This week has been more reading, reading, reading to slim down my TBR pile. Most of the books I’ve read in the past couple of weeks have been independently published because it turns out independent publishers are mostly the people I know and thus their books are the ones I get to hear about.
All my friends are virtual
A lot of my online time is spent in a couple of Facebook groups dedicated to authors who have all taken on the challenge of self-publishing and the purpose of the groups is to share experience of what works (and doesn’t) and keep morale up when things go wrong.
A lot of what I’ve read recently has been written by people in these groups because I’ve heard about what they’re up to and been interested to read their books. Maybe it’s also because they are all eager for reviews and happy to provide review copies which fits perfectly with my current free reading challenge. And it occurred to me as I was reading what an enormous amount of talent there is out there.
Oozing with talent
There is a lot of grumbling about standards in publishing (I know I’ve been guilty of it myself – don’t get me started on publishing houses that appear to have opted out of the requirement for proof-reading a book before publication), but I think a part of that is just because the pool of books is now so big that if you’re looking at the wrong part of it, all you can see is wall-to-wall typos and cliches.
But as I scheduled yet another 5* review on the Paisley Piranha site yesterday I realised how much excellence is also out there. I’m a very fussy reader (if it doesn’t look like it from my reviews, that’s because I only select books I’m pretty sure from the preview I’m going to love, and if I don’t have anything good to write about a book I won’t review it), and I’ve been constantly both impressed and delighted by both the nuts-and-bolts quality and the imaginative verve of what I’ve read recently.
My conclusion this week: don’t grumble that standards are slipping – find the authors whose standards haven’t. I promise you, there are plenty out there!
I’ve been making a deliberate effort to increase my productivity lately. I’m now a self-published writer looking to increase the audience for my fiction. One of the sure-fire ways to do this is to write more books (everything I’ve read about self-publishing says the key is to write more and get more books out if you want to find an audience, with 5 books often mentioned as the breakthrough point). I published my first book in November 2014, and my next in November 2015 so I need to speed up. Here are the methods I’ve used to help me increase the number of words I write.
1. Write more often
Like many (most?) self-published writers, especially those still establishing their careers, I still have a day job, which for me involves working shifts. This means writing has to fit into the gaps left around paid work and family responsibilities. When I launched my first book I would often have two days per week when I “couldn’t” write.
Taking inspiration from writer friends who shared their 500-word challenge on Facebook, I decided this had to change. I lowered my standards of what was an acceptable result for a day’s writing, but in exchange I expected myself to write every day. Whatever else happens, I will write 500 words every day. This doesn’t sound like a lot (which is why I let those words slip out of my grasp), but it adds up. 500 x 364 days (you can have Christmas off, if you like!) makes 182,000 words. It will depend what genre you write in, but for me, 182k words is two and a half books (my YA urban fantasy novels come in around 70k). Two and a half books from a measly 500 words a day, get in!
2. Write more in the time you have
You may be grumbling that it’s all very well for me, but what if you can’t write even 500 words in a day? Well, if you really want to fit them in but you only have a few minutes, I’m going to suggest the deceptively simple strategy of writing faster.
If I feel in any danger of procrastinating, or the deadline for the school run is drawing close and I haven’t written enough words, I use a timer. Twenty minutes of focussed writing rarely fails to net me at least 500 words. If you genuinely can’t find twenty minutes together, write 100 words in 5 minutes and do that five times. That can fit into time waiting for your bus, waiting for the pasta to cook while the kids play, or use your tea breaks. Scribble in a notepad or use the notes facility on your phone – you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve if you fill in time that’s usually wasted.
3. Write more useable words
Oh, but that’s horribly bitty – how are you supposed to keep your train of thought on a scene if you’re writing it in several sections? Best way to do it is to plan – which is also a great way to increase productivity by ensuring you don’t waste any (well, many; things will always change in the edit) of the words you write.
I’m releasing my third book in June (only just outside that 6 month window), but it could have been out in the world much earlier if I hadn’t spent so much time writing myself up blind alleys.
I don’t have time for that any more, so I’ve evolved from being a complete pantster (oh, the hours I spent staring at a blank screen and running out of ideas at the 20k point!) to planning very clearly. Before I start writing I know the overall shape of the book and key elements that have to happen in each chapter. Before I sit down to do my day’s writing (whether that’s 500 words or – hopefully – more), I sketch out the scene or scenes I’m about to write. Five or six lines outlining what’s about to happen makes writing a thousand word scene a straightforward proposition – I know what’s going to happen, I can see it in my mind’s eye; all I need to do is write it down so my reader can also see the scene.
Combining these three methods has had a dramatic effect. I drafted a 70k word novel in six weeks during November/December, revised it in January and it’s now with a beta reader. Onto the next and I’ve written 58k words of the first draft since February first. The third is already taking shape in my mind, so I hope by the end of the summer to have three books ready for editing, so they can be launched early in 2017.
