A light-bulb moment: I want to enjoy marketing Singled Out

So how relentless, determined, repetitive, insistent, drum-beating and dogged should I be?

2015-01-20 20.45.01I began writing fiction just over 4 years ago for pleasure. I’ve been writing for business for years, but I wanted to see if I had sufficient creative imagination and writing skills to craft a page-turning story, the length of a typical novel – somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. I knew I had a lot to learn, so I attended courses and read how-to books and blogs. Whenever I came upon a challenge – creating characters not stereotypes, avoiding cliché, show-not-tell, learning to write dialogue, precision in description, creating tension and so on – I drafted and re-drafted and studied my way through it, learning all the time.

It’s had its moments, but it’s been rewarding and really, really FUN.

Now Singled Out is ready to launch on 1st February – all the boring background admin is done and everything’s ready on Amazon. I’m looking forward to seeing whether Singled Out finds favour with readers. And… I’m looking forward to getting going on book number two (broad concept, bit of an outline so far, but I’ve learned so much from writing book number one, that I just have to carry on).

But what about the task of marketing Singled Out?

I’m a marketer by profession. I’ve marketed Business-to-Business for years. Marketing a book to consumers/readers is different, but the principles are the same.

My pitch to clients on my marketing website has always been this: Before they buy from you, customers need to know who you are, understand what problems you solve and believe you’re the supplier best able to help them.

In book/reader terms, this would be: Before they buy your book, readers need to know who you are, understand what type of book you’re selling and believe that it’s likely to entertain them.

A blog goes a long way towards these goals. As an author your personality, character, writing skills and ability to engage are on show. Readers have a chance to feel connected, decide if they like you and the way you write – and what you write about. You’ll tell them about your writing, maybe tease with a few samples. They’ll share your challenges, dilemmas and adventures. They’ll feel connected with you in a way that was almost impossible before social media was invented.

From an author’s point of view, blogging is FUN. It’s wonderful to engage, share experiences, get conversations going and find that – amazingly – people all over the world are reading and subscribing. For me, blogging is the easiest and easily the most enjoyable aspect of marketing my book – it’s not a burden, it’s a pleasure. It’s also the most low-key and least in-your-face channel, which is another reason I like it best of all. You’re not pushing anything at people – they choose to come and read.

However… the general view is that as an indie author, if you want to sell more than a couple of dozen books, you’re going to have to work a lot harder at marketing. And here’s where I stumble.

I should know what to do to market my book – and, broadly speaking, I do. But I don’t actually want to DO most of it. Marketing is my work; writing fiction is my pleasure – but when it comes to marketing my fiction, this starts to feel perilously like… work.

So to my light-bulb moment; maybe it had something to do with the fact that whilst in Florida, I visited the Edison Ford Winter Estates in Ft Myers and found out all about the inventor of… the lightbulb. I don’t know. I’ve been saying for years that I envy those fortunate people who are earning a living from something they really, truly love doing. You know those people, the ones who say things like, ‘I feel so lucky that people actually pay me for doing this!’ I want to be one of those people, but only if readers give me permission, by buying my books. And until and unless I get to that earning a living space (somewhere in the far distant future perhaps?) I don’t want to spoil the joy, by putting myself under pressure to market my book according to anyone else’s productivity plan, programme or structure, and by doing things that feel laboured or inauthentic to me.

I’ve decided I don’t want to work at marketing Singled Out. I don’t ever want to get up in the morning and think, ‘oh, no, I’ve got to do… today’, to publicise my novel. I don’t ever want to not enjoy marketing my book. I’ve decided that if this means I don’t sell very many copies, I will live with this. I just want to have FUN with every aspect of writing fiction. However many copies people buy, whatever nice things (I hope!) they say about my story – all these are wonderful bonuses, unexpected rewards for simply doing something I’ve realised I love doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these programmes and their relentless approaches pay off. I just don’t think I would enjoy doing things that way.

So once Singled Out is launched, you won’t be seeing much of me on the book promo sites or Twitter feeds. I won’t be doing blog tours, or pressing people I don’t know for author interviews. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be delighted to do any author interviews – I would! I just don’t want to push for these things.

