The 365 Writer is Just a Writer

You should treat writing like a job, even if it’s one you don’t get paid for. You clock on and clock off. You put the hours in

Every writer should aim to write every day, if they can, and whether they feel like it or not. I’ve written two novels, plenty of short stories and I also journal, and I rarely feel like writing when I sit down in front of the computer, but I know I will regret it if I don’t. Even if I only manage a few hundred words, it will have been worth it. You should treat writing like a job, even if it’s one you don’t get paid for. You clock on and clock off. You put the hours in. I agree that life sometimes gets in the way, such as Christmas and going away on holiday. It’s easy to think you’re acting like an anti-social freak if you write when you should be “relaxing” (and this is something I struggle with) but if it’s good enough for Stephen King, then it’s good enough for the rest of us. King wrote every day back when he was holding down two jobs and supporting his wife and small children, and he still does that today (the writing that is), and it’s not for the money. He does it because he knows if he stops for even one day, the voice in his head (the one which resides in all of us) will start to make him doubt what he does if he’s any good if the piece he’s working on is all that. This is another reason why you should write every day, especially if you are in the middle of a story. This is because if you stop part way through you will, of course, lose your momentum. By the time you get back to writing, the initial spark, which previously propelled you along, will be gone, and you will instead have become obsessed with the shiny new idea you came up with in the interim. Repeat this enough times, and you will become that person we all know who calls themselves a writer, talks about it ad-nauseam and yet very rarely ventures out into those dark waters. Of course, there are the exceptions who prove the rule about writing every day such as Lee Child and Wilbur Smith who only write for six months of the year. And that’s fine if you can promise yourself to that, but the reality is that the rest of us are mere mortals who must adhere to daily rituals if we are going to get shit done. Yes, life does get in the way. Sometimes you get up meaning to do some writing in the evening, but then it seems your day has become so full that, before you know it, it’s time for bed. In reality, there’s always enough time to get some writing in, even if it’s 20 minutes spent journaling. And this can be achieved through making sacrifices that you might not even be aware you have to make. Such as not watching the sports games you get nothing from, depressing yourself with news and other scripted reality TV shit designed to nullify you and push your anxiety and self-loathing off the chart; staring at your phone and generally looking at crap on the internet. It also means not binge-watching TV series and yes, even selling your Xbox (which is what I did a few years back and I’ve never looked back).

Keeping Sight of Your Goals

Once again I have found myself stuck between two stools in my quest to become a full-time writer. I had previously been torn between the artistic freedom of self-publishing and the time liberating experience of the traditional route. In the end, I saw sense and decided to stick with the former approach given all the videos, podcasts, and literature which provided a persuasive argument for being one’s boss. And the more I think about this, the more it makes sense to be an indie, in fact after observing the e-book revolution, it would now seem to be only a matter of time before musicians, songwriters, and filmmakers follow suit.

So, I am resolved to riding the wave of Kindle, etc. and yet, with this comes the quest for knowledge of how to work the system. The hard part is not the writing of the book but the marketing; getting “eyeballs,” one may as will be the invisible man having to resort to pouring ink on himself to be seen, to take shape.

And so I have entered my email address into more correspondence boxes than I can recall. I open my inbox every morning to find myself snowed under by some blog posts and videos showing the secrets to author success, warning me of the pitfalls and mistakes made by so many other writers who failed to put various marketing strategies into place. Now, I want to be as successful as the next aspiring writer, or at least be able to make a living from it, and while not being naïve enough to think my books are going to sell themselves, it’s only in the last couple of days where it seems I have finally woken up to the realisation I am chasing the crowd. Trying to work the system and, worst of all-something I should know better about-second guessing the market.

I seem to have forgotten my original reason for writing: the love of flow and creativity. It appears I am running off fear; fear of failure, of poverty, not being able to provide for my family. I seem to fear this even more than critical rejection. It’s the marketing world which has, until recently, filled me with some dread. While I like the idea of building a “Team” around me of cover artists, typographers, editors, proofreaders, beta readers and reviewers, I also have found myself doing ridiculous things such as scrolling through examples of successful Facebook ads and newsletters which tend to contradict each other’s advice. I suppose it’s ultimately a process if trial and error by which I will find my route to success, in whatever form it decides to reveal itself to me.

