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’.

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!

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.

The Trouble With Tropes

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to an old Writing Excuses podcast (I tend to save them up and listen to them in bulk). This one was exploring unconscious bias in books, especially gender bias. The hosts of the podcast argued that having characters (especially female characters) fulfilling stereotypical roles could be damaging, reinforcing negative norms, even (or especially) when this stereotyping was not a conscious decision of the writer. At one point Brandon Sanderson (one of the podcast hosts) explained how he’d chosen to go against the norm by having a strong female lead in his first Mistborn book, but that he’d unconsciously written all the rest of her team as male.

voidwraith_chrisfoxWrite To Market. This book details how he wrote his Void Wraith trilogy with the aim of hitting as many popular space opera tropes as he could, writing a book that would appeal to as many fans of that particular genre as possible. He initially wanted a powerful female lead, but his research indicated that most successful space opera books had a jaded, slightly older male as the main character. So he altered his character to conform to the popular trope.

Writing to market is nothing new. There has always been a strong push for writers to ‘give the readers what they want’. Popular wisdom suggests that the best way to discover what they want is to examine popular books in specific genres. And if the readers seem to want a male lead, then there is pressure on the writer to provide this.

Yet, as the Writing Excuses team argued, this could easily strengthen a gender bias that is not particularly healthy. So is it wrong to follow all the tropes?

Of course, not all genres lean towards male leads. Romance, for example, is predominantly written by and for females, and tends to focus on the female characters. But there are tropes in romance that are possibly unhealthy too. One of the strong tropes is the happily-ever-after‌—‌despite all the misunderstandings and anguish throughout the story, the couple get together at the end, and all is well.

Does this really matter? After all, this is fiction. It’s escapism. If it makes readers feel warm and fuzzy inside when they reach a nice happily-ever-after, where’s the harm?

But fiction can be powerful. Stories stick with us in a way simple facts don’t. Stories settle deep in our minds. We use stories to understand the world, and to justify our actions.

cloud-211724_1280There are many who argue that there is a link between violence in the arts and violence in real life. There are those who argue that what you see leads you to think and act in a certain way. There are those who feel that erotica and pornography (and yes, I do realise there is a distinction between these two) are unhealthy because of how they change the viewer/reader’s viewpoint and attitudes.

I’m not going spend time on these arguments here. Personally, I think most of them are far too simplistic. I can recall when there was a furore over an Ozzy Osbourne song back in the late eighties. Supposedly, the song was responsible for a teenager taking their own life, and there was a vocal minority who denounced the song as a danger to young minds (ignoring the fact that the song, ‘Suicide Solution’, was actually a song warning of the dangers of drink). But when I saw Ozzy perform this song live, as far as I could tell everyone in the audience was enjoying themselves.

But I do believe fiction can be powerful. Not in the blunt way that those who call for certain types of books to be banned, but in more subtle ways. Reading too many happily-ever-after endings could give rise to false expectations‌—‌not in the logical part of our brain, but deeper down. An excess of ‘love conquers all’ stories might lead someone to subconsciously believe that all they have to do is meet the right person and all their troubles will be over. Likewise, someone constantly reading stories where female characters are kick-ass, attractive, feisty and confident might start believing that they have to act like that if they want to be ‘a real woman’. A constant diet of films and books where the male and female leads end up in bed together can lead to an unrealistic view of male/female dynamics. And the James Bond character who always gets the girl? Maybe that’s subconsciously reinforcing the idea that only a certain type of man can have these kinds of conquests (and that there is no repercussion from these episodes).

But this is what we have come to expect. Even if we don’t recognise these as tropes (or are even aware of the word), we have come to see them as parts of certain stories. The mysterious wizard will be an old man. The world-weary detective (so often male) will have past demons that drive him to drink. The ditzy-but-attractive female will end up winning the day. The couple who start off at each others’ throats will end up in each others’ arms.

