Monday, 2 May 2016

No Rules!


Hi guys,


 

This time I thought I'd write a post that returns to writing. A topic that's really a continuation of some debates I've been engaging in in a couple of fora lately. The rules of writing.

Okay let me begin by stating quite clearly my position on this. There are no rules. In fact the very concept of rules of writing is something that can actually destroy both writing and writers.

So lets begin with the basics of the problem. Every new writer who is desperate to become a writing success, starts by going on line or buying books about how to write. They attend writing groups, online or in the flesh. They get critiques and beta readers, maybe even editors. And all of these things are good. They do help a writer to grow in his craft. I've benefited immensely from those groups I participate in.

But here's the problem. In every group and every guide I've read there is always a rule or ten put forwards. You know the ones. You must get rid of the passive voice. You need more shorter, punchier sentences and to get rid of the run on sentences. You need to amp up the tension, raise the stakes. Decrease the purple prose. The list goes on and on. These things are spouted almost as mantra. And while they may be good advice in some cases, they can also be terrible advice.

And here's the why. No two authors and no two books are the same. Therefore no rule can be simply applied to every book as a sort of cookie cutter template. Because what will work well in one case may damage another book.

Lets just look at a few of these so called rules. Let's start with passive and active voice. In essence active voice is connecting subjects with actions. So “Michael fired the gun” is active. “The gun was fired”, is passive. And of course there's always that master piece of political passivity - “Mistakes were made”! (But not by anyone in particular!)

In essence using a more active voice makes a piece stronger. People do things. They aren't just done with no one taking responsibility. So this is perfect when writing characters like Conan. Conan is an active character. He does things. There is nothing meek or indecisive about him. If he chops your head off then “He” really chopped your head off! It wasn't just chopped off.

But what if your character isn't Conan? What if you want to get into the head-space of someone meek and indecisive? Then passive voice is your friend. Because you're writing a character who not only will never want to admit to doing anything, but even in his own thoughts won't want to accept responsibility.

There are probably a thousand other situations in which passive voice will work better than active. Particularly where you don't want to apply agency to characters, or blame. Perhaps where you want to leave a little ambiguity in a plot. That could be very important in detective / police procedural works. The gun just went off Sir! Because maybe that's exactly what happened.

So my point is simply that there is no rule that you must use active voice wherever possible. The rule is always you have to use your judgement. Write what works. What feels right for your character and your plot. And if someone tells you otherwise, thank them for their opinion, but stick to your guns.

How about run on sentences? Another of those rules that gets spouted repeatedly, and a mistake that gets jumped on, especially these days where the trend is for shorter more action packed reads. In essence a run on sentence is one where there are too many clauses in it, and the sentence starts dragging on and confusing readers.

But here again this is about judgement. Your judgement as the writer. There are run on sentences and then there are run on sentences. You draw the line about how many words and clauses you want in your sentences. And you remember that everyone else will have a different opinion about what is too long and what isn't. There is no rule that says – three clauses, you're out!

As a general guide I would say that if readers are getting lost in your sentences, losing their meaning as the clauses mount up, it's probably too much. But I would also add that run on sentences will be a part of your rhythm / voice. And so maybe you want to have longer sentences because it works for the style of writer you are. Maybe you don't mind losing a few readers here and there because those who stay will be learning to appreciate your voice as a writer. And honestly read some fiction from the first half of the twentieth century. Much of what we now call run on they would have called normal and even good writing.

The same applies to purple prose – prose with too many adjectives in it. What is often also called flowery writing. Again there is no rule that you can have this many adjectives and no more. This is again about voice. Your voice as a writer, and your characters' voices. So if your editor / beta reader / critique partner comes back and says strip these out, again thank them for their opinion and step back, sit down, and think. Is this the writing that I want to write? Or will it be better with all those adjectives stripped out? Remember, it's your book, not anyone elses'.

And then there's the amp it up meme. Make things more tense. Raise the stakes. Put your character through more hell. Go Game of Thrones on the whole damn thing! But is that the right thing to do? Remember it's your book. Your story. If you change the plot significantly to ramp up the tension, is it still the story you wanted to tell? Does the tension add to the story? Or does it detract? Are you turning what was a pleasant romance with a bit of an edge into a seat of your pants thrill ride?

Yes amping up the drama / tension may make your book better. But it may also completely transform it into a book you never wanted to write. It may wreck it.

So to get back to where I started, there are no rules of writing. There are no absolutes. There are only opinions. And no opinion should simply be accepted as gospel. Yes they may be right. They may also be wrong. And the worst thing that any author can do – and this is particularly a problem with new authors – is to simply accept the opinions of others. What you need to do is listen, then sit back and think – is this the story I want to write? Is this the style I want to write in? Is this who I am as an author?

Never simply substitute another's judgement for your own. And never simply imagine that there is a particular formula for writing book that will work. If there was, everyone would be writing it and we'd all be million sellers!

In the end you are the author. The artist. And whether this is your first book or your thousandth, it's still your book. Your baby. You want to be proud of it. You want it to be your vision brought to paper. And if you're just starting out you want one thing more – you want to find your voice. And your voice should not be what someone else says is good writing.

Anyway, enough ranting from me. I have my own writing to do.

 
Cheers, Greg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

One and a Half Degrees from Boiling Point!


Hi Guys,





As usual once more my apologies for posting so seldom. But this time I have an excuse – actually I always do – I'm lazy! But life does intrude as usual on my time, and I have been busy editing Samual as I prepare it for publication. At present the book has gone through its first pass with my editor, and then I've gone and more or less rewritten it! Such is the life of a writer I suppose.

