Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Nobody knows anything!

To call the feedback I got from my first two beta readers for Heaven Can Wait 'glowing' would be putting it mildly. I knew while I was writing it that I was on to something good, but even my most optimistic self-appraisal was outdone by those responses. I blogged here about dealing with that (very pleasant) surprise and the need to get other opinions.

The process of additional feedback is now pretty much complete. I've had three other detailed responses to the book, and a few bits and bobs from a couple of other people. All three have been less positive. My mother sent me a long email explaining how a couple of scenes were 'terrible' (her exact word - never let anyone tell you you can never trust your parents to be critical!), and listing several other problems, though when pressed she admitted she'd enjoyed the book as a whole. I took on board all but one of mum's criticisms, because all the novels that have been big influences on Heaven Can Wait have been books I've borrowed from her - she knows the genre very well.

A close friend (and, to a lesser extent, his girlfriend) who's a big reader of fantasy but not a writer brought up one stylistic problem - I have a tendency to write the early parts of my books a bit like scripts, with long passages of dialogue that need breaking up - and raised some issues over character motivations that needed clarifying in the climax. Those changes went in pretty much as requested because when I looked over the bits that were mentioned, I could clearly see the flaws highlighted. He clearly enjoyed it immensely, though, because he won't stop pestering me for a look at Some Kind of Angel (I'm enough of a gitwizard to have asked him to wait until the second draft).

The third response came from a friend who is a writer, who's read the latest draft. By the standards of the other responses I've had, it has been catastrophic. She found my characters flat, my environments blank and the amount of dialogue overwhelming. It's almost impossible for me to believe she read the same book as my first two readers, particularly given that the main focus of the changes over the last two drafts has been breaking up the dialogue and adding detail to the environments.

Can all five readers be right? I think it's impossible for any of them to be wrong, as it happens. When a reader gives you their response to something, you have to accept it - they can't be wrong about their response. But what the example shows is that you can't please all of the people all of the time. I am in the process of going through the book again looking for obnoxiously long passages of dialogue and blank rooms, but I'm not looking very hard - I've more than satisfied 80% of my readers so far (statistics are fun, aren't they?), so it can't be that bad.

One of the things I found really hard to deal with about this last response was that a lot of what I was told went against my instincts as a writer. The reader in question really knows her stuff, so I'm prepared to let my instincts be challenged, but it shook me so much that I actually went back and looked at some of my favourite books to actually study what worked for me as a reader.

Let's just say I won't be recommending many of my favourite books to this reader. The first book I picked up was Dan Simmons' 'The Fall of Hyperion', one of my two or three favourite books I've ever read. I opened it at random and found myself in one of my favourite chapters... and the chapter in question is almost entirely dialogue for about ten pages, with a few action tags, and almost no setting. Granted, it's a confrontational, highly-charged scene, but of the scenes I looked at it was the one I found most exciting.

It's a bit of an extreme example, too; the other scenes I looked at (one from 'The Ships of Merior' by Janny Wurts, one from 'Lord of Chaos' by Robert Jordan, and one from 'The Name of the Wind' by Patrick Rothfuss) were more balanced, but all of them, consistently, went against the piece of advice I'd been most suspicious of - mixing environment description in with the dialogue.

The point I'm getting at is NOT that the reader in question was wrong. I know this person wouldn't lie to me and I trust her judgement, but I think her tastes and mine probably overlap a lot less than I thought. There's no point my trying to write a book which does things differently to the books I'm really passionate about - how could I find enough passion to do a good job of it? - but that does mean that people who like different books, who are passionate about different things in writing, aren't going to be able to help me write a book I am passionate about as much as people who share my tastes are.

The title of this blog post is a bit facetious - it's not that nobody knows anything, it's that when it comes to writing advice, two people can disagree and still both be right. Sometimes you have to go with your own passions and make your own judgements.

(A quick thank-you to James Tallett for setting my head straight on this issue while I was still reeling from the critique).

I am still hoping to publish 'Heaven Can Wait' sometime this week, but I doubt it will be out by Thursday, which I was originally aiming for. Soon, though.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

It's about passion, not money. Or else.

Time for another angry blog post about greedy writers!

I may have mentioned that I used to write and draw webcomics (a few of which are still available in various forgotten corners of the internet - don't bother, though, because I was never very good. Prose writing suits me a lot better). I'm pretty well-acquainted with the webcomics business model - to whatever extent it is a business. I've said before I think there are lessons in it for writers in the ebook age. Here's one of them:

Human psychology does not suit treating transient experiences as capitalised commodities.

