Self-publish or traditional?

book-printing-communication-font-font-composing-room-37413There will always be people who look down their noses at self-publishing. And that attitude can be perfectly understandable. I think most people would prefer the validation that comes from getting a publisher in a traditional way. If a publisher has picked novel to produce – out of the tens of thousands out there – it’s a way of saying your work has some merit. Readers like the traditional route too. Someone has acted as a gatekeeper in advance, and already selected the wheat from the chaff, and curated what they think to be the best work out there.

But just because you can’t get a traditional publisher, it doesn’t mean that your work is bad. The sheer amount of manuscripts and submissions publishers get every year means that a whole lot of solid wheat gets thrown out with that chaff. It’s impossible to preserve everything that’s good. And how do we even define “good” in the first place? But that’s probably a question for another day.

Most people would like the validation that comes with getting a publisher in the traditional way, but given the competition, that is far from easy. And before the modern self-publishing revolution, the ratio of what’s written to what’s chosen by publishers meant that thousands of stories and ideas were left in a drawer, never to see the light of day. There’s something quite sad about that. I wonder how many real gems were lost among the garbage?

Yes, the old way of doing things meant that some great stuff would never be published. And back in the 80s, 90s, etc., self-publishing was a very expensive business. There were no real ebook models, and print-on-demand was just a twinkle in its creator’s eye. The only way to self-publish, was to get a load of copies printed yourself, with huge risk and upfront cost.

But, to steal the title of a Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are A-Changin’. And overall, for the better. Easy self-publishing using ebooks or print-on-demand services means it’s never been easier – or cheaper – to get your work out there, regardless of what the “gatekeepers” of the publishing world make of it.

Also, if you do it yourself and your work is really popular, (it’ll be for sale in many of the same outlets the “traditional” stuff is sold in), there’s every chance you could get noticed and picked up by a traditional publisher anyway! But of course, that means there’s also a hell of drivel out there now too. And competition has never been higher. But on balance, this is a good thing, and it means something positive for us all.

It means that while everyone has always had a voice, everyone now also has a platform. On balance, I think that’s a good thing.

Audiobooks vs written books

5C59DD6E-3A03-438F-A0ED-3383EA40415AIs it fair that audiobooks play second-tier to their print (and let’s include ebook forms and say written) cousins? People love audiobooks. Not just in that sense of “oh I love reading, but with my job and the kids and everything I just don’t have the time to read any way near as much, and it’s great to have an audiobook in the background while I get stuff done” – I mean, loving audiobooks in the “this is my favourite storytelling experience” kind of way.

But there’s an innate snobbishness about audiobooks. That they’re somehow less “worthy” than their written counterparts. Even if you’re comparing the same book on both mediums. Like audiobooks are a lower, dumbed-down equivalent. Do you feel that’s fair?

I love audiobooks. Not as much as written, as it goes. There’s something truly special about hearing your own “voice” as you cascade into a world constructed entirely out of those strange marks on the page. That’s the funny thing about written stories. It’s a shared accomplishment between the reader and the author. Okay, in practical terms the author has to do all the heavy lifting, but the creativity part is shared. That’s quite true for audiobooks too, but just a tiny bit less so for me. An actor or narrator is making some of the decisions about character voices, pace, and tone, for me. That’s not always a bad thing, but when you get to make those decisions yourself, the world you create in your mind is somehow a little more significant I find.

But wait a minute. Those of us who author novels don’t call ourselves “story writers” do we? At least, not usually. Generally, we call ourselves “story tellers.” And that’s important. The print book came before the audiobook, sure. But the art of telling a story -that is, actually gathering around a stage or a campfire or a commune or a family living room and telling a story, to others, out loud: that’s the oldest form of story there is. The best stories that got past down over time weren’t necessarily the ones with the best story. They were the ones that were told the best. So don’t knock that medium, it’s the oldest and longest-lasting we’ve had.

But to bring things a few thousand years ahead to the present time: Does listening to an audiobook count as consuming a book, or is it “cheating” somehow? Sure, it’s different to reading, but I think it’s wrong to see it as a much lower form because of it.

