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!

When is it right to give up on a book?

There are many reasons to put aside a book, either for the time being or permanently. Maybe the style is grating, or there are too many typos and grammatical errors. Possibly you no longer care what happens to the characters, either because they feel artificial or you have no empathy with them. Maybe the story is filled with cliches, or the plot is too complicated to follow, or things are moving too slowly. Maybe the writing is either too simplistic or too dense.

Some people give a book a couple of pages to prove itself, and others carry on to the end regardless. Most people are probably somewhere in between these two, but for myself I tend to persevere, although I have stopped reading books on occasions.

FifthDoll_CharlieNHolmbergI was tempted to put aside a book recently. That book was The Fifth Doll, by Charlie N Holmberg, and I struggled through the first few chapters. There was nothing wrong with the writing, but the story didn’t feel like anything was happening. There were hints that something might be bubbling under the surface, but nothing seemed to develop, and I found myself losing interest fast.

I told myself that the book wasn’t that long (about 250 pages), and wouldn’t take too much time to get through, so I continued.

And, slowly, things started to happen‌—‌those bubbles of possibilities rose to the surface and started to pop. The story became more intriguing, and by the time I was half-way through the book, I was eager to continue reading, to discover how these creepy events played out.

By the time I’d finished the book (I didn’t feel the ending worked too well, but I very much enjoyed the middle build), I realised that it would have been difficult to start this book in a more immediate manner. We needed to become immersed in the normal world so that we understood how the subtle disruptions disturbed the main character so much. This wasn’t a jump-scare horror, but one that needed the slow build. If we’d been introduced to something unsettling too early, the intensity of the developing story would have been diluted.

Did this require perseverance to get through those first few chapters? Yes‌—‌but it then rewarded that perseverance. In a sea of ‘instant attention’ media, where the aim is to hook the reader/viewer as soon as possible, this book stood out in how it didn’t pander to ‘instant gratification’, but instead gave the story the time it needed.

This isn’t always the case, of course‌—‌some books fail to grab me all the way through, or even grow worse as they progress‌—‌but the times when I’m pleasantly surprised make up for the time wasted on stories that I don’t enjoy.


This applies to writing, too. Stories rarely work perfectly in the first draft, and it’s easy to become despondent during this stage of writing, and to believe that a particular story is ‘wrong’ or that time would be better spent working on something ‘better’. It’s easier to see all the glaring faults and miss the potential for something that works.

pen-3301338_640It’s natural to compare that first draft to great books we’ve read, but it’ll always fall short. We need to remember that all those wonderful books started off as messy first drafts, and sometimes the writer struggled for years to craft their story. Often, these great books were written by people with years of experience under their belt, too, with plenty of abandoned projects sitting in desk drawers or on hard drives.

I’ve been working on a story since the start of the year (although I’ve been planning it on and off since the middle of 2018), witht he intention of publishing around June, but that hasn’t happened. The whole process had been a struggle. I’ve written a number of drafts that simply didn’t work, and there have been times I’ve considered abandoning it entirely. At one point I took a break, wrote the first draft of something else entirely, then returned to this awkward project with a fresh mind.

But perseverance has paid off. At the time of writing this, I’m deep in the process of editing a working first draft, and can see how the book will turn out. The story’s better now because I’ve spent so much time on it, and because I’ve been able to try different ideas. Those ‘failed’ first drafts have all built toward the final book, which should be out by the end of the year.


My time might have been better spent abandoning that project (or putting it on long-term hold) and going with something new and exciting, just as giving up on reading a book might give hours more reading time for a great book. But perseverance is important‌—‌it’s something that’s too easy to ignore when so much entertainment is instant, when we’re tempted to become passive consumers rather than active participants in a book or a story. We unrealistically expect writing to be easy, forgetting that the only way to improve in something is to spend time and effort.

Of course, blindly continuing on the wrong path is just as bad as changing path too early. So when is it right to give up on a book?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to that‌—‌but as with so much in life, experience counts for a great deal. The more we read (and write), and the more we develop our perseverance, the better able we are to judge how to best spend our limited time.

