Fast, cheap and good – but only two at a time

There’s this thing called the Designer’s Holy Triangle. The three sides of the triangle are labelled fast, cheap and good‌—‌but it is only possible to use two at a time. According to this idea, you cannot have something that is high quality and at a reasonable price if you also want it quickly.

good-cheap-fast sign

The Problem

I read a collaborative book recently that made me relate this to writing. The authors worked very fast on this book, going from idea to finished project in something like a month. The writing itself took five days (or so I believe), and editing about another week.

It’s an enjoyable book. It’s fairly short, fast paced, and held my interest the whole way through. But something bothered me as I read it.

It could have been so much better. I’m no expert, but I spotted so many minor adjustments that would have made the writing stronger. Some of the phrasing felt clumsy. The characters’ actions didn’t always ring true. And too often it fell into ‘describing what was happening’ instead of giving me a well-written scene.

In my view, the book could have done with at least one more editing pass, possibly more. The problems weren’t major, but they were enough to drag it down to ‘meh’ when it could have been ‘wow!’

Supply And Demand

But fast, at least in indie publishing, is often seen as a necessity. According to some, if you don’t release a book each month you’ll be left behind. People talk of Amazon’s 30-day cliff, after which a book doesn’t get as much organic publicity, so you need a new book out to keep the interest up. Readers, hungry for more, contact authors to ask when the next in a series is out, and authors feel pressurised to keep their stories coming.

There is a strong argument in favour of this workrate‌—‌supply and demand. It’s giving the readers what they want, or at least what they say they want. And there are writers who consistently produce a book a month. There are those who have turned writing into an industry. And this can apply to traditionally-published authors as well. Apparently, Lee Childs’ books are polished first drafts. James Patterson uses collaboration to create a constant stream of new product. And authors like Stephen King and Brandon Sanderson are capable of writing thick tomes in months rather than years.

But there are many who argue that a book should take at least a year to write, and moving any quicker makes you a hack. They argue that a book written too fast will automatically be rubbish. They say that real quality takes time.

There is some validity in this. Writing a decent book or story is far more involved than simply putting down the words, and a rush job is more likely to have rough edges. But I don’t think it necessarily holds that a book written fast is any worse than one written over a longer time period.

laptop-820274_640Everyone is different. Every writer works in their own way. Some are able to achieve a flow state, and the words fly from their fingers. Some use dictation to work at 5000 words per hour on their first drafts. There are those who plan meticulously before they start writing, and so there is not as much structural work required later (and I believe this is Lee Child’s method). And others are simply capable of putting in ten hours of work on their books every single day.

Then there are authors who agonise over every word they type, and who will spend a couple of hours honing each sentence. There are those who seek perfection in every phrase, and who will discard pages as they go.

A book a year might be a guideline, or an average, but how many people are average?

But, as I said before, there is pressure on the independently published author to churn the books out. And with this pressure, I believe there are too many writers who are skimping on editing.

I’m not talking about typos, or about hiring a developmental and a copy editor. Yes, these things can clearly help (especially having other, expert eyes looking at the book). But from what I have read, many writers could do with spending more time on self-editing.

I don’t class myself as an expert, and I know I have so much more to learn about writing, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve spotted an easy way to improve a book. I’ll notice repeated words, and come up with alternatives. I’ll think about how the story could be restructured to have a stronger impact on the reader. I’ll cringe at unwieldy dialogue, imagine how someone would actually say something similar, and wonder why the writer didn’t put that down instead.

Yet these books sell as they are. Reading the reviews, many people love them. So maybe I’m in a minority here. If these stories have an avid and eager audience, who loses out with these ‘could be better’ books?

Minimal Viable Product

Short-term, it looks like the only losers are those who spend longer on their books. Without the constant ‘here I am again’ factor of regular releases over the year, each new book needs more of a marketing boost, and slow writers can easily slip from even their fans’ minds.

But long-term, things aren’t as clear.

There’s a concept called ‘minimal viable product’. If you’re producing something for public consumption, be that an object (physical or electronic) or a service, you work out what the basic model is, release this, and then work on refining it as you build an audience or customer base. There’s a lot to be said for this, and with digital products it is easy to make minor adjustments over time. Think of all the software and apps that are released and then constantly updated as they are tweaked and improved. And these improvements are based on real-time customer feedback. The first release no longer needs to be a perfect product.

