Monday 6 February 2017

A Jumping-Off Point for New Authors

Yesterday I was at the Sci-Feb convention, promoting Armada Wars (and you can read about that experience here). Towards the end of the day I was approached by a creative writing student who asked what I could tell her about getting into writing as a self-publisher.

What followed was possibly not the most coherent and logically structured info-dump, but I like to think there were some helpful nuggets in there. If you're in the position of wanting the same information, then here is the clear and comprehensive version.

Research, Research, Research

I cannot stress this enough: before you dive right in, there is a great deal to know.

  • What are you going to write about?
  • What tools will you need?
  • How will you distribute your work?
  • What weaknesses are there in your writing?
  • Have you accounted for the vast demands of all the non-writing aspects?

What are you going to write about?

This might sound like an obvious thing, since most people who decide to write have a pretty good idea what it is that they want to write about. But there is some funny advice out there.

We've all heard "just write what you know" over and over again. But you should perhaps also write what you would enjoy reading. Otherwise, you are unlikely to enjoy writing it.

There's also nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about things you don't know — and it will at some point be necessary if you want your plot to work. You are quite safe dabbling with the things you don't know about, just so long as you research them to an adequate level.

Don't shy away from this area just to save some reading time, or you will essentially deny yourself a whole host of creative possibilities. And never underestimate the potential value of using shopping sites and enthusiast forums in your research! I know NOTHING about shooting game, so for Eilentes' hunting flashback scene in The Ravening Deep, I used a combination of Wikipedia, product advice from online shotgun stores, and hunting forums. It seems to have done the job!

What tools will you need?

There are literally hundreds, maybe even thousands, of writers' apps out there. I used to use about five separate pieces of software to plan and write; now I just use one: Scrivener.

(Well actually I also use Simplenote, because it can share notes with Scrivener, but since Literature and Latte released their mobile app for Scrivener — which syncs with the desktop version — I am now able to phase out my reliance on that additional service. If you don't plan on buying Scrivener for mobile, you might find Simplenote convenient.)

Obtain Scrivener. Do it now. Start out using this lump of awesome, and you will not regret it.

Scrivener is a vastly powerful and flexible tool kit for all kinds of writers. Whether you are writing a short story, a novel, a series of textbooks, a thesis, or a presentation, Scrivener will help you collect notes, organise research, save web clips and external documents, and manage metadata and keywords. And, of course, it is largely devoted to letting you just write.

By far the longest and most popular post on this blog related to Scrivener, and that was only about one single feature. That just shows you (a) how detailed was the planning behind this bit of software, and (b) how many people wanted to know how to leverage that single feature in their workflow.

You know what? If you have Scrivener, you won't need any other tools. Let's move on!

How will you Distribute your Work?

There are many platforms. From traditional publishing to conventional self-publishing, Amazon Kindle to Apple iBooks, the list goes on.

I can't help you choose what will work for you, and I wouldn't try. But there are two things you need to know:
  1. Every one of these platforms is operated as a business, by a corporate entity, and their goal is to reap the benefits of your work. Before making any agreements, you need to know how they operate and how you can play their system to your best advantage.
  2. Unless you have written the next Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or Twilight, you will not be rolling in cash. At all.
That might sound depressing, but it's a salient point which you need to take seriously. Very few people enjoy modest success with their books, and only the tiniest fraction of a percent of authors become household names. For fiction in particular, if you start writing to become rich, and don't actually enjoy it, you will be wasting your time.

You can find an example of squeezing an advantage out of a publishing platform's system in one of my previous articles. See "Tip 4: Createspace is useful even when it's not".

What Weaknesses are there in your Writing?

Writing weaknesses are a frequent concern for new authors, and anywhere they aren't they really ought to be. There are a few people whose writing is already at such a good standard that all it needs is a quick polish by a seasoned editor. At the other end of the spectrum there are people who are so delusional that they honestly believe their gibberish is written in sentences, try to promote it at (and demand feedback from) all the wrong people, and get really nasty when their shortcomings are pointed out to them by the patient souls upon whom they have importuned.

Chances are, you're somewhere in the middle.

DO NOT rely on your family and friends for critiques of the quality of your written work. With the best will in the world, they will be biased towards favourable responses, and even if they perceive a litany of errors — be such errors grammatical, plot-based, or otherwise — they will be inclined to make just one corrective suggestion, softened with a positive counterpoint. There are various psychological reasons for this, which I encourage you to explore independently.

I don't recommend you even go to family for advice on character actions/decisions: they're your characters, so really you already know how they will act and what the fallout will be (read my Character School articles for more on that topic). You do not need to get external permission to have your characters act like themselves, no matter how dark or tear-jerking your narrative might get.

Time and time again this advice is given out by all sorts of experienced people, and yet new writers ignore it. Again, there are a few writers with a close family member or friend who knows their work and their process inside-out, and who acts as a guiding light for the author's creative soul. But the ones for whom it works well are rare.

One place where family and friends are great for advice is in the structural area.

Example: "this character IS going to die. Do you think that would be better here, at the halfway point, or closer to the end where their absence will be sadder and more troublesome?"

If you want others to assess your work and give balanced feedback, try a collaborative or peer-supported writing site for a while. Something like WattPad should be ideal. Once you have some feedback from there, whether it is constructive or gutting, you will know exactly what you need to work on.

There are also fantastic resources out there for correcting problems you didn't know you had. For example, from the moment you decide to start writing for publication you should learn one thing daily from Grammar Girl and/or Daily Writing Tips.

The Vast Demands of Non-Writing Aspects

If you think you will write a novel, zip it off to print, then sit back and relax, think again. You will have a lot to do. This can include (and is not limited to):
  • Maintaining a social media presence,
  • Blogging,
  • Guest blogging and interviews,
  • Running your own web site,
  • Signing days and other events,
  • Seeking support when things go wrong,
  • Exploring new avenues,
  • Stock control,
  • Merchandising,
  • Business relationships and networking,
  • Fan interactions,
  • Accounts and tax returns,
  • ...the list goes on.
The impact of any one of these things is difficult to predict, so it is not a simple matter to evaluate how much time you should invest in any particular area. But one example I can give you is that of the Armada Wars Facebook page. I set that up months and months prior to the release of my first novel, Steal from the Devil, and started a campaign of teasers. Prior to the release of the book the page had a healthy following. When the book was actually released it had garnered a couple of hundred sales within a fortnight. The time spent on running that page for almost a year before I was even 'in print' was time well spent.

If those immediate sales do not sound too impressive in this world of million-copy-selling books, consider that I was an unknown and untested author, who basically came out of nowhere as far as readers were concerned. You might have heard that most new authors struggle to reach 100 sales of their great work within their lifetime, and most of those sales are to family and friends. But with careful use of social media, and a planned campaign, you too could exceed that figure several times over just in the first month of release. One tip I gave to the creative writing student who prompted this article: if you treat your work like a successful brand, that is how most people will perceive it. And to do that, you need to plan like a motherflipper.

It will pay dividends later on if you take a realistic appraisal of all the work that is going to hit you in the face, and plan accordingly. As always, seek the advice of people who are already managing this workload by engaging with experienced members of support groups and forums.

So there you have it. There is a lot to consider, and it probably sounds very negative. But if writing is "in your blood", as they say, you will just get on with it and not think twice.

There are other things to take into account, such as:
  • Who will be in your target audience?
  • How saturated is that market, and what will you bring to it that is new?
  • What strengths can you play to?
  • How will you organise your time?
But trying to think about all of this at once will possibly injure your brain. There are so many online resources now, for all aspects of the trade, that you will find support and help no matter what you are asking.

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