Nothing will make me happier than if people leave positive reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. I will be beyond delighted if they recommend my book to their friends and colleagues and my sales grow through word-of-mouth. I’d be thrilled to be asked to guest post on other people’s blogs. I’d love to do interviews or readings, panels at events and anything like that – weirdly I actually enjoy that kind of thing. If anybody wants to feature Singled Out anywhere, the answer will more than likely be a resounding yes! It’s not that I want to keep Singled Out a secret. I just want to get on with writing the next book and not let the joy of this first experience be diluted by a job-list of activities that I don’t really want to do.

In life, I’m a rules girl. I follow the rules. I drive as much as possible within the speed limit, I do what I’m told, I colour inside the lines. But perhaps, now I’m approaching the not-so-tender age of 55, I can afford to kick-back on my compulsion to do what other people say I should, and just plough my own furrow, for good or bad.

What do you think?

What’s the first sentence of your book?

An opportunity to engage readers with your first few words…

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxI’m preparing to publish Singled Out next weekend. It’s going to be available on Amazon (all regions) in Kindle and paperback formats from Sunday 1st February (in fact the e-book is already available on pre-order).

I confess I’m beyond excited and more than a little unsettled by the prospect of real people reading it. I wonder whether anyone beyond my circle of family, friends and writerly cohorts will get into it; further than the first line, the first paragraph, the first page… I wonder who will get right to the end, and more importantly whether they will enjoy it, find it a page-turning, satisfying read. I’m feeling a little turbulent in my gut just thinking about this now.

The first sentence they say, is critical. Mine has changed several times. Back in 2011 it was: The phone rang – an unfamiliar, old-fashioned ring-ring… ring-ring, in the darkness. It broke two sudden-death rules apparently, if you wanted to hook an agent as I did once (a glut of adjectives and a waking-up moment, in case you’re wondering), and the words rang and ring should never have been in the same line. So it had to go.

The one I settled on in the end, having decided to begin at a different point in the story, is:

He stands over her, fastening his jeans.

I don’t think my first sentence is quite up there with: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. But I hope it gets a few readers going anyway.

If you’re a writer, and I know a few of my followers are writers, I thought you might like to share a first sentence (just the one) with readers of this blog. So I’m hosting a mini promotion, in celebration, let’s say, of my own upcoming book launch.

If you’d like to participate with a book of your own (already published, through any means), just post a comment below including the first sentence and a link if you wish, to wherever your book may be found or purchased (ie, your website, Amazon, Goodreads etc). Tell us the title and genre too. I will happily include all comments unless they break the obvious rules of good taste etc.

I don’t know who will venture to respond nor what style or genre of books might reveal themselves, but it will be interesting to see what pops up. And you never know, someone might like your first sentence enough to check out what follows.

Now it’s over to you.

Self-Publishing – it’s a Fiddly Business

I set myself the task of preparing my manuscript for publishing on Amazon, Kindle and  paperback, over the Christmas break. Frazzled as I was by a bout of festive flu, it was… a challenge.

monster-426993_1280I got a virus for Christmas – not a PC one, a proper lung, throat, nose, ears and head one. It laid me low for two solid weeks. I felt like I’d been mugged. I was drained, sulky, achy, and very fed up. I coughed so long and hard my whole body ached. I lay in bed drenched in sweat; I lay on my sofa wrapped in a blanket. I survived on Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup and chocolate (thank goodness for my festive choco-fast break) and I sipped on water. Oh, ok, and the odd tot of brandy too – purely medicinal, you understand. My eyes were sticky, my brain was mush and my limbs were leaden. Whilst nothing but my cough reflex functioned, I took to hour after hour of TV; costume drama repeats – Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Treasure Island – and films I’d seen a dozen times before. When I could resist no longer, I went on to back-to-back episodes of Storage Hunters. Yes, friends, it was that bad.

When my brain began to solidify again and I could take a breath without coughing, I returned to my PC, to tackle the job I’d always intended to undertake over Christmas (ideally with an alert mind and an energetic sense of purpose) – that was, to get Singled Out ready for publication.

It’s great, really great, that indie authors can do this for themselves, but setting a book up for sale on Amazon is a convoluted process, make no mistake. It requires a clear head (clearer than the head I was given for Christmas, if I’m honest). There is a wealth of information to assist you, both from Amazon and external sources. But when push comes to shove, you have to stop reading and actually do it.

