Today’s tips

I don’t consider myself skilled enough yet to give the impression I actually know what I’m talking about with this writing lark. Ten years ago I had the enjoyable experience of having a new house built and working with an architect to design our dream home. Even before we moved in we saw things we’d have wanted to do differently. When I was talking to a neighbour about this I was told ‘aah, you have build three houses before you get it right.’ And so I think it might be this way with writing.

I’m halfway through my third novel and am beginning to get the feeling that I have a better idea that I’m in some kind of control, but that’s only because (a) I’ve written a lot of words over the past five years and (b) I’ve read quite a lot on the craft of writing. One of the best guides I’ve read is James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good NovelIn fact, I read his How to Write a Damn Good Mystery first because that’s what I was trying to do at the time, but he covers more of the fundamentals in the former and he’s such a good writer it was no heavy labour to read the two.

A few days ago I signed up to Jane Friedman’s newsletter which led me to her excellent video on audience development for writers. Check it out – I wish I had the staying power to follow it through.

Can writer’s block be selective?

I should be writing my novel. I added lots of words in November but hardly a paragraph since NaNoWriMo finished. At first I thought it was because the ‘flu and Christmas preparations were taking my mind to other places but I still can’t get started even though both of those have passed.

Yet I can scribble away on my blog with no difficulty. Hmm. Is it simply because this is an entertaining avoidance, stopping me from getting down to some real work? I think it probably is. I’ve reached a third of the way through my first draft of the novel, that notorious barrier watched over by the guardians telling me I can’t do it. “It’s no good”, “Stop, you fool”, “Who told you that you were a writer?” they shout. Unfortunately I’ve started listening.

I have techniques to battle this. I will deploy them. Soon. Honest.

CreateSpace vs IngramSpark

As an author I still believe that most satisfaction comes from having a novel accepted by a publisher who then takes it to a finished work on the bookshelves. For me, there’s a vindication in it that someone else is prepared to commit time and energy into something I’ve written. Also, the experience of working with a publisher to hone the writing is incredibly beneficial. When A Shadowed Livery was published by Grey Cells Press in 2015 it was nothing like the draft I’d sent to them a year earlier, I thought it was improved immeasurably.

However, finding a publisher or agent is very difficult, the competition is enormous, so, in this digital age, self-publishing has become an option. It isn’t easy, nor is it a guaranteed route to fame and fortune, but neither is the traditional route. Having co-ordinated the self-publication of two pieces of work – a memoir and a collection of short-stories – using both Amazon’s CreateSpace and IngramSpark, I have a some insights which might be helpful to anyone considering this path. There are more extensive comparisons available but these are just some basic thoughts from my own experience.

When considering self-publishing, one of the first questions is whether you want a printed version or are you happy with putting it out as an e-book. This decision will affect the budget you require and also the marketing plan you’ll devise. I don’t think either is best, though there’s nothing quite like the feeling of holding a book, your book, in your hands for the first time.

My recent (Nov 2016) project on Ingram’s cost a little over €900 euros for printing and shipping (from UK to Ireland) of 200 copies of an 8″ x 5″ paperback plus setup costs of €49 and cover design costs of €135. On CreateSpace there are no setup costs, the cost per copy is a little less but they ship from the US so this can be considerably more if you’re in another country. The shipping costs of the books when I used CreateSpace was around 44% of the cost of printing. This compares with around 5% using IngramSpark. This can, of course, make a huge difference in the financial viability of the book.

There can, however, be a saving on cover design. CreateSpace has free cover templates to modify and the process is fairly simple. IngramSpark does not, and you need to design and produce your own cover. They do provide a size template in a couple of formats but the actual design needs to be provided by you.

There’s also a difference in the complexity of the process. CreateSpace allows uploading of Microsoft Word files, which is handy. IngramSpark only allows uploading of PDF files, which requires conversion software or add-ins, and can be a bit tedious when errors in the draft are spotted (as they inevitably will be). With both providers, the process for e-books seems to be a lot simpler. The most complex part with IngramSpark, I found, was the cover. This needs to be produced using the size template provided, with no variation, probably using something like Adobe InDesign, then converted to PDF format for uploading.

