words ‘n stuff

Two lessons in dialogue

by Suw on March 10, 2014

Dialogue. How I yearn to be awesome at dialogue. With good dialogue you can not only move the story forward, you can also draw the characters personality, background, attitudes, prejudices, class status, relationships to others and much more. Yet it’s only too easy, and I say this from experience, to use dialogue simplistically, either as a form of exposition or as a way to just glue actions together. Using it to reveal personality and background requires a more deft touch that I certainly am still trying to develop. 

Recently, I have come across two fantastic writers whose dialogue is really worth taking the time to study. The first is Naomi Novik, whose Temeraire I recently read and loved. Novik’s dialogue is fantastic, giving us an insight into not just what is going on in that scene, but also where her characters come from, what they’re like, how they think, and what their station is in life. It really is a delight to read, and if you haven’t read Temeraire (His Majesty’s Dragon in the USA) then I cannot recommend it highly enough! 

One of my favourite scenes is this: 

They landed together, to the anxious lowing of the cattle that had been delivered for Temeraire’s dinner. ‘Temeraire, be gentle with him,’ Laurence said quietly. ‘Some dragons do not have very good understanding, like some people; you remember Bill Swallow, on the Reliant.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Temeraire said, equally low. ‘I understand now; I will be careful. Do you think he would like one of my cows?’

‘Would he care for something to eat?’ Laurence asked James, as they both dismounted and met on the ground. ‘Temeraire has already eaten this afternoon; he can spare a cow.’ 

‘Why, that is very kind of you,’ James said, thawing visibly, ‘I am sure he would like it very much, wouldn’t you, you bottomless pit,’ he said affectionally, patting Volatilus’s neck.’

‘Cows!’ Volatilus said, staring at them with wide eyes.

‘Come and  have some with me, we can eat over here,’ Temeraire said to the little grey, and sat up to snatch a pair of the cows over the wall of the pen. He laid them out in a clean grassy part of the field, and Volatilus eagerly trotted over to share when Temeraire beckoned. 

‘It is uncommonly generous of you, and of him,’ James said, as Laurence led him to the cottage. ‘I have never seen one of the big ones share like that; what breed is he?’

‘I am not myself an expert, and he came to us without provenance; but Sir Edward Howe has just today identified him as an Imperial,’ Laurence said, feeling a little embarrassed; it seemed like showing off, but of course it was just plain face, and he could not avoid telling people. 

James stumbled over the threshold on the news and nearly fell into Fernao. ‘Are you— oh, Lord, you are not joking,’ he said, recovering and handing his leather coat off. ‘But how did you find him, and how did you come to put him into harness?’

Laurence himself would never have dreamed of interrogating a host in such a way, but he concealed his opinion of James’s manners; the circumstances surely warranted some leeway. ‘I will be happy to tell you,’ he said, showing the other man into the sitting room. ‘I should like your advice, in fact, on how I am to proceed. Will you have some tea?’

‘Yes, although coffee if you have it,’ James said, pulling a chair closer to the fire; he sprawled into it with his leg slung over the arm. ‘Damn, it’s good to sit for a minute; we have been in the air for seven hours.’

What I love about this is how the dialogue and the description work so well together. Temeraire, we have already learnt by this point in the book, is a smart dragon and although he speaks in short sentences with relatively simple constructions, he clearly has a level of understanding and intelligence that poor Volatilus wouldn’t even know how to dream of. He shows kindness, compassion, imagination and empathy; his actions and speech both reflect these personality traits. 

Poor old Volly, on the other hand, is a much simpler beast and can manage only one astonished word. But even with such restricted dialogue, we get a clear impression of Volly’s intellectual limitations, warmth of heart, and enthusiasm for cattle. 

When it comes to the humans in the scene, we can see Laurence’s stiff formality, sharply contrasted by James’ lack of the same. Again, dialogue and action reinforce one another, but you are also provided with a bit of extra information. Like his dragon, Laurence is solicitous of others’ wellbeing, but is also very aware of status and propriety. 

Throughout the book, Novik uses dialogue to flesh out her characters, using speech patterns appropriate not just to the period — the book is set in the Napoleonic wars — but also fitting to station, career path, and even family position. Laurence is a Navy man from an aristocratic family, but he’s not the first born son so he’s highly aware of interpersonal relationships and status differentials, and thus how people should modify their behaviours according to whom they are speaking.

When surrounded by and talking to his subordinates on ship, for example in the scene shortly after his ship has captured a French vessel and, along with it, Temeraire’s egg, he’s very formal: 

No one spoke, and in silence Laurence stared at the shining curve of eggshell rising out of the heaped straw; it was scarcely possible to believe. ‘Pass the word for Mr. Pollitt,’ he said at last; his voice sounded only a little strained. ‘Mr. Riley, pray be sure those lashings are quite secure.’

But when talking privately to the people on board that he trusts the most, and with whom he has the closest relationships, his formality drops a little: 

He [Pollitt] bustled away, and Laurence exchanged a glance with Gibbs and Riley, moving closer so they might speak without being overheard by the lingering gawkers. ‘At least three weeks from Madeira with a fair wind, would you say?’ Laurence said quietly. 

‘At best, sir,’ Gibbs said, nodding. 

‘I cannot imagine how they came to be here with it,’ Riley said. ‘What do you mean to do, sir?’

His initial satisfaction turning gradually into dismay as he realised the very difficult situation, Laurence stared at the egg blankly. Even in the dim lantern light, it shone with the warm lustre of marble. ‘Oh, I am damned if I know, Tom. But I suppose I will go and return the French captain his sword; it is no wonder he fought so furiously after all.’

Notice that we not only get signals regarding Laurence and Riley’s relationship, but we also get action in the dialogue, as Laurence talks about returning the French captain’s sword.