Scientists who study linguistics and communication say that for most (but not all) of us, we retain more information if we read it as opposed to just hearing it. But that fact doesn’t help give us an objective judgement on whether an audiobook is better or worse than a written book, it’s just that they’re different. And only marginally so.

So is the idea that audiobooks are inferior to the written word? No. No. A thousand times no. The medium doesn’t really matter. But the story? Yeah, the story matters.

Dashes and dots

AC31F4E2-0634-4524-842E-58616DF28FCBJust a short one from me on the uses of dashes and dots in dialogue when you’re writing a novel. When should we use them and for what purpose?

When a character leaves a thought unfinished (which I think is worth having as long as it’s not every other sentence), then deploy the ellipsis, i.e. the three dots (never two, never four) one after the other. In the “proper” grammatical world this is a tool to omit superfluous words for speed. But of course, in fiction, we’re not bothered by “proper” grammar. We won’t let what we learned in our English comprehension classes get in the way of making our dialogue “feel right.”

Here’s an example:

“But I don’t know how to stop him. If he keeps going, then he’ll ruin everything and we’ll end up…”

In this example, the character is stopping to prevent themselves from saying the dreaded conclusion to that sentence.

Or occasionally the ellipsis can be used at the end of one piece of dialogue and at the start of another, if one character is finishing off another’s thoughts. Like this:

“But if I can by-pass the security system before we even get there…”

“…We could just walk in,” said Sarah. “That’s brilliant.”

By contrast dashes are generally for when people are interrupting each other. The ellipsis is to help finish a thought as above, or let a thought “hang” (as in my first example – the most common form). But I use dashes for when one character won’t let another finish their thought. Maybe in an argument, or a moment of high tension and drama? Though it can be used in many different ways. Example:

Brian couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “But you can’t just—”

“—Enough Brian,” said Jane. “I won’t let you take over like that.”

Okay, that’s a quick take on dots and dashes. Short and sweet, but I hope it helps?

Dead tree sales vs e-book sales

Here’s a nice little video from CNBC last year that shows the surprising resilience of paper-based books.

You know, e-books are still my go-to choice personally. They don’t take up any room on the bookshelf. They’re still cheaper than most paperback versions, though as I’ve said before, innovating production and distribution for paper-based books, as well as the price-controlling of e-books has made the difference slight.

But, it seems that at the moment, most people are not like me. They like a tangible book that you hold in your hands.

What do you prefer when you have the choice? Print books or ebooks?

The unlikely (but inevitable) success of the iPad

C65E0696-1AC7-4389-9D14-F81C5F4136D9The iPad will be ten years old next month, and with something north of a third-of-a-billion units sold, it’s one of computings biggest success stories. But if we’re honest, at the time, most pundits didn’t see it. And you only have to see the responses from tech journalists across the world to get a sense of their negativity.

IDG’s PC World Magazine said: “…at the end of the day, the show’s centrepiece – the iPad – is just a big iPod Touch. Lots of folks will want it, in a hypothetical sort of way. But it’s hard to imagine all that many of them will fork over the initial $499 for a crippled version…”

They weren’t alone. And it wasn’t just the tech publications. Fortune magazine said: “When I put it down on my sofa and caught it in less flattering light, I saw my unattractive fingerprints all over it. When I took it to work the next day, it weighed down the new handbag I’d bought in part because it would fit it…”

It’s hard to find positive reviews for the iPad. Given the huge success of the iPhone, it might surprise you to learn that Steve Jobs actually considered the iPad to be “the most important product of my life.”

The criticisms from journalists and “experts” continued unabated for two months. That’s how long in advance many of them had an iPad before they were released to the general public.

Then the public got their hands on it. And the success story was complete. It ended up being the device that took on the netbook and won. Each iteration got bigger and better.

And here’s the thing for writers: more and more people are using it to write (or at least organise) their stories and/or ideas.

And now, the advent of iPadOS has given users a file system and even more flexibility for creative professions.