IngramSpark provides distribution to a wide range of on-line and physical outlets, CreateSpace, I believe, only goes through Amazon and affiliates, which is still substantial.

On the memoir I helped publish, I found CreateSpace easier to use, but the shipping costs were so high outside the US it meant we changed to IngramSpark for the second print run. I’ve also found IngramSpark’s support desk really knowledgeable, understanding and helpful each time I’ve used it – a massive advantage if you’re not an expert.

This is just a quick run-through of some differences. If you’ve any questions please feel free to get in touch.

Going off on one …

There’s always a tension in writing between enjoying the process and hitting a deadline, even if that deadline is self-imposed. I’ve written before in this blog that I’m a planner; I like to have the skeleton of the story and an outline of characters in place before I put metaphorical pen to paper.

In my latest project I’m writing a family saga covering over a hundred years, based on family history research I’ve carried out since the 1990s. The principal characters are based on several generations of family members and what I know about their lives. Their stories gave me the structure for my story.

So, as is my wont, I planned the novel from start to finish and sketched characters using the masses of material I had to hand. I then found it a wrench to depart from the facts to create a narrative which hung together. Every time I didn’t have the necessary information it gave me grief – I had to keep telling myself ‘it’s a novel, it’s a novel, make it up!’. I’ve written two earlier novels and lots of short stories which were, more or less, complete figments of my imagination so it shouldn’t have been a problem, but it was. I’d become constrained by the truth. Day by day I started to make little excursions into fantasy, only small steps at first – the colour of hair, the description of a cottage – and I enjoyed it. Before long I was inventing new characters, battles, journeys and, best of all, conversations.

Then a new problem arose. I’ve been enjoying the trips so much that I keep on inventing more and more. I keep, as my wife describes it, ‘going off on one’, travelling paths which are not on my map, creating lives which never existed, just because they’re interesting to explore.

Is this what writing is all about, inventing and exploring the worlds of the mind? I’m beginning to believe it is.

Is it ever good enough?

Most days I try to write, with ‘try’ being the operative word. Some days the words just won’t come, and if they do they stumble across the page, tired and listless. On other days I might be happy with what I’ve produced and feel motivated to do more the next day, which is good.

Then I might read another author’s work and feel demoralised, ready to throw the pen (or laptop) into the bin along with everything I’ve ever written. Largely this doesn’t happen because being published isn’t necessarily a measure of quality, only a measure of financial viability – a perfectly valid reason but we have to admit that the latest premier league footballer ‘autobiography’ may not be great literature. However, occasionally, something magnificent comes into my reading orbit and I’ll be blown away by the prose.

For Christmas I was given a copy of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which has staggered me by its economy and descriptiveness. At first I thought it may be because these Cold War scenes are so familiar to us through films from The Third Man through to Bridge of Spies but then I realised it was much more than that. Le Carré’s description of Leamas, for example, includes the phrase “He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman”. How I wish I’d written that. Rhythm, clarity, cynicism and humour tied up in simple words painting an accurate picture of the character we’re dealing with.

Thankfully, I’ve avoided the ‘I’m going to give up this writing lark’ response this time. I’m going to read and learn. Then attack my next completed draft with a different eye.

 

So November is gone – Is NaNoWriMo worthwhile?

My hope that trumpeting of committing myself to NaNoWriMo this year would force me to show the dedication required to put down 50,000 words in a month proved to be in vain. It’s a punishing schedule and one thing I have learnt is that it probably isn’t for me at this time in my life.

Try as I might, I can’t make myself slam words on the page and worry about the editing later, which seems to be a core method for achieving the goal. I spot a missing comma from fifty paces and I have to fix it. Typos distract me, as do apostrophes sprouting where they shouldn’t. And surely I could say that a little more effectively – it’ll only take a few seconds.

It isn’t the quantity of words that is the problem, I’ve written two 80,000 word novels and am a third of the way through a third, it’s the time frame and my inability to stop from editing as I go along.

