Reflections on feedback

I braved the feedback of my peers the other night. I took a chapter of Our Kind of Bastard, which sadly appears like it may be some kind of problem child, to my writers’ group for evaluation.

No matter how many times I do it – and this is hardly my first rodeo – reading before peers is never easy. I can’t help but compare myself; I see how slick my comrades are, how they have wonderful turns of phrase and a skill with similes that I simply don’t have. I see depths in them that I know I lack.

I know that it’s not fair to myself to perform this sort of comparison. I have strengths that others don’t, for sure; it’s just sometimes hard to see them, especially when my strengths lie in mood and story rather than in the wit of words. Still I feel like the one who drags down all the others. The bar-lowerer, if you will, which I’m sure is a useful person to be. I’m the one who makes everyone else feel better about themselves.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of self-flagellation piece; I’m not writing this in a mood for self-castigation. Rather I’m coming from a place of reflection about my writing.

One of the criticisms that I find most interesting is that I lost the character’s voice in the later half of the scene. It’s not that I drifted into another point-of-view, but that my POV character stopped adding her own commentary. This I’m struck by for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, the criticism is correct. Looking back, I did absent myself (herself) a little from the latter part of the scene. This is probably (or at least in part) because the scene was extended to give more description, to provide more context and texture. This dialogue that comes at the scene’s end is now less attached to the previous emotions than it was in a more concertina-ed version.

Secondly, this is something I tend to do, I think, and I’ve never noticed it before. I have a tendency to set up a scene, loaded in personalities and explanation, then step back and (try and) let the characters talk for themselves, without too much intrusion. This reached the point – and I’m thinking about in Oneiromancer here – where I had scenes that consisted almost totally with dialogue and I was barely aware of who the POV character was for that scene.

To say that this is/was a deliberate thing is probably to overstate the case a little. It just happened, and I let it happen. Problem is that now I’m not sure whether it’s a strength or a weakness. Some little ‘neutral’, factual scenes devoid of personal baggage… I like the idea of that. But it can’t be done too much. It risks shallowness and alienation. Readers like a personality to hold on to.

I think that the OKoB scene in question needs changing. I need my character’s voice, and I’m grateful to the critic for pointing the flaws out to me. Previous criticism is that my characters in this novel aren’t especially deeply drawn, and this is another opportunity to reinforce how my protagonist feels.

Beyond that, it’s something else for me to watch out for. Am I missing other opportunities, or is the odd ‘alien’ scene actually a strength? I don’t know. I’ll have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

I am still learning. I am still learning not only how to write, but how I write. Every writer has their foibles and knowing your own can only help, right?

Get feedback on your work. The mirror the reader holds up to you will not always show the prettiest image, but it will be an interesting one. One from which to learn.

On reviews

Night Shift has hit a milestone. We have – at last count – 53 reviews on Amazon. Most are favourable, which is nice. But I wonder, why do we care? Why do authors fret so about words that are often tossed out there without too much consideration or deep thought (with apologies to serious book reviewers and, indeed, anyone who really works out how they want to help others who may be wondering if a certain book is for them)?

Partly, of course, its ego; a desire for one’s work to be appreciated and to reassure them that they can write. More pertinently it’s because we live in fear of the dreaded algorithm.

Some websites begin to promote books that get more reviews higher up on lists; they’re more likely to be shown in ‘Other people read’ screens and similar. The more reviews we get – good or bad – the more visibility our work receives. Success breeds success. It ain’t right, but there it is.

I’m no expert on these things. I just know that it’s nice to find that people are still discovering and reading. After being dropped by the publisher and having abandoned all hope of royalties or a great film/television adaptation bonus, it’s terribly reassuring to find that my little novel still has a life out there. Maybe I’m premature in dismissing my chances of earning out after all.

Human Resources, on the other hand, has only one Amazon review. That seems to have disappeared without trace.

But the thing about modern times – when books can be printed on demand, and e-books exist, and the internet seems both endless and eternal, is that these figures can only ever go up. Actually, I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but it certainly seems that way. I don’t need to fear being remaindered or my work becoming unavailable. Time can bring only more sales.

Because, as I said, it’s always nice to know my stuff is being read and I’m not simply pissing into the void. Money – material reward – is almost irrelevant. I want people to read and enjoy my stuff. And I want my future writings to find a market.

Which leads me onto asking why we do this. I love writing, except when I hate it and will do anything to avoid it, and I’m determined to make everything I do the best it can possibly be. Money, material reward, isn’t what I do this for, though – and don’t get me wrong, here – it is nice.

