More Crappy “Rules For Writing” that you can Ignore

Not Tablet Law Ten Commandment Thou Shalt RuleUgh. They’re everywhere, and often repeated as sage advice: “only write about what you know”. “Don’t use verbs other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”. Some of these are useful in many cases, but should never be set in stone. If you feel it’s right to break a rule then break it. Better yet, act like their are no rules. I usually write “said” because it feels better. It’s not a rule, it just works. I try not to overthink it, as that would box me in creatively.

One of the frequently rolled-out lines is that “every character must WANT something”. Okay, sure, every human “wants” stuff and has motivation, but fretting over minor points with ancillary characters will bog down your story and may well induce writers block in many.

The better advice is this: you’re writing something that – I presume – you’d like people to read. That’s not too much of an assumption, right?

Well if this is true for you (and it almost certainly will be), then your readers are the masters, not your characters. Let your characters be who you want them to be. Go further: let them surprise you sometimes. It’s fun. But remember one thing: your READERS will WANT something. Maybe it’s a satisfying conclusion. Maybe it’s to be surprised and shocked. Maybe it’s to laugh out loud. Decide what it is you want your readers to feel and then… well, ignore it.

Seriously. As I said before, don’t overthink it. Let it sink to the back of your mind. It’ll come through subconsciously anyway when you write enticing scenes, or breathtaking dramatic moments.

Just don’t get hung up on writing rules. You’ll enjoy the writing process much more, and will probably write better things as a result.


Titles for Chapters?

Chapter-1Do you write titles for chapters? What are they like? Are they a suggestion of what the reader is going to get in that part of the story?

If that’s the case, why not just let the reader discover that by reading the chapter? Why give the game away?

I write short notes on each chapter. Sometimes a simple line, or paragraph. Maybe a little more, but not much more. When I come to write a chapter, I can refer to those notes. But I don’t want to the reader to ever see those notes. They’re the prompt for the performance I’m putting down on the paper for them. I want them to see the finished article, not the mechanics of how it was made. Does that make sense?

Some authors can just sit at a blank screen and write, with no notes or prompts. Others have to research extensively and practically write the chapter (or even more, based on word count) before starting the first draft. It’s not right to say that I sit somewhere in the middle: I’m much closer to the former than latter. I write just a few little notes to get me started, but nothing more. I want to be largely free to make things up as I go, as the idea comes to me. Those notes just help keep me grounded in the wider context on the story.

Writing a title and/or notes for a chapter is a great idea for many for these reasons. But when it comes to having a title for your chapter, think very hard about whether or not the title adds anything for the reader.

Here’s a general rule of thumb: if the book would still work without titles, then you should probably ditch them.

Writing like your Literary Heroes

superheroWho are your favourite authors? Which authors does your work mirror? Are they the same people? This is common, not just for new authors, but for long-established ones too. We feed off of, and are inspired by, those we like. There’s nothing wrong with this.

I remember James Ellroy once dedicated a novel to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, who taught him that he didn’t need to write like them, he needed to write like himself. It’s an important lesson new authors often need to learn. I think Ellroy’s continued to be inspired by those people, but does not take any steps to simply copy them.

The fact is, no one writes in a vacuum. Your work will be influenced by those you like or are inspired by. The trick is to steal what has gone on before, and repurpose it for your own ends, rather than merely copy it. Copying is a bland attempt at replication. Why bother? Those who wrote the work originally already did a perfectly good job of it. But by stealing – shamelessly – and mercilessly adapting it to your own purposes, you can create something wholly original.

This is a psychological thing as much as anything. Your work will grow organically when the “theft” of other styles happens without you noticing it.

So read other authors, and be inspired by them. Don’t shoehorn their style into yours, and you’ll let the influence happen without you even noticing. And your work will be much better as a result.

Are Career Authors a Threatened Species?

Old typewriterLet’s be realistic. Things aren’t as easy as they once were for full-time novelists. Revenues are declining, but at the same time, there’s never been more people reading than ever before. How do we resolve this? Or maybe we don’t? The market is changing. It’s usually foolish to fight it: that’s seldom a long-term solution.

And really, that’s what I’m trying to work through. There’s no point as a new author, moaning about the “state of the industry”. This is pointless. It is what it is.

Does that mean making a living is solely out of book sales is dead in the water? No, there will always be success stories. There will always be people like Andy Weir (author of the excellent book The Martian) making a big dent out of nowhere, and the people with already long-established careers will continue to perform well. So they and others will do well, but I think that maybe when it comes to making a career solely out of novels, proportionally fewer will than we have seen in the past.

For most authors – or those who want to make a living out of writing books – I think it’s sensible to take an honest and open look at your skillset. It’s rewarding too.

Being a good writer is a really valuable talent as the knowledge economy grows to dominate everything in the coming years. Many writers will continue to adopt new skills and become journalists, copywriters, etc. and grow their business that way. In short, it’s much more likely that you can make a career out of writing, than making a living just as a writer of novels. Your novels will be a piece of the puzzle: maybe a little piece, maybe a lot. That will be down to luck, perspiration and determination.