4. Celebrate your words
As you can see above, as I write, I also fill up a grid with pretty stars (I have stickers, but couldn’t find them on 1st February, and I’ve been too focused on the words to look for them since!). Each square represents one thousand words, which can be split up to mark off 500 words if that’s all I’ve managed that day. When I’ve finished my writing I find the appropriate sharpie and star off however many words I’ve added to my first draft that day.
This provides a visual reminder of how much progress I’m making. Just as I like to have a written plan on post-it notes and a whiteboard, this provides a record away from the computer word count of how I’m doing. It’s incredibly, childishly satisfying to see a book take shape like this. And it’s a tool to help me keep going. If I’m flagging I can look at it and I know I don’t want to let myself down by giving up or telling myself it’s okay to miss a day. This sheet has had at least one star added every single day since February 1st – I can’t fail now.
5. Enjoy every word
Having just read back my post, I wanted to add a caveat. I’ve made this sound very focussed and driven. To a degree, that’s right because I am. I love writing, and getting my fiction into the hands of eager readers is all I’ve ever wanted to do. But at the same time, I’m doing this because I love it, not because I have to. I love every part of the writing process: thinking through the plot, getting to know my characters, drafting, writing, re-writing, editing. Writing should be a pleasure, and while sometimes it’s tough and you need to grit your teeth, you should never lose sight of why you took up writing or why you want to write this book you’ve started.
These methods work for me, right now. I hope they’ll continue to work for me so I can write three books a year for as long as I can hold a pen and think up stories. But, I’d still be writing even if I thought I could only write one a year, or half a year.
Like all writing advice, if these methods strike a chord, try them and see if they can help you write more. But if they don’t work, or if you don’t want to write at this rate, then don’t.
It’s your book, write it your way.
If you try these methods, or if you do something different to get the words out, I’d love to hear about it. Please comment below.
… tea, chocolate, and desperation (oh, and Post-it notes).
Tea. I’m British, and this is the national curative. Just been in a minor accident? I’ll make you a cup of sweet tea for the shock. Bad exam results? Have a nice cup of tea and remember there’s always re-takes. Leg bitten off by a crocodile? Don’t worry, have a nice cup of tea while I wind this tourniquet around the stump of your leg and you’ll soon be feeling much more the thing… While writing tea keeps me going, and a pause for a cup of tea enforces a few minutes’ break during which my tea-lubricated mind can find something to fill in plot holes and generate a few ‘ah-ha’ moments.
Chocolate. My writing is fuelled by a fairly random reward and punishment system which depends largely on how I feel at the time I’m writing. On a good day, all that’s needed is to let the muse flow through me, the words to add up on the computer, and to note each shiny, new one thousand words with a sticker to show I’m making progress. On days where the words have dried up and the plot descended to implausible treacle, chocolate is required: once I’ve written a thousand words I can have a chocolate brazil. Or maybe once I’ve written 500 words. On truly desperate days, a sentence earns it. Chocolate ensures progress when nothing else can.
Desperation. I was the class swot. During my educational career, every single essay or piece of work was in early or on time (there was one exception, which stands out precisely because of its singularity, that simply goes to show I’m human, although a swot). Those early, ingrained habits show up now in my writing life (case in point: this blog post was actually drafted a week ago in dread of running out of things to say). To finish a book, all I needed to do was set a deadline for publication and watch myself get more and more focused as the date drew nearer with the thunderous drone of stampeding animals.
Which brings me nicely to: Post-It notes. There are backs of envelopes and scraps of paper, but I know I wouldn’t be half as productive without Post-It notes. Invaluable not only for plotting stories, they came into their own as I organised all the other jobs self-publishing requires, creating to-do lists which I could screw up in glint-eyed delight once I’d performed the task scribbled on it.
So, those are my four cornerstones. Anything you wouldn’t be without while writing?
I always write with music on in the background. Writers have strong feelings about this. Like plotter-vs-pantster debates, fellow writers either consider music a vital adjunct to the creative process, or a barbaric derailment of inspirational flow. While I’m sure I could write without music I like to have some noise going on in the background (largely, I suspect, because it enables me to talk to myself without it being obvious). A lot of the time I just have the radio on, but every book will attract to itself a tune or tunes that particularly resonate.
