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This Writing Life: Why I’m Self-Publishing

22 April, 2014

Whilst the title of this post is fairly self-explanatory, I want to start with something of a disclaimer. Too often, I come across self-publishing blogs loudly declaiming the death of traditional publishing. No more big publishers! No more bookshops! No more BOOKS! Let’s just put our stuff up really cheaply on Amazon! In fact, let’s make it all FREE! Okay, so maybe I exaggerate a little, but you get the idea. So where’s the disclaimer?

Put simply, I believe the model outlined above is (pardon my French) bollocks. Self-publishing is great, but so are big traditional publishers – and everything in between. I would dearly love to become what I think is now being referred to as a ‘hybrid author’ i.e. someone who’s published via more than one method, often at the same time, and I’m actively working towards more than one avenue.

After that rather lengthy introduction, let’s get onto the main topic of this post: why I’m choosing to self-publish. The answer comes down to a single book, one I wrote several years ago on something of a whim. At the time, I was deep in the middle of my degree course and hadn’t written a word of fiction in over a year. I was desperate to write something fun, so proceeded to produce a novel into which I threw just about everything exciting I could think of. Once the book was finished, I put it aside – only to return to it a couple of years later when I decided to take Holly Lisle’s ‘How to Revise Your Novel’ course. Halfway through, I decided the book in question was far too short for an adult fantasy (it was), so I added something like 20k words.

I finished the course and time passed. I submitted the book to a couple of agents and got rejections (including one who said it ‘showed merit’, which is about as nice as rejections get). I put the book aside again and moved onto other projects: lots and lots of other projects, which ended up lasting several years. During this time, I realised that what I’d written was YA rather than an adult novel, but that in revisions, I’d only gone and made it 20k words too long – but also a better book in the process, meaning I was reluctant to take a backwards step and rip all that out.

At the start of 2014, I started looking back at old projects, deciding whether I wanted to resurrect any of them. I realised I had a decent, comprehensively edited book, that just so happens to be several rather unsaleable things: too short for adult fantasy, too long for YA fantasy, and a stand-alone (I have thought about sequels, but too much time has passed since the first one for me to really have any inclination to write them). Knowing all this, I wasn’t interested in sending the book out to agents and publishers again, but that didn’t necessarily mean no-one would be interested in reading it – and thus, my self-publishing experiment was born.

So, very soon I’ll be self-publishing this particular book (titled ‘Sanguine’ – more on that in my next post), as well as a handful of novellas (which I’ve written about previously). As you might imagine from my introduction, though, I have another novel still on submission to a publisher, which – if rejected there – will continue the merry-go-round of agents and publishers until it hopefully finds a home. It’s impossible to know whether I’ll be successful with either publishing route, but with more stories than I know what to do with, I can’t help but think both are worth a try!

A Quick Novella-Related Podcast Link

17 April, 2014

As I’ve been working on a couple of them myself recently, my latest posts have all been about novellas and why I think right now is a really good time to be writing and self-publishing them. By sheer coincidence, I’ve just stumbled across this blog post and podcast from self-published author Lindsay Buroker, where she talks about exactly that. It’s an interesting listen and confirms a few of my initial thoughts: that novellas are great for when you need a break from your other writing or simply don’t have enough time to write novels, but that producing them in a series is far more effective than writing occasional, disconnected stories.

If you found my last couple of posts interesting, I hope you’ll give Lindsay’s podcast a listen. In fact, her whole website is an absolute goldmine of information for self-publishing authors – and I haven’t even had chance to read one of her novels yet (although they do look right up my street)!

This Writing Life: The Lure of the Novella, Part 2

14 April, 2014

In my last post, I talked about why writing novellas has become so appealing to me personally in recent months. Today, I want to look at novellas more generally, and why I believe right now is an excellent time to be writing them.

In traditional publishing terms, novellas are something of a hard sell. Most short fiction markets – even exclusively online ones – won’t take them, whilst it’s virtually impossible to get a novella in print with a major publisher unless you’re already an established name. There are occasionally anthologies which will take novellas, but even with an open call for submissions, only a handful are likely to be bought at once (beyond four or five, you’re really getting above what can be comfortably printed in a single volume, after all).

So, if traditional publishing isn’t much interested in novellas, why would anyone bother to write them? These days, there’s usually just one answer when anything that trad. publishing doesn’t want is involved: self-publishing. I recently had a browse of the top free ebooks on Amazon, paying attention not to genre, author or cover art, but to page count. A surprising number fell well below the 300 pages that I would normally associate with the minimum for your average commercially published novel, with many significantly below – anywhere from 70 to 200 pages.