So many tropes. So many expectations. And because we are used to them, we feel cheated if they are missing, or if they are messed around with (unless this is done really well). Those who write are as susceptible to their pull as anyone else, and the tropes rise unbidden from the subconscious. The tropes reinforce themselves, becoming stronger all the time.

Maybe we only expect them because they exist in so many of the stories that we love. Repetition can easily lead to expectation. Ask Pavlov and his dogs about that.

problemSo are tropes bad? Should writers avoid them?

Tropes are tools. They are ways of understanding story structure. They are ways to explain why certain stories ‘work’. But they are only tools, nothing more. And a tool cannot be good or bad. It simply it.

Any value assigned to the tool comes from how it is used, and why.

And this, I believe, is why tropes can get a bad rap. It is why so many people have a bad reaction to phrases like ‘write to market’.

Yes, it is possible to follow what has been done before and craft a story that hits as many popular tropes as possible. Yes, it is possible to write a story purely with an eye to how it is going to perform financially. But doing so does not always (often?) produce a satisfying book. It might follow the tropes, but that doesn’t make it good, or worth reading.

Fox’s Void Wraith trilogy works not because he follows the tropes, but because he wrote good stories good stories. He didn’t write space opera purely because his research told him it was a fertile genre, but because he loves these kinds of stories. Yes, he altered his story to make it more market-ready. But he knew what he was doing, and he still focused on the basics, which was to write as good a story as he could. He used the tropes as a framework, and around this he wove the story he wanted to tell, and the story that excited him.

And his strong female character? She’s still there. Maybe not the central character, but still one who’s always close to the action, and pretty important to the story. Oh, and she’s a cat-based alien, and I’m pretty sure that isn’t a feature that came up in his write-to-market research. That’s pure Fox. And there are plenty of times in the book when the secondary female character is far more able than the ‘expected’ male lead.

So what’s the answer to the problem with tropes and bias? Ignore the trope and tackle issues head-on? Write books where everything is ‘perfect’, and spend more time to get that right than anything else? Or give the reader what they believe they want, because if they don’t read it from you, they’ll read it from someone else anyway?

Quick fixes and excuses.

The real answer? Don’t let tropes lead the story, or the characters. Use the tropes, don’t let them use you. When you write, question the decisions your characters make, or the choices that are thrust upon them. And when you read, question everything‌—‌maybe not enough to stop reading if you’re enjoying the book, but think about what you’ve read when you’ve finished. Don’t take everything you read lying down. Don’t take everything the author says as gospel, because they might not have been totally aware of how all their characters are acting. Question everything.

This is fiction, and it’s powerful stuff. It has the power to make us question what we believe, about the world and about ourselves. It has the power to force us to confront our own biases.

Fiction has the power to make us think, and to make us change.

It doesn’t have to be true, but I have to believe it.

Can you trust what you read in fiction?

Of course, fiction is not real. Stories, be they in books or on screen, are fabrications. But to draw us in, they have to have some believability. They have to have some kind of truth.

I found myself thinking about this recently, after I’d finished reading Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code (for me, one of those ‘must read at some point, if only to decide what I think of it’ books.) It reminded me of a couple of other books. The first was something that I’m not going to identify here, as I have very little positive things to say about it. The second was the late Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I read years ago and keep on meaning to re-read.

acient-planet-1841699_640These three books are connected by the fact that they all deal with topics that could be considered religious conspiracy theories. They all use biblical passages and other quotes to back up some fairly far-out ideas.

I’m not well-read in this area, and I have not done any of my own research into any of the ideas in these books. Some of them sound vaguely plausible, and others sound far too extreme. But in reading (and thinking about) these books, I started to see a pattern in which theories I found more believable.

The book I had downloaded years ago was okay, but nothing special. There were plenty of sections that could have benefited from an edit, and I was often pulled out of the story by the writing‌—‌not necessarily bad, just not that good. And the theories came across as unresearched, as if the author had made up the ideas himself, then used a few quotes in an attempt to give them some validity.

