Category: Blog

Should I self publish my book or go traditional?

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This is a question that gets asked a lot in The Dragon Writers, where we have a wide spread of both kinds of authors.

The short answer is: with self publishing, or “indie” you get a bigger slice of the pie but you have to work harder for it.

Choosing to self publish should never be about having a back up plan, it’s not something you should do just because you’re tired of rejection.

Self publishing is being CEO of your own business.

 

You are the manufacturer of the product (the book), you are the person responsible for finding a team to quality control the product (editors and proofreaders), you’re the person responsible for getting the product to market (uploading it on retailers, choosing which retailers are best, deciding whether to print local copies or use distributers to get it into book stores), you are the person responsible for marketing the product (ensuring the cover is not only professional, but that it communicates to the end user what to expect from the product). You will also have to be your own compliance officer, which is what many people don’t talk about. You need to worry about rights, and taxes and GDPR and all that jazz.

Like all businesses, making and selling books requires a capital outlay to start with.

You will probably need to pay your team. I say probably because if you’re fortunate you will be able to make arrangements with qualified friends and barter, but if you’re not in that position, you’re going to need to pay someone real money.

Even if you don’t end up paying for that, you’re going to have to pay for marketing. There was a time when Amazon first started their print on demand service when you could be discovered without spending money on marketing, there was a time when having an organic Facebook audience was enough for any business. This is no longer the case. People don’t stumble upon new authors accidentally.

You’re probably going to have to spend money on training. Sure, there are tons of free resources out there and you can probably learn a lot of what you need just by joining the right Facebook groups, but it’s likely that you will end up buying at least one book or course to train you in advertising or strategy.

The people who do well at self publishing are the people who thrive on the challenges of the business side.

They’ve got entrepreneurial hearts. They want to be involved in all this. They want to be in control. They love experimenting, and chatting to readers, and networking with other writers.

If you aren’t that yet, you can become that. No one starts off good at anything in life. You learn.

But if the very idea fills you with horror, then that’s where traditional might be right for you.

You see, in the traditional model a writer is just a writer.

 

You manufacture the product and that’s that. Well not quite. Like all manufacturers of any other product, you have to get someone to buy it to take it further. You have to pitch. You have to be rejected. You have to keep trying. You get better at pitches, you get better at creating products that fulfill a market need. Eventually someone buys your product and agrees to distribute it for you. You will probably have to make some adjustments, and you will get a very complex contract explaining what you each expect from one another.

Used to be that after that point it was out of your hands. Now the thing is if you want to sell another product to that buyer, you’ll want to do a bit of marketing yourself. But it’s not expected of you. Your book will end up in stores, you might get speaking opportunities and things like that, and you don’t have to worry about any of it.

If you only want to write and not worry about the business side of things, then traditional is probably for you. Yes, it’s a slow process, but it’s a process that frees you up to do what truly makes your soul happy. Don’t let people put you off if you know that this is what’s right for you. Just be patient and keep working at it. Your day will come.

The thing that makes traditional publishing so difficult is also its greatest benefit. Since there is such a huge barrier to entry, the assumption is that books put out by traditional publishers are top quality. Yes, there are many that aren’t. However, people who see the brand names of the big publishers on your book will assume that your book is up to scratch because it made it through that selection process. You don’t have that with indie. You have to create your own brand and it’s up to you to prove it’s quality even though it’s mixed in with a lot of books that are not quality at all.

The in between

Vanity presses (sometimes called hybrid publishers)

are like that greasy guy with the slicked-back hair twho show up at your door or networking event to tell you they’re onto the next big thing and if you just give them cash you can be in on it too. Sure, some of them are legit (I mean I’m sure there must be one somewhere out there that’s legit) but you have to be so careful.

Rule of thumb is that if someone is asking for money to publish your book it’s one of these. And no matter what they tell you, all they will do is help with the manufacturing of the product. You’re still going to be CEO. You’re still going to have to sell it and market it and make a bunch of legal and regulatory decisions. However, they will (in theory) get the book edited, laid out and organise a nice cover for you, which takes a lot of the admin out of doing it yourself. Just be wary, look at other products they’ve produced before and ask around to see if they’re up to scratch. Since they’re getting their money from you, they have no incentive to make a book that will sell.

Authors’ co-op

This is what I do personally, so I may be a bit biased. You’re still CEO and everything that I said about self publishing still applies. However, you can exchange your own skills with other authors so that it keeps the costs down. Find some friends who are very good at what they do (look for talent, not just friendship. This is crucial). Someone can be in charge of covers, someone can be in charge of interior layout, someone can be in charge of editing, someone can be in charge of proof reading, someone can be in charge of marketing, etc. You don’t have to do everything yourself. You’re a team and you work together to produce the absolute best products you can, but you still have complete control over your own publishing journey.

 

Publishing is hard. There’s no way around it. If it wasn’t, then traditional publishers wouldn’t be a thing. But just bear in mind, you’ve got time to learn. No business expects you to know everything on day one. In the end, you have to decide what’s important to you and what you want to get out of publishing and that will inform which method you select. 

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Wedding, Inktober and Writing – oh my!

