Free fiction and the value of our efforts

The advent of the internet has had many effects, not least of which is giving a voice to pretty much everybody. We’re all sitting at keyboards making noise, like a flock of a billion seagulls fighting over one bag of chips. It’s not a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned. The really strong voices lift above the white noise and everyone gravitates towards those voices that interest them. It’s a big world and an infinite internet, so there’s room in this sandbox for everyone. However, another aspect of that easy online voice is a million wannabe writers posting their stuff online and hoping people will read it. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but a potentially damaging one for a writer’s career in the long run.

I’m one of those voices, obviously. I’ve got some of my own fiction posted here for anyone to read. I’ve engaged in the Friday Flash phenomenon. Is this damaging for my career? I don’t think so. I think it’s helping my career, by giving potential readers an insight into some of my stuff. I’ve had some nice comments from people about stories they’ve read here. But I’ve engaged in the practice with careful forethought.

I decided to write about this after reading this post on Benjamin Solah’s blog. You may remember that Benjamin guest posted here about a week ago, talking about his experiment self-publishing an ebook of his fiction. The power of the internet gave him some pretty solid and honest feedback very quickly. It can be summed up quite well in these comments on Ben’s post by Jason Fischer:

My two cents is this: trunk stories belong in your trunk. You either take them apart and make them good enough to sell, or you leave them there. Why would you want anyone to see a piece of your writing that isn’t working? If your career takes off, do you *really* want these out there?…

There’s so much fiction out there for the reading, even more with the new e-book markets. As such, it is remarkably easy to slide into the infamous “90% of everything that is crap” of Sturgeon’s Law. You should be aspiring to be in the other 10%, not taking the path of least resistance and self-publishing your unsellable trunk stuff.

Work on the nuts and bolts of your writing first and foremost. Be brutal with your own writing, edit, and edit some more. If you can’t get it to work, trunk it and try something else, and LEAVE IT IN THE TRUNK. You can promote something till the cows come home, but if it’s no good, no-one will want it…

These comments are culled from a longer conversation and it’s worth reading Ben’s post to see the whole discussion. Jason is someone worth listening to – apart from being a top bloke, his advice comes from great experience. He’s made many quality short fiction sales and is a recent winner of Writers Of The Future, among many other awards and nominations. Check him out here.

I agree with his sentiments. So how is what I’ve done with fiction on my site different to Ben’s experiment? There’s one simple difference – all the fiction I’ve made available to read here is previously published somewhere (with a couple of exceptions that I’ll talk about in a minute). Some of it is older stuff published in non-paying markets, but it’s still stuff I’m proud of. Other stories are published in better markets and the links here are directly to sites where the story can be found. The point is that it made it past an editor, so I’ve got unbiased, third party confirmation that it’s worth a read. For that reason, I’m happy to direct people towards it and say, “Here’s some of my writing for you to check out, I hope you like it.” If I wasn’t able to sell that story to an editor, even “sell” it to a for the love market, then I certainly won’t put it up here with a pouty face and a “well, I think it’s good enough” attitude. Because it’s not. Writers are the worst possible critics of their own work. Of course we love everything we write – we wrote it!

If people do like it, with any luck they’ll seek out some of my other stuff, they might take a punt on my novels. Hopefully then they’ll enjoy my books and recommend them to friends or buy copies to give as gifts. Using the same hypothesis, the first three chapters of both my books are available here (just click on book covers to find them) so that people can try before they buy.

The other exercise in free fiction I engaged in was Ghost Of The Black: A ‘Verse Full Of Scum. In an effort to generate return visits to my site and more interest in my fiction, I wrote a 30,000ish word novella in a series of episodes, which I then posted here every Monday during 2008. This was a conscious decision to write a piece of fiction that I had no intention of trying to sell. Rather, it was a deliberate exercise in giving something away to showcase my writing. It’s still available on the Serial Fiction page and it’s also available as an ebook and print book, that I’ve self-published. On the whole it’s been very well received and garnered a few decent reviews. Whether it’s really done much to enhance my career is hard to say, but I certainly don’t think it’s done any damage. Whether I leave it here indefinitely is also hard to say. For now, I’m happy to leave it for people to enjoy. I may take down the Serial Fiction page one day, and just leave the ebook and print edition available for people to buy. I may take those away too at some point. (Leave a comment if you have a particular opinion about that – I’d be interested to know.)

What I haven’t done is post here those stories that I couldn’t sell. Believe me, my story trunk is a dark and nasty place, full of things I really don’t want anyone else to see.

