarating that it feels as if it just came to you all of sudden, rather than being the last step in a long, laborious process.
So if you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, a good cure can be to revisit old ideas you hadn’t thought about in a long time. If you’re a creative person, and I think everyone who reads this blog is, you very likely have some. In fact, you might even have some you didn’t remember you had. While I was working on this post, I suddenly remembered the existence of a short story of mine that I had completely forgotten about. It’s an uncanny feeling, reading something you know that you wrote, and all the time wondering Why did I write that?
But uncanny is good. It means you’ve found something interesting. Which is why it pays to revisit your old ideas—it’s the best way our minds’ have of looking at something from the perspective of the creator and the audience at the same time.
It’s a gloomy, wet, unseasonably warm night here in Ohio. It feels like a good night to write a story, although I’m not sure what it would be about. But it set me thinking about how the immediate environment can influence one’s writing.
For example, I’ve never been to sea. I was on a boat in Lake Erie a couple of times, and I’ve been to the beach twice. So when I wrote 1NG4, I mostly used my imagination–but I did go down to a bridge over a river the day I wrote the first half of the story. I stood around, soaking in as much detail as I could. Doing that helped me write some of the description of the sun reflecting off the water.
Another example: for the scene in Vespasian Moon that takes place inside the title character’s cabin, I purposely stayed up much later than I normally do, turned out all the lights except for a flickering jack-o’-lantern, and then wrote the scene. That helped me with describing the way the shadows on the wall moved in the candlelight.
As someone who has long struggled with writing description, I’ve found this is a helpful trick. Of course, it has its limits. I doubt I’ll be traveling to any other planets to get the vibe I want for my science fiction stories.
First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.
When I was in college, I used to go to the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.
Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.
It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.
The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.
But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.
Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.
(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)
Lovecraft had an uncanny ability to bring people together, and it was that ability that allowed the sub-genre that bears his name to exist. As the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society wrote in tribute to him, in one of their more sentimental Lovecraftian song parodies, “Mythos of a King”:
He was hardly famous, and never rich
Unless you count his friends.
But his Gothic pen has inspired men
And his vision still extends.
For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft. Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.
Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.
Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.
Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”
Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart.
A big problem in my fiction is that my endings are too rushed. I used to think this might be part and parcel of the No Description problem, but I realize now it’s a separate issue. A number of readers raised this complaint with all my early stories, and while I tried to improve in The Directorate, it still came up.
It’s also proven to be a problem with the novel I’m working on now. Several beta readers have said the same thing, and I agree with them. The ending is, once again, too rushed.
At this point, you might be thinking, “So add more stuff then, stupid!”
The problem with that is I can think of nothing else to add. The ending comes along when it does because all the pieces are in position, and it seems natural to tip the first domino and set things in motion. If I add extraneous material, readers will notice that I’m just killing time.
I hate when authors drag things out. The best example I can think of is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. While I liked some parts, there were also times when I wanted to yell, “Just get on with it already!” Since the book hinges on an event which happened in the past and which the reader is anticipating, the way King stalled with one “the past is obdurate” setback after another was annoying to read.
In general, I’d rather something be too short than too long. If a reader thinks it’s too short, it implies they want to read more. Whereas if it bores them by being too long, they’re unlikely to read anything by the author again.
But, better than being too short or too long is being exactly the right length. I have reached a paradoxical point where the book isn’t as long as it needs to be, yet making it any longer would feel too long. Which is another way of saying that something is missing, but I don’t know what it is.
I was going to do this as a Twitter thread, but then I realized it’s too meandering for that. It started with this:
I was about to use the line “ours not to reason why” in my latest project, but then I realized I referenced “Charge of the Light Brigade” in both “Start of the Majestic World” and “The Directorate.” On second thought, maybe I’ll skip it.
— Berthold Gambrel (@BertholdGambrel) April 5, 2019
Then I realized that the references to Tennyson’s poem come in the scenes I blogged about here–scenes that already had bothered me with their similarity, until I realized the one in The Directorate is way, way better than the one in Majestic World.
I have to be honest with you guys: I look back at The Start of the Majestic World and it seems pretty amateurish to me. There are elements I like (obviously) but the book as a whole I think isn’t nearly as good as I could do now. I toyed with the idea of doing a revised version last year, but I couldn’t figure out a way to coherently “revise” it–it was easier to just start from scratch and make up a new story with a similar vibe. (It’s called 1NG4.)
I’m greatly improved as a writer since Majestic World, which on balance makes me happy-–it feels good to know that you’re improving at something. But this leaves me conflicted about whether to even keep it up for sale. Part of me feels self-conscious about leaving something that’s not really my “A” game out there for sale. (It was my 2014 self’s “A” game, but not up to 2019’s standard.)
But I’m also sentimental about it. It was my first real attempt at long fiction, and some of the ideas in it have proven useful for future books. And I really, really appreciate all the encouragement and constructive criticism I got from readers. If not for you folks, none of my subsequent books would have happened. Without Majestic World, there is no Directorate.
I hadn’t re-read The Directorate since about the time I published it, but the other day, I flipped through it to check something about the word count, for comparison to the project on which I’m currently working. I was a little nervous, since the first time I re-read Majestic World after letting some time pass, I was underwhelmed by my earlier work.
Re-reading parts of The Directorate, I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is good! No wonder I worked so hard on it.”
