March 4, 2015

You Asked, I Answer: AMA with Steff

Rage against the manuscript, Steff, Writing Runes

steff metal reading book

steff metal reading book

Image from Davida Spence.

As promised, here are my answers to some of the questions I received last week in the comments and via email.

From Jake. “I want to know, if you were stranded on a desert island with some food and water and an MP3 player with only enough space for 3 albums on it, which 3 would you choose?”

Haha, love this question. To be honest, I’d probably give us the iPod in exchange for some sunscreen and a flare gun. But if that wasn’t an option, and I somehow had the wherewithal to choose my three albums before my – presumably accidental – stranding, I’d go for a Nick Cave album, probably A Boatman’s Call, or Push the Sky Away, Blind Guardian’s Nightfall on Middle Earth, and can I cheat and choose an Iron Maiden best-of album?

From Alex666: What made you decide to self-publish? Do you think it was the right decision? Do you think the indie “gold rush” is over? How do you recommend new, unpublished writers approach their career?

I spent around 7 years chasing a publishing contract with various books before I decided to self-publish. Several factors influenced the decision – the desire to actually start making some kind of progress as a fiction writer, my disillusionment with the legacy process and editors telling me, “we love you, we just can’t publish you because …”, reading the stories from other indie authors and thinking I could easily be one of them, and participating in JA Konrath’s 8-hour fiction challenge, where I published a book of six short stories called The Good, The Bad, and the Utterly Screwed in less than a day, and loved it.

I decided to experiment with a novel I’d already written. I chose At War With Satan because although I loved the story and the humour, and many editors and agents did too, they had no idea how to market it and so it had been rejected by basically everyone of note in the book industry. It was never a good candidate for traditional publishing, so I had nothing to lose by putting it out there. I knew it was probably a one-off book for me (I want to write serious, dark science fiction / fantasy, not the funny stuff) so I felt I could make all my first book mistakes on it instead of one of my other novels.

And I did make mistakes. I didn’t do as much editing as I should have, and the book has some inconsistencies and spelling errors that are a hindrance to readers. I’m in the process of having the book professionally edited now, and hope to release an updated version later this year, but it’s low priority as I’m focusing on my dark fiction.

Is the indie gold-rush over? I don’t know. I was never part of what is called the “gold-rush”, which I think was 2008-2010. But I sold 1759 books last month across all my titles. I have no complaints here. Indie publishing was absolutely, 100% the right decision for me. One of the huge advantages is that, because ebooks are an electronic format, there are no longer the same hangups about length. I’m publishing “books” that are less than 8,000 words and more than 130,000 words in length, and they sell alongside each other just fine.

If I were a new author going into the wide world of publishing, I would start with self-publishing. I’d just dive right in with something small, like a novella or a short story collection, just so you can see how the process works. Probably not many people will buy it – just your mum and a couple of friends with Kindles, but that’s OK. I’d read websites like Kindle boards and J A Konrath’s blog and The Passive Voice, and a ton of indie books, and just soak up the learning. I’d spend less than $50 on my cover art, and ask a friend to edit it, and just see what happened.

Then I’d take everything I learned from releasing that book, and apply it to my next work. And I’d rinse and repeat until I built myself a solid career. It might take one story, or seven stories, or twenty-two stories, like me, but I’d keep going because this is what I want to do.

(Remember, if you fuck things up completely, you can always start over with a new pen name, and no one needs to know the two are connected.)

Later, as my career progressed, I’d be better able to judge if a book would benefit from a traditional contract or not. Traditional still owns print sales, and that can be a significant part of an author’s career if they have the right book. I’m currently working with a publisher right now on a craft book, and I haven’t ruled out a legacy contract for fiction in the future. When you know what indie publishing offers you, you’ll be better able to judge if a legacy deal is worthwhile or not.

From CC: Why are there no strong female characters in your book?

I had a feeling this question was going to come up.

I assume you mean The Sunken, since it’s something a lot of reviewers have pointed out. I guess this fuss comes largely from the fact that most books in the steampunk genre have female heroines or very strong female characters. Personally it’s not something I look for specifically – I don’t think I’ve ever read a book and noticed the ratio of gender in the characters, but maybe that’s just me.

I actually wrote the third book in the Engine Ward series, Thorn, first. All the stuff that happens in The Sunken and the sequel, The Gauge War, is spoken about in Thorn, but it’s background info for the story in that book. The main character, Thorn, is female and she is amazing. She’s the daughter of Nicholas and Brigitte and the best, most complex and fascinating character I’ve ever written, tied perhaps with Brunel himself.

