Archive | March, 2011

Eight Cuts

31 Mar

Dan Holloway, who I’ve reviewed on this Blog twice now, runs a website and small press called Eight Cuts. I’ve been corresponding with Dan a little bit over on Amazon forums – we bumped into each after I’d read his work – and he’s a really nice guy, very well read and incredibly informed. His enthusiasm for new writing is pretty inspiring. As of today he’s very kindly featured my work on his site, an occurance which has given me a bit of a kick up the arse to update the blog with about 3 or 4 other indie/small press books I’d reviewed recently. I’m pretty sure Dan’s pages get a lot more traffic than mine, but on the off chance you haven’t been over there already (and why haven’t you? You really should sort that out right now…) then this is the link: Eight Cuts.

Dan is a founder member of the Year Zero group and a lot of the good indie stuff I’ve been reading (not all, but a lot) has come out of this group. In addition to that, Eight Cuts seems to be a focal point for some of the best independent and underground work around. Seriously, that’s where it’s all going on. Go on, get your arse over there, you know you want to.

What a week, and it’s only Wednesday

30 Mar

Well, what a busy week this has been. Work has been mental, I still haven’t done any more work on my thesis, I have written half a short story (though not written any of the novel which is supposed to be the prime objective), and I’ve followed a story about a Greek Seaman and a Charlie Sheenesque online meltdown. Oh, and I joined another writing group, met some pretty decent, down to earth (but talented) people, and woke up this morning with a mild hangover and the shits… A bad pint last night I think.

I just took down my Authonomy account. I left it open for a couple of days to see what happened and it was just more of the same. People asking for me to back them, nobody interested in actually reading or offering comments. Ah well, it was worth a go. Book came down, account in retirement, off to explore other things instead.

In terms of my modest sales strategy, I was hoping to sell over 31 books this month (to beat the book a day target). As of right now I’ve sold 33 ebooks, and I know at least 1 paperback. Annoyingly, though, Createspace doesn’t update in realtime – it can take up to 60 days AFTER the book has been produced and shipped. So in reality I have no idea how many paperbacks I’ve sold yet, having only had it out for about 40-50 days. I know about the one copy because the person who bought it told me. Anyway, that leads onto the next bit…

…sales for Japan. If I get to the end of the day tomorrow on the same sales as I am right now I will have 33 x 22p which is £7.26 in royalties from ebooks (wow, the money I’m raking in I might just lay it out on the bed and roll in it – if the twenty pence coins didn’t have edges that could scratch that is) and, I’ll have to guess, around £1 for the paperback. £8.26. Let’s round it up to a tenner. I said I’d double it so that’s £20 to go to Medicins Sans Frontier or the Red Cross (still haven’t decided yet – will probably depend on the ease of their respective online donation process).

Last night I read out my work for the first time ever. And I do mean EVER. I was a bit blindsided as I didn’t expect to be asked but I had a copy of my book with me as I had taken it along to give to someone so I picked a short piece and stumbled through it in a quivery voice. Oh dear. Mental note to self – must get much better at that sort of thing.

What else? Designed a book cover for another book that doesn’t exist yet. Finished reading another small press/indie book (Dogs Chase Cars by Mark Porter, very good, very funny) and reviewed it. Got another review comment for Hinterland on YouWriteOn. Not as helpful really, I didn’t agree with a lot of the points. Still useful to see what people think though. Talked a lot of bollocks on Amazon Forums.

Right…what next?

Expectations

25 Mar

I mentioned it in passing previously, but I’ve been seeing a lot recently on writers expressing their dismay at not making as much headway as they would have wanted. I joined Authonomy last week and I got a message from someone who told me I was wasting my time there, that it was nothing more than a game people played to try and score from one another only to be rejected by Harper Collins when you climbed to the top of the slippery pole. (I added the Disraeli reference as an embellishment, but the sentiment was there). He’d apparently “wasted five years” of his life on his attempt to get the publisher to back him, and his message (because visible against his profile) was answered by several people telling him they wished he’d told them the same thing when they joined as they too felt like they had wasted their time and energies.

