Why readers are so important (5-star review for Shadowfall)

Writing is something that, for me, has grown from an activity I’d do a couple of evenings a week to something that happens every day. I’m working harder and harder at all aspects of the process‌—‌planning stories, writing first drafts, and running through different rounds of edits‌—‌as well as spending more time on marketing and other ‘business’ activities.

So why is writing important to me? There’s no single reason. A large part of it is pure enjoyment, from the excitement of developing a cool story idea through the fun of writing itself and onto the rewarding work in moulding those initial words into something I can feel proud of. Then there’s the possibility of earning money from these stories‌—‌we all need money to live, and there’s nothing wrong in seeking some kind of financial recompense for all the time, effort and money I’ve put into producing these books.

Then there’s the opportunity to entertain, to take readers on a journey, to help them escape from their daily lives for a few hours. This is more nebulous than the other reasons, but is no less important. Maybe it’s the most important reason for writing. After all, story-telling is communication, and each story only truly comes to life when it reaches across to another person.

It’s harder to quantify this reason, though. I can judge my own enjoyment in the process, and I can look at my bank balance to judge the financial rewards (or otherwise). But the effect my stories have on others‌—‌how do I judge that?

This comes down to communication. I’ve received a few e-mails and comments from readers, as well as a few reviews. I received one review for Shadowfall recently that I thought I’d share here.

Wow. That is all I can say about this book. It kept me on my toes waiting to find out what came next. I was left wanting more and I am very eager to read anything written by this writer. This book had everything I like in the fantasy genre. It was well-written with a lot of character and world building. I would definitely recommend this book.

Every time I read that review, I feel warm inside. It’s so positive, and it tells me that (for this reader, at least) I succeeded in many things I set out to achieve in Shadowfall. This review tells me it’s a page-turner, and that my work in creating a believable world, populated by relatable characters, succeeded.

Yes, the review came through BookSprout (a service that aims to match readers with books in order to provide reviews), but there was no pressure on the reader to leave a positive review. As I’ve said many times before, I’d far rather receive an honest critical review than an insincerely positive one.

2019-1719 TW Iain b01 animationShadowfall‘s slowly getting more reviews and ratings, and many of them are positive. I know the book isn’t for everyone, so I’ll receive negative comments at some point. And that’s fine‌—‌I know there will always be areas of development in my writing and story-telling. I know, too, that every reader is different, and one reader’s drudgery is another’s page-turner.

But I hope I never stop feeling so good when I receive a review like the one above. I never want to become complacent. I want to always remember that the stories I write are not only for myself (and hopefully for my bank balance). I need to remember that stories are never complete until they are consumed by a reader. Only then can they truly live.

I feel honoured and grateful that what I create can give others enjoyment. And I thank any reader who takes the time and effort to leave a review. Without readers, there is no need for writers. Without readers, stories never emerge from the depths.

Without readers, there are no books.

[As a quick post-script, what do you think of the animated cover above? Many thanks to Deranged Doctor Designs for this‌—‌one of the best cover design companies around.]

Dialogue is more than talking

I often find that dialogue can make or break a book. It might be snappy and sarcastic, or rich and evocative‌—‌and I’ll feel I’m in the scene with the characters. If the dialogue feels realistic, and drives the story on, I’m willing to forgive plot holes and clunky prose.

I also find long passages of prose rarely work (unless very well written). Even internal dialogue can help propel a scene forward.

black-and-white-2591246_640

But writing dialogue is hard. For starters, it needs to feel realistic, but it can’t be too realistic.

I recall an Kevin Smith interview, where someone commented on the natural way the characters in his films talked. He responded by saying that there was nothing natural about their dialogue. His characters go off onto rambling monologues while others listen‌—‌something that very rarely happens in real life. They’re not constantly being cut off, or using strings of filler words and sounds (‘um’, ‘er’, ‘like’ and so on), they don’t repeat themselves too often (‘So I said…‌and he says…‌then I say’). But his dialogue still feels natural, and that’s the important thing. He uses character-appropriate words and phrases to bring the spoken lines alive.

