Something I've said often in Reality ® but not online until just now, when I left comments on Charlie Stross's blog. So back here in the Labyrinth, here's my definition for the day:

Writing is not a profession, it's a psychiatric condition.

Literary agents, I mean. (Though, belatedly, I have only just got round to reading Charlie Stross's JENNIFER MORGUE, and what a hoot it is. In case you didn't know, it's got spies, Lovecraftian demons and geek humour galore.) I mentioned this on an Eastercon panel that was of interest to unpublished writers. Although it was a little off-topic, it was one of several things I talked about because of the specific audience.

A friend of mine, eager to have some poetry published - poetry for kids in fact - sent me an email to say that she had found herself an agent. What she gave me was essentially a URL, something like

So I popped on to the website and alarm bells rang in my head. Everything looked/felt/smelled/tasted wrong. (I wasn't licking the screen, just experiencing synesthaesia.) The point is that it was an immediate reaction, so it took a while to analyse what was wrong. And it began with what was missing.

First off, most reputable agencies - though NOT all - have a name like Joe Braun Agency. Joe may be the only agent, or the main agent with several experienced colleagues or more junior protégés, or was a founder of a long-established agency in which he is no longer the most active participant. In any case, the agency bears Joe's name because editors and other publishing professionals know his name. As a newbie writer, you probably don't know many folk in the publishing industry, so all the face-to-face conversations have to be conducted by an agent on your behalf. That's what they're for.

Regardless of the name, the agency will surely list its personnel. And none of that was on this particular website.

So who else is involved in a reputable setup?

Well, one clue was dodgy-agents' own page that asked: Who are our clients? Mugs People just like you!

Hmmm... Or maybe a reputable agency would list the authors they represent. Since my agents are there to promote my work (and their other writers' work) to our mutual advantage, they will be giving me publicity because, again, that's their job... and how else can an agency be creditable? The list of writers and the books they've written, well, that's the agency's credentials right there.

Since dodgy-agents clearly don't sell the publishing rights to books, they have no way to earn commission. Therefore they charge money to read your stuff which they have no way of selling. Hmmm again. Real agents' earnings come ONE HUNDRED PERCENT from commission. Therefore they can not waste time on books that won't sell. Therefore it's hard to get a real agent.

Is that a barrier to success? Well, ask yourself this question: Has any other unpublished writer been faced with this situation and still succeeded? And of course the answer is yes, and the proof is on the shelves around you whenever you step into your favourite bookstore.

For both psychological and mathematical reasons, your quest is uncertain, yet there is a near-certainty: everyone who succeeds in getting published is in it for the long haul, is prepared to spend 15 years learning their craft, to write four unpublished novels and still press ahead with the fifth...

Just go for it, and keep on going...

Incidentally, getting that first book published is the beginning of the hard work, not the end. But that's for another post, I guess. Hard work but the best thing in life, or why would you want to do it?

Likewise, for me to justify what I'm saying not just from experience but also psychology and maths, that'd take a while, and might be worthwhile doing later. For now, if you're interested, check The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (for the psychology) and The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow.

Oh, a practical thing... How do you know who the reputable agents are? In the UK, buy the Writers & Artists Yearbook. (My agents, Zeno Agency, are not in there only because the company came into being some months ago. But John Parker was for decades a director of MBA, who certainly are in there.) In the US, I believe that Writer's Digest publish something.

Per ardua ad astra!



I've been trawling around other writers' websites again. From Peter Hamilton, here's a snippet of his account of the SFX Weekender:

"Got to talk to a lot of people, sign books, do panels, did a reading and Q&A, jumped up on stage during John Meaney’s session and nearly had a fight with him, but he started it, so there."

I so did not... Well, maybe.

The website's back online. And now that people are flying home through the diminishing ash cloud, perhaps I'm allowed a smirk? Politicians doing their thing in realtime, and volcanic ash in the skies - sounds like a book called EDGE to me.

So for everyone following the election debates in the UK... No, I'm not going to get all political here. Having seen only the first one, though, I can tell you on a neurolinguistic basis exactly why Nick Clegg leaped from obscurity to stardom.

Every hypnotist uses tonal marking. It's powerful, because emphasis by change of tonality normally bypasses conscious awareness. For example, when a therapist is getting a client settled, she might say (as part of an extended process): "Before you go into trance just take a deep breath and...."

The first clause contains an inbuilt assumption that the client will enter trance, plus the subtle frequency shift marks out "go into trance" as an instruction.

Some people refer to these as embedded commands, but the truth is you can use the same technique to emphasise any statement, not just instructions.

Here's a near-verbatim example from Nick Clegg during the TV debate: "It seems as if I'm the only leader here who has a policy of..."

He demonstrated such expertise throughout the debate. So you might ask, does this qualify him to be prime minister, or at least hold the balance of power in a hung Parliament? Well, these abilities mean that he's bound to be good at negotiating and persuading.

Or you might just want to vote according to the parties' policies...

Normal service on the main website will be resumed shortly. Mea culpa for not taking action on helpful warning messages.



Blimey... Is it a week and half since Eastercon happened? It was terrific - great to meet up with friends old and new, and a special thanks to those who lugged hardback copies of my books across the Atlantic for signing. My privilege and honour.

I had stuff to say on two panels: Writers and the Web, and Science and the Media - Accuracy in reporting. Most excellent, and I should maybe write more here (but not right now) about the content. One thing that got mentioned was the way that blog readers, on a site like this, might like some insight into the writing life. If that's true, that's great - although in a real sense, there's no such thing as "the" writer's life.

If you're not writing yet and you want to do it, then start writing every day for an hour... and now you know what the writer's life is like. It's what you experience now, with added writing.


I happened to mention something at the con which was about my first book, To Hold Infinity (in the US it was my 4th book to appear), being the haikus that appear at the start of every chapter. I'm pleased that people read them as haikus - as if they're good enough to be haikus, I guess - while the truth is that they're something more. Since I play with concepts of language changing with technology (and thought changing with language as well as tech), the haikus are not there by coincidence. Neither is it coincidence that there are 36 chapters in the book - 36 being the number of faces possessed by a hypercube.

If you check the three end-of-line words on each haiku, you'll find another haiku using the same three words to start its lines. Or something whose first or last line has those three words as the start, centre and end. Join them all and you have a hypercube of text.

What I'm wondering is, should a writer put hidden logic and games inside their books? I actually don't know the answer. When Umberto Eco does it, people think he's clever. Is it that the lit'ry folk who look for subtext are unlikely to be mathematicians, while the mathematicians are unlikely to look for subtext? Beats me.

So, did anyone spot the combat strategy/philosophy games (think Sun Tzu and Bruce Lee) in Paradox? I know that at least one person worked out that Bone Song and Dark Blood (aka Black Blood in the US) are not so much dark fantasy/gothic SF as alternate history SF, with a specific departure point from our history. (Hint: it's billions of years ago.)

Or should I just tell stories without the clever stuff?