First thing was to get my MSWord manuscript into the correct format for CreateSpace. And that’s no picnic, because in publishing-land everything is arse-about-face and you have to get all twisty in your head to remember… the page you see on the left of your screen is actually the right-hand page, and the page you see on the right is, yes, actually on the left. Left/right, right/left – don’t you forget now.

I’d figured – and I think I was right – that it would be easier to create the Kindle version from the CreateSpace one, not vice-versa. CreateSpace offers a set of MSWord templates all correctly formatted (in terms of margins, headers and footers, at least) for the various book sizes they have available. I’d found the one I needed and made a first-pass at setup before Christmas. I received my first proof copies on 29th December. I was largely delighted. Some of the pages had printed, or been cut, a bit wonky. But CreateSpace have since assured me this was a production error and that their normal standards are higher than this, and if I had any similar complaints about final-print copies, I was to return them for a refund. I also realised I could correct a formatting error that I hadn’t at first seen a way around. This was: how to eliminate headers and footers from blank pages which may come at the end of a section. In the way these things sometimes work in my brain, I woke up at 4am one morning knowing exactly what I needed to do to fix it. I just wish my brain had delivered this particular gem before I ordered my first proof copies, not after. And preferably not at 4am either.

kindle-254339_1280So I made my corrections, submitted a revised pdf and ordered a second proof copy. Then I reformatted, minus headers and footers, for Kindle. Formatting for Kindle requires a totally contrary mindset from formatting for a pdf. Never mind the right-is-left, left-is-right issue, what you see is definitely not what you get. KDP helpfully provides a tool which enables you to see how your manuscript will appear on a range of devices, from which I realised that anomalies presented themselves everywhere. Headings don’t reproduce uniformly, some are larger, some are smaller, some centre, others don’t; some formats indent the first paragraph even if you haven’t; page endings have no relevance as different sized devices and the option to vary font size put paid to uniform layout. You just have to suck it up – which is tough, for a perfectionist with brain-fog.

The most frustrating thing I found was the way in which my manuscript appeared in iPad Kindle App format. Section and chapter headings showed up in standard type rather than heading format, but as I scrolled back and forth through the pages, the heading formats reappeared. I tried several different approaches to counteracting this problem before resorting to forum advice pages which told me I wasn’t the first to have this problem and that I shouldn’t worry because, no matter how it appeared on the manuscript tool, it would all be ok on the live version. Really? So why hasn’t anybody just fixed the manuscript tool – because it would have saved me three hours of fannying about.

So, I had my manuscripts. Thence to the rest of the process. The CreateSpace (paperback) and KDP (Kindle) versions require a virtually duplicate set of actions. There is some kind of form-filling for US tax purposes, even if you’re a UK taxpayer. Then the meta data and the blurb pages (two – one for Kindle, one for paperback, although apparently these somehow ‘find’ each other and unite at some point, so I’m advised). There are the Author Central pages (four – USA, UK, France, Germany – I did all of them) and multiple decisions on pricing (because VAT on e-books is, to say the least, a tricksy little issue since 1st January 2015, being different in every single country). With my flu-fogged brain, I’ve been back and forth, again and again, through these instructions – which are laid out differently for both CreateSpace and KDP (more helpfully for CreateSpace, I have to say). I accidentally put myself through an unintentional Kindle proof process, which cost me a day (annoying), but I think I’m there now.

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14So as of today, I await my final final proof paperback, which I expect to be pleasingly immaculate. The Kindle version of Singled Out is uploaded and live on Amazon – for pre-order only at this stage, I’m afraid as I’m synchronising Kindle and paperback launches to 1st February.

Now all I need to do is set a bit of marketing in motion. Easy, right? For a marketer like me? Oh, but no, no. This is a whole different game to the business-to-business marketing I’ve been doing all my working life. As usual in this self-publishing game, there is myriad advice out there – dare I say too much advice? I’m wading through it, picking-and-mixing what I feel I can manage, for starters.

I’ve realised some author publishers are outputting at a seriously intensive level, marketing like crazy and selling tens or hundreds of thousands of books a year. Others are lucky to carve a niche amongst friends and family and shift a few dozen copies. Not surprisingly, I see myself as somewhere in between the two. I have just one book at the moment. There won’t be another one along for upwards of a year. I am just not the kind of writer who will ever turn out a torrid tome every few weeks, I know it.