And this shows another aspect of good dialogue‌—‌it has to serve a purpose. In Smith’s case, much of the actual stories the characters tell one another seem only partially relevant to the story, but they reveal character, both in the words themselves and the way they are delivered. The same can be done in books‌—‌what a character says can reveal so much about who they are, in a far more natural way than simply being told.

For instance, a male character who peppers their conversation with words like ‘love’ and ‘dear’, especially when talking to younger women, comes across as condescending and sexist, even if the reader doesn’t consciously pick up on this. Likewise, a character who says ‘maybe’ and ‘I think’ a lot will often appear indecisive‌—‌so when they step up and make that all-important decision in a moment of crisis, we understand that they’re finally overcoming their inner demons.

Dialogue is also important for moving the story forward. Unfortunately, I’ve read far too many books where this is done poorly. Characters will say things like “Hey, you remember that time Bob broke into that old factory, and had to face all those vampires?” or “As you know, the master is due to return from his sojourn in the tropics any day now, but his mother still refuses to have the east wing redecorated, meaning she’s still in the suite next to his‌—‌and this is bound to cause a great deal of friction.”

Yes, these examples tell the reader possibly important information. But do they sound natural? Not at all. The characters are mentioning things other characters already know, merely to give us, the reader, information.

Another problem I’ve noticed with poorly written dialogue is the use of grammar.

Most people don’t talk with correct grammar. They use slang, and part-sentences. They’ll misuse words, or string words together in bizarre ways. It might be grammatically correct to say “We will leave as soon as we can,” but it sounds far more natural as “We’ll leave as soon as.”

Of course, some characters will speak ‘properly’‌—‌but even then, each character will have their own vocal idiosyncrasies. This is something I know I need to improve in my own writing. Some characters will speak in long, complicated sentences, others will use simpler constructions. Some will use dialect words, or enjoy showing off an extended vocabulary.

Dialogue can also indicate things about how each character experiences the world. One who focuses on visuals might say “I see”, whereas a character who’s more auditory might say “I hear you.”

With well-written dialogue, it should be clear who is talking from the spoken words themselves, and tags (“Bill said”, “Sheila asked”, and so on) are only needed as occasional reminders.

Writing dialogue that works well is hard‌—‌and it stands to reason that authors who can pull this off, who can use natural-sounding dialogue to develop characters and drive story, are also skilled at other areas of writing. After all, books are simply a means of telling stories. When we read a novel or a short story, we’re allowing the author to speak to us. Even when no characters in the story are talking, we’re still listening to the voice of the narrator.

How Neil Peart is pushing my reading into new areas

 

The musicians I grew up listening to are getting older, and many are no longer around. Of course, it happens to everyone eventually, and in large part I’m pretty philosophical about this. Yes, it’s sad that they’re gone, but they’ve left behind a great legacy in their music, and in that a part of them will live on.

But when I heard of Neil Peart’s passing, earlier this year, I felt sadder than I expected. Maybe it was because I’d been listening to Rush for so many years. Or maybe it was because they’d had the same line-up for so long that there was something permanent about them. Even though there was unlikely to be any new music from the trio anyway, it felt somehow wrong that he’d died.

Rush in concert at MGM Grand, Las Vegas, America - 25 Jul 2015

In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, Neil Peart was the drummer and lyricist with Canadian band Rush. Their music didn’t bother the charts much, but they could sell out arena and stadium tours around the world, and had an incredibly loyal fan-base.

I saw Rush on tour back in the eighties, at a time when just about every band would thrown in solo spots for different musicians, mainly guitarists and drummers. These solos bored me. If there were seats at the venue, I’d have a rest while the guitarist tapped away, or while the drummer hit everything within range as fast as possible.

