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Tag: e-books

Your Best Will Always Change

Probably the most frustrating aspect of writing is following up on an easy story. Chances are you know exactly what I’m talking about, or you soon will. That story where the research was a pleasure, your characters eloquent and obliging, and the first draft needed little improvement. You never know when these ‘gifts’ are going to occur, or how to summon them into being, so you just enjoy it and keep writing.

Only your next story isn’t a gift. You have to drag it onto the page. Characters that were warm and three-dimensional are now cut out of a cornflake packet. You’re so baffled and bored by the research that you end up spending four hours on a single paragraph’s detail. And the most unpleasant part? You need to keep going. If you stop in the midst of all this, even for a moment, then the truth will catch up to you – you’ve lost it. Whatever divine intervention or lucky accident that enables you to write is no more. Logically you know this isn’t true. Every writer has bad days, days where all you have are bad words; the good ones stuck between your teeth like popcorn kernels. Usually you just work through that, but when it follows something that showed you how good you can be? That’s another level of pain.

My biggest fear is that I only have so much. There are a finite amount of good scenes, exciting moments, and funny remarks stored in my knowledge box. It’s the kind of fear that leads to bad habits like squirreling away a piece of great dialogue, saving it for your next piece because this one has already had its quota. The truth is that writers do draw from a well, and finding out what replenishes your well is vital to future scribblings. Sometimes we have an uninterrupted connection to that well, for who knows what reason, and it’s easy to drain it dry. Trying to deny that, trying to portion out your best writing, is like trying to hold back a river with your hands. If your work was of a consistent, unwavering quality, then you’d be one of many writers in the neighbourhood. What often stops people from writing isn’t that they lack talent, but that they’ve sampled how monotonous it can be to create something coherent with that talent.

Is there an amount of self-delusion here? You bet. A less cynical person might call it faith. Personally, I try to remind myself that some bad writing is a good sign. It means you’re still paying attention. Self-publishing has a bad rap because too many of those writers think they’re pretty great. We all get those ‘Yeah baby!’ moments now and then, of course, but that’s usually just before ‘Oh God, what have I wrought?’ That kind of mind-set may not feel best to the writer, but it leads to better product for their reader.

Back To The Drawing Board

The problem with self-publishing (he says as though there’s only the one), is easily defined thus: too much noise. When I say noise, I don’t just mean the sheer number of books, good and bad, competing for a reader’s attention. There’s also the advice. You can easily spin yourself in circles trying to find the ‘right’ path, trying to merge so many conflicting views on marketing, pricing, etc into an average whole. I had doubts about my Norton Pumblesmythe series consisting entirely of short stories, but when the endless blogs confirmed those doubts it just made me more determined to ignore them. I had solid reasons for a short story series, after all. Pumblesmythe is a shot of espresso; a character that appears, jolts the reader, and then is gone. You’re given time to get comfortable with his shtick, but not tired of it.

I had sincere doubts that I could pull off novellas, only now that’s the plan. Concern at gaining an audience was my initial impetus, as e-book enthusiasts tend to weigh words by the pound, but I started to see other benefits too. The Pumblesmythe timeline had been hanging over my head for a while; with a span of roughly 1845-1900, and every short story set in a particular year, it would be difficult to cover everything without revisiting years and confusing the reader. I’d also planned to bounce between dates, with future Norton’s madcap antics balanced by his younger, more introspective self. A nice idea, but one that required a level of fore-thought perhaps beyond an author with ADD and a chronic pain condition. I had three aborted novels under my belt before I found my level with short stories, but maybe this character deserved a bit more than vignettes.

Two things are certain, however. The first is that I have no idea if this will work so, y’know, banzai. The second is that none of my work has been squandered. Not only can I use my current shorts for material (or in some cases directly transplant them as chapters), but I can still write more of them as short stories are excellent connective tissue between novellas. So, everything good, right? Well, kinda. I’m satisfied with the new plan, but the short story’s position as slightly above an afterthought does leave me a bit forlorn. Not just for my plan but with e-books in general. They’re not a training wheel, damn it, they’re a discipline! The funny thing is everyone expected the short story market to explode right along with the rise of e-reader popularity. Nobody expected those new consumers to get genuinely hungry and start demanding full plates at every sitting.

Dumb Down, All Ye Who Enter Here

I read an Independent article the other day in which Fay Weldon says that writers should ‘Abandon their dignity and write a racy page-turner.’ It’s an attention grabbing headline designed to provoke, like much press these days, but it does raise some interesting issues. It’s easy to dismiss Weldon as, in the meat of the article, she makes the distinction that traditional press can still shoulder literary works, but it’s the e-book audience that need a faster alternative. Of course, as any self-published author will know, faster doesn’t mean shorter. Novels do far better than short stories because of perceived value. The race to the bottom in self-pub pricing, which began with chart abuse of Amazon Kindle’s ‘free’ price range, is something constantly debated; but what of the change to customer perception? When you can pick up a whole novel for 99c then does the author really need to aim that high? As long as it has momentum, and slips easily down the gullet, then they won’t receive any criticism worse than ‘It wasn’t great, but…it was only ninety nine cents.’

That’s why I can’t let the article go, as it’s one of those most frustrating statements: bald, seemingly ignorant, but with enough truth to make it prickly. A writer may not want to admit it, but they do know that the public often prizes fast paced, cliff-hanger prose over something painstakingly crafted. The problem, and it’s difficult not to sound priggish here, is that if we all followed that formula then something vital would die. Of course, we want to sell stuff too! This is a classic and enduring dilemma, so to suggest that it’s now a consideration because of e-books is disingenuous. Every writer worries about it. My main concern with my ‘Norton Pumblesmythe’ series (apart from figuring out the timeline) has always been how much period detail, and period slang, to include. Due to it being a slapstick kind of work, my serious author side is forever trying to tip the scales. Am I trying to teach or entertain, and is there a danger in thinking I can do both?

The other issue is in implying that writers, as a whole, can skip genres and write to a formula. Yes, some writers do manage this, and I’m envious and a little bewildered by that kind of flexibility. If I tried my hand at, say, a Western Romance (marketable genre right now) then my lack of interest and enthusiasm would curdle the writing. Readers have changed, undoubtedly. They want it fast, and they want it cheap; but when we genuinely consider Weldon’s approach of a cerebral paperback and an edited for speed e-book (of the same book) then the situation becomes a little crazy. A work stands or falls on its own merits. Trying to whittle down or balloon those merits depending on who’s reading doesn’t mean accessibility, it means they just read a different book.