By which I mean, consumers aren't going to see ebooks as something they should pay for. Ebooks, like webcomics and webcartoons, are transient in that there's no physical object involved. The supply isn't limited; the 200-odd kilobytes of my novel on your Kindle's hard drive can be copied endlessly and without cost. There's effectively no overhead when you sell an ebook (there's Amazon's web hosting and bandwidth costs, but divide whatever they pay for those by the number of ebook sales and you'll get a very small number).

This means that, however strongly some writers feel they should be paid for their books, reader - consumer - psychology is pushed in a 'this shouldn't cost anything' direction. And that means we're fighting an up-hill battle to get them to pay for ebooks.

Where do webcomics come into this? Most webcomics are available for free. And yet, webcomic creators with enough passion, ability and work ethic can make a living at it, despite a much smaller consumer base than is open to ebooks.

How do the top webcomickers make their money? Hard-copy sales and merchandising. Concrete, tangible, non-transient stuff that their fans can't deny the commodity status of. People like Howard Tayler, Jeph Jaques and Fred Gallagher sell thousands of books every time they release a new collection (if I had the money, I would be among those buying - I already own five MegaTokyo collections*). They sell T-shirts, spin-offs and toys. They make family-supporting incomes. Full-time-job type incomes. Yes, they work full-time at it, but you know what? I like the idea of working full-time at writing.

* If you're about to judge me for reading MegaTokyo, then screw you, you sneering webcomic nerd. Screw you right out the door, down the hill, and dump you in the river. I like the characters and I'm sick of people telling me I'm somehow 'wrong' if I still like MegaTokyo (/rant)

For those of you about to point out that lots of webcartoonists don't make that kind of money, I KNOW. I'm getting to that. After all, I ran a webcomic for five and a half years. At a conservative estimate, I put something like 2,500 hours of work into it in that time. That's about ten hours a week, almost all of it drawing time. I made one attempt to get some money out of it, and made £5, before Paypal's cut. If I'd been prepared to put in twenty-five to thirty hours every week, including a whole bunch of promotional activity, then even with my weak grasp of the serial comic form and my wildly inconsistent artistic skill, I bet I could have bolstered my income quite a bit. I might even have found a decent niche for myself, got a stable fan-base going and turned it into a job.

Why didn't I? Partly it was a confidence thing. Mainly it was about passion, though; I cared about telling the story, not about getting it read. I didn't care enough about doing webcomics as a career choice that I was prepared to put in the hours to make it a career, when there were other things I was also passionate about. And when my passion for the story ran out, I stopped.

My point, ultimately, is this: Very few, if any, of the webcomics that are making money at the moment, started because people thought of webcomics as a way of making money. Most of them started because people were interested in the possibilities of the internet for playing host to sequential art and had an idea they wanted to try. People start webcomics out of passion and capitalise the process - make it a career - as and when they can.

I believe very strongly that the ebook revolution means we prose authors are in the same boat. We should be. It's nothing to fear - there are far more book readers than webcomic readers, and just as free webcomics get a lot more pageviews than paid-for dead tree comics, free ebooks are going to get looked at by a lot more people; free ebooks will expand the reader pool even further than ebooks already promise too. More people reading is a good thing in a transcendental sort of sense, but it also increases the likelihood of you finding readers so well-suited to your work that they can be persuaded to buy a hard-copy, and a poster, and a mug and so on.

I've seen a number of people expressing horror at the thought of giving their books away for free, wailing and gnashing their teeth at the world because their book should be 'worth something'. Well, I've already said that the value of a book to its author is the time spent writing it, not any amount of money it might happen to bring in. Looking at it from the other side, the value of a book to the reader is how much time they spend reading it and how much they enjoy that time - also not the money they spend on it. When you make your book available, you're asking readers to invest time in it. It might be time they're going to enjoy, but neither you nor they can know that. So I would argue that you can't know the cash 'value' of your book, and neither can a reader, until after they've read it (and yes, all of it. Samples are usually deceptive in some way or other).

The way I look at it is this: I'm not going to put time into reading your book unless I think you wrote it out of passion for the story, characters etc. This is because if you don't have a passion for your work, I don't trust you to have put in the effort to make reading it worth my time.