I wonder if any of you already self-published authors out there could give me a feel for the sort of volumes I might anticipate? You know, a stake in the ground somewhere between a dozen and a hundred thousand… I’d like to know whether, for example, I should be delighted or dismayed by sales in the few dozens, hundreds or even… thousands. OK, I’m pretty sure I should be delighted by sales in the thousands. But should I have a target? A sales volume below which I regard myself as under-achieving, and above which I can allow myself to feel a little bit joyous? Does it make a difference that I’m a UK author, not an American? I honestly don’t know these things.

And one more thing, in the spirit of sharing the self-publishing love… if you, as a self-published author, could only do one thing to market your book, what would that be? What one marketing activity above all others have you found the most powerful and productive? Will you share it?

Here’s the Proof!

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14You’re probably fed-up of sharing my writer’s journey by now. But in case you’re not – my proof copies of Singled Out arrived from CreateSpace in the USA today. The expedited delivery charges (I have no patience) cost more than the two copies I ordered.

Yes, my story, in a real book format. I’m quite absurdly excited!

All looks good so publication (paperback and Kindle e-book) is still happily on-target for early February and I’m going to try and set up the e-book for advance orders too.

Today’s job is to begin setting up my author website via WordPress. Hopefully, this blog will transfer neatly and seamlessly across in due course. But I’m not massively technical and things can and do go wrong for me when coding and the interweb is involved. So if you have any suggestions as to how to accomplish this without accidentally abandoning my 2,700 or so wonderful subscribers – I’d love to hear from you!

I’ve got it Covered

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on the cover design for Singled Out. Not that I’ve been designing the cover myself… I placed a brief with crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. Here’s how I got on…

There are many ways you can get a cover for your self-published novel. You can design it yourself, although many are the respected sources which advise against this. You can use the template design capabilities available through Kindle and CreateSpace. If you’re lucky enough to find one which fits with your story, you can buy an off-the-shelf cover from several websites. Those with deeper pockets can work on a one-to-one basis with a freelance cover designer of their choice, many of whom have a great deal of experience with traditional publishers.

Or… you can do as I did and place your brief as a contest on 99Designs, and see what comes along.

99Designs works like this: Your brief constitutes a contest. The fee you choose to pay is the award which goes to the eventual winner of the contest. You can select to award at Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels and you deposit the requisite sum with 99Designs via Paypal. I chose the Bronze level, as I wasn’t sure how the process would work for me and I didn’t want to risk too much. The higher the award, so 99Designs advises, the higher the number of entries and the more experienced the designers. 99Designs also offered me some kind of an uplift package free-of-charge – I’m not sure if they do this for everyone, or if I had arrived on the site at some opportune moment. Each contest lasts one week at which point, unless there’s a good reason not to, you select your winner.

I looked through several recent contests and noted how people prepared their briefs. Then I created my own, outlining what sort of book I’d written, the setting, tone and other key elements. I gave a feel for the kind of a cover I thought I was looking for and a few pointers on what I might like or dislike. I also populated an  iStock lightbox with a few stock photos, so designers could see the sort of imagery I envisaged for my cover.   I uploaded my brief, and I waited…

I was overwhelmed – in a good way – by the response. I genuinely hadn’t expected to see so many concepts, from so many designers. Some were, let’s not beat-about-the-bush, truly awful. WordArt, ClipArt and Photoshop seemed to be the tools of choice for a small contingent of hopefuls. But many entries were thoughtfully put together and had interesting elements. And some were stand-out. Designers came from right across the globe – I didn’t check them all, but I noted Germany, Romania, Italy, Venezuela, USA, India and the Philippines amongst the locations of those who entered my contest.

The contest owner is supposed to rate each concept with 1-5 stars and eliminate those they don’t favour. I offered a positive or helpful response to as many as possible and after a day or so, the quality and focus of the designs improved correspondingly. By the end of the contest I had seen over 180 designs. That’s around 80-100 unique concepts, plus variants arising from my feedback.

I noticed certain things; one or two designers seemed particularly engaged with my contest, delivering several concepts, responding quickly to my comments and suggestions, refining their designs, developing variations on a theme. It helped me identify not only the good designs, but the good designers – the ones who felt an affinity with my project. I shortlisted three and from that, it was a small step to select my winner.

There’s plenty of opportunity to liaise with your designer(s) as the contest progresses and I imagine the more diligently you do this, the better the outcome. I made a proper nuisance of myself, but my winning designer was infinitely patient and helpful, and produced a cover design for Singled Out – in Kindle and paperback formats – that I’m totally delighted with.