I was working with an editor at a major publishing house at the time I wrote Thorn and she loved the book but felt it wasn’t the first book in the series. All this interesting stuff happened before Thorn was born – Brunel’s rise to power, King George and the Sunken, the Gauge War – and the editor felt that needed to be a book, too. So I wrote the Guage War as a prequel, then realised it needed to be two books, so I split it and edited The Sunken for publication, got a contract, got dumped, then decided to go indie with the series.

In trying to write a book that fit into the publishing house’s constraints (120,000 words), I had to pare back my large cast of characters into something more manageable. The four main characters (Nicholas, Isambard, Aaron, James) were essential, and much of Brigitte’s story and characterisation had to be pared back in order to meet the maximum word count I was allowed. I also couldn’t devote as much attention as I’d have liked to Ada Byron.

When I went indie, I had been working on the book for more than a year, and I was happy with the story as is. So I didn’t add any of this additional characterisation for the female characters in. Perhaps I should have. To be honest, it simply hadn’t occurred to me.

In The Gauge War, which I am working my way through editing now, you will see Brigitte become more of a force for change in the narrative. She really becomes her own character. I’ve done this because I want her to shine, and because of the feedback from readers and reviewers – part of the amazing process that is indie publishing (being able to change and adapt to give your readers what they want). The book will likely be longer – maybe 140,000 words, but those female characters will play a more prominent role.

And if you enjoy the series enough to keep reading, trust me when I say you are going to LOVE Thorn. Seriously, she’s awesome. You’ll meet her later this year.

And as for Aaron beating his wife, which many people have asked about, all I can say to that is don’t believe everything Brunel says …

From Aaron. What exactly is wrong with your eyes?

I have achromatopsia, a rare genetic condition where my eyes have no cone cells. Your eyes have two types of cells – rods (which are what activate at night) and cones (which help you see during the day). I’m using my rods all the time. Imagine you’re trying to find your way around a dark room and someone turns the light on. Argh! You’re blind! This is me as soon as the sun comes up. Bright light, sunlight and glare make my eyes water and my head hurt. Hence, I work from a cave-like attic office and wear dark red, polarising lenses whenever I go outside.

I am also completely colourblind. This isn’t the kind of colourblindness where I confuse two colours. I see no colour whatsoever. Nip, nada, zippo. My whole world is 50 shades of grey.

ALSO, I’m severely short sighted. This is linked to the loss of cone cells in my eyes. The best way to describe it is to say that if you have normal vision, however blurry something is from sixty metres away, is how blurry it is one metre away for me. Needless to say, I am never going to drive a car or pilot a jet plane.

And finally, because that’s just not enough, I have nystagmus. This means my eyes shake and wobble and blink a lot. The more stressed I am, the worse it becomes. My eyes auto-correct by looking out the side of my eye – as it moves the least – and so I often appear to be looking just past people’s shoulders, instead of directly at them.

I share this condition with John Kay – the founder and vocalist of Steppenwolf (who first coined the phrase “heavy metal” to describe music) – as well as a lovely NZ jazz singer by the name of Caitlin Smith, and my wonderful friend Gronk.

I used to write a column about my experiences as an achromat called Green in a Grey World. You can read the archives here.

From Martine. What’s the advantage in having a blog? Why do you still blog, instead of just being on social media and writing novels?

Because I love it. I’m a writer by nature, so the format appeals. I like that I control my blog – instead of a social media site that’s controlled by another company. Here you can get to know me and I can get to know all of you and we can talk about shit that’s interesting to us.

My blog is also part of what sets me apart from other writers.

In saying that, if you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see pictures and updates that don’t go on the blog.

From Anon. What has been your favourite country to visit? Are you travelling again soon?

There are two countries that stand out to me so far: 1. Germany – every time I visit, I just fall in love with the people and the culture and the history and the whole vibe of the place all over again. 2. Syria. We travelled here originally to see this specific crusader castle, but weren’t expecting to be so enchanted with the place and its kind, hardworking people. It’s heartbreaking to think so much has been destroyed.

England is also one of my favourite places, because all my literary heroes come from there and all my favourite books are set there, and there just seems to me to be a kind of ancient magic that settles over the place whenever the fog rolls in.

As for future travel, I am off to Peru in July! I am very excited. I’d love to hear from any of you who’ve been to South America before, with advice on what to see and do. We’re also hoping to venture either back to Europe or on to 70,000 Tons of Metal in 2016/2017. We shall see how the funds stretch.

From Matt. Why don’t you feature lots of new bands on your blog?