The richness of Novik’s dialogue is a delight, and the way she uses it to progress the plot and develop characters and relationships makes the book zip along at a very satisfying pace. It is my aim over the next month or two to really study Temeraire and Novik’s use of dialogue in order to improve my own, as her’s is some of the best I’ve read in a long time. 

My second example of awesome dialogue is a bit of a cheat, really, as it’s a radio comedy. Cabin Pressure is written by John Finnemore and concerns the slightly hapless crew of a charter airline, MJN Air. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Captain Martin Crieff, Roger Allam as First Officer Douglas Richardson, Stephanie Cole as airline owner Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, and John Finnemore as her rather gormless son who also works as the airline’s only steward, Arthur Shappey. 

Cabin Pressure is one of those radio gems where every word is exactly where it should be. There is no flab in the script, and no gun gets put on the table in the first scene without going off before the last. Jokes are set up with meticulous attention to detail and timing, and the voice acting is just superb, as you’d expect from such an awesome cast.

Of course, radio comedies are all dialogue, with only a few sound effects to add any necessary extra information, so they have to be sharp and well observed. But they also have to tell you everything you need to know about the characters without exposition. Here’s a snippet of Cabin Pressure, Series 1, Episode 1, from the Cabin Pressure Fans website

MARTIN: Blessed.

DOUGLAS: Ah, yes, of course. May.

MARTIN: Mm-hm, yep. Cant.

(Flight deck door opens.)

ARTHUR: Here we are, gents. Coffee with nothing in it; tea with everything in it. Great cabin address, Douglas. I love cargo flights.

DOUGLAS: Thank you, Arthur.

MARTIN: Ooh, Eno!

DOUGLAS: Ooh, eeno?

MARTIN (more slowly): Ooh: Eno.

DOUGLAS: Ah, yes! Sewell.

ARTHUR: Ooh, what are we playing?

MARTIN: Brians of Britain.

ARTHUR: There-there must be loads of them. Umm … uh …

DOUGLAS: Well, not to worry. As they come to you.

ARTHUR: Ooh, who was that guy? Umm, oh, grey-haired, did that game show, “Can I have a P please, Bob?” Umm, oh, what was his name?

DOUGLAS: Your hope being that it was Brian?

ARTHUR: Yeah, Brian … uh … Brian …

MARTIN: Bob Holness. It was Bob Holness.

ARTHUR: That’s it! Oh. Well, does he count anyway?

DOUGLAS: Does Bob Holness count in our list of people called Brian? What the hell, yes, he does. Well done!

FITTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL (over radio): Golf Tango India, expect twenty min delay due runway inspection. Enter the hold at Arden; maintain seven thousand feet.

MARTIN (into radio): Golf Tango India, roger hold at Arden. Maintain seven thousand feet. Can you confirm delay only twenty minutes?

FITTON AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL (blowing out a breath): Probably. All depends, really.

MARTIN (exasperated): Thank you, Tower. Hugely informative as ever. Out.

(Radio off.)

MARTIN: Sorry, chaps. Looks like we’d better divert to Bristol.

ARTHUR: Bristol? Why?

MARTIN: Fitton’s got a runway closure. We’d have to hold for twenty minutes.

ARTHUR: But Bristol? That’s miles away.

MARTIN: Yes. Luckily enough, though, we’re in an aeroplane, especially designed to be good at going miles away quite quickly.

ARTHUR: Yeah, but my car’s at Fitton.

MARTIN: Oh, well, then, let us by all means circle round it until we drop out of the sky.

DOUGLAS: D’you know, Martin, all these years and I’ve never been to Bristol.

MARTIN: Well, get ready for a treat.

DOUGLAS: I dunno. I was rather hoping not to break my duck.

ARTHUR: Skipper, are you sure there’s not enough fuel to wait? ’Cause there’s always a little bit left when the gauge shows red.

MARTIN: Yes, oddly enough, Arthur, a jet aircraft isn’t as precisely similar to a Vauxhall Corsa as a stupid person might imagine. We’re going to Bristol.

ARTHUR: What do you reckon, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: We could go to Bristol. I believe people do. However, we’ve easily enough fuel spare to hold for twenty minutes, maybe even thirty.

MARTIN: No, I’m sorry but we’re diverting.

ARTHUR: Yeah, hang on a tick, though. If Douglas reckons twenty minutes …

MARTIN: No, let’s not ‘hang on a tick’. Let’s listen to the captain, shall we?

DOUGLAS: Of course, Martin, if you say we divert, then divert we shall.

MARTIN: Thank you.

DOUGLAS: Unless of course we were to smell smoke in the flight deck.

MARTIN: What?

DOUGLAS: I’m just saying: if by any remote chance we smelled smoke in the flight deck, we would of course be duty bound to land at the nearest available airfield with immediate priority – in this case, by a happy coincidence, Fitton.

MARTIN: Yes, maybe; but I don’t smell smoke in the flight deck.

(Sound of a match being struck.)

DOUGLAS: How about now?

MARTIN: What are you suggesting, Douglas?

DOUGLAS: We tell the Tower we smell smoke, which we do. We get to land straightaway. They check the aircraft, don’t find anything; “One of life’s little mysteries, but jolly good boys for taking no chances.” Everybody’s happy and there’s jam for tea.

ARTHUR: Right! That’s – you know, that’s really clever!

MARTIN: No, I’m sorry, but absolutely not.

DOUGLAS: I used to do it all the time at Air England.

MARTIN: Well, you’re not at Air England now. Where you are now is in the co-pilot’s seat and on the way to Bristol. You’ll like it. They have a lovely suspension bridge.

DOUGLAS: Well, shall I just sat comm Carolyn before we make our final decision? It’s rather an expensive diversion …

MARTIN: No, we have made our final decision. I have decided, and as Carolyn knows, whilst in flight, I am supreme commander of this vessel.

