the writing life, Write On

Write On – a short practical guide to becoming a published author.

Getting Started – the tools of the trade.

Hoards of people want to write a novel. Just as doctors find that everyone they meet tells them about their ailments, authors find that everyone tells them about the novel they intend to write. Authors generally nod politely, say “oh, how interesting!” and go home secure in the knowledge that about 99% of the people who ‘want’ to write a novel will never put pen to paper because they don’t really want it at all.

It’s only when the partygoer/man on the bus etc says “I am writing a novel” that it’s worth while rolling up a trouser leg, exchanging the secret handshake of writerdom and settling down to talk shop. Like winning the pools, owning a dream house, being famous, going on Britain’s Got Talent, meeting [movie star of your choice] and dazzling them with your wit, for most people writing a book is one of those ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ things that will never come to pass.

483px-Jean-Bernard_Restout,_Le_Poète_inspiré_(MBA_Dijon)

The people who enjoy dreaming about being a famous author – of looking seriously out of a window while the sun floods over their manuscript and somewhere in the distance an influential reviewer is overwhelmed by their profundity – are probably better off not considering the reality of the thing. This is advice for the other people, the ones who want it enough to actually do something about it.

So, you’ve never written anything before, and you want to become a published novelist. There is no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in this goal. It’s not like my desire to go and live in Rivendell – a resolution hampered by the fact that the Last Homely House is sadly fictional. Becoming a published author is entirely in the realms of the possible, providing you’re willing to put the work in for as long as it takes.

How to start?

Writers are very fortunate. The tools we need to begin writing professionally are very simple. At their most basic they are even very cheap. You can go from aspiring writer to Writer using nothing more than a pen or pencil and a piece of paper.

Writing in longhand in a notebook has the advantage that a certain degree of slowness is built in. It gives you lots of time to think as you work. If you’re starting to write fiction from a basis of never having done anything of the sort before, a pen and notebook can seem less intimidating than a computer. Plus it’s more private and more portable than all but the smallest net books.

If you’re going from zero to novel, it can be helpful to do a lot of your initial character and plot roughing out in longhand. However, I really wouldn’t recommend writing out your entire novel in longhand if you have another choice. You can, if you honestly can’t afford a computer. But then you’ll have to send it off to be typed by someone who does have one, because no publisher takes longhand manuscripts. In fact, most publishers will only accept emailed manuscripts in electronic file format these days, so there’s no getting out of it. Just the researching, marketing and networking opportunities of the internet make it worthwhile alone.

So, a computer with word processing software ought to be down there as one of your necessities. In the short term it will make the mechanical act of getting the words down easier. In the medium term, the internet connects you to beta readers, advice, publishers and agents, submissions calls and places where you can begin to establish yourself as a voice to be heard. And in the long term your publishers and editors will need to be able to contact you by email and send your edits back and forth with tracked changes attached.

In short, you can learn the craft of writing using pen and paper but once you’ve done that, if you mean to write for publication, you’ll need a computer.

I should probably just assume you have a computer already, shouldn’t I? After all, how else would you be reading this post?

Assuming you have a computer, you also need some kind of word processing software. In the long term, most publishers will require you to have Microsoft Word, because that’s what they use, and it has the nifty Tracked Changes ability which editors use extensively. You may also end up using a dedicated programme for writers, such as Scrivener. I can’t get along with it, but many writers seem to swear by it.

In the short term, I recommend LibreOfficeWriter. I do all my writing on this. It’s completely free, it does almost everything Word does, it even opens Word docx files which my version of Word itself won’t do, and once you’re finished it can save its files in a doc format indistinguishable from that made by Word, so nobody knows the difference.

OK, we have pen, paper, a computer, a word processing programme and the internet. What else?

The final things you need to get hold of before you can write are time and space.

It’s finding these things which proves so difficult many people don’t even start. Anyone can buy a pen and some software, but ordering your life so that you can have time to write is a sure sign of being sufficiently committed to actually succeed.

What you need is a place where you can achieve a deep state of concentration, and enough time to use that state for something productive. Finding this place and time varies from writer to writer according to their individual circumstances. In my case, I began writing when I was at home all day with the baby. The baby would sleep for approximately one and a half hours in the middle of the day. I would put her down, tuck her up, switch the computer on and write until she woke up. This meant sacrificing all of my “Oh, thank God, peace and quiet and space to be an adult” time, but it was worth it.