But Peart’s solo was different. It felt like a structured piece of music, with peaks and troughs, passing through different ways of playing, drawing on different emotions. Rather than a way of showing off, the solo was an exploration into what a drum kit was capable of. And even though the band played rock, it was clear that Peart drew from many different styles.

He wasn’t content to sit still as a musician. He took his playing very seriously. He’d practice for an hour before each concert. And he continually sought to improve‌—‌listening to other styles of music, seeking other techniques, taking lessons from drummers who might not have been technically as proficient as him, but who still had something he could learn from, something new he could incorporate into his own playing.

It’s an important attitude for anyone creative, be that in music or sculpture or stories or hanging baskets. There’s always more to learn. To quote one of Peart’s own lyrics (from Mission),

‘the point of the journey is not to arrive’.

It’s impossible to reach the end of knowing, to become perfect. There’s always more to learn, and it’s important to absorb new influences and techniques, to develop, so that the next song, the next model, the next book, the next basket surpasses the previous one.

When I worked in education, I used to tell myself that the moment I felt I knew everything about teaching was the moment I should stop‌—‌not because I would know everything, but because that moment would signal the end of the desire to improve.

In my writing, I feel like I’m only just starting out, and there is so much to learn. One very important way I can widen my knowledge is through reading‌—‌not only in genres I’m naturally drawn to, but also in pushing myself to explore new genres. It’s why I’ll read the occasional romance book, or historical book. It’s why I’ll read books by new and old authors, independently-published and those who work through traditional publishers.

There’s always more to learn, even from books I don’t like. I read the Twilight series and the first couple of Fifty Shades books (haven’t been able to face the third yet) in part because I wanted to understand what made them so popular. And it’s why I very rarely give up on a book. Even books I don’t enjoy, or stories I don’t feel are particularly well told, have things to teach me.

I know some people take a different approach. Some writers dive deep into a particular sub-genre, writing and reading only that one thing, focusing their attention on becoming an expert in it. And that’s fine‌—‌but for me, I’d feel like I was missing so much. When I read books with a strong romantic element, I can garner more insight in evoking believable relationships. When I read literary fiction, I can absorb ideas on how language is used. When I read mysteries and thrillers, I can better understand how to keep the reader guessing. When I read books that evoke different times and locations, I can attempt to unpick how words can be used to give a sense of period and setting without being too on-the-nose.

There’s so much to learn out there, so many lessons that I can use to improve my own writing. But that’s only going to happen if I concentrate.

This, I feel, is something Peart understood. It’s not enough to simply consume. Learning is active. It involves both study and practice. It’s a never-ending cycle that is the only way to improve.

Or, in the words of Peart himself,

What is a master but a master student? And if that’s true, then there’s a responsibility on you to keep getting better and to explore avenues of your profession.

My aims for 2020

After looking back over 2019 (in this post), it’s now time to look ahead, and lay out what I hope to achieve over the next twelve months.

These aren’t resolutions, though. There’s too much pressure in that word, and it’s too easy to call myself a failure if I don’t keep to a specific resolution. Rather, these are aims. Some are specific, but others are more ambiguous. They’re realistic, though. And if I don’t achieve everything, then that simply means my aim was slightly off.


Writing

My first priority is to complete the sixth Dominions novel. I’m currently in the first round of edits, and things seem to be going well, so I’m aiming for an April release.

And then, I need a break from Dominions. I’ve already been throwing a few ideas around for a new series, and I’m going to aim to have a couple of books finished by the end of the year.

I’m continuing to write short stories, and 2020 should see the hundredth of these, along with the fifth Millenary anthology. In my mind, I always saw this as a good time to stop, but I don’t want to stop writing short fiction. It’s great fun, and also an excellent way of pushing my writing. So, once I have all hundred shorts out, I’ll change things up a bit. I might scrap my thousand-word limit, and possibly aim for one story a month rather than one every two weeks. I’m not sure yet.


