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Fictionmaker survival in the post-fact world: Part 1

If you’re coming into the site directly, this is what’s happening:

I recently shared this post on FB and Twitter:

If anyone’s interested in writing/publishing/creative survival advice from me, ask me on Twitter/FB/mail. Will do a post for every 10 qns.
Too much of the stuff on the net is self-aggrandising/follower-bait from novices/exploitative. And writers should help out other writers.
I’ve now survived this for 15 years, and while I don’t have any magic answers, I think I can help you avoid some of the absolute nonsense.
Also, I completely understand if you feel embarrassed to be seen asking things – anonymity is assured if that’s what you prefer. Mention it.
The most common question I’ve received privately so far is ‘Why on earth are you doing this?’
I’m doing this because too many talented people I know are petrified, either because of world events or market uncertainty, and are thinking of quitting. I can’t make their lives better or their fears go away, but I want them to know that they are not alone.

Heading straight into the questions, but a couple of things:

Industry professionals who want to add answers are welcome to do so. I will add your answers where relevant as I go. If I’m getting anything horribly wrong, let me know.

This is going to be fairly sporadic as a lot of questions have already come in, but I will do this as often as I can. Do try and read through what’s already been covered before you send in questions.

Q1: How to create when the well is dry?

(also treat this as an answer to writers block related qns which some other people have sent)

This question is from Joyce Chng, aka J. Damask aka @jolantru. Do see her author page here.  Joyce is one of my favourite people on Twitter, not just for her books/publishing/diversity tweets but also because she is a complete badass who finds time in between work and life for heavy sword practice. Come the apocalypse, if you’re looking for a writer’s workshop…

I deal with idea shortages and productivity dips in a number of ways.

  1. I do something else and wait for good ideas to come. Sometimes it’s as simple as working on another project, or meeting humans, or taking your mind out of the rut it’s in by doing pretty much anything other than writing. The good news is that if you’ve reached the point where you can see that you’re in a rut, or the well is dry, you’re self-aware enough to be quality conscious.
  2. I read books and comics. I watch shows and films. I play games. I gape in slack-jawed horror at the news. Ideas come. Once you’re a professional creative type everything is research: life, people, facts, fiction. Take notes. Make future-indecipherable scribbles. Have some fun.
  3. Sometimes the well dries up not because of a shortage of ideas but because life is difficult. Maybe you’ve tried every possible way to figure out your industry but you can’t see the solution. Maybe your real life is tough. Maybe you’re stuck professionally or personally, and you’re not a machine. This happens to everyone and it will stop. Maybe it’s just not the right time, market-wise, audience-wise, whatever-else-wise, for the work you’re creating, and you need to take time to figure out the new plan.  Sometimes it’s more emotion-related than anything else. Some people use the process of creation to escape real-life woes. Others need to get their house in order to be able to create again. Whatever it is, the good news is that it will get better, and there will come a point where you can create again – and create better because you probably came out of your other experiences with new perspective and wisdom.
  4. I have spent years not writing but doing writing-related/life-related work. Research. Money-making jobs. Meetings. Travel. Failed projects (tons of those). I have always come back to writing. The well will fill itself up eventually. I have also wasted a lot of time stressing about not writing. That’s pretty pointless when you look back.

Q2: pls to tell Dos and donts in agent query mail.

This is from Sukanya Venkatraghavan, @suku06 on Twitter. The spelling and punctuation are an indication of her sense of humour, given the question, and not the quality of her literary output. She’s an Indian fantasy writer (Dark Things) and I am among the many people who have read and enjoyed her work. If you go to her  Twitter page you will see a picture of Vidya Balan launching her book. This means she is very busy and important, because Vidya Balan is not available for book launch events to the general public. She is also clearly looking for an agent, so agents who are reading this please find her and save her the trouble of querying you. This will lead to fun and profit for all concerned.

Agent queries. I’m not an expert in this field because I haven’t done this a lot. I’ve done rounds of agent queries twice: one round was unsuccessful when I started out in 2002 because agents in the West didn’t see how they could sell Indian fantasy that wasn’t about India or Indian epics, and one round was successful, which was Turbulence around 7 years ago. The key difference was that in the second round I did my research, I found the right set of agents to approach for the book, and I wrote query letters after looking up how to structure query letters online. All the things I read then will probably be out of date by now given the fast-changing nature of internet trends, so if you are looking to do agent query letters you should do the same things I plan to if/when I start querying agents again.