DOUGLAS: Golly. Captain Bligh flies again.

MARTIN: Douglas, I’m not impressed by your Air England mates. When you’re on Captain Bligh’s aircraft, you can do it his way, but when you’re on mine, you do it mine. Is that understood?

DOUGLAS: Yes.

MARTIN: Yes what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is.

MARTIN: Yes it is what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is understood.

MARTIN: Yes it is understood what?

DOUGLAS: Yes it is understood … please?

MARTIN: I’m waiting.

DOUGLAS: Martin, you’re not seriously asking me to call you ‘sir’.

MARTIN: Yes I am. Why’s that so hard to believe?

DOUGLAS: Well, to select just one reason from the fifteen or sixteen that present themselves, I’m old enough to be your father.

MARTIN: Not unless you started very young.

DOUGLAS: I did.

MARTIN: Right, well, I think your age and your previous role is giving you a rather skewed view of the chain of authority on this aircraft, and maybe a little observation of the formalities will help remind you which one of us is still the captain. So: is that understood?

DOUGLAS: Yes …

(Long pause.)

DOUGLAS (grimly): … sir.

MARTIN: Thank you. (Into radio) Fitton Approach, Golf Tango India. In view of your delay, request diversion Bristol.

Even without hearing the dialogue spoken, we get a very clear idea of who these people are: Martin, the captain, is impatient with other people, overly cautious, insecure (particularly with respect to his position as captain), officious, and not as intelligent as he likes to think he is.

Douglas, on the other hand, is possibly too clever, and looks down on people who think they’re smart but aren’t. That said, he’s got more empathy than Martin and doesn’t take his frustration with Martin out on Arthur, who really is rather lacking in the intellectual capacity area. Douglas is frustrated by the fact that he’s a first officer and not the captain, and his causal disregard for authority turns into something more deliberate when it’s Martin’s authority that he’s disregarding.

Now, Arthur. What Arthur lacks in intelligence he makes up for in enthusiasm, being easily impressed and even more easily pleased. He’s the sort of person you’d find hard to actively dislike, but his similarity to a Labrador puppy might get a bit tedious after a while. 

Listen to the whole episode, or indeed, the series (plural), and you’ll rapidly see how well rounded the Cabin Pressure characters are. Again, the dialogue does more than just tie scenes together or set up the next chunk of description or action, it actually tells us almost everything we can ever know about these characters.

My aim for future stories is to produce dialogue that is as fat with information as Temeraire and Cabin Pressure. It’s not just about what people are saying, it’s how they say it. It’s the the words they choose and the cadence of their speech. And it’s also what they don’t say, the words they don’t use, the meaning they leave between the lines, even without knowing it. 

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Create more than you consume

by Suw on March 3, 2014

Hi. My name is Suw and I’m addicted to reading meaningless crap on the internet. 

There. I’ve said it. I have a procrastination problem. It’s a very specific problem, though, because it doesn’t affect my paid work. When a client is paying me to write a report, do some research, or write, I generally have no problem getting my head down and cracking on. If I do have a moment of procrastination, it probably means that I am hungry as a lack of calories often results in my brain switching off, but that’s easily fixed by getting lunch or a snack. 

No, my procrastination problem is most acute when it comes to my creative writing. I try to treat writing as work, so that it gets equal billing in my priorities as client projects do, but it’s not always that easy to convince my hindbrain that what I’m doing — indeed, what I’m doing right now — is making a valuable contribution to my career and quality of life. It doesn’t make me any money, so I find it difficult to put it on an equal footing as the work that pays my rent. But when I am not writing, I’m really quite miserable, so the calculation should be easy: A Suw that is writing is a happy Suw, so Suw should write. Somehow, though, that calculation doesn’t convince my hindbrain one little bit.

The trouble is that writing is infinitely put-off-able, and the internet is full of mildly interesting things to read and, occasionally, useful information that I need to know. It’s also full of people and, as someone who works from home, social media gives me a comforting level of social contact that I wouldn’t otherwise get. Unfortunately, much of that social contact is via random chitchat on Twitter, and Twitter is phenomenally good at piquing curiosity. What was that tweet in response to? Why is this person angry about this link? What funny cat picture lies behind that link? 

It becomes incredibly easy to while away the hours when one is not working by reading vast quantities of stuff that has very little utility, but which sates one’s innate craving for novelty. In fact, as I’m writing this, sitting in an apartment in Sheboygan, WI, without internet access except for via my husband’s iPad, the urge to put my laptop down and pick up his iPad just to see if anything interesting has been posted on Twitter feels almost physical.

The internet has wormed its way into my brain and is eating it. 

Add to this the fact that it’s also incredibly easy to lose one’s writing mojo to insecurity and soon enough you’ll find that months have gone by and you’ve not written a thing. You may even find that you’ve picked up a new hobby to fill the time that you once would have used to write, and are using the fact of that as another stick to beat yourself with. Soon enough, your urge to write might appear to have evaporated completely, and you start to believe that you’re not a writer at all anymore. 

Havi Brooks deals with this latter point most effectively:

There are many ways to know you are a writer, and doubting it is something writers go through, so let’s drop this pain-heavy rule that you must be writing now in order to claim that lost part of you.

That isn’t how it works, it isn’t helpful, and it isn’t the loving spark of truth. Sometimes writing lives in the spaces in between the words. Sometimes the process of not-writing is how you get quiet enough to return to it. Blame about the not-writing make this harder.

Let’s not perpetuate that. Let’s not tell these stories anymore. Let’s not pretend that ASS IN CHAIR is the only answer.

Let’s end it here and now. With love.