Marketing

This is something I struggle with, but my mindset on marketing has been shifting over 2019. Rather than seeing it as an attempt to get punters to part with their money, I now see it as a quest to put my books in front of readers who are likely to enjoy them. Selling my books should be mutually beneficial‌—‌I receive some financial recompense for my time, effort and money in producing the books, and readers receive a few hours of entertainment.

Over 2020, I’ll make a concerted effort to improve in this whole area. I’ve recently started Mark Dawson’s Ads For Authors course, and will be attending the Self-Publishing Formula conference in London in March. And I’ll continue to read books, listen to podcasts and watch webinars to keep on learning.

But learning is useless without implementation, so I’m going to put time aside each week specifically for marketing activities. This could be setting up and analysing ads, or seeking promotional opportunities, or contacting other writers, or any of the other ways I could help my books reach potential readers.


So, a quick summary. Over 2020, I will:

  • complete and publish the sixth Dominions novel
  • start a new series, and have at least a couple of books ready by the end of the year
  • become far more focused on marketing, setting aside time each week to work on helping my books reach readers who will enjoy them

2019 round-up

With the end of the year approaching, its time to take stock of 2019. Looking back, I had six goals for this year

  • To release the new edition of Dark Glass and seriously market the Dominions series
  • To release two more Dominions novels
  • To go wide with the Shadows series
  • To release paperback books
  • To dive into dictation
  • To start a new project

So, how have I done?

Dom1CoverSmallDark Glass

The new edition went live back in February, and judging from feedback the re-write definitely resulted in a better book. I also released a box-set of the first three novels a couple of months after this.

I did some marketing on the series, and had some success‌—‌but marketing is still something I need to work on.

Dom5_small(Hi_res)More Dominions books

This didn’t go well.

Rogue Wolf (Dominions V) was the hardest book for me to write so far. I’m used to books changing as I edit them, but with this one the process involved at least three total re-writes, just to get the story working. Even though I started planning it back in 2018, I only managed to release the finished version at the start of November.

I did manage to publish another Dominions novella, Errant, but the sixth novel has yet to appear. I’m working on it at the moment, though, and I don’t think I’m going to take as long over this one (at least, I hope not).

Go wide with Shadows and release paperback books

From September onward, I got new covers for all three novels (and the novella) in the Shadows series. I’d started pulling the novels from Kindle Unlimited, and these books are now available through Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Tolino, and as many other vendors as I could get them into (as well as Amazon).

Shadows series - paperbacks

I think the new covers look great‌—‌very eye-catching, and they give a far better idea of what to expect from the books than the old covers did. I also got paperback covers, and these books are now available in physical form.

I’ve yet to release any of the Dominions series as paperbacks, though. I’ve formatted the internal files, but I’m still considering how to get covers done.

Dictation

I’ve tried, but this hasn’t gone well. I’m not naturally talkative, so maybe it’s not too surprising that I find it easier to ‘write’ through my fingers than through my mouth.

I’ve tried dictating directly into my laptop, and editing mistakes as I go slows me down. I’ve also tried recording and transcribing, but at the moment this process (including time taken correcting the transcription) isn’t any faster than typing. The only advantage has been the ability to ‘write’ while doing other things.

But I’m persevering. I got a great tip from a recent Creative Penn podcast, where Kevin Anderson talked about using dictation in his planning, simply talking through ideas as they came to him. I’ve been giving this a go for a week or so, and it seems to be working. Talking while thinking is slowly getting easier, and I’ve now got loads of ideas down for a new project (more on that in a moment).

I’m going to continue with this strategy for a while. Then I might try dictating some of my blog posts (because a lot of them are me working through ideas anyway), and hopefully I’ll end up feeling more comfortable dictating fiction.

A new project

Due to the time spent on Rogue Wolf, I haven’t made any major headway on this. But I have ideas.

