The writing blues

I wanted to write this entry when I was not actually suffering from the writing blues, because I didn’t want to be a miserable sad-sack, as there is too much of that sort of thing on the net already. So today I’m feeling sufficiently neutral to give it a go.

The writing blues can sneak up on you, usually when a chapter or story is not working, and you know it’s not working, but you have no idea about how to fix it. Or you can get a gut-punch of sudden depression, usually brought on by a spate of rejections (or just one really nasty one) and you feel like you have made a giant mistake pursuing this whole writing thing.

The only advice I can give you for when a case of the woe-is-me-I-can’t-write-to-save-myself hits is that it is completely normal. Not only do we ALL go through it, but we all claw our way out of it at the end, and sometimes it takes a lot of work to do so. The key is to not let your blues stop you from writing! That won’t help anyone and is more likely to make you feel worse, not better.

Humans love a bit of drama, and this is a very survivable one, so allow yourself to wallow a little –just for the masochistic pleasure of it. But set a time limit, preferably less than fifteen minutes, and once you reach it put the worries out of your head and sit down and start writing. That is what makes you a writer.

There is no better cure for the self-doubt than the salve of words on a page. I know what you are thinking; this is all very easy to say when I’m not in the cold grip of the writing blues, but the truth is that several previous posts have been written at exactly such times, and by the end of them, I’m ready to move on and get back to work. So don’t let the blues get you down, fight them with words instead.

Happy writing,

Nat

The cutlery of writing

In my house we have no dishwasher, or conversely you could say we have two dishwashers, and we both pay rent. When we have used up every cup and plate in the house and can go no longer without washing, it is the cutlery that is the most heartbreakingly tedious part of the task.

Self-editing is the cutlery of writing.

Many writers hate to edit their work, especially longer pieces of writing, and a lot of new writers are tempted to skip it altogether. That is a great decision to make if you are a) a genius, or b) trying to increase your collection of rejection letters. For the rest of us it is not a good tactic.

Aside from the typos and homonyms that you will leave behind, there will be superfluous words, repeated words, tense changes, point of view slips or even character name cock-ups (yes guilty, I had Brent and Brant in a story and they were actually the same person). The only way to find all these problems is to edit your work, edit it again, put it down, let it rest, mature, ferment and then… edit again.

Many writers set time limits on how long they need to wait after finishing a piece before they can send it out to ensure they have distanced themselves enough to give it a proper edit. Others actually set numbers of edits required (7 I’ve read for a lot of novel writers). When starting out you don’t need to be that regimented, but more than one edit is a must, and at least 24 hours of sitting time is also mandatory! But more on both accounts will only improve your final product.

Don’t sell yourself short, it takes a lot to finish a story, so don’t undermine all that hard work by putting it out there before it is ready. You can burn the perfect market or worse, you can have your substandard work published! It is much better to have a clean manuscript that is ready to send out a few weeks later, than a flawed one that is ready to go now!

Happy editing (and give thanks for your dishwasher),

Nat

The reading writer

I’ve mentioned before that I believe you should read lots to become a better writer. In fact I’d probably say it was one of my golden rules of writing, but what I have failed to say is that writers should read widely and outside of their comfort zones. So if you are a science fiction writer, read a romance, read a classic, read a thriller or read a book on financial intelligence.

I generally try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, as well as sampling a good mix of biographies. Books that have been highly recommended or books that have been on the best seller list will also make it onto my reading list, no matter how uninteresting I find the topic. Those books you read to understand what it is about them that won them such a special place in their reader’s heart.

Many writers say they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their writing style or inadvertently steal ideas. The thing is, reading other people’s writing has so much it can teach you. Fictional works can show you styles and techniques that you might not have considered, non-fictional work gives you plenty of material for story ideas, and biographies help to give you ideas for realistic, complicated and well developed characters.

So I’ve thrown a few links to non-fiction books below. These are non-fiction books I’ve really enjoyed and learned a lot from, but the list is endless and your local library will allow you to freely sample books to which you might be otherwise disinclined to commit.

Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie – Slow death by rubber duck
Simon Nasht – Huber Wilkins the last explorer
William Goldman – Which lie did I tell? More adventures in the screen trade
Stephen King – On Writing

Hubert Wilkins
Which Lie Did I Tell? More adventures in the screen trade

So remember; read widely, read recklessly and read openly.

Happy reading,

Nat

Fact or Fiction?

The truth is, as a first time writer you are more likely to make money out of non-fiction writing than fiction. And if you write genre fiction (horror, sci fi, thriller, crime etc) then your chance of either getting picked up or making money drops even further.

