The inequality of words

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I am on Twitter most days and one of the things I see most frequently is the author’s daily word-count. In it a writer will simply say how many words they’ve written today, or this week, or whatever. And it’s great. It’s lovely to see how people are getting on, to be able to support people if they’re struggling and to be inspired by another’s successes.

These totals vary from a few hundred – Ben Aaronovitch, for example, typically commits 500-700 words a day, though these are, I hear, finished, publisher-ready words – up to a friend’s purple-patch of around 6,000.

What gets me, though, is that these numbers are all treated as equal, as equivalent, when in reality they tell us very little. They are often a stick with which to beat ourselves when the comparison is, so often, completely unfair.

How does someone write 6,000 words a day? By sitting down behind a desk and getting on with it. Great stuff. But if they’re doing that they can’t be earning money. Unless they’re professional writers they must have either a job or a support-network that enables them to take the time out to write such a prodigious number.

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I have a small child, a part-time job and I get occasional freelance editorial work. These all take precedence over my real writing. I also have a spouse who works full-time and pays to send the smolrus to nursery two days a week so I can do my own thing. I’m very lucky – and yet my writing time is still horribly restricted. I could probably average about 5,000 words a week if free to get on with first-drafting.

But even that is a useless, artificial number: where in the first draft? At the beginning, when you’re filled with inspiration? At the end, when you’ve the joy of things coming together and you can see the finish-line? Or in the middle where every word has to be individually dredged up from the deep purgatory of your soul?

Not all words are equal.

If you’re out there with a full-time job, or with similar full-time commitments, it’s not fair on yourself to compete with these people who have the freedom to write at will. Averaging 100 words a day is fine – great, in fact. Anything better than zero is good. Hell, maybe you’re deleting vast swathes of experimental nonsense and your daily total is decisively negative. You’ve still accomplished something. Today you’re closer to the finished novel you envisaged than you were at the same point yesterday.

So by all means go and tell the world if things are going well. Just remember that numbers may be as much a reflection of privilege as of genius.

And make sure you share when things are a struggle too. Because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the real inspiration. The strength to get down a single word when the world is falling  around your shoulders will always stand with me as much as 15,000 done by someone who never has to leave the comfort of their study.

The propaganda war: how to sell your masterwork

Okay, here’s how it works: if you’ve just released a book – self-pubbed or trad – and you’re wondering how to promote it then you’ve already got it wrong. Sorry if that’s a harsh message, but it’s true. In order to successfully promote your work then you have to have been building a presence on the internet (because what else matters?) for months – if not years – prior to your first release.

It’s a rare thing that anyone will buy a book simply on the basis of its cover or its glowing Amazon reviews or on the endorsement of people they’ve never heard of. Studies (that I can’t quote, sorry) show that you have to have heard an author’s name (or a band, or an artist) at least five times before you’ll consider buying one of their works. I’m proof of this. I’m on Twitter. Some names I come across with regularity. Those people – whose comments I appreciate and enjoy – are the ones I’m going to take a punt on. The one-note shouters will never see my money, thank you very much.

Selling books is not an overnight thing. You are fighting the long war, deep in the longue duree. That’s why I’m writing this blog. That’s why I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have no product to sell – yet. One day I will have. And I’ll have a body of work – more than that, I’ll have a personality. I’m (hopefully) not just another barker shouting on the street corner. I’m a human being and people are much more impressed with humans than they are replicants.

That’s what I think, anyway.

With that in mind, here’s my incomplete list of methods of promoting your book and a few thoughts thrown in, just for good measure.

Social media

o Twitter

Twitter is my favourite method of social-mediaising but one that is magnificently and amusingly misused. Anyone whose tweets consist of nothing but self-promotion will soon find themselves followerless. There is a rough guide or rule known as the 50-30-20 breakdown: 50% of your tweets should be other people’s posts retweeted; 30% should be your own thoughts/comments; and only 20% should be promoting your own work. Personally I’d say it should be more 45-45-10

o Facebook

I’m not quite sure why authors use Facebook other than to separate their personal and professional lives – which is not an insignificant thing and is something I intend to get round to doing at some point. I’d say that the same rule applies here as given for Twitter. Don’t just use it as a selling-point. The best thing you can do with all thee things is to get people looking at your blog/website, on which more later

o LinkedIn

LinkedIn isn’t a selling platform and shouldn’t be used as such. It is, however, a good way of communicating with other authors and building up networks, as well as finding interesting debates and learning more about other people’s perspectives/experiences

o YouTube

I’ve never done this, so my experience is perforce somewhat limited. But I gather that it’s increasingly common for authors to promote their work with book trailers and/or audio readings. I’m not too sure what to make of this. I’d suspect that you’d need something really well-produced (which is not the same as flashy) to make an impact. If anyone’s tried this I’d be interested to see how it worked for them

Being Nice to People

This section was originally called Networking, but people get the wrong idea about this. They think that it’s all about schmoozing in trendy Soho winebars (or, if you’re American, insert a poncy area of New York), or trying to catch an eye at a party, of pushing yourself beyond human decency for the sake of a small advantage. Hell, you’re probably thinking of the casting couch or something, aren’t you?

