Competitive Writing

Early in the year, when I was all gung-ho about publishing and marketing, I was reading a lot of blogs with advice for new and aspiring authors. There is one piece of advice that has – in a way – stuck with me, niggling at the back of my mind.

The tip that the blogger was attempting to impart was that, in order to be “competitive” in today’s market, a writer should be producing two novels and a short story each year. That’s two complete, polished, ready-to-publish novels and a complete, polished, ready-to-publish short story. The reasoning seemed to be that if you didn’t have something coming out every 4-6 months, the modern reader would grow bored and forget all about you.

Wether this is true or not, it still bothers me. Admittedly, I am the kind of writer who needs deadlines, I can’t and won’t deny that, I am a woefully unmotivated writer. Of course, you’d be forgiven for thinking that anyone who can nail 5,000 words in a breezy day of writing wouldn’t need help finishing anything, and yet here we are.

So, surely, this benchmark would seem like a good thing for me? This kind of thing that I could strive for? After all, surely the faster you can write books, the more money you could (theoretically) make, right? Well, maybe that day is still yet to come for me, but in the meantime, I found this little ray of hope:

GerogeRRMartinGoodBooks

Yes, A Song of Ice and Fire is insanely complicated, and I’m not even close to being in that league, but I have a little faith in my readers that, even if they forget me in between novels, I found them once and I will find them again.

BONUS! Check out this Buzzfeed on how George R.R. Martin will destroy everything you love (caution: spoilers).

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My Own Worst Enemy

Writer’s block. It seems to plague even the most prolific of writers. That creative stoppage that keeps you from moving forward.

The trouble with writer’s block is that it is only a symptom. The disease is far more insidious. There are thousands of tips, strategies, techniques, & exercises for overcoming or by-passing that looming sense of “not knowing what to write”. The thing is, dealing with the block is simple. Dealing with what caused it is another thing altogether.

I haven’t done any real work in quite a while now. I’ve entertained dozens of distractions – some of them constructive, some of them highly enjoyable – but, at the end of the day, they are exactly that: distractions from the real task. Ways to get around doing writing.

I could say that I’m stuck, & that wouldn’t be entirely untrue. It is a fact that I’m not sure how to connect where I’m up to with where I want to go, but I already have a favourite way to deal with that.

The real problem is one of motivation.

Whether it is self-doubt or procrastination or just the lack of discipline, the heart of the matter is that I could be working, I just haven’t been. I really do enjoy writing. I just wish I was better at making myself do it.

At Great Cost [Spoilers]

CAUTION: This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: Into Darkness.

I killed off one of my characters. It wasn’t the first time I’d done so, either. In fact, I find I have quite a knackfor murdering my non-narrating characters. Why do I do this, & what does it have to do with Star Trek: the Installment Where all the Dudes Cry?

I was watching Into Darkness for the second time today (did you know there’s a deleted scene of Benedict Cumberbatch showering? You’re welcome), when my biggest complaint about this movie got me to thinking.

In an awkwardly shoe-horned scene, Old Spock tells New Spock that their enemy was only defeated at great cost. The running theme up until this point has been sacrifice and the worth of a life, and the survival of the Enterprise’s entire crew rests precariously in the hands of a ruthless killer. It’s a dramatic staple, to dangle the life or lives of those dear to the protagonist, to ask them just how high a price they would pay. As a dramatic staple, it works, if for no other reason than the fact that we mostly agree that our own lives are pretty damn valuable.

So, at the end of the movie, what did it really cost them? Old Spock may recall paying the ultimate price (this is why you shouldn’t drop bridges on characters if their actor wants to quit), but (new) Kirk got to punch his Free latte on your tenth visit! loyalty card in the afterlife, and make some valuable personal growth.

As previously discussed, I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen to my characters several thousand words down the line, & I’ve never created a significant character with the prior knowledge they were going to die (there was that one guy whom I created for a single scene, that I gave a back story to, & he ended up surviving on me, go figure). But when all the trials are through & it’s time to take stock, it’s important that the heroes don’t get off scot-free.

As demonstrated by the trope Earn Your Happy Ending, no one wants to see the hero get a free ride. Star Trek‘s use of the Reset Button not only negates the driving moral of the story; but if Death is Cheap, then the primary tension turns out to have been false as well.

So, yes, I’ve put characters on the chopping block. Perhaps it’s a cop out – after all, death is a bit of a short-cut to drama – but there can be no denying the price has been paid.

And Then They did What?

If you want to experience the next-closest thing to lucid dreaming, try being a writer. Non-writers generally don’t believe me when I say that I don’t always have control over what my characters do, or what happens to them, but a common refrain amongst writers is “I didn’t expect that”.