Many fiction writers don’t consider non-fiction as an option for an alternative income stream. They would much rather slog away in an hermetically sealed glass building dodging office politics all day. Also the propensity to downgrade the value of anything you know a lot about, just because you know about it, means you might be cheating yourself out of a great second income.

If you pick up your local writer’s market guide you will see that there are significantly more non-fiction publishers than fiction. Their print runs and advances might be smaller, but they take on more books than some of the small fiction presses, and highly target their markets, meaning that when they print your book it will be more likely to sell.

I know you are thinking; but who wants to read a book on ‘making up excuses for getting to work late’ –if you have found a need to get good at something, there is a big chance that there will be others who also want that skill. I would recommend steering away from ‘serious’ topics (self-help, medical etc) as these require you to have recognised qualifications (obviously if you have the qualifications then go for it).

The other thing to consider is that non-fiction books are the big sellers in the self-publishing arena. Self-published books that have put their authors on the best-seller list include ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’, ‘What Color is Your Parachute’ and ‘4 Ingredients’ –all non-fiction!

And what better way is there to meet publishers than by getting published? Just remember, you need to enjoy what you write if you want to write well, so choose wisely.

Happy writing,

Nat

It never rains, it pours!

I talked of clusters of fortune a while back, and just to underscore the veracity of that statement I just want to share with you that I have another story accepted! (Yay) So in a little over a month I have had three pieces accepted.

I would love to be able to say that it is due to some cunning new marketing solution that I’m applying, but the truth is it is just a good turn of luck. We all have them, they turn in different directions and this month it turned the right way for me. Now if I can just push it a bit longer and get one of my novels picked up…

To share my latest coup, check out the Terminal Earth Anthology. This is a US anthology about the end of the world, and I’m pretty excited to read what others are writing on the topic. Just in case you don’t know, I have a soft spot for the December 2012 end of the world theory (I know, doesn’t everyone?!), and despite the ticking clock on how soon I can get all these 2012 stories published, I keep writing them!

Beyond Black is the first 2012 story to be picked up, but I hope it will not be the last. I have at least one piece of flash fiction (under 1,000 words) and a novel that need to find a home before December 2012. The novel is fast becoming a candidate for my first web self-publication.

But putting the end of the world aside for a moment, it is important to remember that the best way to become a published writer is to keep sending your work out! It won’t get published if no one ever sees it. I guess I should also mention that actually finishing stories is pretty vital to getting published as well, but that is a topic for another post 🙂

Happy Publishing!

Nat

Another man’s treasure

A while back I talked of rejection, inspired by a short story I particularly liked being turned down yet again. The funny thing is the first time I sent it out to the potential publisher they held onto it for ages and then ‘regretfully rejected’ it. The next two rejections were outright, if they could have e-spat on it they would have.

Last month the story got accepted. But not only did it get accepted, the editors claimed to have ‘loved’ the piece (cool). How funny that with no difference in the manuscript one publisher can see nothing but faults, and another ‘gets’ the story and likes it. This is a classic example of what I’ve been rabbiting on about for so long now; you have to keep plugging away until you find the right reader. If you like your story someone else will as well.

Now I wouldn’t be a real writer if I didn’t admit to being superstitious, so I’ll tell you neither the short story title nor the publisher name until I get the contract 🙂 But suffice it to say that when you do get the yes, it doesn’t make the pain of all the “no’s” go away, but it does remind you why you keep suffering through them.

Happy writing!

Nat

He said, she said

Embarrassing but true; one of the biggest mistakes we all make when we first start writing is with our speech tags. There is the tendency to make our characters cry, yell, exclaim, retort, whisper, slur, snap or beg.

The truth is said can cover all these things and many more. The action surrounding the speech, or the punctuation used should be enough to indicate if something is a question or if it is said in anger. You do not need the fluff!

We learn pretty quickly that repeated words look weird on the page, and some can “sound” weird in the reader’s mind if repeated too closely on the page (or horror of horrors, in the same paragraph), but ‘said’ is a strangely invisible word. Just like the character’s name in a story, it is one of those words that the brain will happily skip over, no matter how often it is repeated.

If you don’t believe me pick up the book you are currently reading (unless you are reading ‘The Dummy’s Guide to Mulching’ or some other non-fiction book) and turn to a page of dialogue. Pay attention to the number of saids on the page. Stand out like dogs… bowls, eh? Imagine if the writer had highlighted all those tags by using words like ‘gasped’ or ‘chortled’ it would have looked a bit clunky!

So as much as it can kill you when you are starting out, drop the superfluous speech tags and go with said. Then you will also be able to more easily see all the places where you don’t actually need any speech tags at all. Trust me, your writing will be much stronger for it.