It’s a powerful read, and full of truth. But, even if I can forgive myself for my long periods of not writing, that still leaves me procrastinating actual writing far too often and for too long, and my delaying tactic of choice is always to read shit on the internet. No number of hopefully conceived but ultimately doomed New Year’s Resolutions will solve that problem. 

But, just recently, I read the blog post How to be useful, despite your smartphone addiction by Mark Schaefer, and whilst most of the post I can take or leave, one subheading leapt out at me: 

Create more than you consume. 

This. So very this. My resolution to publish a new piece of work per month was, in retrospect, a hard ask because it put artificial pressure on me to complete stories without giving me a sense of where the time to do that might come from. But this edict, to create more than I consume, gives me a clear choice to make. I can read shit on the internet, or I can stop and use that time instead to write. I can binge-listen to multiple episodes of my latest love, Cabin Pressure, or I can eek them out a bit by only listening to one if I have spent half an hour writing first instead. 

Creating more than you consume is not about finding extra time, it is about choosing carefully how you use your time. It’s not forcing me to make a choice between, say, going to the gym first thing in the morning or writing, it’s giving me a choice between doing something that is having an increasingly negative impact on my state of mind and is thus something I should stop, ie reading crap on the internet, and doing something that makes me happy, ie writing. This is an easy choice. Framing it in this way makes it not just easy, but compelling, a choice that will decrease the crappiness and increase my happiness. 

I have no doubt that my implementation of this edict will be prone to stumbles and falls. I checked Twitter four times whilst writing this post, though to my credit I didn’t click on a single link. Making any kind of major change to habitual behaviours is hard, but bad days can be followed by good days, and all you need to do is keep on trying to increase the number of good days. 

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The double-edged sword of mechanisation

by Suw on January 16, 2014

Via Mary Corbet’s Needle ‘n Thread blog I discovered this fantastic video about embroiderers in Appenzell in Switzerland and how their way of life was destroyed by mechanisation.

The documentary paints a fascinating picture of the rural families that earnt a living through incredibly delicate embroidery, supplementing what would have been a meagre income from fairly unproductive small-holdings. The woman of the household would pass on her skills to her children, boys and girls alike. They would all embroider from dawn til dusk and on into the night by candlelight. The school-age children would attend classes, but would still be expected to do significant amounts of embroidery in the evenings. The children who weren’t good with a needle worked at the household chores, often taking on many of the tasks that a mother would normally do so that she could embroider more.

The particular embroidery type that Appenzellers made was called whitework, and this still from the video show just how delicate it can be. (Sorry I couldn’t find a better picture that was also CC licensed!)

Appenzell whitework

Of course, fashions moved on which, along with mechanisation, put many embroiderers out of business. Those changes cannot have been easy for the rural families who depended on embroidery to make ends meet, and who didn’t have many, or any, other reliable income. But the life of an embroiderer would not have been easy either, working all hours and earning relatively little for very demanding work. One mistake would result in money being docked, and they weren’t being paid much in the first place.

Whilst mechanisation freed whole families from gruelling work, (although they may not have seen it like that whilst they were figuring out what else to do), it also likely resulted in the loss of many skills. The story is the same across the crafts. As mass produced materials superseded the hand-crafted, the knowledge that allowed those items to be made, that had been passed down from mother to daughter and father to son, was lost, if not in total then in major part.

The economics of hand-made items were never good. Time-consuming processes require either low-paid workers or very high prices that only a few can afford. The craft industry these days relies on both models, not just because of sweatshops in the developing world, but also Western hobbyist (or, in some cases, subsistence) crafters who sell their work for the cost of the materials rather than including time and other overheads because it’s hard to sell anything otherwise.

The results of this are, I fear, a gradual loss of skill and, worse, a loss of interest in those skills. That’s why I love blogs such as Mary Corbet’s, and why they are so fundamentally important. Although there are institutions such as the Royal School of Needlework who do a great job of preserving and passing on knowledge, craft blogs allow anyone to not only be inspired by the beautiful work on display, but to also learn a little about how it’s done. It is because of Mary’s blog that I’ve picked up an embroidery needle, with the intention of doing something more interesting than just a few French knots.

Argleton embroidered cover

But this is also why I like including aspects of crafting in my work, both my books and my writing. The Argleton project included a hand-embroidered silk-covered edition, and The Lacemaker, well, obviously, makes reference to the making of bobbin lace. I love learning about new crafts, as much as I love learning about engineering and physics – indeed, embroidery involves quite a bit of materials science, with different threads and fabrics behaving in different ways.

As the subtitle to my blog implies, I find it easy to nerd out over almost anything, and in that I don’t think I’m alone. There’s currently a boom in interest in knitting, which I hope will be followed by a revival of all sorts of other crafts, including embroidery and bobbin lace. Of course, if anything I write or create helps inspire anyone else to look into our rich crafting heritage, that’s great, but it’s people like Mary we should be looking to, and supporting, as they share their expertise in the crafts for all our benefit.

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Self-discipline is the mind-killer

by Suw on January 6, 2014

When I started my career as a freelance in the late 90s, I thought that working for myself would give me not only autonomy, but also more time to spend on creative projects such as writing. I was right about the autonomy, but very wrong about the spare time. The first couple of years I spent as a freelance I worked as a music journalist. I was very good at the writing part, but rubbish at the getting work part, and as a result I earnt around £8,000 over two years. Even back then, that wasn’t enough to live off and the financial trouble I found myself in killed my creativity stone dead for quite a few years.

I diversified my skillset, got into web design and then social media, even before it was called that, and built my freelance business into a successful tech consultancy which still earns me the majority of my income. (And if you want to hire me, please do get in touch!) As I developed my freelance work, I also learnt how to be self-disciplined. I’ll admit that, in those first two years, I was a bit rubbish at getting stuff done, and even worse at pitching stories to editors. I always hit my deadlines, but it was often a last-minute thing and I rarely had my next commission lined up.