So, yes, there are pros and cons of going down the indie route, and for someone like me who is relatively new to it, the amount of information out there can be overwhelming. One thing which has helped keep my head above the waters of madness is the idea of being my boss, and after 20-odd years of working for other people with very little to show in return,  I’ve become very attracted to this idea indie publishing affords. In fact, everything seems to point to the direction of self-publishing, self-sufficiency, the DIY, punk rock school of thought and action which time and time again sprout so much trail-blazing and original ideas. But, of course, being your boss means you have to put in the work yourself, you have to get to know the business, the pitfalls, and goldmines, this is where the e-book gurus come hunting, each one guaranteeing you Hugh Howey-esque success if only you will slavishly follow their rules. Hugh Howey didn’t achieve his success through algorithms and hashtags; he did it through word of mouth and because he loves writing enough to put out something he and millions of others wanted to read. Perhaps the best advice to take is your own

Growing Pains (of an indie author)

In early May 2016, I published my first book Nameless and Other Stories. While I may only have shifted five copies, despite running a few days of paid promotion on Facebook-more of that later on- I can finally say I am a published author. This, however, has left me wondering whether it has been worth it. Some of you may think it has, while others, looking at my slim sales, may disagree.

The book I published is a collection of short stories, which I already knew didn’t sell nearly as well as novels, but the venture was done as more of a learning experience, a chance to make some mistakes which I could hopefully learn from before embarking on the serious business of publishing my novel.

So far, I’ve made plenty of errors which I’d like to think I’ve learnt from, but it was a lot of effort and the time and money it took were, in the case of the former, substantial. I can’t say for sure how long the process took, but it was more than a month, perhaps two, and in all that time I hadn’t written a single word of original prose, so consumed with editing, purchasing software and domain names.

Once I had done the editing and proofreading, which was relatively easy, the next step was formatting the text and building the front of the book. This was particularly time consuming as I found myself messing about with the likes of Scrivener, which is supposed to be easy to use, well maybe if you are familiar with, and are willing to learn how to write code, which I’m not. Although having said that, perhaps this is another skill which the indie author will have to acquire in the future? Never the less, I quickly abandoned this approach and in the end decided to use Kindle’s own software which was what I should have done in the first place.

Next, came the challenge of designing the artwork, for this I found myself using, or should I say floundering about with Photoshop. I managed to cobble together a simple, but I think suitable, cover for the book. It was when I tried using it to design the cover of my novel I realised how desperately out of my depth I was. I quickly became discouraged with this and gave up trying to do something I am no expert in.

Then came the promotion, the posts, and tweets all about how my book was firstly available to pre-order and then out there in the world to buy. I will admit that I’m far from the best when it comes to blowing my own trumpet, but one of the things I do like about the internet is how it can enable anyone to be an actor in the digital domain. So, harnessing my alter-ego, I found myself becoming more and more confident with each post and tweet, even though I still feel a little like a second-hand car salesman when I venture out to bang my own drum. This generated a few likes on Facebook, but virtually no likes or RT’s on Twitter, which I had previously seen as the more writer -friendly tool.

Around this time I met up with an Annie Jai, a successful Amazon author who told me how I should be promoting my book using paid ads if I wanted to generate “organic” sales. So, I tried this out for myself; it took several attempts until I had my own campaign up and running. This was another aspect where I felt as if I had to act like an expert, only this time in marketing and demographics. So I tried my best; I entered that the ad should be targeted at both sexes between the ages of 18-65+. It’s not as if I’m writing YA or a murder series, and therefore would have a clearer idea of the sort of person who would read my work which is hard to pin down. As for the other sections; behaviours(?), politics, etc. I opted, instead, for interests, and that coming under the umbrella of entertainment. I remembered Annie saying it is good to target E-book readers (obviously), so I went with that. Then I added other criteria such as short stories and fiction which I saw gave me a very broad reach, which is good, but also can stop you from more accurately finding your audience. The thing is you don’t want to target an audience which is too wide to pin down, while, at the same time, you don’t want to end up with a niche audience which is going to limit your appeal. Having said that, it would be great just to have any kind of “organic” audience. This, people, is the art of getting complete strangers to pay money for your work. Easier said than done, of course.