If you’re lucky enough to be someone who can concentrate in a crowded room, you may find you can write for half an hour every day in the coffee shop on your way home from work. You could take the laptop to the library at lunch time. When I had two children with asynchronous sleep cycles I booked an exercise class at the local gym, put them in the creche and typed for two hours in the cafe instead.

If you’re a person who can’t concentrate without solitude and silence, you may have to go to more extreme measures, such as getting up half an hour early every day and locking yourself in whichever room in the house the rest of the family are unlikely to disturb when they wake. Or even taking a camping heater down to the garden shed and typing until your laptop battery runs out.

Going to the effort of building writing time into your day is a good litmus test of how serious you are about this writing lark. Much of what separates the writer from the wannabe comes down to how much effort you’re willing to put in. So finding the time to actually do it is the most important step of all.

The next most important step is finding something to write about, and that’s what I want to talk about next week, in Getting Started – What’s the Idea?

cover art tips

How not to do cover art – a case study

I’m sure there are people who approached becoming an indie author with A PLAN and researched how to do it properly before they even started. I didn’t. I became a published author more or less by fluke, and when my publishers folded I found myself with several books and no ideas of what to do with them.

But my experience of publishers had not been good. Some of them give you terrible covers and bad edits. Some of them make morally questionable business decisions. Some of them fold your royalties up in so many shell companies you end up getting nothing and knowing less. The good ones go bust… To make a long story short, I didn’t want to resubmit my books to anyone else.

So, self publishing. I don’t claim to know what I’m doing here, but I am learning. For example, take the Cygnus 5 books – a space opera trilogy in which a disgraced female starship captain and war hero is shipwrecked on a penal planet and decides she is absolutely DONE. She’s fed up of religious dystopias and capitalist dystopias and – with the help/hindrance of an alien doomsday device and some pirates – she’s going to build a utopia of her own.

Because I’d started off in Romance, the first cover I made for this looked like a badly made sci-fi romance:

Lioness

Spot the old pen name too. That’s my m/m romance pen name. I was trying to get my m/m romance fans to buy SF/F in which there is a low-key het romance. Why on earth I thought that would work, I don’t know. It must surely be a better idea to offer SF/F to people who like SF/F?

Eventually I did take a hard look at the cover and think, ‘It really doesn’t say science-fiction, does it?’ So at that point I made a new cover that looked like this:

lionessNewTry300

To be honest, I still quite like this one. But it is very dark and there’s no real sense of action, and it says ‘hard SF’ rather than ‘space opera.’ If readers of hard SF like the cover, they’re going to read the blurb and be put off. And there’s still the problem of the romance pen name.

Eventually, I took another look at this one and addressed one of those problems. I decided to make it more space opera.

Naturally, I did that by thinking back to the pulp SF of my youth – things like Andre Norton’s Forerunner Foray, which was a big influence on the ‘abandoned alien artifacts’ part of the story. I created the most pulp SF/space opera-y cover I could manage:

Lioness3rdTry300

I’m still very fond of this one too. If I had seen that in the library when I was a teenager, I’d have snatched it off the shelf in a blink.

The trouble is, I was a teenager in the 70s/80s. It hadn’t occurred to me that this is not what book design looks like right now. Also, note that the pen name still has not changed.

Eventually (say what you like about how slow my process is – or how I ought to have done all this at the start – but I don’t rest until I’ve really thought something through,) I thought, ‘You know, maybe asking Romance readers to read SF is asking too much? Maybe I ought to be separating out my SF under a new pen name?’

Hence *waves a hand vaguely at the new website* Alex Oliver came into being. Initially, I simply changed the author name on the cover immediately above and re-released it.

Lioness3rdTry200OLIVER

But then… FINALLY. FINALLY, OMG! it occurred to me to actually look at the covers of all the other books being sold as Space Opera. I put ‘space opera’ in the search bar on Amazon, and guess what I found? Pretty much every book in the top 40 had three things in common.

  1. Title in great big font – usually silver
  2. BLUE omg, every single book is blue.
  3. Spaceships – almost every one had a spaceship on the front.