A mock-up of the cover design for Singled Out

The winner of my contest was Alessio Varvarà, an art and design student from Palermo, Italy. His username on 99Designs is alsov . Not only did he create the winning design and a selection of six or seven alternatives which I had great difficulty choosing between (because they were all so right for my story), but he was endlessly patient in adapting his designs in accordance with my comments and observations. He did far more than I expected – and far more than was justified by the fee/award. As a result, I have a design which would hold its own in any bookshop, and which I’m immensely proud of.

Alessio has already completed a second small project for me – that’s the design of a set of pre- and post-release banners for my blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles. Once again, he exceeded my expectations. I’m actually sorry I don’t have another project for Alessio just yet; it has been a genuine pleasure to work with such a talented and enthusiastic young designer.

So, do you like my cover? I know these things are subjective, but for me, it encapsulates the themes and tone of my novel perfectly – the juxtaposition of dark goings-on in a blissful setting. When Singled Out is published in February 2015, you too might be the judge of this. Meantime, I simply offer my warmest endorsement of my designer Alessio/alsov and the 99Designs process, which worked brilliantly for me.

Top Ten Takeaways: Self-Publishing in the Digital Age Seminar

fountain-pen-447575_1280I spent a fascinating day last weekend crammed into an airless room with 100 other would-be self-publishers. It was time (and money) well spent.

Bloomsbury Publishing’s Writers & Artists brand does a nice line in help and advice for would-be writers, whether we want to try our luck in the traditional publishing environment (as in W&A’s seminar How to Hook an Agent which I attended a few months ago – and blogged about here) or take the independent route.

The first half of the event ranged through editing and cover design to publishing via Amazon and alternative ‘assisted’ routes to self-publishing and marketing. The afternoon centred around the real-life experiences of several self-published authors and their varied approaches to the business of getting their words out there and noticed.

I’m not going to brain-dump the whole event. I don’t suppose W&A would thank me for that since if they’ve got an eye on what the market is looking for, they will doubtless be running and re-running this excellent seminar in the future. Instead, I’m offering you what I felt were my Top Ten Takeaways in terms of information, insight and advice for the would-be independent author.

(1)          Hope for the Future

The landscape has changed rapidly in the last couple of years with the stigma previously associated with self-publishing in its various forms now disappearing into the distance. Self-publishing is no longer traditional publishing’s embarrassing poor relation. It is, in the words of Dr Alison Baverstock, ‘part of publishing’.

(2)          Proof of Concept

Self-publishing is now regarded as a feeder to traditional publishing. Instead of wading through what is often branded the slush pile, agents and publishers are increasingly seeking talent amongst the self-published charts. If a book sells and if the author seems to understand what’s required to market it – then they’re an attractive proposition for the traditional publishing space (IF, that is, they can be persuaded to cross the trad/indie divide…).

(3)          The Professionals

Rapid change and the shifting fortunes of publishing houses has led to many skilled former employees now offering their services freelance to independent authors. The indie author now has access to skilled professionals – editors, illustrators, cover designers and more – to help them elevate the quality of their self-published books.

(4)          The Critical Role of Editing

All three phases are vital: Developmental (for help with story, structure etc), copy editing (to iron out oddities and inconsistencies, correct grammar, stylistic issues etc) and proof reading (elimination of those itty-bitty sneaky little typos). The focus is on achieving a professional finish and making your book the best it can be before you share it with the world.

(5)          Planning Ahead

Good editors are booked up well in advance. The time to start thinking about signing-up with an editor is before your manuscript is finished. Don’t expect an overnight turnaround either. Your editor will take around 6-8 weeks to review and return your manuscript.

(6)          You’ve got it Covered

Don’t underestimate the importance of a professionally designed cover. It must reflect the genre of your book (so readers know what to expect) and be eye-catching at thumbnail size. Budget anything between £90 and £350 for a professionally designed cover.

(7)          It’s all in the Brand

When you’re getting your cover designed, don’t forget to think about other marketing materials which may help to promote your book and strengthen your brand – designs for website, blog and facebook banners for example, bookmarks, flyers, business cards, promotional postcards.

