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The Business of Writing

 

 

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These skyscrapers are likely teeming with fantasy writers, cutting some serious deals in this dog eat dog world.  Photo by Anders Jildén on Unsplash

You’re a writer. You just write. Right? Wrong.

There’s much more to it. For a start, you sell a product. You make deals with agents, publishers, and others. You promote your work. You consider the potential market for your books.

In other words, you’re not just an artist. You’re a self-employed businessperson. That’s true for all of us, from the biggest NYT bestseller to the new writer staring at a blank page and a flickering cursor.

The rise of social media has added a new dynamic to this mix. Many successful writers today are extremely active on sites like Twitter and Facebook, as well as their own blogs. It’s no longer a case of hibernating in your home office till the book is complete. There is an expectation nowadays that writers make at least a little bit of noise on these platforms.

I’ve never self-published, but I imagine there are even more demands in this area. Not only do they have to promote their books: they need to pay for cover art, arrange for a decent editor, etc.

So writing is both an art and a business. There’s nothing new about this: it’s been the case since writers started writing and painters started painting. I imagine you had to pay at least two woolly mammoth steaks to see the original cave paintings (note – this is probably not true).

I will admit, however, that not all of this has come naturally to me. I got a great agent, who has made much of it very easy, and my publisher has been massively patient. But selling and promotion has been a pretty new experience.

Still, I have learned lessons that can carry over to other aspects of my self-employed life, and I don’t think they are always obvious. These are mainly to do with promotion, and on my attitude to my books.

Always Love Your Books

Some people will hate your book. They will think it is absolutely terrible. And some of those people will say so – they will write a bad review.

It is very easy to be hurt by this. What’s worse, it is very easy to believe it: to remember the one negative thing someone said, rather than all the positive things. You might start to think ‘I wish I had done it like this’, or ‘if only I could rework it,’ etc.

However, you have to remember that this published book is the culmination of years of effort and thought on your part; it is unlikely it ever would have turned out differently. From a business point of view, do you think the founder of a start-up (which in effect is what we new writers are) instantly throws in the towel when he or she gets a bit of negative feedback, or goes straight back to the drawing board? Nope: they stick with the product they believe in.

The point is that you were the first defender of your books, and you have to be the last, no matter what anyone else says.

On the flip side, however …

Don’t Go Mad for Praise 

If it’s important not to get too downhearted when you receive a bad review, it is equally crucial to avoid triumphalism when you get a positive one, no matter who it is from. This can be dangerous on a number of levels. If you exalt a particular reviewer to too high a level, you make yourself vulnerable to their criticisms in the future. Additionally, you can start to think you’ve made it, perfected the art, etc.

At the end of the day, the book turned out the way I wanted it, and would never have been any different. Good reviews, of course, are very welcome: they’re better than bad ones, and don’t hurt book sales. But your view of your own book can’t be fundamentally altered by someone else’s opinion, whether positive or negative: that’s bad for business.

Don’t Be Embarrassed By Your Book

You should be proud of your book and happy to talk about it. This is something I found difficult at first: I worked on the book in private, so it was quite a searing experience when it became a public thing. But you quickly get used to it, and you develop a brass neck about getting it out there.

Sell, Sell, Sell – In the Right Way

It is of course fine to promote your book, but one thing I’ve learned is that people don’t like the hard sell. OK, if there’s a sale on then you should alert readers to that. But constant tweets of ‘buy my book’ will not get you far. It’s better to talk about things that interest you, even if not directly related to the book: you’re trying to find like-minded people.

Buy My Books

This is the key! All these secrets and more are discussed at length in The Machinery and The Strategist, both of which are available for the bargain price … only joking.

 

 

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Writing While Self-Employed: It’s Tough, But It Can be Done

 

 

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

 

This blog isn’t aimed at the lucky souls who are self-employed writers, making enough money from their fiction to focus on that alone. This is a blog for people who are self-employed and writers: people who work for themselves, and are trying to write a book, too. Mad people like me.

I have been self-employed for just over two years, working mainly as a journalist in the defence and finance sectors. I signed my deal with HarperVoyager in early 2014, so long before I knew I was going to be a freelancer. I had a full-time job, and squeezed in my creative writing early in the morning or late at night. This was how I went through the redrafting and editing process for my first book, The Machinery. In fact, it was how I approached writing in general, long before HarperVoyager took me on board.