For The Last Dreamseer, that tune was Florence and the Machine’s RabbitHeart (have a listen, courtesy of YouTube):
Because I’m a writer and I adore language and words, it’s always the lyrics of a song that make me fall in love with it, and the words of Rabbit Heart really struck a chord as I was writing The Last Dreamseer. My heroine, Deena, starts the story as a completely “rabbit-hearted girl”, scared of everything (with good reason since she is blessed/cursed with a gift that has had a very high price attached). During the course of the story she learns to take control of her strengths and grows from being the lamb to becoming the knife. You know, this song could have been written for her…
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been pretty busy with the nitty-gritty of publishing lately. The Last Dreamseer is now live at e-retailers and ready to launch on 27th November (yippee!), but the pace hasn’t let up as I’ve been liaising with friends who have kindly agreed to blog on my behalf to publicise the launch, as well as writing interviews and planning my own tweets and blogs and press releases.
So, it’s been hectic, but hugely enjoyable – writing is what I love most and I haven’t yet found any activity linked to writing or getting published that I actively loathe (some I’m not keen on, but I can see their advantage, so I just grit my teeth and get on the other side of them).
Aside from the nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something (I don’t think that’ll ever go away) I’m pretty satisfied that my to-do list tells me it’s all under control. What I really needed was to get away from my PC to stop worrying about what else I could/should be doing, and relax.
So, I borrowed a dog and went here today.
I love autumn – season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and all that. It’s always struck me as a calm, relaxing season when things start to wind down, which maybe appeals because it’s the opposite of rarely-calm, finds-it-impossible-to-relax me. It was a particularly beautiful autumn day today – cold, but with clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine which reminded me what a beautiful planet we share, and how lucky I am to live in such a peaceful and well-cared-for corner of it.
I returned home with frozen fingers but feeling more relaxed than I have for a long time. Stress levels are at minimal and energy stoked to the max, ready for the next thing – The Last Dreamseer‘s launch, and then revisions for my next novel because relaxing is all very well, but I couldn’t do it for days on end.
I am in the thick of final, final, FINAL proofing for my next novel, The Last Dreamseer.
Somehow, I thought it would be quicker than this. I’ll explain my editing process: I’ve written the book, had writer friends look at it, revised and revised again. It’s then been to a professional editor for substantive edits (what’s wrong with the plot/characters), and revised. And then to a line editor (what’s wrong with the sentences), and revised. It’s then been printed out and read through by me, as well as being proofed by two professionals and fed through my Kindle to catch any errors I couldn’t see on the PC screen. I’ve then gone through the formatting, so all that was needed was to upload the final version to my retailers (Amazon and Smashwords).
I thought it would take me maybe an hour.
It’s the oddest thing, but reading it through on the Amazon on-line checker made me see all manner of repetitions (and a few, plain, good-old typos) that had managed to escape all the eyes that have looked through the book so far.
Finally, it’s now done and uploaded and I’m relieved to see the back of it, if I’m honest.
Because the thing is, writing is the kind of art that doesn’t ever have to be finished. As well as checking for typos and errors, I was also aware of my fingers twitching over the keyboard, while my mind nagged at me, “Is that the right verb? Are you sure?” and “Maybe that scene would be better if it took place outside instead of in her room.”
I had to grit my teeth and stop myself making some unnecessary changes, thankful that I had a deadline because otherwise I might still be tinkering with the thing on my deathbed.
So that’s my tip for this week. If you have a piece you can’t stop messing about with, but you’re confident it is, fundamentally, fine as it is, then set yourself a deadline and move on. Publish it, if you plan to self-publish, or get it sent off to agents and editors.
And then move on to the next. Because that’s the other ‘always’ – there’ll always be another story to write.
As my adventures in self-publishing continue, I’m learning (slowly) how to juggle the many hats I need to wear. Key, for me, is to have the discipline to change hats and not keep the same one on all day.
I love writing, and I’d be very happy to become a stereotypical writer, sitting in a garret pecking at a keyboard all day and rarely interacting with another, real-life human being.
But that sort of behaviour isn’t going to get my books an audience. I have to be a bit more sociable and leave the computer (and my characters – sob!) to fend for themselves now and then while I do all the other tasks needed to bring a book to market.
I’ve found a fairly straightforward “divide and conquer” rules works for me. New words get written in the morning, then after lunch I deal with administration – which can be putting together images for a Facebook advert, formatting my new release ready to press the publish button, or writing of a different form – a blog post, or an e-mail to my reader group.
So far, it’s working, although next on my list is learning to manage my eternal optimism – I always think I’m going to get far more done than I can, and I look at the clock in disbelief when it’s time to stop working and put on my mum hat while my to-do list is still scrolling off the edge of my desk!
I haven’t blogged for a few weeks. I have a couple of good excuses – I’ve been crazy busy finishing the dirty draft of one novel and working on edits for another. Since I’m a writer, it’s good to be busy with writing.
However, since I’m a self-published writer, it isn’t so good that I’ve also been silenced by indecision as I’ve tried to create marketing words rather than book words. This hasn’t only affected my blog. I spent a considerable amount of money at the start of the summer on a marketing course. It’s now past the middle of October and I have yet to put the great ideas I’ve learned about into practise because I’m not quite sure what I should say when I’m pitching myself to my ‘audience’.