To add to my woes I've also been wrestling with the thorny matter of Tables of Contents in books. As some of you may know Amazon has recently had a problem with these, insisting that they can no longer be in the back of a book. (Not my problem since I don't use them of course – I just can't see the point and it would look ridiculous. A list of chapter numbers sitting by page numbers. Why?) However it looks as though Aunty Amy is insisting that books should have them. So I've been attempting to do one – without page numbers. So really just a list of hyper linked chapters at the front of the book. Trouble is, no matter what I do, I can't seem to get Libre Office 5 to do something so simple. I could get it to row the Atlantic while reciting Pi to a million places – but produce a table of contents without page numbers? Hell no!

And then wisdom came to me – or alcohol, they may be the same thing. And I remembered that the reason I use Libre Office 5 is that it not only can produce a Word 2000 file, it has the look and feel of it. That's important to a computer moron like me. I don't want to learn a new programme. So I thought since it does that, and Word 2000 is still the industry standard, why not see what the actual programme can do? And what do you know the damned programme has a lovely little toggle button in the dialogue boxes to toggle page numbers on and off! It's just so damned simple! Libre Office take note!

Live and learn as they say!

Anyway Samual at this stage should be finished and published hopefully this month. It will hopefully even have a table of contents at the front! (The ebook version anyway.) And when it does go out I may finally have some time to have that nervous breakdown I've been putting off!

So crisis over and having a little free time on my hands before Samual comes back from its second edit, I thought I'd turn my aching brain to a crisis of global importance. No not the man with the worst comb over in history becoming president! Sorry to my American readers but he's your problem! And not Kim Jong Un either – what is it about bad leaders and bad hair?

No this time I wanted to talk about something much more serious than such matters. I wanted to talk about global warming and climate change – a subject that should be dear to all our hearts. And in particular my view that we've been looking at this problem all wrong.

As you know we recently had another conference of world leaders and countries coming up with ways to limit our carbon emissions, and hoping to control the global temperature increase over the coming century to one and a half degrees Celsius. Even they though believe it will be over two degrees. My guess is it will actually end up over five simply judging by the way temperatures seem to be rising and the polar ice is melting. And it may be worse than that. Though few seem to be mentioning it, there may well be a sort of runaway effect where after we reach a tipping point the rate of global warming increases beyond our ability to slow it. And if you want to take a guess as to how bad that could end up, simply look at Venus. No one would survive that.

Still enough scaremongering. Hopefully I'm wrong. Whether global warming merely heats the world at a couple of degrees per century or a couple of hundred, we've still got to stop it. Because it does mean the end of life on Earth. And thus far it seems to me that we've done absolutely nothing to stop it.

That's the thing I think we need to address.

All our strategies to limit global warming are a form of playing defence. And as any rugby player will tell you, you can't win by playing defence. The best you can ever hope to do is draw. And with all the strategies out there it seems to me that the best we could ever hope to do is reduce the temperature rise to zero degrees – but at a superhuman cost of effort and resources which no one is prepared to do. At some point you have to go on the attack. You have to start scoring tries. And not a single strategy that we seem to have come up with, is about that.

Okay, time for a very simple science lesson. Global warming is about carbon. Put simply, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon in the form of carbon dioxide absorbs heat from sunlight. So put even more simply the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the hotter the world gets. That's the greenhouse effect. Conversely the less CO2 there is the cooler things get. The ice box effect?

Now sea levels are rising and will continue to rise even if we add not a single extra gram of CO2 to the atmosphere. Island nations will be drowned. Polar caps will continue to melt adding not only to sea level rise but also the heating effect since ice being shiny and white reflects heat, whereas when it turns to water it absorbs it. Animal species will continue to become extinct. In short we are well past the point where simply reducing the amount of extra carbon we add to the atmosphere will stop things. We don't need to stop adding less. We need to start taking it away. And not a single policy I've seen seems to be directed at this goal.

Current policies are all about limiting the damage, and decreasing the amount of extra carbon we add to the biosphere. They are like putting band aids on a wound that's only getting bigger. We need to do some surgery! We need to get rid of that extra fat that's making our wounds worse.

And what do you know – the Earth has already been doing that for us – for a billion years. We need to start doing that for ourselves.

To explain this lets take a step back and look at global warming from a simple perspective. The predominant agent of global warming is carbon. Carbon which exists either in bound forms such as wood and animals and algae etc. Or in gaseous form as carbon dioxide. All of these things are contained within the part of the Earth known as the biosphere. The living zone just on top of the world's crust more or less. And the part where we live.

The other thing we need to remember is that carbon exists in the biosphere in a cycle. It is never destroyed or created. It simply changes form. From fixed carbon to gaseous carbon and then back to fixed carbon again and so on.

Fixed carbon is bound up in life forms like trees and animals. And as fixed carbon it does not add to global warming. Then those life forms die, and through processes like digestion, rotting and fire the carbon is released into the atmosphere. In chemistry this is oxidation – you add oxygen to carbon and you get CO2. Now if that was the end of it, the Earth would have been destroyed a billion years ago. But it isn't. Because a reverse chemical process also exists – photosynthesis. Plants breathe in the air take the carbon from it and bind it once more into living structures like wood. That's what photosynthesis is.

So that's the carbon cycle in a nutshell. There's only one other thing to consider. It's a closed system. There may be more carbon in the atmosphere at certain times and less in the bound forms, but there's always fairly much the same amount of total carbon in the biosphere.

And that's important. Because it means that until say a couple of hundred years ago whatever you destroyed and converted to gaseous carbon would sooner or later be returned to a bound carbon form. There was a balance. Burn down a forest, and the atmospheric carbon increased a tiny amount. But sooner or later, trees and plants regrew and the carbon was once more bound. You got minor fluctuations.

But then we started doing two things that destroyed that balance. The first was that we industrialised. Spreading out, growing all over the world, beginning wide scale deforestation etc. And the second was that we started burning fossil fuels – coal and oil. And we did it in massive amounts.

That matters because fossil fuels and the carbon in them are not part of that balance. This is extra carbon being introduced to the system. And this is what's caused global warming.