Learning how to manage your time is an essential skill as a freelance, as there’s usually no one managing you, no one to make sure you’re on schedule, no one to help you make decisions and no one to check that you’re working on what is truly most important. In order to be successful, you have to learn how to prioritise, how to control your urge to skive off, how to be honest with yourself about how much work you’ve really done and whether it’s enough. In short, you need to develop your self-discipline learning how to prioritise your task list and then get on with the most important things first, whether you want to or not.

So whenever you have client work to do, work that brings in money and pays the bills, that work tends to get prioritised over everything else. I do love it when I’m really busy and focused on one big project, because it means that I can blot out everything else from my mind and develop a form of constructive tunnel vision that is hugely satisfying. Unfortunately, that also means that other tasks get put to one side, even if they are important. That’s not so good.

A side effect of being self-disciplined and focused on client work is that often, the first things to get put aside are the creative things, the blogging, the stories, the bookbinding. Whereas once I would have an idea for a blog post and then just write it, over the last several years I’ve developed the bad habit of having ideas and then thinking, “I don’t have time for this right now, I’ll write it when I have a moment”. Trouble is, those moments never come. Instead, the idea either gets forgotten, or, worse, written down on a To Do list where it can lurk at me and make me feel guilty about not writing it.

Creative writing is even worse. I have ideas for stories, think that I need a bit of time to flesh them out but that I’ll do it on the weekend rather than right now, and of course the weekend gets filled up with chores or social outings or the gym or work. I do jot them down, but again, they just lurk at me and never get the time or attention they  need to blossom into something writable.

Humans are very adept at learning, even when we don’t realise we are, even when we don’t want to. We might think that we’re in control, but our cats train us just as much as we train our cats. And we are more than capable of training ourselves without even realising it. Tell yourself that you’ll think about this story idea later, and soon enough your brain won’t bother telling you that it’s had an idea. After a while, you’ll forget that you’re even capable of having ideas, and they’ll dry up all together. The self-discipline that keeps business moving onwards is the same self-discipline that kills your creative life stone dead. Self-dicipline is the mind-killer.

At the root of this problem is the failure to align and integrate long-term goals with short-term needs. This is a problem I see a lot with my clients: They are so busy trying to deal with all the urgent stuff that’s screaming for their attention that they have no time or space to think about long-term planning and strategy. They’re too busy reacting to the now to invest resources in the future.

The same is true with our creative lives. We’re often too busy meeting our short term needs to be able to commit the time and resources required to reshape our future. This is especially the case with creative writing. Novels take a lot of time to write, edit and perfect, and the return on that time investment is uncertain at best. If you have a job and clear work-life boundaries, it’s easier to invest some of your personal time to your writing career, but it becomes difficult when those boundaries are blurred, as they so often are for the self-employed.

But “A-ha!” you might say. “All you have to do is turn this much vaunted self-discipline to your writing and bingo! Problem solved!” That is, however, the wrong starting point. The first thing to do is to recast writing not as a hobby or a lottery ticket or as a labour of love, but as work. It is work in the same way that doing the accounts is work, or doing marketing, or going to conferences. It may not pull in money directly, or at least, not to start with, but if you’re serious about becoming a full-time author, as I am, it is essential to commit time to doing it. It is an investment in your future.

I’ve had some luck with this approach in the past, but it can be hard to keep up. The first big client deadline results in the writing and blogging being put on the backburner as priorities shift. Often, though, they don’t shift back again when the deadline passes. The commitment to my writing is, after all, to me and not to an external party who has expectations. It is easier to prioritise external demands over internal desires, and so once again, the balance between client work and writing tips in the wrong direction and it gets harder and harder to get the scales level again.

Complicating matters is the fact that income from writing is unpredictable and patchy. I’ve done well the last few months with the sales of A Passion for Science, the Ada Lovelace Day anthology that I put together. That was only possible because of the generosity and kindness of my contributors, though. My fiction has done less well, not least because I’ve not had much chance to write, so haven’t put new work out, so sales have just fallen off a cliff. It’s a catch-22 in some ways: I could write more if my writing income were higher, but it won’t get higher unless I write more, so we’re back to prioritising the future.

This all leads me to wonder whether using a service like Patreon.com would be a good idea. In short, readers commit to paying a small amount on a regular basis if (and when) I produce a new story, novel chapter, etc. If I had a commitment to keep, and a commitment that involved money, perhaps it would be easier for me to re-catagorise and prioritise my fiction writing as ‘work’. So, what do you think? Is the Patreon model a goer? Would you be up for it?  Let me know what you think!

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Cottingley Faeries

The Cottingley Faeries

Faeries. Fairies. The Fay. The Fae. The Tylwyth Teg. Pixies. Piskies. Pizkies. Pigsies. The Tuatha Dé Danann. Brownies. Titania and Oberon. The Fair Folk. The Wee Folk. The Good Folk. There are, it seems, a boatload of different species of faerie, not to mention a multiplicity of spellings. Had he ever made the attempt, their classification would have been enough to keep Carl Linnaeus occupied for years.

Some fairies are depicted as tiny supernatural beings with butterfly wings, as in the famous Cottingley Fairies, a series of five hoax photographs produced by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths in 1917 which fooled many people, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But faeries have also been described as tall and angelic, or short and trollish, their more child-like aspect being a Victorian romanticisation of earlier folklore (according to Wikipedia at least).

Then you’ve got faerie politics and social structures, which I’m sure there’s a PhD in for the soul brave enough to tackle it. Some faeries are kind and good, others mean and malicious, depending on whether they belong to the Seelie Court or the Unseelie Court. Or they can be Trooping, living in groups and travelling in long processions, or Solitary, who live alone and apparently tend to be malicious, except for Brownies who could be called Domesticated rather than Solitary as they like doing household chores.

