Thursday, November 25, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Self Publishing

Not too long ago, I’d have warned people away from self publishing.

Self publishing (or vanity-publishing) used to be exactly that. You’d write a book, and then pay someone two or three grand for a print run of 500 copies. Then you’d put the book on your shelf and maybe give a few away to family and friends. Unless you actually owned your own book store, there wasn’t much else you could do with them.

My advice would have been to avoid vanity-publishers like the plague and try and get your work published through a reputable traditional publisher.

However, anyone who’s tried knows it’s not as simple as that.

To get published by a reputable publisher, you need an agent, and to get an agent you need a hell of a lot of publishing credits…and to get those publishing credits you need to spend years sending short stories to local magazines.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Very few people write best-sellers right out of the gate, and a few years of writing short stories and getting them rejected by local magazines is a great way to hone your craft…but the truth is (quite rightly) publishers and literary agents aren’t there to give you a career and make you the next big star, they’re there to make money. Your list of publishing credits is your resume. When you approach an agent, if you can say ‘these ten magazines published my work’, they’re far more likely to take you seriously.

Put it this way. If you ran your own business, exactly how much consideration would you give a job seeker who had no qualifications or experience?

The real downside, however, is even if you make it through the gauntlet and get your book published, your first contract with a publisher is going to be awful. They’re holding all the cards. If you don’t want their deal, then please stand aside because there’s a few hundred thousand people right behind you who’ll snatch it right up.

The sad truth is that writers who make a comfortable living off heir writing are rare. Writers who get rich (like your JK Rowlings and your Stephen Kings) have to be looked at as lottery winners. The average advance for a first novel is usually less than $3000, which may sound like a lot until you consider that you’ve probably spent over a year writing the thing and your publisher is going to be making a hell of a lot more than you are.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying a reputable publisher will actually straight-up scam you. The truth is they’re the ones taking all the risk. They’re spending the cash to print your book and they’re the ones left holding the bag if your book doesn’t sell…however, there are lots of reasons to be wary.

Do you know the difference between Primary, Secondary and Tertiary rights? If not, and you want to be a writer, I suggest you go do a lot of reading on the subject. New authors have a habit of signing anything that’s put in front of them when someone offers to publish their work… and this is a bad idea.


Well, let’s imagine your book is a hit. You’ve made a good chunk of change from royalties, but now there’s talk of a movie deal and a whole ton of merchandise (and trust me, franchises like Harry Potter make much more money from the movies, toys and T-shirts than they do from the book)…this is all well and good, but what rights did you sign over?

In simplest terms, It’s perfectly possible to own the copyright to your book, but give your publisher the rights to do anything they like with the idea. Now imagine watching your idea become a block buster movie and merchandizing empire… and all you’re making is royalties from book sales.

Again, this isn’t normal…but my point is that traditional publishing is a real minefield for the inexperienced.

Which brings me back to self publishing…which is something I would now highly recommend to new authors…here’s why:

Let’s say you’ve just written your first novel. Your chances of getting it published are extremely slim. Let’s assume you’ve had no interest in writing short fiction, have no publishing credits and no agent will look at you twice.

So you find a reputable self-publishing company, such as Createspace or Lulu and decide to publish through them. Let’s focus on CreateSpace, the company I’ve done the most research on.

I’ll be completely honest, the deal is pretty crappy. If you’ve written a 300 page book and set the sale price for $10, you’ll be making around $2 - $3 per copy. On the other hand, you keep all your rights, you get a free ISBN number and your book automatically goes up for sale on Amazon. The best part for the beginning author is that there are no out of pocket costs, except for buying the ‘proof’ copy of your novel which costs around five bucks. Once you approve your proof, they’re printed as people order them. You set the purchase price and when a copy is sold, CreateSpace takes their cut and the rest goes to you.

However, the most important factor to keep in mind about self publishing (apart from finding a reputable self publishing company that won’t screw you), is entering into the deal with realistic expectations.