“And that’s all I have to say on that topic,” said Nat.

To E or not to E?

One of the options I mentioned in the previous post was self-publication. One of the cheapest and easiest ways of self-publishing is epublishing (online). But when is it right to shun traditional publishers and go it alone?

The fact is you need to ask yourself if there is a reason you work hasn’t been picked up by another publisher. Maybe there actually is something wrong with it? And if there is, then it needs to be fixed before it gets published! It can be hard to pick up when you have a problem with a story because writers tend to fall into two buckets; those who think everything they write is great, and those who think everything they write is crap. Many vacillate between the two, but never sit in the middle ground.

So the best way to work out if your work is ready to be self-published is to look at external feedback. This could be a writers group, it could be an editor who you pay to look at your work, or it could be ‘positive rejections’ from publishers. Believe it or not, sometimes publishers will say great things about your work, and then still reject it. If you have started getting those rejections, it might be time to consider epublishing.

I have to admit I fall into the group who believe you should exhaust all other options before self-publishing, but remember that other options include non-paying markets. While not always as competitive as the paying markets, they are still competitive, and that means only your good stories will be picked up. After all, you never know which story will be someone’s first exposure to your writing, so it is important that everything you have out there is the best that it can be, and that requires another set of eyes.  

Happy writing!

Nat

The Waiting Game

The fact is you have three options for publication;

  • Get others to publish your work
  • Publish it yourself
  • Don’t publish

Given that a lot of us are trying for the first option, it means those who do the publishing have a lot of options. A **LOT** of options. So when they put out a call for submissions (and even when they don’t) they have hundreds or thousands of pieces to choose from.

Most publishers will also insist on no multiple or simultaneous submissions (that is, you need to wait for them to reject/accept your story before you can submit another, and what you submit must not be on offer to any other publisher). This can mean your story can take years to do the rounds, and for a novel, double that.

The longest I’ve ever waited for a publisher to get back to me (not including those who just didn’t get back to me) is twelve months. Others in my writers group have waited two years. I wrote a virus story which I sent off to a magazine, six months before the movie ‘Outbreak’ was released. Suddenly my story got rejected saying it had already been done. Not six months earlier when I sent it! Grrrr.

I think all writers have at some point fantasised about the day when they can pick and choose their publisher, especially after a nine month wait with only a form letter rejection at the end. But the reality is, there are thousands of writers out there trying to get published. I actually heard a publisher once lament that there seemed to be more people writing books than reading them. So if you decided to hold a grudge against everyone who left you waiting too long, you would end up with the entire publishing community on your black list.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is the waiting game is part of the writing game, and it is probably this more than anything that sends so many people to ebooks as an alternative. But, to those of you who are currently going through this, take heart in fact that the length of your wait is not indicative of your chance at success. Some of my acceptances came in the same week I submitted them, while just as many others have taken well over three months. The key is keep writing, if you have lots of stories circulating, then the wait is not so obvious.

Happy writing!

Nat

The Deadly Crayon

Titles, they are one of the first things you notice about any story. So if your title doesn’t command attention you are at risk of losing a significant slice of the market before they have even read that crushingly great first line that you spent three months perfecting.

So what makes a good title? Obviously it must stand out, that goes without saying, but it also needs to be relevant. For example, I’m not going to mention anything about a crayon in this post, deadly or otherwise. Feel that flash of disappointment? You don’t want that to be someone’s reaction to your story.

I should point out, before you get too excited about the prospect of me giving you the formula for finding that perfect title, that I have a problem with titles. I have a novella with a working title of ‘science fiction story’ another is called ‘future story’ and a YA novel I’m 60,000 words into is called… ‘YA novel.’ Someone in my crit group recently subbed a first chapter of their book called ‘the New Novel’ so at least I know I’m not alone with this problem.

But  bad-titleisis is not just an affliction of the unpublished. The following are examples of the author’s original title, as well as that which it was finally published under (or at least their English translations):

Something That Happened – Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) 
First Impressions – Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin) 
Men Who Hate Women – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)

But perhaps my final word on titles will go to Dan Brown. He wrote an intriguing little story about the Catholic Church, and puzzles and death and stuff called Angels and Demons (ho hum). It sold less than 10,000 copies before the release of the next instalment; The Da Vinci Code. Now this title hinted at puzzles and intrigue, and has sold 81 million copies to date. I rest my case.

So don’t throw away your first and best chance to grab a reader. And don’t release a story called ‘Future Story’ –because I’ve got that one.

Nat

The journey of a spec fic writer.