I feel like I don’t really need to introduce Kameron Hurley to you, because the post below does it so well – after all, that’s what it’s about. However, because she won’t say this, I will; Kameron is one of the most interesting voices in the genre scene today, with God’s War presenting a unique science fictional world and a translation of grimdark through a feminist lens into a pseudo-Islamic matriarchal bugpunk society and being nominated for a number of awards including winning the Kitschies Golden Tentacle for 2011. She’s also a vital commenter on the state of the genre, with her blog this year earning her a nomination for Best Fanwriter in the Hugos to go with the Best Related Work nomination for her much-discussed, widely-quoted and essential essay We Have Always Fought.
On top of that she’s one of the loveliest people in science fiction… and yet, has only just debuted in the UK; God’s War, published in 2011 by Night Shade Books, was shortlisted for the Best Novel by both the the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award in 2014, and Infidel is released today in the UK from Del Rey. I asked her to write something for me on how that felt…
Making Them Care: My Three Years As a Debut Novelist
“Who are you? Are you somebody?”
“I write books.”
“What’s your name again?”
“I’ve never heard of you.”
Every time I have this conversation I’m reminded of the conversation that Kenneth Branagh’s character has with a Hollywood party-goer in the film Dead Again. When he says he doesn’t work in Hollywood, the party-goer flippantly waves her hand and goes, “If you aren’t in Hollywood, you aren’t anybody.”
These conversations invite me to justify my existence. They are challenges. Why should I pay attention to you? Why should I care?
And I always wondered… why did people want me to make them care so much? Why not just continue not caring and go on your merry way?
I’ve had various iterations of this conversation since my first book came out in 2011, and hordes more of them when I was just writing short stories. I’ll be having conversations like this for the rest of my life. At this point, I’ve won a couple of awards and have a Wikipedia entry (let me enjoy my 15 minutes!). But the vast majority of the world doesn’t know who I am and could really not care less.
Not until they ask me to make them care.
As with any creator, my primary purpose is to make good art. My secondary purpose is to connect that art to the folks who’d really enjoy it.
The second one is infinitely harder.
When I sold UK rights to my first three books: God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, I actually worried it would be bad for the UK version to come out so far after the US ones. By the time God’s War came out in the UK, the other three books were already out in the US, and the original shine had worn off them. They weren’t new anymore, and as any debut novelist (or novelist over 40) can tell you, the media is most focused on the new, the young, and large money book contracts. If you don’t have any of that going for you, you’re completely on your own.
You have to find some other way to make them care.
It turns out the science fiction and fantasy field – the core community of editors, reviewers, publishers and hardcore readers– is actually pretty small. Maybe a few thousand people. Reaching those folks is a huge first step, yes, but stopping there means sales peter out. It means you’ve saturated that market, and it’s time to push out of the melee and see if things will get really interesting.
Launching God’s War in the UK was about wading into a whole new readership, and hoping they weren’t burned out on it the first time. Turns out plenty of folks who hadn’t been aware of the book before picked it up, and it was shortlisted for a BSFA Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Still, pushing sales took some… pushing, and it wasn’t until January of this year that things finally started to gain momentum.
I found myself telling old and new stories to new audiences. I wrote an extraordinary number of guest blog posts and interviews and responded to a lot of queries. I wrote a free tie-in novelette that went up on my publisher’s website. I pushed hard.
Because to all these new readers, I was nobody. I was the kid at the party with the flat Coke.
“What do you do?”
“I write books.”
“I’ve never heard of you.”
And you start again. And again.
Justify your existence. Why should I care?
I write marketing and advertising copy for a living, and that’s the first thing we ask about a potential audience we want to sell things to. What do they want? Why should they care?
For hardcore SF readers, the answer was easy – God’s War, Infidel and Rapture are books you haven’t read before. They’re in a world you’ve never seen before. They’re something different. To readers who churn through three or four books a week, finding something truly new is like a drug. It’s a shiny prize to hold up and pass around.
Outside voracious readers, you have to be more careful. These aren’t going to be people turned on by epic worldbuilding. Technology powered by bugs might sound off-putting. But call it a noir thriller with bad-ass assassins, and you start to get some play.
The world is a big place, and your book is just one book. You’re just one author. To every person you meet, you’re a debut novelist. Always a debut. Again and again.
Prove your existence. Why should I care? Over and over, until death.
I expect someone, on reading my obituary, will mutter, “Yes, that’s fine, but why should I care?”
The irony is that this question is also the same one a reader will ask on opening the first pages of your book. It’s what they’ll ask when they read, “Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.” Or, on paging through Infidel, “The smog in Mushtallah tasted of tar and ashes; it tasted like the war.”
What I’ve found is that the reason they care about Nyx is because they want to know what kind of a woman does that – cuts out her womb and leaves it in the desert – and they want to know why the air tastes like the war, and why is there a war, and how will it end?
We read because we’re curious. We have a desperate desire to know, to understand. To connect.
The secret is – we want to care.
We’re desperate to care about something, someone, anything.
The real prompt when someone says to me, “I’ve never heard of you” is not to make me dance and sing like a manic puppet. It’s because they want to care, whether they know it or not.
It’s hardwired into us, this yearning for social connections. For affection. For some connection to something outside of ourselves. As a storyteller, that’s what I strive to deliver – a closeness, an understanding, of a person far different than one’s self.
In real life, though, that desperate need that readers, all humans, have to care – about me, about my work – can be off-putting. It can be exhausting.
But I understand why they ask. Because if I can’t get them to care about me, about what I do, about why I do it, then how can they expect to care about my characters?
“Who are you? You’re nobody.”
I’m a storyteller. I’m a storypusher. I wrap up stories into blazing, glorious packages and I do the impossible.
I make you care.
Even when you think the whole world is shit and you’ll never care again.
I know what stories are. I know what I’m selling.
“Who are you?”
“I’m a storyteller.”
“Why haven’t I heard of you?”
“Just you wait.”