Traditional publishers don’t just print your book. They market and advertise it, get it in front of the right people and make sure people know about it. Self publishing companies just print your book and put it in an online store. When you self publish a book, don’t expect to get rich or sell thousands of copies.

When you self publish, there are really only three possible outcomes:

1) You sell zero copies of your book.

If this is your first ever novel, this is the most likely outcome but, just like an old-fashioned vanity publisher, you get a paperback copy of your book with your name on the cover. The only real difference is it cost you around five dollars instead of five thousand and you don’t have 500 more copies moldering in your garage. If you’d made a painting instead of a novel, you’d still like to put it in a nice frame and hang it on your wall, right? Put your self-published book on the shelf, right next to the Terry Pratchetts and John Grishams, learn from it and get on with your next one.

2) You sell a couple hundred copies.

You won’t get rich, but you’re making some good ‘beer and pizza’ money, maybe a hundred bucks or so over the course of a year. You’re not exactly raking it in, but people are reading your work and you’re making a lot more than you would if your novel was just sitting on your hard-drive. You know for a fact you’re not a horrible writer and you may even get the odd email asking when your next book is coming out. Again, use it, learn from it and get on with your next book.

3) Your book becomes a decent sized hit.

This is the lottery-win option. The impossible happens, word of mouth spreads and you sell a few thousand copies of your book. You’re still not buying a house, but you’ll probably make a decent chunk of change. However, the best part of this outcome is you can now write to an agent and say “My last self-published book sold five thousand copies”. It’s no guarantee, but it’s definitely a foot in the door.

My point is that self publishing will never replace traditional publishing, but the world has changed. Writing is no longer about the handful of best seller writers getting rich, it’s about thousands of writers making some pocket money. A traditionally published book has to sell thousands of copies to make publishing it worthwhile, a single person doesn’t need to sell nearly that many to make a decent return…and if you’re in the writing business just to get rich, you’re in the wrong business.

In other words, it’s not just vanity publishing any more. At best, it’s a replacement to sending short fiction to literary magazines that, quite frankly, are folding left right and center.

When I started school I had a teacher called Mrs. Bibby.

She was crazy.

I don’t mean crazy as in ‘Oh, my teacher is so crazy!’ I mean crazy as in ‘We, the jury, find the defendant…”

I wish I was joking. They eventually let her go, quietly, when they found her alone in the library, reading ‘Janet and John’ books aloud to herself when she should have been teaching.

Unfortunately, this was after four years of being taught by her. I don’t know why she chose me, but she spent those four years torturing me.

I’m not exaggerating. At five years old, her favorite things to do was to not let me go to the bathroom until I pissed myself.

The worst thing she did, however, was refuse to teach me to read. I knew my ABC’s alright, we did those as a group, but the way we were actually taught to read was one-on-one. The class would be given something to do and you’d be called up to her desk and you’d read from a book.

My memory’s a little fuzzy on this one, but I think my classmates had been called to her desk on a regular basis for about a year before I was. Of course, when I finally got my turn, she told me to read the first sentence and she might as well have asked me to read hieroglyphics. When I obviously couldn’t, that’s when she spent the next half hour berating me for being ‘lazy’ and making sure the whole class knew what a stupid, ignorant idiot I was.

But hey, I got my own reading book, so there’s that.

I got home that day and I was just excited to have that book. I’d occasionally told my parents Mrs. Bibby was picking on me but, quite reasonably, they assumed I was exaggerating. After all, how many four year olds forget to do their homework or something, get punished and say their teacher is picking on them.

The weirdest thing? As a four year old, I had no idea that this wasn’t normal. I was under constant verbal and physical abuse from this teacher (she loved whacking me across the knuckles with a ruler)…but with no frame of reference, I thought that’s just what school was like.

So, with the help of my parents, I basically taught myself to read.

I’d love to say I was getting revenge. Learning to read just to spite her, but the truth is far less flattering. I learned to read because if I thought I did, maybe she wouldn’t pick on me so much.