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The last half of 2018 has been a little crazy, here are a couple of highlights!

 
 

Wedding!

 
 
Wedding selfie!Graham and I got engaged in 2014, only six months after we started dating. At the time our parents were a little concerned. Little did they know we’d end up living together for almost four years before tying the knot because of the cost and logistics of organising a wedding. In the end, we decided that the most important thing was our commitment to each other and not the very expensive party, so we essentially eloped (and our moms tagged along as witnesses). 
 
I didn’t expect it to feel very special, since in South Africa you don’t go to court but to Home Affairs which is the same place where people queue to register babies, apply for ID cards, get passports etc. I felt a little weird showing up there in a nice dress with a bunch of flowers! And we had to wait in this dark corridor beside a bunch of disgruntled people who were still angry about being up early (I’m assuming). 
 
But the ceremony itself was lovely. We had this wonderful warm marriage officer who said she used to work in immigration, but she just got depressed turning people away and she was too soft-hearted for the role, so they transferred her and her soft heart to weddings. 
 
I can’t remember the actual vows, but I remember that that there was nothing sexist or homophobic at all and that made me extra happy. There were damp eyes and a great sense of FINALLY. 
 
Afterwards, we went to a really nice restaurant (Mexican, on a farm (?)) and that’s where we took pics. When we go on honeymoon, I’m going to book a professional photographer to take some nice wedding pics of us in a foreign land 🙂 
 
People keep asking how married life is, but it’s really not different at all from what we had before. I’m still getting used to using the word “husband”. 
 
I chose to change my name because I preferred the sound of the new one (complete vanity, sorry feminism!) And it’s a little weird, but not as weird as I thought it would be!
 
 
Saying vows
 
 

Finishing my Dragon Age fan trilogy

 
I’ve long held the belief that writing fanfic is the best way to practice storytelling. You have a willing audience, you have chapter-by-chapter statistics and, if you’re lucky, other fans are happy to help you out by editing for you. In February 2016 I hit on an idea based on the Dragon Age series of games. I initially wrote and posted one chapter, and when there was interest I started spinning that out into a tale about what happens to heroes after the world is saved.
 
Little did I know that it would result in a 332 547-word-long trilogy of novels about identity, self-determination and overcoming trauma.
 
Last week, I published the final chapter!
 
 
Decorative swishes say: True love is more than moonlight kisses and desperate vows. It might just be powerful enough to heal two broken people. Which is part of the fic blurb.
 
 
It’s been an amazing experience. Yolandie and Abigail were awesome and played the roles of editor and proofreader respectively, I met a bunch of really great people through the fan community and I feel like my writing really benefited. I’m kind of sad to see it go, but I’m also so happy that I finished and published something, even if it’s not under my own name!
 
Some highlights: 
 
  • The day I checked my stats on Fanfiction.net and saw that over 20 000 people had visited the story (now over 55 000).
  • The first time Nerine (my editor, who also introduced me to Dragon Age) said she’d read my fic and could see how much I’d improved through writing it, and that I’d found my voice. 
  • The time someone commented and said they’d printed out the story so they can read it again and asked if they could donate to my PayPal as a thank you.
 
I know there tends to be a stigma around writing fan fiction (thanks to the likes of Diana Gabaldon and Anne Rice), but it’s largely based on false ideas about what motivates someone to create. Fan works are about finding a way to delve deeper into something you love, and to connect with others who love the same thing. I know that the friendships I’ve made, and skills I’ve learned, through writing fic will last far beyond this particular story. 
 
 

Inktober

 
It’s not often that words literally fail me, but my fundraiser went so so much better than I ever could have expected. THANK YOU to everyone who contributed or spread the word. 
 
Art commissions are not usually my thing – I get far too stressed out about them – so I don’t know if I’ll do this again, but I’m really happy with how things went. The money is in a high-interest account with the rest of the honeymoon savings, and I will report back when we decide where we want to go and when! (Probably still Ireland next year).
 
 
An instagram snap of Keyflame (the first version!)
 
 
 

Keyflame

 
I’ve passed the half way point with rewrites of my first novel! I wrote Keyflame back in 2009 and pressed publish on Amazon in my excitement, and then had immediate regret and withdrew it. All of my stories since then are multiple-book series, so I decided to revisit this standalone so I’d have something to offer that didn’t require the same type of investment from readers. 
 
I’ve tried something different with this re-write – I’ve been sending it to beta readers as I write so I can adjust the story to fit with, or thwart, reader expectations. It’s stressful, I won’t lie. It kind of feels like I have an exam to prep for every single week (I send out new chapters on Fridays), but I’m probably going to do this every time I do revisions from now on. The major benefit is that it stops me second guessing myself about what readers will think, because I know what they think. Having a weekly deadline also pushes me to keep writing even when I’m in the doldrums. 
 
If you’re curious about the story, here’s the blurb!
 
 

When Lilah Durow starts university in the idyllic Grahamstown, she thinks her biggest problem will be fitting in. 
 
Little does she know, she stands at the centre of an ancient war.
 