And if you wrote it out of passion, then I believe you'd have written it anyway, regardless of any possible financial return. So why not make it available and see if it inspires the same passion in me? If it does, and you offer me a well-produced hardcopy that'll look good on my shelf and remind me of time well spent on a good read, I'll probably buy it (financial woes notwithstanding). There's a thick strain of pack-rat/nostalgia/trophy-collecting in most human beings. If you can inspire in your readers the same passion for your work that you have, that's a rich vein for you to tap. And if you can't, do you really deserve to make any money?

I still get a red mist when I see authors saying 'If I can't make [some particular amount of money] at my writing, I'll stop.' When I see an author saying that, I mark them down as one to avoid, because anyone who thinks like that clearly doesn't care enough about their actual writing to do a good job of it.

With all creative endeavours, the only reason to do them is passion. If you just want to make a living, any other job is better. Making a living in the creative industries is always going to involve a huge quantity of work, a large part of which you will have to do before seeing a cent in return. If you can't do that start-up work for the love, you'll be wasting your time, doubly so because you'll probably be crap at it and get nowhere.

I've mentioned, I think, that I'm in a band. We do a fair number of gigs. Our last two and our next two, like many that we play, are free. We won't make any money, the venues will only make money at the bar. But we get to play to a bunch of people, some of whom won't have seen us before. That's a feeling and an experience I really love. I do it out of passion. As a result, I look like I'm having a good time on stage. I feel good, so I put positive energy into my performance. That translates into a good performance that people will enjoy.

You can tell the bands who've set out to make a living at their music. On-stage, they're leaden and stiff. Uninteresting. Watching them, you get a sense that they're holding you in contempt, because your only value to them is how much money you've paid. Off-stage, they tend to be rude and condescending.

Of course, most if not all of them fail. The bands that succeed are the ones that play for the love, that don't make a chore out of something that should be joyous, that don't hold their fans in contempt. The bands that succeed are the ones that look forward to their next opportunity to interact with their fans through their music, who welcome their audiences. Yes, they'll be commercially conscientious, but not at the expense of blaming their fans for not paying enough.

I'm banging on this theme of passion so much, by the way, because this is my basic point. Write for the love. Show your work to the world for the love. Only that love can drive you to do good enough work to inspire the passion in others that will get them to give you financial support. And once you have good work, thanks to that love, have faith in its ability to inspire others.

That could be my conclusion, but there's a little bit more to be said. A caveat to deliver. The caveat is this: one of the reasons the ebook revolution is so inviting to authors is that the initial outlay is a lot less than in other publishing streams. It costs basically nothing to upload an ebook to Kindle. Maybe you want to pay for a cover or some editing, but that's about it.

Going back to webcomics, the situation is similar; there are a few big webcomic networks that run free hosting for new comics. You can start a webcomic with only the expense of drawing materials.

Unfortunately the kind of merchandising that drives the careers of the big webcomics - and I am suggesting will do the same for authors - has up-front costs. Webcomic authors have various ways of dealing with this, from asking for donations to pre-order systems, to a sort of incremental approach where you start with cafepress and work up the quality and profit-margin scales from there. My perception of the business is that the more start-up money you have, the better your profit margin will be overall.

I haven't done any particular research into the various ways of producing hardcopy books, but I'm pretty sure that a commissioned print run is going to give you a better profit margin than print-on-demand, and the larger the print run, the better the margin. Where's the money coming from? Particularly for someone like me, who can barely afford a professional cover?

To that end, I'm willing to accept a certain amount of charging for ebooks. Charge low prices, flog a bunch of copies and build up your start-up money. That's what I'm planning to do with 'Heaven Can Wait' and its sequels. For the time being, it's possible to make money by this route.

If that's a success, though, you can expect most of the rest of my writing to be available for free. Doesn't mean I won't put ebooks on sale, necessarily (particularly as long as Amazon won't allow authors to Kindle their books for free), but it'll be available for free, formatted properly for the major e-readers. I'll make my money on hardcopies and merchandise.

And if I can't make enough money that way to live on? Well, that will show, clearly and irrefutably, the value and quality of my writing; it will show exactly how much passion I've been able to inspire in my readers.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

F**k tha police? F**k everyone.

I was trying to ignore the riots. I really was. But then my parents had the news on the radio over dinner this evening, and after half an hour of listening to it, I burst into tears. Proper, gut-wrenching sobbing.