I find that last thing cool, because exactly the same was true thirty years ago, although in those days they looked more like rocket ships.

So, after finally doing some market research I made two new mockups and asked people which one they liked best. 100% of people went for the one I liked least, which was – presumably not coincidentally – also the one that more closely matched the three points above.

I call that a very encouraging result. So here is the most up-to-date cover:

LionessOliver2_300

We’ll see how it does under this one, but I have to say I personally like it the best of all of them so far. I’m gently geeking out to have a cover like this, even if I did make it myself.

TL/DR?

What have I learned from this process that you can skip straight to and hopefully avoid the two years of experimentation to get here?

I suggest:

  1. Decide what genre your book belongs to and attempt to make it attractive to readers of that genre.
  2. Don’t try to sell your SF/F to Romance readers and vice versa. You may think that they will read it because they like your other work, but you would be wrong.
  3. It’s better to start off with a new pen name and no reputation than it is to try to overcome a reputation for the wrong thing. (ie, even if you’re a really good Romance writer, SF/F fans will see that as evidence that you can’t write good SF/F.)
  4. Before you make (or buy) cover art CHECK TO SEE WHAT’S SELLING NOW. You may think you know what a space opera cover looks like, but you could be just as wrong as I was.
the writing life

How to Finish your novel – two essential tips.

Strangely enough, it took me years before these two things occurred to me. Although they’re very simple and very basic indeed, they are my most indispensable weapons in my whole writerly armoury.

How to finish a story no.1:

Start at the beginning and go on until the end. Do not, at any point, ever go back to revise or change anything that you have already written. Do not stop until the story is finished. Keep moving forward. If new ideas occur to you which would mean the first chapter needs rewriting, note those new ideas down in a separate ‘notes’ file, but keep writing from the point that you have already reached until you get to the end.

Only when the first draft is finished are you allowed to go back to the beginning and alter anything.

Before this rule, I would usually get five chapters in to something, and then I would think of something to change or polish in those first five chapters. I would go back and re-write them. Then I would go back and re-write them again. And again. And then I would be bored of the whole project and frustrated with my inability to pin it down. So I would start something new, and the whole process would begin again. I have so many abandoned starts of novels you could leaf a forest with them.

Nowadays, however, I only have finished stories. Many are very rough and need a lot of editing, but all of them have a beginning, middle and end, and are therefore capable of becoming a complete, polished novel in a way that five perfect chapters and nothing more are not.

How to finish a story no.2:

This is less of a technique and more of a psychological pointer. The ‘start at the beginning and go on to the end. Then stop.’ Tip at no.1 is all you need to finish a story. However, no.2 will help you to manage it.

You see, your brain, like mine, is probably highly conflicted about the act of writing. If it’s anything like mine, it loves starting stories. It loves the discovery, the sense of adventure, the freshness and glee of starting something new.

But that wears off once the novelty is past and you begin to realize that there are months of solid writing before you. Suddenly your brain is making you want to do housework, or read Tolstoy’s complete works, or take up quilting, or go back to the beginning to put this cool new idea in. Your brain, if it is anything like mine, does not want to do the long slog of writing day after day that is necessary to get through the middle of the novel.

This is where it helps to know that it is normal and expected to hate the story and to believe that the concept is boring and your talent has left you. It isn’t and it hasn’t. It’s just your brain trying to sabotage you and get you to skive off.

Ignore it. It’s lying to you. Carry on writing anyway, even though it’s a slog and you hate everything you’re writing. Just keep going.

Eventually, as if you have pushed a stone up to the top of the hill and over the top, the story will begin to flow again, your writing will look good to you again, and you will once more be enjoying the process of writing. Hurray!

But beware, your brain doesn’t like finishing a story either. That means tackling the difficult bit of making everything resolve neatly, and when you have done so there will be the pain of parting with these characters you love. Woes! To avoid this, your brain will try to trick you into not finishing. Once more, writing will be like swimming in treacle, your words will look lame and facile, and you will be convinced this is the worst story ever.

Don’t believe it this time either. It’s still lying. Push on and finish the story. And when you have, a miracle will happen. You’ll give it a couple of days to rest, come back to it, and it will turn out to be really not that bad at all! You will have a finished first draft and it will be good.

