When you think about it, reading fiction is a strange activity. It involves staring at symbols on a page or screen, ignoring all distractions, and yet it can take us to other worlds. We take this static information in through our eyes, and allow it to run through out minds, and yet it can open up whole realms of sensations. It involves nothing but words, but it can have such a deep effect on us. And sometimes that effect is physical.
I’ve heard it said that there are two genres that specifically go for this physical effect — horror and erotica (maybe that’s why James Herbert always managed to include a sex scene in his horror books). I can’t comment on the latter, but I have read quite a bit of horror, especially as a teenager. Stephen King, James Herbert, Peter Straub, Clive Barker — I’d get through loads of this stuff, and sometimes, when I put the book down, I wouldn’t want to walk around the house without the lights on. I’d get that tingle, that nagging ‘something’s waiting in the dark’ feeling.
So I got goose-bumps, and a shiver running down my spine. But
one book took me further. One book stands out — Iain Banks’ debut novel, The Wasp Factory.
At the time it affected me so memorably, I was re-reading it. I’d enjoyed it first time round (strange how the word ‘enjoy’ can be used for something dark and disturbing), but couldn’t recall much of it. I was working shifts at the time, and needed something to keep me occupied on my breaks — and so, obviously, I took a book in to work, alongside my sandwiches.
So there I was, eating while I read another chapter, sitting on cheap plastic chairs in an empty factory canteen. And I reached a particular part of the book, where it describes the main character’s brother working in a hospital, looking after young children.
The scene (which I won’t even attempt to describe) was shocking, and as I read I felt my stomach churning. My cheeks puffed out with the sensation that I was about to vomit.
I had to stop reading for a while. I put the book down and let my stomach settle.
I wondered if there was something up with my sandwich, but it was fine. It wasn’t food that had made me feel nauseous, but words.
I returned to the book. I re-read that scene. It still made me feel uneasy.
Yet Banks didn’t describe any of the horrors I pictured in my head. There was a build-up, when the character realizes something is wrong. And then there is a jump, to a nurse entering the room and seeing the aftermath.
How could words make me feel ill, especially when so little had been described? How did Banks do it? He built up the scene, but he didn’t tell us exactly what was wrong. Only in the aftermath do we get a glimpse of it, and the whole thing is described in a few sentences (maybe even one — it’s a while since I’ve read it again).
Everything else is left to the imagination.
I believe that’s the key. If Banks had described the scene in detail, the words would have got in the way. I’m sure he would have written it well, but I doubt it would have had the same impact. Describing something is never as intimate as imagining it.
This idea works well in films. Compare the claustrophobic dread of Alien, where any dark spot in the shadows could be the creature, to the reduced impact in later films when the aliens are seen in their entirety. Think of the way the shark in Jaws is never seen for the first hour of the film, yet we know this unseen terror is there, waiting for its moment to strike. Think of the ending of Seven, where we never see what is in the box (despite what some people still believe), but our imagination fills in the blanks.
It’s arguably far harder to do in books, but writers like Iain Banks shows that is is possible. By describing around a scene, our imaginations are let loose, and the horrors we can summon up are far more personal. By choosing just the right words, an author like Banks can guide our thoughts to darker places. By using suggestion and hints, a great author can give a scene such startling realism that we become physically part of the world they have created.
Sitting in that factory canteen in the middle of the night, I realized for the first time how words could trigger not only our minds but also our bodies.
And that book still impresses me. It has to. Other books have made me question things, or set my pulse racing. Other books have scared the hell out of me, or made me feel good about myself. But no other book has brought me so close to throwing up.
I should write a review for it, and limit myself to a couple of sentences. ‘This book almost made me lose my lunch. Five stars.’
I’ve finally managed it! I’ve got a book out. I can go to Amazon (or Kobo, or a few other places) and see it, and it feels fantastic!
It’s taken over a year and a half, and it’s been a lot more work than I initially thought.
Back in January 2015, when I decided to get serious about writing, I didn’t think I was being naive. I knew I couldn’t type out a first draft and expect it to be good enough to publish. I knew there would be rewrites and edits.
But there was so much more. I learnt about it gradually, and started to see just how much was involved in creating a book.
The first draft of this novel (Dark Glass) came pretty quickly. I’d had the ideas fermenting in my mind for some time, so the story itself wasn’t a problem, and I was working on it enthusiastically. Things were progressing well, and I thought I’d get the first draft finished in a month, take another couple of months to polish it up, and have it for sale by early spring.
I started editing. There were big chunks that needed changing, and the edits were more in-depth than I initially thought. I started reading more and more books on the craft of writing, and spotted more areas where I could improve my story. By the summer, I still wasn’t happy with it.
I also learnt about the business side of publishing. I wanted to go the self-published route rather than looking for an agent and a traditional deal. I knew it would be hard, and I started to listen to various podcasts and read books and blog posts about self-publishing. They talked about external editors, and covers, and all kinds of stuff I hadn’t even considered (like funnels, lists and CTAs).
I found an editor and nervously sent off my manuscript (by this time it was as good as I felt I could get it). I wondered how it would come back, almost dreading the amount of errors that were sure to be uncovered. It felt like being at school, waiting for the paper to be returned with streams of red ink.