When her father’s latest case lands him in prison, Lilah’s classmate Kalin steps in to help her. He’s argumentative, brooding and just mysterious enough to be attractive. But the closer she grows to him, the more strange things start to happen. Not the least of which are the vivid dreams of a fantasy world she thought she’d made up, and of a powerful battle between light and dark.

 
Something magical lurks in her blood, and there are those in Grahamstown who are willing to kill her for it. 
 
Who is Kalin really, and what will loving him cost her?
 
 
 
 
 
 
I’m going to try to keep this blog up to date with more regular (and shorter) progress reports and writing tips. Is there anything else you’d like to see here?
 
I’d also love to connect with you on Instagram if you’re on that platform. It’s my new favourite place. 

Categories: Blog

The Water Crisis Diaries: Hope

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Two pieces of good news today have me breathing a little easier.

  1. Even though the porta potties are still lurking in the work parking lot, the toilets are working again!
  2. Day Zero – the day when the taps get switched off – has moved back to May.  A whole month later than it was predicted to be last time I updated this blog.

A little hope is a powerful thing. While we’re still going to need to measure every drop we use (because we need to push it all the way back to August in order for it to disappear completely), it feels like a literal physical weight has been lifted off my shoulders. For the first time in a long while I feel like I may not have to shit in a bucket. So that’s good.

Of course, that would mean that it has to rain at some stage. It still hasn’t.

On Friday our building manager came around and installed water saving taps and shower heads. Our old bits and pieces went into a little ziplock plastic bag with the flat number on it in permanent marker, to be put in storage until the crisis is over. She explained that if we fail to drastically reduce our usage in the flats, the government will start applying limits based on an estimate of one person per bedroom in the block. Which is less than half of the number of people who actually live here. Meaning we’ll use our water quota by midday.

Our neighbours are pretty selfish. Aside from the constant noise pollution, they’ve been doing laundry almost every day.

Hopefully the notices that have been put up in the stairwells about the new consequences for not saving water will change a few habits.

Categories: Blog

How to write a novel in Microsoft Word

My trilogy is currently sitting at 316,078 words, which amounts to 732 Microsoft Word pages. It’s all in a single doc.

I’m not saying that to impress anyone (it still needs to be edited down!). Only because a few people I’ve chatted to seem to think that you need some fancy writing software to write anything of that length. I actually find Word really easy to use, and it’s all because a few years ago I figured out how to structure a document for a novel.

Here’s what I do, and hopefully it can help you too.

1. Navigation Pane

Under “View” on the main menu, check “Navigation Pane”. This is the key to the entire thing. The Navigation Pane allows you to view the document by headings, pages or by search results. The headings is the important thing, as you will be able to navigate directly to each heading by clicking on it.

2. Scrap yard and Marker

The first thing I type is Scrap Yard, the second is Marker. Both of these should be on their own lines and set to Heading 1. You will find Heading 1 under Styles on the Home tab of the main menu. Then they show up in the Navigation Pane. You want to start typing your novel above this.

3. Using headings to structure the novel

Something that I know I vastly underestimated when I started writing was how much time I’d spend skipping back to check stuff. Whether it’s a character name, a piece of dialogue or what the hell happened in That One Scene, I do it at least three times in every writing session.

Now for each section of a story that I write, I will use headings so that I can easily find that part again.

How you do this all depends on how you want to break down your novel. For the 316k monster I mentioned above, I have Heading 1 for the book titles, Heading 2 for settings, Heading 3 for key scenes in that setting.

I’ve also been writing a fanfic in Google Docs, which also has this navigation system (called Outline). In that one I use Heading 1 for chapter numbers, Heading 2 for the point of view character and Heading 3 for the scenes within a chapter. You can see how nicely they nest under each other.

  

With this system, it’s easy to find That One Scene because of my descriptive Heading 3 that lets me find it easily. 

4. What was that about a Marker? 

So, remember that Marker Heading 1? That’s basically a bookmark. Because it’s the biggest heading, it will never be nested under anything and you can use it to always find your place.

If you write your novel from start to end, then it’s no problem finding where you left off. But if you’re like me,  you’ll constantly bounce back to fix stuff or make adjustments, and this is where this fellow is really handy. Just make sure you keep the Marker at the bottom of what you’re currently writing and you will never ever lose your place, even if you have to navigate away to check something quickly and accidentally only return to your document in six months. 

5. … And the Scrap yard? 

The Scrap yard is where all the murdered darlings go.

You know the phrase “kill your darlings”? It typically means that sometimes you need to cut out bits of your novel that you really love, but that just don’t fit where they currently are. My junk yard (or “Spares” as I call it in the trilogy) is a maze of descriptive Heading 3s. Sometimes I manage to use those darlings elsewhere in the novel, and then I just change the Heading 3 to reflect this. But even if I never use that bit of writing, it at least makes me feel like no effort is ever wasted. 

And that’s how I use Microsoft Word for writing really long documents easily. 

Do you have any of your own tips that I should try? Add them in the comments 🙂 

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Life update: Having my cake and eating avo toast

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Sunday afternoon saw us driving frantically across Cape Town trying to hit as many Checkers stores as we could before closing time.