That was hard work, but it lent itself to a kind of structure. A certain amount of money was lodged in my account once a month. I could rely on that, and so long as I fulfilled my end of the bargain, the rest of the time belonged to me.

Being self-employed is completely different. It’s a cliché, but when you’re self-employed, time is money: the more you work, the more you earn. So it can be very difficult to find time for anything else.

But it is doable.

Seize Your Moments

When you’re self-employed, every day is different. Some days I work for umpteen hours and fail to get through all my jobs; other days I suddenly find I have nothing to do, and have to start pitching for more work. Either way, it’s always busy: you’re making money or working out where the next payment will come from.

However, I find that even in self-employment, there are always parcels of time, no matter how tiny, that I can use for writing. There are always 15 or 20 minutes here or there where I can turn to fiction. For example, I could knock 15 minutes off my lunch break, and work for 15 minutes extra at the end of the day. Even small amounts of time are useful.

The important thing is developing the mindset of snatching moments when they come. You have to be aggressive and opportunistic about it. It all adds up.

Embrace the Chaos

When I was in full-time employment, ‘routine, routine, routine’ was my writing mantra. There were certain times of the day that I could always set aside for writing.

That’s all gone now. I can’t say for certain that I will be free between 7.30 AM and 8.30 AM (for example). However, working for myself opens up other opportunities. No one can stop me writing a blog at noon on a Wednesday, for example, like I’m doing right now.

In other words, self-employment does take up a lot of time – but it’s your time, and it is possible to find windows.

Remember the Other Benefits

Fiction can pay financially. But it often moves slowly, and there are relatively few people (I believe) who earn enough to make it their full-time job. So devoting time to it gets hard to justify when you, uh, don’t have any time.

However, writing a book has benefits that go beyond the financial side, and which could actually help you in your freelance career, whatever that might be. In fact, it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as something completely separate.

It certainly helped instil a sense of discipline in me, without which I doubt I could ever have made a go of being self-employed in the first place. I’ve also found it to be a great talking point – it’s not something I bring up, but people often find it out about me by researching me online before an interview, for example. It’s a nice icebreaker, and I can flog them books! Mwah ha haaaaaa!

And it’s another string to your bow, at the end of the day.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up  

When I first started writing, I would let one setback affect me badly. Say I missed a week or so writing, I would then end up missing a month, until I managed to get myself back to it. It took a while before I realised there’s no use in beating yourself up: you just need to find a new routine, or learn to adapt.

The worst thing you can do as a writer (or working on any project I suppose) is to allow one setback to derail the whole thing. If you miss a day or two writing, don’t beat yourself up too much over it. Start again tomorrow – when you have time.

And Remember …

 If you really want to be a writer, you have to write, somehow. Unfortunately.

 

 

 

 

Titles, Dates and Low Low Prices!!!

Hello all! I’ve been very slack on the blogging front lately, as I’ve been putting the finishing touches to Book Two. That’s now done and dusted, so here is a quick update on where everything stands (in a bit of a backwards order – due to news value, yeah?)

Book Three

The third book in the trilogy has always seemed a kind of desirable but distant thing, like learning French or retirement or something. Unlike those things, however, it is actually going to happen. I know that for a fact, because it now has a name – The Memory. The meaning of the title will become clearer when people read The Strategist.

The Memory is planned for release in June next year. Book Two took me longer than I initially expected, but I’m much more confident about hitting all the right deadlines on this one, so fingers crossed! Oh and it’s available for pre-order, hint hint.

Book Two

The Strategist is now completely done and dusted and winging its way to an e-bookstore for publication on August 25th, with a paperback coming on January 25th. I agonised over this book so I hope you like it!

Book One 

Where it all began. The critically acclaimed* bestseller**, shortlisted for multiple awards***, is still on sale at the scandalously low prices of 99p on ebook and £8.35 on paperback! At those prices, you should really just buy both, so you can tell your friends you have the complete collection.

 

* By my friends

** As in, the best selling book that I have published

*** Probably, I haven’t checked. That would be crass.

The Strength of Weak Characters

The more work I do on The Machinery trilogy, the more I come to appreciate the weaker characters.