Mid-year round-up, and the benefits of struggling with writing

It’s July. That means half of 2019 is gone, and I thought I’d take a look at how the year’s going for my writing.

My first thoughts on this aren’t good. I’ve found writing increasingly difficult, and don’t feel I’ve been very productive. But to be more objective about this, I’ll recap the 2019 goals I set back in January (for more details, that original post can be found here). These were:

  • To release a new edition of Dark Glass, the first book in my Dominions series
  • To release another two Dominions books
  • To take my Shadows series out of Kindle Unlimited and go wide
  • To release paperbacks of at least some of my books
  • To start a new project or series

So, how am I doing?

Dom1CoverSmallI published the rewritten version of Dark Glass in January, and followed it with a box-set of the first three novels. I’m far happier with this new version of the series starter, and a couple of recent (negative) reviews on the following books bring this back to me‌—‌Dark Glass is now a far stronger book, and so more likely to encourage readers to download other books in the series.

I’ll be getting new covers for the Shadows books from next month (the designers I’m using, Deranged Doctor Design, are usually booked up about six months in advance, which is why I didn’t use them for the original Shadows covers‌—‌a mistake on my part, I admit), so I’m waiting for these before re-releasing the series and putting it wide (Kobo, iBook and so on). I’m also getting paperback covers done, and I’ve already formatted the interiors, so this should be another goal ticked off by the end of the year.

So, one goal achieved, two on target. Now we come onto the ones that aren’t going so well.

I started Dominions V back in January, working from a rough outline I’ve been kicking around for some time (well over a year). But I wasn’t pleased with the first draft, and did some intensive planning before starting another draft. This one ended up far too long, and again I wasn’t happy with the story. There were moments I thought worked well, but overall it felt strained, and there were too many sections that plodded. The whole resolution felt forced, and it wasn’t a satisfying read.

It was now the middle of May, and I knew I needed a break. So I put this novel to one side and started something else.

Shadows was always intended as a trilogy, but I left some loops open (I’ve never been a fan of stories that close everything off too neatly). I’d been intrigued by a possible follow-on series, and so I planned and wrote a novel that could be start of this series, and managed to complete the first draft by the middle of June.

This was an improvement on the Dominions V drafts, in that the story worked. But it didn’t sit well with the rest of the Shadows books. The original trilogy was sci-fi infused with horror, whereas this new one was more action/adventure. It felt like a story being crammed into an already-existing universe.

So, six months and drafts of two novels that didn’t work. I started to wonder if I’d wasted half the year, as well as trying to figure out why writing had suddenly become so much harder. And as I thought on this, I realised two things:

Progress means aiming higher

In retrospect, writing isn’t getting any harder. What has got trickier is writing scenes and stories that satisfy my inner critic. As I’ve learnt more about the craft of writing and storytelling, I’m constantly resetting the bar for myself higher and higher.

If I wanted proof of this, I only had to look at Dark Glass. When I released the original version, I was really pleased with it. I believed the story worked, and that the writing was good‌—‌not exceptional, but better than I expected. But a few years later I was able to see so many issues with that book that I decided to re-write it.

No writing is ever wasted

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Edison, when he was asked about his failure to produce (I believe) a working lightbulb‌—‌‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.’ This can apply to anything, including writing.

To get better at something requires two things‌—‌knowing what to do, and practising. With writing, I can read books on craft, listen to podcasts, learn in so many different ways‌—‌but this will have no effect if I don’t put this learning into practice by actually writing.

So I can look back on these ‘failed’ drafts as practice. I can see passages that work, and I can also learn from what didn’t. Through writing, I’ve improved, and that means my next draft should be better, maybe even something I can use.

But there’s another way of using this writing. Stories are made of scenes, and each scene should work on its own. From these drafts, I’ve managed to extract scenes and mould them into short stories (you can read one of these, There’s Always A Choice, here). Additionally, the draft of the post-Shadows book might be usable. I could re-mould it into the start of a brand new series, unconnected to Shadows.


Where does this leave me for the remainder of 2019? I’ve started another draft of the next Dominions novel, after a more in-depth planning process, and I feel it works far better than the previous ones. I’m confident I’ll have this book out by the end of the year, but I doubt the one after will be ready‌—‌especially as I want to spend some time concentrating on the re-release of the Shadows series.