 

Why? Because I want to have a cake this year for my birthday and I don’t want to have to bake it myself. 

 

It’s interesting how times have changed. A few years back I was determined to make “trying a fantastic new cake recipe” a birthday tradition. But that was before eating flour was a no-no. 

 

The first birthday that I spent gluten intolerant, I baked a cake that tasted like cardboard and that no one in the office was brave enough to try (I literally ate the whole thing minus I think three pieces accepted by people too polite to decline). The next year, I drove around with my mom on the day itself trying to seek out somewhere – anywhere – that could offer me a slice of gluten-free cake while we had tea and exchanged gossip. Alas, we were unsuccessful in our quest and I eventually ended up with a puddle of what was deemed “cheesecake” but was actually an overpriced sour lump of white mush. The only thing we ended up trading over our tea were tears of frustration. 

 

(There’s a lesson here about prioritising treats over experiences… but I clearly haven’t learned it yet. )

 

Last year I just gave up and got a muffin. 

 

Cardboard cake
The mighty Cardboard Cake (Astros for decoration only – not gluten free).

 

This year, being a big birthday, I wanted to plan ahead. There is exactly one brand that does pre-made, vacuum-sealed sponge cakes. (Doesn’t that just sound tasty?) I’ve tried them and am pleased to report that they do, in fact, taste better than the Cardboard Cake of 2014. A lovely friend of mine who bakes and decorates cakes professionally even offered to stack a few of them together and ice them for me. If you’d seen her cakes you’d understand just how excited I was about this plan. 

 

Then we couldn’t track the damned things down. It turns out that this weekend was the one that every curious Banter chose to try the cakes.

 

We drove from Kenilworth to Blue Route, to Canal Walk and back to no avail. Poor Graham played chauffeur fortified only with a meagre McDonald’s burger (because we may have both forgotten to eat – this is why we likely should never be parents). He was endlessly patient with my panic and despair… and went to check the healthy food market near his work during lunch break on Monday. There they were! Perhaps that should have been our Plan A to begin with. There’s a lesson here about over-complicating things that I probably also will never learn. 

 

Talking of learning things, I mentioned just now how it’s a big birthday. Well, it’s my 30th. When I think of turning 30, I think of Ally McBeal. There was a whole episode about her turning 30 (literally, it was called Turning Thirty

 

And then I get scared because I know the episode opened with her freaking out about turning “the big 3 – 0”, and that makes me think that I should be freaking out. And then I get even more scared because that episode aired in 2000 and that was seventeen years ago. What??

 

Okay, but in all honesty, I’m not that scared. I’ve never really been one for measuring myself against societal norms (probably because back when I did that I used to fall inexorably short, so I decided to rather become “interesting” and “eccentric” and the kind of person who uses “inexorably” in a sentence). I remember when I turned 16, I felt terribly unqualified to be that old. The same with being 18 – I’d never even had a boyfriend! When I turned 21 I was surrounded by other crazy 21-year-olds so I felt a bit better, and the feelings that weren’t better got drowned in alcohol. Now at 30, I feel like I overshot the mark and have fallen somewhere on the other side of 80. I have back problems, dietary issues and spend my evenings knitting or writing with my spectacles perched askew upon the tip of my nose (yea, I just got new glasses so I’m still working on focusing properly). 

 

But if I’m a 30-year-old 80-year-old, I’m a happy one. I have grandpa “get-off-my-lawn” Graham at my side, a large circle of supportive friends across the world, and a job I don’t hate. 

 

Which is I guess all that one can ask for at 30 if one still wishes to enjoy the odd avo toast

 

Despite this, I do get that unsettling sense of life slipping away which I guess is why I’ve decided to start blogging again. I hope to keep my rambles interesting, angst-free  (unlike my old livejournal) and semi-frequent. Other than that, if there’s something specific you want me to cover please leave a comment or hit me up on social media (I just used “hit me up”, see, I’m down with the kids!). 

 

These are some sections I’ll be introducing with the next update. Is there anything you think I should add? 

 

 

I’m writing:

 

In this section, I’ll be keeping track of my writing progress and posting extracts. 

 

I’m making art: 

 

In this section, I’ll be keeping track of my art progress and posting some pics.

 

I’m eating:

 

In this section, I’ll make note of any nice gluten-free food or recipes I find or other food anecdotes. Sometimes I’ll be linking to posts on Graham’s website, Next Window Plz

 

I’m listening to: 

 

In this section, I’ll give music recommendations. 

 

I’m reading: 

 

In this section, I’ll give book recommendations or, more likely, link to interesting articles.

 

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How I beat procrastination

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When I say “beat”, I mean “beat” in the present tense, of course. Because beating procrastination is an ongoing battle. For someone prone to procrastination, there’s no such thing as winning. You’re pretty much working against your own brain constantly in order to get important things done.

 

Alledria Hurt started a discussion in my writing group earlier about self-motivation. Some people are encouraged by positive rewards at the end of achieving their goal (get 1,000 words down, have a chocolate). Some people are encouraged by negative consequences (if I don’t get these words down, I can’t watch TV today).