The minor fluctuations in carbon in the air due to the existing carbon in the system changing are nothing to fear. If the amount of carbon in the air rises, in time the amount of plant growth will increase and the carbon will be reduced. It's all perfectly balanced.

But with global warming the problem isn't the carbon trapped in this system. It's the additional carbon that's being introduced into the system that matters. Coal and oil. They are actually carbon that has been taken out of the system over millions of years. And so when they're added to the system, they increase the total carbon available. And most of that since they're burnt, ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That's the thing that's slowly killing us.

And every strategy we've come up to deal with this so far has been about reducing the amount of extra carbon we add to the biosphere and hence our atmosphere and the temperature. So we burn less fuel – not no fuel. But what we actually need to do is start taking carbon out of the system. Out of the atmosphere / biosphere.

So how do we do that you ask? It sounds like a big thing. And actually it is. But the first part of it is simple. We use the world to do it for us. To do what it already has been doing naturally. Plants are already in existence to take carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into wood. And they've done a brilliant job of it for a billion years. The hard part is what follows. Taking that fixed carbon in the form of wood etc, and removing it. Making it unavailable to the life cycle. Making it unable to be broken down and released as CO2.

Now there are some chemical processes that could do this. We could for example turn it all to diamond. But that would of course be an incredibly slow process that would require an enormous commitment of time and energy. We could combine it with other chemicals to turn it into say, plastic. But always when we do things like that we seem to end up polluting the plant. Or we could simply physically remove it.

Logic tells us there are only two ways to do this. Two directions we could send it – up or down. We could stick it all in rocket ships and blast it into space. A glorious system, but one that is likely beyond us. Or we could do what nature has been doing for a billion years – bury it.

This is rather like drilling for oil – in reverse. But again we already do this. We dig mines and wells. We spend enormous amounts of time and effort digging ever bigger holes in the Earth. Why not use those holes? Why not fill them up with carbon? So grow something fast growing – bamboo perhaps. Burn it in an airtight container perhaps through a solar furnace such as those we use to destroy toxic wastes. Reduce it to carbon. And then bury that carbon – which is really coal – somewhere where it can never become part of the carbon cycle again.

Yes this is a lot of work. And yes it will take centuries to do. To fix the damage we have already done to our world. But we are in a situation where we don't have a lot of choice. It's time to go big or go home as they say. And since we are already home, the second option isn't really an option. It's our home that's leaving us.

I say its time to commit ourselves to one and a half degrees. But not the miserable, unachievable goal that came from the politicians so recently. To the reduction of global temperatures by one and a half degrees by the end of the century. It's time to clean up our mess.

Anyway, that's my solution to global warming. What's yours?

 

Cheers, Greg.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Shonky Self Promotion


Hi guys,

 

 

Just finished the first draft of Samual and sent it off to the editor, which gives me a little time to post something here.

And this time it’s a topic I haven’t dealt with before. One that is prompted by a number of events that have happened recently in my online life – not that I really have much of one of those. The shonky practices engaged in by some aspiring authors as they try to sell their books.

As many of you may know, I tend to stay away from the entire world of promotion of my work. My thought is that if I produce good books that people enjoy, then the work will sell itself. The golden rule for me is produce a good book, well edited, with a good cover and a good blurb, get it out there and then start writing the next one. And while last year I may have revised that view slightly, deciding that cover design should be outsourced to people who actually know what they're doing, I'm still mostly happy with that position. So you won't find me running advertising campaigns across Twitter or bombarding Facebook with promotions. I won't be at writer conventions flogging my books. I won't be sending off endless emails to book bloggers getting them to review my books etc.

It may be dewy-eyed and foolish, and I may be missing a trick in making money, but I'd rather get to work writing my next book than wasting my time with all of that stuff. That's not to say I decry others who go down that road. My thought is each to their own. If that's what they want to do, good luck to them.

But recently I've been annoyed by a number of self promotion tactics by other writers – I won't mention names – that have intruded on my writerly life style. (I'm not actually sure that I make enough money to have a life style but the concept still applies!) And in this blog I'm going to go through them and say why I think they're things we shouldn't do as writers.

Okay so my month began with the usual annoyances, but one started bugging me more than the rest. Writers trying to hawk their works through writer fora. It happens. Moderators do their best but still some of this dross still gets through. We've all seen it. But it is annoying. Usually what happens is that an author joins a particular group whatever it happens to be. And then they completely spam the forum with thinly disguised – sometimes undisguised – posts trying to sell their books. You know the ones. Every post contains endless links back to their own book under some sort of irrelevant pretext. “Yes I agree, you shouldn't use the passive voice which is why in my new book – link, link, link – I didn't do it!”

Here's why I think those who do this, absolutely shouldn't.

First it pisses me off! Yeah, I know – that goes without saying. But I wanted to say it anyway! And it is actually an important point. Because if it pisses me off, then it probably does the same for most other contributors to the forum. And if I'm not going to be inspired to buy your book, then they aren't likely to be either. And some of them – not me because I am too damn lilly livered to do something like this – are going to get angry. So if you do this, expect scathing reviews on your book page. Expect complaints. Expect a backlash. And for goodness sake – don't imagine that you're being clever. Writers are clever people too – and they know what you're doing!

Look writing fora are for writers to get together and discuss writing issues. Some fora provide places where you can advertise your latest work. Use them by all means. I do sometimes. But don't upset everyone else.

And if that isn't enough for those who still want to do it, think on this. We aren't your audience! You sell books to readers. If you're going to insist on spamming some forum with your oh so cleverly disguised post that no one will ever guess is really an add, spam a reader's forum!

There's also one other reason for anyone who wants to be a writer not to do this. And it goes under that lovely old saying - “even a seagull doesn't shit in its own nest”! If you want to become a good writer you are going to need the help of other members of the writing community. That's going to be a problem for you down the track if you've already been banned from all the writing fora out there.

