Thursday, 31 March 2011

My apprenticeship

And the torrent of bloggery continues...

I want to talk a little bit about where and how I've learned whatever writing ability I have. I've been writing a wide variety of stuff for a long time and I don't want people to think that 'Bad Romance' sprung fully-formed from the void. While I've never finished a novel before, I've done plenty of other writing, and that is the only reason I'm even considering publishing BR.

I have, as is the case with many writers, been writing stories for as long as I can remember being able to write. I grew up surrounded by books and stories, and discovered fairly early on that my brain was capable of making up its own stories. My parents still have the Little Red Riding Hood/St.George crossover story somewhere that I wrote aged about six.

I first started taking seriously the prospect of writing when I was about fourteen, and my first efforts were, I suppose, embryonic technothrillers. My biggest influence at the time may well have been Tom Clancy. After plowing that furrow for a year or two, I discovered modern high fantasy writing (primarily in the guise of Raymond E. Feist, Janny Wurts and Robin Hobb). I have several word documents in the 10-to-20-thousand-word range which are the beginnings of novels which resulted from these inspirations, but as I said yesterday, long novels aren't my thing.

Moving on a bit further, I discovered cinema in a big way. I went through most of my childhood and early teens terrified of anything resembling a cinema experience. I'm not altogether sure why, though I still turn into a gibbering wreck if I have to see a horror film, even a fairly tame one like 'Evil Dead 2'. Anyway, in my mid-teens, I discovered that there are films I can quite happily watch. Imitation followed, and I started writing screenplays.

This and a combination of other factors (particularly my discoveries of Dan Simmons and Orson Scott Card) prompted a swing towards sci-fi which has more or less stuck. I did take a crack at a couple of SF novel projects, but I had far more success with screenplays. I've written five, total, of which two were space-opera stuff, two 'gritty' (read: comically over-written) action thrillers, and one semi-autobiographical teen film WHICH WILL NEVER SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY. I sincerely hope.

Of the screenplays, the two sci-fi projects ended up half-decent, if fairly derivative. The important thing to me was that I finished them. I learned a lot about writing along the way - constructing (and blocking out) effective action, appropriate ellipsis, and how to show character through dialogue being the biggest lessons. I highly recommend trying your hand at screenwriting if you aspire to be any kind of story-writer, for precisely this reason. (Quick plug: make it a challenge, try Script Frenzy in April!)

It was around this time, too, that I started having to do lots of essay-writing, for school and then for university. I discovered I have a knack for it. I got through my undergrad degree primarily on the strength of my academic writing ability - I certainly didn't do much in the way of reading, revising or paying attention in lectures (our main lecture room is kinda hot and stuffy - I fell asleep in a lot of lectures, sometimes in the front row). Again, I highly recommend learning how to do academic writing, and specifically academic philosophical writing.

Writing philosophy is all about being clear and concise. It's about picking words that not only mean the right thing, but that will make your reader understand the right thing. It's about communicating as clearly and smoothly as possible, with no interruptions to the reader's train of thought - sound familiar? There's a real craft to contemporary philosophical writing, and learning it has massively enhanced my ability to pick the right word, not to mention trained my thinking habits to far higher levels of precision and given me the foundation for writing such conceptual novels.

The third big factor in my writing experience is my webcomics. Now, I don't think I've done a particularly good job, overall, of writing webcomics. I'm bad at writing humour and I'm bad at structuring around a punchline. I have, however, learned how to use visuals, how to construct subtle character undercurrents, and had a lot of practice writing explanatory and expository dialogue. I've also, among other things, learnt not to plan the main plot points of a story while severely feverish (and that purple dancing wombats make tricky villains to use effectively).