The Dan Brown book was well-structured and, while I wasn’t drawn in to the writing or the characters, the story rattled along at a good pace. There were loads of details, not only on the wild theories but also on places and historical events. And the book came across as well researched. If the ideas were off-the-wall, it at least felt as if the author had run them past others with more knowledge. In short, I trusted the ‘facts’ in this book far more than in the first one.

And then there was the literary Foucault’s Pendulum. Eco is undoubtedly intelligent. Even though the book is tongue-in-cheek, and reads as if Eco is having fun with all his ideas, the ‘facts’ come across as far more believable, even the throwaway ones.

So what do we have here?

  • A poorly written and poorly edited book, and the ‘facts’ come across as highly questionable.
  • A book by a mainstream, popular author, clearly edited, and the arguments come across as well-researched.
  • A book by a literary and intellectual author, and I trust the research it contains almost without question, even if I don’t agree with the conclusions.

I’ll repeat again that I have very little knowledge of religious conspiracies and such like, and have no easy way of telling which theories are from reliable or semi-reliable sources and which are obvious fabrications. Yet even knowing this, I instinctively trust those ‘facts’ that come from someone with a more scholarly demeanour. I instinctively trust someone who appears as an authority.

I think this is part of our nature. If someone talks or writes well, then we are more likely to take their words at face value. If they appear educated, we automatically assume they have done their research. If they tell their tale with skill, we are more likely to be drawn in and accept it as a possible truth.

Conversely, we are less likely to trust a story told by someone who shows deficiencies in their use of language. If they do not understand how to use speech marks or commas, we are predisposed to dismiss their thoughts as poorly conceived. If their story does not flow well, we are more tempted to believe they are making it up as they go.

It’s why news reporters are generally well-spoken. It’s why so many ‘entertainment’ and ‘reality’ shows on TV still use teams of script-writers and editors. It’s why voice-overs on documentaries are done by those who enunciate clearly. If it were some geezer talkin’ common, like, we’d fink he were makin’ it all up, ‘cos he don’t understand nuffink, yeah?

alone-1869997_640Of course, once you realise this, it’s easy to question everyone‌—‌especially those who talk or write well. So maybe that poorly written book with the wild theories is closer to the truth, and Umberto Eco is simply having a clever laugh at the gullible masses. Maybe we should trust those who come across as less skilled or less intelligent, because they can’t lie as subtly or be as creative with their words.

Or maybe I should simply read these books as fictions, stop trying to analyse them, and enjoy the stories.

Yet stories, to draw us in, have to be believable. They have to be written or told in a way that makes us trust that they might be possible. If they fail to convince, they have failed as stories.

It’s the aim of all story-tellers, be they authors, after-dinner speakers, politicians or comedians, to have others believe that their tales could be true, no matter how ridiculous they are.

So, can you trust what you read in fiction?

Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. After all, a good story does not have to be true. It only has to be believable.

2016 Roundup, 2017 Aims

What Have I Achieved In 2016?

This has been the year I’ve put my writing out into the world, although I’ve been working on the Dominions books since the start of 2015, and so this is really a look back over two years. I’ve been keeping track of the time I’ve spent on writing (and other aspects of ‘getting stories out there’), and so I can see how I’ve managed to carve out more time each week, and how I’ve increased the time I’ve spent on ‘non-story’ tasks like marketing (including writing stuff for this website). I’ve kept a track of my wordcount, and I’m faster now, which is helping me get first drafts done quicker (although, in some cases, the editing is taking longer). I managed to do 50k in a week over NaNoWriMo, which isn’t too shabby.

And I’ve made a start on the whole marketing side of things. I have this website. I’ve got covers that I like for the books, and I’ve had them edited. I’ve spent time on the product descriptions. I’ve been listening to podcasts and reading up on all aspects of writing and publishing over the last couple of years, and I’m starting to put some of this knowledge to work.