So, after a couple of days, I shut the campaign down: I’d had 71 clicks to my website in total. What was I doing wrong? I wondered. Was the cover putting them off, the blurb, or was the link not working? I mean, after all, the book is selling at the lowest price possible ($0.99), and it’s hard to imagine none of those people clicking on my website decided not to purchase it.

So, all is not well in the self-publishing paradise. It was a couple of days after pulling the campaign that I watched a YouTube video hosted by a group of self-published authors, One of them stated the worst thing an aspiring writer could do in terms of promotion is to endlessly post and tweet about their book, especially if they don’t already have some kind of following who know about their upcoming releases. This advice also applied to paid ads. It would seem these are basically useless if no one knows you beforehand. And for all those Facebook friends and Twitter followers you’ve collected in the thousands? They don’t care about your book. Let’s face it, where are they going to find the time to read a book by an author who may well be terrible? I understand where they’re coming from; when I first started on Twitter, I had followers tweeting me about their latest book, or offering it to me for free. Did I attempt to read any of these? Of course not. Sitting down to read a book is a huge commitment. If it’s self-published, it’s less likely to be of high quality, especially if the author decided to forego beta readers and hiring a professional editor and proofreader (yes, despite what people may say, there still persists a stigma when it comes to going down the DIY route). Also, the books sent my way were not the kind I was interested in i.e. Lee Child, E.L. James, Suzanne Collins, etc. genre heavy, commercial wannabes.

Also, there is so much contradictory advice out there: on one hand there are writers who extoll the virtues of marketing and Ad campaigns, as I’ve briefly experimented with. While others such as Hugh Howey say word of mouth worked best for them i.e. giving their work to friends and family to grow an initial fan base (this I’ve tried myself, and while many of them expressed an interest in my writing, few of them ultimately got round to reading/purchasing it.)

I even thought at one point of going down the traditional publishing route. I reasoned to myself at least then I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for editing, proofreading, and cover design, while someone else could concentrate on the marketing side which would free up more writing time. But this, of course, is a fallacy, as I’m sure we all know. It could take years to get an agent and a publisher, and even then one would have to compromise on artistic control, while still having to self-promote online like a Kardashian, and all for a measly 5-15% cut on royalties.

While the tone of this post may be in danger of sounding bitter and self-pitying, what I’m trying to get across is the, at times, frustrating nature of self-publishing and publishing in general. I’m aware of the learning curve required for anything which is worthwhile, and with a novel almost ready to publish, I’m not about to give up and skulk away feeling sorry for myself.

 

 

 

“Nameless and Other Stories” pre-order

An eclectic assortment of short stories with themes such as the aftermath of a one night stand, the musings of a washed-up rock star, or broken dreams, and more, on the set of a reality TV show. Meet characters such as Larry and the seemingly unobtainable object of his desire, Nora the little gipsy girl who appears from out of the fog along with her Shire horse, Sugar in a tormented writer’s garden, and Patricia, and the Beast of Fen Rig, urban myth or wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Just thought I’d let all you lucky people out there know my debut publication, “Nameless and Other Stories,” is now available to pre-order.

There, that’s my sales pitch done with…for now.

 

The 83rd Floor

It is 9.21am, just 4 minutes since the second hijacked plane impacted between the 77th and 85th floors of the south tower of the World Trade Centre which will collapse in 53 minutes and take just eleven seconds to fall to earth.

Her name is Lori. It is 9.21am, just 4 minutes since the second hijacked plane impacted between the 77th and 85th floors of the south tower of the World Trade Centre which will collapse in 53 minutes and take just eleven seconds to fall to earth. Lori, along with her work mates, has been forced to lie on the floor, which has already begun to cook, in a desperate bid to breathe what little air remains.

