Warning: may increase your heart-rate by 5 bpm

Tag: self publishing

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.

Let’s All Go To The Market!


Our scene begins with a box of crayons. It’s half-full; the rest of the crayons are scattered across a table, some worn down to nubs and others just tested on the table edge. Sitting amongst all this is an exhausted boy, warm with artistic achievement. Let’s put the cheese-o-meter to eleven and call him Johnny. Johnny has just finished making something. Balled up paper sits around his feet, but he’s sure that this is the right one, the good one, despite a weird sense of foreboding setting in.

‘Knock knock!’ comes a voice at the door, it opens and in walks a smiling young businessman. He talks in-between setting himself up: ‘Now Johnny, I’m Chet, and I like what you’ve got there,’ (sweeps crayons onto the floor with one hand) ‘I think it’s super cool!’ (Gives thumbs-up after using them to open his briefcase) ‘So I want to talk to you about marketing. Have you considered your target audience?’

Johnny feels the nerves jump in his leg, but Chet seems nice. He likes him and his work, where’s the harm. ‘I don’t really know my audience,’ he admits, ‘I just want to write.’

Chet sucks air between his teeth and looks comically sullen. ‘Oooh, I get ya sport, I get ya. Problem is, they’ve got to know ya if I’m going to sell ya! So who we talking here? Middle-age male, semi-professional. Maybe could read your stuff on the train, morning commute? The kind of guy you could really reach through your platform.’

Johnny can feel the warmth thaw to a cold trickle down his nose, possibly mixed with some brain matter. ‘Platform?’

Chet gives a false, braying laugh. ‘Platform, he says! Your blog, your website, those groups you started on Facebook. Those cats you chew the fat with over on Goodreads! That mailing list you’re building up, up, up! Speaking of which, written that free short story for the mailing list yet? Gotta bait `em to sell `em! Know what I’m saying, sport?’

‘Can’t..’ Johnny begins weakly, ‘Can’t I just put it up on Kindle for people to find?’

Chet nods, earnest. ‘Oh sure, sure! Let me tell you about algorhythms! Those buzz words to get the punters in! What genre are you, by the way? You know, if you could swing it into an urban fantasy, maybe drill down there into a sub-category of paranormal romance, that’ll get the odds in your favour! Unless of course you need a physical paperback to get in there. Sometimes you do! You going with Smashwords, too? Kobo, Apple, B&N? Ha, ha! So many nooks and crannies, I love it!’

‘I just..’ Johnny slurs, ‘I just want to write.’

‘Well, maybe you should go the traditional route! You know, wait six months to hear back from your submission? Course that’s no problem as you’re such a prolific guy! Write `em as fast as they reject `em! One story a week, right? Build that catalogue.’

‘So..’ Johnny grabs at the ray of hope, ‘If…if I get traditionally published, I won’t need to market?’

This really tickles Chet; he leans back and roars with laughter. ‘Ah ha ha! Love it! You’ll need to market no matter what!’

‘Then what’s…’ Johnny feels his vision blur, he grabs the table to try and arrest his fall, ‘W-wh-what’s the poi…gnrnnr’

‘What’s the point?’ Chet brightly repeats. ‘This is a marathon, not a sprint, John-boy! So let’s jog jog jog! Get that lactic acid flowing! It’s only when you have twenty books out that you’ll start to see a modest income. Did I say modest? I meant shameful! But that doesn’t matter to you, because you’re an artist, right Johnny? John-boy? Johnzilla? John the mon? Ah ok, you rest down there for a minute. I tell you though, you’re going to love what’s ahead: connecting with your fans, when you get any, begging for reviews, `cause most folk won’t care. Raising and lowering your prices like a drowning man looking for an air bubble. It’s all ahead of you, John! You just need to embrace it!’

The Dark Art of Trend Chasing


I received a disturbing e-mail the other day. No, not from the King of Brunei compelling me to enlarge my penis, but MySpace. MySpace! That’s still going? It made me wonder how long Facebook has left, or Twitter for that matter; mostly though it reminded me of the mercurial nature of public taste. You can’t mosey far in the Kindle store without authors who are trying to ride the latest wave smacking you in the face. It’s been a couple of years since the last book in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, yet Kindle’s erotica category is still drowning in “Sex with a Billionaire” titles. Nothing new here, but the enduring nature of self-publishing means that these books are still going to be there five, ten, twenty years from now. With my own writing, I’ve always worried about being stuck in the middle: I’m not good enough to create something that will outlive me, but I’m also not “bad” enough to follow the money on whatever is big right now. Turns out sitting on the fence does give you splinters.

The fact is that there are so many trend chasers because nobody knows how to start one. Even publishers and agents with their authoritative ‘Not right for us at the moment’ have no real idea. The public are aboard an ever shifting ship, and you’re one of many landmarks that they might choose to navigate by. It’s not much fun being a landmark. You can’t run round enticing the ships because you haven’t got any legs (stay with me here); you just have to be present and patient. It’s entirely possible to spend your writing life that way. Bleak, perhaps, but what’s the alternative? Every trend chaser produces work of their time, something that doesn’t age like an antique but closer to a jar of mayonnaise with SEP-1985 printed on the side. Nobody is going to open that but drunks and the insane, and they never leave reviews.

One Year Later


This is the bit where the protagonist returns with an intriguing info-dump and/or new perspectives on his life, isn’t it? Sadly, all I have to offer is fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue. That tag-team has kept me largely out of action for the past year. When I returned to my writing it felt a bit like stamping on eggshells; besides issues of concentration, the pain brought unwelcome bluntness and impatience. If a character’s goal was to travel from point A to point B then I had little time for intrigue, the instant they stopped to ponder I would jab my finger in their spine and cry ‘hurry up, man! My back hurts!’

Thankfully, the writing has provided an anchor. Focussing on editing what I already had, and pecking away at doing some more, has kept me (largely) sane amidst changing life circumstances. I set my sights on releasing a single short story on Kindle and achieved that just last week. If you’re at all familiar with the process then you know what comes next: fretting over formatting, pricing, trying to tease reviews out of the punters and poring over sales figures like a submarine captain charting his way through hostile waters. The self-publishing experience, in a nutshell.

It’s up there, though. I keep loading the webpage and staring at it in a deeply suspicious manner. This isn’t so much the “first day of school” analogy I used before, but more of a ‘don’t you dare embarrass me!’ as though I’ve attended a high society dinner with my pet chimp. I think everyone is politely ignoring him for now, but wait until the dessert course.