It appears, then, that publishers not wanting to publish novellas and readers not wanting to read them don’t actually correspond. I’d hazard a guess that it’s a case of cost per book versus what a slimmer volume can be sold for that puts off print publishers; for readers, if a story is appropriately priced (and by that, I don’t necessarily mean free), its length isn’t much of an issue. Self- and e-publishing has allowed everything from flash fiction to massive, 200k+ word, multi-volume series to flourish, creating a market where there really is something for everyone.

All of which leaves self-publishing writers and their novellas in a very strong position. Compared to novels, novellas are much quicker to write and edit, so you can produce them more quickly and potentially build up a series of stories with a much smaller investment of time and energy (and it seems to me that it’s frequently the authors who are producing long series, with even as many as a dozen volumes, who are often the most successful at building a loyal readership). That smaller investment also means that if a story isn’t successful, it’s much easier to walk away, to move onto the next project and try something new. There’s also a smaller risk for potential readers, as novellas are quicker to read and generally less expensive, meaning they might be more likely to take a chance on an author they’ve never come across before – vital in a publishing world where there’s such a vast amount of choice.

Much of this is conjecture, I’ll admit, but it’s theory that I’m soon going to be putting into practice. I have not one, but two series of novellas I want to self-publish in the near future – and I’ll be reporting my progress every step of the way!

This Writing Life: The Lure of the Novella, Part 1

6 April, 2014

It’s fair to say that my life has been fairly busy recently. For a while, that meant writing was, unfortunately, low on my agenda, lost in the chaos of moving house, home improvements and all the trials associated with setting up a new business. So much chaos, in fact, that I genuinely began to despair. My head was still absolutely filled with ideas, my computer with half-finished stories, and my fingers were itching to write – but how could I possibly find the time to sit down and write a whole novel?

It took me several months to realise there was another side to that question. I could make time, given enough determination, but it was concentration that was still in short supply. After all, if you’ve ever tried to write a novel, you’ll know how difficult it can be to keep every single plot, character and event in your head; I raced through my last proper first draft in just three months, and there were still dozens of inconsistencies (some more major than others!) when I came to revise it. How, then, was I going to keep track of 80,000+ words when it might take me a year or more to write them? (One answer, of course, is to make sense of them in revisions, but if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know how much I love editing. /sarcasm)

The answer, it seems, is to write something that requires rather less concentration. If I were sensible, I would perhaps think of short stories at this point, but after repeated attempts, I’ve discovered short stories just aren’t my thing. I rarely read them; I even more rarely write them, and when I do, I’m always dissatisfied with the results. (I also can’t help but feel that many of the short story markets I find most appealing simply wouldn’t have the faintest interest in the sorts of stories I like to write.)

What do you get, then, when you land somewhere between the realms of the short story and the novel? Answer: the novella.

It’s difficult to get an exact definition of the novella online, but essentially, it’s exactly what I’ve just described: something between 10,000 words and 70,000, below which you have a short story and above which a novel. (And you really will find a massive range of values between those two points in various descriptions of ‘novellas’. Personally, I’d probably be a bit more conservative and go with 15-20,000 up to about 50,000.)

It’s novellas of around 30k words that I currently find myself writing. Whilst engaging me as deeply as a novel would, these shorter stories are also much more manageable with my limited writing time, allowing me to keep track of a single main plot and character and still tell a satisfying tale. There’s more than just convenience that’s led me to the novella, though. Right now really is an excellent time to be writing stories of this length, and in my next post, I’m going to talk about why.

On SFF, Community and Blogging

20 March, 2014

It’s not often I spend a great deal of time on Twitter (I simply don’t have time, and my life doesn’t revolve around my PC or phone), but every time I’ve dropped in on it lately, I seem to find a similar situation developing. I follow, not surprisingly, a large number of writers and people in the SFF (science-fiction and fantasy) community, and in doing so I’ve noticed something of a pattern. Every week or two, a new controversy seems to rise up, get everyone in a fluster for a few days, and then gradually die down. I’m not going to detail these controversies – they’re out there if you really care to look for them, spread across Twitter and Facebook and multiple blogs/forums.

In the past, I’ve taken the same approach to just about every hoo-haa: namely, trying to ignore them. Well, perhaps ‘ignore’ is the wrong word. Many of these controversies arise out of genuinely important issues, such as race and gender in the genre community, or harassment, or discrimination – these are topics I do care about, and I want to know what’s going on. However, I’ve purposefully tried not to get involved in these internet skirmishes; I simply don’t have an argumentative side, and confrontation of any kind tends to make me feel physically sick. For the sake of my own sanity, I choose to stay out of it.

However, in recent weeks, that’s been hard. Short of leaving Twitter altogether (which seems a shame, as it’s so frequently a repository of excellent genre news and discussion), it’s impossible to ignore these blow-ups. One of the latest revolved around women in SFF, and how little some people want us there – reading their arguments, some of them genuinely nasty, was enough to leave me feeling exhausted and upset. If so many people don’t want me here, I found myself thinking, why am I even bothering? Why don’t I abandon all genre sites and blogs, never attend another convention, stay off Twitter, even stop buying books?