If you can learn your own pattern – the ups and downs of when you hate your work and when you love it – you will be prepared, and you won’t abandon a promising novel in the middle because you were secretly sabotaging yourself. Learn when to tell yourself to take a running jump, carry on writing anyway, and I guarantee you will have no more half finished novels abandoned in disgust.

How long it will take before you can bear to edit your finished first drafts is a separate question, of course 😉

Fantasy Writing

Three Essentials for Fantasy Worldbuilding

I know, you want to write the next Lord of the Rings, or possibly the next Game of Thrones. So do I, to be honest. But I also want to read as many more epic fantasies as can be brought to the bookshop table, and sometimes I go looking for them in the Kindle shop. Frequently, you can download the first episode of an epic fantasy series for no cost at all, and decide from what you read whether you want to buy the rest of it for real money.

So far, I have to say, I’ve not yet found one I felt moved to spend money on. I’ve seen lots of books where the hero(ine) discovers they’re special, finds a magic weapon and goes off to rid the world of the evil overlord, and in lots of them I’ve felt completely unable to suspend my disbelief. Not because the magic was too outre, or the hero(ine)’s superpowers were too odd, or the secondary non-human race was too strange – sadly. I would have been delighted if they were, tbh. But because the author displayed a complete ignorance about the mundane things of their pseudo-medieval world that I actually know something about.

When you’re trying to sell your readers on the possibility of a world with fantastical elements, the reader needs to know that you are a reliable source of information and have thought about how this works. That is instantly undercut if you get your real-world details wrong. So, here are three very vital things you need to do to prevent your reader from throwing the book at the wall before you’ve even got the story going.

  1. Understand how your technology works.

And I don’t just mean your gravity defying steam dirigibles. If you’re writing a pseudo-medieval fantasy and your characters are lighting a camp fire, Google “how to light a fire without matches.” Never just make it up, because it is a thing that somebody out there knows how to do, and they will know if you get it wrong. And they will go “Oh, bloody hell, Author! Those are ashes. Ashes don’t burn! If I can’t trust you to get that right, what can I trust you with?”

In the same way, decide on the technical underpinnings of your habitations. Things like plumbing. (Is water brought in to your houses by wooden pipes? Are there fountains or wells in the centre of the village? Does everyone have to walk to the stream every morning? Engineering – how were the heavy blocks that form the temple of doom transported onto site/raised onto the sacrificial platform? (By treadwheel crane? By teams of oxen? By teams of neutered trolls?) Exactly how far is the range of that arbalest? Can I really gallop from Dover to Sherwood Forest in a day? Etc etc.

The more you get right, the more convinced your reader will be that you know what you’re talking about, and the more solid, the more reliably real your world will seem.

  1. Understand how your economy works.

Doesn’t that sound dull?! This is something you can paint in broad brush strokes, so it doesn’t have to be as tedious as it sounds. However, I have thrown a book at the wall because it was set in a small community where every single person went to their shop at the beginning of the day, sold unspecified goods, and then went home. The community was surrounded by a wall and isolated from the rest of the world. This made me wonder several things, specifically – if no one is making things, and no one is bringing things in from outside, what on earth have they got to sell in their shops? If no one is farming and growing food, why don’t they starve? Does the author even know the basic facts of existence, such as ‘food has to come from somewhere’, and ‘clothes don’t weave themselves’?

This economy did not work, because nobody was producing anything. You need to ask yourself “What do they eat?” “Where do they get the food from?” “Who produces it?” “Where do they get clothes?” “Who produces those?” “How long does it take them, and who feeds them while they’re doing it?” “Where do they live?” “Who builds those places?” Etc.

In order for your character to have leisure time to go off and become a warrior/magician/assassin/whatever there needs to be a large social infrastructure in place to create enough surplus so that not everybody is occupied at simply trying to survive. As the author, you need an understanding of how that infrastructure hangs together. Even if you lift it wholesale out of medieval Europe, like 99% of other Fantasy writers, you really need to know how it works, or people will ask themselves why your populations are not too busy starving to worry about the return of the Old Ones.

Plus, once you have a basic idea of how your economy functions, it may turn out to be a surprising source of story ideas. If all your country’s food has to travel up river through that bottle-neck between the Fangs of Fear, that’s a prime site for a bandit queen to capture so she can starve the city into compliance.