But does this work with books? How many of the fast writers go back and refine already published works? Generally, by the time feedback comes in on one book, they’re already onto the next, or the one after that. Returning to an old product would slow their momentum. And so, in the majority of cases, the ‘minimal viable product’ is also the final product.

Again, if people are happy with this, where’s the problem?

Expectations

I’d argue that the problem involves expectations of quality.

Imagine someone who is budget-conscious. They want to cut their food bill. One suggested way of doing this is to buy slightly less expensive products‌—‌not jumping straight to the budget range, but simply moving down a notch. The difference won’t be massive, and over time you’ll become accustomed to the less expensive brand. And then, you can down-grade again.

This saves money. And it also gets you accustomed to lower quality.

food-686922_1280But in books (in fact, in any art), this becomes problematic. Good art has a long-lasting appeal. Well-written books can be re-read countless times and still feel fresh. Classics last forever.

Popcorn is great for a few minutes, but it goes stale far too quickly.

If someone wants to write a book for the particular moment, that’s fine. But I think that most writers want their work to have some kind of a shelf-life. Even in indie-publishing circles, where fast is encouraged, part of the reason for this is to build up a library. Those older books become catalogue, and the aim is to continue selling them. An old book is always new to someone discovering it for the first time. But for a book to last, it has to be of a decent quality.

And yes, I have already argued that fast writing can produce quality books. But there is a difference between ‘good’ and ‘great’, and maybe this is where that extra work comes in.
I’m reminded here of the 80/20 rule (at least, one of the ways of understanding it). This states that 80% of the work comes from 20% of the effort‌—‌or, to put it another way, getting the final 20% of something done will take 80% of the time. People use this to argue that it is more time- and cost-effective to work to 80%, and that the returns for reaching closer to 100% are simply not worth it.

80% is pretty good. An 80% story will be enjoyable. It will be of good quality. I’m quite happy reading 80% books, although I’ll probably only read them once.

Perfection Is The Enemy Of Done (And Done Is The Enemy Of Perfection)

Another phrase I’ve heard‌—‌‘perfection is the enemy of done’. Spend too long refining a book, and you’ll never be finished. How many perfect books are there in the world? How many classics can any one writer produce?

I’m aiming for the middle ground. I know my own writing won’t be perfect, but I’, working on it being as good as I can make it. And, for me, that means more than writing a first draft and then doing some quick cosmetic editing. It means looking at the story structure. It means throwing away sections that don’t work. It means re-writing huge chunks.

I don’t want to go years between releases. But neither do I want to bring out books too quickly if they are not the best I can do.

And when I’m reading? If I read a good book, I’ll want more from that author. But I’d rather wait for ‘wow’ than settle for ‘meh’.

New short story

There’s a new short story to read. It’s called Ghost, and I’m not going to even hint what it’s about‌—‌you’ll have to read it for yourself. You can find it here.

If this piques your interest, I’ve got more short stories freely available. Click here for the full list.

And, as always, I’d love to know what you think. Contact me, or add a comment.

What I learned from reading ‘Tube Riders’

TubeRiders_series

I recently read the Tube Riders trilogy by Chris Ward, and I loved the books. It’s great when I come across an author who blows me away like this‌‌—‌it makes reading all those ‘so-so’ books (and worse) worth it all when you find a true gem.

I posted a short review on Goodreads (you can check it out here), but that looks at the trilogy from a reader’s perspective. However, while reading the books, there was so much I picked up on as a writer. As well as being enjoyable, entertaining reads, they were also instructive. Below are a few of the things that stood out.

Characters

I love the way the characters were written in these books. They are all three-dimensional, and they all change over time. When their is dialogue, they have distinctive voices. And they also all have their faults as well as their strengths.

An obvious example is the character of Stitch. He is one of the Tube Riders, which makes him one of the heroes, but he has a nasty side, and at times he comes across as very selfish. Or maybe he’s so used to having to look out for himself that others are secondary‌—‌after painting him as a slightly unsavoury character, we get a glimpse of the hardness of his life. It’s easy to understand why he’s wary of anyone new, and maybe we can understand why someone like Stitch would use violence to solve his problems.

Yet he is also loyal, and throughout the books you kind of know he will come through for the others in the end.

Then there are the baddies.