I don't really know why. Obviously, I'm angry (hence the title - for which, in this one case, I make no apology). Angry at my countrymen, at my generation, at the politicians who are supposed to represent me and particularly at the sneering, vapid, tedious media. I'm also afraid; much more afraid than I'd realised. On Tuesday night I looked at a live map of the rioting that someone had put together, and one of the events marked was a fire at a shop I've walked past a few times, about two miles from where I live. Very much nearer to where some friends of mine live.

Ultimately, though, I think I cried out of internal conflict. Before I explain that, let me make one thing clear: I in no way condone or support the rioters. These riots are unconscionable events, the more so now that murder has started to be part of it.

I despise violence in all instances (particularly the rare occasions where my temper gets the better of me and I lash out, usually at Mariokart). I have endeavoured to live my life according to Salvor Hardin's aphorism 'Violence is the last resort of the incompetent.' ('Foundation' by Isaac Asimov, as if you needed to know), and to treat those who resort to violence as incompetent - i.e. to hold them in contempt unless it can be demonstrated that their incompetence is not their fault. So, I hold these rioters in contempt.

And yet, as several people have pointed out, the young people doing the rioting have no hope for the future and nothing to lose; there are not now, nor are there ever likely to be, jobs for them, because Britain simply cannot support enough jobs to go round and they will never have the money to go abroad for work. And since the government and the establishment of this country seem to take long-term joblessness as irrefutable evidence of failure as a human being, that means that the gates of society are closed to these people.

So, does that make them incompetent to refrain from violence? The obvious answer - that violence is a choice that can be discarded - though true hides a subtle and desperately important psychological question about the human basic need to be part of a community. I take it as fundamental to my understanding of human nature and thus to my writing that human beings are social animals; one cannot be fully human unless one exists in a society, and to be trapped in scorn and exclusion is, basically, a psychological injury.

Are we, then, talking about diminished responsibility due to a kind of insanity? I refuse to go that far. Particularly after hearing some of the rioters trotting out the usual, tedious and disgraceful argument that immigrants (Polish people seemed to be the preferred objects of hate) have taken all the jobs.

No, to make sense of things I'm going to have to embrace a paradox and say that for any action, it is possible for two separate people to be wholly responsible for that action. So on the one hand, the rioters are completely responsible for the riots, but so is the society that created the anger, disillusionment, exclusion and greed that drives them.

The riots are an indictment not just of the rioters but of the entirety of UK society (which itself is a part of global society, but we'll leave that aside for not). That's a society of which I am - however reluctantly - a member. As such, let me be among the first (and I certainly haven't heard many others yet) to apologise for my part in what's happened.

For every time I looked nervously at a hoodie on the bus. For every time I sneered at a news story. For every time I didn't sweat blood over an opportunity to change the system, or the political landscape, or just brighten someone else's day. For every time I assumed it wouldn't be so bad, or it would get better before it got too bad (and for every time I spouted a platitude like this sentence).

But all any of that would have done would be to clear my conscience. I guess I'm crying because I feel like I could have done more, but I'm also crying because I don't believe it would have made any difference if I had - which was probably my justification for not doing more in the first place.

If nothing else, I understand the feeling of powerlessness that must be subconsciously driving a lot of this unrest. I have a degree and a master's, I'm on my way to a PhD, and I'm still not guaranteed a job in the current climate, and if I do get one it will be a miserable thing. Writing and music give me hope, but the basis of my writing and music is my parents' relative wealth that meant they could provide me an education which created those loves in me. Take those away from me and I'd probably get violent too.

This is getting trite. I'm not trying to write an essay on how we should all sympathise with the disenfranchised youth.

What I'm saying is that we shouldn't let the politicians, the media, the smug neo-liberal intellectuals and most especially the business tycoons who really run things off the hook just because we have a whole bunch of proles to sneer at and lock up.

Here's the thing that really worries me; our Prime Minister, earlier today, used the phrase 'phoney concerns about human rights' (referring to obstacles to getting rioters convicted). Now, I have no doubt that any concern Mr. Cameron might express for human rights would indeed be phoney. But I worry that the riots will be used as an excuse for a whole lot of really damaging governmental behaviour and take too much attention away from where it really belongs - on the prominent and powerful who have shaped the society that has made these events close to inevitable.

Yes, the rioters could have decided not to riot, but only by accepting that there is nothing else they could do. And the society that condemns these kids for not doing anything needs to realise that many of them are doing the only thing they can - congratulations, you got what you wanted. They did something.

