10 Minute Novelists is a community of writers from all over the world. Twice a month, we feature one of our writers. Today? It’s Jane Steen, author of House of Closed Doors and champion of Author Ethics.
1. How did the topic of ethics for authors become an interest of yours?
It just started out as an observation that there were quite a few authors out there behaving unprofessionally. I’ve been active on Goodreads as a reader for years, and I could see wave after wave of shock run around the community because an author had plagiarized another author’s work, or had attacked a reviewer in the comments thread, or they’d detected yet another reviewing ring (where a group of authors had all given each other five stars). I could see how these actions by a few authors were eroding the trust that should exist between reader and author. I began noticing in author groups that a few authors (not the majority) were treating the market as a free-for-all, proposing dodgy marketing tactics as the latest great idea and trying to coordinate actions that I knew, from the Goodreads side, were seen as spam at least and unethical at worst.
So one day I spoke up. Ironically, shortly before I did that I wrote a blog post about how I wanted to be a writer, not a campaigner—it was never my intention to become “Mrs. Author Ethics” or anything like that. But now that my efforts have been taken up by the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and groups like the 10 Minute Novelists, I can see there are several ways in which I can help new authors adopt professional ethics right from the beginning (and thus have long and happy careers). I’m hoping that in 2015 I can help make author ethics as popular a subject as how to produce great book covers or the best way to edit your book. I’m already seeing other authors discussing ethics and adopting the ALLi badge.
And then, when everyone accepts ethics of part of a writer’s toolkit, I hope to focus fully on my other writing. Think I’ll succeed?
2. Why are the specific points of the Code of Ethics so important?
The Code’s written as an outline of the most basic principles, not as a detailed “law.” So it’s easy for an author to adopt and follow, and it’s nice and short—eight short paragraphs, headed up by the guiding principle, which is to put your readers first. In the end this effort is all about respecting, appreciating and honoring the people without whom you wouldn’t be an author.
3. What have you learned by watching other authors’ bad behavior?
What not to do! I’ve often observed how a huge row frequently begins as a mistake on the author’s part—in the first flush of being an author (or sometimes, regrettably, once they get famous enough that they have fans telling them how great they are) they decide to take offence at the way readers behave. Yes, readers do things authors would prefer they wouldn’t—they post snarky reviews or totally misread your book or make moral and psychological judgments about YOU based on what your characters do, or blame you for getting history details wrong where in fact you’re right. That doesn’t justify the author in going on the attack against her own readers—in what other industry does a producer turn round and tell its consumers they’re idiots for not appreciating the beauty of its product?
I’ve learned from experience and observation that you’ve got to build up a relationship of trust with readers, and although you can (and I do) set some boundaries (I’ve deleted comments that are clearly troll attacks, for example), for the most part you just have to keep your professional face on and if you’re upset, tell your best friend and not the entire internet about it.
4. What advice would you give new writers in regard to ethics?
Well, obviously I’d advise them to read the Ethical Author Code! Also, I’d advise new writers to seek out the best sources of knowledge about the publishing industry in general and their particular niche. Look for blogs by respected industry observers, journalists, book bloggers and successful authors—I read Joanna Penn, Jane Friedman, Hugh Howey, Anne R. Allen, Dear Author and many more every day. Making an effort to keep yourself informed about the industry is vital, even if you’re publishing with a Big Five publisher.
“The days when an author could just sit back and let someone else direct their career are gone. Take responsibility for yourself and your writing business.”
5. Tell us about your other goals for 2015?
In 2014 I came up with the idea of the 365K Challenge, and ended up writing over 380,000 total words—which included part of two novels in my series, and concepts for a standalone novel and a new series. This year I’m participating in the bigger 365K Challenge that the 10 Minute Novelists group has launched, but I’m also working toward my own new goal—2,000 words a day but only on weekdays, as I find it harder to write on weekends. (That’s over 500,000 words a year, by the way.)
My other goal is to become successful as an entrepreneur. This means gradually introducing all kinds of systems for success—planning, scheduling, daily productivity beyond my word count, and keeping up with the other responsibilities in my life. I have several measurable goals for 2015, but my overriding aim is to work out how to stay proactive about my business and my writing, and keep moving both forward.
6. Why do you love writing historical novels?
I find history increasingly fascinating. The more you read about it, the more you see how all the parts fit together! As I’ve grown older I’ve gained a much clearer view of how I fit into history, or perhaps I should say how history has shaped the world I live in and which informs my thinking. Writing the novels allows me to invent characters who are moving within a historical context that we understand because it’s already happened. They don’t know what’s going to happen, but the author (and frequently the reader) does. And I love writing about characters who have to cope with the absence of things we take for granted—antibiotics or plane travel or telephones.
7. What is it about 1880s Chicago that is so fascinating?
I began The House of Closed Doors in 1870 because I wanted to write within a specific framework of the evolution of Poor Farms—and it was set in the Chicago area because that’s where I live (the inspiration for the story came from a photo of the County Poor Farm which used to stand on my town’s main street). Right now I’m writing about Chicago in 1876-1877, and if I write the whole series as originally planned I’ll end up in 1888, well into the Gilded Age. During that time span the world of my characters will make huge technological advances and there’ll be some major societal rumblings (women’s rights and the labor movement) that lay the groundwork of the massive changes that will happen through the catalyst of the two World Wars. So I’m watching the modern world emerge through the eyes of a set of characters I like and find fun to write.
Also, the dresses are GORGEOUS. The fashion for lots of embellishment in the 1870s and 1880s produced some absolutely stunning work at the top end of the price range, and filtered down to more everyday clothing in the form of an attention to detail we’ve almost completely lost in the West. My novels are for anyone who stares in rapt attention at the costumes in period TV shows or movies—that’s why I made Nell a dressmaker.
8. What is your definition of success?
I’d like to earn a modest living from being an author-entrepreneur, of course. But my real definitition of success would be to write some characters that people love so much they dress like them and write fan fiction about them and remember them long after I’m gone.
“No writer’s immortal, but a really good character can be—look how long King Arthur’s lasted, for example. My dream is to invent characters that fuel other people’s dreams.”
9. What important things do we need to know about you?
I’m British—I married an American, which is why I live here. I’ve always been fascinated by languages, and by fine crafts—if I had multiple lifetimes I’d become fluent in more languages than English and French, and I’d do way more than knit lace shawls. I’m an avid reader, as you’d expect, and have had my nose stuck in a book since I was four years old. But I also love to be outdoors, and I run, walk, bike or ski on the local forest preserve trails most days. I’m happily married with two adult daughters. I’m not at all fond of housework, but messiness and dirt make me feel anxious so I force myself.
10. Please finish this: I love my reader when I ______________. I love my art when I ______________. I love myself, as a writer, when I ________________.
“I love my reader when I respect their opinions. I love my art when I give it the time and attention it deserves. I love myself, as a writer, when I celebrate my successes and acknowledge—and address—my weaknesses.”
Jane Steen lives with her husband and daughter in the Chicago area.