For me, neither of these things seem to work. Negative consequences make me panic and procrastinate more. And positive consequences make me sad that I can’t have the positive things now and grumpy about doing the task at hand. Not ideal. 

Winning the Procrastination Battle for me is all about trying to outwit my brain, and these are some strategies that I’ve found do work.

 

Understanding the enemy

 
Everybody’s brain is different, so tricking yourself might be different from how I trick myself. As with any war, the first step is knowing the enemy. That means understanding exactly what thoughts lead to procrastination. For me it’s usually one of three things:

 

1. This is a large task

This is a big undertaking, I should probably get the little things done first so I can undertake it in one chunk and really focus.

If I start that task now, I won’t get a chance to do the other things I want to do today/tonight. I should probably do those first. 

If I start now, I’ll probably be interrupted by a meeting/visit/obligation. I should wait until that’s done before starting. 

I don’t know where to start.

This task probably isn’t for me. I’m going to mess it up because it’s too large and important. 

 

2. This is not the right time to do it

I’m not feeling very focused now. I’m too hungry/sad/tired. I should rather do something else now and tackle that task when I’m better equipped.

I’m not inspired now. If I wait a while, inspiration will hit. 

It’s too late at night/early in the morning/close to meal time. I’ll do it later. 

 

3. I’d rather do something fun

I have to do this task, so it’s automatically the devil and not fun. 

This fun thing will only take a moment and then I’ll feel better about life in general and do better work. 

 

The art of war

 
Once I catch myself having these thoughts, I know that I am faced with my enemy, Procrastination. This is the battle plan I use.

 

For “it’s too large” thoughts:

    • Strategy 1: It’s really not that big If you can, you need to convince yourself that the huge task that seems huge is not really that big. It helps to compare it to other tasks you’ve done that are similar and you’ve done successfully. For me this is my monthly reports for work. They seem HUGE but I have to remind myself, I somehow manage to do them every month. It will nearly always feel larger in your  mind than it really is.
    •  

    • Strategy 2: break it down into parts. It’s the old “eat an elephant” thing. If you can break it down into smaller, less-scary, tasks then it’s easier to tackle. I like to make a list of all of the parts/steps that need to happen. If you’re having a crisis of confidence in your ability to do the task, choose a single step that you feel comfortable with and start there.
    •  

    • Strategy 3: “just a tiny piece” If the list is still overwhelming, choose one of the easiest places to start and tell yourself you only have to do that little bit. This is a great strategy for novel writing, I find. Cat Hellisen does #Gimme100 on Twitter, which is a challenge to write only 100 words a day (and often turns into writing many more words). My version is “open the laptop”. The battle is practically already won if I can sit down and open up the doc with my novel in it and read a few lines. I tell myself “you don’t need to solve the problem with Chapter 20 today, you can just read the intro line and see if you have anything to add.” And usually, once I get stuck in, I’m hooked and end up solving the problem with Chapter 20 anyway.

     

 

For “this is not the right time” thoughts:

It is the right time. That’s the trick. It is always the right time. Inspiration doesn’t matter (you had it with you all along, like Dorothy’s ability to click her heals and return home). If you’re avoiding doing a task, you’ll never be in the perfect mood for it.

Also, it helps to accept that interruptions don’t matter that much either. In fact it can be good to take a break, even in the middle of something big that needs a lot of focus.

Trying to find a large chunk of time when you feel inspired and in a good mood is like trying to find the holy grail: a terribly costly endeavor that is likely to be fruitless. Start now, because there’s probably not going to be a better time.

 

For “I’d rather do something fun” thoughts”

You have to give it to these guys for at least being honest. Most of the time your brain will use excuses like “it’s too big” or “now’s not the right time” when it really means that it wants to do something more enjoyable.

The secret to this one is that you need to drill down into exactly why you think this thing you need to do is not enjoyable. Sometimes my own tricksy brain tries to tell me I don’t enjoy writing. Like what? Seriously?

Writing is my dream. I love it more than anything.

But once it’s something you have to do, it feels like work. It feels like it’s much easier to just pick up a videogame and space out. But, you know, if you set a deadline on playing that video game you’ll procrastinate about doing that too. I know all about that, I’m marrying a game reviewer.

No matter how much you love something, if you make it something you have to do, you’re going to resent having to do it. That’s just how we are.

So how do you get around that? Well, this is where some people find bribery works. You lead your brain into the task with the promise of something fun later and then, when you end up actually enjoying the task, it’s a wonderful surprise. But for me, that just makes me more resentful about not being able to do the fun thing. I need to find the fun thing in the task itself.

With writing it comes down to remembering the good parts of the story, the reason why I decided to write it. I read through my favourite scenes (or go through them in my head if not yet written) to “find my passion” for the story and convince me that I really want to write it after all.

With other aspects of life I also try to drill down into the task to find a small fun aspect. Even if it’s only very very small. Colour-coding notes worked for me when I was studying, or illustrating them with funny pictures. When it comes to social media reports, I like finding out which posts do the best and trying to figure out why.