By the way, if a picture is worth a thousand words, the webcomics alone are worth several million words of practice - not that my drawing is good enough to generate 1000-word pictures ;D

Anyway, that sort of brings us up to date. I haven't had a lot of training in writing prose fiction, which is where - if anywhere - I fall down, but I've had a lot of practice of storytelling and good prose writing. I would like to take a moment to mention Writing Excuses, a how-to-write podcast I've been listening to religiously for most of the last three years, which is one of my main sources of information on how to write. I'm open to suggestions for other essential advice on the writing side of the business.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Brevity is the soul of wit

Or at least, I hope it is. My novels are short. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and I thought I'd go into some of them. Why do this now? As with the rest of this week's theme, I'm trying to forestall criticism that I'm being naive in writing novels this short. It's a deliberate choice, and I have reasons for making it. Maybe, in this case, I'm being paranoid, but I know that NaNoWriMo is sometimes criticised for suggesting that 50,000 words constitutes a novel, and as a proud NaNoer, I don't want to give the impression that I've accepted that suggestion unquestioningly.

The simple truth, really, is that many of my favourite novels are short. I've even read novels I've greatly enjoyed that were under 50,000 words long (I'll admit that these were mostly children's novels). Some of the best examples of great short novels, in my experience, come from Arthur C. Clarke, one of my literary heroes. I've been reading Clarke's novels since a very early age, starting with the excellent YA 'Islands in the Sky', and including minor classics like 'Earthlight' and 'A Fall of Moondust' (all under 70,000 words). I don't have a copy to hand to check, but I'm also pretty sure I remember 'Rendezvous with Rama' being around the 60,000-word mark, and that's a novel I can't think of any way to improve. I love these books, and one of the things I most love about them is their efficiency in storytelling - they are all very focussed books which fit a lot into their length.

I was stunned, on recently rereading it, to discover that 'Ender's Game' is around 130,000 words long. I have always thought it read very like those earlier Clarke novels for reasons of the same efficiency, but I guess it gains length from going through several seperate and distinct scenarios over the course of a four-year (?) core plot. The best of Clarke's stories, I think, are those which focus on a single scenario - Rama, or the sunken hovercraft in 'A Fall of Moondust'. That was the effect I was aiming for with 'The Death of John Collins' - the whole story takes place in the course of a single afternoon, a single large crisis folding back on itself several times.

The situation with 'Bad Romance' is slightly different - with that book, I've used brevity to show how the lead character detaches from his 'real' (offline) life - more and more time is elided as the novel goes on and Joe retreats from the world.

There are other, more cynical reasons for writing short novels. If nothing else, I finish short novels. When I used to aspire to writing epic fantasy, I never came close to finishing anything - the end was just too far off to keep my hope of finishing alive, particularly since I'm quite easily distracted over long periods of time. I think I'm temperamentally unsuited to writing really long books - I can keep my interest up in a project for a long time, provided the actual first-drafting process doesn't take too long. I hope I'll be able to change this fact about myself eventually, but for now I'm happy to write short books.

It's tempting to crack wise about a good reason for writing short books being that I make more money per word, but also facile. The reward for writing is writing itself; I see the money as a separate (though far from insignificant) issue. The buzz of finishing a novel, which I will get more often writing four short novels a year than one long one, is a different matter, and I'm happy to work towards as much of that buzz as I can, but again, it's not the main motivating factor.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: writing short books, you have to be very mindful of the efficiency of your prose. You have to make every word pull its weight - above its weight, if possible. You have to weed out all the clunky, inefficient phrases, the excess description, the needless lists of three... (oops) Writing short books is a challenge I relish and feeds my need to complete things, but it also results in better writing and the opportunity to write more - and therefore a wider range - of books.

And, in the interests of keeping this brief, I'll stop there for now.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Not yet... nooooot yet....

I swear I'm not planning to blog every day forever. I'm just setting out my starting position in chunks as manageable as I can manage. If I discover I've got enough material to blog everyday, great, I'll keep it up, but somehow I doubt it.

A lot of these initial posts are probably going to sound quite defensive (I know the last two have). This has to do, mainly, with my mother, who's in the bad habit of assuming that I rush senselessly into everything I do, particularly if it's something she disapproves of (for example, diverting time and effort away from my PhD research to pursue a career as a novellist). What I want to establish, more than anything else, is that I'm not rushing in, and that I've heard - and listened to - most of the common arguments and problems faced by new ebook authors. I know I can't just photoshop together a cover. I know I can't expect to sell like Amanda Hocking. I know that getting published - by any means - doesn't mean instantly making a living.

