Sunday, 19 June 2011

Writers talk about writing - Keith Brooke

(Once you've finished reading what Keith's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

If you've enjoyed an ebook of mine, then you have Keith Brooke to thank. If you didn't enjoy it, I'll forward on letters of complaint too. Keith turned some fairly idle speculation on my part into the actual intention to do something about it, and through infinity plus ebooks, published Nowhere To Go. I've known Keith almost as long as I've been writing, and he's always been a source of encouragement and sage advice (anything you want to know about herbs, he's yer man), so it's a genuine pleasure to feature Keith in the next of this series of interviews.

For ten years, Keith ran infinity plus, one of the best resources on the web for sf and fantasy fiction. By the time it was put into hibernation in 2007 (although all the content is still up there), infinity plus contained over two million words of fiction, a thousand book reviews, and a hundred interviews.

As well as running infinity plus ebooks, Keith is the author of a dozen novels, more than 70 short stories and a whole bunch of non-fiction, including regular book reviews for The Guardian. He also has incredibly ticklish feet, as he confirmed shortly before completing this interview. In between all of this, he somehow finds the time to

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

There's a boy, see. Teenager. Bullied. Lives in a seaside town. Lost his sister a couple of years ago, resulting in his parents splitting up. Not convinced yet? Well... he escapes the bullying by retreating into a world of fantasy. Which is all very well, if not particularly healthy, until his fantasy world starts to take over the real one. Then things get messy. The novel's called The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie. Half a minute, you say? Well I can talk fast.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

Did I mention that I'm scared of heights? Or rather, falling from great heights... This lift's not going to fall, is it? Books. Okay. For those of you lucky enough to have Kindles (or other e-readers), I have five volumes of collected short fiction available: Liberty Spin, Memesis, Segue, Embrace and Faking It. All kinds of stories, from hard SF, through cyberpunk and near-future thriller to fantasy, horror and the plain weird. Each story has a specially written afterword, and I've even thrown in a handful of previously unpublished stories.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

Oh, you know, I'm taking it a bit easy at the moment. I've just finished a new novel called Tomorrow using my Nick Gifford pen-name (that's the name I use for my teen fiction). I'm working on a big novel crammed full with aliens called alt.human (check out the cover - Ed.). And I'm putting the finishing touches on a non-fiction book I've edited called Strange Divisions and Alien Territories: The Sub-genres of Science Fiction. That one looks at the genre from the perspective of a dozen practising authors, including Kristien Kathryn Rusch, Paul di Filippo, Alastair Reynolds and Catherine Asaro. And I keep coming back to compiling notes for a mainstream novel I'd really like to get to next.

[Ought to get off your backside and get some work done, you slacker. Ed.]

This year, you've started publishing ebooks through the infinity plus imprint. How's it gone, and where would you like to take it? What's coming up next?

We have sixteen full-length books out so far, from Eric Brown, Anna Tambour, John Grant, Kaitlin Queen, Neil Williamson, me, and a certain Iain Rowan (who also has an excellent - and free - short ebook out from us, too). Last weekend all sixteen titles were in various top 100s at Amazon UK, some of them in two or three top 100s. Not too shabby. The response has been fantastic, and it's great to see how the list is building.

For me, it started as a bit of an experiment. Particularly in the UK, the ebook market is only starting to take off and it offers authors a number of alternative models to conventional publishing. It's interesting to see what happens when authors take back control of their work. They can get it spectacularly wrong, but also there have been some notable successes. At infinity plus we're pursuing a collective model: a bunch of authors getting together to see how we can make this market work for us. Given our initial success, I think infinity plus is in transition from an author dabbling to becoming a serious publishing imprint. I don't think we'll ever supplant the major publishers, and I wouldn't want to. Instead, the model for the next few years is likely to involve authors building up portfolios: infinity plus authors will continue to work with the big publishers, but will also be bringing out back-list and less obviously commercial titles either independently or through imprints like infinity plus.

SF novels, SF short stories, YA novels, Ebook publishing. A marathon. Two questions: how the hell do you find the time, and would you like another opportunity to plug the charity for which you ran the Edinburgh marathon?

What, alongside the book reviewing and other non-fiction work and having a day job, you mean? I guess I must have developed strategies over the years. I make the most of every opportunity. If I catch myself between meetings or with free time on journeys or at lunchtime I'll write in notebooks, on my phone, on scraps of paper, etc. Give me a couple of hours and I can sometimes hit two thousand words of new material if I'm in the thick of a novel. It's not easy, but I love it.