And if all else fails, and “finding the fun” is impossible, you need to look at the reason why doing the task is important. Zoom out and look at the bigger picture. This is slightly different from “fear of negative consequences” (I’ll get in trouble if I don’t do this report! I’ll punish myself if I don’t write!). It’s more about seeing how this thing you need to do will improve your overall wellbeing and happiness or even alter the world for the better.  (“If I pass my exam, I’ll have a qualification and be able to get a better job”, “If I discover which Facebook ads work best, I’ll be able to offer businesses advice that makes a real positive difference to their lives”, “If I finish this novel, other people will be able to enjoy the story I’ve been telling myself for years”).

 

One final trick

This is the one that I call “bait and switch”. If you’re very sneaky, you can get your brain to do something that it would rather avoid by making it think it’s avoiding something else.

So for example if I’m procrastinating about writing, I give my brain a choice: do writing or clean the house.

Which do you think it’s more likely to choose?

The house, of course. But there are worse things than having a clean house.

^_^
 

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A year of writing, a year of doodles

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I’m a doodler, doodling is what I do. I learned a long time ago that I needed to have a notepad in front of me at all times, otherwise tables got scarred and my parents got tremendously unhappy.

Anyway, a year ago I shared a portrait of the main character of my Camp NaNoWriMo project, Tarra. Now I can officially say I’ve been working with her story – essentially living with her in my head – for a year. So in honour of our anniversary, I thought I’d share some of the doodles and drawings I’ve done of her and her universe over the course of the year.

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To give these a tiny bit of context, this is the blurb I have at the moment:

When Tarragon’s world faces enslavement by the dimension-crossing Cloaks, only Tarra’s mother – the High Sorceress – stands any chance against them. But she’s disappeared, along with the rest of the ruling Council and it’s up to Tarra, a young alchemy teacher, to find her and save her world from domination.

It’s interesting to see how far things have come since the initial sketches. Some ideas – now key to the plot – first found their way to consciousness through the odd doodle during a meeting or while on the phone.

Sketches

Very rough character and scene ideas. 

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Digital art

 

2  calli-592x1024   tarra   

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Categories: Blog NanoWriMo

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How to keep writing

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The 1st of April will mark a year that I’ve been working on the same novel. And I am astounded.

Seriously, I’m not the kind of person who sticks to routines. I’m the girl who has five separate routes to work so that I don’t get bored of one, who can knit and draw and crochet and embroider because choosing one craft and getting good at it goes against my grain. I don’t finish projects, or computer games, or even TV series.

So how on Earth have I managed to stick with this novel for this long?

Well, I’ve given it some thought and I’ve put those thoughts into writing here in hopes that they can help others who, like me, tend to get passionately involved in new things only to abandon them a few weeks later with nothing to show for their hard work.

Write every day (or so)

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Lots of famous writers, from Rowling to King, preach that sitting down and writing every day is the key to great success.

Neil Gaiman famously said,

When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: ‘House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.

The idea is that if you can just get a few words out every single day, they will turn into a novel and you will develop a routine and it will eventually get easier.

This is all 100% true.

It’s also an unrealistic expectation for many people. Some days your family needs you more. Some days you’re too tired. Some days you just don’t feel like it.

And when you have one of those days, you’re so overcome with guilt that you feel like you’ve messed up this routine thing and what’s the point?

So the rule that works for me is that I’m allowed a day off, or even two, as long as it’s never three. Skipping three days means my mind is wandering. It means I’m getting swept up in other things, and swept away from the project.

Testing the rule

When I finished my first draft at the end of November, I switched to editing, but I kept the rule in place. Then I decided to take February off. I was rearing to go with writing in some new sections on 1 March… only to find writing just wasn’t working out the way it had before my break. writing-860x350

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My lesson: writing all the time is very important if you want to stick with a project and not have it feel like you’re slogging through molasses every time you open it up. But writing every day is a huge commitment, so it doesn’t have to be every single day as long as there isn’t a huge gap between days. 

Social accountability

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I don’t think I would have been able to force myself to write (almost) every day for this long if it wasn’t for my Facebook writing group.

Firstly, we have a spreadsheet where we challenge ourselves to a certain number of words a month and fill in our words daily. Everyone can see the number of words you’ve done and if you don’t write for a number of days, or don’t reach your target, they know.

Truthfully, no one is going to laugh at me or judge me if I don’t keep up (I hope!) but somehow, subconsciously, it helps to know they’re watching.

Secondly, being part of a group of people doing the same thing makes you want to keep on doing it so that you can keep contributing to the conversation and excitement.

Thirdly, people following your journey start to care about it and you can check up on each other. When one of my writer friends messages me asking how it’s going, the last thing I want to tell them is that I’ve given up.

My lesson: Never underestimate the power of social influence. Make it more humiliating to stop than it is difficult to keep on going. 

Discover when works for you

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Filling in the group word count sheet also gave me something else: data. I was able to look at the rhythm of my writing and I was surprised by the results.

17.5% of my book was written on a Tuesday! Making Tuesday my second most productive day after Sunday. Why? How?
day-of-weekI would never have guessed that I got more writing done on a Tuesday than a Saturday and I never would have known that Thursdays are practically always useless for me.

