Should Writers Avoid Getting Political?

Back to Reality, the novel I co-wrote with Mark Desvaux for the Bestseller Experiment podcast, has been having a good run with reviews since its publication in 2017. Folks have liked it a lot and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. To meet our rather ambitious self-imposed target of ten thousand copies sold by the end of the Glastonbury Festival (our book climaxes at Glastonbury) we’ve been dialling up the advertising and asking anyone who’s read the book to leave a review. That means I’ve been checking the Amazon customer reviews fairly regularly, and that’s when I noticed that we received our first ever one-star review for the book. At first, my heart sank a little, but then I clicked on the review and had a read and this is what I found…

For context, here’s the part of the book that the reviewer objected to. Our hero, Jo, has travelled back in time from contemporary England to ‘90s Hollywood. She finds herself on a late night chat show where she reveals that she’s a time traveller…

There are two things going on with this review. First is an inability to make a distinction between the protagonist and the authors.

This still manages to surprise some readers. To write crime thrillers, you don’t need to be a cop or a murderer, to write science fiction you don’t need to explore deep space, and you, dear writer, can write repulsive characters and not agree with their world view.

Although, for the sake of clarity, here’s where I stand on Donald Trump. The man is a misogynist, homophobic, racist, narcissistic fool and a failed businessman whose time would be better spent indulging in his sexual peccadilloes behind closed doors while the rest of try and save the planet from climate change.

In short, I’m not a fan.

But this is what writers do: we put ourselves in the shoes of these characters and try to imagine would those people might be like — and very often it can be based on personal experience — and we try to convey that in words.

As an aside, I think this is why there is such a liberal bias in the entertainment industry. Creators will try and see both sides of the argument in a story, character or situation and present them in a compelling way. That sense of fairness is very much a characteristic of liberals, especially in contrast to the meritocratic views of the right. 

The second aspect of the review is the disappointment in the reader that we’ve dragged the messy world of politics into their reading. This prompts the much bigger question: should writers get political? Sure, if you’re writing a political thriller it’s expected, but when you’re writing in an escapist genre like comedy, romance, science fiction or fantasy should the poor reader be inflicted with soap box politics? And is it worth it for the writer? Think back to The Dixie Chicks when they made disparaging comments about George W Bush and the effect that had on their sales. Isn’t it just safer to avoid any political content altogether?

Here’s the thing: all writing is political… if it’s any good.

Fiction isn’t like a family gathering where you avoid religion and politics. It should be a truthful reflection of what the creator believes, otherwise what is the point?

I’m not saying that our joke where Jo compares Trump to Hitler is some kind of profound insight into the human condition. Far from it. It’s simply the thing that stuck out for the reviewer. What that reviewer missed was the masses of other political content in the book. The themes of family, compassion, sexism, work, money and greed are threaded throughout the story, and if you don’t think those are political then you’ve not been paying attention to the world around you.

So, will we lose sales because we’ve upset some fans of Trump? Possibly. We’re hardly the Dixie Chicks, but to be honest if you’re a Trump supporter I don’t want your money. You’re going to need it when you realise you’re on the wrong side of history and need to pay for therapy.

In the meantime, I shall continue to write about the world through the eyes of characters that both attract and repulse me. It’s pretty much the only way I can make any sense of the chaos around me, especially that Trump fella… 

PS. To be clear, there are my opinions and not those of The Bestseller Experiment or my co-presenter -author Mark Desvaux…

More podcast goodness for your ears (and mind…)

We’ve had two cracking – a very different – episodes of the Bestseller Experiment recently. First up is a report from The Romantic Novelists’ Association conference in Leeds where I spoke to Rhoda Baxter, Nicola Cornick and Sheila Crighton (aka Annie O’Neil) about all sorts of love including instalust, passionate blur and the scale of hotness. And it was great to finally meet Rhoda Baxter (aka Jeevani Charika), who also proved the Lego image above! Listen to the podcast here.

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Rhoda (Jeevani) and me at the RNA

This week’s podcast features John McGhie, an investigative journalist who has worked for the BBC, Channel 4 News and the Observer. John and I met on Whitstable beach at the peak of the football world cup at what felt like a brief moment of optimism in an otherwise politically depressing 2018. We cheer ourselves up by talking about the historical atrocities chronicled in John’s excellent new book White Highlands! No, really, it’s a fascinating episode and we cover writing historical fiction in some detail. Listen here.