On the plus side, and it’s a very big plus, NaNoWriMo made me spend part of October completing my synopsis, research and other planning, and spend November putting down about 22k words, to join the 10k I’d written over the previous 6 months. A considerable improvement in work rate.

So, all in all, I think it’s been worthwhile. I’d be interested in hearing other writers’ experiences (by the way, is that apostrophe misplaced?)

Did you kiss the dead body? – Situation development

I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. For example:

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Check it out – I’d like to quote the whole poem here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it at http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml

I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.

So much talent

Last weekend I had the enjoyable experience of attending a number of sessions at the Allingham Festival, a now-annual event in Ballyshannon, County Donegal, honouring William Allingham. On Saturday, a literary lunch, with poetry for dessert, was followed by a discussion between local writers and the Irish Writers Centre.

We then moved on to the keynote session with Anne Enright in discussion with RTE’s Sinéad Gleeson, providing useful insights into the life and writing processes of Ireland’s Laureate for Fiction. Flash fiction and poetry awards, and the launch of Monica Courish’s new collection A Dying Language, rounded off my time – others, more robust than I, continued with a concert and late right revels in various bars.

On Sunday, Ann and I read extracts of Wild Atlantic Words at a staggeringly good event in The Thatch Bar. allingham1

A beautiful setting and around 20 people giving readings, recitations, poems and songs.

I’ll certainly be going again, hopefully for the whole weekend next time.

NaNoWriMo – Let battle commence!

So I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo. Actually I signed up a couple of years ago but this time I’m actually writing something. Honest.

I’ve been working on a new novel all year, but had to take a break to redraft material for Wild Atlantic Words, a collection of short stories which is being launched next week. So I was around 15k words in and 70k words to go, thinking how I was going to tackle it, then NaNoWriMo appeared on the radar in mid-October. 50k words in a month? No problem. Ha! At least it would give me a deadline.

I spent the remaining time in October developing the synopsis for each scene and finalising the structure. I’d already drafted the structure and produced headline notes for each scene in Scrivener so expanding it wasn’t too difficult.

November 1st came along and I was at the keyboard for 6.30am, mug of tea on the shelf and the cat warming herself on my knee underneath the laptop – not the most comfortable of working conditions but she seems to be happy there. By breakfast I’d knocked out 350 words and filled in some research gaps. The daily target is 1,677 and I think the most I’ve ever written in a day before is less than that. Needless to say, I missed the first day’s target but I was pleased with the 1,250 I’d done, especially as it was a difficult section.

Day two, I managed over 1,900 words. More than the target and not far below what I needed to get back to my daily average. Today, day three, is going less well. A trip to the coffee shop and this blog have emerged as diversions!

Still, it’s raining so I won’t be going out any more today and have the afternoon’s writing mapped out in my head – coffee does that to you sometimes.

And I’ve written three and a half thousand words this week that I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo – so I’m feeling good.

They were friends after all

So, after only five months from starting our project on putting together a collection of stories from our writers’ group, MEAS Writers, the book and ebook are now out. Wild Atlantic Words hit the shelves this weekend and we’re very proud of it.

We went down the path of self-publishing through Ingram Spark and found it relatively painless. They require files to be submitted in pdf waw-3d-cover-3smallformat and images need to be quite high quality so it can be fairly stressful at the point of pressing the ‘send’ button. However, there is an online checking service to make sure they’re technically correct then it is good practice to order a proof copy before splashing out on a few hundred copies. The proof copy service was very good and we actually had it in our hands three days after I placed the order. Admittedly, we paid (only) a few euro more for the rush printing service but it was definitely worth it on the single copy.

We’re now starting to work on the official launch and on finding reading spots. What fun.

If you’re wondering why ‘MEAS Writers’ – meas is Irish for respect and although it is the name of the community group which spawned our writing efforts, it also sums up the way we treat each other’s work when we read and critique. We’re a group of authors based in Donegal along the Wild Atlantic Way.

Have you self-published? Who did you use and what was the experience like?