I digress. The fact is, reviews matter to authors. It (sometimes) makes us feel good. It helps our sales. It gives that word-of-mouth, that we rely on, a little boost. We the majority aren’t backed by great publicity campaigns. It’s generally us on our tod battling various degrees of social anxiety trying to do our best to get books into brains.

And of course they help other readers even more than it helps us.

So: do your good deed for the day. Find a book you’ve loved and tell people about it.

Editors of the subconscious

I am still working on my blurb. I am on draft 4 at the moment, and I am as uncertain as ever as to its efficacy. I am not going to talk about that today, however. It is time for me to move on and consider other matters.

Writing a story is all about making choices. Should a protagonist do this, or that, or should the narrative focus in this direction or on this rather attractive patch of wildflowers just sitting here in the dappled glade. As writers, we choose upon which to focus at every step. And it seems to me that the road not taken is sometimes as interesting as the path we do follow.

As I’ve been working on getting my metaphors in a row for self-publishing, I find that more than ever I’m aware of the options I’ve not selected. Partly it’s this ‘blurb’ thing: for perfectly good reasons, I’ve become aware that I’ve had to suggest a personal threat to the protagonist that is more of a background in the novel. And I’m wondering: was I wrong? Should I have made more of this in my story? It would have fitted but I chose – subconsciously, never consciously – to not make more of it. Was this a mistake? Could I have written a better novel?

Attempting to fit every single possibility into a story is a recipe for turgid chaos. We are editors of the subconscious and to try and cover the whole caboodle would not, I think, make for good fiction. Still, hindsight can be vicious. And often hindsight is the only clear lens we have.

Take, for example, the titling of my forthcoming book, New Gods. It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve missed a trick here. The first two books in the series – Night Shift and Human Resources – both have workplace connotations. Would it not have made more sense to have tied the third in with it and called it… oh, I dunno, The Temp or External Agency or somesuch?

Of course it would. But I am committed now. It’s been New Gods forever, and now the words are fixed upon the cover. And I am able only to lament a missed opportunity, and to explain a little. See, I never realized what I was doing. Human Resources was a late inspiration for a title: all though the original creation it had been called Australis – indeed, you’ll find it referred to as such in the earlier posts on this site. All through the drafting of New Gods I knew book two by its alternate title. So there never was an overarching titling ‘scheme’.

Hindsight again. More, it took an outsider to join the dots.

I maintain that New Gods is a good title. It came before the text was written, as with Night Shift. In my mind the title and the text are thoroughly entwined.

Still, I wish I’d been able to see a little clearer at an earlier stage. For the road not taken may have been the better option all along.

On blurbs

So. Blurbs. In another week of not getting anything very productive done (sick child and imminent deadline) I turn my mind to blurbing – writing the copy that traditionally goes on the back cover of one’s book. If you’re successful your blurb may consist only of a list of other notables saying great things about you and your work. For the rest of us it’s possibly the hardest thing you’ll have to write. Harder, even, then the accursed synopsis.

A good blurb introduces the scene, the major characters and, perhaps most importantly, it sets the tone. It should tell people this is the sort of thing they’re looking for, whether they knew it or not. In these days of thumbnail covers and mobile-phone screens, a good blurb is a key weapon in the armoury of marketing.

All at 150 words max.

As a baby writer, I was somewhat surprised to realise that I was expected to write this myself. I assumed the editor or some underpaid underling would take on the task. Then I was even more surprised when my putative copy made it onto the back on my novel without e’en a comma, a character, changed.

Of course, your experience may vary. But I did it all myself, and have no-one else to blame for their shortcomings.

So Night Shift can still be found with the following:

Antarctica. A mining base at the edge of the world.

Anders Nordvelt, last-minute replacement as head of security, has no time to integrate himself into the crew before an act of sabotage threatens the project. He must untangle a complex web of relationships from his position as prime suspect.

Then a body is found in the ice. Systems fail as the long night falls. Now Anders must do more than find a murderer: he must find a way to survive.

Will anyone endure the night shift, or will ice and frozen corpses be all that remains?

96 words. Human Resources’ blurb was a whole 4 words longer, coming in at exactly 100:

Antarctica. A city on the edge of nowhere.

Anders Nordvelt is chief of security in this frozen land, so, when a prominent member of a dissident group is murdered, it is his job to find the killer. Unsatisfied with the obvious explanation, Anders keeps pushing until the body of a colleague turns up in his apartment.