When I realised that Queen of the May involved faeries, it did present a bit of a problem. Were mine faeries or fairies? Were they Seelie or Unseelie? Trooping, Solitary or Domesticated? Child-like or adult? Malicious or kind? Wings or no wings? Tall or short?

Clearly I needed to do some research, but the more I read the more I realised that there isn’t really one set of faerie lore, but many. And what’s worse, over time those different traditions have intermingled and evolved to create a complicated and often self-contradictory mythology that frequently fails to hold itself together coherently. Instead, I decided to take my cue from the creator of my favourite faeries, Terry Pratchett.

In Lords And Ladies, Pratchett toys with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and although he calls his faeries elves they share characteristics, eg they hate iron and live in Fairlyand, a world parallel to our own that they can cross over from only in soft places. Elves originated in Germanic folklore and became conflated with faeries in the Elizabethan era, according to Wikipedia and so Pratchett is using ‘elf’ as a synonym for faerie. His elves are vicious, cruel and parasitic, incapable of either breeding or being nice.

My own faeries turned out to be a cross between Pratchett’s elves and Duran Duran, but with an alarming inability to comprehend germ theory. They too can’t procreate, not without significant magic, the kind that only the Queen can wield, but as they are nigh-on immortal they don’t really care. They’re selfish, shallow, vapid and cruel, and more than happy to steal humans to use as servants. They can access the soft places between our world and theirs, but our increasing use of iron and steel has fenced them in and it has become harder and harder for them to enter the human world proper. They use glamours, enchantment and hexes to mould the world around them into something that they find pleasing, being far too lazy to do anything themselves.

As I said in February last year, I often feel more like an ethnographer than a writer as I try to figure out the kind of society my faeries live in, how their magic works and whether or not time passes faster or slower in Faerie than in our world. (Turns out that, as these particular faeries live in the borderlands, time passes at the same rate there as here, but the deeper into Faerie you get, the faster time passes. That probably explains why they never bothered to invent watches or time zones.)

I’m not yet done with the ethnography of faeries, however, as a sequel is already starting to ferment in the back of my mind.

Read the first chapter of Queen of the May.

Add to Cart from my bookstore for £2.49, or get it for just 99p if you join my mailing list.

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Queen of the May 24 hour sale!

by Suw on August 5, 2013

cover_digital_qotm-150x213It’s four weeks since I released Queen of the May, and so far I’ve been very happy with how well it has been received. As a way of celebrating, I want to give all my blog readers a treat – a 60% discount! Yup, you can get Queen of the May right now for just 99p by using the discount code CV130806 when you check out.

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The code will remain valid until Tuesday 6 August at 11:59pm GMT – I’m not sure if DPD takes daylight savings into account, but you’ve got well over 24 hours to cash in!

I’ve had one review on Goodreads already and it was a five star, which is a lovely start! Jules said:

A nice piece of intelligent escapism – a heroine with a brain and some initiative, a surprising degree of scientific accuracy and a novel take on Faerieland that manages not to be either twee or sinister, but instead rather icky.

I’ve also had some nice responses on Twitter and by email, so thank you to everyone who’s got in touch!

If you like Queen of the May, please do feel free to send that discount code to your friends, post on Facebook, Twitter etc. But remember, you’ve only got until midnight Tuesday!

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There’s a lot of advice on how to design book covers floating around the internet. Lots of it is very sensible: Your book cover should reflect the genre and cleave to its tropes. It should reflect the tone of your story, communicating to potential readers what they are getting before they even open the book. The text should be readable in thumbnail, so that it shows up well in Amazon, but it also needs to look good full-size in print. Plus it needs to work in black and white, or rather, the dark grey and light grey of eInk ereaders. What you’ll rarely hear is “And it need to look good when foil-blocked on to French silk bookcloth”.

Argleton is a short novella, possibly even a novelette. It is too short to print via services like Lulu without ending up with a lot of blank pages at the back or using very big type. The only way it will find itself in print again is if I do another and hand bound edition, so any cover I have for the book has to work well in that context.

Hand binding a book brings with it certain constraints, particularly if you are working with a minimum of equipment. For example, having strong, bold horizontal or vertical lines are a mistake, because then you have to make sure that everything is lined up perfectly. That can be done, but I’m a perfectionist and even if the book came out even a tiny bit skew it would drive me up the wall.

You also have to think about how you are going to transfer the design to the book. When I did the first edition of Argleton, I did one version with a paper cover, and one with a hand-sewn silk cover. I don’t think I’d do either again now. The paper cover was a pain in the arse to work with, and the hand-sewn silk cover took forever to put together – four separate pieces of silk that had to be bonded together then embroidered. Each one took about 20 hours to complete.

Silk book cover for the first edition of Argleton

Instead, future books will be foil blocked, ie the design is stamped on to the cover using a hot block and a metallic foil. Foil blocking looks gorgeous and I’m hoping to be able to find a small table-top machine that I can use at home to do this.

Now, I could have had two designs done for each novella – one for the ebook and one for the hand-bound book – but I didn’t want to pay for two covers for a book that is no longer really selling and I didn’t want to dilute the book’s brand. So one cover has to do double duty as best it can.

When I was talking to my designer, Thomas James, about what I wanted, it wasn’t just the constraints provided by the foil blocking that I had in mind. I also wanted a cover design that was typographically and graphically strong, something that looked a bit different to the usual ebook fare and would stick in people’s minds. For me, the key inspiration was the classic Penguin paperback design:

Day 286 by prendio2

Day 286 by prendio2

I also wanted a design that would grow as my own catalogue grew, with each addition of a new book adding more depth to the overall feel of the others. If you had these books lined up next to one another on your bookshelf, they should speak to one another in warm and kindly tones, they should look like they belong together, each bringing out the best in the other.