The heat is becoming unbearable, an oven with windows which won’t open. While on other floors of the towers, people with this mercy are flinging themselves to their deaths. The 911 operator is trying to reassure Lori help is on the way. The operator knows what has happened. Everybody knows what has happened, but she needs her to understand it will take the firefighters a little while to reach the floor she is on, the 83rd.

The elevators are mostly unusable, gutted by burning aviation fuel. The only other route being the stairwell, miraculously undamaged, has become clogged with a slow moving procession of civilians and emergency workers. The firefighters, each carrying 100 pounds of equipment, will take an hour to climb the stairwell to reach the upper floors as the metal supports slowly warp and bend from the furnace eventually reaching temperatures of 2000 degrees.

The operator, just like anyone else, has no way of knowing the building will collapse, but if she has seen the pictures being broadcast then she must have a sense of the dire straits Lori finds herself in, and of her chances.
Lori says more than once she is going to die and asks the operator for confirmation of this, maybe as if her honesty might give some minute grain of comfort, but the operator cannot do this.

‘Say your prayers,’ she is told instead.
Lori thinks she can hear some voices and begins screaming for help. For a few, brief seconds the hopes of both women are lifted, but no reply ever comes. She asks the operator to find out whether anybody has reached the 83rd floor. The operator can be heard conferring with a third party (the firefighters only managed to reach the 78th before the building collapsed), but she can only tell her help is on its way.

Then Lori asks the operator if she will stay with her and in a small, trembling voice announces she is afraid to die. She will stay with Lori for the next 20 minutes as her words become fewer and further apart and she along with her colleges are slowly overcome by the smoke and the inevitability around them. Each breath now a rare commodity, each second dutifully falling away into the final minutes. Eventually, the line falls silent, and the operator is forced to conclude she has lost her.

 

***
You are rushing from your apartment; keys jangle from your busy hands. Maybe you had time for a parting kiss as you left and a few brief words about the evening’s meal. You can’t be late, you need to get to work, it’s all that matters right now as you emerge into the steadily rising warmth of the early morning sun. The air is fresh and feels keen against your skin, even raising a few goose bumps.

By the time you hit the main throng, the sun is beating down on your shoulders and every exposed part of your flesh. You wonder how long it takes for skin to burn. Now as you move along with the other commuters you see this Tuesday morning as the latest to be pulled from the shelf, uniform but undeniable, to where it will, you believe, ultimately return, bookended by 32 years of the past and the given future.
It seems you were in good time after all as you dab the sweat from your brow and check your perfect hair. The heating rays of the sun are muted by the relative cool of the long shadow you now stand in. You crane your head upwards, as always, at the tower of cement and glass rising above. Glad to get out of the heat, you emerge from the revolving doors and into the sunlit, air-conditioned lobby. You smile and exchange brief pleasantries with the security guard, as you do every morning, before moving off through the warm bodies of suits and uniforms as you make your way to the elevator. You break into a trot as the doors begin to close, until a friendly pair of hands holds them ajar and you gratefully squeeze inside the crowded, but airy space. Everyone is reserved and calm and is either minding their own business or chatting with their neighbour. The man who held the doors open asks which floor you want. He has a warm if unremarkable, face and something about him tells you he is a good man. It is 8.35 am and the good will you have received from this stranger has filled you with a welcome optimism. ‘The 83rd floor,’ you tell him with a smile as the doors finally close on you.

 

The Art and Value of Constructive Criticism

The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless.

So, you’ve just finished the first, second, or even fifth draft of your short story, novel, or play, etc. You’re feeling very proud of yourself: your masterpiece, your baby, the thing which you have toiled over is ready to be pushed out into the world. You’re ready to share your genius with everyone. You send it out to friends and family, and so the ego stroking begins: sure, not everyone reads it, but the ones who do have nothing but praise for it: they’re so impressed you wrote a story, they say things along the lines of,  “I really liked it.- Well done,” and “I wish I could write.”