In the first book, one of the agents after the Tube Riders is Clayton. He wants to capture them, so he’s clearly a baddie. But he’s working for the government because he believes that is the right thing to do. And, as that first book progresses, he comes up against other government agents, and we see how not all ‘baddies’ are the same. Clayton is not mindlessly following orders‌—‌he genuinely wants to do what he believes to be right. And this brings him into conflict with other government agents, even though they are ‘on the same side’.

More interesting is the Governor. He’s the main villain of the trilogy, but the way he is written it is clear that he also believes in what he is doing. He is not afraid of making hard decisions, and is willing to make sacrifices (of others) for the greater good. And we get glimpses of his true motivations, which make us question our assumptions, at least for a while. Is he really evil, or just misguided? As the trilogy progresses, and he seems to become more unhinged, there was a part of me that wanted him to make the right decision, and to turn his back on his wrongdoing. Even up to the end, he has the potential for redemption.

I’m not going to say how he ends up‌—‌you’ll have to read the books to find out.

Nobody Is Safe

The protagonists in these books are young, but they are in a tough situation. Their world is nasty, and they take risks in part because of this. Death is in the air, even in their hobby of tube riding (jumping and ‘riding’ moving trains before leaping off to safety). In the first chapter, we hear of those who have died doing this.

But the heroes won’t die, right? They all need to survive to the end, don’t they?

In many books, that would be true. But Chris Ward does something near the start of Tube Riders that lets us know that nobody is safe.

I’m going to give a little of the story away, so if you want to read the books without spoilers, skip down to the next section. But this is something that happens near the start, so it’s not like I’m giving any of the main plot points away.

The Tube Riders have rivals, in the form of the Train Jumpers. Instead of leaping onto moving trains, they jump from platform to platform in front of trains, aiming to get as close as they can. The Train Jumpers hate the Tube Riders. And if that sound like petty, childish behaviour, remember that these characters are teens and young adults‌—‌acting childish is in their nature.

One of the Tube Riders feels dissatisfied with his gang, and he goes to the Train Jumpers, betraying his old gang. It’s a bit of a shock, so soon into the story. It makes us question the loyalty of all the Tube Riders‌—‌if one of them can defect, so could others.

Then something worse happens. The Jumpers seem to accept him, and as an initiation he has to join them in a jump. Yet this is a set-up. He is pushed as he is about to jump, and he falls under the train.

He’s only in the book for a few chapters, but he was one of the Tube Riders. He was one of the heroes. And now he’s dead. The stakes are raised for all the others‌—‌if one of the Tube Riders can die, none of them are safe.

This sets up more deaths as the books progress, and those deaths underline the overall uncertainty. It’s the same thing George RR Martin pulled in his Game Of Thrones books‌—‌kill off a main character, then nobody is safe.

The reader is no longer assured a happy ending.

A Trilogy Of Complete Stories

I was impressed with the structure of this trilogy. The story unfolds, with more and more intrigue and questions blossoming in the first book. Obviously, not all of these questions can be answered in a single book. You know, as a reader, that things will only be resolved at the end of the third book.

Yet there is no major cliffhanger between books. In each part of the trilogy, there is an arc, with its own satisfying conclusion.

This is so different to many other series I’ve read. Often, an ending seems in sight, but the author swerves at the very last moment, and leaves the main character in jeopardy. Sometimes, I’ll reach the end of a book, and it feels incomplete, like the author has simply chopped up a larger story.

This annoys me. Yes, leave questions unanswered. But I expect a book to end. I expect the author to craft a good story with a satisfying payoff at the end, even if I know there is more to come.

Chris Ward, as I have said above, manages to pull this off. If I read these books individually, over a year or so as they were released, I would not feel let down. I would close each one with a good feeling while still be anticipating the next one.

How does he manage this? By focusing on the main arc of that story. In the first book, the Tube Riders are trying to escape. Yes, we learn more about the Governor, and there are hints at what he is planning. There are characters who we just know have more of a part to play later on. But the escape is important, and when this arc is completed (spoiler alert‌—‌they escape), the book is finished.

As a trilogy, the conclusion works, although there is scope for more books (as you would expect with such an interesting world and a rich cast of characters). I understand that the author does not intend to write more sequels, but has not ruled out other stories set in the same world (in fact, there is a fourth book, filling in some of the time between the second and third in the trilogy. I’ll let you know what I think of this when I’ve read it).

The Writing Itself

I love the writing in these books.