Could Anders really be the killer? Why does he half-remember wielding the knife? And why are the whispers of a fabled Human Resources black-ops team getting ever louder?

As for Anders, he’s about to enter a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a ruthless killer.

I’m not ready to unleash New Gods’ blurb upon you yet. It’s still a work in progress. I can’t get it right, though I’m getting close, I think.

On paper, writing a blurb is a tiny job, almost an afterthought. After slogging away for 75-80k words, what’s another 150 on top of that? But those final words, they have a weight, a difficulty, far beyond their characters. There’s so much to say and such little space in which to say it; so much to convey and such little time to create a voice.

Still, it must be done. And there ain’t no-one gonna do it for me.

The next steps

I was going to write today about the bliss of having finished all one’s paying work (not that the money isn’t appreciated but I’ve the luxury of editing cash being an add-on to other family incomings) and having a bit of free waters upon which to do my own work. I have started (ish) writing original material again, see. But then a new job has hoven into sight and my free time is gone once again. Ah well, pays the bills, is not actively unpleasant, ho hum. Back to the ‘putting off my own work’ we go.

At the moment my free energy, when some of which I get, is mostly being spent on readying New Gods for the big wide world. Having just finished my final read-through, my current missions are to write a blurb and type-set the manuscript, all so I can liaise with the cover designer and get the jacket all properly laid out and beautiful. Which it will be, because the designer’s great and knows what she’s doing. I, for one, don’t.

So: typesetting. I have been wholly ignorant of how to go about laying out a book for publication. It all seems to involve setting up a manuscript with different styles and potentially using software more complicated than Word (I tried using Scrivener for a while – in fact, I reorganized New Gods at an earlier draft-stage – and didn’t really get on with it). This is a strain and was causing considerable stress.

Fortunately, in my peregrinations across the internet, I came across this excellent template which essentially does all the hard work for you. If you’re, like me, looking to self-publish and don’t really know what you’re doing, I heartily recommend at least having a look, if not copying it wholesale.

As for blurbing, again, I am a boy of little brain. I have had goes aplenty – hell, I’ve done it before, for Night Shift and Human Resources. But I’ve never felt like I’ve nailed the brief. How do you make a novel sound gripping and moody and intense and all those good adjectives in only 150 words? It makes writing a synopsis look like a piece of cake.

I shall mull and draft and redraft. And of course you, lovely reader, will be the first to see the results.

The final draft

The final manuscript is turned in. I have completed my last pass of New Gods. The work is done.

Not all the work, obviously. But I have the text that I’m going to take to typesetting and, reserving the right for a spot of last minute panic, the text that will be published when I finally go to press.

I can’t even remember how long I’ve been working on this novel. At least five years, I think; probably more like eight. I am not the quickest of copy-producers, it must be said; though this time includes many interwoven hours working on other projects. It’s hardly been a solid chunk of time.

Still, it’s been a while, and now it’s at an end. Unless there’s some last-minute meteorite-like strike, such as an emergency mind-change from the publishers of the first two novels, this is the text that’s going to make it out to the big wide world.

And now I move on to the next stage of the self-publishing process: typesetting. This is perhaps the stage that I’m most anxious about as I am a total ignoramus when it comes to such things. I don’t understand Styles and I don’t know fonts. I don’t know how to do chapter headings or to make things pretty. I also need to work out what vital info I’m forgetting to put on the inside cover, and then there’s the blurb…

Putting a book together is not an easy or straightforward thing. If it were we’d all be at it.

The other big thing I need to think about is whether or not I can find any decent text I can use in publicity. I’ve already posted a chapter of the text here on this blog. I’d love to post more, but I’m not great at choosing selections – I worry too much about context and whether, in fact, I’m any good at this writing business. Also I don’t want to give too much of the game away; really extracts have to be from the first third of the novel – possibly, maybe?

Ideally I’d have easter eggs to post – deleted scenes, character sketches (written or drawn) or similar exclusives. But I can’t think of anything that’s not terrible and never to see the light of day.

So I’ll mull on that. In the meantime, here’s a kitty with a strong political statement for your delectation.

Oh yeah, we got a kitten. That’s news, I spose.