I don’t really have an opinion on their experiences as I’m not privvy to what those experiences have been. I just found it interesting. As I did this blog entry below, written by a guy who has been writing for years:

The Loser’s Guide to Self Publishing

The first thing that struck me when reading this was, wow, this guy is a good writer. Because the article made me laugh so much, which sounds harsh because it is kind of a tale of woe, but delivered so brutally honestly I couldn’t help but find it amusing. The second thing that struck me is how easy I’ve had it compared to this. I didn’t put down an outlay of £6000, I haven’t got 1000 copies of my book in a box in the garage that I’m trying to shift or give away. I have a file on my laptop that I loaded up to Amazon and I have 5 copies of my book in paperback that I’ve been sending out or giving away to try and generate some reviews. Total outlay for me has been something like $60 to $80. I’ve been lucky in coming to self publication at a time when it’s become much easier. The downside is, of course, lots more people are doing it now which means I have to shout over a clamour of other voices, but in retrospect I’d probably prefer to do that than experience the pain Iain Manson did.

I’m actually quite happy with the start I’ve made, and it is only a start, modest in some respects but intentionally so as I didn’t want to get my hopes up and have them dashed against the rocks of commercial success. As of yesterday, I have sold 100 books in just over 3 months. If I was dependent upon the income of my writing that would be a disaster. But luckily I’m not, I have a day job. I put my writing up with no expectation other than a vague hope someone would want to read it. The more people that wanted to read it, the better. In the back of my mind, sure, I might have had daydreams that it would really take off and in 18 months I’d be short listed for a literary prize, lauded as the new literary messiah. I’m sure everyone does. But I’m not vain or misguided enough to actually invest any belief in that. I’ve worked in IT for about 16 years now. I started out, after university, as an office admin clerk. Learned a few things about databases and became a reporting analyst. Learned a bit about coding and projects and became a business analyst. Did that in a lot of places and became a consultant last year. It was all pretty gradual, but happened because I applied myself and kept pushing on. Why would I think writing would be any different?

If I had the same level of success in my writing over a 16 year period as I’ve managed in my day job, that would be tremendous for me. It wouldn’t make me a bestseller, probably, but it would represent a progression of ability and exposure that I’d be more than happy with. Getting onto the books at Harper Collins is one way to do it, sure, but it’s not the only way. Returning to my IT career as an example, I got a job a few years back with IBM. To a lot of people that seemed pretty impressive, the equivalent of being picked up by a publisher, a launching pad for progression into the upper echelons of IT management/directorship. I did it for a year and quit to go and work for a start up, because I didn’t like the corporate constraints and the hard sell you had to do to succeed there. I enjoyed more the freedom of just doing my job, creatively and well, in a more casual environment. I don’t want to push my book to every man and his dog on Authonomy to try and get it onto an editor’s desk. I want to write, and I want to control what I do in my own way, and if it’s successful great, and if not, well, so be it.

The truth is, most people who try and do something creative fail – if you define failure as not reaching the commercial heights. I have friends who have been in bands for years. They’re talented, they write good songs, they can sing and play instruments well. But they’ve never been on MTV rotation between Girls Aloud and Rihanna. People get hung up on “why, why, why?” when in reality there is no why. Popular culture is a pyramid scheme, there’s only room on the pinnacle for a few, the rest of us have to prop the system up by buying their stuff otherwise the consumer model falls apart. So the ones that get a boost up there are those that will appeal to the widest demographic of people below them. That doesn’t mean everyone else is a talentless consumer and nothing more. It’s just the way it works.

I write because I love to write. I don’t think I’m the best writer in the world, and I know I’ll never appeal to the biggest demographic. But that doesn’t stop me wanting to do it. I would love one day to make my living from doing it, but I know that may never happen, that in all probability it won’t happen. But I’ve gotten over that. I’m not bitter about it, that doesn’t really achieve anything. And going back to the blog I referenced above, I can’t really complain when I’ve had it so much easier than self-publishers used to have it. Ultimately, I think of it this way: I used to play five a side football and for an hour a week I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I forgot about everything else that was happening in my life and ran about like a maniac, laughing myself stupid. I am, by the way, one of the worst footballers in the world, so there was no aim or ambition in it, it was just a lark. So it strikes me that not everything should be about achievement. Some things we should do in life just because we want to.