In some ways, getting a book out into the world is a major achievement, but in other ways it isn’t much at all. Many others have done just that, especially with the ease of independent publishing. One book is nothing. There are people producing a book each month. There are others making a killing with Facebook ads, and building a career from a few titles. There are independently published writers who have gone on to become not quite household names, but definitely people with strong, healthy reputations and careers.

Yet they all started from that first book. And now, with three books out, I’ve made a start. I haven’t made a great deal of money (in fact, this whole venture has cost me so far), but I didn’t expect to earn back expenses‌—‌not yet, anyway. I’m learning to split this ‘other job’ into two sides‌—‌writing and marketing. The writing is the fun, creative part‌—‌producing a story and refining it to make it the best I can. And the marketing side is what is needed to get it out into the world and help others see it. I have started to see that, at least in part, I am running a small business. Very few businesses make a profit over their first few months or years. They have start-up costs that need to be recouped (in my case, the cost of covers and editing, as well as expenses around the website and so on). They take time to grow. Many fail.

But, with writing, I have an advantage. I can do this around my day job. At the moment, anything the books bring in is a bonus. And, even if they never pay back their expenses, I can still enjoy writing.

That’s the fall-back position, though. I want to do what I can to make the business of writing work for me. I need to build on what I’ve done this year.

agenda-1458537_1280My Aims For 2017

I want to finish 2017 with more books, more readers, and a bigger platform. Obviously. But that’s far too vague to be a target, so I’ll narrow it down:

  • I will release at least two more Dominions novels. Along with this, I have a few shorter works in progress, and I will aim to have at least two of these out there, either as mailing list exclusives or on sale wide.
  • I will release three books in a new series. I’m working on this at the moment (the initial draft of the first book is done, and I have ideas for the follow-ups), and it looks like being a complete trilogy (although that might change). These books will be shorter (50-60k, whereas the Dominions novels tend to be around the 100k mark), so I think bringing out all three over the year is achievable.
  • I will explore more marketing ideas. One of the reasons for starting a second series while Dominions is still on the go is to give me more content to play with. Much as I like the idea of having my books ‘wide’ (available everywhere I can put them), being exclusive to Amazon through Kindle Unlimited does have certain benefits, and having a second series will enable me to explore this option. Also, as I release more Dominions novels, I can do more promotions on the first book. I intend to put the first three in a bundle, although I’m not sure if this will be next year or in 2018. And I will also have print versions of the Dominions books by the end of 2017.
  • I will keep this website regularly updated. I think my current schedule is sustainable, with one post and one short story every fortnight, but I might consider posting more often. I’m enjoying the short stories‌—‌they are not only fun exercises, but they also give me a break from the books. But the posts need to be tighter. I feel I tend to ramble (like I’m starting to do now), and if I focus more, they’ll read better, be shorter but to the point, and that might mean I can produce more of them.
  • I will communicate more with others. Okay, this could be (will be?) a hard one. I like writing because I can shut myself off from everything else. I’m pretty introverted, so reaching out is uncomfortable. But I realise it’s something I need to do. And so I’ll work on social media, finding out how different platforms work and which ones are the least uncomfortable. I have a mailing list set up, but I need to learn more about how to use that‌—‌when people sign up, I want them to feel that they are getting something in return for their e-mail address, beyond the free book. I realise this is vague as a target, but I don’t want to put figures on this. I don’t want to aim for so many followers or whatever, because that isn’t the point. I’d prefer a handful of people who read every e-mail or post rather than a few hundred who might run their eyes over something if I’m lucky. I want to use social media to reach both potential readers and people who can help me. I’m not aiming for quantity, but quality.
  • I will improve my writing. I know this is another vague target, and will be constantly on-going. It’s very subjective‌—‌a book that one person dismisses as badly written might be another person’s favourite. But I need to be as happy as I can be with my own writing. I need to keep reading, both craft books and fiction, in order to learn how others do things. I need to keep editing my own writing, applying the lessons I learn. And maybe there is a way to make this more specific. By the end of the year, I want to be able to look back at the books I’ve brought out so far and feel a tinge of embarrassment at some of the writing. I want to be able to see that I am improving.
  • I will be more active in my learning. Along with reading, I’ve been listening to various podcasts since the start of 2015, and the number of these that I follow has increased. I’m lucky in having a day-job that allows me to wear headphones and listen to stuff every so often. I’ve heard so many people give fantastic advice, and much of is has sunk in. But now, I need to be more pro-active in this. Over 2017, I’ll have a ‘good ideas’ list that I’ll add to whenever I hear or read something that might be useful, and I’ll make a note of what I’ve used.