No promotion

Reasons for not promoting New Gods when I self-publish in October/November:

  • I don’t know how. This is a rubbish reason: I can learn, after all, but right now it feels like I don’t have the mental energy to deal with the development of a new skill, especially one that might need chutzpah, front and brass neck. Don’t get me wrong, I do have my moments, but they’re few and far between and are almost always accompanied by ‘Oh god, what have I done?’ cringe-fests afterwards
  • I don’t like spending money. I mean, I’ll happily invest when I know precisely what I’m doing, but I don’t trust that buying Twitter or Facebook advertising will do anything but pour my funds into a big sinkhole of doom
  • The well-intentioned and thoughtful Tweeting of people who have gradually soaked into my consciousness is much more my preferred method for getting my work across. Not that it’s worked for me so far, but people like Aliette de Bodard, Rod Duncan and John Scalzi came to my consciousness via the medium of Being Decent People first and foremost, and that’s the model I wish to emulate. And yes, I admit that might be a stretch for me, but I’m trying. Very trying.
  • I’m self-publishing the third novel in a trilogy. It seems disingenuous to try and promote this to people who are unaware of the first two books. I mean, I’m perfectly happy to try and promote the first two, but just to do the third? It just seems slightly out-of-whack to me and my weird sense of fair play. It shouldn’t matter – all three novels stand alone and are complete unto themselves. But to me it does
  • I’m no digital mastermind. I can’t Photoshop stuff or create great images
  • It’ll take time that I could better use to create new writing
  • That mental energy thing again. I think that’s probably central here

Reasons I should be doing promotion for New Gods when I self-publish in October/November

  • It’s a good book. It’s the best (I think) of the trilogy and deserves attention. It gives a sense of completion to the series
  • It’s not that hard. A few tweets and Facebook posts go a long way. I can send off a few emails to local (in scale if not geography) press/radio and cross my fingers that someone desperately needs to fill a column/some dead air
  • I’m not that bad at it. I can ramble with the best of them. I have an interesting angle to come from (I’m happy to talk about getting dropped, for example). I am (hopefully obviously) literate and can send decent begging emails
  • I’m going to have amazing artwork, about which I will talk more in the future
  • I suppose it might just help me sell a few more copies – if not of New Gods then of Night Shift, the first in the trilogy. And that’s not to be sniffed at
  • I don’t need much to make me happy. I’m already resolved to poor sales. Why not expend a little effort to make what I can out of it? At least to try and cover my costs

What will I likely do in response to the October/November release of New Gods?

  • Tweet a little
  • Write a blog-post or two
  • Worry about getting the technical details of the release right
  • Wonder why the world isn’t beating a path to my door
  • Lament poor sales
  • Worry I’m not doing enough, that I’m missing great opportunities
  • Tweet a little more
  • Move on to the next thing

In case you’re wondering…

In case anyone’s wondering, writing for the moment is going slowly and painfully, vanquished as it has been by the demands of work and of editing and It Being Bloody Hard.

My creative muscles seem to have atrophied. After a good, fast start to my new novel, I’ve run into the first real speed-mountain on my way to Completionsville. Creative decisions have stymied me and I’ve found it hard to focus, to put in the real brain-work needed to get over the hump.

This obstruction came just at a time when I found lots of other stuff on my plate; a return to frontline employment, a bevy of editing jobs and suchlike. Thus I allowed momentum to slip away and – though long-term an enforced break may prove beneficial – I have been unable to really get going again.

This is entirely my fault. Or the fault of my stupid brain.

Recently, external pressures have relented a little – or I’ve managed to find a little more balance in all my doings – and I’ve found myself with the odd hour or so here and there. I’ve allowed myself a final check-through of New Gods prior to typesetting as my Adventures in Self-Publishing continue. But I’ve been cutting that with a return to original writing. Or at least I’ve been trying to.

It’s really not going well. Typically I’ll manage to scrape only 100 words or so in a session, which is absolute peanuts. And I’m entirely unconvinced that they’re a good 100 words either.

That’s the negative way of looking at things. The positive is that I’m working through a really difficult section at the moment, and any progress at all is good. I’m trying to get back into the swing of things, to train myself back into the habit of writing and I have plenty of distractions, of other things to do, along the way.

There is no pressure on me to complete other than that I put upon myself. There’s no deadline, no quality control I have to meet. I’m doing this because I want to bring this idea (or set of ideas) to completion. And to prove that I still have what it takes to be a writer.

That pressure I put myself under is real, though. I still doubt, no matter what positive words I can wheel out; I still doubt I have what it takes to make a long-term career as a creative mind. That’s one reason this is so important to me.

In the meantime, I have paying jobs to work through and self-editing to achieve. So my creative time is limited (not that my other tasks don’t involve creativity) and I want to make the most of it. That’s why it hurts to be scratching around the floor for inspiration and motivation. I feel like I need a reboot, a hard reset, to get myself back in the groove.

