Back on topic this week, I was asked for some advice by a writer who is just starting work on her first book. Even though she appears to be of sound mind, she was dead chuffed with what I wrote and asked if I’d share it on my blog so she could send people to the post. As a result, by special request, here is my rambling view on er … some of the aspects of writing that popped up.
BEFORE YOU START ….
1. What do you want to do?
a) have fun writing a book.
b) have fun writing a book and maybe make a bit of side cash – or at least get the cover artwork and editing costs back.
c) Rule the world: Yeh, move over JK, I am on your tail.
2. Decide on a target genre, who your reader is and what genre/store category your book fits into. Are there other books for the kind of reader you are aiming at. What are they like? What do their covers look like? Hint, you do NOT want your cover to stand out, you want it to be slick, well designed and exactly the same as all the others so readers know what they are getting (I so didn’t do this). Are you going to mash genres? Say you’re writing Sci-fi, is it something else too? Is it funny? Is it also fantasy. Are there other books like yours? Who writes them?
Your answer to question 1 will affect this as if you’re looking to make a living you need to totally conform to the standard tropes. Unless you are going to be an outlier. I thought I was going to be an outlier. It didn’t work too well for me. I write because … actually, I write because I can’t walk away from it and to be honest, walking away would be the sensible option right now.
Pantser or Plotter?
I was firmly in the pantser camp to start with – as in I’d just write and see where it went. It went to lots of good places but my first book took 13 years. Pantsing may well slow your rate of production so if a fast output is your aim plotting is good. Likewise, if your daily existence is the equivalent of having someone opening the top of your head and stir your brains about, constantly, with a wooden spoon, some kind of plot outline is going to be a huge help. Especially if you have menopausal brain fog on top (yes apparently that really is a thing and yes, of course I have it).
I find that even though I now write an outline, there is plenty of wiggle room. The key thing is to experiment and find what works best for you. I find that if I get too confined by an outline I stop enjoying it as much, I quite like the whole wondering around and seeing where it will go aspect, but when I relied solely on that I got frustrated with having to keep stopping while my brain sorted itself out. I really enjoyed the learning process – even though it was trying at times.
However, these days I am very light on time so if I want to produce a book every five years, I do need to plot a little bit so I don’t waste time. On the last two books of the K’Barthan Series I wrote 60k words I didn’t need. Right now my year’s output stands at about 40k so I can’t afford to waste a year and a half’s writing time on plot bunnies. Hence I now plot, but with enough wriggle room for the characters to act on their own initiative. This works for me – and that’s the important take away from this one: that what works for me may not work for you.
Write in whatever way suits you best.
Try to avoid being too rigid in your approach
To put this in perspective, basically, I pantsed my first novel and I wrote three versions that I sincerely wish I hadn’t written and one half cock novel (which I managed to tidy up and turn into something decent: my fifth published novel) before I managed to produce a book that measured up to my Quality Standards.
In that time, the male lead had appeared out of nowhere, one character had changed from a mechanic to a ganglord, the first book had ended up being the third and fourth ones and the other two were the backstory that popped up out of nowhere at the same time as my getaway-driving male lead. By the time I’d got to the last book, the plot was so complicated my brain was just about melting out through my nose – oh no wait that was hayfever.
What I mean is, you don’t have to stick too rigidly to the plan but you may have to shake things up originally and see what falls out to know if your book is going to work, or if it’s two books, or a series of short stories, or if the character who has just turned up in prison really is the male lead. Sometimes you get too many characters. Eric, from Escape From B-Movie Hell was actually in the K’Barthan Series to start with. Obviously he was human in that, but he was also telepathic. I just made him into an alien for his new world, his character didn’t changed much.
Likewise, at the second short in a series of five, I discovered that what I was writing was a novel. We’re 60k in and yes, I’ve already binned 40k. I’m not learning from my mistakes am I? But at the same time, the short was not a short so there was no point in forcing the issue. Now it’s a long. So what? It will be what it will be. Just try different approaches and you will find a number of different things that work.
Grammar and Punctuation
Bollocks to it. It’s the editor’s job. As you write you learn more, as you work with a decent editor you will learn loads. The point is, you will need an editor unless you are a very and I mean very rare breed. Most of us are too close in to self edit. Additionally, the only thing I really know about grammar and punctuation for sure, is that there are no right answers.
It doesn’t matter what you do, someone, somewhere will always complain so a lot of it is about having faith in your editor. I do edit my work but that’s more word choices, and tweaking stuff so it makes sense; structural things. It also helps me to do this if I need a bit of re-orientation with my giant sprawling novel. Also I have regular read throughs of what I’ve done so far so I can zoom out to the overall big picture. Otherwise I can get kind of lost. Am I a grammar nazi? No, that’s the job of my editor.
Also there will be points where you really dislike your book or think, ‘blimey this is a bit meh.’ That’s all natural. Everyone does it. Sometimes, a good way of getting round that is to work on several projects at the same time. I do that because my life is hectic and I can’t afford to not write something when the stars align and the grey matter is fired up because it happens so rarely. But working on multiple projects also helps you to ensure you’re always working on something you’re up for and enjoy.
Learning Your Craft
I never bought any how to write books – actually, I tell a lie, I have a Chuck Wendig Book on writing which is epic.