Inspired by music and images

23 Mar

I think I mentioned on an earlier post that I’m often inspired more by music than by other writers. One of the stories in Oblivious got started simply because I was thinking of the intro to ‘Here Comes Your Man’ by The Pixies. I don’t even like The Pixies that much, I just love that song and the guitar part is amazing. The Smiths are a big influence for me, there’s a grim but romantic lyricism to their lyrics that really resonates with me for some reason. I had another example of it last night. Driving back from South Wales in the dark, I got fed up with the radio and switched to a CD that’s been in my car since, god, months ago. It was The Smiths. The track ‘Still Ill’ came on. It’s not my favourite, it’s no ‘How Soon is Now’ or ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, but there was just this one line in it that struck me (as it always does). “Under the iron bridge we kissed”. It’s sparked off a whole new section of what I’m writing now, and it isn’t even particularly insightful or inspired a line. It’s just evocative, as all their best stuff is.

The same happens for me with images. The cover I put together for Hinterland, before it even really got going, is looking more and more apt as I write. Why is that? Probably because the image is informing the story more than I imagine. There’s a 12 year old girl in it, as there is, accidentally, in the photograph. (Well, she might not literally be 12 but thereabouts). Time is becoming a major feature in the narrative, and you could argue that’s because the story lends itself to a timed structure, and also that I’m obsessed with time as a concept, but actually I think that big bloody clock is playing on my subconscious too.

There’s no point to this post, I’m just thinking aloud about how strange it is that these things seem to be casting their shadow over what I’m doing, seemingly in isolation of them…

Writing Forums

23 Mar

I was poking around yesterday, in gaps between tasks for my real job, and I noticed there were a lot of opinions around on indie authors slapping each other on the back and telling each other they’re great. And I can see where the Blog authors are coming from on this. I mean, let’s be honest, there is a lot of shit out there that has been self published. (I would always contend that there’s a lot of shit out there that has been traditionally published as well, but that’s beside the point). The thing is, there’s also some great stuff. When I find a good indie author I will give them a good review. I try and be as honest as possible, as objective as possible, but I guess it’s kind of inevitable that I’ll be slightly more enthused about their work knowing about its origins than I would be if I just stumbled across it in, say, the library.

The thing to bear in mind as well is this: most people only review when they a) like something and b) feel their review has some sort of purpose. I don’t put reviews up on Amazon for the latest Stephen King blockbuster because by the time I read it and get on Amazon it already has hundreds of them, so what does mine contribute? If I thought it was brilliant and everyone else gave it 2 stars, then I might feel compelled to try and redress the balance, and vice versa. But otherwise, I won’t bother.

Indie books and small press books tend to have far fewer, or no reviews at all. So I think my opinion may carry more weight and be actually helpful. How many one or two star reviews have I given an indie book? None. But let me try and quantify that. I review for the Amazon Vine programme and in doing that I feel I have a commitment to be honest about the product I’ve received on Amazon’s and the seller’s behalf. I’ve often given these things three or two or one star reviews. I’ve also given bad reviews for films I’ve watched or CDs I’ve bought. With books, my habits are a bit different – not my reviewing habits, but my consumption habits. If I read an awful book I usually won’t finish it. If it’s a bit rubbish I’ll soldier on until I just run out of the will to continue (because I read one book at a time, a good indication of this is if I haven’t picked it up or read anything in days and days). If it’s garbage, it either won’t make it past the sample (if an ebook) or the first page or two. If this is the case, I won’t review it, I can’t review it. So I don’t think I’ve ever given any book, indie or otherwise, a rating under three stars (except for one Vine novel I think which I felt I had to read right through for the reasons stated above). Generally, if it’s less than three stars I won’t have invested my time in sticking with it.

There is also part of me which, whether rightly or wrongly, doesn’t want to slam an author who is struggling to attract an audience in the first place. I know, I know, that doesn’t sound ethical. If I’m willing to rate a mainstream product without regard to the consequences, why not an independent one? The thing is, the currency for indie writers starting out seems to be review stars. If I’m the first reviewer and I give it one, then it’s likely that will put a lot of other people off. And the review will, of course, just be my opinion. These other people might love it, and I’ve denied them the chance right off the bat. If anything, giving a bad review when your view is subjective and there are no other voices to balance it seems more unfair than anything else. It’s kind of a moot point because of what I said above, but in the interests of honesty I wanted to make it anyway.

What does this have to do with writing forums? Well, the thing is, I really really want to hear honest opinions about my writing. I don’t want everyone to say ‘it’s great, it’s great’ and pass me off with platitudes. I know I’m not the complete writer, I know I have a lot of improvements to make, and I want to make them and get better. Of course, everyone says that, and then they throw their toys out of the pram when someone makes one comment about something they don’t like. Honestly, that’s not me. I’m writing a novel at the moment and I’ve never managed to write a sustained piece of work successfully before. So I want as much help as I can get – I want people to tell me ‘this would work better if…’ or ‘this detracts’ or ‘it’s getting boring here’. But where can you get this kind of feedback?