I'm not self-publishing because I believe any of the 'miracle myths' about it. I'm self-publishing because I believe that conventional publishing no longer has any right to behave as a gatekeeper to publication. I'm self-publishing because I want the only condition of my success, ultimately, to be my ability to write books that people like me want to read.

Which brings me (finally - sorry!) to the topic of this post: the reason I didn't start my sell-a-thousand-books challenge now. November 1st is a slightly arbitrary date, but I know that it's going to take me at least six months to get 'Bad Romance' and 'The Death of John Collins' ready for publication. The professional authors who I've read on the subject have seemed to agree that it takes at least six months to take a book from completed first draft to self-publication. Given that I'm probably not as good (yet) and certainly not as experienced, I know I need a bit longer than that to get things ready - factoring in that 'Bad Romance' has existed since late November and 'Collins' since January, and I've been working on polishing both of them since, I hope that that 10-12 months is going to be long enough.

The reason I picked November 1st, by the way, is that it's the start of NaNoWriMo. There are sentimental reasons for this - mainly that NaNo 2010 represented the rebirth of my love of writing, so the start of NaNo 11 is a kind of birthday for it - but there are also practical reasons. Firstly, my plan is to write the first sequel to 'Collins' for NaNo 11, and secondly, NaNo is an opportunity to meet other writers and therefore an opportunity to network a bit. I can see both of these things being good for drawing attention and building presence, provided I'm careful (and yes, I know that during NaNo people are going to be focussed on their own writing. Doesn't mean that any of us can afford to slack off on networking/self-promotion).

I want to go into a bit of detail about the current state of play with both novels, and sketch out a program of what remains to be done with them.

I finished the first draft of 'Bad Romance' last November and immediately asked for some alpha readers. One of the first people to answer was an acquaintance from the local NaNo chapter, who it turns out does some freelance editing work. She offered to give the book a full thorough going-over, and, not one to turn down free professional services, I accepted. A series of disasters have meant that I'm still awaiting her feedback, but it's now due very soon, and that's going to form the basis of a full revision on the novel.

The revised novel will go to beta readers as soon as possible and I'll carry on refining over the summer. The big issue with BR is figuring out how to position it from a marketing standpoint. It's at best a very idiosyncratic novel - part romance, part philosophy of aesthetics and (however obscurely) the start of a sci-fi epic. Obviously, it will be difficult to decide on a cover and marketing copy until I've reached a decision on that front; this will be a major secondary goal of the beta-reading process.

'The Death of John Collins' has already had one thorough prose edit, and hefty redrafting on the first couple of chapters, though it needs a good deal more. There's a section early in act 2 which needs a huge amount of work, and my last beta wasn't completely comfortable with the ending, and probably a hundred smaller things. I have another beta in progress at the moment, but I'm contemplating getting a professional edit on the whole thing - I have a little bit of money which could go towards this purpose.

'Collins' is easier to position than BR - I think it more or less fits a 'hard sci-fi' label, and I think if I market it as such it will stand up. I don't think it's necessarily typical hard sci-fi, in that the 'hard' ideas in it are more philosophical/metaphysical than physical, but it takes its concepts systematically and seriously. The challenges with 'Collins' are getting the book up to scratch - I think it probably needs more work overall than BR - and networking with the right people. I don't really know who's writing in hard SF at the moment or what sort of stuff they're writing. Finding similar authors to cross-promote with is obviously going to be a huge part of any indie marketing strategy, and that's going to require me doing some serious leg-work.

Obviously, 'Collins' is going to need a cover and blurb too, but these aren't such complicated tasks - a cover is a matter of finding and paying the right artist, and developing an intelligible concept, and I hope I'll be able to find someone willing to help me learn the art of blurb writing. I'm not dismissing the tasks or their importance, but getting the books into position and polished to standard is the first concern.

My resources for the task are primarily my intelligence and enthusiasm. I have a little bit of money stashed, as I mentioned, which I may be able to use for the purpose of buying an edit for 'Collins' and paying cover artists, but everything else is going to have to come by wit and the generosity of friends and strangers.

I know I've got a mountain to climb, but seven months should give me time to give it a serious go.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Modest Goals

I don't want anyone to think I decided to self-publish because I believed it was an instant route to Amanda-Hocking-sized sales. If nothing else, I'm writing much more niche-y novels. I'm also expecting that by the time I actually publish (once again, the target date is November 1st), the market will be a lot more crowded than it was when Ms. Hocking started up.