And if you want to know more, the documentary that inspired John’s book can be seen here…

And last but by no means least I was once again on the Dominic King show on BBC Radio Kent in the conversation slot. We chatted about YALC, YA fiction, The End of Magic, podcasts, soundtracks and I even wheel out my Sean Connery impression. You can listen here and for my bit skip forwards to 2 hours and 11 minutes…

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Here are links to stuff I talk about on the shows below…

Put these in your ears…

Safer than Q-tips and a lot more educational and edifying, you can hear me waffle on not one, not two, but three podcasts this week!

First up, of course, is the Bestseller Experiment where I speak to the wonderful Pernille Hughes about her road to publication, why she shared a photocopier with La-La the Teletubby, and we play a game called ‘Getting to know you’ where there are no right answers. You can listen here.

Secondly, comes the second part of an epic three-part trilogy on The Hero’s Journey that I’m recording with the wise and learned Julian Barr. We look at tricky middle acts, inmost caves, and that sort of stuff with examples from The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars and The Notebook. But the best part of these is the thoughtful, polite noise Julian makes when I say something stupid… These are for our Patreon supporters, but if you’re not one of them (and if not, why not??), then you can listen to a sneaky peek here.

And third is this interview with Tim Clare on the Death of 1000 Cuts podcast. This is especially fun as Tim laughs at most of my jokes, I drop some truth bombs about marketing and publishing, and then a fire alarm goes off during the interview and Tim keeps it in. You can listen on iTunes here, or the thingy below…

 

What I Did On My Holidays

I’m now fully rested after a week or so off from the usual routine of commute/write/day job/commute/write/fall asleep in front of the TV. The family and I explored Kent, the county we moved to a little over a year ago. We found castles, wind farms, sea forts, crypts, a submarine, a shell grotto, and an ossuary with skulls lining the walls:

 

For more photos pop over to my Instagram here.

The podcast continues, however, and we’ve had some cracking episodes. I talk about determination with Cally Taylor, we had a very lively Youtube Live Show with my agent Ed Wilson where we talked very frankly about authors’ earnings and where all the money really goes, and last week we had Sam Missingham on a show entitled A Massive Boot Up The Arse For Publishing, which got an amazing reaction online.

The Deep Dive episodes for Patreon supporters continue with Federica Leonardis and I talking about romcoms, and Julian Barr joining me on an epic three parter to look at The Hero’s Journey.

I was back on BBC Radio Kent with Dominic King, where we talked about authors’ income (it’s the hot topic, dontcha know!), crowdfunding, and the RNA Conference. Click here to listen and skip forward to the 2 hour 12 min point.

And if you’re feeling stuck, here’s an excellent video from award-winning author Marcus Sedgwick on writers’ block. I think we can all find something useful here:

 

Until next time!

My current favourite podcasts

I’ve blogged about my favourite podcasts for writers before, but today I wanted to bang the drum for the other stuff I let into my earholes to on a weekly basis, and how it inspires me as a writer

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Ancient History Fangirl is a gleeful run through the ancient world’s most gory bits. Every fortnight Genn and Jenn regale us with tales of sieges, cannibalism, war elephants and flaming pigs used as munitions. Almost every episode I find myself taking notes for some future story. The presenters’ enthusiasm is infectious and they’re already developing a nice line in running gags and in-jokes.

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The Filmmakers’ Podcast (yes, I’ve added the apostrophe even if they’ve recklessly abandoned it) is essential for any aspiring filmmaker, especially if they live in the UK. The presenters, led by the very charismatic Giles Alderson have walked the walk in indie low-budget film and their passion shines through. A recent two-parter with actor Timothy Spall and director Stephen Cookson talking about how they developed the film Stanley, A Man of Variety is inspiring stuff and a great place to start.

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I probably look forward to my weekly dose of Smershpod more than any other, simply because of the number of times it has had me weeping with laughter when I’m supposed to be doing something constructive. Each week the wonderfully dry John Rain and a guest discuss either a Bond movie, or a movie with a tenuous connection to the Bond world. They’ve almost run out of Bond films (just Spectre to go), but my favourites have been the side episodes, with Meteor and Highlander being among my favourites, and I would not have discovered the classic horror flick Death Line (aka Raw Meat) were it not for Smershpod. Even if you hate Bond films (and a fair few of the guests do!) I would heartily recommend this weekly pleasure.