Another example of free, unpublished fiction here comes from my occasional jaunts into the Friday Flash meme. This is essentially a community of writers that post flash fiction on their websites and promote it with the #FridayFlash hashtag through Twitter and Facebook. A lot of those people don’t care about getting published, they’re just happy to be part of a community of likeminded people. Things that I’ve posted on Friday Flash are stories that I’ve decided are a good idea and an entertaining little yarn, but one that I don’t want to spend time trying to sell or expand into a longer piece. They’re all taster stories, exercises in writing and storytelling.

For me, writing is a very serious business. Friday Flash was a brief hobby. I don’t mean to denigrate the community by this statement at all, it’s just my own personal situation now. I’m not likely to post any more Friday Flash – I agree with the comments on Ben’s post that it’s a time-sink and I intend to spend that time on sellable short stories and novels. I’ve had fun with it, but now I’m moving on.

These days I only approach semi-pro and pro markets with my work. I know I can get stuff published in other places, but I’m improving my craft and expecting better results from myself. If I can’t sell a story to at least a semi-pro market, I won’t sell it at all. Nor will I post it here on my website. As the things on my site here attest, I was happy to get acceptances from much smaller markets before. Every writer starts somewhere. But I won’t stay there. I want to improve as a writer and I want to sell my work to better and better places all the time. I intend to be a pro writer, as in, get paid pro rates for my work, and I’ll keep working towards that. Recent sales are bearing out the worth of this endeavour – I’m making better sales all the time. I’m still yet to crack the big time pro markets, but I will one day.

In the meantime, I’m happy to leave the stuff here that I’ve already posted. I may well decide to take it all away at some point. Who knows?

What do you think? Do you appreciate free fiction as a taste of a writer’s work? Are you a writer for or against the idea? Have you had good or bad experiences posting fiction on your site? Do you think I should leave free fiction here or take it away? Leave your comments – I’m interested in people’s thoughts.


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11 thoughts on “Free fiction and the value of our efforts

  1. As is probably apparent from my comments on my post, I’d agree with your kind of approach now. I like you separate stuff that someone might put on a blog because they’ve given up after it rejected and writing something specifically for the blog – and then weighing up that.

    But then I wonder how you came to self-publish. Weren’t your first two novels self-published? Would you do the same today or was there a way you go that kind of third-person validation?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Alan. This is something I fret about from time to time, so it’s good to get a view from another person’s head. Generally, I don’t like the idea of authors giving away their work for free, however good or bad it is. It simply devalues the product for all of us.

    But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The Web is here. Loud proponents have been arguing for years that giving work away can build a career, and most people seem to believe them. Every month now, thousands upon thousands of free books pour onto the Internet. It’s an unstoppable tide and we have to live with it.

    What’s worse is that I’ve come to believe that a “career” as a writer is a bit of a joke. How many writers earn enough to be the main breadwinner in a family? How many make five-figure incomes, let alone six? Selling stories hand over fist at “pro” rates isn’t enough to do it, even if that were possible with so few pro zines in the world. Selling novels gives you a better shot, but at a dollar or two earned per book, there are very few writers doing well enough to call it a career, I think.

    So maybe we should all confess that writing is almost never anything but a hobby, a supplementary income, pin money? Then we can stop fretting about pleasing editors and publishers and just do what we enjoy. Good writers will still find an audience. Certainly the publishing industry can make finding an audience easier for the writers it likes and wants to promote, but the publishing industry costs writers a lot too, and maybe what they give isn’t always worth the price.

  3. Ben – My first novel got me an agent and very nearly got published by one of the big publishers. Then it all fell over at the last hurdle. But I knew from what had happened that I had a decent novel on my hands – my agent got one of her established authors to read it before she agreed to take me on and that author told her to go for it. It was just timing and (bad) luck that meant I missed out that time around. My agent suggested I try overseas publishers/agents as she only covered Australia.

    I decided to concentrate on writing the sequel before I tried out for publishing again. During that process I discovered the whole POD thing with – this was all back in the dark ages of 2006! I had very little experience of the publishing world, but regardless I decided to give it a go. I self-published RealmShift to see what kind of response it would get while I wrote MageSign. As it turned out, I really enjoyed the indie process and RealmShift was very well received. So when MageSign was ready I set up Blade Red Press and published them both that way, taking RealmShift down from Lulu. That meant I could cut out the middle man and have a much more attractive cover price.

    Both books continued to get very positive feedback and the process was really good fun. Then Gryphonwood Press expressed interest and acquired both books (after some fairly serious editing!) and now the books are no longer self-published. Of course, not everyone will have a similar experience – every writer’s path is different.

    I’m working on my third book now and I intend to find a mainstream publisher for it from the outset. Would I self/indie-publish again? Well, never say never, but I seriously doubt it. It’s a lot of work for very little return. I want to be a writer, not a publisher. I also want to have the clout and distribution of an established publisher promoting my work and hopefully make a few more dollars from it.

