Those exciting milestones

All writers have those milestones in their career that stick in the memory. The first time you actually finish a manuscript or a draft. That one alone suddenly moves you out of the “I’ve got a great idea for a book” category into the realm of a writer. There are many dubious stats but I’m sure that most people never even make it that far.

Then, and this one is like it was yesterday in my mind – the first time that a stranger buys your book. Over ten years ago I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book, The Busy Pagan. It had its own ISBN and when people ordered it from bookshops I sent it out to the wholesalers. The thought that someone was reading my words, not my family or friends but a stranger is the most wonderful thing. It’s the end of the writing process – so much more fulfilling than having a first draft in the bottom drawer of the desk.

Much more recently, I was going round the cycle of submitting the manuscript, getting rejections, making changes before going back to submitting it. After several years of this, getting the request to for a full manuscript was another landmark moment, thankfully followed by a publishing deal.

And then, at the beginning of this week, my publisher provided me with this link – The List – my project has grown from words on my screen to a real book. (It’s now available to pre-order, just saying.)  From now on it’ll be one thrill after another – when I get my physical copy, when the reviews come in, and of course when the first copy sells to a genuine stranger.

Looking back over this list one thing stands out. Writing is one of the loneliest professions – usually it’s just you and the words on the page. Once you get past the first one, which proves that you can write, the rest of the milestones are about sharing your work, letting other people breathe life into your words.

So this post is a long and rambling way to say thank-you. To the publishers, editors, cover designers and the readers. To everyone who reads what I write, and for a little while makes it live in their imagination, thank you. It is a strange and lovely thing that you are inhabiting the world I created in my head. You are the end of the process of being a writer. You make it all worthwhile.


A quick update

As long term followers of my blog will know by now, my brain has a limited capacity for producing words per day. When I start either writing or editing intensively, I don’t have any spare words left over for putting down in a blog. Or answering emails. Or marketing my book. Or organising life, come to think of it!

So, this is me coming out of hibernation. I’ve just gone through a fairly major edit on The List. I’ve got the word count down by something like 6,000 words by tightening up everything.

Thinking about editing it occurred to me that a book takes months or years to write. And maybe a few days or weeks to read. One consequence of that is that the words a reader reads might’ve been written years apart. Even if you write a book straight through from opening chapter to satisfying conclusion, it will still need editing. I know that in my case sometimes new sections are written in during the edit stage. So, if you read The List, you might get a paragraph from 2015 next to one from 2017.

This is why I tried to blitz the edits. I went through the whole book in around ten days. I made many minor changes to language. It was subtle, but it very slightly moved between formal and colloquial, clear and flowery language over the course of the manuscript. Hopefully I’ve done a good job and it’ll read much better now. (I do know that most readers won’t spot these changes but I do believe that they have a subconscious effect on the perceived quality of the book!)

Now that I’ve handed over the edits I have two things to focus on. The Sequel when I get my writing brain back and marketing on social media. I had a revelation on that last point. Facebook and Twitter are great but it’s getting harder and harder to get your message in front of people who might want to read your book. (I have a friend who gets between 3% and 5% of their page likes actually seeing what they post.)

So, I’m starting a mailing list. Click here to sign up. If you’ve read this far, you’ll realise that this will be a sporadic newsletter. When I have a finished manuscript I’ll probably send out updates once a week, certainly as publishing date approaches. If I’m head-down and writing, you might not hear from me for a couple of months! (And I won’t be selling your data either.)

I’ll just leave this here and hope it appears when this is shared on Facebook!

What do you think? If you’re a writer do you alternate between self-promotion and writing? Or have you some magic to let you do both?


More Writers now than Ever Before?

As I said in a previous post, I’ve been writing on and off for (I can’t believe it) nearly thirty years. OK, so I did get a magazine article published when I was 15 but that’s still a long time! When I started, I had a manual typewriter, and then scrounged an electric one with a correction facility. At the time I was working in IT so fairly soon I had a computer with Wordperfect on it. (Whatever happened to Wordperfect?) Then of course, the computers got faster and started dialling up to connect to the Internet, before a few brave souls showed us the way with ADSL. Now, we’re always-on with wireless broadband, cloud storage and all the other benefits of the Internet.