Okay – I'm calm now. But that is one thing that gets me a little wound up from time to time. Here's another which is somewhat less annoying to me personally, but which will land a lot of fools in very hot water.

This one cropped up last week on a Facebook group I frequent. The use of name dropping. You've all seen it. The use of tag lines etc that compare your book to someone else's. “If you loved – insert best seller title – you'll love this.” Or; “What if – insert best seller title – was only the beginning.” Or that perennial favourite; “It's – insert best seller title – meets – insert best seller title”.

Why shouldn't you do this? Well first it is shonky. It's cheap and parasitic. It's desperate. And it looks all of those things. In fact it looks like what it is, some wannabe author trying to hitch his book to a successful one and ride his coat tails.

And yeah I've heard the excuses too. The typical “I was just trying to tell readers what the book was about.” Yeah right! As if they can't read the damned blurb! Or that mantra of teen criminals everywhere – “other people do it!” Yes and other people steal too – what's your point?!

Look bottom line from me – your work should be strong enough to stand on its own. If it isn't no amount of riding the successes of others in a desperate attempt to sell it is going to help you.

But hey, it's your morality and not my place to judge. I'll simply see the line, realise that your book is probably poor, and not buy it. But if that doesn't convince you that you don't want to go down this shonky road, here's something that might. The dreaded word – Trademarked!

Yes I know, you can't copyright a title. That's true. But I'm not talking about copyright. I'm talking about trademarks. Things that identify one product from another in customers' minds. And many if not most of the highly successful works that end up as best sellers and movies end up with their titles trademarked. That means the use of those titles is restricted.

So what does that mean for you if you use that title in your marketing? Well first it means asking yourself all sorts of questions. Did you have permission from the trademark holder to use the title? Does your use of the title in any way allow your product to be confused with the other in the minds of readers? Does your use disparage the original work? Is what you said in any way untrue? And if any of the answers to that are not good, then it means lawyers at a dozen paces!

You may be lucky. The trademark holder's lawyers may just issue a take down notice. I.e. get this thing off the shelves! Or you may not be and they may sue for damages. And here's a heads up for you – the more successful your book is the worse it's going to be. You sell a dozen copies to your mum and a few friends, the chances are you'll just get a notice. You sell a million copies, and the chances are you'll be in court losing not just every cent you made from the book but also your house, your left kidney and your first born child!

So bottom line here for authors is don't do it. You're playing with fire as well as making used car salesmen look good!

But here's the third shonky self promotion strategy that impacted on me this month, and the one that really set my blood pressure to boil. And again it's a Facebook one.

This month I received a number of “friends” requests, and unlike my usual cautious self, I didn't think to check out the people who wanted to be my friends. Okay, that was my mistake, and so perhaps I had a right to be annoyed but not one to be surprised when some of my new “friends” started posting dating posts on my page. Needless to say they got unfriended fast, blocked and reported as spam merchants. And from here on out I will remember the golden rule of Facebook – I hate everybody!

However what really caught me by surprise was when one other of my new “friends” was actually an author trying to flog his book on my Facebook page! Now that hasn't happened before. Not to me at least.

Again he's been unfriended, blocked and reported as a spam merchant. But in his case my wrath is unabated! (Hence this entire rant!) He is a fellow author, defacing my Facebook page with his shonky self promotions of his book. So just who the hell does he think he is?!

Aaagh!

So if I, a mild mannered writer am utterly pissed off by this sort of behaviour, imagine what others who aren't quite so lilly livered are going to be! Imagine what they might do!

And so readers and would be authors I can only come back to this one point after my entire, foaming at the mouth, rant. Don't ever do any of these things. They will surely come back to bite you!

Cheers, Greg.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

2016 And Beyond


Hi guys,




Hope you all had a great Christmas and are enjoying the new year. I thought I'd start this year off by making some predictions for what's coming in the literary world in 2016 and beyond. Feel free to agree with them or not.


1) In store on demand printing – espresso book machine.

I think this is an idea whose time has come. In 2007 the espresso book machine was developed –essentially a portable small scale printery / bindery which can be set up in a back room. It has made some inroads into the world of books, mostly being taken up by large public libraries as it allows their customers to simply print any one of the millions of publicly available books, many of them no longer in print, and walk out a couple of minutes later with the book under their arm. The EBM though was an idea that the world wasn't ready for. It was expensive –one hundred and some thousand green backs, which has held things back a little. Never the less it is out there and slowly becoming more common.

But now I think, we sit on the cusp of its arrival. Look at the market forces at work in the industry at present. Booksellers are being squeezed. Ebooks are now a significant segment of the market and booksellers don't sell them. (You wondered why your corner book shops were closing down?) At the same time the big five (used to be six) have sort of cornered the market as far as what booksellers can sell. They essentially have arrangements that say they will supply the shops with their goods, provided that the store doesn't stock competitors. This means indies. (You wondered why your book stores often don't sell indie books? That's one reason. Another is of course the perceived quality issues and the issue of unsold returns making each indie book they stock a risk.) And the cost of EBMs? Coming down. There are now even second hand machines available.

This is heading for a perfect storm of economic factors, and my prediction is that over the next few years the uptake of this technology will explode.

Soon customers will simply wander down to their local bookseller with either a name of an out of print public domain book, or a file and walk out with their book. Any book. Not just the ones on the shelves.

There are no copyright issues for the bookseller, since the work is either public domain or the files were provided by the customer, and in any case they did not “sell”the book – they printed it. Suddenly they have a whole new bunch of customers in store, those who want books in the physical format, but don't want to have to wait for them to be delivered in the mail, pay freight etc, or be limited to what's on the shelves.

Expect the big five to start squawking though.
 

2) Kindle Unlimited 2 is here to stay.