The design that Thomas did for Argleton was beautiful, featuring a gorgeous hare that I would just love to one day turn into a necklace:

Argleton cover design

If Argleton does ever get a second edition, this is roughly what it would look like (though smaller and slimmer – it’s just not that long of a book!):

Mock-up of a print version of Argleton

When it came to Queen of the May, I wanted to Thomas to work exactly the same magic, and he did. The design is based on an angrek, Angraecum magdalenae, a rare orchid that features in the story.

Queen of the May cover

And again, the mock-up for the hand-bound book:

Mock up of the Queen of the May print book

The chances of Queen of the May making it into print are reasonable. If there’s a good response to the ebook and I can get enough people interested in a print version, then I’ll run the Kickstarter that I was planning earlier in the year, though I may well strip it right back to basics so that it doesn’t become a massive time sink. (If you are interested, then subscribe to my monthly newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out on any news!)

Even without the print versions, I think the strong visual design and typography makes these covers work exactly as I had hoped they would. They don’t say much about the genre that I’m writing in, which is fine because I’m not even sure what genre that is. They don’t tell you much about the story that you’re getting either. But they do gives you a sense of identity, an idea of their sensibilities. I can’t wait to get my next novella finished so that I can see how the third design fits in with and speaks to the others.

Argleton and Queen of the May are available via my ebook store.

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The genesis of Queen of the May

by Suw on July 9, 2013

Gillespie Park, North London

Gillespie Park, North London

I started writing Queen of the May, which I published Monday, towards the end of September 2011, a week or two before Kevin and I were due to leave our flat in Arsenal for the quieter (and cheaper) environs of Woking. Kevin was working abroad and I was packing up the flat on my own, though we did hire movers to do the easy bits. The place became a mess as I tried to throw out as much stuff as possible and pack the office so that I would know which boxes to undo first in the new place. It was a week or two before Ada Lovelace Day and I couldn’t afford to spend time trying to figure out where the contents of my desk had gone.

I had walked past the entrance to Gillespie Park countless times as it was on the way to the Arsenal Underground station, and almost every time I had thought to myself that I really ought to poke my nose in and see what it was like. With less than a fortnight to go before I left the area forever I took advantage of a lovely, sunny autumn day to explore the park.

Rather cheesily, I now have to invoke the spectre of Led Zeppelin. I’ve always found Stairway to Heaven to be a serious earworm, but back when I was playing bass and writing for the Melody Maker, it was deemed passé. Plenty of guitar shops would ban anyone who came in and played even the slightest hint of the opening riff or solo. But the song is still a classic and it gets played a lot on the radio. I’d heard it that week and the two lines that had always bugged started bugging me even more:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.

Who was this May Queen? I mean, yes, she’s the girl at the centre of the May Day parade, in her white dress and crown. If my memory serves, when I was very little I was chosen, once, to be in a May Day parade, not as the May Queen but as one of her attendants. And yes, she’s a personification of the Spring, but what does it mean to be the May Queen? To be Queen for one year, and just one year?

Furthermore, why is she bustling in your hedgerow and what is she cleaning? And why should I be alarmed?

These questions had circulated through my brain for the best part of twenty years, and whilst I was packing I realised that the May Queen was most likely a faerie, not least because may is another name for hawthorn and hawthorn is well known to be a faerie tree, marking the ‘entrance to the otherworld’ as Wikipedia puts it. It also has hermaphrodite flowers but we shan’t talk about tree sex here.

I had a feeling that Gillespie Park might be rather different to the nearby Clissold and Finsbury Parks and, when I finally visited, it became obvious that it was a soft place where the city overlaps with faerie territory. The idea of the May Queen as a human captured from the women visiting the park began to coalesce, and I started writing.

 

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I finally sat down and trawled through all my website stats and Kindle sales reports for Argleton, which I published in August 2011 on my website and then the next month on Amazon. The results are interesting, to me at least, because the numbers are far higher than I had anticipated. I counted downloads of the PDF, txt, mobi, ePub and HTML files, all of which were free, and the sales in all Kindle stores where the book was available. I also totted up all the remittances that Amazon sent me, which isn’t a true total as Amazon has minimums for each store that you must cross before it’ll send you your money. There are still a few dollars here and there in various regional stores.

Free Downloads: 23,180
Sales: 782
Remittances: £210.86

That’s actually a lot better than I had anticipated. The price on the Kindle store fluctuated a little, but was generally around the £1.20 – £1.50 mark. My average royalty was 27p per copy.

The graph of sales tells an interesting, if unclear, story:

Argleton sales

The free downloads (top line, in blue) behave very much as you might expect, with a big peak at launch followed by a slow ebb in downloads. I’m not sure what caused the peak in March 2012. They then settle down to around the 700 per month mark. It must be said at this point that I don’t know how many of these downloads are from actual people, and how many are from bots and other non-humans. Even if half of them are bots, the numbers are still good.

The Amazon sales could have behaved in one of two ways: an initial surge followed by a decline, or a slow build as the book gained traction with Amazon’s algorithms. The graph begins to show the second pattern, with a slow increase in sales up to a peak of 185 in May 2012. But then, beginning in June 2012 and completed by July, the numbers crash. This co-incided with two events: The book received three 1 star torpedo reviews* that slated the book as being childish, and Amazon changed its algorithm to effectively punish cheap books. It’s impossible to say which event killed my sales, but something did. By early 2013, I’m lucky if I’m selling 5 copies per month.

This is behind my decision to pull Argleton from Amazon and only sell my ebooks direct through this very site. If I’m not going to benefit from Amazon’s much vaunted recommendation engine and have to do all the promotion work myself, then I may as well send people to my own shop. If I control the point of sale, then I can both track where people come from and invite them to join my mailing list when they buy my books. I can’t do that with Amazon and, at the moment, data and subscribers are much more important to me than sales.