  1. Research. Find the right set of agents to query. There are many fantastic resources on the web to help you do this. A lot of it is common sense. Find good sources, make good lists. There’s a wealth of knowledge a few clicks away.
  2. Effort. Finding your first agent and making your first book deal are huge career steps. Give it the time, effort and patience it requires. In the world we live in now, writing the actual book is the easiest and most fun part of the job. The parts that don’t come naturally to you are the work. I’ve often heard actors say they act for free, and the astronomical prices they charge are for having to sit around all day. I have to keep reminding myself this because my own tendency is to finish writing one thing and start planning the next thing to write because that’s the part of the job I really love.
  3. Realism. As you climb higher up the pyramid, agents will find you because you’ve suddenly transformed into an earner. But as long as you need to send out query letters, remember to be realistic about your chances. I know a writer who sent out a query to JK Rowling’s agent and no one else and was very upset when it didn’t work out. The most important thing in any creative career is stamina. Make mistakes, learn, make new sets of mistakes. That’s the only way to do it. Also, please read every agency’s submission guidelines very carefully and follow them. You obviously think your work is magic, but if you don’t approach them on their terms they will think of it as spam at best.
  4. Self-preservation. There are any number of random hustlers out there, especially in underdeveloped publishing markets like India. So please try and perform background checks on anyone you deal with. Find lists of red flags, ways to identify scammers and so on. Leave situations if they feel wrong. Finding out what the basic red flags are is very easy. It’s insane, the number of people who don’t do this.

Q3: I really want to finish my novel, started in 2012. Done 5 chapters, 4 more to go. Nothing motivates me, can’t quit day job 

(@impastop on Twitter)

  1. Nothing wrong with not finishing a novel. Motivation is tough to come by. I’m glad you have a day job. Day jobs are things to be thankful for.
  2. If you want to finish your novel, that’s great. It is now almost five years, though, so you are probably a different person. If the problem is that you no longer identify with or like what you wrote then, start a new one.
  3. Otherwise, just take it one sentence at a time and it will come together. Each sentence tends to be easier than the one you finished just before it.

Q4: 1) how tough is it to find a publisher for first time authors? 2) do books really pay peanuts?

(@Rohinik on Twitter)

Treating this as a single question, sometimes it is very tough, sometimes it is very easy. This is a starting set of conditions:

  1. The book is good.
  2. There is a market for it that already exists AND you have brought something new and interesting.
  3. You have submitted it to the right agent and the right publisher at the right time.
  4. You as an author are a potential goldmine and magnet.
  5. You know people or you Are people.

If you meet all of these conditions then the problem is not finding a publisher, it is getting them to keep their metaphorical clothes on. If you don’t, then the usual nebulous mix of hard work, talent, luck, patience, timing, market conditions, nuclear apocalypse etc.

Also yes, books pay peanuts. The number of peanuts, though, is fortunately variable. Sometimes it is zero peanuts, sometimes it is enough peanuts to buy small countries. As Shah Rukh Khan would say never underestimate the power of a common peanut.

Q5: You think a novel from the northeastern part of the country can sell? I mean with all the cultural, historic settings.

@mhanthung on Twitter

ABSOLUTELY YES. And it wouldn’t be the first. Janice Pariat, Anjum Hasan, several others among the brightest rising stars in Indian literary fiction have already proved this to be true, and there are many other examples of successful writers and books from the region. But also see previous answer.

And also please do a lot of reading about diversity in publishing, challenges and opportunities and pitfalls, before deciding what your novel from the northeastern part of the country is. Write the best damn back book you can, and it will sell. How much it will sell is not something you can control after a point.

Will it be an easy ride? Absolutely not, and you know this already because you’re asking this question. I don’t know what else to say. Gear yourself up for a fair amount of insensitivity and stupidity in the process of publishing and promoting this book, and when they make a Bollywood movie out of it, don’t be shocked when they cast actors not from the northeastern part of the country in the lead roles.

Good luck.

Q6: how important is an agent? crucial? Or can one have faith in self and approach publishers directly?

(@BookLuster on twitter)

(India specific answer because in any developed publishing market publishers will usually not accept direct submissions)

Yes, important. Yes, crucial. Approach publishers directly only if you know lots of people in publishing and have access to all relevant introduction. Actually, you know what, get an agent.