(8)          Kindle is HUGE

Don’t undervalue this soft media as not being a real book (I’ve heard this a lot). Amazon sells around twice as many Kindle e-books as print books in the USA and the UK isn’t far behind. Kindle owners are adventurous and speculative readers, buying around four times as many books as non-Kindle users. This is seriously good news for the indie author who can manage to conquer the mountain of discoverability

(9)          Discoverability – the Holy Grail of Self-Publishing

More people are buying books on-line than ever before. They’re searching using keywords to find genres and subject matter that intrigues them. But with the stock of self-published material growing daily, discoverability is critical to success.  Your self-published book is but a blip, a note written in disappearing ink pinned to a tree in a vast forest, unless you can get it in front of readers. Being discoverable means getting your meta-data (all your book details) working for you on Amazon. Being discoverable means getting somewhere on the Amazon/Kindle rankings for your genre (a clue… it’s better for chart success to sell lots of books in bursts rather than steadily). Being discoverable means being active and engaged all over social media, blogging, building an e-mail list, cultivating interest and loyalty in readers, one reader at a time. Being discoverable means garnering a host of good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and a whole bunch of reader forums, genre and review sites. Being discoverable means getting creative with promotions and making use of every tool in the Amazon author toolkit.

(10)        Don’t Write Shit!

(Those, by the way, were the exact words used by the presenter!) This last point was echoed by every speaker. Everything begins with you having created a great book. None of this will do anything for you if you haven’t done the first job, which is to write a ripping good read.

So that’s simple then.

Happy Holidays?

american-flag-373361_1280Tap or faucet; pavement or sidewalk; mobile or cell; lift or elevator? All these and more are well known words which are different in British and American English. The one that’s troubling me at the moment is… holiday, or vacation.

I’m getting a cover designed for Singled Out, preparing to publish early next year. I’ve been using the services of crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. It’s been a fascinating experience so far (and I’ll write more about it once the ‘contest’ delivers my perfect design). The site gives access to designers from all over the world – as far as I can tell, entries to my contest came from as far afield as the UK, Venezuela, Italy, Spain, the Philippines, the USA, Germany, Romania and who knows where else.

I provided a brief, which included my strapline for the front cover: Everyone brings baggage on a singles holiday.

You see where I’m going with this?

Everyone duly included it in their designs, which was great; except one designer took it upon themselves to modify it to read: Everyone brings baggage on a singles vacation.

Cheeky so-and-so, I thought! But then I realised, the designer was making a very valid point – and in the process, doing me a favour.

It’s obviously preferable that my book is as attractive to the American market as it is to the UK market, or anywhere else. Ideally, I want to sell to any and every person who’s happy to read English language books, wherever they reside. So my question is this:

  • should I use the word holiday in my strapline, because I’m a Brit, or
  • should I use the word vacation in my strapline, because I want to appeal to American readers, or
  • should I invent another strapline that doesn’t involve use of either the word holiday or vacation?

It’s a dilemma, when your whole story is centred (or centered) around a… holiday/vacation.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to present a British English cover on Amazon.co.uk and an American English cover on Amazon.com (and whichever alternative is preferable in the various other Amazon domains) – but I haven’t yet explored whether this is even possible or practical. If it is, the problem goes away.

I’m still brainstorming alternative straplines anyway, as there’s always a better one hiding round the corner. But I’d love to hear your views, especially any Americans who might react either positively or negatively to a British English strapline. Or you could vote:

Oh, and since we’re talking about holidays – this seems like the perfect time to wish all my American readers/subscribers a Very Happy Thanksgiving!

That’s it. I’m finished. (Again…)

eggs-14177_640Some time ago I wrote about completing my edits and finally having Singled Out – the finished article – ready to submit to agents. Okay, so I was wrong. But I’m really, really finished now. Honest.

Last September 2013 – over a year ago – I fancied I’d finished my book. I was happy with it, as happy as one could be with a first attempt anyway. Several passes through the text had resulted in me reducing an unwieldy 107,000 word draft down to 97,000 words, more acceptable to agents and publishers – apparently. I’d sweated blood over a synopsis and cover letter and begun to fire my story off to a succession of agents. Over the ensuing weeks there were flickers of interest here and there but nine months later, nobody had bitten my arm off for the rights to market my book.