The only reason for today’s blog post is to say this: I’m seriously considering using my iPad Pro (which I’m writing this post with) as the main writing tool for my next novel. As in, this will be the thing I write my first draft on.

Is that crazy? What about you? have you written a novel on an iPad? Or some other long-form project? How did it go? I’d appreciate your views and experiences (and issues!) before I dive in!

Andy Weir’s delightfully unlikely story

Just a quick one today. I wanted to draw your attention to this really nice – and very short interview with author Andy Weir. It’s just a short Q&A really, nothing special. But I love writers who cut through all the pretentious stuff and just tell us their experience in a simple and relatable way. Andy is an absolute master at that.

Like many, you’ll probably know Andy Weir from his breakthrough novel The Martian, that garnered him fame and fortune. Andy actually wrote many sci-fi stories before The Martian, which became a hit as a novel and a successful motion picture.

His story about how he got successful with The Martian is fairly well-known, and isn’t too special. Many authors have a similar experience. But with Andy, what makes it special, is how he tells the story of that success. There’s a great example of this in his “Authors at Google” talk, which you can see below:

Part of the fun of his story is how down to earth it was. No fancy shots to the moon, (if you pardon to space metaphor), just a regular guy who self-published a really nice story, which turned into a success by virtue of its quality, energy, and the enthusiasm of readers who flocked to it.

Hopefully you find it as inspirational as I have. Happy writing!

Why you must love your editor

close up of text

This is a follow-on from a blog post I wrote way back in August of 2018. I still get emails about it, asking to write a little more on the subject. Well, you asked for it, so here it is. Fill your boots, as they say.

I know. It’s like giving your child away to another person. Probably someone you hardly know. Are they going to take care of her? Treat her right? Let her become all that she could be? Or will she just be abandoned, and left to linger with a load of other kids in squalour?

Okay, that got dark very quickly. Let’s back it up a little. And deploy fewer metaphors.

When you’re writing a book, it’s a wonderfully selfish pursuit. Assuming you’re writing it on your own in the first place of course. It’s just you and the text. It’s your baby (ah, there goes that hackneyed metaphor again, sorry). This is all you, and no one else.

But let’s take a reality check: You can’t do it all by yourself. You need a second pair of eyes. The best second pair you’re going to come across is an editor.

Editors are experts at understanding what works for audiences. Their whole careers are based on that. They are dedicated to making your book the best it can be. It’s the only thing they care about. But they have an advantage that you don’t: They didn’t write the thing in the first place, and can look at it in a dispassionate way, and therefore will be less afraid to suggest changes that you might not otherwise countenance.

Letting go of full control of your novel is not fun. It never is. It’s so hard to trust someone else with your darling project. But it’s needed. Great books have lived and died by the relationship between an editor and a writer.

I know it’s hard, and yes, sometimes it just doesn’t work out between you and an editor. Maybe you’ve tried, but they just can’t see it the way you can, and you know 100% that you’re right. You might have to look elsewhere, but never decide that you’re going to do it all yourself. I would guess that nine times out of ten, the relationship between a writer and an editor broke down because of a failure on the writer’s part, not the other way around.

A way of avoiding this happening to you once you get the privilege of working with a good editor (and yes, it really is a privilege) it to change your mindset. Once the book has been written, and you have completed your first draft, try and think of the book as something that was written by someone else. Your job now is to work with the editor to make sure that book is perfect.

And once the work between you is done, and it goes out there into the world, guess what? It becomes your baby, all over again.

Stephen King and George RR Martin: A meeting of minds

Well, I don’t know how, but we made it to the end of another year. Here we are, and 2020 is on the horizon. May 2020 bring you the clarity its name suggests, and I wish you every success – be it in things writing-related or not.

As we’re quickly approaching the festive season, I appreciate that it might be hard to take some time for yourself for a little indulgence, but I thought that if you do have time, why not watch something interesting?

This is a little over three years old, but I found it to be a really sweet conversation between the legendary Stephen King and the (nowadays) equally loved George RR Martin. It’s interesting when writers “interview” writers. As with this piece in places, they might not always get around to an actual question. It’s sometimes an observation about something that they do themselves, and then they try and see if the other writer does it too. It’s fun for writers to discover our commonalities I think.