Looking back over that list, there seems to be a lot to do. But that’s for the whole year‌—‌twelve months, fifty-two weeks. I’ve made a start, and I know I can find time for different tasks. I look forward to these quiet times of the mornings, with nobody else around and the sky still dark outside, and getting up early is now a habit that I can use.

I know I can achieve everything I’ve set out above, and I’m already anticipating the end of the year, when I look back on how far I’ve come. And yet, I’ll still have a long way to go.

See, this isn’t a race to the end of the year. This whole writing and independent publishing thing isn’t a case of reaching the end and stopping. There is no end. It’s a constantly evolving process. I’ve made a start, proved to myself that I can write and put that writing out into the world. Over 2017, I need to capitalise on that and improve, so that I can do even more in 2018.

And that all starts today.

What I learnt from doing NaNo in a week

home-office-336378_1280At the start of November, I posted about how I wasn’t taking part in NaNoWriMo because I wasn’t ready to start writing a new draft (and you can read that post here). Instead, I set myself the challenge of completing the first round of editing Dominions 4 by the end of the month.

That went better than I expected. By the 20th of the month, I had the first edit finished. There’s still work to do, but I’ve sorted out the structure of the story, and I’m far happier with it. I need to let it sit for a while, then do another pass.

So I needed something else to do. As a breather, I re-read something I’d written before I started work on the Dominions series, just to see what I now thought of it. And I was pleasantly surprised. The story needed tweaking, but it was a good start, and I liked the characters. But the writing itself was pretty poor. Although I only wrote it a couple of years ago, I’ve learnt a great deal in that time.

I decided this story needed a re-write, and so I made notes of things I wanted to change, and off I went. It flowed well, at least initially, and I found myself getting words down at a fair pace.

I looked at the calendar, and I wondered‌—‌it was Wednesday 23rd of November when I started, a little over a week before the end of the month. Before the end of NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words.

Could I manage it?

I know some people write more than this in a week. Some people have managed to complete the NaNo challenge in 24 hours (I don’t think I can even type that fast!). So doing NaNo in a week should be feasible. Even with a full-time job, and a family. Maybe.

I honestly didn’t think I’d manage it when I started, but I found more writing time. I didn’t read as much in the evenings. I got up early both days over the weekend, instead of just one. I put headphones on to escape, and I wrote. And, as the week progressed, it looked more and more possible.

By the end of Tuesday 29th, I had 51,000 words. I’d (unofficially) managed NaNo in a week.

I started to do the maths. 50k in a week meant 100k in a fortnight. This would need editing, so maybe add a couple more weeks on top of this. These people who manage to write a book a month‌—‌I could see how that might be possible.

Only, for me, I know it isn’t. The maths doesn’t work like that. I might have managed 50,000 words in a week, but that was an anomaly.

I learnt a lot from that week.

There’s always time.clock-1634185_640

When I first wrote this story I was managing a couple of hours writing a week. I’ve pushed myself since then, settling into a routine that works for me, and am probably now averaging ten to fifteen hours. And now, within this final week in November, I found about thirty hours for writing.

The time is there. I just had to prioritise the writing over other things, like browsing the internet, or listening to music, or all the other things that seem to suck time.

And this is useful to know for the future. I can push myself to find more hours, if I’m determined. When I dream of getting something done my a certain time, I know that I can work at it. I can find the time.

But there’s another side to this…

push-150175_640Constant pushing is not good.