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If your memories of ’80s movies are all Goonies and Ghostbusters, then you’re in for a shock. In ‘80s All Over, presenters and esteemed film nerds Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg trawl through every US release in the 1980s month-by-month, a boy there was a ton of crap released back then. Each episode is thoroughly researched and full of surprises and forgotten gems that you’ll want to watch (only to find that it’s only available in the bloody States). Their knowledge is second-to-none and though they’re currently suffering through the hell that is 1983, they have the joys of 1985 still to come.

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If you love movie soundtracks as much as I do, then we still have some way to go to meet the passion of Edith Bowman. Edith can sometimes be heard as a stand-in presenter on the Kermode and Mayo Film Review (another great podcast, but one that hardly needs introduction, surely?), but with Soundtracking she talks to actors, directors and, crucially, composers about their work and their favourite film scores. One of my favourite recent episodes featured the lovely Garth Jennings, and Edith also compiles a Spotify playlist for each episode. Every week, something new gets downloaded to my iPod.

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Film Stories with Den of Geek‘s Simon Brew is the newest podcast – only two episodes released at the time of writing and I already love it. Simon is a delightful and enthusiastic presenter, and the podcasts are like gossipy chats with an old friend. He’s covered the tumultuous productions of The Addams Family, Tomb Raider, Patriot Games and Dirty Dancing and they’re choc full of great movie stories. I hope this one runs and runs.

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And finally an honourable mention for Junkfood Cinema with Brian Salisbury and C. Robert Cargill. Not one that I listen to every week, but they cover the films that no one else does. This gets a thumbs up for the episode on Sneakers alone. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only person who still loves that film.

Agree? Disagree? What are your favourites? Let me know below…

Oh, and don’t forget my podcast The Bestseller Experiment! Subscribe now and get scribbling.

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Never meet your heroes (except when they’re awesome)

The podcast is a real treat this week as I got to interview a couple of my TV writing heroes. Rob Grant is co-creator of the legendary science fiction comedy series Red Dwarf, and Andrew Marshall is probably best known for the sitcom Two Point Four Children, though my favourite show of his was a black comedy he co-wrote with David Renwick called If You See God, Tell Him… It was so pitch black that it was only ever screened once, here’s a horrifying trailer…

 

Rob and Andrew have been working on The Quanderhorn Xperimentations. A very funny parody of The Quatermass Xperiment, which they’ve produced as a BBC radio comedy and as a novel. I was lucky enough to speak to them at the MCM Comic Con in London recently and it was like my own personal comedy writing masterclass. Luckily, I recorded it for you, dear listener, so you can hear the podcast here, which includes an exclusive clip from the audiobook.

There’s a busy month ahead on the podcast, and we have some fantastic authors, including a 90-year-old eBook pioneer. Here’s a quick trailer…

 


So don’t miss out and subscribe on your podcatcher of choice!

Also this week I interviewed Sam Missingham. She runs Lounge Books, which provides expert marketing advice for authors both indie and trad for £10 per month. The episode is absolutely fascinating and won’t go live for about a month, but our Patreon supporters will be getting the episode later this week. It’s so good I want them to hear it right away (once Dave has done the editing bit!). Check out our Patreon page here.

Oh, and I’ve had a few people tell how sorry they are that they missed the crowdfunding for The End of Magic. To them, and to you, I say YOU CAN STILL PRE-ORDER THE BOOK AND GET YOUR NAME IN IT AND ALL SORTS OF OTHER COOL STUFF. Just click here and hit “Pledge” – thank you!

A free short story!

Ahead of the publication of The End of Magic (and while I wait for the dreaded edit notes to come back) I’ve been writing a short story set in the same world.

How Drust Krax Lost Two Fingers introduces the novel’s main villain Haldor Frang, and it’s told from the point of view of the hapless Drust Krax. A defeated warlord, awaiting certain death, who really, really needs to use the privvy…

I’m offering it first and exclusively to anyone who subscribes to my newsletter! To download a copy for your Kindle or any other eReader device, just sign-up here.

Please note: I’ve had all my GDPR jabs and I will never sell your information on to any third parties. It’s all safely tucked away by Mailchimp!