It didn’t help. I quickly developed a real love of reading and was reading at high school level by the time I was seven. It didn’t matter. When I could read the books put in front of me easily, then I was accused of listening to other kids reading, memorizing what they said and just pretending to read.

I didn’t care, by the time I was five I’d decided I wanted to be an author. Reading had become my favorite thing in the world and I was completely captivated by the possibilities of writing. I didn’t just have to read these amazing stories, I could write my own.

If I was totally insane I’d thank Mrs. Bibby for setting me on this road, albeit in a sick twisted way… but I think I owe it to my four year old self to know that thanking Mrs. Bibby would be like thanking someone who shot you in the face because you fell in love with the surgeon who put your face back together.

My attitude to reading has never changed. I personally think that reading is the most rewarding thing a person can do. You can learn a lot from books, and fiction can give you a story in a way no movie ever can. Books are powerful. You can tell because people are afraid of them. As far as I know, no government or people has ever had a community TV burning

I wish I could say my attitude about writing had never changed.

I started, like all kids do, just loving to make things. When I got older, the love of the story was replaced mostly by the idea of making a boat load of cash and a metric ton of fans. As a cynical teen, and realizing my chances of getting rich from writing were about the same as winning the lottery…I just about stopped.

Then, I got to college and fell in love with writing again, although from a more technical standpoint. It’s weird, but studying the technical side of writing (things like Subjects, Predicates and Subordinate Clauses) really gave me a lot of the magic back.

It was like learning magic. These simple marks on the page that, when you put them together just right, let me build whole worlds in your brain.

That’s why I write today. Not because I want to be rich and famous, not because I want to make boat loads of cash (although I’d be lying if I said those things wouldn’t be nice)…but what I really want to do is sit at my keyboard and press the keys in just the right order until I have something that effects people.

That’s my goal. I don’t care if it’s popular or profitable, I just want to write something that will make you laugh, or cry, get you excited or make you think. Something that will make you think or see the world in a slightly different way. I want to create characters that you care about and put them through an event that causes you to feel a real emotion, even though you know what you’re reading isn’t real.

I don’t think I’ve achieved this yet, I don’t think I’ve ever come close…but in this case, I think the journey is more important than the destination.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

How to Write a Novel

Note: This is how to write a novel…not how to write a best selling or successful novel. There are no ‘How to make $$$ selling your Writing!!1!’ tips here.

1) Come up with an idea

I think the biggest question successful writers get asked is ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ I think people assume that successful writers are gifted literary magicians that have access to some secret psychic storehouse filled with best sellers, hit TV shows and blockbuster movies. I have yet to hear a satisfactory answer to this question, so I’m supplying one of my own:

Ask yourself some questions.

It’s that simple. Start them with ‘What if?’.

What if I could see the future? What if I found out my best friend was a superhero? What if I won the lottery? What if I was framed for a crime I didn’t commit? What if aliens landed? What if magic was real? What if terrorists took over the White House?

Bam! Idea. It may be the Greatest Idea Ever™ or it may suck donkey balls. The point is, you have a concept to build on.

Brag Guigar once said that there are no ‘bad ideas’, just ‘ideas’ executed poorly. Bear this in mind.

2) Think about the idea for a day or two.

Let’s pick one from the list above. Let’s go with ‘What if magic was real?’

What would that mean? Would it be commonplace and ordinary; or rare and dangerous? Maybe magic people are the ruling classes and treat the non-magical like slaves. Maybe magical people are rare and taken from their families and birth and forced to serve a shadowy Government. Is magic an in-born thing, or can it be acquired?

We have a million possibilities from that one idea. Maybe your protagonist is forced to hide his magical abilities to avoid becoming an outcast. Maybe your protagonist is the one non-magical person in a world filled with wizards. Maybe he’s part of an elite magical special forces unit. Maybe he’s a magical person who turns on his own people and leads the ‘norma’l people in a revolution.

Maybe he’s the only person who can do real magic in the world, and works as a stage magician, doing impossible tricks until he’s found out.