Or maybe I just need more of a holiday. I’m actually going away – today, in fact – for a week’s ill-deserved vacation in the south-west. Maybe that’s what I need to reignite the touchpaper of writing rehabilitation. Or maybe just dealing with the little one intensively will make me more in need than ever.

We shall see.

It also means there may not be a blog next week, unless something especially grabs me – and I grab time – whilst I’m away. Consider yourselves forewarned.

Happy writing, y’all!

Feeling better

In between times, when I need a break from proofreading and can’t face getting any new words down on paper, I’m giving New Gods one last checkover before I format it for self-publishing. And you know what? It’s not bad.

I’ve been on a bit of a downer about my writing recently. I’ve started to worry whether or not I ‘have it’; am capable of writing to the level I want to present to the wider world. It says nothing that I’m published: a book’s publication is a commercial decision, not one based on quality. I’ve been doubting myself.

But now I find myself somewhat reassured. Not that I’m claiming genius, or great profundity, but I’ve been reading my own work and kind of not hating it. And I’ve been remembering how it felt when I was in the midst of writing the piece, remembering that at the time I felt like it was the best thing I’d ever written. And then I felt, yeah, New Gods and Oneiromancer represented a sort of high-water mark for my writing; when it all clicked and I was churning out decent work with ease. And then I thought Well, Our Kind of Bastard is fun too; maybe that sits up there. And then I thought my new thing might not be bad either.

Sometimes, when you’re in the midst of a trough, it’s a good idea to look at what you’ve achieved. Negativity comes easily – to me, at least. But I am a capable writer, and also the least accurate judge of my own prose. I am as good as many published writers. And you know what? You are too.

Because, as I said, a book is published to make money, not to win awards with its prose (as I understand, publishers enter books in awards-competitions to sell more copies, not to simply celebrate books they think wonderful – though of course they can’t do both).

So, after a rough few months – 2021 has not treated me kindly so far – I now feel a little more stable, a little more confident in my new abilities. I’ve had to take some time off from actual creative writing because I’ve had so many other things on my plate, and maybe this will prove to be long-term beneficial. I still gaze in awe at my contemporaries, still feel too old and a little burnt-out, but now I believe: there is a good writer in me.

I’m not anticipating many sales for New Gods. I’m not interested in doing great amounts of promotion. As I’ve said before, I’m putting it out to complete the Antarctic trilogy for both my few fans and for myself. There is too much competition in the world of indie authors for me to hold great dreams of runaway success.

But I am going to put out a work I believe in. And that means more to me than any number of sales.

No reason I can’t hope for both, I suppose.

Accidental holiday

I have become becalmed, lost in the doldrums, unable to advance or to reverse course; awaiting only a fair wind to ease me back into port.

Life has delivered unto me a change in routine, and now I can no longer get behind my keyboard, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for 08:30: instead I have to wait until the afternoon to return to my computer and I am not, as yet, psychically ready to create at that ungodly hour. I just want to fire up Civilization and listen to audiobooks; I don’t want to tangle with the world-weaving or the word-wrangling. I’m struggling even to go and talk to my friends on Twitter. Apologies to all of you, my friends, for being quiet of late.

I need to adapt. I need to embrace change and find a new way of going forwards. Which I will, I’m sure. But recently – this week at least – feels a little like I’ve been taking an accidental holiday.

There are things happening, however. I’m continuing busy with commercial editing (which makes creative writing-time even harder to find, but no matter). I am returning to self-publishing plans; I have begun the final proofread/last tinker/anxiety run of New Gods in preparation for formatting into an actual book-shaped thing. I have been in touch with the cover-artist, trying to work out exactly how a great piece of art is produced – which is to say that the roughs look wonderful, I’m just not sure what to do next.

And amidst all this I have a new novel some 18k words in existence. I have not forgotten you, dear yarn. I’m just leaving you aside for the moment whilst I work on other things. And I have Our Kind of Bastard to rewrite; that too is on one side whilst I try and recover some sense of writing identity. And anyway, I’m stuck with that. My beta-readers identified weaknesses that I don’t know how to solve.

Anyone knows what kind of oil is used on central heating, and whether that could become flammable if spilled on a troll? Cause a reader said that ‘heating oil’ wouldn’t work that way. I am stuck on that, and on the big McGuffin, that feedback has does not excite the reader.

I am letting it simmer as my brain does not seem up to do the heavy lifting at the moment. Partly, I feel, I need to retrain the muscles. Partly I need a break. Either way, this certainly feels like one of the busiest holidays I’ve ever been on.