Big thanks to Jack Logan and Julian Barr for reading my early drafts the story, taking them down a dark alley and giving them a good kicking. Thanks also to Kit Cox for the map image used on the cover art.

I really enjoyed writing it and can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

In other news, I spoke to the wonderful Gareth L Powell on the podcast this week. We discussed the slow death of Facebook and how to sing a space opera. Listen here.

There’s also a fab Deep Dive on adaptation this week with Julian Barr (second mention in the blog today). One of us has a PhD. It won’t take you long to figure out which one of us doesn’t… You can listen to a teaser here.

And I’m on BBC Radio Kent tonight (or in the past, depending on when you read this). I’ll be talking to Dominic King on his new arts show about the podcast, Robot Overlords, The End of Magic and more. Listen or catch-up here.

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Son of a Beach

It’s been a fun week with a trip to the beach at Whitstable to interview Julie Wassmer. I had hoped to get some lovely audio atmosphere with waves lapping on shingle and gulls screeching overhead, but the tide was out so I had to settle for a gentle breeze buffeting the microphone. Fortunately, Julie is great fun to chat to and she told me all about working on EastEnders, bumping off the locals in her novels, and why all writers should live in fear of a cup of tea and bacon sandwich. Listen here.

I finished the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting course. 16 weeks of pretty intense work. Was it worth it? Check out my thinkings over here…

I also got to visit Hachette’s new warehouse in Didcot. While this may not sound like everyone’s idea of a fun day out, I did get to ride on one of their pickers, which went some 25 metres in the air and the queues were shorter than Disney…

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Getting a lift in the new Hachette warehouse…

A post shared by Mark Stay (@mark.stay) on

Also, if anyone’s concerned that print books are on the decline, this vast palace of storage and hi-tech distribution should allay those fears. This place was built to pump books out into the world and they’ve left plenty of room for expansion.

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I finished a short story this week. It’s a prequel to The End of Magic in which we meet our antagonist. My agent Ed read it and enjoyed it, though he did have one note: “Maybe the humour could be a little less lavatorial…? But that’s probably my shit to deal with.”

I do seem to have a thing about bodily functions… What do you say? Should I take this crap?

Also, I’m going to be on the new Dominic King arts show on BBC Radio Kent next Tuesday 12th at around 8pm. He asked me to put together a montage of voices from the podcast, which I did, but I’ve also made a “Guess the voice” quiz, which you can play here

Till next time!

Mark

Surviving your first year as a debut author with Ed McDonald

I had the pleasure of speaking to the superb Ed McDonald on the podcast this week. Ed talks very honestly about his first year as a professional author, achieving his dream of getting published, and then he asks the question, “What next?” It’s a very revealing chat and you can listen here.

I was over the moon to see my friend Deborah Haywood’s movie Pin Cushion premiere at the East End Film Festival last weekend. It’s funny, dark, and cat lady mad with a brilliant cast. Have a look at the trailer here.

And if you’re looking for a major time suck, the BBC have opened up their sound effects archives for non-commercial use. There’s some really freaky stuff available for your delight. Listen to this doll singing Oranges and Lemons and tell me you won’t be sleeping with the lights on tonight…Oh, and I’m 77% funded on The End of Magic with less than a month to go! If you’ve not pledged already, now would be a wonderful time to do it. Just click here and hit that lovely blue pledge button.

Till next time, happy writing!

Mark

I got a rejection this week… and I’m in good company…

I loved this Tweet from VE Schwab asking authors if they had received rejections of their work recently…

She was deluged with replies, some from some very big names, and one from me. Only last week, I had a book pitch rejected by a publisher. The response I got was, “We pissed ourselves laughing, we loved it, we just don’t know how to sell it.” And that’s fine. I appreciate the honesty and know that there would be nothing worse than slogging away on a novel for however many months only for the publisher to give a shrug on publication.

I more positive news I was inspired by blog posts from a couple of writers friends. Julian Barr talks about what he strives for here, and Laurence Doherty talks about working up from rejections to the NI New Writers Focus Scheme here.

And the big treat for the week is the Bestseller Experiment live show with Orion editor Emad Akhtar (pictured above). He answered all sorts of listener questions on writing, editing, storytelling and WWE wrestling… Yes really. You can listen here.

Till next time, happy writing!