We see events through different characters, and the prose in each character’s section has their voice, putting us in their heads wonderfully. As an example, when we are with Stitch, there is far more cursing in the descriptions, fitting his character. The Governor is colder, with less emotion in what he sees.

The dialogue feels so natural. I’ve already mentioned how characters have their own voices, but there was something else about the dialogue that impressed me. Often, rather than writing loads of history or backstory, authors will use dialogue to give the reader this information. However, this often feels unnatural and stilted. Not so in these books. The info-dumps are a natural part of the conversations, and we learn what the characters are learning.

There is a great deal of action in these books. This is promised from the very first scene, with the Tube Riders partaking of their potentially lethal hobby. Later there are chases, fights on the tops of moving trains,beatings, and loads of other exciting stuff.

I’ve read far too many books where the action reads like a description of a film‌—‌blow-by-blow fights, or sequences that simply have too much detail. And writing like that becomes tiresome very fast.

Chris Ward doesn’t fall into this trap. In every action scene, we stay with a main character, and experience it through their senses, filtered through their emotions. We might never see the bigger picture, but the chaos surrounding a scared individual fighting for their lives had far more impact, getting the adrenaline flowing and the heart pumping. And there is a reason for every action scene. We learn, through the fights, more about the characters, or about the world around them.

The action is not added simply to make the books more interesting. It is integral to the story, and the development of the characters.

TubeRiders_ChrisWardSo, there you have a few of the things I picked up on while reading the Tube Riders trilogy. As you can no doubt tell, I was impressed. I’m going to be following Chris Ward from now on, reading more of his books (and his newsletters — he asks some interesting questions). He’s my kind of author‌—‌exciting, entertaining, and instructive.

If this has piqued your interest, check out his books here. The first book in the Tube Riders trilogy is free, so you have no excuse!

New anthology now live

Electromagnetism

Special news for those who like a scare with their technology.

I’ve got a short story in a new anthology, Electromagnetism, compiled by Samie Sands. It’s normally priced at 99p/c, but over the next couple of days it should be available for free through Amazon, so what have you got to lose (apart from a few sleepless nights)?

It’s also available in paperback (click here).

Download (or buy) the book, to read my story, Touch, along with ten other stories. At the moment, Touch is not available anywhere else.

 

E-book from Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com

Paperback from Amazon.co.uk / Amazon.com

New short story – ‘A Joke’

Another free short for you. This one’s called ‘A Joke‘, but don’t expect many laughs.

This was something of an experiment. I started with the line ‘a man walks into a bar’ (hence the title of the story), and wrote whatever came to mind. It ended up pretty dark and twisted, and strays into possible supernatural territory, but after editing it, I’m pleased with how it’s turned out. It’s even sparked ideas for more stories featuring Grim.

Hope you like it. Click here to read it, and I’d love to know what you think.

The indie-author’s ability to grow up in public

steps-1081909_640It’s interesting how different arts view the development of talent. In the visual arts, it is common for a painter’s early years to be regarded as training, or as an apprenticeship period. It is often later works that are more highly valued. Then there are actors who mature with age, performing with more gravitas and filling larger roles. The ones who relied on their looks fall by the wayside, but the ones who worked at their craft and developed their acting skills earn increasing respect.

Music is a little different. In some circles (’art’ music as opposed to ‘popular’ music, if you care for such distinctions), it is expected that a musician will improve with age. But in more popular circles, the instant impact is all-important. A band who do not have a massive hit with their first song are deemed failures, and it is common for record companies to drop bands if their debut does not live up to a certain sales-related standard. Sometimes, only breaking the top ten, rather than reaching number one, is seen as a failure.

It was not always this way, though. Fifty years ago, record companies were more likely to see a new signing as an investment. The first couple of albums might not be that successful, but they lay the groundwork for the third and fourth. If these more mature works didn’t catch the public’s attention, only then were the bands let go.

The perfect debut

Then we have books. There are so many examples of the authors who appeared to explode with a debut success, but struggled to find similar success with subsequent books. Think of Alex Garland‌—‍his debut, The Beach, was a popular hit, but how many people have read, or even heard of, The Tesseract (or The Coma)? Then there’s someone like Joseph Heller, who was never able to match the commercial success of Catch 22 (and even used his experiences of this as the basis for one of his later books, Portrait Of An Artist As An Old Man).

But viewed logically this makes no sense at all. Writing is a skill, and it takes time and practice to develop it. Surely, the more someone writes, and the more intention they place on improving their craft, the better their writing will be. It seems evident that later books should be far superior to earlier ones.