Anyway, here it is. Happy Holidays, and enjoy!


People vs Plot

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Ah, the age-old battle of many a writer. What matters most to a book or short story: the characters and the world they inhabit, or the story that they happen to find themselves in? I’m actually surprised at how definitive people’s views are on this: even by really well established writers. Will you indulge me for a few hundred words? Let’s dig into it a little.

A common misconception is that all the “best” novels, (however one decides what constitutes best, personally I think the notion to be a bit silly), are canonised because the characters are so brilliantly written. The idea being therefore that good characters trump a good plot.

Now look, that’s true of many a fantastic author. Heck, maybe even most of them. People from Elmore Leonard (who I often consider one of my favourites) to James Ellroy to Stephen King. But I can also think of many, like say the late great Michael Crichton, who are totally the opposite, and are proud to say it.

I’m proud to say it: I’m a concept/story guy. My characters are there to serve that. I like to move at a pace, and a solid concept serves that. My characters are caught up in it. I think they’re rounded and three-dimensional, but for me, the story is the thing. I love stories and authors where the opposite is true, but to place one above another to me is a bit silly.

I mentioned James Ellroy in my list of “people more than plot” writers. James Ellroy’s plot in the superb novel LA Confidential was mostly thrown out by Curtis Hanson (writer/director) and Brian Helgeland but the characters preserved. Not a surprise. The plot is wonderful in the book, but it’s too dense, intertwined and convoluted for a movie. But really, for LA Confidential, it was the characters that made it. A personal favourite from work is the protagonist in Clandestine. Highly recommended.

But don’t forget, excellent films based on books also often change characters around and make them fit the narrative, and the characters are secondary. It works either way.

I guess what I’m trying to say in this poorly-worded drivel is don’t get too held up on what sort of writer you are. You might be character-focused and that’s great. But don’t let anyone tell you that plot-focused writers are any less worthy. Not unless they’ve sold more copies of any one of their books than Dan Brown did when he released The Da Vinci Code.

Shattering the “every character must want something” rule

writing notes idea class

Time for another article in our occasional series about ignoring rules about writing.

Okay, that’s a little flippant, but you get where I’m coming from here. This one, I think, is easier to ignore than the rest. I’ve written about it before, but I’ve heard it so much again this year that I wanted to return to it as an issue. You will hear in writing classes that on every page, your protagonist (or other characters) must want something. In my humble opinion, this is another sure-fire way of guaranteeing that you’ll get stuck, right while you’re in your flow of writing something brilliant.

I can’t think of anything more destructive to a writer’s native talent that have them stop mid-flow and go “oh, hang on: that’s a beautiful piece of prose, and it really ties in well with the narrative I’m going for here, but I just realised, it’s not suddenly clear to the reader what the main character wants at this moment.

Writing so that characters constantly tick a rule box will produce boring content. Everything will be boring because it just moves the story on and nothing else. It ends up being just about the destination rather than the journey. If the destination was all that mattered, you could skip the book and go directly to the last page. Where would the fun be in that?

The madness of these rules. It’s almost like some of them were created just to make a writer’s jobs harder. And believe me, it’s hard enough!

Okay, so seriously, as with other “writing rules”, this one has come about for fairly good reasons. You don’t want your story – and indeed, your characters – to start meandering off into pointless areas. Your readers will get bored, and frankly, so will you as you’re writing the thing.

But to start suggesting that on every page your characters have to want something and that this needs to be clearly expressed is just going to lock you into a difficult corner creatively.

I have a better rule. And this is just a rule of thumb, one to ignore whenever you feel it’s right to: The READER wants something on every page. Give the READER an excuse to want to keep reading. That’s no way near as creatively stifling. It’s not specific about any given thing. Maybe there’s a plot twist, or a really powering piece of dialogue, or an question raised that demands an answer.

Deliver for your readers, not your characters. The characters are designed to serve you and your intended audience, not the other way around.

Sorry, rant over! 😉