I’m now wondering if this makes a difference to how many people are out there writing. If you think back to the late eighties, early nineties, most people did not have a computer. If they wanted to write a novel, they’d have to get a typewriter, buy some paper, make sure that the ribbon was fresh, and settle down to write. If you wanted to keep a copy you either had to photocopy everything (at 10p a page in the library or newsagent) or use carbon copies. If you don’t remember carbon paper, be very thankful because it was a horrible thing!

Now, most people use a computer, either at work or at home. People send text messages and emails all the time. Lots of people write blogs and comment on Facebook, forums, newspapers and a host of other websites. In short, more people are writing more words than ever before.

If someone today wants to write a novel, they just have to sit down, fire up Microsoft Word and start typing. You don’t even need paper or printer ink – you can go straight from screen to publication if you want to. But more important than that is the fact that it probably feels normal. Books are now springing from sources that didn’t exist when I started. Back then, there were no blogs, no online fan-fiction communities so these routes are entirely new and have spawned some best sellers.

Of course, all of this means that there is greater competition in the marketplace. And I think that it means that the quality has spread out in both directions. I’m sure that there is a lot more dross out there than ever before. Especially now you can publish directly from a word document to Kindle, or any other e-reader. You don’t even have to spell-check or proof it! But at the other end of the spectrum, there are undoubtedly writers with fresh, exciting voices who would never had the opportunity. Without the Internet their words would never have found a market.

Personally this means that I need to be more professional and organised. In a flooded market, quality is a good way to get noticed and rise to the top. Well, without becoming a celebrity and going on Big Brother (shudder!). What do you think? Are there more writers than ever before? What does this mean for the publishing industry?

The Process of Novel Writing

When I was younger (more naive?) I thought that becoming an author would go something like this. I’d write a novel, by starting at the beginning and writing through to the end. Then I’d send three chapters and a synopsis off to some publishers, one would ask for the full manuscript and I’d get published. Of course, it didn’t take many rejection letters to realise that it was a lot harder than it looked!

Then along came firstly print on demand, closely followed by e-readers. (Did I mention that I’ve been writing a long time? I started on typewriters.) Now you could take your first draft and put it out there on the Internet and people would flock to you and buy it. Or not. Of course, marketing and publicity are the elephant in the room for the whole self-publishing game.

Now, feeling older and wiser, I’m approaching the whole business from a different perspective. I plan my novels, not down to a chapter by chapter, scene by scene level, but enough to know where the big plot points should be and what I want them to be. Then the writing process has changed – after many drafts I’ve sent my manuscript out to beta readers. Despite my best efforts, there remain many typos still to fix. Typos are funny beasts, I was reviewing the third beta readers and she had highlighted certain sentences. I had to read the sentence through several times and then check it word by word. Often it’s small things like ‘my’ instead of ‘me’ that Word can’t spot and I tend to read what I think I wrote instead of what’s there.

Once the typos have been done, I’m also looking at the bigger issues. Some of the readers have highlighted structural issues, mostly minor. So now I’m considering them and make some small changes.

I’m not feeling impatient to get on and get it sent out to agents or publishers. I know that I’ve changed and I feel that the world has changed as well. I now look at my manuscript and think that I’ve got one chance to make a first impression. I suspect there are very few agents who’d give a manuscript a second chance. So now, I want this to be as polished as it can be.

I think I’m also more realistic about the end-game as well. I don’t think that a publisher will write a huge advance cheque, and then after a few months start discussing cover art! I know that it will probably be a negotiation to and fro. I expect that they’ll want to see how I react to edits and suggestions to change the story. When I do get a deal, I expect that when I go through the edits and launch details I’ll also be working on the next book, or even the one after that! I see it as a process of overlapping jobs.

Somehow, this time, more than any other novel I’ve written I feel more engaged with the whole process, more willing to see it through, complete every stage. I even stayed up late last night finishing off the synopsis. (Which also helped me with the structure.) Well, the first draft, because I know it’s an important document, I know I’ll need to go over it several times until it’s just right. In a similar vein, I’ve signed up for a one day course on “pitching your novel” – just to make sure I make the most of my one shot.

What do you think? If you write have you found that your approach to the whole business of it has changed? Is it me or is it the industry that have changed?

Enhanced books

I was looking for something to read this morning so I picked up a Kate Mosse. I vaguely remembered that she’d started one of the big fiction prizes (the Orange Prize for Fiction) so I flicked through the back to find her bio.

I was a bit surprised to find that there was more than just a bio at the back. There must have been fifteen or twenty pages. There was an extra story, written specially for the Waterstones version. I’ve seen reading group notes in books before, but this also had a plot synopsis and Kate explaining what some of her themes were throughout the book.