I don’t mean ‘weak’ in terms of physical strength or lack of courage. I mean it in terms of the writing process, or more specifically the planning process. There are certain characters in the book who have developed as the writing went along – I didn’t have a clear view on them beforehand.

In general, I’m not a great planner when it comes to writing: more of a gardener than an architect, to use George RR Martin’s definition. I tend to write out a rough outline of the general twists and turns of the story, and then just get stuck in. In terms of characters, I don’t write potted biographies of them or anything like that; it’s more a case of thinking about them and forming a clear mental picture of what they’re like.

But I don’t even always do that: for some of the characters I might have two or three adjectives I could use to describe them at the beginning of the writing process, and a general idea of what they look like. And that’s it. But they often develop into the characters that interest me the most.

There’s one in particular who has grown on me as I’ve written. This character – Canning – is middle-aged, overweight, and just generally a bit of a mess (and no, it isn’t a self-portrait!). He’s come far in life, though he hates himself: he was Selected by the Machinery, and is convinced that this was somehow a terrible mistake.

When I first started working on The Machinery, he was kind of a bit player. But I grew to like him as time went on. I thought he was interesting: what happens in this society to those who are thrust to the top of the tree, despite having zero confidence in their own abilities? How do they react to that?

I didn’t have as clear a picture of Canning at the beginning of the writing process as I did some of the other characters. But that was a good thing – he was able to evolve naturally, to react to situations as they developed (which can also be a bit chaotic with me!). He is now a major character, and will be a viewpoint character in The Strategist.

One of the things that can be intimidating about fantasy is the sheer effort that goes into developing a whole new world, with its own characters following their own rules etc. I certainly thought this at the beginning. However, I’ve learned that for me at least, it can often be useful to NOT plan out everything, and to just let things develop as they go along.

Sometimes weakness can be a strength. Besides, there’s always the good old delete key if you make a mess.

UPDATE: A quick update on where I am with everything. Book 2 is now set for an August publication. In the meantime, I’m deep into the writing of Book 3, so that should definitely be out next year sometime. This will mean that the writing/publication of the trilogy took place over ten years, pretty much exactly. It doesn’t feel like it took that long!

It will be a strange day when I send in the final copy edits of Book Three, and say goodbye to the whole thing!

 

 

Did I just Create a Dystopia?

 

 

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Totally dystopia-y. Pic by Christian Spies: https://unsplash.com/@seelove

 

Well, did I?

When you write a book, you take a certain view of it. You know what broad genre it slots into, and maybe even the kind of reader you have in mind. What they don’t tell you, however, is that other people will take a view of the book when it’s published, and decide on their own labels for it.

I don’t mean they will decide whether they like it or not (which happens too – imagine, not liking my book!). But they will actually peg a certain box to drop it into, which may not be one you had in mind.

This has probably always been the case, but I think it must be particularly obvious for writers today. These days, people can describe a book online in their own words with great ease. What’s more, they can also tick certain boxes to show what sub-category they see the book belonging to: horror, steampunk, whatever. And what’s more, the sites themselves make their own decisions on where to plonk the book, perhaps using algorithmic hocus-pocus (which is the technical term).

And so it is that you might see certain keywords attached to your book that take you a bit by surprise. Obviously I expected The Machinery to fall under the broad fantasy category, which it has by and large (despite having a bit of a sci-fi element with the Machinery itself). But when I drill down a bit through the categories, I don’t think I ever really saw it as a ‘dystopia’, a word that has been applied to it a few times now in different contexts.

Now, I should firstly say that I can absolutely see where this comes from, and I’m not offended by it. The Machinery and its soon-to-be-published sequels certainly have dark aspects: there’s a lot of political skulduggery, murders, a sense of paranoia that is heightened by the Watchers, a kind of weird police force with magical masks that can see into a person’s soul (plenty of merchandising opportunities there!). But I think I see it as more of a kind of weird fantasy with almost supernatural undertones, rather than a dystopia per se.

The definition of dystopia is “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one”. In my novels, the leaders of society are chosen by a machine, which they never see. However, the vast majority of people see this as a positive: the Machinery has throughout history chosen people who contributed to the success of their country, in terms that mean something to the citizens. That’s not to say they’re all happy: there is a significant body of people called Doubters, who for various reasons don’t support or believe in the Machinery. On balance, though, the Machinery and its selections are seen as being a good thing, and the people are largely happy with their lot.