The marathon: I had a fantastic time, and have raised over £1200 so far for Epilepsy Action. They've been a big help to my daughter Molly over the years and I thought it was time for a bit of pay back. The marathon was a couple of weeks ago, and I can take online donations through until 22 August.

You've been successful in writing both adult SF, and young-adult horror. How do you decide what kind of story to work on next - is it what sells, or the story that interests you, or something else?

Much to the frustration of my agent, who occasionally reminds me that I should be more career-minded, I tend to write whatever grabs me next. Hence the constant switching between genres and audiences. Not to mention the mainstream novel I have lined up next. I haven't mentioned that one to my agent, yet. I think I'll need to break it to her gently.

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?

Such a hard one to answer! I think I have a good sense of overall story and pace, and my stories tend to strike a good balance between the big picture and the intimate, personal stories of my characters; that's a real challenge with the current novel, setting a very personal story against a vast backdrop. I don't think I have a general "wish I could do better". For me it's more a case of wanting to tell each story as well as I possibly can, and each time I finish one knowing that I haven't quite managed it yet. And god, but it'd be dull if I thought there was no room for improvement!

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

It was a dark and stormy night. No really, it was! To be more specific, it was a wet week in Yorkshire when the village shop had a supply of trashy horror novels. I devoured them, enjoyed them, and at the same time started noting down ideas for how I would have done them differently. That's when I realised that actually writing stories was an option and maybe I should give it a go. And look where it got me.

Do you have a book or story that you're very fond of, but you think should get more attention from the world than it has.

Two. Genetopia came out in hardback in 2006, but for various complicated reasons has not yet had a paperback edition. I'd love to get that out to a larger audience. And The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie came out from the excellent indie press Newcon; again, it'd be great to get a mass market edition out for that one.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

A big shake-up! The success of some indie authors has illustrated how conventional publishing has to become more responsive, more fluid. Readers don't swallow arguments justifying ebook prices that can be higher than the print equivalent. And they're willing to put up with poorly edited, often poorly written books that make up for their flaws with gusto and energy and sheer storytelling verve. Which isn't to say that publishers should stop bothering about editing and production values, but perhaps they should be paying more attention to what it is that these indies have that is grabbing the readers. In many cases it's as simple a formula as: good writer + substantial list of titles available + writer's good social media profile + books cheap enough to make it worth the gamble = success in ebooks.

Beyond the big commercial successes in e-publishing, we're seeing far more opportunities for niche markets to be viable. Short story collections are a good example of this: the big commercial publishers rarely put out collections, but with ebooks we can do so; not just conventional collections, but shorter books - sets of three or four linked stories that would never be viable as print editions, for example.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

I've tried various forms of promotion, both for my own work and for the books we publish through infinity plus. It's very hard to pin down what works adn what doesn't, though. A successful initiative might lead to a surge in sample downloads from Amazon, which isn't something we can measure as they don't release this data; actual sales could take weeks to materialise.

For an author, the best thing is to write your best work and get titles out. Build up some momentum. Being active in social media, embracing the social aspect of it rather than just using it as a platform to bellow BUY MY BOOK!, can be effective, as can blogging, interviews, personal appearances, etc.

I think the single-most effective thing I've done is work through a collective like infinity plus rather than going it alone: authors benefit by helping each other and, just as in the early days of the infinity plus website, we share each other's readers around.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Push. Push yourself to make every word the right word. Push yourself to make every sentence better, every paragraph better. Push your story so that every peak is higher, every trough lower; push your characters so that they suffer more and have greater challenges, so that their triumphs will be greater. If you're serious about being a writer, you're going to be up against a lot of alternatives for readers' attention: your priority has to be to deliver your very best.

If you could tell an aspiring piece of writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

"Write what you know." Chris Fowler wrote a brilliant guest editorial for Postscripts a few years ago where he railed against this one. What a dull world it would be if we only ever wrote about what we knew! Write what you imagine! Make stuff up! Push boundaries.


  1. Some good answers; interesting to see how other's tackled Iain's questions!

    I agree completely with your bit on "write what you know" - ughh.

  2. Smashing interview, enjoyed that - ta! And yes, 'Write what you know' is utter tosh. Thank goodness Philip K Dick (amongst others) was deaf to that particular bit of advice.