Imagination is an amazing thing, as is the process of creation. Telling a story often begins with the seed of an idea that you germinate into a majestic tree, full of life and colour. And like a growing tree, you can’t always account for the actions of the weather and the other life around you. Perhaps the weather turns bad, or there is a bushfire, your tree becomes dormant and damaged. On the other hand, sometimes the weather is good, too good, and you end up with wild overgrowth that needs to be hacked away into something more manageable and attractive.

Some writers are planners. Their ideas are more like bonsai, shaped and influenced from the very beginning. They usually have a pretty good sense of what will happen when, but even if you plan or things to go a certain way, you might not get what you want. When I was writing Speak for the Dead, I saw a way for my characters to get together. I had put them in the same room, all I needed to do was write the dialogue between them & have them end up in bed together. However, at the end of the conversation, one party walked out – it simply felt more natural for that to happen.

It’s hard to explain the process of writing, of drawing ideas from your mind and committing them to paper. I’m doing it right now, words are coming out of my brain & after I think them, I type them for you to read. It kinda just happens. Writers often attribute their ideas to their characters for no better reason than “where else could the idea have come from?”

A long time ago, someone shared this link with me, a talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing your creative side. The entire video is 20 minutes long &, if you can spare the time, please do, because it is one of the most beautiful & moving things I have ever watched. In her speech, Ms Gilbert discusses the idea that genius is not something you ARE, but something you HAVE. Having always felt that writing was something that moved through me, rather than coming from me, it was an idea that I could especially relate to.

So, if you hear voices in your head, you might not be crazy, you might just be a writer.

Writing Inside the Box

My current project is giving me a lot of trouble, more so than any other story I’ve attempted before. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that’s blocking the flow, but every time I look at my story, I feel lost.

Some writers are like architects: everything is beautiful and precise and structured. Some writers are like gardeners: their ideas grow more organically. I am a rather disorganised writer, my ideas are like seeds that I germinate and encourage to grow and bloom. While the main thrust is ever upwards, there are branches that I go back and cultivate or trim as I need, pruning and grafting until I have a complete form.

I usually start with a sentence and let the words flow out of me, happy to be carried along by the stream. Occasionally I come back to fill parts in, rearrange sections, & add scenes I thought of later. This has never bothered me before. I have never planned out a plot from beginning to end, more often than not, I have no idea how a story is going to end until I’m at least halfway through. This hasn’t bothered me either, except that you can’t really write a blurb when you don’t know what the point of the story is going to be.
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Illegitimate Research

For someone who spends so much of their time writing, drawing, painting, and dreaming, I seem to lack a certain creativity. Ideas come to me, on occasion, and I carry those ideas out to the best of my ability. But, when it comes to actually trying to ply my craft – to think of something to decorate a blank canvas or decide where a story is going to go – I am an empty vessel.

In light of that, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’m not much of a planner. My characters do what they want to do, how they want to do, & I let them. In my early endeavours I was often surprised by the things my protagonists got up to & never asked where my tales were going, I just went along for the ride.

Which brings me to the subject of this post. Research is essential to good writing, so many details – from tiny throw-away lines, to great over-arcing world-building – to pinpoint & refine. Authors need to have answers to questions asked & questions unasked – by the story, by the characters, by the readers. The bigger the world, the more science in the premise, the more work a writer needs to do, & it can be a lot of work.

For the most part, I do my research on the fly – I have a question, I go find the answer. If I’m lucky I’ll find it quickly enough & everything proceeds the way it’s supposed to. When I’m not so lucky I get distracted by wikipedia links & end up finding out a lot more than I intended & writing a lot less that I should have.

I am embarking on a new story idea. I’m not sure if it is by accident or design (probably a little of both), it involves far more research before beginning than I’m used to. But some types of research are worth more than others.

This new story touches on a genre that I love, but have never tried to write before. So with the excuse of needing to “research”, I’ve been spending hour upon hour reading TV Tropes, all the clich├ęs to avoid, & the ones I can touch on without making my story awful. It’s been fun, but it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing, that’s for sure.

On the other hand, I have been trying to read more – reading is an essential, probably the single most important – weapon in the writer’s arsenal. With work and games and sleep and movies and TV shows and writing, it can be amazing that I have any time to keep up with just my favourite hobbies, let alone all the fringe hobbies I like to indulge in.

So, here’s to stopping procrastinating & actually getting the writing part done!

Self Publish? How About Self-Editing?

Recently, I’ve been writing about self-publishing. I’m relatively active in the CreateSpace community space, reading previews and answering questions here and there, but mostly reading other people’s questions & answers to add that knowledge to my mental database.

One of the things that no one talks about is just how… tiring the process of editing will prove to be. Maybe I’m a perfectionist, & maybe I lack patience, but when handing out tips on how to make your layout look as professional as possible, they don’t mention just what kind of ordeal you have a head of you.