Finding a Tone of Voice in your Writing

ToneLots of very distinctive writers are credited with having a real “voice” in their work. Sometimes that’s not a good thing. An overplayed “voice” can be distracting. But used well it’s powerful.

So as not to confuse the term “voice” to mean something to do with dialogue, I often prefer to say this is the “tone” of the work.

With this in mind, it’s worth asking: is tone something you consciously try and apply in your writing, or does it occur naturally?

I think it works well to make a conscious decision to apply a style and tone to your writing. That way you control it, rather than have IT control you and your work. However, once you make the decision to apply a tone, it’s worth putting it to the back of your mind. Try not to overdo it, let it occur naturally. Usually this takes a bit of time, but for a longer piece, it’ll become second nature.

If this isn’t something you’ve ever thought of, a great utility to analyse is the free online Hemingway Editor: Like Hemingway himself, it’s good for stripping out superfluous words but also can draw your attention to “crutch” words, phrases and styling. That way any conscious tone you apply to your voice won’t have too much cliché.

Are eBooks A Rip Off?

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgThere’s been a number of reports over the last two-and-a-half years talking about the slight reduction in ebook sales, and the increase in traditional dead-tree copies. In fact, the paperback market is booming right now, in part due to the increase in the mainstream publishing industry’s dramatically improved production and distribution channels. As I’ve noted before, in the last few years, the likes of Penguin Random House and HarperCollins have invested in these processes by an order of magnitude and are understandably reaping the rewards.

I wrote quite a while ago about how more and more of my own ebook sales were outstripping paper-based sales. This is certainly a movement that’s changed in the last year, with the books I’ve written published by these mainstream titans allowing for more sales and better margins. I wrote that the establishment will do things to slow the move towards ebooks, and maintain their hold on this market. I’ve also written about some of the other reasons why the ebook revolution hasn’t moved as quickly as many had hoped. I think those things are true, but what I didn’t anticipate, was the size and scope of the entrenchment, which has encouraged a return of the traditional paperback for readers in such volume.

Sure, many readers just decided on average, that they prefer paperbacks rather than ebooks. But many – maybe most – really don’t feel this way. However, when there’s comparative price differences between paper or electronic versions of books they want, they might be inclined to by paper. Especially if ebooks prices are over-inflated.

I think this over-inflation continues in part. But also in opposition to that, the way things work at the moment does mean that many authors are not being paid the right amount for their work much of the time.

Let me try to explain with an example, based on 2017 – now I guess 2018 – prices: Imagine there’s a new book out, both in paper form and ebook. We’ll dispense with the hardcover market now so as not to over-confuse things (though this would also work with that market).

Here’s the very basic breakdowns on the paperback version, on sale in the UK for, say £8.99 (which I’ve rounded-up to £9.00 for ease):

9 pound paperback

£9 Paperback Breakdown

As you can see, We’ve got about 40% of the total RRP (Recommended Retail Price) reserved as markup for the retailer. That’s £4.00. Very typical. Many retailers will charge the full amount (after all, they’re taken the risk in buying a lot of stock, etc., and often the deal means they can’t sell all of it back if it doesn’t sell). But many larger chains and online retailers (hello Amazon) can cut into that markup and sell it for less. So a £9.00 book with a high street retailer making £4.00 is sold on Amazon for, say, £6.00 with Amazon making just £1.00, but happy to do so because they sell so many.

The cost of manufacture and distribution for the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster’s of this world has never been proportionally lower. They’ve made big investments and it’s paying off. That’s why the cost of physically making each book (allowing for scale) and distribution is just £1.00.

That leaves £4.00 for the publisher. The author will get a bit of that, as will the typesetter, cover designer, etc. That’s essentially the “intellectual cost” of the book. Remember that £4.00, it’ll be important later in this article.

Now let’s look at that same book going on – for example – Amazon on the Kindle platform. It’s the same book, but in eBook form. And you can get it for £4.99 (again I’m saying £5.00 for simplicity’s sake):

5 pound ebook

Typical £5 eBook Breakdown

As you can see, the breakdowns are different. But that’s fine, they should be for the most part. The retailer is handling most of the actual “distribution”. But that’s a tiny cost (don’t let the technical illiterates in the publishing business tell you otherwise), so I’ve been very generous with the 20p cost there. Though I haven’t written it this way, there’s an argument that the 20p cost is mostly for the retailer rather than the publisher, which is fine.

Speaking of the retailer, they don’t have a big risk any more. If the book sells one copy or a million, they just need an electronic copy on a server (or probably several to be safe) and can distribute that as needed. There’s no advantage to economy of scale, but no disadvantage to low sales either. The book-selling business in the ebook world is a low-risk game. So their markup is significantly lower to reflect that. I think that’s fair.