Another thing I never, ever would have guessed is that I can write in the mornings. I’m a night owl by nature so my top writing time is always 10 pm onward, but at my current job I only have to leave for work at 08:50 am, so that gives me an hour of writing in the morning. And that writing is usually a lot cleaner than the writing I do at night after a long day (even if it is more difficult to get the words on the page).

My lesson: try writing at lots of different times and make a note of what works for you. Everyone is different and your own brain might surprise you. 

It’s okay to fumble

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Not all writing days are good ones. Or weeks even. There was a period – you can even see it there on the chart, August last year, – when I kept writing and rewriting the same few scenes for four weeks. So my over all word count wasn’t going up, so the social accountability wasn’t working (I felt humiliated anyway!) and the “sitting down and writing (almost) every day” rule was in serious danger of breaking for good.

What I discovered during those dark, dark weeks was that writing is sometimes the glorious scribbling down of hallucinations that flash before my eyes faster than I can catch them… and sometimes its fumbling around in the dark for a candle to light up the next one. I will almost always know what the next one is. It’s that scene I envisaged right back when I plotted this thing. But getting there… getting there can sometimes feel impossible. The plot ahead twists and changes, the characters feel wooden when you want them to do as they’re told, you’ve written yourself into a corner where no solution seems realistic or even exciting.

Sometimes, you just have to do what you’d do if you were stuck in the dark – feel your way ahead. Write the next bit. If it doesn’t fit, rewrite it. Then write the next bit. If that doesn’t fit, rewrite it. Hit a dead end? Backtrack and rewrite it.

Fumbling around like this doesn’t mean that your book is rubbish, or that you’re a useless writer. It means you’re finding the path. Sometimes, it’s the only way to find the path.

I think I always expected this to not happen if I plotted enough before I started writing. I’m sure it does happen more if you’re a pantser, but I’ve also discovered, at least in my experience, that some things you can’t know until you’re really there, no matter how much planning I’ve done in the lead up.

My lesson: a story is like a dungeon that you’re guiding the reader through. It’s up to you to cut the best path and that means that sometimes you end up stumbling around blindly for days. And that’s okay. 

Clichés are okay

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Wait! Before you jump down to the comments to tell me I’m wrong, let me explain.

I’ll let you in on a secret: the fastest way to take the wind out of my sails when it comes to a writing project is telling me it’s clichéd. If writing a novel is a battle, that’s my Achilles heal. Why? Because calling something a cliché is declaring it void of creativity. And if writing is not creative, is it even worth it?

There are two breeds of cliché. The first is what I call the micro level cliché. Becoming too aware of that can cause paralysis on a line-by-line level. For example: should I have used “wind out of my sails” up there or is that over used? Are people bored of the term Achilles heal? The second is the macro level cliché. A clichéd plot, cliché characters. Becoming too aware of those can cause you to toss out an entire manuscript.

When you’re writing a first draft, stumbling around in the dark looking for that mythical next plot point, the very last thing you need is to encounter the Cliché Hunter. If he’s out hunting micro clichés, you might get caught in one of his snares and that will slow your journey forward immensely. Which is super frustrating when you’re not even sure you’re on the right path and might end up rewriting this bit anyway. The real danger is if he’s out hunting macro clichés. That’s when he puts his cross bow to your neck and demands to know “What the hell do you think you’re doing here?”. And when you can’t answer he might even kill you. Well, kill your novel.

So take away his hunting permit until you’ve got that first draft down. And give it back to him when you’re in editing mode, the way ahead is all lit up and pretty, and you have time to spar.

But this section isn’t called “clichés are okay in a first draft”. So now I’m going to get on to the really controversial stuff.

Sometimes clichés are just okay.

If you go back in time, all stories were pure cliché. One of the earliest forms of theatre, the Commedia dell’arte, had the same specific cast of characters for its plays (called “types). Many of Shakespeare’s plays are retellings of old stories that had been told before.

 

south-africa-1112849_640Carl Jung, the psychologist, gave these repetitions of the same stories with the same characters a name and it wasn’t “cliché”. It was “archetype”.  There are things that hold the same significance for all humans. Figures like the wise old man or the shadow or the hero. We can keep telling stories about these people or events because they resonate with a very old part of what makes us human.

Some people say that the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are essentially the same story. Of course, they aren’t. But they include the same archetypes. Archetypes that one expects to find often in their particular genre.

Which brings me to the last point on this subject: genre conventions. How many romances have a rich, handsome man as the love interest? How many thrillers have a psychopath tracking down the detective who’s investigating him? If you like a genre you often like and even expect the conventions. The story isn’t 100% original, it’s the way it’s told that captures you or the mix of interesting characters.

With this particular novel I started out with a dream. No, literally, I had a dream. It was about a zombie apocalypse and a ship and a spy. It made me feel something. Something that I’ve been holding on to for over two years now and trying to capture on paper. But there was nothing particularly original about that idea. So, early on, when I first started playing with this idea, long before I sat down to write it, I made peace with the fact that there would be some clichés.