Editing is Hard

I’ve just spent the last two days going over my copy of Speak for the Dead with one of those super-fine metal combs used to find lice & nits. Having finally submitted the final version for print approval, my eyes burn & I’m ready to spend a week away from the computer. I think I was lucky, that I’d finalised a lot of the parameters in the weeks leading up to this monumental proof-read of doom, or there might have been even more work ahead of me.

With my trim size & margins set up; my preferred font selected, sized, & line spacing set; my manuscript pasted & formatted into chapters; and my front matter written and positioned; I was ready to begin the process of laying out the copy exactly how it would print. Continue reading

Reading Three Ways

I’ve never been one for patience, so as soon as the manuscript for Speak for the Dead was drafted, I wanted to get it ready for submission. But, I have my pride & there was no way I was going to send something as poorly edited as Fifty Shades of Grey to be published.

Reading the First Way

The first step was, simply enough, to read what I’d written. This comes with it’s own problems, namely that, as an author, I am far too “close” to my own work & it can be difficult to see certain flaws. I know that I have a bad habit of skimming when I read, even when I think I’m trying to read closely, & my brain just skips over minor errors as if they weren’t even there. To combat this, I’ve been putting the manuscript through a spell checker every single time I make an edit. Probably excessive, but the readers <strong?are going to find every spelling and grammatical error I make, so the more I can catch now, the better. Continue reading

Choosing to Self-Publish

As I browse blogs written by those in the writing industry, providing advice for amateur authors like myself, there is pretty much only one piece of advice for the question “should I self-publish?”.

That answer is: NO.

I’ve just handed my first-ever manuscript off to someone for it’s first reading as part of the editing process. I’m planning on self-publishing, and as such I’ve been looking into what that means.

There are three types of self-publishing: vanity, subsidised, and print-on-demand (POD). Vanity publishing is where you pay a conventional printer to create a run of books and costs thousands of dollars. Subsidised self publishing also involves conventional printing presses, but part of the costs are paid by the publishing/printing firm & they assist you with marketing in return for a share of the sales.

Print-on-demand utilises newer printing technology that produces books on an individual or short-run basis. It can potentially cost very little up-front, and POD places can offer various services (for a fee) to help you distribute your book. It seems too good to be true, and it probably is: marketing a book is a lot of work.

I can’t tell you whether you should self-publish your book or not. What I can tell you is why I am opting to self publish Speak for the Dead.

The first thing about Speak for the Dead that had me leaning towards POD is the length. It is a “tight” story, compact and fast-paced. Clocking in at less than 45,000 words it is too short for a conventionally published novel. Self-publishing allows me to put this novella into print and sell it for less than a full-priced novel.

The second thing was the difficulty I’ve been having in pinning down the genre of my novella. Though it deals with crime, it is not a crime novel (which tend to be police procedurals), nor do I think it qualifies as a thriller (there is no sense of danger for the protagonist). That pretty much leaves me with the generic “teen” or “mainstream”. No joy there. Using POD lets me off the hook a bit with the whole pigeon-holing bit.

Thirdly, POD gives me the best of both worlds between “seeing my book in print” and “eBook”. eBook is obviously the easiest format to promote my novella in, but there is a certain satisfaction in having an actual physical book to hold. I’m still part of the old guard, I prefer novels (though there is something to be said for reading books in the dark on my iPad), and I’m most likely to read something new by picking up a novel at a discount book sale (do you know how expensive novels are in Australia???).

Finally, the thing that actually set all of this in motion, was that in conjunction with the NaNoWriMo winner rewards, I can get a half-handful of copies of my novella printed for free. So, even if I don’t sell a single copy & even if I can’t be bothered to market it one bit, I will still have my own printed novel. That makes me pretty happy.

Measuring Progress

I’m not sure when the idea of writing stories to publish first occurred to me. I’ve always dabbled in various creative pursuits, but the first time I really took my writing seriously was when I started reading the drafts a friend gave me and I realised that I could write better than that. This friend had been intent on getting published, I don’t know if they ever accomplished that goal, and I didn’t even go into my largest writing project with the idea that I would write a novel for public consumption. I just wanted to write something better than they could. Yes, I know how that sounds, and I’ll own it.

However, to this day, I still haven’t finished a single publishable work (I do have two short stories on SmashWords, and some flash fiction on Deviant Art, see the links to the right). I have a tendency to put things aside, go to bed, and never come back to them. My “studio” is littered with half-started projects waiting for me to get back to them, and I still promise myself that I will. One day.

Over the years, the thing I struggled with most when trying to re-involve myself in my magnum opus “Broken Wings” was starting again from the beginning. I’d edited the first chapter a thousand times, but the drafts of the later chapters hadn’t been touched since they were written. I wasn’t getting anywhere, I was just repeating the same, pointless cycle over and over again.
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