Lock up the rioters. But fix the society while they're inside.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Some Kind of Success

Obviously, I've not been affected by Liverpool's bout of riots, though we've had mercifully little of it compared to other British cities and it's all been a few miles away from me. The worst I've got is a profound sense of disgust with the entire socio-political landscape of this miserable country.

But that's a different blog post. This blog post is where I've been for the last two weeks. I've been writing 'Some Kind of Angel', the sequel to 'Heaven Can Wait', and I've finished the first draft. In the name of odious self-congratulation, that's a 65,500-word novel in a few hours over 13 days.

It needs at least one polish before I send it out to betas, and I'm not sure the first act doesn't need a bit of rocket fuel, but overall I'm pleased with the book. It's more complicated than everything else I've written, it's the first novel I've written from a detailed and thorough outline (which helped a lot, despite the fact that I deviated from the outline to the tune of 10-15,000 words), and I think the good bits are the best stuff I've yet written.

Writing at this level of intensity has been a weird experience, though. Sort of like NaNoWriMo, but without the camaraderie and support. It made good training for NaNo (I'll be writing the third book of the trilogy, 'Don't Fear The Reaper', for NaNo this year, and hoping to finish in even fewer days), but it was a brutal and life-consuming thing. I did manage to fulfil my obligations to my band, and complete Mariokart Wii, but that's about it. No blogging (I still haven't accepted my blog award from Kathleen Doyle - I'll get to it in the next few days, I swear!). No time with friends; even my housemates haven't seen a lot of me. I didn't even know there was rioting going on until last night (eerily, I burnt down half the city of Cohlin in the finale of 'Some Kind of Angel', and half a dozen hours later London was burning... Good job correlation doesn't imply causality, too, 'cuz there's lots of fire planned for 'Don't Fear the Reaper').

Would I do it again, NaNo notwithstanding? It would depend on the circumstances. This happened because I had a 2-week spell where I've been in Liverpool between two 1-week spells of house-sitting for my parents. I used the first of those to sort out and finish my outline, and I'm going home tomorrow to start my editing (maybe after a couple more days' rest). I knew I wouldn't be doing much socialising in this period anyway; I don't have much of a social life and a few of my friends are away at the moment. I haven't really had much in the way of obligations, apart from the band. It was a good time to write and, even when the going was tough, I enjoyed it a lot. I like to focus really tightly when I'm working, to the point of spending every waking hour (apart from Mariokart time) thinking about it.

So yes, I'd do it again, but only as long as I'm still a hopeless shut-in ;)

What have I learned from the experience? Mainly I've learned how to tell when not to write. In the first few days of the marathon, there was a really hot spell and during the early afternoon (which is usually when I finish getting up in the 'morning') it was just too hot for me to concentrate. There were also a couple of days where I was just too agitated about something or too interested in something else to concentrate on writing, and for the first time I was able to spot that in time to stop trying to write before I got frustrated.

I also learned that I need to follow my very first instinct when it comes to picking music to listen to. If I get an inkling I might like to hear some particular song, I need to switch to that song AT THAT MOMENT, with a playlist by similar artists. It doesn't really matter whether they suit the mood of the writing, though up-tempo music is better than miserable stuff (of which I have a lot). The important thing is to be comfortable with my audio environment.

I learned with a new force just how much of an influence Patrick Rothfuss is on me. I read 'The Wise Man's Fear' while I was plugging through the middle of 'Some Kind of Angel', and I'm not sure I'd have kept going otherwise. It's a wonderful book, but more importantly there's an irrepressible joy to the language Rothfuss uses. 'The Name of the Wind' powered significant parts of 'Heaven Can Wait' in the same sort of way. I guess when it comes to November, I'll just have to re-read them both. Or go to Wisconsin and steal the text of the next book...

That's about it, I think. I'm still waiting on Dustin Ashe's recovery for my 'Heaven Can Wait' cover, so the book is still delayed. Please direct all your support & well-wishes to Dustin and all your hate mail to whatever hit him.

In the meantime, I dug out my first novel, 'Bad Romance', and had a look over it today, and it felt pretty good. Weird, and I can't judge how other people will respond to it, but I'll see if I can't find some peeps to have a look at it for me and see about putting it out there, maybe using Smashwords' choose-your-own-price feature. It's contemporary, sort-of-literary romance with some philosophical meandering about the nature of art, if you're interested.

Hopefully I'll be blogging a bit more between now and November. See you soon!