    I wouldn’t change what I have done as it’s been an interesting journey and I’ve learned a lot. But I’m certainly in a very different place now.

    Graham – I can count on one hand the authors I know that make a full time living as authors. And I do know an awful lot of them! There are some authors out there that make a decent living, some that make an awesome living, but the vast majority still have day jobs. I think we need to accept, as writers, that it will almost certainly remain a secondary career, even while we strive for the big time.

    Won’t stop me trying though, and it certainly won’t stop me writing.

  4. I think there is a very thin and flexible line between the trunk and stories you might put on a blog.

    My trunk is mostly full of stories I have been unable to finish to my satisfaction. Something is missing and until I figure out what, the story isn’t going anywhere.

    I also have a few stories that are completed, but often never submitted anywhere for reasons other than story mechanics. These stories may have a nominal SF element, or may be of the cute-but-pedestrian variety that are simply entertaining to read but won’t cut the mustard at magazines. The latter I would totally make available in free venues.

    And stories that have already been published, sure, but I’d prefer to re-sell them rather than give them away for nothing.

    To purpose-write a story for a blog, without intention to submit it anywhere? Sure, go ahead, but it’s a time-sink and it seems to me you’d be better off trying to sell those stories.

  5. Patty – Reselling published stories is a good point, and something I’m trying to pursue more these days. I also won’t purpose write anything for the blog again like I did with my novella for exactly the reasons you mention – I plan to sell anything I write now. But I’m still happy to leave the Ghost novella here and I hope people still enjoy it.

  6. Some great thoughts here, Alan. I’m interested in the fact that Friday Flash was a hobby for you that you’ve since left behind. I feel that way a bit too (though I balk at calling any writing I do a hobby, just because of the connotations it brings) because I was very involved last year but have since tried to prioritize my other work.

    This is all very squiggly stuff. On the one hand, yes, you don’t want stuff out there that you don’t think is your best work. On the other hand, yes, Friday Flash and your serial story are great exercises with a lot of good results. Like most things about the writing life it seems like it depends completely on the person and the day of the week. Ah well.

    It was Maugham who said that there are three rules for writing, but nobody knows what they are. He wasn’t wrong. 🙂

  7. I think I am pretty much where you are with this Alan. #fridayflash is a great community and something I am very happy to have been involved with as it was starting out but as most will have noticed I haven’t really taken part for a while now as lately I have had to prioritise my writing time. Which means, like you I am concentrating on getting work ready to send to market. I just don’t have the time anymore to read dozens of flash fictions and comment on them.

    I think things like #fridayflash do provide a great community and rapid feedback for those starting out and can be a really positive experience for those beginning to show their work to a wider world. I also think most people will outgrow it at some point and move away from taking part regularly as their writing for markets develops. And of course, new people will come in to fill the spaces left behind by older hands, which is as it should be. None of this means I won’t check in from time to time to see what folk are doing.

  8. Jen – Just to be clear, writing has never been a hobby. I’m very serious about being a writer. When people say, “What do you do?” I always reply with, “I’m a writer and a martial arts instructor.”

    My participation in Friday Flash was a hobby. Incidentally, I love that Maugham quote!

    Dan – See above! Even at the start I only dabbled infrequently as I was more interested in putting my writing time towards more professional targets. Nowadays I’ve gone from infrequent to not at all. But I enjoyed the time I did participate and I’m glad I did. And I’m sure you’re right, that many people will pass through the process, some will stay, others will move on, others still will start. It’s a great idea and I hope it does continue.

  9. Alan,

    There are two different issues here. You have self-published, and you knew your books met certain quality standards (as would apply for a lot of people who have sold fiction at a decent level), you knew what you were getting into and you never did it as replacement for a big publishing contract. Getting picked up by a major publisher is every writer’s dream.

    But, barring the occasional promo day, you have never given your fiction away for free.

    The question was: does giving away free fiction cheapen either the writer or other writers?

    Yes and no. I think few people who want a career (or whatever passes for career) as a writer will give away their fiction for free. They’ll make sure the book is properly edited and the cover properly designed. The savvy reader will be able to tell.

  10. I have given away fiction for free. The entire Ghost novella here was purpose-written as a free serial. I wrote it with every intention of giving it away on the website. But I also had it proofed and beta-read and had help with the cover that I put on it after the serial had run its course, etc.

    At the stage I’m at now I seriously doubt that I would give anything more away for free, but that’s as much a time consideration as anything. The time I put into writing is now spent subsequently pursuing paid publication. As I’ve had success there now, anything else would seem like a backward step. But never say never. I can be an altruistic guy sometimes.

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