Around the middle of 2015 Amazon changed the algorithms of Select and came up with KU2 as it's called. The new Kindle Unlimited. Under the original algorithm authors were paid a flat rate for every book downloaded by customers regardless. This meant those who wrote short stories got the same fee whatever length it was or how much the book sold for. This in turn led to a strange market distortion on KU where novelists were less encouraged to use it and more encouraged to go non Select and sell through other channels. The monies from borrows were often less, even much less than they were getting from sales and novelists don't write as many books a year as others. Meanwhile short story writers were over the moon as an author could price a book at 99c get 35c commission every time he sold a copy, but get a couple of bucks every time someone borrowed it. In extreme cases they were actually getting paid for borrows of books that were free!

KU2 has corrected these issues and now authors get paid by the number of pages read. This means a short story writer who was making a killing on KU1 as he could write a book a week, now only gets paid according to the number of pages Select customers read of each story. So bad for them I'm afraid. But novelists who could perhaps only put out a few books a year by comparison, now also get paid according to the pages read. And whereas a short story might only have ten pages, a novel might have five hundred. Suddenly the economics swing to them in a big way.

And add to that the fact that KU2 is boosting recognition of their books / names and providing a significant revenue boost for many, and it becomes a godsend.

For Amazon of course this means that Select is slowly being stocked with novels as those who write longer works suddenly see the value in it over selling through other channels. Naturally there will be a migration to Select by them. And the economics for Amazon are telling too as Select now becomes a tool whereby it can increase its market share over the big five etc.

So I see this model staying no matter that many short story writers are unhappy. Speaking as a novelist – I certainly hope so! (Also speaking from a purely selfish and probably somewhat judgement impaired point of view, there is something incredibly satisfying about seeing your monthly balance sheet from Amazon with figures in the millions on it! Even knowing it's pages read and not books sold it looks so damned good!)

Expect to hear the big five squawking some more though.


3) Increased uptake of successful indies to dark side (oops – I meant trade publishing!)

This is a trend that has been going on for some time. Agents and publishers have been perusing the shelves of Amazon and others looking for indie authors who seem to be doing well, and making offers. After all it looks like a win win to them. If an indie with limited resources for covers, printing, marketing etc, is hitting the mark, imagine how much better they could do with a professional team and industry contacts behind them?! And for the agent why should he waste so much time with submissions from writers who've never been tested when he can go straight to a ready made crop of authors who have been tested and achieved some success, and start harvesting?!

I expect this trend to continue over the coming years and grow until ultimately (and somewhat ironically) the best way for an author to get an agent will actually be to self-publish.

Of course there will be winners and losers as always. If this is good for indies it's bad for those just starting out and desperate to go to the dark side (Damn – did it again! I keep meaning to write trade publishing and my fingers slip on the keys!). It will become even harder to get an agent and a contract, and contracts as we all know, are becoming smaller.

The big five may actually coo a little bit here – very quietly – if it means they get more successful authors and hence more sales.

 

4 Greater acceptance of self publishing as a legitimate career choice.

This isn't so much a prediction for 2016 as it is an ongoing trend. But I think as ebooks start to dominate the market and self publishing becomes the norm, the potential for us indies to make a living writing grows. Granted I don't mean all self publishers. Most of those who do self publish will have problems; poor editing, poor covers, weak plots etc etc and they will naturally enough fall by the way. There's no way around that. But for those who are willing to put in the hard yards, hire editors and cover designers, school themselves in the business of writing and publishing, the prospects of making more money going indie than dark side (naughty fingers!) improve.

In the old days those who weren't willing to do this would simply never have got an agent and so would have made nothing. Now they can get their work out there, but still probably won't make a lot. However, for those who are willing to invest the time and effort, the economics of indie publishing are undeniable. You get better commissions on each sale, you can put out more books per year than a dark side author (I'm trying to stop it – really!) and you have far greater artistic control of your work. You don't have to write the gazillionth version of sparkly vampires or whatever trend is out there that your publisher wants to see.

In 2015 we saw another writers organization start accepting indies as members – the SFWA. (Too little too late in my view but that's another matter.) We've seen surveys showing that indies are becoming ever greater segments of the ebook market. We've heard ever more indie success stories. And some of the old stereotypes are being washed away.

In the old days the advice given to aspiring authors was always – “never self publish”. Then people went sort of quiet with that advice. And now I think the advice would be– “yes, self publish – it's your best chance of making a go of writing – but do it well!” And these days that would be my advice too.

I'm damned sure it won't be the advice of the big five or agents though!

Anyway, that's my guess as to where things are heading in 2016 and beyond.

Have a great year all.

Cheers, Greg.




Monday, 30 November 2015

Plotting, Pantsting And Pulling Out Your Hair!


 

Hi Guys,

 
 
 

Haven't posted a lot for a while. I've been busy writing and editing and haven't had a lot of spare time. But now that I have a little, I thought I'd share with you one of the thoughts that's been on my mind lately. It's about time I suppose.

This time it's about the ever present debate in writing circles – should you plot or write by the seat of your pants? There are probably, as everyone who's in this game will know, as many opinions as there are writers. And so many of them are strongly held and even more powerfully argued.

Those who are plotters will argue that working to an outline gives them the chance to pull a coherent book together right from the start. It saves them time and effort and focuses them on a target allowing them to be more efficient. Pantsters on the other hand will talk about creative freedom and being unable to stick to an outline anyway. And then there are the guys in the middle who will do some plotting and some free writing and hopefully pull together a story that way.

My thought in this post is not to support either side. Nor to hold some place in the middle ground. But rather to look at the entire argument in a different way. It may not actually be a choice at all. As a writer you should write the way that works best for you.

To begin with I suppose I should start by laying my cards on the table. I'm as close to a pure pantster as any writer can be. I never plot. I don't work to an outline. And when I write I not only don't know where the books going to end I usually don't know where the chapter's going to end. My approach to writing is simple. I start with a character or a scene or an idea and I write it. Then I stretch it a bit by asking questions. Who is this man? Why is he doing what he's doing? What sort of world is this? And little by little what started out as a wisp of an idea becomes a story and in time if I'm lucky, a completed novel.