It’s easy, and tempting, to retreat in the face of such negativity. There are days when I can’t face doing anything else. However, whilst I’m not the arguing type, I am bloody stubborn. It takes an awful lot to put me off for long, and being part of the SFF community is no exception.

This, then, is a mini manifesto, of sorts. As I said before, for the sake of my own sanity, I don’t intend to embroil myself in too many internet scuffles. However, that doesn’t mean I’ll ignore them entirely. I choose to counter all the nastiness floating around the internet with my own small piece of positivity: by blogging and tweeting about those books and authors I love, by promoting them to anyone who’ll listen, and by continuing to both read and write the sort of fiction I want to see more of in SFF.

Like the majority of people in this genre community, I am just one small fish in a very large pond, but it’s an ecosystem we all have to work hard to maintain if we want it to be a place everyone can live.

This Writing Life: Bad Habits

17 March, 2014

One of the reasons it’s been so quiet on the blog lately is that I’ve been putting all my time into editing a novel, ready for self-publication. Now, this is a novel I wrote several years ago, which had a complete overhaul a couple of years after that, and is now ready for just a few final tweaks before formatting (more on this in another post). During the course of reading the story again, I discovered a few things: I still really love the characters, I left a few teasers open for a sequel should I ever want to write one – and I have a few stylistic bad habits.

Namely, in this particular novel – ‘Sanguine’ – I had a real problem with overusing the word ‘that’. Not only did it crop up in places it really didn’t need to be, but its use in some sentences made their construction far more complicated then necessary. Removing ‘that’ and fiddling around with a few other words made some paragraphs so much simpler, cleaner and easier to understand, I genuinely wonder why I didn’t write them that way in the first place!

I’ve largely moved on from overuse of ‘that’ in more recent novels, but there are always new bad habits to take its place. Instead, I know that in my last novel, I went a bit mad with em-dashes (something I’d virtually not used at all in ‘Sanguine’); I’ve also been known to use ‘seemed’ far too often, when removing it altogether made sentences much stronger. My bad writing habits have, essentially, changed over time, and I’m sure will continue to do so.

Of course, I’m not saying every single use of ‘that’ or ‘seemed’ should be stripped from my work – that would be ridiculous. I’m not even sure any but the most attentive reader would notice these little stylistic quirks, either. However, as writers, we should always strive to improve our work and our craft – seeking out overused words and overcomplicated sentences is just one part of that, and can be the difference between your prose being just readable and really singing.

The key is being able to recognise when a word or phrase is being used simply because you couldn’t think of anything else, or it was just filling space whilst you thought of something more important to say – and when it’s genuinely serving a purpose. Not an easy thing to accomplish, of course! So far, the most effective means I’ve found of spotting my bad habits is leaving any finished work, sometimes for weeks, or even months or years, before I edit it. Having written something new in the meantime suddenly makes all my past quirks stand out – and not in a good way!

Album of the Month: ‘Shelter’ by Alcest

7 March, 2014

It’s fair to say that ‘Album of the Month’ hasn’t actually been monthly for a long time now, but I haven’t lost my desire to occasionally blog about my favourite bands and albums. Today’s post: ‘Shelter’, the new album by French metal/shoegaze band Alcest.

Alcest have a bit of a strange reputation in metal circles. Ever since their first release, it seems, so-called ‘fans’ have been lambasting them for not being ‘metal enough’, particularly as each new album seems to take another step away from the genre. ‘Shelter’ is no exception, and really has shed every last black metal influence the band ever had, to produce a melodic, dreamy shoegaze sort of sound that’s both different and still unmistakeably Alcest.

And it’s fair to say that ‘Shelter’ really couldn’t have come from any other band, regardless of the change in direction. The vocals remain in singer Neige’s soft, muted style, almost buried beneath the rest of the music – which becomes even more apparent when contrasted with the different sound provided on track ‘Away’, featuring the guest vocals of Slowdive’s Neil Halstead. The general feel of the guitars, drums and melodies is also similar to that found on Alcest’s other albums; despite the lack of metal elements, I could easily imagine several of the songs on ‘Shelter’ sitting alongside their more melodic tracks on earlier albums.

Having said that, it’s fair to say that Alcest are likely to find a bigger audience with ‘Shelter’ than they have previously. Although the band have always had something of a warm sound, ‘Shelter’ is altogether softer than their earlier work, with no harsher metal interludes to intrude on the dreamy soundscape. That could be seen as a negative – as I said before, ‘Shelter’ won’t appeal to a lot of Alcest’s previous fans, and it also risks being too bland without the metal elements – but the band do thoughtful, delicate songs very well, meaning this is an album with a lot to offer, particularly on repeat listens.


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