Okay‌—‌I always have ideas. In the spring I wrote the first draft of a novel that was an attempt at continuing the Shadows series, but it didn’t work too well (didn’t have the same horror feel, being more action/adventure), so I’ve shelved that for the moment. I’ve also thought about writing a series following on from Ghost Stream, the novella I had included in The Power Of Words anthology, and while I have a few ideas I haven’t developed any of them yet.

But I also have a brand new idea for a series, and that’s what I’m working on in my dictation practice. The more I think about it, the more excited I get‌—‌and that has to be a good sign.


So, some successes and some disappointments, and lots of lessons learnt. I need to work smarter when writing, and I still need to improve in finding potential readers (which is what marketing really boils down to). As far as sales go, 2019 was an improvement on 2018, but not where I want to be.

But I’m moving forward. And in a couple of weeks, I’ll lay out what I aim to achieve over 2020.

Why writing isn’t the whole story

Over November, as my NaNoWriMo project (more details in this post), I wrote the first draft of the next Dominions novel. I was confident I could manage the usual NaNo target of 50,000 words, but I wanted to get the whole thing written. I pushed myself hard, and gave dictation another try for some of it.

I finished, a few days before the end of the month. 125,000 words.

It’s too long. And it’s a mess.

The sections I dictated are extremely stilted, because I still find that words flow better through my fingers than through my mouth. But there are problems with other parts, too. In some sections, I realised my planning wasn’t working, so I had to change things. There are plot holes, and redundant character point-of-view scenes. I’m not convinced by some of the character arcs or motivations. And there’s a lot of repetition and poor writing.

Does this concern me? No. I know that the first draft is not the finished book. It’s a way of getting words on the page. It allows the story to be discovered, and for characters to grow. It’s an opportunity to understand more about themes and ideas that underpin story events and motivations.

The first draft is similar to the artist’s initial sketches, or the musician’s rough demo recording. Reaching ‘The End’ for the first time is really only the beginning.

Now comes the hard work‌—‌editing.

editing-1756958_640I used to see this as a chore. I used to believe that editing involved correcting mistakes, and that I should have foreseen many of these. I used to view writing as the fun, creative part of the process and editing as a mundane slog.

My view’s changed a great deal on this. As I’ve learnt more about the craft of writing and storytelling, I’m starting to understand just how many working parts go into creating a written work, and how it’s impossible to nail even a fraction of these on the first attempt.

There’s the ebb and flow of the story, and the various tent-pole moments that need to meet reader expectations while also being different or surprising in some way. There are the subtleties of character arcs, and the interplay between characters and their settings.

And then there’s the writing itself‌—‌not simply grammar and spelling, but the choice of words. There are things to avoid‌—‌info dumps, repetition, superfluous description. There’s tone and characterisation. There are times to become more poetic, and times to use more straightforward language. And so much more.

Editing isn’t a matter of correcting mistakes. Editing takes the raw material of the first draft then manipulates and moulds it. Editing turns those rough, messy words into something that will pull readers in, giving them the entertainment and excitement they seek.

Far from being mundane, editing is incredibly creative. A great deal of it is about problem solving, on many different levels. There’s the macro, whole-story work, where scenes are positioned just right, where the feel of the book as a whole is considered, where pacing plays such a vital role. And then there’s the micro, sentence-level work, dealing with minutiae of language. There are levels in-between‌—‌structuring each scene or chapter to have its own flow, re-writing paragraphs to ensure the important details are in the right place.

And all these changes have to work together. A sequence of brilliantly-structures scenes doesn’t necessarily tell a great story. Perfect sentences are meaningless if the reader has lost interest in the characters. An exciting story can fail if told in a bland way.

Editing, far more than writing, is what creates good stories. It’s a challenge, and it’s time-consuming‌—‌and it’s one of my favourite parts of the whole writing process.

The first draft is just the start. And now, I’m excited to begin the important work of turning those 125,000 words into something I can be proud to release.