3) Come up with a plot

There are a hundred different ways to do this, but what works for me is to be a little vague. I prefer to set up a handful of landmarks rather than go into detail.


Because as you write your story, whatever is in your head at the beginning will change as you go along. Your characters will develop personalities and become real people. You’ll discover things about them you hadn’t considered in a million years and, most importantly, you’ll come up with awesome ideas on the spur of the moment. Being a little vague allows you to easily fold these flashes of inspriation into the story.

For example, maybe you originally wrote that your hero has a faithful companion who sticks by his side through his trials and tribulations. Then, halfway through, you realize it would be really cool if the faithful companion turned out to be league with the Big Bad. Maybe he betrays the hero, but has a change of heart in the final confrontation. Maybe it turns out the Big Bad isn’t the Big Bad at all, but a puppet of your hero’s evil turncoat companion!

If you’ve already plotted out your story to the minute detail, it’s much harder to take advantage of these ‘Ah Ha!’ moments. When you’re fifty thousand words in, it’s really hard to stop and re-evaluate your whole story, especially if it means scrapping the rest of your meticulously detailed plot.

Those ‘Ah-Ha!’ moments are the best part about writing. When you realize that vanilla scene where the hero talks to his companion suddenly takes on a whole new meaning when you realize the companion is a bad guy. Or when you realize for the first time that the magic amulet the companion gave the hero to ‘protect him’ is how the Big Bad has been tracking him all along.

Let me put it this way. There was no way in hell Joanne Rowling knew that Scabbers the Rat was really Peter Pettigrew in disguise when she wrote Philosopher’s stone, or that Riddle’s Diary was a Horcrux when she wrote Chamber of Secrets. Nor did Tolkien know that the magic ring Bilbo found in ‘The Hobbit’ was the ‘One Ring’.

Being a little vague gives you much more flexibility. It’s the reason non-writers look at a series of books and wonder what kind of amazing genius brain could come up with all these intricate, weaving storylines ahead of time. The answer is no brain can. The writer just comes up with the idea halfway through book three that it would be really cool if the best friend’s pet rat was really an evil wizard in hiding.

4) Write the damn thing.

Okay, here’s the deal. Write every single day, even when you don’t feel like it.

Secondly, do not read what you’ve written until you’re completely finished. When you turn on your computer, read the last couple of sentences to get yourself up to speed and remember where you left off… then start writing. If you decide to read what you’ve got so far, you’ll want to edit…and that’s for later. If you start editing now, you’ll spend hours tinkering with what you have and end up stuck.

For now, just concentrate getting the words down on paper. You’re writing a first draft, not a completed novel. Editing at this point is like building a car and spending a week setting the presets on the radio just right before the engine’s even in place or the wheels are bolted on. Get your foundation in place first, refine later.

There will come a point about halfway through, where you will decide everything you’ve written is crap. You’ll decide the story doesn’t work and you’ll have no idea why you even thought the idea was any good in the first place. This is normal. It’s because that absolutely perfect, completely flawless idea in your head is becoming a real thing…and real things have flaws. Just keep writing until you write ‘The End’.

5) Take a break

So you’ve finished your first draft. Now is the time to start polishing, right?


Now is the time to put your story in a drawer for a couple of weeks and think about something else. Seriously. Do everything you can to forget about it.


Because you’re looking for some distance from your novel. After a couple of weeks you’ll pick it up, start reading… and a wonderful thing will happen. It’ll be like reading a whole new story. The distance will give you a whole new perspective and you’ll be reading your novel in the way a whole new reader would.

For example, you’ve probably spent months writing these characters. You know them better than anyone. You know that Cedric is totally in love with Agnes, so of course he wouldn’t think twice about leaping in front of Dr. Apocalypto’s Evil Death Ray of Evil Death to save her.