My goal for my first year of publishing (1st November 2011-31st October 2012) is to sell a thousand novels, total. I don't know how realistic that expectation is. My gut says that a thousand novels will be enough to require me to do a lot of promotional work, but not so many that it'll require large quantities of good luck. If everyone tells me that a thousand novels is nothing, even for a starting writer in a niche market, I'll scale up.

I'm planning to aim for a pricing strategy where I make £1 per novel sold. 1000 novels means £1000. £1000 means an extra £20 a week. This might not sound like much, but I'm living on about £5000 a year at the moment, and after rent and bills, an extra £20 per week sounds like luxury.

If people think it sounds like too many sales to hope for, well, it's not all coming from one book. As I mentioned yesterday, I'm hoping to start by publishing two books, 'Bad Romance' and 'The Death of John Collins'. Both of these books are the first installments in series (I'll go into this in more detail soon, but not today). I'm planning to write the follow-up to Bad Romance this summer, with the goal of publishing it around January 2012, and the sequel to Collins for NaNoWriMo 2011, with a view to publishing in about April of next year.

That means four books, so we're already down to 250 copies per book. I may just about be able to find time to write the third and final Collins book in time to get it out later in 2012 and score some sales off that. Selling sequels should - one hopes - be easier than selling first books, too. All I have to do on that front is make the first books good, and I've got seven months left to do that in.

So, here's a break-down of targets for the next 19 months:

1> Write 'The Earth Trembles', the follow-up to 'Bad Romance'. July 2011
2> Publish 'Bad Romance' and 'The Death of John Collins'. 1st November 2011
3> Write 'The Dimension of Freedom', the sequel to 'The Death of John Collins'. November 2011
4> Publish 'The Earth Trembles'. First quarter 2012
5> Publish 'The Dimension of Freedom'. Second quarter 2012
6> Write the third Collins book. Second quarter 2012
7> (possibly) Publish the third Collins book. Third quarter 2012
8> Sell a thousand copies of my novels. 31st October 2012

Plenty to keep me busy (never mind the fact that my band are hoping to hit the studio in about September to record a new EP, or that I'm trying to write a PhD and stay alive). My immediate priorities are research and outlining for 'The Earth Trembles' and comprehensive editing and betaing for 'Bad Romance' and 'The Death of John Collins'.

I think that's about all for today. Let me know if you think my targets are set too low! ;D

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Remember It's the Future

EDIT: this post refers extensively to the original title of my blog, which includes an ableist slur. I apologise for any hurt caused by my poor choice of title.

I've been telling myself this for a while now (hello, by the way). It's the future, stupid. Without wanting to be trite, we - those of us lucky enough to be born in rich, western, industrialised nations, anyway - live in a world where we can pull a gizmo out of our pockets and be talking to the entire world in seconds. It's not the flying car, but it is the future.

And yet, here I am, in 2011, without even a blog of my own. I only started using Twitter late last year. Time for a change.

On which note, let me introduce myself. My name is Rik. I am a writer (note: not aspiring). Thus far, I've written two novels, and this blog exists for me to tell the story of my adventures as I move towards self-publishing them as e-books. I'm intending - hoping - to publish both this November 1st, which gives me, as of this post, 214-and-a-bit days (seven months) to get them ready.

The title of the blog comes because, well, of course I'm e-self-publishing. It's the future, stupid. Many people better-informed and more experienced than me have written copiously about the advantages to a 'new' writer (I've been writing, in various forms, for almost a decade) of e-publishing and self-publishing - I'm currently reading J.A.Konrath's blog archive on the topic (at a newbie's guide to publishing), which covers it all brilliantly. I don't pretend to be an expert on the topic - the main thing I plan on doing for the next seven months is learning what I need to know.

I'm not an expert on blogging, either. In fact, I consider myself an expert at very little (which will come as a surprise to anyone who's met me in person ¬_¬). Here is a list of the things I consider myself an expert at: 1. the philosophy of John Foster (on which I wrote my MA thesis two years ago), the history of idealism within modern philosophy (which I'm currently researching for my PhD, and only consider myself an expert on relative to the average among English philosophers, most of whom don't care about it), and the life and works of Rik Davnall (that's me).