  1. Understand how your society works.

This will tie in with how your economy works, because everyone needs to eat. Once you’ve established who’s producing the food and necessities, ask yourself who’s profiting from the surplus, and how.

Is your society a traditional medieval one in which the food producers were barely free, the merchants had a little money and therefore influence, and the top of the food chain were the heavily armoured blokes running a protection racket on top (aka knights and kings)? It’s reliable and so ubiquitous that it’s almost invisible, and you can get right on to your story about the Chosen One confident that the readers are thinking ‘oh, it’s another one of those things.’

But perhaps you want to do something different? Maybe the arable land is scarce and everyone relies on a small powerful clique of farmers to provide food to a starving manufacturing class? How would that affect the things that were respected and valued in your world? Would you have people rebelling by raising their own crops in window boxes? Would seed-peddlers be daring heroes of the proletariat? If you developed that, all kinds of weird things could happen. Your heroes would probably not be warriors, they might be gardeners, but I can’t help but feel that we’ve already had too many warrior heroes. Time for something else, maybe.

Perhaps your society is run by nuns who genuinely do collect from all what they can give and give to all what they need? In our world, Communism has slipped rapidly into corruption, but what would it be like living in a society where everyone genuinely was treated as equal to everyone else? Owned no more than anyone else, and had no more power than anyone else? What would that be like, really? I’d be interested to find out.

Or perhaps your civilisation is an actual democracy and there are branches of magic dedicated to getting the votes of every person in a society that doesn’t have the tech level to do long distance communication otherwise? It’s up to you to say, and so it’s also up to you to know.

These three things may not be as glamorous to think about as that spectacular battle scene you have in your head, but they are the foundations on which your world rests. If your readers catch you making elementary mistakes in these things, you’ll be very very lucky if they (a) ever get to your spectacular battle scene at all and (b) ever read something of yours again. So pay at least enough attention to these so that your foundations won’t crumble and let the whole edifice down. You might even find out you’re writing something much more unique and interesting if you do.

the writing life

You need to know these facts about fire, or your fantasy worldbuilding will fail.

Clearly there are many advantages to reading bad books. One of these is the inspiration to write blog posts in an effort to make sure it never happens again.

There are several aspects of medieval life which are easily researchable, but which sometimes writers think they can make up on the fly. I can hardly blame a writer, who has grown up with movies and TV series in which the pseudo-medieval people sit round a blazing fire of leaping yellow flames, which comes on and goes off as if at the flick of a switch, for thinking that that’s how it really is.

But you know what, kids, it really isn’t, and writing shows up your ignorance more than any brief glimpse of setting in a movie ever could. Worse, more than enough of your readers will have dealt with camp fires, will have open fires at home, will be blacksmiths, reenactors and twisted firestarters to know you got it wrong and to laugh at you for it.

Here, then, is a cheat’s guide to the common camp and hearth fire.

First of all, to address the scene in the book I just read, if you stumble into a clearing where someone has had a fire which has been left to burn itself out and is now cold, and you want to light one yourself, do not try to set fire to the ‘powdery stuff’ which is left. That stuff is called ‘ash’. Ash is the waste product of fire, and while good for tanning leather and making soap it is not flammable.

So, how do you relight someone’s fire (sounds like a romance plot)?

First of all, you rake the cold ashes out of the place where they made the fire. Ash forms a fluffy, inflammable barrier which prevents air getting to your fuel – so it actually chokes the fire. You want a nice clean start on which to build, because making a fire is hard, and unless you give it the best chance you can, you will fail to get it started at all.

First of all, consider your terrain. Are you in a very dry place? What’s the soil like? If you start a fire on top of an unprotected soil largely made of dry peat, you may end up setting fire to the ground under you. This is a bad idea.

Check, therefore, to see if the previous camper lined the firepit with stone or clay, or whether the ground is wet enough to reduce the danger of roasting yourself and the county you sit in. If not, find stones or clay yourself and make a floor of that to start the fire on.

Next, sort through the raked out mess of the previous fire. There are some parts of a burnt out fire which will be helpful – any largish chunks of wood which are partially but not wholly burned are likely to be slightly more inclined to catch alight than completely unburned wood would be. These don’t go on the hearth (technical term for the floor you’ve made for your fire) yet, though.