I’m still not sure what I think. As a writer, I always approach work with an attitude of “you can’t explain anything to your reader”. In other words, your book has to stand alone. If you’re submitting to an agent, you can’t explain the themes in your cover letter, because they’ve got to be able to get the message of the book solely from what you’ve written. Except now, you can go on to explain some of the deeper meaning behind it.

Overall I think it’s a good thing. From a writer’s point of view, it’s interesting to have someone successful explain how they did it. Writing is as much a craft as anything else. Just like a carpenter, sometimes you need someone to show you the steps that result in the finished article. And, in this age of e-readers and the internet, authors need to look for ways to stand out from the crowd. I suspect a lot of authors are doing similar things, as well as tie-ins to the internet. In many ways it’s an extension of the culture of blog-tours, twitter and all the other social media. The other thing I’ve noticed is that some publishers are including logos on their books to indicate how much action, romance, sensuality, etc. is in the book.

Looking over the best-selling authors list, I reached a surprising conclusion. What readers want, more than anything else, is consistency. The real high-flyers are the likes of John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Barbara Cartland. Of those, only Koontz really takes risks. But you still know roughly what to expect when you pick up one of his books. It’ll be thrilling, and there’s a high chance of something paranormal taking place, and you might find yourself veering into horror on occasion.

At the moment, I’m reading a DI Alan Banks detective novel by Peter Robinson. I know I’m going to get a complicated investigation, a dour Yorkshire detective with a messy personal life and highly cultured tastes. Most of the time, I think, most readers want this – comfort food for the brain. Occasionally though, it is nice to be surprised. I read the Night Circus based on the title and a very short blurb. I thoroughly enjoyed it, partly because I didn’t know what to expect. Similarly with the Rivers of London, which took me equally by surprise, although the blurb was a bit more forthcoming.

Ultimately, publishing is a business, and the most profit in any business is giving people what they want. So, these enhanced books will sell more copies and people will enjoy them more. If you’ll excuse my lapse into office-speak, they add value to the reading experience and that must be good.

What are your thoughts? Please leave comments!

The death of books?

It does appear at the moment that every broadsheet is running an article on how the Kindle is killing off books and that soon either paper books or the option of earning a living as an author is about disappear.

There are a number of flaws in this argument. The first is that the Kindle is a product of a single company – Amazon. This company exists for one purpose only, to record maximum profit for its shareholders. Note the way that they seamlessly moved from selling books into stocking almost anything that they could sell on. They also morphed themselves into a kind of ebay type entity by making a profit out of their competitors. This is akin to having the printing presses all in the control of one company. There objective is not to spread knowledge and understanding. Nor is it to store up knowledge for the future. Which brings me on to Google books who appear to be doing this. But again they are a company who’s sole objective is to make profits. In the last few years of recession I have seen names like Woolworths and MFI vanish from the high street into insolvency. Who’s to say that Amazon and Google will fare any better in the future.

Indeed, if you look back into the past then the oldest book in the country is around 1,400 years old. Aside from the church and the monarchy I can think of no other institutions that have lasted that long. I certainly wouldn’t expect to see the likes of Amazon and Google around in a few hundred years, never mind a thousand.

I think the big factor that has been overlooked in all these articles is the rise of Print on Demand. If you pick up a book, you now have no way of knowing if it is a POD book that had five copies printed in a year, or if it is a million selling best-seller. This truly does level the playing field. It reminds me of the moment when Daniel Beddingfield had his first number one single with a track he recorded in his bedroom and released himself using the internet. He sidestepped the middle men and got direct access to his audience. It reminds me of the changes happening in religion and spirituality. Increasingly people are directly accessing their religion and not allowing priests to mediate for them.

In the world of publishing, authors can, using the two allied technologies of print on demand and the social networks of the internet both produce their own books and market them to an audience. This is a double edged sword of course, because it means the market is being flooded with dross and it is harder to find the jewels in the mud. But, to return to my original point, it is not, I believe, the death of books. But I think it is a major shift in the whole structure of publishing is underway. I think we’re seeing the end of the old ways of offering authors big advances and publishing deals. No longer will it be necessary to put contracts in place to support the huge cost of printing up thousands of books in advance. It will instead be possible to respond to requests for books by either shipping out electronic copies, or printing physical books as and when they are needed.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling from me, please comment and share and let me know what you think!