There was not as much as I feared, though. There were mistakes — some I hadn’t even considered, and others that I was mentally kicking myself for not spotting. And I learnt through this. I found I enjoyed the process, and I felt my writing improve with what I learnt. Maybe it was my attitude, or maybe I simply lucked out and found a good editor to work with.
But good text does not make a good book. If there was one clear thing from all I was learning about marketing, it was the importance of a good cover. You know that stuff about never judging a book by its cover? Turns out this is exactly what everyone does. If I wanted this book to be good, I needed a well-designed cover.
This was something I knew I couldn’t do myself. I did some research on-line, and came to understand that a cover was not about the story itself, but acted as an advert for the book. I found a design company, told them what I wanted, and they gave me some professional-looking covers — exactly what I was wanting.
I got more than one cover, though. I’d already started working on other books, all part of the same series, and I knew that the covers needed to work together, branding the series. It made sense to get all the covers done at the same time.
See, I was already starting to think beyond writing. I was already treating this as a business.
So, where was I now? I had the text of the book ready, I had a cover. Now for the e-book.
I’ve read a lot of e-books, and I know what I like to see in them. I like chapter headings to stand out. I like justified text, like I see in physical books. I like an e-book to look like some care and attention has gone into its creation.
I knew there were people out there who could format the book for me, but I started reading up on the whole area and realised I might be able to do this myself. E-books can be formatted using HTML, and I’ve got some prior experience of this (one of the ‘useless’ parts of my degree course that has come in handy a few times since).
So I learnt. And I managed to format the book myself. I created an epub and a mobi, and both looked fine.
But there was still more to do.
I needed to write a product description, something that would entice potential readers.
No problem, I thought. Just say what the book’s about, maybe hint at a few of the interesting bits, and that’s it. Half an hour, an hour tops.
There are people who get paid for writing things like product descriptions, and I soon understood why. In many ways, it’s harder writing a few short paragraphs of product description than writing the novel itself. Every word has to count. It has to be trimmed back to the bare minimum. It needs to excite and interest a reader, telling them what to expect without giving everything away.
I went over my product description I don’t know how many times. It’s still not great, but it’s the best I can do. I’m proud in a kind of ‘it’s the first time I’ve tried this, and I think it stands up with loads of others out there’ way.
The book’s formatted. Now all I had to do was put it out there.
Only I still wasn’t ready. I needed to let people know about it. I needed to get my name out there — or at least the name I’d chosen, TW Iain. I knew this would be hard. I’m not good at talking to people. Put me in a group of even a few, and I’ll slide into the background, listening but rarely making a noise. I’m happier on my own. So telling others about this book would be outside my comfort zone.
Even worse, I’d need to convince people to buy it. I’m fairly introverted, and I’m British (so I have the whole ‘ keeping quiet and not blowing my own trumpet’ thing). I can always spot flaws in what I’m doing, and see where others are better than me.
It’s something I’m still struggling with, but I realised I needed to do something. I needed a space where I could be myself, but where people who might like my books and my writing (and me?) could come.
I sorted out a website. I know it’s not great, but it’s fine for the moment (see what I mean about not blowing my own trumpet?). I’m blogging, and also putting up short stories. The stories are fun — not only are they something I can offer visitors to the site, but by limiting myself to 1000 words I’m also forcing myself to concentrate on my writing.
There is so much more I need to do here, though. I’m not great on social media. I’ll get into this, but not yet. I can’t do everything at once. There will be time later.
So, I’m ready to publish.
I already have an Amazon account, but I don’t want to limit myself. I’ve read all the Kindle Select pros and cons, and I’ve gone back and forth in my mind. But I’m looking long-term. I don’t want to be tied to one vendor. I want as many people to have the chance to discover this book as possible. So I need to go wide.
I sign up with Kobo and Draft2Digital (I’m in the UK, so using an aggregator like D2D is the only way to get into Barnes & Noble, and I don’t have a Mac so I can’t go direct with iBooks). And, over a couple of evenings, I get this book out into the world. Kobo’s a breeze (it almost feels too easy), D2D’s pretty simple, and Amazon’s more involved, but I get it done.
Then I wait for the e-mails telling me the book’s live. I click on the links.
There it is — my book, for sale in the biggest bookstores in the world. I’ve done it.
I started writing this book in January 2015 and now, at the start of September 2016, it’s a real thing.
And it feels great.
Of course, I’m not going to get complacent. I know this is only the beginning. Now the real work starts. Now I have to market and promote, and all those other scary words that make me realise this is a business, and I’m not even good at talking to people, so how the hell can I do this?
I know how I can do it. I can do it the same way I got the book out there — by learning from others, and by working at it. I’ll make mistakes, but that’s part of learning. I’ll only fail if I give up.
And I don’t want to do give up, because I’ve had so much fun bringing this book from idea to finished product. I want to keep on doing this.
When I think of that, I feel like a writer.
And now for a shameless plug: click here for more information on Dark Glass (Dominions I)
As the title says, Dark Glass (the first Dominions novel) is now available. You can find it in all major e-book stores (Kobo, Kindle, iBooks and so on).
The next two books in the series are due to be released in October and November.