I’m not saying that to brag; I’m saying it to say that the way to improve as an author is to write, publish, and get feedback from readers. Including–especially!–negative feedback. There may be some things that you look back on and wince a little, but it’s worth it.
I’ve seen the name Kevin Brennan praised for years by many authors I admire. Carrie Rubin, Audrey Driscoll, Phillip McCollum, and after this post by Mark Paxson, I realized I could postpone it no longer: I had to read one of his books. The testimony of the four listed above cannot be ignored.
Fascination lived up to the hype.
Brennan’s prose is something to behold; I noticed it from page one. It’s witty, elegant, and incredibly easy to read. It has a rhythm to it; almost poetic in its way. Quite honestly, I felt a bit jealous reading it. I wish I could write like this.
The story Brennan tells in Fascination is a strange one, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Sally Speck, née Pavlou, is distraught when her husband Mason apparently commits suicide. She can’t quite bring herself to believe it and, it soon develops, with good reason: Mason hasn’t really committed suicide, but simply faked his death and run away. Sally hires the services of private investigator Clive Bridle to track Mason down, and from there, the two embark on a wild, funny, often sublimely weird road trip through the American southwest.
Along the journey of “self realization and vengeance”—to use a phrase that repeats like a leitmotif throughout—Sally and Clive meet a cast of oddballs with various perspectives on life. From a mystical shaman to more than one cult, their path brings them in contact with all kinds of colorful folks.
I could very easily imagine this being adapted into one of those quirky dramedy road trip movies. Brennan writes so well that I could picture the vignettes clearly, and it makes for a pleasing mind-movie. Granted, I don’t see a lot of quirky dramedies, but I kept thinking of the movie Garden State while reading this book. (In case it’s not clear, that’s a compliment. Garden State is like a cultural touchstone for my generation.)
It all ends up with a very satisfying conclusion. Brennan provides just the right amount of closure, while still leaving some things open-ended and up to the reader to decide. I really liked that. Too many books either leave too much unresolved, or else wrap things up too neatly. Fascination gets the balance just right.
By the way, you might be asking: what is Fascination? Why is the book named that? The easy answer is that it’s an arcade game Sally likes to play. But I think it’s fair to say there’s more to it than that. “Fascination” is a state of mind, to use an old chestnut.
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. The last book I read that could be said to be in the same vein as Fascination was Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis. That book was also about a journey to find a former spouse (and also, like Fascination, involved quite a few gambling scenes). I enjoyed Bridgeport Girls a lot, but honestly, I think I liked Fascination more. The ending of the latter, in particular, was much stronger.
Did I have any problems at all with Fascination? Well, one. But it’s such a subjective thing I hesitate to bring it up. It’s also fairly late in the book, but I think I can describe it without spoilers. It’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things, so don’t let it deter you from getting this book, okay? You have to promise me now!
At one point, one of the cultish outfits that Clive and Sally encounter forces them into an uncomfortable situation—nothing violent or illegal, mind, just very awkward. And they do so by pressuring Clive into doing something I felt he wouldn’t do.
Now, as I said part of this is just my personality. I’ve played tons of video games where situations like this arise—a cult or other sinister group railroads the “player” character into doing something. In such games, I inevitably try to fight my way out. If I’m ever in such a situation in real life, I’m going to wind up like Sean Connery at the end of The Man Who Would Be King.
So, that’s probably why Clive’s behavior in that scene didn’t sit right with me. Purely a subjective thing. You should read the book and see whether you agree with me or not.
One more thing before I wrap this up: Mark Paxson did a three-part interview with Kevin Brennan on his blog around the time Fascination was published. It’s a great, wide-ranging discussion that every indie author ought to check out, but one of the points that they raised was that indie literary fiction rarely gets much attention from readers. And that’s a real shame, because there are gems like Fascination out there. Even I, one who doesn’t read much literary fiction, whether from big names or indie, has read enough to know that Fascination can hold its own against the big name lit fic books that win awards and get talked about by fancy people. The fact that it only has nine reviews on Amazon is really a pity. It deserves to be read by all lovers of good writing.
I love ship names. I don’t know why, but I get a real kick out of it when writers name their fictional ships. My favorite example is in Robert W. Chambers’s The Repairer of Reputations, when the characters all go out for a walk and see the ships in the harbor of fictional future New York, and Louis rattles off the names of the vessels. I loved that.
I think the reason I’m so fascinated is that every ship name has a story behind it. You see a ship name, and you automatically wonder why it was given that particular name. It’s an implied story all in itself.
This goes for spaceships in science fiction too, by the way. In fact, I might even enjoy those more, because there’s more room for unusual names. I’m working on a story now that has a spaceship in it, and I’ve been struggling to come up with just the right name. It’s an important consideration–the story that the name suggests to the reader will color their perception of the characters who fly it.
Some fictional ship names I like:
- Alert–from H.P. Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu
- Nostromo–Ripley’s ship in Alien
- Invisible Hand–General Grievous’s flagship in Star Wars: Episode III
- Tempest–Pathfinder Ryder’s ship in Mass Effect Andromeda
- PRCS Wall Cloud–a ship carrying a virus in Deus Ex
- Pillar of Autumn–one of the first ships in Halo
Wikipedia has a list of more fictional ships. Frankly, from skimming it, I think writers aren’t being bold enough with names. The U.S. Navy names ships after famous battles–we need more of that in fiction. Also, more named after obscure historical figures, please.