Cut to July 2014 – and several months since I’d read more than the odd paragraph of Singled Out. Having considered the full manuscript, a couple of agents had offered me a few lines of critique. Ignore these courtesies at your peril, I thought. So I decided to take another look at my story to see if I could address the issues raised in their feedback. I passed the not-so-finished novel to two or three more beta readers too and significantly, I read it again myself from beginning to end.

Have you ever put a piece of work down and come back to it after several months? Then you’ll know what I found, and you’ll understand my crisis of confidence. So, so many surplus words, lines and whole paragraphs; description overload, formulaic chapter openers; language I thought was gritty but now just made me blush; motivations that didn’t quite add up; character clichés; pitiful pacing… I could go on.

Okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but what with the agents’ feedback and my beta readers’ comments too, it was easy to see a thorough review was required. Fortunately, with the benefit of distance came the ability to detach, to disown aspects of my narrative that I’d been so precious about, to murder those darlings and get ruthless. So I made a start.

The last three months have been, as they say, emotional.

At the outset and for several weeks I hated Singled Out. I was one small step from shoving it in a drawer and forgetting all about it. I resented the fact that as I took account of both agents’ and beta readers’ critique and began making changes, it seemed no longer to be the book I’d set out to write; it was trying to be something different. In the meantime it was a bugger’s muddle, all bent out of shape. It felt as if I were shoehorning things into the text to turn it into something it wasn’t. It felt as if I’d lost my way with it. Teeth gritted, I plodded on, resenting my mashed-up, mangled manuscript.

I was in the throes of a proper writerly temper tantrum.

I don’t know quite when it was, but a couple of weeks ago, I started to get it. Perhaps things had to get worse before they got better (you know that cliché about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette). I can’t tell you exactly what I did, because I honestly don’t know. But I started to feel better about my book. It had gone through another two end-to-end edits; I’d added four or five scenes, moved a few things around, played with a couple of the characters, injected odd moments of uncertainty and dismissed another 7,000+ words. And you know what? I actually feel quite a lot happier with it now.

The best thing is, I’m excited by Singled Out again, and excited by the decision I’ve made to self-publish early in 2015. For a start, I can’t face touting it round again when I know the chances of it gaining traction with an agent – let alone a publisher – are meagre to non-existent. Secondly, I’ve come to see self-publishing in a  different light. I want to manage my own destiny, put my story out there and see what people think of it. And… I want to get on and write the next one.

So that’s the plan. I’m doing my homework on self-publishing and aim to get to grips with all the necessaries in the coming few weeks, then publish in the New Year.

Then… I’ll just hold my breath.

Too much information

If you have ambitions to be a novelist, you need every shred of advice and information you can possibly lay your sticky mitts on, don’t you?

book-2869_1280When you’re trying to figure out about structure and plotting, or how to write a killer opening paragraph or a compelling protagonist, there are myriad sources to go to for help – on the internet, in paperbacks, pdf’s and e-books and of course, all those training courses and seminars I wrote about here.

Ready to launch your manuscript on an unsuspecting literary world, you might want to know how to hook an agent. If you’re a detail person, like me, you’ll want to know what font-size and margins you should choose for your sample, exactly how many paragraphs your query letter should have, what pushes agents’ buttons and what pips them off. There are seminars, dozens of websites and a gazillion blog posts from writers who have hooked their agent and writers who haven’t, and jaded agents who have tired of their expectations not being met. You’ll need to know how to pen the perfect synopsis too; precisely how many words should it have, what you should leave in and what you must take out – and here again there are courses and seminars and a whole slew of paper and web-based pointers to plough through.

Then, when like me, you finally acknowledge that ‘it could be you’ is a lottery slogan, not a promise of literary recognition and riches, you’ll be ready to learn about self-publishing. And here, the volume of advice and information surges skyward like the Himalayas.

It’s fantastic to have so much help and information to draw from, isn’t it? It’s brilliant!

But then again…

Last weekend, embarking on the latest leg of my writer’s journey, I read no less than three e-books on self-publishing, multiple pages on Amazon’s website and in their downloads about e-publishing on Kindle, and an e-book on turning your writing into a business (I have mixed feelings about this incidentally – for another time).

At the end of my marathon, my bum had created a sink-hole in the sofa and my brain was… fried. I had to go and lie down in a dark room with some wind chimes. And a brandy.