And you know what? A lot of them disappeared as I really got to know my characters. A lot of them fell away automatically from the plot as I started questioning cause and effect within my own universe. I’ve set the Cliché Hunter on the trail of a bunch of them, particularly the micro kind. I probably won’t find all of them. The ones that bother the beta readers will end up at the business end of Hunter’s crossbow and the rest… the rest are okay.

My lesson: Don’t be so terrified of going where others have gone before that you don’t go at all. 

All you need is love

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Talking of clichés… here’s one. In the end, love is all you need.

What I mean is, you need to isolate one thing that you love about your novel, that gets you excited about it. It’s very likely the first thing that made you want to write it down. It might be a key scene, it might be a character, it might be a relationship… whatever it is, make a note of it. Hell, make a Pinterst Board of it. Because that’s the thing that’s going to get you through those dark tunnels. And whatever you do – do not let the Cliché Hunter get hold of it.

I won’t tell you what mine is because hopefully you’ll read it for yourself one day, but I know that if it weren’t for that one good part that I love, I definitely wouldn’t still be going a year later.

My lesson: anticipate there will be times when you’ll lose faith in your story and keep that One Thing on standby to make you fall in love again.  

KEEP-WRITING

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Writing: Control Issues

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I never much liked my narrative lecturer. He came across as pretentious and seemed determined for us all to fail. He’d read to us. Poems mostly. Sometimes extracts from post-structuralist literature that we didn’t understand.

In a room full of wannabe journalists, we didn’t really care about focal point or the significance of a female romantic lead eating potato chips.

Irony is, his is the only advice about writing and story construction that I ever remember.

One of the things he spoke about was power. He loved to speak about power. The idea of violence being taking just as much as it was about hurting. The idea of scopophilia (feeling power through watching). According to him, a writer did not have total power over their work.

I didn’t understand then. I think I even laughed about it.

When you’re writing a novel, especially a fantasy novel, you have an extraordinary amount of power.

You build worlds. Not just now worlds, that characters move through and interact with, but then worlds. Real history and told history. Relevant history and history of places your characters will never even see.

You control people as they move through these worlds. You get to choose who lives and who dies. You get to decide whether they are born into war or into peace.

You have all the power.

Except that you don’t.

Now I finally understand.

As I work through my first revision, stressing over imagery and symbolism, asking whether I’ve been clear enough or too blatant, questioning whether my characters are even likable… a certain thought from my narrative classes keeps coming back to me.

In any work, there is a triad of actual authors: the writer, the audience and the context.*

Here’s the thing. No matter what you write, the reader comes to a story with a bunch of baggage from past experiences and reads a story at a contextual point in their lives that has nothing at all to do with you as the author.

Your work being well-received depends on so much more than you writing the best story you’re capable of. If the wrong person reads it, if they read it at the wrong time, they won’t like it.

There is no single work of art that absolutely everyone loves.

In a discussion about Harry Potter, there will be people who will tell you it’s over-rated. If you dare bring up liking Twilight in certain circles you’ll be scoffed at. I don’t like Dan Brown, but some of the people I respect the most love him.

I watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a kid and it is, to this day, one of my favourites. I watched it with Graham the other day and he thought I must have been high to like it. I wasn’t high. It found the right me, at the right time.

So the broader implication of this “triad” of “authors” can be both scary and liberating. Firstly, the scary part: no matter how hard I work on this novel there is no way that everyone I know and respect the opinion of will love it. But the liberating part: if I can’t hope to please every instance of audience and context, then I might as well please my own audience and context.

And just hope that if I like it, somewhere out there, there is someone who is a similar audience to me, in a similar context to me, who will love it too.

If not, at the very least I will have created something that makes me happy.

*(Okay, so I tried to find a proper reference for this idea and Google spat up an essay called “Implied Author, Authorial Audience, and Context” and it started with this: “Neo-Aristotelian rhetorical theory has been mainly developed by the second and third generations of the Chicago School of criticism. It is widely believed that all three generations of the neo-Aristotelians share a concentration on textual form… [link]” And I had terrible flashbacks.)

(And if you’re reading this, Mr Narrative Lecturer, I’m so sorry I never listened to you back then.)

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Infographic: Readers like it long

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A question that comes up often in writing groups is “how long should my novel be?”

There are various guidelines that define how many words should be in a novel by genre, and lots of stories about publishers who will not print anything over 120 000. You can understand why – that’s a lot of paper, ink and binding if you’re uncertain the thing will sell.

As my NanoNovel is now at 140 000 and growing, I decided to look into the length of the best sellers of all time.

Method: Nielson released a list based on the point of sales data from over 31 500 bookshops in the UK and I picked out the top 30 of those. I found out wordcount mostly through Google and Wikipedia, so the numbers are rough but serve as an indication.

Here’s what I found:

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According to the Nielson list, The Da Vinci Code has sold over  5 094 805 copies. A Thousand Splendid Suns, coming in at number 30, has sold 1 583 992. Both of these books are over 120 000 words long. In fact 18/30 on the list are.

Here they are listed by length:

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What’s more, the five authors who appear most frequently on this list consistently write over 140 000. Here they are by average word count for books on this list.

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So I guess the lesson is write what the story needs, no more no less.

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