So I won’t achieve all of my goals for this year. But that doesn’t matter‌—‌I’ve kept on working towards them, and I’ve learnt along the way.

As long as I keep on writing, I’m doing well.

The sentence that pulled me out of ‘Dune’

I suppose it’s inevitable that the way I read is changing as I learn more about storytelling and the craft of writing. Reading’s still one of my favourite things to do, but when something doesn’t feel right in a book or story, I’ll try to analyse the perceived problem. I’m also more likely to reflect on a book in a more analytical way. I’ll attempt to figure out how a writer has impressed me, and also imagine how I’d approach those little things that didn’t work for me.

I thought I’d share one of these moments. It happened when I re-read Dune recently.

Dune_FrankHerbertBefore I dive in, there’s a couple of things to bear in mind here. Dune was published over ten years after Frank Herbert’s first novel came out, and he’d had years of publishing short stories in magazines before that, so this is a book by an experienced writer. I’m still near the start of my writing life, so I’m in no way holding myself up to be ‘better’ than Herbert (or the numerous editors who would have been involved in the book’s journey).

Dune was written over fifty years ago, and fashions change in writing, just as in everything else. The thing that tripped me up might not have been considered an issue when Herbert was writing it.

But trip me up it did. One sentence pulled me right out of the story.

It happened in the fifth section (they’re not labelled as chapters, but they might as well be), where we finally get to meet Dr Yeuh. We already know that he will betray Duke Leto Atreides, under orders or instruction from the Barron Harkonnen. Such a thing should be impossible, as Dr Yeuh has undergone Imperial Conditioning, but Harkonnen in a previous scene hinted that there are ways around this. So our first scene with Dr Yeah himself is keenly anticipated.

The scene starts with Dr Yeuh entering the room of Paul, the Duke’s son, and we get to hear a number of Yeah’s internal thoughts (a technique Herbert uses often throughout the book.) But almost on the first page we get this thought from the man.

What I do is done to be certain my Wanna no longer can be hurt by the Harkonnen beast.

When I read this, I immediately saw it as an info-dump. The wording sounded clumsy in comparison to Dr Yeuh’s previous thoughts, and it felt that the information‌—‌that Harkonnen was breaking the man’s Imperial Conditioning by holding someone Dr Yeuh cared deeply about‌—‌had been shoe-horned in.

It does allow us to feel some sympathy for the man‌—‌yes, he will betray the Atreides family, but it is not through choice. Rather, he is being forced into this action by the real villain, Harkonnen. But the man comes across as fairly sympathetic over the rest of the scene anyway, in the way he talks to and acts around Paul. So couldn’t this nugget of information be saved until later? Would it not be better to let us, the reader, see the man before learning his secret?

Later in this scene, Dr Yeuh gifts Paul a book, and asks him to turn to a marked page. Paul feels two marks on the pages, and opens at the smaller‌—‌but when he starts to read, Dr Yeah yells for him to stop.

“I’m sorry,” Yeuh said. “That was … my … dead wife’s favourite passage.”

I couldn’t help thinking that this should have been the first mention of Wanna. The way Yeuh hesitated, then calls her ‘my‌…‌dead wife’ is quite dramatic, and should be enough to start connections in the reader’s mind‌—‌maybe this is something to do with his expected betrayal. And if we heard some thought from him here, it could confirm this impression.

So maybe that first info-dump thought should have just hinted at some hold Harkonnen had over the man. I do what I must to keep her safe, or something similar. It gives us enough to know that Yeuh is being forced to betray Duke Leto, and then more details arise naturally.

At least, that’s how I would have written this scene. But maybe I’m missing something, and there’s a reason Herbert did what I saw as an info-dump. Maybe this is my inexperience showing.

In some ways, this doesn’t really matter. It might have pulled me out of the story for a moment, but I still enjoyed the book overall (enough that I’ve made a start on the sequels). And in forcing me to think about ways of handling the imparting of information in a story, it should improve my own writing.