I receive literally 20-30 emails a day from PR firms and bands wanting me to listen to their stuff. The truth is, it’s so overwhelming that I often don’t listen to anything. I have a full-time job, plus writing, plus other shit to do, and sometimes I just want to listen to a Primordial album I’ve heard and love rather than this mediocre band who swear they are a newer, better Primordial. Do you know what I mean?

Also, I have said time and time again that I am not a music review site. This is a personal blog where I talk about music alongside a ton of other crap. I post 3 times a week, which is around 150 times a year, and maybe 20 of those posts are album reviews. There are other sites (my favourites are No Clean Singing and Angry Metal Guy) who do reviews and news and underground bands way better than I ever could. By all means send me your stuff, but I am just not able to listen to everything.

From Dave: What are your favourite NZ bands?

So many! In metal it’s Beastwars, Exordium Mors, Ulcerate, Malevolence, Stormforge, Arc of Ascent, House of Capricorn, and Heavy Metal Ninjas.

Non-metal bands it’s probably Caitlin Smith and Jakob.

From Aris: Should a person stop doing things, behave in a certain way and stop enjoying certain stuff after a specific age? Should a person conform to society’s expectations, compromise and to what extent?

I turned 30 last week, and it is very weird. I don’t feel any different to when I was 29, and yet, that in turn makes me feel strange because I wonder if I’m supposed to feel different.

There’s a place in the world for every sort of person. Different companies and social circles have different cultures, and we will fit in some places and feel woefully out of place in others. I work at a tech company – it’s a startup so things are super casual. I fit in well here, although people probably still think I’m a bit weird. There are a few of us wandering around in jeans and metal shirts.

If I worked in a heavily corporate environment – even if I had the wardrobe to match – I think I’d probably still feel as if I didn’t fit in, but that would depend on what the actual work was like. I find a mutual interest in something can break down barriers of class and social order between colleagues. I’m passionate about metal music, but I’m also interested in many other things that’s aren’t related to that. If I was offered my dream job tomorrow (curator of the Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum), and the one condition was that I wasn’t allowed to wear my casual clothes and metal t shirts at work, I would take the job, and go buy some new clothes.

You should never feel you need to change who you are to fit in with a group of people. But “fitting in” is about more than just wearing the same clothes – each of us has such a complex, multi-layered personality, I find you can usually find something in common with anyone if you dig deep enough. I’d be pretty narrow-minded if I only spent time with staunch metalheads.

I’m getting slightly off-topic here. Expectations. What does “society” expect of us 30-year-olds? That we have a respectable job, that we buy a house, have kids, and talk about “normal” things like politics and who won the cricket?

I think you should always strive to be more than what you are, in whatever way you wish to interpret that. You should aim to do worthwhile work, to befriend people who lift you up, to learn more about the world and all who inhabit it, to develop skills and experiences you can put to good use, to raise children who will usher in a new generation of understanding and innovation, to become a more kind, intelligent and compassionate person from one year to the next. As you get older, your standards get higher. Your goals change. Some may align with these expectations, some may not. I’m now the proud owner of a home and a mortgage. That’s pretty “normal”. But I live in a way that’s unique, and that not many people would be interested in emulating.

Never compromise what’s important to you to fit within someone else’s mould. That takes you away from your own unique path. But I think always you should be seeking to “level up”, in whatever form that may take in your life. You should be able to look back upon your life between the ages of 20-39 and say, “I lived the shit out of that.”

From Anon: What’s the one piece of advice you could give to up-and-coming metal musicians about how to succeed?

Not being a musician, I advise you to treat any advice you receive from me with suspicion. But this goes for writers, designers, and other kinds of artists, too. Create awesome shit. 90% of your focus should be on improving your craft and doing the work required to get that art into a polished, finished form. People often ask me how I write a novel, and there’s only one answer to that – one painful word at a time. Then, when you’ve created something and it’s done and if you touched it again you’d start to tear it to pieces, then you have to share it. Art doesn’t become great art sitting in attic trunks and hiding on hard drives. Create. Publish. Repeat. Do that enough times and you’ll find an audience.

(Sure, I spend time on forums and going to writers conferences and learning about the industry and how Amazon works. But the bulk of my time is spent creating, publishing, and creating some more. It’s taken me more than eight years, but it’s finally started to gain traction.)

That’s it for today! If I get any more questions, I’ll happily answer them – probably on Facebook. Thanks for participating!

The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, is now available on Amazon.

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One Comment on “You Asked, I Answer: AMA with Steff

March 6, 2015 at 9:10 am

Very thoughtful and interesting answers Steff! Thanks for answering my question as well, I fully agree with the points you made. Keep it up!

Comments are closed.