But then you read your story. Suddenly you realize that even though weeks passed between the time you wrote Cedric and Agnes’ first meeting and the scene where they totally do the nasty…in actual story time, it’s about twenty five pages. To someone who hasn’t spent months thinking about these characters and has no idea what you intended them to be…suddenly you realize that the pure and true love between Cedric and Agnes that you know they have suddenly looks like a cheap, tawdry one night stand, a relationship comes from nowhere… and then Cedric sacrifices himself for a girl he barely knows.

Oops, time to write a few more scenes, I reckon. Time to re-jigger the timeline so Agnes is the delicate, chaste flower you wanted her to be. The innocent blossom who falls deeply in love with the hero based on his obvious qualities, not the complete whore who basically says “OMG You totes shamed that boi who was annoying me! I can haz ur penus???”

6) Rewrite, edit, get feedback

Stephen King once said you write with the door closed, edit with the door open. This is great advice. Don’t show your work to anyone until it’s finished. Wait until you’ve got a decent second draft, then show it to people and ask for opinions.

However, choose these people carefully, and ask them what they don’t like or what they’d change…not if they like it. Asking someone if they like your work is pointless because 99% of the time, they’ll tell you it’s awesome to save your feelings. You’re looking to improve your work, not get an ego boost.

Then, if everyone says they hate something you love. Cut it. If everyone says they love something you hate, keep it. If half the people say they like something and the other half don’t, it’s a wash…use your judgment.

Take your ego out of the equation. It’s really easy to say “These people have never written anything, they don’t understand my genius! They’re all wrong!” Well, sorry, dude…these people represent your final audience. It’s them you have to please, not yourself.

7) Profit!

Not really…

If this is your first novel, especially if you’ve never written before, I hate to say it, but it’s probably not going to be very good. So if all your hard work isn’t going to make you a gajillion dollars, what was the point?

Well, the point is, you’ve had the experience of writing a novel. That puts you light years ahead of most people. Your next one will be better, the one after that, better still.

If I had to give one single tip, it would be this: Enjoy the process. If you consider writing to be a horrible chore, something you have to do before you become a famous best-selling author with a movie deal…writing probably isn’t for you.

In my entire life I’ve had three short stories published (that is, published by magazines that actually paid me for them), but before those very minor successes (I think the most popular magazine had a readership of maybe 150 people) and my Rejection Letter to Paycheck ratio is about 500:1

I know it’s impossible to actually write without picturing some sort of success or recognition at the end, but enjoy the journey, don’t focus on the destination.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Nanowrimo: 20,000 words in!

“I know what you are.” He said to the undead creature, as his tears burned boiling tracks down his face. “I know you’re not my brother. Not anymore. You’re just a fucking disease that’s hijacked his body…and I know exactly, exactly what my brother would want me to do.”

The gun went off with an explosion that turned the world white. The creature’s head snapped back as if hit by a hammer blow and it fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

The gun dropped from Jake’s hands, and dropping to his knees, he looked at the sky and howled.

(Yeah, I changed the title, and decided to reward myself with a quick mockup of the book cover as a reward for passing 20,000 words.)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Nanowrimo: Day 5

I decided at the last minute to enter this year’s Nanowrimo (that’s National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated)…in fact, considering I entered at around midnight on November 2nd, I didn’t so much enter at the last minute as join 48 hours late.

I’d had an idea I’d been throwing around for a while, but after 1500 of the most difficult, arduous words I’ve ever produced, I came to a conclusion…I didn’t have a story so much as a setting. It was like I had Hogwarts, but no Harry Potter and no Voldemort for him to fight. There was no way I was going to be able to flesh it out and get it to 50,000 words in less than a month.

So I started to look through my hard drive at some of the abandoned stories I’ve started over the last few years and found a Zombie story I’d started in 2004. The fact I was already 5000 words in would let me catch up for the days I’d missed, but there was a big problem with that idea…it was terrible. Really terrible. I got embarrassed just reading it. It wasn’t so much a story as a collection of movie clichés, right down to the Siege in a Mall, to the crazy religious nutcase and the arrogant ‘I’m in charge’ lawyer.