That's not to say that this is the right way to do it. Just that it's my way. And as a writer I pay a heavy price for this approach. Not having any idea of where a story is going to go means that very often it goes nowhere. So I have well over a hundred partially completed novels sitting on my computer now which have basically run out of legs. Some of them are all but complete but I simply don't know how to complete them. Others are simply fascinating ideas that I explored, and may one day take further. But all of them share one thing in common. They all took a lot of effort to write and there is no novel to show for that effort.

This is a problem. Pantsting comes with some heavy prices for an author. As an author if I want to make more money I should stick to one genre like epic fantasy and write series etc. But how can I stick to one genre when I don't know even what world my idea comes from when I start writing it? And how can I write a series say when I wrote the original novel and completed it without any thought that there should be any more. I had a story, I wrote it, and that was all there was!

So that's my world as a pantster. A sort of organised chaos that sometimes comes up with a novel and occasionally even an original one. But with a lot of dry runs and misfires along the way. And sometimes, like every other writer out there, I think to myself – maybe there's a better way.

Then about a month ago I came up with a story idea that I really liked and threw myself into it. The book, though I doubt it'll ever be finished, was called Three Wishes, and was in essence a cautionary tale about wishes and having them come true. And like a mad man I quickly started working out what those wishes should be and how they should go horribly wrong while being granted exactly as asked for. And then at some point I expanded the idea to have two antagonists both having three wishes granted by the same agency, both having them fulfilled exactly as requested, and having them go horribly wrong, and yet at the same time have each antagonists wish the perfect foil to the others wish. In short they cancel each other out.

Yeah I know, sounds complicated. And it is. And it became more so when I had to formulate the three – or actually seven as it became – wishes so that each and every one of them perfectly countered another so that in turn everything went horribly wrong for both antagonists, yet the story would somehow end up in a positive place.

That's where the plotting versus pantsting thing comes in. As a pantster, knowing all the places where pantsting lets me down, and finally having a logical construct to hang a novel on, I thought it was time to finally embrace the dark art of plotting.

So I went out, read all the books and advice columns on plotting – there are a surprising number of them – and ultimately set out to craft a plot around my two antagonists and their wishes. Then with everything nailed down and a twenty seven chapter book outlined, I began writing.

That as you can probably guess is where the pain began.

Within the first chapter I went off plot – and not just a little bit. We're not just talking character outlines and city names here. By the end of the first chapter I'd swapped genres, shifting from an urban fantasy to an epic fantasy, and also changed the relationship between the two antagonists as well as throwing in a third character with her own wish to confound things and a religion.

But undeterred because I knew that plotting was the way to go to advance my craft, I went back to the drawing board (lap top) and replotted the entire novel based on the new first chapter. After all I figured, most plotters say that there's room for a few changes here and there. And most of the guides talk about having a looser outline that allows for minor changes here and there. I'm not sure though that I can do minor when it comes to changes!

Unfortunately none of those guides had allowed for chapter two where it became obvious to me that in fact I'd got the entire thrust of the story wrong, and that the two antagonists while the ones making the wishes weren't the ones driving them. There was in fact another player behind the scenes pulling their strings as well as granting them their wishes – the Red God.

So back to the lap top and re-plot an entire novel based on this new understanding, then start on chapter three. Alas chapter three was the one where the king's daughter turned up unexpectedly and completely changed directions. In a heartbeat she went from being the loving daughter who was unable to wed the prince because her golden dowry and turned to lead, to the daughter forced to marry the prince of a rival kingdom because the entire treasury's gold supply had turned to lead. It was just a tiny change but it changed the entire story necessitating yet another complete re-plotting of the book.

Then came chapter four where – you guessed it – more shit happened.

And that brings me to where I am now, a month later and ten chapters wiser. And what's the one piece of wisdom I've learned? I can't plot! Or rather I can sketch out a brilliant plot, outline it to twenty decimal places, and make it perfect – but I just can't damn well write to it.

So far from making me a more efficient writer and helping to weave together a plot perfect story, plotting has slowed me down immensely and contributed precisely nothing to my writing. Because what's the point of having a plot if you can't stick to it? And especially when every little change I make as I write, means I have to completely rewrite the plot? It may be a brilliant approach for many writers. It may overcome many of the problems inherent for pantsters. But it's absolutely useless for me.

Which is really my point for other writers entering into this fray. And it's not to say that plotting is bad and pantsting is the way to go. You're all plotters or a pantsters or some hybrid creatures in between. And that's fine. As long as you've found what works for you.

My point is that before you start thinking of how wonderful it would be to either start plotting more or free writing more, and before you waste your time and money on the various writing guides, you take a step back and think about whether there's any point in trying to change. Because despite all the arguments about how each side is so much better than the other from whatever perspective, the truth is that the one that is best for you is the one you're most comfortable with. Trying to change how you write may well be the biggest, most frustrating waste of time and effort you could ever engage in. In fact you may well end up like me – pulling your hair out clump by clump!

So this is my new golden rule of writing. There is no right way to write.

 

Cheers, Greg.

 

 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Greg's Pustulating Necrosis of the Gut!


Hi guys,

 
 
 
Bit of an odd post this time. A few days ago I ate something that disagreed with me – (no, it wasn't a critic!) – and ever since then have been living in a land of pain and toilets that no amount of imodium and erythromycin can seem to hold. And then the night before last, just as I was thinking things were finally on the mend, they instead took a sudden about turn and I became convinced somewhere in the early hours of the morning that death wasn't such a bad thing. Dying is of course a different matter! Naturally I'd feel sorrow for those I left behind. For my family. For my cat who'd have to find someone else to look down upon with disdain – though to be fair she's a cat and so has the entire world to look down upon! For the coroner who might have to wear multiple gas masks to do his work and then still be decontaminated! But really as the clock struck three in the morning and the porcelain was begging for mercy, it still didn't seem so bad.