Terry_PratchettTerry Pratchett is a case in point. He wrote a few books before starting on the Discworld series, but they are not a patch on his later works. Even with the Discworld series itself, it took him quite a few books before he got into his stride. The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic are still Pratchett, but nowhere near as good as many of the later ones.

Yet it seems that publishing companies are still searching for that impressive debut. They are still after the runaway success by the unknown author. It takes time and, more importantly, money to nurture a talent, so it makes far more business sense to have a success from the very start. When the public are always after novelty (while also looking for familiarity, but that’s a whole other issue), ‘another’ book by a mediocre author doesn’t stand a chance of being noticed.

As a side-note, I’m not placing blame on the publishers. They are in business, and they are doing what they need to do in order to survive. As much as they care about the artistic side of books, the bottom line will always be profit.

Many authors get dropped, and the publishing companies lose money on these authors. But some shine through. There are the runaway successes, the rags-to-riches stories that capture the imagination of the public as much as the written words themselves. And this is what the publishing companies appear to be searching for.

Maybe this puts too much pressure on the successful debut author, thrust into this strange world of being touted as a genius, even if the advance has already been spent, and the endless promotion gives little time for working on the next book. Maybe that is, at least in part, why so many struggle with the second book, and the third. Maybe too many are finding it impossible to reach the heights others have elevated them to.

But in independent publishing the story is different.

The debut as a starting point

I read loads of books by independently published authors now (and it is not always clear from the writing‌—‍I have read excellent books that authors have published themselves, as well as clunkers published by the big houses), and it has been interesting to see how some authors have developed over the years. I’ve read many of the Sean Platt/Johnny B Truant books, and there’s such a clear improvement in their writing. Unicorn Western is great fun, but the character interplay in last year’s Devil May Care is writing of a far higher standard.

BeatrixRose_seriesAnother example is Mark Dawson. A well-known name in independent publishing due to his marketing strategies, he has been writing thrillers for years, and did in fact start off in traditional publishing. I’ve read quite a few of his books over the last few years. I got some of his earlier ones for free, and although the stories rattled along at a good pace, I didn’t initially think they were anything special. Not bad, but not excellent either.

Then I went to his more recent Beatrix Rose books, and it felt like his writing had stepped up a level. There was more depth to the characters, and Beatrix’ personal journey was well integrated into the external plot. The writing itself was smoother‌—‍those odd passages that sounded clunky had now disappeared. Now, I’m eager to read more.

I wonder if Mark Dawson would have reached this level of writing if he hadn’t gone the independent-publishing route. I can’t help thinking he’d be spending his time querying agents and editors, and building up a string of rejection letters, rather than working on his writing. I don’t know how long his earlier books took him to write, but it’s probably a fair assumption that, now that he has total control over his career, he is able to finish books far quicker. If one book isn’t as good as he might like (although I’m sure each book is the best he can make it at the time), there will still be readers who will enjoy it. Some might pick up on ‘poor writing’, but many more will simply enjoy the story, and be contacting Mark to ask when the next book will be out. And he’ll be working on that next book, using what he has learnt to make sure the new work is better than what he’s produced before.

And this, maybe, is how it should be. Yes, there will be those outliers who produce a near-perfect debut, and struggle to reach that height again. But for most authors, writing is a constant process of learning. However successful (whatever that means) those first few books are, the later ones should naturally be an improvement.

This is something I need to keep in mind for my own writing.

editing-1756958_640Recently I formatted a PDF version of my first Dominions novel, and I was almost embarrassed by some of the sentences I saw. I had to stop myself from going through it line by line, because I knew I’d find so much‌—‍too much‌—‍I could improve. In the last two years, just through the process of writing more and working at my craft, I’ve grown as a writer.

I could go back and make that first book better, but then I’d be tempted to ‘fix’ the others as well. But how productive would that be? If I kept these files to myself, tinkering away until they were perfect, they’d never see the light of day.

And I’m not sure that readers want ‘perfect’ anyway. They want a good story. They want a bit of escapism. Just look at how well certain ‘poorly written’ books do.

So far more sensible to write the best book I can at the moment, put it out for anyone who wants to read it, and then concentrate on the next one. That one won’t be perfect, but it will be a step closer. And in the meantime, there are readers who will enjoy these books.

The best way to improve as a writer is to write.