I’ve been a member of the WeBook forum for about four years now. I used it extensively when I was writing my short story collection and got some good, useful feedback from one or two people. I haven’t been back on for about eighteen months because I had so much going on I stopped writing for a bit, so I’ve been a bit silly there and have let the one or two good relationships I had with people on the forum slip a bit. The other problem with WeBook is it has some very talented people on there, and a whole load of angsty teenagers writing paranormal romance fan fiction who get a bit uppity. I once gave one girl what I thought was a compliment about a piece of prose she’d written, commenting it was very dense in style and similar in some ways to a prose poem. I got a tirade of abuse back about not knowing what I was talking about, this was a STORY not a prose poem, it was real, it was the way she felt inside, who was I to judge??? Yeah, at that point I became a lot more selective about who I spoke to.

Last week I joined the Authonomy website as I thought that would be a good forum for sharing ideas and getting constructive criticism. I can’t say I’m impressed. The main thrust of the site is to get your work into a top ten so it’s reviewed by a Harper Collins editor. You do this by getting others to read and back your work. In the first 24 hours I had about twenty messages urging me to check out other people’s books and back them. Not critique them, not offer feedback, BACK them. I also got a message from a bitter writer on there telling me not to waste my time playing the stupid game that is Authonomy, I’ll just be wasting my time because it doesn’t go anywhere. I don’t care if an editor at Harper Collins reads my manuscript, I’m kind of past the dreams of being picked up by a publishing house now, I just want to write and have some people read it. But if there is no sharing of ideas or opinions, then it doesn’t seem like it’s the right place for me to be.

In contrast, I joined YouWriteOn yesterday. I put up the prologue and the first two and a half chapters of Hinterland and within an hour I had a review with some really valid points which I’m thrilled with. (I use ‘fuck’ too often and it feels a bit forced at times; there is too much dialogue in my exposition in chapter 2; the fallout of one of the incidents doesn’t quite ring true and could do with tweaking). Brilliant. I’m really really happy. The site doesn’t have a promotion function, it doesn’t even have a message function (which is kind of a shame as I wanted to thank my reviewer). There is a structure whereby your work gets into a top ten for editorial review, but it’s done in a much better way. You have to get five reviews and you get ranked on the scoring of them. To get a review, you have to review something else. You ask for reading assignments. Each assignment then gives you one credit and that credit can then be used to make your work available to someone else requesting a reading assignment to generate credits for themselves. Brilliant. You can then go and leave free will reviews for things that didn’t come to you via assignments, but obviously, you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. It’s a bit more anonymous, the reviewing structure is stripped of its self-promotional motivation and it works to get people engaged and working with each other. The site itself looks like shit, but functionally I think it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.

I’m still waiting on my review from Book Pleasures (I think I mentioned it in an earlier post) and I’m looking forward to seeing what is said there. Obviously, I’m torn as I want an honest opinion, I really do, but if they say it’s rubbish that review then sits there forever and damages my sales. Please let it be 3 stars… How needy am I?  :D

Writing

20 Mar

There’s a thread on Amazon Forums at the moment about why people wrote the stories/books they did, and I put some pretentious bollocks on there about how ideas come to me. Then I was reading it back and curling my toes a little bit.

I probably mentioned this on a different thread, but writing has always been a bit of a guilty secret for me. I’m from a working class background in a working class city, I have working class friends and I am, at core, a working class bloke. Yes, I went to university, and then I went back twice and did further degrees. Yes, I work in IT and have progressed over the last eighteen years to a fairly senior position. I own my own house (well, it’s mortgaged, but you know what I mean), I have a fairly decent car and I’ve been paying for my daughter to go to a nursery for the past three years. But despite all these seemingly middle class things, I still see myself as working class, with left wing values and opinions about the inequalities of our society. Declaring myself as ‘a writer’ just doesn’t sit well with me, because it seems pretentious. I know a few people who have declared themselves writers, musicians, artists, and yet they don’t have anything to back it up – they have no work of any merit to show, no success in their field. And I hate that, because it reeks of just wanting to be different from the people around them who go to work every day and struggle to get by in the real world. It’s usually delivered with a tone that says ‘that makes me better than you’ and it’s ultimately little more than egoism and self-aggrandisement.