Now you want to give the infant fire some baby food to help it grow up strong before it can move on to the solid food of big logs. You cannot just drop a spark on a log and expect fire to result, unless you’re in ‘hello forest fire’ conditions, in which case do not light a fire at all!

Ideally, your sensible pseudo-medieval traveller is carrying a carefully protected bag of dry hay, small dry twigs, and a half a dozen larger dry split sticks. (This is a job for the evening before – drying out enough wood to start the fire next day.)

Arrange the small twigs in a lattice arrangement (any shape you can manage which leaves plenty of space for air to get through, and a hollow in the middle into which you will insert the fire. Arrange the larger twigs on top of that – still carefully preserving the air-flow. Support the larger dry sticks and partly burned pieces on top of that.

Make sure there is a good pile of further wood already gathered and preferably cut up into hearth-sized lengths waiting to go on when the time is right.

OK, so that’s the easy bit done. Now, the prepared pseudo-medieval traveller takes out her tinderbox. The tinderbox contains a small lump of flint and a steel strikealight. It also contains a piece of pre-prepared tinder. This can be a kind of dried fungus, or the fluffy seed of bullrushes, or several small pieces of linen that have been cooked in an airtight box until they’re black.

I’ve never used fungus or bullrushes, but this is how it goes with linen. When absolutely everything is ready, you hold one piece of linen and the flint in the same hand. Strike the steel against the flint until a spark falls on the linen. The spark will hopefully catch and create a little glowing red spot of slow burning on the linen. When this happens, you put the flint down, keep the spot glowing by blowing gently on it, pick up the straw. Place the glowing linen into the centre of the straw and blow hard into the centre of the ball of straw and linen.

Hopefully the straw will catch alight. Not too soon, but not so late that you burn your hands off, push the burning ball of straw into the hollow you created for it in the lattice of what will become your fire. Get your face as close to the fire as you can and breathe air into the flames – gently and steadily.

Hopefully, the twigs will begin to burn before the straw burns out. Hopefully the larger twigs and pieces of branch will begin to burn before the smaller twigs burn out. If so, the careful lattice will slowly settle into itself and begin to create glowing embers.

You cannot walk away from the fire at this stage. It needs another hour or so of feeding it larger logs while being careful not to crush or smother the air out of it before it’s self-sustaining enough to be left for a short period. But even then, you will need to check on it every quarter of an hour or so to make sure it isn’t running out of fuel and threatening to go out, or alternatively to make sure it hasn’t ventured out of the side of the hearth and decided to explore your whole campsite.

Fire needs to be cosseted and nurtured and tenderly nursed, and watched relentlessly to be sure it isn’t going to make a break for it. Fire is not an electric light or a space heater, controllable at the flick of a switch, and it’s a tricky, sneaky creature whom you have to keep a careful eye on.

But, you may say, my pseudo-medieval traveller was robbed of all his equipment and is stumbling through the forest naked. He starts a fire and…

How’s he going to do that then? I say. Naked, eh? So he’s got no flint or steel to create a spark? And he’s got no knife to create a fire-drill? Um… Is there flint or rock around he could knap into some kind of cutting tool? More to the point, is he the kind of character with the survivalist knowledge necessary? Does he know which kinds of trees to make his fire-drill out of? Could he recognise the right kind of fungus for tinder? Is it the right season for the bullrushes to be in seed?

And I really hope it’s not raining, because even if he has the ability to make the spark, if the fuel it ends up on is wet, it will put the spark out.

Your average pseudo-medieval peasant is likely to know how to start a fire at home, using dry everything under optimal conditions, just as you are likely to know how to start a fire using matches and a couple of firelighters. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any better than you at lighting a fire in the wild without matches/tinderbox and kindling.

Your naked forest-wanderer may still be saved if he stumbles over the remains of someone else’s fire. But – here is the key bit – he must do so before it has completely burnt out. If he gets to the fireplace and the ashes are still warm, then there is a chance that there are still small embers alight in the ash-bed. Then, if he can find dry tinder (straw, dry pine bark, paper etc), small dry sticks and larger dry sticks, he might be able to find an ember in the ash which will take the place of that elusive spark (another good romance title).

It still has to be not raining, though.