However, mostly I’ve learned to write by reading a lot of work by authors who write the way I want to; Pratchett, Adams, Woodehouse and Bryson, notably, along with Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Nick Hornby, Spike Milligan and Tom Sharp but also non comic writers like H E Bates, Graham Greene, Neville Shute and Asimov. There’s the odd dash of historical fiction, Moonfleet when I was a kid, the Children of the New Forest and The Three Musketeers, Jane Austen. In addition my work has gained a lot of influences from TV; Dr Who – check my non violent hero who never thumps anyone – the original StarTrek, StarWars are the three big ones but also a lot of the 1960s TV shows like Get Smart, the Man from UNCLE, the Avengers, Thunderbirds etc.
This is where I confess that I am the only living person in existence who is not going to bang on about To Kill a Mockingbird or Moby Dick in this section. I have never read a word of either.
The point is, I’m guessing there is a similar list of relevant books to mine for each genre. A list of must reads which any author would look to for inspiration if they wanted to write in it. If you don’t have one, make one.
The most important thing is patience. Nailing the whole write a book thing usually takes a long time. You are probably a faster learner than me, most people are, but it took me ages to write a book that measured up to my QS. On the upside, when I did, I knew at once that I’d cracked it.
I don’t do this. It would kill me because if they were realistic I’d be in tears about how long each project was going to take and if they are unrealistic I’ll be beating myself up over failing to meet deadlines. I just set a long term goal and short term, realistic, targets and then creep slowly along. One of my friends got stuck a while back when we were at the same stages in our first book. I was stuck, too, but by telling myself it was temporary, or writing other scenes from other parts of the book, or, indeed other books entirely, I managed to keep on creeping slowly forward, I now have 5 books out, she’s just completing her third novel. Other writer friends have twice as many books out as me after two years in the game. So much of writing is a case of having a firm word with yourself and just getting on with it in whatever way you can. You may find deadlines work for you. I find they don’t but a handful of defined and doable goals, with no done by time, they do help. Like all this, you probably need to experiment to get your own happy medium.
In a nutshell, then, bollocks to deadlines; set targets.
Building an Audience
It’s well worth doing this as you go along rather than waiting until you’re ready to launch your first book. If you can manage a free short story you can give to folks in return for mailing list sign up that will help you to start growing a following. Open an account at instafreebie and bookfunnel to deliver the free book to folks. Join promos with other authors. Find websites and Facebook groups where you can chat to other writers in your genre and exchange marketing tips and ideas. For mailing, it’s up to you but I use Mailerlite – they’re cheap and do all the things I need them to do as an author.
This might sound a bit premature but if you can start getting people invested in you even if it’s only to share your journey, you are more likely to start off with some decent book sales.
Big caveat on your give away short though, it has to be your best stuff because it’s your shop window.
Working Out Who Your Audience Is
This is going to affect what you do considerably. For example it is really, and I mean really hard to reach young people or children online. I’d call my book Young Adult. When I wrote it, as well as me, I was thinking of my nephew, who was 12 years old at the time. When I do events, my books sell exclusively to 10-14 year olds, with the odd adult Pratchett fan thrown in. The buyers are usually parents who want to encourage their children to read books. Online, no matter how well your ads or your site piques their interest, kids will not be able to buy your books without their parents’ say so and you run into a whole heap of legal headaches if minors start signing up to your email list. The folks who buy my books online are 45 and over, more women between 45 and 50, more men over 50.
So, if you are going to sell your books, think long and hard about who you are selling to. You may need to concentrate on libraries or making a print version – Ingram Spark are good for this if you are looking for world wide sales and will get your book distributed far more widely then Createspace or Amazon Print and for far less per copy than LuLu.
Here are resources which might help focus your thoughts on production and marketing, anyway …
The first is a series of books about how to format paperbacks using word and publishing indie books. They are by this guy here:
Mr Shepard’s books, From Word to Kindle and POD for Profit might be useful. The amount of information he is dealing with has increased so where I bought one book: Aiming at Amazon, which dealt with the process of making print books. I would have never got my paperback stuff sorted without them. If you are looking at children’s books it might be worth looking at Adventures in Writing for Children and The Business of Writing for Children and the ones he has written about making a useable kindle file using word!
The three other essential ones that will give you an idea of how you can go about building an audience, indie musician style, and sell your books are a three book set by Patty Jansen. I heartily recommend these as they also propose a way of working that is not reliant on any one bookseller and with a work rate that is realistically attainable. They are:
- Self Publishing Unboxed
- Mailing Lists Unboxed
- Going Wide Unboxed
I realise I’ve probably given you way more information than you might want and about stuff way further down the line than the point at which you are now. It might look daunting but the thing is, if you enjoy writing and work at it, you will get there, and when you do it won’t feel nearly as daunting, putting your work out there. It is like putting your soul on the table and inviting snide comments but somehow it works out OK and the more you do it the more your confidence builds and the more you begin to believe in your work. Not everyone will like your stuff but that’s OK. I have one star reviews and that’s fine, and if it isn’t fine, avoid reading the reviews! 😉
Finally, the most important things
IMPORTANT THING ONE: enjoy it. Enjoy writing and the love for it will shine through in what you say. If you write with conviction and enthusiasm, pretty much any plot will work, I mean, look at my stuff! The rest is gravy.
IMPORTANT THING TWO: never, EVER look at other people’s progress and compare it to yours. They are not you. Their life, their personality, and probably their books are different. Keep your eye on your own writing goals, make them realistic goals and work steadily towards them. Enjoy the process of learning and enjoy writing.