It’s not. It’s none of these. It’s about looking around you at your friends and asking yourself who they know. Or what they do. It’s about asking favours. It’s about being polite and respectful and not pushing – but asking nonetheless.

Just take a moment to think about your friends and acquaintances. Where do your colleagues work? Might they be willing to ask a favour on your behalf? Are they easily bribed with wine or chocolate (because a favour deserves a thank you)? By this stage in your career you should be in a writing group; there, already, are a lot of people who might have thoughts or ideas or contacts. Ask them. I wager they’ll be willing to help. The only price, save the aforementioned wine, is that you’ll be expected to return the favour.

Example: in my writing group there is a local writing festival organiser. There are a few who work for major (non-fiction) publishers. There was a professional copy-editor. At least one is agented: several past members are fully published. This is only a small selection – and here I’m only looking at professional activities. I’ve not even touched on their friends.

There is a reason why Six Degrees of Separation is a game/concept. You know people who know people who know people. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to dig, you don’t have to be some arrogant Hollywood big-shot to network. Just be polite. Be nice to people. Help others. And they’ll be a lot more willing to help you in return.

Personal appearances

Whether public appearances work for you or not really depends on your personality and the nature of your work: it’s a lot harder to do school visits if your work is a Regency Bonkbuster or The New Stephen King than a nice educational children’s book. Below are a few ideas, tailorable to your particular idiom:

o Book release parties
o School visits
o Library visits
o Care home visits
o Workshops
o Stalls in markets
o Book Fair appearances/stalls

A few notes: I don’t know about you, but the idea of most of these fill me with horror. The best way to overcome your fear is to combine your efforts with those of other local authors. If you’re not in a writing group then you’re missing out. The mutual support is invaluable.

Secondly, make sure you invite everyone. Not just your friends, but contact the local press, any book-bloggers you might be following on Twitter (not for school visits: they’re a bit fussy, these days, about who walks in to chat with the kids) – hell, take punts and invite celebrities. Remember what I said about having to have heard a name five times before it settles in the brain? Most people you invite won’t come. But really – what have you got to lose? Email is free. Just be polite and unpushy. Invite literary agents because you never know who might be in town. Note, though, that if you’re theming the event – for example if all the authors appearing specialise in science-fiction – then you’ll lose credibility if you send a group email to every single entry in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

Actually, never send group emails. To anyone.

The Written Word

There aren’t enough journalists these days. Those that still exist are overworked and underpaid and are desperate for copy to fall on their desk that they can shove in the papers without any input from them. So whatever you do make sure you write a press-release and send it out to the local rag. And when I say ‘local rag’ I mean any rag that you’ve ever been local to. For example: I was born in Bradford, moved to Norfolk, went to university in Belfast and now live in Oxfordshire. So that’s four places to which I am local, every one of which has multiple papers to target.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of writing a press release here. I’m sure you can find guides around the internet. A few quick notes, however:

o  Attach a photograph of you and your book
o  Say you’re available for interview (which can be done over the phone, Skype or other modern contrivance, so don’t worry too much about travel)
o  Personalise your letter to the area you’re targeting: for example, in my letter to Bradford I’d say how the local libraries shaped my writing growth
o  Try and make it ready to be inserted, as is, into their paper. Minimise the work the editor has to do to make it ‘fit’
o  Don’t send a copy of the book but do make it clear that you’ll provide a copy for review upon request

If they get back to you and invite you for an interview (don’t laugh; it’s happened to people I know) then for heaven’s sake take them up on the offer!

o Reviews

Before your book is released you should be contacting all the book-bloggers you’re following on Twitter (you are doing this, right?) and asking if they’re willing to review your book. Many won’t: the biggest will be choked with people like you. But you can only lose if you’re rude or abusive. And some will take it – and if you do a get a review, be grateful – even if they say you’re a horrible writer whose entire back catalogue should be ritually purged and all mention of your existence be expunged from history.

o Merchandise

It’s always worth getting some bookmarks (which double as business cards, with your internet presence highlighted – probably not email address: Twitter, Facebook and your website/blog addresses will be fine) to give out at any events you do host or take part in. Bear in mind that many people aren’t prepared to spend money on the spot. Most people like to go away and reflect before committing to a purchase. Make it easy for them. Chances are that if they have to hunt to find you they’ll just give up. Don’t let that happen.

o Your personal blog/website

I’ve left this until last because it’s the single most important thing you can have. It also ties together everything I’ve mentioned above. It doesn’t have to be anything like this: it doesn’t have to consist of regular musings on your life and of your irritations with the way the world is persistently ignoring you.