Somewhere after that though, a strange thought took hold of me – the understanding that whatever I was suffering from couldn't be natural. It had to be new and improved. A whole new class of diarrhoea. Something that would make the medical texts. I could have a brand new disease named after me!

But then I realised there are diseases and then there are diseases. I mean who wouldn't want some cool disease named after them? Greg's Lycanthroposis for example would be quite cool. Not a bad way to be remembered. Or some sort of hyper mania perhaps. Greg died while trying to hurl a bus at police and was later found to have over four hundred bullets in him! Greg's Hyper Rage! Now that would be undeniably cool! By contrast I can only imagine that Gerhard Hansen was infinitely glad that Hansen's Disease was never popularly known by that name but rather simply as leprosy. Still even against that infamous horror Greg's Pustulating Necrosis of the Gut would be a far less welcome memoriam. And when the symptoms of GPNG are listed as the sufferer's choice of death either by his insides suddenly deciding they wanted to become his outsides or alternatively asphyxiating on his own flatulence, I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to be associated with the condition. Least of all me.

Writing I think, has a little in common with this. (There! You see? You knew there would be some return to my more normal topics at some point since no one could talk about diarrhoea forever! Not even me!)

My point is that as authors we write books that people read, and will hopefully enjoy and remember. And in a very real way some of these books may in fact become a memoriam to us. More so now in this digital age where nothing is lost unlike paper books which have vanished over the previous years and centuries.

Which leads me to the rationale behind this post. (Yes there is one!) We all talk about the need for quality in our work. For making sure that whatever we put out there is the best that we can do. That it's beta read and edited to death. And that certainly is important to us as authors; indie and trade, living and dead. But before anyone pushes that publish button it occurs to me that there's another question that we need to ask ourselves. Is this a work that I want to be forever associated with me? In five years, ten years, twenty am I still going to be proud to have published this work? Or am I going to be living down the shame of having put it out there? Is this going to be a work that will forever shine a glorious light upon me? Or will it be like those nude pictures you took as an overweight teenager which eternally follow you around from job interview to job interview? It needs to be considered.

Sure I may hate (insert name of political movement or religion here) now, but in a decade am I going to want to be remembered as the man who wrote the book accusing them of promoting indecent acts? I may despise (insert persons name here) but in twenty years time am I going to want to be known as the man who in public accused them of various crimes? Especially if they're later shown to be innocent? Yes I may support certain political ideologies but in twenty years when movements based on my writings have caused immeasurable harm to the world, will I want to be associated with them? Even recognised as their inspiration?

You think I'm joking? Perhaps driven mad by the long nights spent curled up on a toilet seat, gassing myself in the smallest room in the house? Sadly actually I'm not. Many authors have ended up regretting their works and trying to have them pulled from the shelves and for all sorts of reasons.

The list starts with Stephen King who in 1997 tried to get his 1977 book Rage pulled when a copy of it was found in the locker of a boy who went on a shooting spree in a school. His fear was that the book inspired the act.

At the more minor end of the spectrum Octavia Butler tried to have Survivor pulled for a completely different reason. Though it was well written, edited and professional and indeed readers loved the book, to her it was clich├ęd and trope ridden.

And of course you would have to wonder how Nietzsche would have felt had he lived to see the rise of the Nazi's. He had a vision of his ubermen as modern equivalents of ancient Greek gods striding across the world. To see instead the reality of death camps, genocide, unbridled ambition and a world in flames all inspired by his work would probably have had him spinning in his grave.

Which brings me back to my point. We live in a digital age. Whatever we publish will be with us potentially forever – or at least for the rest of our lives. And once you push that button there's no way to unpush it. So take a moment. Give it a little thought. Have a cuppa or two before doing what you can't undo. And ask yourself that vital question:

Is this going to be your hyper rage? Or your pustulating necrosis of the gut?

 

Cheers, Greg.

Friday, 11 September 2015

So You've written A book - Trade or Indie?


Hi guys,

 

First up, apologies as usual for not having posted for so long. Unfortunately my muse kidnapped me – it does that sometimes – and said “head down, bum up, you've got a book to write boy!” Oh to be a plotter and not a pantster! One day I'll make that switch. Not this month though.

 

The upshot is that on the fifth of August having finally got The Arcanist published and thinking I should enjoy a bit of a break, I started Spaced. And last night just before the witching hour I sent the completed first draft of the space opera off. 157K in a month and six days! Maybe this year I finally should enter Nanowrimo!

 

Anyway, that's been my life for the last month or so, which is why I haven't done a hell of a lot else. But now that I've regained my freedom and the use of my poor, overworked fingers, I thought I'd turn my attention to other things. And first up, before I start editing the third Wizard at Law book which returned from my editor last month as well and got pushed to one side, I thought I'd answer a question that keeps coming up among new writers. So you've written your book – do you go Indie or Trade?

 

This is obviously not an easy question to answer. In fact there is no right answer. It's going to depend completely on who you are as a writer and who you want to be as an author. And strangely even the premise – that you've written a book – is going to change depending on the answer. So to begin.

 

First you've written a book. This means I assume that you've done everything you possibly can to get that book in the best possible shape. You've drafted and redrafted it. Hunted for mistakes and plot holes. It is as close to error free as you can possibly get it. But the one thing that you haven't done is send it away to an editor.

 

This is actually the next step in your journey – if you go indie. If you instead try to get a trade deal – it isn't. The guts of it is simple, and it comes down to that most base of all motivations – filthy lucre. If you decide to try and pursue a trade deal with an agent or a publisher then your work should not be edited. The reason is that most new authors getting signed get very small advances – less than five thousand dollars and then at least half of them never earn out their advance. (Sorry to shatter any dreams of wealth you may have but writers are by and large very poorly paid whichever route they take.)