Where there’s a slight problem, is the revenue for the publisher in this model. Just £3.30. Now, there’s lower costs here which is fair. The retailer doesn’t have to make as big a risk on producing thousands of physical copies of a book that might not sell. And they don’t have to pay lots of money for a typesetter either. But they still spend time and money investing in the author. They’re still the big promoters and backers of talent. In the future, I hope that they stay as a significant force in this area. They’re brilliant at it, and I speak from experience. And they still have to pay for someone to design and produce the actual ebook file. Where a typesetter will work full-time for two weeks to finish a typical book (burning the candle at both ends), a finished and edited manuscript can be made into a perfect and standards-compliant ebook format in a couple of days easily. Hell, even I could do it to a decent standard in one afternoon with some of the software out there.

And of course, the author needs to get paid. Sadly, in the current system, the author is the tiny bit of that £4.00 that gets squeezed the most when it goes down to £3.30.

A publisher doesn’t need to make £4.00 from an ebook. But under the current way of doing things, an author often gets financially penalised when someone buys an ebook over a print edition because of the overall lower revenue per-sale that goes back to the publisher.

The quickest, and – based on where the industry is now – the most practical current solution would be to charge a little bit more for ebooks. The sales are what they are, and may not be affected too much (but I understand how the economic theory of ‘dynamic scoring’ could lay waste to this idea, which I readily admit), but this example breakdown could work better in the short-term. Imagine if instead the ebook sold for just a  tiny bit more; £5.70:

5.70 ebook

Example of a Typical £5.70 eBook Breakdown

Now things are a tiny bit different. The manufacture/distribution cost is unchanged. Because the overall price is higher, the percentage markup for the retailer is a bit higher. But the publisher (and therefore the author and everyone else) is left with almost the same as they would have with the £9.00 paperback book.

£3.80 is less than £4.00, yes. But not by much. And that 20p drop is just to account for now having to pay a typesetter as much, and an ebook designer for two days over that two-week typesetting job, and of course not having the risky investment of mass-producing a physical book, which is the big cost. This price would, arguably, disproportionally reward the publisher themselves, but at least it means the author would get what’s owed to her in full.

The best example that I can come up with to highlight the problem right now: Imagine you hire an accountant to do an audit of your finances. They spend a couple of days going over your accounts. Your income, expenditure, savings and investments, Then they publish an almost scholarly-assessment, where they write up with graphs and detailed references, what extra savings they think you should be making, what investments you should consider, and what expenditure you could do without.

Imagine then that they printed that 10-page report out, and put it in an envelope, bunged a stamp on it and mailed it to you with an invoice for the work they’ve done: let’s say it was £300.

Question: If they emailed the report and invoice to you instead, would you expect them to have only charged £230?

Sure, maybe taking the cost of the stamp, the envelope, the ten pages and the ink together, they could have only charged £299 for the emailed copy. But anything less than that, and they’re basically being paid less for the same. Is that fair?

Anyway, that’s my view, and I’m sure even I probably disagree with the oversimplification in this article. Besides, I love, dear reader, you regardless of which format you buy my books – and they’re available in both ebook and paperback form right here!

Quick Tips To Write Better

PencilsWe’re coming to the end of another year, so I thought I’d throw out a couple of quick tips to improve your writing.

I hope that, if you are a writer, 2017 has been a creative and rewarding year. But what if it wasn’t? What if it was a real struggle? How can we minimise this for you in 2018?

I don’t know. I don’t have any real answers, and you just be sceptical of anyone who claims to have tidy and neat solutions. If you follow this blog, you probably already know that I’m not a fan of “rules” for writing, so just see these as suggestions that may or may not work for you. Enjoy!

Write Every Day

Consistency is king when you’re working on a more ambitious writing project. Writing every day, even if it’s not much, can really take you to the next level. You think you don’t have time? Just write a few hundred words. Just a couple of paragraphs. Even one paragraph. Just a sentence! Anything.

Writing just a little bit each day helps put you into a routine, where you’re used to writing each day. It’s almost like a form of Pavlovian conditioning on yourself. Slipping behind on your writing deadlines? Even if they’re self-imposed? Give this a go.

Read Every Day

The best writers are solid readers. You don’t have to be really conscientious. Don’t worry about writing down special passages and making notes about styles and form that you like. You might end up just imitating them in bland and predictable ways. Just absorb other people’s work. The good stuff will stay in your mind subconsciously. And when you start adding this stuff into your own work, you’ll probably find it’ll come out as a more creative variation of the work. As Picasso said, “all artists copy. Great artists steal.”

Don’t Edit As You Write

When you write, just write. I know it’s tempting to tweak as you go, but try and resist that. Getting stuff out of your head and onto the page is hard enough. Don’t make it impossible by trying to do it elegantly the first time around. Even if you do edit as you go, you’ll find that you probably will still go back and edit later anyway, because your first pass at editing wasn’t good enough.

I personally do a little light editing after writing chunks of work. Then the real edit happens after the first draft is done. It makes the whole process faster, and I don’t get bogged down in re-writing something that’s not even properly written yet. Editing as you go makes it even harder to remove things that I’ve written previously, which is something you’ll often need to do.


Anyway, these little power-up tips might work for you or they might not. But there’s little harm in trying out something knew. Either way, good luck in your upcoming writing projects!