I read once that a person alive in the Middle Ages would, in their entire lifetime, need to process about as much information as is found today in an average daily newspaper. I processed twenty times that amount in one weekend. And I’m dazed and confused.

I went into this writing lark because… I wanted to write. I’ve learned some important skills over recent years and now I want to use what I’ve learned to write some more. But in the meantime, unless I simply want to fill my bottom-drawer with unseen manuscripts, I know I need to get a handle on the business of writing.

Over coming weeks, I’ll go back through what I read with a notepad at my side. I’ll filter what I need, and extract useful take-aways from the glut of information and advice.

I don’t want to be negative, because it’s great that we can so readily access so many remarkable sources of help, enabling us to expand our skillset, get a head-start or avoid pitfalls. The writing community is a particularly encouraging and supportive one and that’s part of the joy of writing. And great deal of advice and learning is coherent, wise and worthwhile. And I want to take it, make use of it and be a better and more successful writer as a result. But sometimes it all just feels like…. too much brain-fodder.

I wonder, does the glut of helpful advice and information make you feel like a kid in a candy factory, or, like me, does it sometimes make you feel just a little bit overwhelmed?

Writing courses: A different perspective

Nina MishkinFellow blogger Nina Mishkin had something important to say about my last post.

I love that people comment on my blog posts. I particularly like it when they either disagree with me, or have insights which open up the debate. I’ve received an especially interesting response to my previous post on courses, seminars and other learning opportunities open to novice writers. It’s worth sharing beyond the smaller community that might read comments on posts, so I thought I’d publish it as a post in its own right. It’s from a blogger I greatly admire, Nina Mishkin, who blogs at The Getting Old Blog. Here’s what she said:

In my view, it’s valuable to attend a seminar or two that features agents and publishers describing the process — and hurdles — confronting the would-be published author. It’s also valuable to learn something about self-publishing before setting a foot on that path. But as someone who has taught writing courses — both at the community college and university level — and has written professionally in many commercial genres, I am extremely cynical about the value to the quality of one’s writing of spending time in how-to courses, seminars, workshops and retreats. They may be enjoyable while you’re attending them, but you rarely come away with something you couldn’t find in a how-to book from the library. They consume time and distract you from spending your time actually writing.

The way to write well is to read well… all your life. Read extensively and intensively, with an eye to structure, dialogue, pacing. Note what’s omitted as well as what’s included. If you really enjoy something you’ve read, read it again. More than once. Take it apart in your mind (or in a notebook) to see how it was done. Then try to do it yourself. At first you will be a copy cat. And then you will internalize what you’ve learned; it will become second nature — in the self-editing if not in the first draft. There are many parasitic industries out there, feeding off perceived markets for learning “how.” With writing, the primary “how” is “do.” Sit down every day and do it. And keep reading.

Other people’s blogs are also helpful, principally for the encouragement they offer that you’re not slogging away alone. Blogs by would-be writers who are clearly bad writers are also instructive, in another way. (“That’s awful. Have I been doing something like that? I’d better stop it, right now!”)

Sorry if I’ve stirred up a nest of worms here. I do understand that it may be extremely gratifying to spend, spend, spend on the “products” Julie has so well described. But the spenders should be entirely clear that they are only toeing the sand, not writing.

And, in case you’re interested, here’s my reply:

Nina, this is such an interesting – and well informed – perspective, thank you! I’ve enjoyed the writing courses I’ve participated in – three one-week courses in total. But the value for me has come in many different ways. I have learned, or reinforced, certain technical skills, but that’s perhaps the least of the experience. I’ve also been made to think differently about character and structure. Thence to the wider benefits: I’ve met authors and learned from their insights and experience; I’ve met other people with ambitions to write – and made very special friendships; I’ve built the confidence to try writing in the first place, and keep going when I thought I was losing my way, and I’ve tapped into an imagination I never realised I had. Those are the real benefits. Technique, as you rightly observe, can come from books – both ‘how to’ books, and the simple act of devouring and analysing as much good fiction as you can.

I wasn’t encouraging people to spend, spend, spend on writerly learning – only throwing light on the many available ‘products’. They do help you to think like a writer, but quality is variable and one must tread carefully to obtain good value. It’s easy to take refuge in the excuse that one still has more to learn, rather than to just get on and write, and learn by experience.

I hope you don’t mind, but I think so much of your comment, that I’d like to copy it into a full post – it deserves not to be missed.