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).

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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Bad Reviews and Bad Reviewing

Okay, I admit it, I do get a certain perverse pleasure from writing scathing reviews of books that I find to be utterly terrible. Not just bad, not “Fifty Shades of Grey” bad, but really, really terrible.

A review can be ‘bad’ because the review describes why the book isn’t worth reading, but it can also be bad by being unhelpful. Or, it can be both. It can be hard for authors to see the wood (the quality of the review) for the trees (the reader’s reaction), as I mentioned in an earlier blog post. So, when you don’t like a book, but you’re compelled to write 250 words about it, it’s difficult to stay on the right side of the good/bad review line.

I recently started using Inkspand, a site that will pay you $10 to ‘beta read’ novels. It seems too good to be true: getting paid to review books and you get to choose the books? In some ways it is, the book selection is limited & you generally have to be on your toes to get one of the few available slots, which go exceptionally quickly on the better books. But, if you enjoy inspirational non-fiction, boy have I got a deal for you! There are usually several books with open slots if you’re a How to Win Friends and Influence People meets Chicken Soup for the Soul reader. You could make a mint if you read swiftly.
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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 clichés 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!

Building an eBook

When I was preparing Speak for the Dead for publishing, there was no question that I wanted to make it available as an eBook. Unfortunately, my desire to do so wasn’t one of the things I considered when I formatting the manuscript for print.

Having the freedom & the skill to do so, I decided that I wanted to make the interior of Speak for the Dead a little more interesting than “1. Chapter text goes here”. If you’ve read the book or the free preview, you will have seen this:
Prologue Colour

All of the chapter headings in Speak for the Dead are done in this style, & I think it looks pretty darn fancy pants. But, when it came time to convert my print-formatted manuscript for digital delivery, things started going wonky.

I know half a smattering of html, & I don’t really understand how it works, I’m a bit like a dancing bear in that respect. I can do some basic markup, but I don’t really have that connection to why it works, only that it does. No more than a dancing bear knows why standing up on his hind legs earns him a treat, but so long as the fish keeps coming, he’ll keep dancing.
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Update: Self Publish? What About Self Editing?

Last week I wrote a blog post about the trials of editing my first complete manuscript ahead of submitting it to be published on CreateSpace.

What a hectic week it has been since then.

But, I thought it might amuse you to know that I ended up having to resubmit my manuscript three times before I was happy with it. Yes, after all that soul-draining & exacting work I did, it still wasn’t perfect!

In fact, as I settled in to read the PDF proof, the very first thing I noticed was a typo: I’d accidentally inserted the wrong correction during that final spell check, leaving an error in one of the early chapters. Disaster! I’d been so excited to hit that “approve” button & declare myself a published author (in a fashion), and here I was, staring down the barrel of another 24-hour review period.

In the end, it was worth it. I adjusted the margins outwards so the side margins (the outer edge of each page) was nice & narrow, & widened the centre. Today, I received the very first print copies & – holding them open – it was the right choice. To think: if I’d been too stubborn to resubmit, my book would have looked terrible.

It was a long journey, with an astounding amount of hard work, but it was a labour of love & I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. In fact, for this November, I’m planning on using NaNoWriMo to draft the sequel: Following Suit.