So I hit on an idea. Zombie movies are full of clichés that would get you killed immediately if you were in that situation for real. In the movies, the heroes always end up barricading themselves in a mall, which sounds like a good idea until you realize those sorts of places would be packed to the gills with terrified, panicky, trigger happy people.

People have been trampled, seriously injured and got into fights over Tickle-Me-Elmos on Christmas Eve. What would a terrified father of three do for the last loaf of bread ever when being chased by walking dead people?

(Plus, a Chainsaw? Really? You’re going to choose a weapon that’s heavy, loud as hell, useless without gas and is going to cover you from head to toe with infected bits of walking corpse every time you use it?)

So rather than the clichéd ‘seige’ type of Zombie story, I went with a journey instead. A story about a normal guy just trying to survive in a post-zombie world.

Shit. I just realized I’m writing ‘Zombieland’…Oh well, ‘Zombieland’ is comedic and mine is a drama. Like I said, ‘The Simpsons Did It’ phenomenon is hard to avoid in the Zombie genre

Anyway, as of last night, I’m exactly 10,333 words in, and while I’m not saying it’s going to be amazing, I’m actually enjoying the story.

Last night, I reached that magical part of the writing process where I wanted a character to do something, and couldn’t get him to do it.

I used to think that when this happened it was because I wasn’t a good enough writer to describe the action believably…until I realized it was because my characters had started to develop personalities and I was trying to get them to do something that went against their character.

The best part about this phase is that your characters suddenly become co-writers giving you ideas. Once you know how your characters wouldn’t handle a situation, you know how they would, which takes you down different paths you’d never planned on.

For example, Let’s say I wanted the protagonist to be a hero and run into an impossible situation to save someone…which he was going to succeed at because… well… he’s the hero and it’d be really exciting for the story. However, when I come to that scene, I can’t get him to do it. Not because I can’t write it, but because over the course of the story, my two dimensional action hero has developed into a real person who’s a pragmatist and a tactician. He knows the odds. He understands he’d just be throwing his life maybe he just lets that person die. Better one person that two.

I miss my cool action-movie scene, but maybe someone he really cares about, someone he can’t stand to disappoint begs him to do it. If he does, I still get my scene, but it’s far more realistic and the guy is far more relatable. If he doesn’t, maybe that person loses faith in him. Maybe everyone understands, but he blames himself. Maybe that makes him far too reckless, or far too conservative. Maybe someone believes he let that person die on purpose. Maybe that ‘unplanned death’ splits the group in two, maybe it brings them closer together. Later on, if someone he really cares about finds themselves in a similar impossible situation and he runs in head first without thinking, it highlights their relationship a lot more effectively than you ever could with dialogue.

Basically, I’d reached the point in the writing process where I started to think that instead of finishing it and thinking “Well, that was a fun experience”, maybe people would like to read it. Maybe it would be something I actually wanted people to read (which, believe me, is rare).

So, I’d planned to make the finished piece available for free online somewhere, and I was even toying with the idea self-publishing through Lulu or Createspace. I know no-one would buy it, but the idea that a couple of people might (and having an honest to god paperback version for myself) sounded pretty cool.

The only thing I was missing was a title…and it’s really hard to avoid clichés with zombie story titles. After a long time, I settled on ‘The Waking Dead’. Not great, but I liked it.

Then this morning I get up, start up iTunes and there, emblazoned across the top of the screen was “The Walking Dead” a new zombie TV series.

I threw a handful of hand-picked expletives at the screen.

You see, I won’t finish the first draft until the end of November, and then I’ll be spending a long while on re-writes and editing before it’s in any condition to release in any form…and after bending over backward to avoid clichés and trying to create a story that didn’t make it look like I was jumping on the bandwagon, AMC is putting out a Zombie TV series with a title one stinking letter away from mine.

No matter how good the final product, it’s going to look like I’m trying to ride their coat-tails.

Well, fuck you AMC. I hope your series gets cancelled. I like my title. I’m not changing it.