But spend time finding the right agent for you. A lot of Indian publishers still take direct submissions, but try the agent route first.

I don’t know enough about self-publishing to talk about it extensively. But I do know I don’t have the relentless self-promotion or sales and marketing expertise it requires.

Have faith in self always though.

Q7: do you think the web is a good place to publicly hone writing skills or does it dilute a strong voice?

(@PeterBangs on Twitter)

The first one. If you have a strong voice, the web will not dilute it. I think the only negative thing about the web for writers is the distraction aspect. Also, if you want to write a novel, for instance, then write a novel, don’t field-test it on the web. If you’re writing on the web, write things that work well for the web and hone web writing skills and find your starter audience.

I am genre and medium agnostic so I don’t think there is any such thing as ‘real’ writing that the web takes away from in any sense. I love the web for what it is, but when I tweet I’m tweeting, not writing a book. I spend too much time tweeting.

Q8: As a writer, do you feel your best is behind you and you have had it with all this storytelling thing. Do you feel like moving on and do something easier like say… Spreadsheets and coding?

(Gaurav Parab on Twitter)

No. Also WTF.

As a writer, I feel my best is ahead of me and yes, if I didn’t I should definitely have quit and done something else. Not a spreadsheets and coding person but yes, there are other things I could do for a living, and I am lucky and blessed and privileged to be able to write for a living and to have survived these years and hopefully many more.

The good thing about writing though is that you don’t have to do it continuously, or for a living, or for any benchmark set by anyone except yourself. So even if you spend several years not writing (I have) you can come back to it.

Q9: How do you deal with the “between books” feeling, where you go from all focus on a book immediately preceding/after its release back to the usual state of plodding on? Feels like post-partum depression to me…

This question is from Krishna Udayasankar on FB, who is asking this because she has just finished her fourth very successful book, Immortal, which has Ashwatthama as an (unfair but easy comparison) Indiana Jones-like adventurer. Read this book and her Mahabharata trilogy. She is feeling sad because she is a compulsive overachiever but she will get over it and will probably be a few minutes away from finishing her fifth book by the time I finish writing this post. Also she lifts heavy weights and runs and does other exhausting things.

I stopped having post-book or inter-book depression after the first few books – but I know what it feels like, it’s pretty terrible because suddenly everything seems empty and pointless. I do not have children but both my grandmothers had eight, and I think they stopped counting them and really noticing them after around five. I did not know them at the time but they were quite cheerful when I met them.

Yes, the transition from LASER FOCUS to whatthehelldoIdowithallthistime can be very depressing, because you care so intensely about the book and handing it over to other people and not really being able to control every aspect of its life can be traumatic. But a large part of being a writer for a decade and a half has been about learning to enjoy things that are not writing. Not writing is great fun. Often much more fun than writing. So I try to have a life. Krishna already has a life so I don’t really know what to say to her except I look forward to reading the next book.

Also, it’s good to breathe a bit between large writing projects. It makes the work better. The more distance you can put between yourself and your work, the better equipped you become to judge it, and plan for the next thing.

Q10: hi, do you have any General or Specific Advice on organising shit when you need to do archival research or other intensive research for a work of long fiction? (i mean mostly novels sure but also longer stories.) especially if just looking up stuff on the internet/asking people isn’t cutting it? thanks!

(Ishita Basu Mallik on FB)

I am in the process of doing exactly this at the moment as I begin a long and slow run towards a very complicated novel. I’m using Scrivener to structure note stockpiles that I know I’m using, and I use Evernote and Pocket a lot to gather material. I look up stuff on the internet, ask people things, and also read and watch a lot of relevant material, both fiction and non-fiction, until I reach a point where I’m beginning to start plotting, after which I only read up specific things, and only non-fiction, when there are specific gaps in the story or structure. General advice: you can research endlessly, you have to stop at some point and dive into your own universe. And trust your gut and nothing else when it comes to taking or not taking advice. Specific advice: always save a spare copy of everything both online and offline.

That’s the first ten! There will be more.

Update: I did not lie! Part 2 is here


About Samit Basu

Novelist. Best known for fantasy and science fiction work. Most recently, The City Inside (Tordotcom)/Chosen Spirits (Simon and Schuster)


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Copyright (c) Samit Basu. Images copyright respective holders.
December 2016


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