Well, I say that, but sales are still very important! I spent £250 on the cover redesign for Argleton, and I’m only 16 full-price sales away from breaking even on it. For Queen of the May, I’ve so far spent £350 on editorial and cover design and I’d very much like to make that back. My new pricing structure is this:

Short story: 99p
Novella: £2.49
Novel**: £3.99

Those prices are higher than I was selling Argleton at on Amazon, but the average reading speed is about 200 words per minute, so it would take over three hours to read Queen of the May — you’d have to be really nursing a glass of wine or pint of beer to make it last that long. And, in this neck of the woods anyway, you’d be lucky to get a drink down the pub for just £2.49 so I think they are reasonable prices. For those of you who love a bargain, I will of course be offering deals via Twitter and my mailing list.

So let’s do the maths: In order to break even on Queen of the May, I need to sell 141 159*** full-price copies. Given I sold 782 copes of Argleton over two years, I feel quite confident that I will sell more than 141 159 copies of Queen of the May, not least because this is a much, much better book than Argleton. It might take a while, but it will happen.

Out of curiosity, I totted up the hours I had spent working on Queen of the May. Ignoring the Kickstarter stuff, I have spent a little over 150 hours writing and editing. We won’t mention that those hours have been spread out, embarrassingly, over nearly two years, but we will say that I’ve been finding it easier to focus on writing recently so I’m hoping my productivity rockets.

If I wanted to be paid minimum wage, ie £6.31 per hour, for the time I’ve already spent writing, then I need to sell 381 429 books, netting me £948.09. And if I want to be paid at a rate high enough for to be able to stop consulting and write full time, I’d need to sell 1000 books per month, or 1071 to cover the time I’ve already invested.

Were I still selling through Amazon at the lower price point that’s expected there, I’d need to sell 8185 ebooks per month to be able to give up other work, a number that seems impossibly high. If I upped my price to £2.49, which would hit the 70% royalty rate, then that number would come down to 1267. I think it’ll take me quite a while to build sales up to 1000 novella-equivalents per month, but it doesn’t seem like a ridiculous number.

I am, of course, excited to see what happens with Queen of the May, now freshly published! I’m literally just waiting for the cover art to arrive and then it’ll be ready to be published. But I’m under no illusions regarding just how much promotional donkey work I’ll have to do, with no Amazon algorithms to rely on or give me a signal boost, just Twitter, my newsletter and you, dear reader. So if you like my writing, please do tell your friends, and tell them to tell their friends.

 

* It’s worth noting that at least one of the 1 star reviews came from someone who had bought Argleton because it was recommended as an ‘also bought’ on Hugh Howey’s Wool and they were very disappointed that Argleton wasn’t Wool. The two books couldn’t be more different, and it was a rather stark reminder that Amazon’s recommendations engine can cut both ways.

** There is a novel coming, honest.

*** Update: Damn it, I forgot PayPal takes a cut. For every £2.49 you spend, I get £2.21, which is about 88 percent of list price and still better than what I’d get from Amazon. For every 99p you spend, I get 76p, which is about 77 percent of list price, dramatically more than I’d get from Amazon who, at that price point, would give me only a 30% royalty or 23p. All numbers have been adjusted to take that into account.

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I have been invited to read an extract from my upcoming novella, Queen of the May, at the Brixton Book Jam, 7.30pm, 8th July, at the Hootananny in Brixton. It’s free, so there’s no excuse not to come along!

Each reading is about five minutes long, and I’m hoping to be on in the first group of readers (so that I’ve time to make the trek back to Woking afterwards!). If you do come, please do feel free to say hi!

Other readers include:

  • Irenosen Okojie
  • Harys Francke
  • Howard Cunnell
  • Rosanne Rabinowitz
  • Tom Pollock
  • Ben Johncock
  • Martin Bannister
  • Cherry Potts
  • Helen Smith
  • Salome Jones

Unfortunately I won’t have physical books available on the night, but I am aiming to get the ebook out before 8th. In fact, the book is so very nearly done that I can smell it!

Date: Monday, 8 July, 2013
Time: 7.30pm
Location: Hootananny Brixton, 95 Effra Road, SW2 1DF

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Left at the lights

June 23, 2013

Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got everything nailed, when your plans are coming along nicely and all the pieces of the jigsaw are slotting neatly into place, something comes along and blows everything out of the water. For some years now, Kevin and I have been plotting our move to the US. A few [...]

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Queen of the May Kickstarter pitch video: What should it include?

June 12, 2013

I’m slowly working my way through the final stages of preparing Queen of the May for publication. At the moment, I’m thinking about the new Kickstarter project whilst my beta readers get back to me with typos and other bits of final polish for the manuscript. I have to say that I’m very excited about [...]

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New short story: The Lacemaker

April 9, 2013

Right at the end of last year, I wrote the first draft of a short story, The Lacemaker. It’s had a good ol’ polish and now it’s an ebook – in mobi, epub and pdf format. It’s now available for 99p from my ebookstore or, if you fancy getting it for free, you can join my mailing [...]

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The Lacemaker, Queen of the May, & Tag

January 20, 2013

Towards the end of last year I had an idea for a short story. I scribbled it down in my notebook – see my blog post on Forbes for how I’m trying to get the best out of my notebook – and promised myself that I’d get it finished by the end of the holidays. [...]

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Starting as I mean to go on

January 2, 2013

Over the Christmas break, I had a couple of quiet days where I could pretend I was a full-time author. Having plotted out the new end of The Queen of the May early in December, and having promised myself that I would finish the second draft before the end of 2012, I spent 31st December [...]

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