On everything else, I'm prepared to learn. When it comes to writing, e-publishing, self-publishing and related disciplines, I'm also willing and eager to learn. If you think I'm making a mistake, TELL ME. A man is better protected by an honest stranger than a friend's white lie.

I wanted to get that out of the way because I'm sometimes accused of talking as if I know everything about everything. Consider this a promise to at least try to remain humble. If I break it, pelt me with things. Preferably soft, non-messy things, at least on a first offence.

A bit more detail about me: I'm 23, currently reading for my PhD in philosophy, with the title 'Phenomenalism and Quantum Theory', at the University of Liverpool, England. I live on Penny Lane (about a hundred yards from the barber's shop from the song, which is still open). In addition to novels, I write and draw two webcomics, play drums in a local progressive hard-rock band, grapple regularly with a crippling videogame-and-candy addiction, and play ragtime piano whenever I can. I earn my keep as a teaching assistant at Liverpool's philosophy department and doing support work, mainly as an amanuensis, for students.

Having spent my childhood reading voraciously, it first occurred to me that I could maybe make some money writing when I was about 14. Now, I'm not saying that no 14-year-old can make some money writing, but I certainly couldn't. My first offerings were predictably awful. Still, I enjoyed it, so I kept plugging away at it, and things slowly improved. I've still not made any money from any of it, but at least there are a few bits from back then I can still look at with some pride.

After struggling with trying to write epic fantasy novels for a few years (I don't really have - or wasn't willing to learn - the patience), I tried my hand at screenplays and found it much more to my liking. I've written five screenplays, two of which ended up, after copious re-drafting, almost good. I even found the confidence to send a few things to agents - though, given that I was about 17 at the time, it should come as no surprise that all I collected were polite nos.

Again, not saying you can't succeed with a screenplay aged 17, but I couldn't.

And just when things were starting to look up for my writing ability, I started two webcomics and university, all in the space of about three months. Webcomic writing is a great writing exercise and webcomics are a great form, but they take up a LOT of time. The same goes for essay-writing at university (and in philosophy, it's all essays). As a result, I didn't do a lot of other writing.

Fast-forward five years, to the start of the second year of my PhD. I was sick of the PhD and the webcomics were running into the ground. As October ground on, a crazy novel idea occurred to me. A few days later, I realised that NaNoWriMo 2010 was just around the corner. I've always wanted to do NaNo (any NaNoer worth their salt will recognise the irony in this), and I had a 'what the hell' moment and signed up.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions I've made. I hit my 50,000 words in just under 8 days, thanks to fierce but friendly competition, and eventually finished the novel at 67,000 words about 10 days later. 'Bad Romance' was the result - a love story about pretending to be a girl online to woo a lesbian pop-star you've fallen in love with (yes, I do plan on coming up with better marketing copy before trying to sell it).

I liked the whole experience so much, I did it again the following month, writing the 61,000-word 'The Death of John Collins' in 20 days over my Christmas holiday (one advantage of student life is the long holidays). 'Collins' is much more like my preferred oeuvre, being a sci-fi thriller-cum-disaster-story about the collapse of time itself. It's based on a short story I submitted as coursework for my Master's degree - my subject is occasionally that awesome.

'Bad Romance' notwithstanding, I see myself as a sci-fi writer. Most of the ideas in my notebook are overtly sci-fi (or at least 'futuristic fantasy'). I want to write books that use my philosophical skills as well as whatever writing skills I have, and sci-fi is probably the most philosophical of genres (unless Sartre, Camus et al count as genre writers). Plus, y'know, laser guns are cool.

Actually, I consider 'Bad Romance' sci-fi, in the loose sense of the term. Partly because it notionally belongs to a series whose other installments reach far into the future and engage with many of the great issues of science fiction, but that's not the main reason. The main reason is that a lot of it takes place in a virtual realm supported by a world-wide network across which vast quantities of data can be shared near-intantly.

Yes, I do mean the internet. As I keep telling myself, it's the future, stupid.