I’m calling it marketer’s block. Every idea I have is instantly shot down in my head as being not witty, captivating or commercial enough, whether it’s a blog post or a newsletter article or a Facebook advert.
Now, I don’t have any patience with writer’s block – if you don’t know what to write, just write something. Write anything, because once it’s down on paper you can knock it into shape. I think because my marketing skills are so new (I’ve been writing stories since I could write, whereas marketing only started this year) I didn’t have the confidence to do the same.
But that’s changing now. I’m not going to second-guess myself any more. Writing a blog post, or an author newsletter, or an advert is just the same as writing a story – get it down, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to sparkle from the start, because you can always make it shine when you edit.
We writers are an insecure bunch, but perhaps that’s not surprising. The average development of a book goes as follows:
1. I’ve had this AMAZING idea!
2. Oh wow, this book is going to knock the world’s socks off!
3. Er, this isn’t coming out how I thought it would.
4. This is awful.
5. I’m going to give up writing and herd yaks in Tibet instead.
6. Oh, it’s done.
7. Hmm, maybe it’s not so bad after all.
… so a little bit of emotional volatility is perhaps to be expected.
As a result we crave feedback. You’ll have seen writers on twitter and facebook saying how much they appreciate reviews because it helps with their books’ discoverability. Yeah … it also helps with the writer’s desperate need to feel that someone else “gets” what they’ve written.
But it’s not just insecurity. Writing a book is a big commitment which can take 6, 9, 12 months, or even longer. We want to know all that time and energy hasn’t been in vain.
Which is a long preamble to get to my point of saying how very delighted I was to hear this week that The Last Gatekeeper has received the endorsement of a BRAG medallion. The indieBRAG organisation exists to discover and promote high-quality self-published books. This makes them sound like a lot of commercial promotional organisations but indieBRAG won’t promote a self-published book just for the asking – books submitted to them are assessed comprehensively to check their quality – covering fundamentals such as copy-editing and proof-reading, but also examining plot, characters and writing style. Books are read by three readers who have to agree that they would recommend the book to a friend in order for it to gain a BRAG medallion. 90% of books submitted don’t meet this high standard, which makes gaining the honour that bit more special.
Featuring on the http://www.bragmedallion.com site (scroll down to “newest honorees”) and gaining the indieBRAG endorsement should help The Last Gatekeeper reach more readers, and I hope it does. But I have to confess – it’s also reassured my own, insecure inner critic that I haven’t wasted my time writing The Last Gatekeeper because, actually, it’s a little bit better than not so bad after all!
The thing is, until someone who does know points it out to you, you often don’t know what it is you don’t know.
Using experts – and/or the perils of not doing so – is a common theme in self-publishing discussions. Most people agree that not paying for professional help in editing and cover design is a false economy and I had no hesitation in paying for professional support when I decided to self-publish – I knew I didn’t know enough to even begin to do a competent job.
That I’ve taken the right approach was confirmed this week. I love my cover (created by the incredibly talented JD Smith design – check out her Facebook page which is filled with objects of beauty), and I’ve had lots of compliments on it so other people seem to like it, too. So I entered it in The Book Designer’s monthly awards to get a professional view.
I’m delighted to say The Book Designer loved my cover and awarded it a gold star, but looking through all the entries (if you have some spare time, it really is an education to scroll through and check out the covers alongside the comments – from writers/designers and from Joel, the Book Designer) I was reminded of how little I know about cover design. I might nod, ‘that’s nice’ at a cover, or pull a face at one that looks amateur to my untrained eyes, but reading the comments gives an insight into why they are good or bad – and it’s usually not things I would have picked up on.
For example, my own cover got the comment, ‘especially nice type treatment for the title’. Hmm, yes, I like the font, too – but I know I’d never be able to pick it out from the million other fonts out there as right for my genre (YA fantasy) and right for my cover – and once the font’s chosen there’s also the arrangement of the words and the spacing: all JD Smith’s skill. That’s exactly why I hired a professional – I don’t know how to do this myself and I don’t have the desire to learn it; I’d much rather hire in expertise.
And that’s in no way a shameful admission. I’m a professional writer. That’s where my talent lies, and that’s where my energy is focussed – on becoming an ever-better writer. When I became a professional self-publisher I recognised that just as there’s more to writing than friends who casually confess their intention to write a book ‘some day’ realise, so there is also a lot more to publishing than simply writing the book.
Writing may be a solitary activity, but publishing is definitely a group effort. As writer I do my part to the best of my abilities … and then delegate everything else to people who know much more than I do. That approach works, and I intend to stick with it.
I’m curious – are there other writers out there who are glad they used a professional cover designer – or who didn’t and now wish they had?