That’s not to say see it as a good thing. Maybe the difference is that I know where the books are heading: I hope the theme is ultimately positive, emphasising the ability of people to help themselves.

All that being said, I can see why the name is being used: the Machinery is breaking, after all, and there is no doubt the book is on the dark side. The point is not that I disagree with people who call it a dystopia: it’s more that I see it as another example of how an author’s relationship changes with their book when it is published, and people can stick it in whatever box they please. It’s a strange feeling, and one we all have to get used to.

But still – if people are reading it, they can call it what they want!

 

 

The Trouble with Magic

 

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While there are different methods of cataloguing your magic system, this is generally considered the best way. (Photo by https://unsplash.com/@maltebaumann)

 

 

Hero: I cannot fight the evil lord! I am but a humble peasant!

Mysterious Stranger: Ah, but you wield the ancient secret power!

Hero: What is this ancient secret power?

Mysterious Stranger: The ancient secret power stems from ten million years ago, when it was dropped to the world by the old-and-most-likely-gone-forever ones. There are four different aspects of the ancient secret power, which I will now explain to you. The first aspect was discovered …

 

This is an extreme example of something I’ve been trying to avoid. I’m not sure if it affects other fantasy writers, but it has definitely reared its ugly head in my direction: the temptation to create a massive exposition dump, in order to explain the magic system underpinning your world.

This kind of thing can be difficult to avoid. You do need to explain things, after all, and short of incorporating a pull-out-and-keep guide, it has to be worked into the text. Usually one of the characters is learning about the magic system, too, along with the reader, and acting as the reader’s eye on the world. It therefore makes sense that they’re told about it by another, more knowledgeable character. Or perhaps they read about it in a book. At any rate, how do you tell people what’s going on without making it like a textbook? And how much detail is too much? 

This is something I grappled with in writing The Strategist. Without giving too much away, it’s fair to say that Book One did not explore in great detail the magic at the heart of The Machinery. This was deliberate – I’ve written before a few times about how I wanted to keep a certain level of mystery in the first book. Still, it means that Book Two (and Book Three) have a lot of explaining to do.

The challenge stems from the fact that the writer knows more about the magic system than anyone else. How much can you leave to the reader to figure out? How much explanation is too much? It’s a tricky balance to strike.

Much of it comes down to the magic system itself. There needs to be rules, of course. While it is a magic system, and therefore the opposite of reality in many ways, it also needs to have an internal consistency. If you create a character who is so powerful that he or she can literally conjure anything from their fingertips, then there is a danger of undermining the whole narrative – how could they ever be defeated? It’s important to consider points like these, because the reader will.

On the other hand, it’s also important to avoid getting bogged down in rules, and keeping them to a minimum. You could end up confusing yourself, and the reader. It is magic, after all, so it’s good to have a little bit of the unknown at work.

I’m not sure what my conclusion is. Maybe I won’t know till the end of Book Three. I think that ultimately, magic is something that does need to be explained, but that the explanation should also be shown through the narrative, the actions of the characters, etc. It’s just a matter of striking the right balance, so the reader has some idea of what’s going on, without feeling like they’re reading a car manual. What does everyone else think? Any thoughts are very welcome!

Writing Update!

 

Morning all! Once again I look at my last blog post and see it’s been almost three months since I posted anything, which is an absolute disgrace, very ashamed of myself, etc etc …

If it’s any excuse, it’s been a busy three months on the writing front. The Strategist has gone through several revisions, which I think have made it much stronger. The essential story has always been the same, but the challenge has been describing more of the magic system without giving away too much of book three. On top of that, it had an annoying amount of loose threads that needed tightening (or hacked away with scissors). I hope I’ve succeeded at both now; it’s difficult to know!

I’m now working through copy edits from the great people at HarperVoyager, meaning the book is all set for a May publication on ebook, with a print edition coming in November. I’m hoping to turn around the as-yet-untitled-but-probably-set-to-be-titled-very-soon book three much quicker than book two, with a (fingers crossed) aim to have it published in 2018. I think it shouldn’t take as long as the previous book, but then again I said that about book two as well!

I plan to be much more active on the blogging front from now on – coming soon will be a blog on building a magic system (gotta love fantasy!!). Until then, back to copy edits I go …