What you need is a portal from which people can see everything I’ve outlined above. It’s a place for people to springboard onto your Twitter feed, your Facebook group. It should outline your work and provide links for people who want to buy it. You can copy (or link to) any mentions you get in the press. Any events you’re involved with should be mentioned (and, if it’s an open event, this is where you place the invite).

Publishers and literary agents do look at these things. A good website might not sell you a deal but a bad one – or an absent one – might lose you one.

If you’ve not got one of these, do it. Do it now.

A final note (or two):

Perhaps the best thing you can do to promote your own work is to promote the work of other people. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s true. People remember nice people: not only the person you’re helping (who might well return the favour) but the casual Twitter-stroller will notice, maybe not even consciously, and will lodge you somewhere in their brains as someone to do – so to speak – later. I’ve followed many people because they’ve shared something I’m interested in: never heard of them before; oh, they’ve put something up. Let’s have a look at their profile…

It works. Try it.

Finally, just remember what I said about the longue duree. This isn’t a sprint. These things don’t happen overnight. No one single thing is going to make you the next Hugh Howey or – god help you – EL James. It takes sustained effort, time and patience to make a career as a writer. But it is doable. Relax. Take your time. Enjoy the process.

Remember: nice guys finish first.

Insert witty title here

This social media thing: it’s a pain, ain’t it?

 

Who’d have thought that something designed to be fun could lay so much pressure on us? To be out there, on display, our words measured and evaluated and pored-over, each one allowing a (false?) insight into our personalities.

 

Once we’re past the arrogance of the teenage years there’s no certainty anymore. Everything is perspective, point-of-view. Almost everything we think could potentially cause offence to someone. Or could just be weak: the jokes, the witticisms that sound so strong in our heads can be as nothing on the page. No-one can see the crooked smile of irony on your lips. Subtlety needs space to express itself. Understatement needs to breathe. It’s a whole lot easier to be angry than balanced in 140 characters.

 

Every time I go to post on Twitter (@RobinTriggs, by the way) I get a sort of mental block. Is what I’m about to say witty? Does it give people any new information? Am I just coming across as a dick? But I have to post something; I’m trying to promote myself, for heaven’s sake. I’m only hurting myself if I let my account lapse.

 

As an aside, one of my favourite authors has recently started following me. Unfortunately, whilst I love his work, he’s not coming across as someone… shall we say ‘politically compatible’? Another problem with social media. There’s the risk of alienating as many people as you impress. And that shouldn’t really matter – you (by which I really mean me) should have the courage of your convictions. If only this wasn’t a PR-driven world.

 

Anyhoo, whilst I can happily slip into the world of my novel and get a thousand or two words down without breaking metaphorical sweat, I struggle immensely with Twitter – and, to a lesser extent, this blog. It’s my own fault for being disorganised. I should be carrying a notebook around with me at all times, ready to record any of my many ‘ooh, I should write about that’ moments. Indeed, that’s one of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice you read about writing: always have notebook and pen wherever you go.  Maybe that’s why I’m still unpublished.

 

I don’t know if there are any statistics to tell us the number of lapsed Twitter accounts vs active ones. I don’t know how many blogs have been abandoned after a lively start. I’m guessing it’s a hell of a lot. It’s kind of ironic that authors should be amongst the most guilty of this. Neil Gaiman is, of course, the exception. But a quick look around the web will show you that the pressure of deadlines, of being so caught up in the professional life of words, causes professional authors more than others to give up on their blogging ambitions.

 

Which means the best place to keep up with the world of words is Twitter. And that’s a very mixed blessing.

 

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I’ve said before that I don’t make extensive notes before starting on a project: I like to have a start and an end-point, and then work ‘twixt the two, feeling the way with my toes as I inch forwards. I prefer to roll things around in my subconscious rather than scribbling extensive lists and maps and diagrams.

 

These things can be very handy, though. I will, before I start, sit down in a coffee shop and jot down a few important facts about the world I’m creating; and by world I mean the environment in which the story’s set, not necessarily about an actual world. I’m talking names, jobs, relationships; that sort of thing. A very brief (and certain to be altered) cast list. For example, my first(ish) task with Night Shift was to make a list of what jobs would be needed – what roles there were to be filled – in a mining base in Antarctica. Only once that information was down on paper could I try to ‘hire’ people to fill them.

 

But once I’d actually started the story I barely even glanced at these notes. Once the characters were introduced I found I didn’t need them. My characters can tell their own stories a lot better than I can.

 

Things change, of course. After about four drafts of NS I realised that the story was sagging a little about two-thirds through. The solution? Graft in another character. Completely unplanned – a failure, you could say, in my original technique. It did the job, though. After all, nothing is ever perfect first time around. Persistence, a mind open to suggestion and criticism and the strength – the resilience, the stubbornness – to keep moving when you know that rejections will be flying around you: those are the key skills needed by the author these days.

 

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SITREP: just easing up to 50,000 words of my first draft of New Gods. I reckon that means I’m about 3/5 of the way through. Happy days! I bloody love writing, I do.

 

Hope whatever gives you joy is an active part of your life.