Writing as its own reward (a few thoughts on NaNoWriMo)

It’s November, so it’s time for NaNoWriMo.

NaNoIf this means nothing to you, let me explain. National Novel Writing Month is basically a challenge to write 50,000 words over the month of November. Anyone can sign up, regardless of what they write or their previous writing experience. As well as world-wide forums and support groups, there are local communities, along with physical meet-ups for real-world encouragement. There are badges that can be earned, for all kinds of things‌—‌seven days of consecutive writing, reaching 10,000 words, attending a meet-up, and so on.

When NaNoWriMo started, back in 1999, there were 21 participants. Last year, over 400,000 took part‌—‌and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are even more people ‘doing NaNo’ this year.

Of course, not everyone reaches that 50,000 word goal. The stats show yearly success rates between 10 and 15 percent. But that doesn’t matter. Some people who take part year after year never reach 50,000, and many never finishing their novel over November. Some of them probably work on the same novel each year.

And this doesn’t matter because, at its heart, NaNo is not about producing finished novels. Its aim isn’t to help create thousands (millions?) of new books for people to buy. It’s not about commercial success.

NaNoWriMo is all about writing.

Yes, those of us who write want to finish our stories. We want them to be the best they can, and we want others to read them. We want to earn money from our writing, too.

But it all starts with the actual writing. People who write purely to make money generally don’t last very long before trying another route to financial success. And those who earn a decent living from their writing usually only do so after many years of struggling at the keyboard. Every ‘overnight’ success comes on the back of countless abandoned projects, the novels that should never see the light of day, the millions of words of practice.

See, writing is both easy and hard. All it consists of is placing one word after another‌—‌but there’s an art to this placement. There’s a skill in selecting the perfect word.

writing-427527_640Writing takes time and effort, and the process is punctuated by moments of doubt‌—‌the story doesn’t work, the characters feel flat, the dialogue is stilted. We don’t know where the story’s going, or how to fix all the oh-so-apparent problems in the earlier parts of the draft.

But we persevere‌—‌not because of the possible rewards at the end, but because the act of writing is a reward in itself.

In a world where we are encouraged to consume so much media, it’s vitally important that we also create. Creation is a part of what makes us human. For some, this means learning an instrument. Others take up painting, or sculpture, or flower arranging. Some get their creative fix through gardening or cooking, through fixing cars or mending furniture.

And then there are the writers. We don’t need to learn an instrument. We don’t need a workshop, or a kitchen. All we need is a laptop, or a notepad and pen, or a smartphone. We can write anywhere, at any time of the day. We can even dictate our stories now, writing while walking or driving or doing the ironing.

In writing, we create whole worlds. We develop characters, and throw them into confounding situations. In writing, we let our imaginations flow free. And when it all comes together, when the words flow, there’s nothing like it. There are times my fingers can’t move fast enough as the descriptions, the dialogue and the interplay between characters surges forth. There’s an excitement about discovering what happens next, even when the story has already been planned‌—‌because the characters always take on a life of their own, or a phrase comes to mind that casts things in a brand-new light.

Writing is a journey of discovery, whether the story has been previously plotted in detail or is being created on the fly. Writing is transportation to other places. It is the opportunity to live other lives, to be who we want to be, or to experience those we’d detest in real life. In writing we get to play the hero and the villain, and everything in between. We get to sit back and see where things lead, and to be the master of our own domain.

Terry Pratchett once said that writing is the most fun it’s possible to have on your own. There’s a great deal of truth in this. Writing is a special form of creation.

And it’s this that NaNoWriMo encourages. It’s not about writing ‘a book’. It’s not even about beating a certain word-count. It’s about writing. NaNo aims to help people discover the joys that come from writing. It aims to instill a writing habit that enables those who have previously struggled to find the time to enjoy the activity.

NaNoWriMo is to be celebrated and encouraged, for helping so many people see how writing can be its own reward.

 

To find out more, visit nanowrimo.org. It’s never too late to start!