I like doing exercise. I do a couple of sessions on a bike each week, and I try to push myself hard. It feels good, but it feels even better to stop at the end.

Writing’s a bit like that. I’ve proved that I can push myself. But, once that week was over, I needed a rest. Once December arrived, I found myself lagging. I needed time to do other stuff‌—‌not only as a physical break, but also to let my mind go elsewhere. I needed to read, or to lounge about and listen to a bit of music. I needed to switch off.

At first, this did surprise me. I enjoy writing, so surely doing more of what I enjoy would be good?

But, as with the exercise, rest is just as important.

And there was another reason I wanted to slow down…

sloth-1531577_640Speed does not necessarily mean good writing.

This is an argument that is often levelled at NaNo, and all those authors who write books fast. But there is a counter-argument, that writing fast helps get the ideas down. If the story is planned, and you are ‘in the zone’, then it is good to let the words come. Besides, this is only the first draft. There will be time to edit later.

I subscribe to this idea. I have so far found writing the first draft to be the quickest, and most enjoyable, part of the writing process.

Yet I started questioning that for this story. As I neared 40,000 words I felt myself questioning what I was writing. I’d strayed from the original story a few times, and I’d struggled to get it back on track. Characters were doing things that made the continuing story awkward‌—‌not bad things, and some of the scenes worked well. But not in context of the story.

I was conscious of needing to pull things together as I wrote, but I was also racing that 50,000 word target, and I didn’t want to stop.

At about 60,000, a few days into December, I did stop. And I realised the story had derailed. I wasn’t as sure of it any more. I needed a rethink.

I see now that it would have made more sense to stop over the weekend and reassess. I needed to go back to my planning and re-work it. But if I’d done that I wouldn’t have completed the challenge.

And this is stupid. Who cares how many words I manage in a week? Anyone reading my books is only interested in how good the story and the writing is. They don’t want‌—‌and don’t deserve‌—‌second-rate work that was done in a race.

mark-516277_640Focusing on one thing means ignoring others.

Normally, I try to do a few things related to writing over the week. I’ll be writing or editing in the mornings, but I’ll be doing stuff connected with marketing in the evenings‌—‌or, at least, this is the plan. I’m a beginner at the whole marketing / business thing, and I know there’s a great deal I need to learn.

Yet for that week at the end of November, I ignored all of this. I only wrote.

And this isn’t healthy. The books are more than the writing. If I want to do them justice, I have to look after them as best I can. I have to look at how I can find readers who might be interested in them. I have to find ways to make readers aware of the world of Dominions. I have to plan other books. I have to learn more about writing, and the craft of storytelling, as well as all this marketing stuff.

Going back to the exercise analogy, if I did nothing but use an exercise bike, I’d be doing myself a disservice. Yes, aerobic exercise is good, and cycling will build up my legs, but what about the rest of me? To get the best out of what I do, I need to have variety. I need to focus on different parts of my body at different times.

It’s the same with writing. If I only focus on getting words onto the page, there’s so much I’m missing. I should be thinking about story, and covers, and product description. I need to look for ways to communicate with (potential) readers. This is as much about marketing as it is about creativity.

Getting words down is only one part of producing books.

Writing

So I’ve managed NaNo in a week. I have half a story, and I’m not too happy with how it’s turned out. Can I call this a success?

It depends on how you look at things.

The story’s a mess, but I’ve learnt from this. One of the ways of discovering what works in storytelling is to look at what doesn’t work and change it. Everything can be a positive learning experience. Overall, despite not being sure what I want to do with this story now, I’m pleased I managed this challenge. Sometimes, knowing you can meet a challenge is success in itself.

Besides, I managed my first challenge too. I’ve got an edit of Dominions 4 that I’m pretty pleased with. That alone is good enough for a month.

Now all I need to do it the next edit. And the next.

And work on some other books.

And learn more.

And remember to relax.

After all, I’m doing this because I enjoy it. After a few down days, I’ve got my enthusiasm back for writing.

Time for another challenge.