 

(Which brings up another pet peeve – pirates. Grief I get sick of hearing from those who support piracy that all books should be free. It is practically a mantra for the criminally insane. These people believe they are doing some sort of Robin Hood type thing. They aren't. In fact they are doing the exact opposite. They're stealing from the poor and giving to those who have more than enough money to spend on a book. So well done guys!)

 

Anyway I've wandered down that path enough for the moment. Back to the main thread and the point I was making. If you submit to agents and get a trade deal, the chances of striking gold – which really you've already struck by getting your deal – are small. But the one thing every agent / publisher will provide for free to their writers – is writing services. That means editing and book covering etc. So the last thing you want to be doing is paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for an edit which you'll get for free if you get a deal.

 

If on the other hand you decide to go indie – bad luck guys. Every book needs to be edited and the bill is yours. So your first guideline in making this decision is a simple one – do you have the money to pay for editing and cover design etc? If yes then you can go either route. If no, then trade is your only option.

 

Okay, so next up in your decision tree as you sit there with your book should be your skills in other areas. Do you understand things like cover design, marketing, formatting and how to do publishing? If not are you willing to learn? Because make no mistake, going indie is a decision that will necessitate you knowing all of these things. Anyone as they say can self-publish. But doing it well is far harder. To be a successfully indie involves a very steep learning curve.

 

So here comes your next question in your decision tree. Do you have these skills? Are you willing to learn them? If yes, then you can take either route. If no, then again trade is your only possible route.

 

Next on our list, you need to consider commercialism – yes I know – more filthy lucre. But here it's not actually about the money. It's about the selling. And you need to consider this one question before you make your decision – will people buy it?

 

Yeah I know, it's a difficult thing to guess. But there are some things that will help guide you. First think of the genre. There are some genres that sell better than others – paranormal romance for example is hot these days. Bead work from the 1900's is not. There's also the question of how original it is. Yes everyone says they're looking for the next fresh idea. But they aren't. If you want your best chance to sell you want to stick closely to something that's already out there with just a few tweaks. So maybe your sparkly vampires have a silver sheen instead of gold? But they aren't born literally legless and forced to spend their lives in wheelchairs!

 

So take a step back from your work and ask yourself, how original is it? And how important is it to you that it's original? If this is something that's wildly new – and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the five people who bought The Man Who Wasn't Anders Voss!!! – indie is really your only option. Almost no agents and no publishers are going to pick it up. They're there to make money and that means selling.

 

Yes I know – you're all going to yell Fifty Shades at me, and it is true. There are a few exceptions to this rule. But they are just that – exceptions.

 

Next on the decision tree is what Hollywood likes to call creative control. You've written a book. You're proud of it. It's your baby. Are you willing to let other people mangle it? Yes I know they won't actually mangle it – mostly. But what I consider mangling and what you consider mangling are likely to be very different things. And what I can accept in terms of changes and what you can accept are equally likely to be very different.

 

There's an old story – not sure if it's true – that Disney once hired a consultant to advise them on Donald's nephews. And the consultants came back and said well you can save money by removing a button on their shirts which will be quicker to draw. Disney said yes. Then the consultants said – does he really need three nephews? Two would be easier to draw. At which point they were sacked.

 

That in a nut shell is the question you need to ask. How much can you compromise on your artistic vision? If the answer is no more than a few typo's corrected, indie is your choice. If on the other hand it's “hell yes, let it rip – I didn't need to have that character anyway”, then trade may well be a better option for you. I'm not saying that that's what they will do, just that compromise is far more important for someone going the trade route than it is for an indie.

 

Last of course on our decision tree, we come back to that age old conundrum – filthy lucre. You've written your book. You're proud of it. You want to sell it and make some money. (Let's leave the dreams of castles and jets to one side here and think about things like paying the rent.) Which option is more likely to achieve your objective of keeping a roof over your head?

 

The truth of the matter is that no one really knows. The surveys of author income all show that trade published authors do better on annual income – though no one really does well. But the surveys are also wrong because they compare apples to oranges. They forget that people don't choose to go trade. They choose to try and go trade. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to make an agent or a publisher pick up your book. For every author who submits to agents and publishers and gets a trade deal there are probably hundreds who submit and get nothing – not even a reply. When you factor that into your calculations suddenly the likely income favours the indie in a big way.

 

But then comes the next big shovel in the face – and this ones for indies. Surveys all show that the vast majority of self published books don't sell. They get released, no one buys them and they fall to the bottom of the slush pile. There are any number of reasons for this – I've discussed a few here – but the biggest one by far is that an incredible number of writers simply get to the end of their book – think to themselves “this is genius” – slap a cover photo on it and think they're done. They don't do the hard yards of editing and format, cover design, blurb work, beta reading and marketing. And then they no doubt wonder why their book doesn't sell. Obviously the world just wasn't ready for their brilliance!

 

Yeah right!!!

 

Anyway, to get back to the point. If you aren't willing to do all those hard yards – indie is not for you. I don't know that any agent would pick up your work either but you are fairly much guaranteed to fail as an indie.

 

And to the other point – filthy lucre and keeping your roof over your head – my own thought is that for the average author who is willing to put in all that extra effort to get their books beyond the standard poorly written self published novel indie is the better financial option these days.

 

Having said that, both are viable options and you should carefully consider all the pros and cons before deciding what's right for you.

 

But one last thing. For those who decide to try and get a trade deal – set yourself a cut off. So many unsuccessful submissions sent. So many months or “shudder!” years spent on the agent-go-round. Then go indie.

 

You're a writer. Writing is a communicative art. If you're not communicating, you're failing yourself. You actually need to publish however you can, to complete your journey as a writer.

 

Anyway, enough from me. I need sleep!

 

Cheers, Greg.