Everything I’ve read on promoting your writing states that the first thing to do is to push it via your social network. I haven’t done that. I can’t bring myself to do that. In order to post something on a Facebook group I created a second profile without any of my friends attached to it in order to do so. I don’t want to publicise to them I’m doing a bit of writing. I think in total I’ve told two of them, and then only because they knew about the academic writing I’d done in the past. If some of them knew I’m sure they wouldn’t care. Some would think I was a bit of a knob. So I’m keeping the two halves of my life separate for now. If they collide at some point, fair enough, but it won’t be because I engineered that.

I have always wanted to be a writer. At times I’ve wanted to be other things as well, but the writing has always endured. At school I was good at maths, art, history and music. But I was never as good at any of those things as I was with English. Reading, criticism, creative writing – it was by far my best subject. I played violin for a long time in my youth and was quite good at it. I worked my way up to leader of a youth orchestra and toured Europe twice in that capacity. Nobody understood why I didn’t take that more seriously. I went to university and just kind of stopped playing. I think everyone thought I’d follow classical music as a profession but I never ever had any intention to. I wanted to write.

I wrote my first novel at fifteen. Written on a manual typewriter between 1989 and 1990, it was a horror novel influenced very much by Clive Barker (who was also from Liverpool, which made the influence even stronger). I got to about eighty pages before realising it was shit. So I started writing bad poetry instead about the first Iraq war. Oh dear. My second novel I finished, I wrote it when I was twenty. I sent it to some publishers who told me the style wasn’t bad, but there was nothing else there. They were right. There was no plot, literally no plot, and bad characterisation. I wrote the next one in my mid-twenties and the same thing happened. Reading it back, it was nothing but random impressions from my life with no continuity whatsoever. What did happen with that novel, however, is that about thirty or forty paragraphs I’d written were salvaged and became the basis for my short story collection ‘Oblivious’. That collection was ten years in the writing, on and off, and it wasn’t until I had a burst of creativity in 2008 when I wrote a whole batch of new ones that weren’t dependent on those old paragraphs, and went back and rewrote the older pieces, that suddenly I had something that seemed good enough to do something with. This time, I approached agents instead of publishers and the comments were different – yes, yes, all very good, but there is no market for short stories from an unknown. Which was a result – I mean yes, I was no closer to being published than before, but now it was because I wasn’t marketable rather than because I wasn’t any good. Which I had to look at as an improvement…

So at the moment I’m writing what I’ll promote as my first novel. But it isn’t. It’s my fourth. I’ve been trying to do it for three years and I’ve ditched it and started again four times now. It still has the same title, but the content is vastly different now from when it started. What I’ve struggled with is, unsurprisingly, continuity. I have a minimalist style in some respects – undoubtedly because of my influences: Bukowski, Brautigan, Carver – they all have minimalist styles. So I’d write a chapter and I’d have said what I wanted to say in three or four pages and by page twelve I’d be halfway through the narrative idea I had. Which was just rubbish. This time, however, I’ve been approaching it differently and so far it seems to be working.

First of all, I’ve ditched the idea of a linear narrative completely. It starts at the end, then it switches backwards, then back again, then forwards a bit. Then back years with a sudden leap forwards again. It means I can write in segments (more like with the short stories) but within a narrative framework. I’ve also taken to building the text iteratively. I wrote chapter one – it was four pages long. Then I wrote chapter two – another four pages. And then I went back and rewrote chapter one with some more descriptive sections and inserted some backstory. That doubled it, but it still makes sense when I read it back. I’m doing the same for chapter two and it’s working. The ideas are still alive (they’ve usually started to die by now) and I have something which is more textured than ever before. I’m excited by it as it seems I’ve found a way to make it work. Ideas are falling into place that fit what I’m intending to write further in. The narrative is evolving and extending outwards as I go (which is the opposite of what’s happened before where it’s contracted and I’ve run out of ideas). It might still end up being short – a novella rather than a novel – but even at one hundred pages it will still be a marked improvement from what I’ve managed before. All I need to do now is to finish it and get over the hurdle of letting people know I did it…

Oblivious in Japan

20 Mar

Just stumbled upon this which surprised me – Oblivious in paperback on the Japanese Amazon site.

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