The “feedback” you’ve received is so positive the next step surely is to post it online to a site such YouWriteOn, or Writer’s Café. You may even have the confidence to join a writer’s group where you can blow everyone away with the story your parents loved so much. And so you do, but it doesn’t go as planned, in fact it comes as a great shock when some random person you’ve never met before says something along the lines of, “I didn’t like the ending-I didn’t care much for the characters-there’s too much telling and not enough showing.” This feels like a hard slap in the face from a cold, wet fish. None of it is a personal attack on you (or it shouldn’t be), but you can’t help feeling like it is. Yes, they pointed out the positive aspects of your work, but it’s the negative one(s) which stay with you.

So, with your bubble burst you slink back from this experience to lick your creative wounds. You may find you never get over this, or perhaps, after a short while has passed you may want to go back to your work and take another look at what the person in the writer’s group or on the site said, maybe begin to see the story from another perspective and why a particular character or scene didn’t ring true. You might even find referring to these critical points helps to make the story better. So you get over the experience and grow from it.

A few weeks or months down the line, you finish another piece of work and are again eager to let friends and family see the fruits of your labour. Again you are rewarded with nothing but positive reviews. So again you let strangers read it, but once more there is criticism about certain elements of the story. You wonder why these people are so quick to point out the less than perfect elements of your work. What do they see that your friends and family don’t? It’s not as if they don’t like you, they just don’t seem to think everything you put out is a hundred percent wonderful for some reason. Then it hits you: they are being honest. Something your friends and family are far too polite to be.

And this is where so many writers go wrong. Through well meaning, yet ultimately damaging kindness, friends and family end up constructing a monster. A huge beast held up by the scaffold of their ego which, despite its size will crumble with just one critical prod. If you are this kind of writer, or any other kind of artist then you will probably end up as the deluded pop star wannabe who springs into the audition room of X Factor or American Idol expecting to blow the judges away with their unique rendition of My Heart Will Go On, only to leave the stage in tears when they are told they just haven’t got it: Rejection hurts, reality bites, yet honesty has a refreshing sting to it.

The rest of the world is not your family. It doesn’t know you, it has no need to be polite to you, but they are your peers, and by and large they tend to know what they are talking about, and their opinions and advice can be priceless. And it is also something you should never stop seeking out. I believe the best education you can get in writing is to do it every day and to always seek the opinion of others. I’m not saying you have to slavishly follow their every opinion, as it’s ultimately you who knows what is best, but you will know when their opinion is right.

I remember posting a story online which I was quite pleased with, I received three pieces of critique: one said my sentences were ridiculously long, while another said I went into too much detail which they felt was holding the story back. Where once my ego would have been wounded by this, instead I made notes of the points they made and systematically used them to improve my second draft. If I hadn’t the story would not have reached its potential and I would have carried on wrapped up in a deluded bubble, thinking no one in the outer world recognised my literary genius.

I’ll say it again: constructive criticism is invaluable and harder to come by than one might think. This isn’t to say you should take on board any and all criticism of your work. I have been unfortunate enough to be on the end of one particularly barbed review of my work which was nothing more than a bullying and arrogant attack which failed to point out any positives and seemed to revel in its criticism. This is where the art of constructive criticism comes in: if you are critiquing a piece of writing what you should be hoping to do is provide helpful insight and pointers into how the work could be improved, not turn it into some kind of personal attack which is used to pump up one’s own ego while at the same time destroying the ego of the writer, who for all you know may have only just started out on their journey. I find the best way to critique a piece of work without destroying the artist in the process is by using The Sandwich Technique512px-Sandwich in which you start off by acknowledging the positives in the writing (believe me, there’s always something good to be found in even the worst writing) and then go on to helpfully show where you feel improvements could be made. It also doesn’t hurt to display some empathy by pointing out how you may have made some of the same mistakes yourself and how common this can be. Then you finish off by reiterating the positives of their writing and expressing how you hope you were of some help.

So, the next time a relative waxes lyrical about your latest offering, or a complete stranger points out a glaring plot hole, put your ego to one side (easy than it sounds, I know), take a step back and try taking in the fuller picture.