words ‘n stuff

If there’s anything writers love more than having written, it seems, it’s giving advice on how to write. It’s a nice way to feel helpful and useful and, for those who sell consultancy or editorial services, it’s a good way to build relationships with your future clients and be seen to be relevant.

But so much writing advice on the internet is facile nonsense. If I have a rule about reading writing advice, it’s that if the author lays out a set of rules without talking about exceptions to those rules, you may as well not bother reading on. The vast majority of writing advice is stylistic advice, and style, like everything else, is a tool and its proper use depends on context.

The latest piece to annoy me is “10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them”, by Josh Bernoff, which at first blush seems like a great list, but really isn’t. Now, I have to say up front that there’s no particular reason why I got cross about this list in particular. Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m sure Bernoff is a lovely chap who’s very good at his job, but this list has really very little to commend it.

1 Write shorter.

The author here conflates several issues: length, concision and burying the lead.

If you’ve been commissioned to write 750 words, then the correct length for your piece is 750 words. Submitting 500 words because you’re “writing shorter” will not endear you to your editor. If you can’t make your piece fit 750 words either because there’s not enough to talk about or too much, then you need to go back and talk to your editor.

If you’re writing a blog post, or have no word limit, then your piece needs to be as long as it needs to be. That’s hard to judge when you’re a beginner, but this is where the concept of concision comes in. Is your writing economical? Do you make the best use of your words? Are there any extraneous details you could cut?

Sometimes, of course, you will choose not to be concise. You will choose to use repetition for effect, because it is a useful rhetorical device that can serve an important function. But it should always be a deliberate choice that you make, knowing why you’ve made it and how it will read.

In his advice on how to fix this problem — “Delete your ‘warming up’ text and start with the main point” — Bernoff is actually talking about burying the lead (or lede if you’re American). In news journalism especially, it’s important not to ‘back into’ your story. Start with the most important point that you want to make, and add detail as you go.

This is the basis of the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure, about which many books have already been written. The purpose of this structure is not just to get to the point rapidly, and to thus hook the reader, but also to ensure that all the important stuff is up top and the copy editor can cut sentences, or even paragraphs, from the bottom with impunity.

However, there are times when you don’t want to get to the point in the first paragraph. Certain styles of feature writing, for example, prize a long and intricate set-up before getting to a big reveal much later in the article. So whether you reveal or obscure your point depends entirely on what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.

So don’t write short: Write to length. You should also write concisely, and don’t bury the lede, except when you consciously choose otherwise.

2 Shorten your sentences.

This should really read, “Shorten your sentences, except for when you need to use longer sentences.”

Sentence length is tool for controlling how readers react to your words. Short sentences are fast. Sharp. Active. But longer sentences slow readers down, giving them time to digest and reflect, and to perhaps tie two concepts together into something new and exciting.

Writing only in short sentences robs you of dynamic range, and leaves the reader feeling a bit stressed and breathless. Mixing long and short sentences gives you the opportunity to play with your pacing and to give the reader breathers, so use the sentence length that works for the effect that you are trying to create.

See also:


3 Rewrite passive voice.

There is a general loathing of the passive voice these days which is rather unwarranted. Bernoff says “Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create uneasiness”, without recognising that sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.

Again, the passive voice has a specific impact on the reader, and it’s your choice as a writer to use it where it is appropriate. Sometimes, you’re going to want to conceal the identity of an actor, perhaps because you don’t know it, or it’s not important, or to reveal it would be to put the emphasis on the wrong thing.

“The car was stolen” puts the emphasis on the car, not on the person who stole it. Perhaps who stole it is irrelevant to the wider story that you’re trying to tell. Perhaps it’s an unknowable fact, the car was stolen so long ago we can no longer find out who stole it. Perhaps you want to keep your powder dry and reveal who stole the car later on in a climactic scene.

Do not be afraid of the passive voice. Learn to recognise it, and use it when it is appropriate.

4 Eliminate weasel words.

“Words like ‘generally’ and ‘most’ make your writing sound weak and equivocal.”

This seems like a hard one to argue with, except I have a science background, and scientists hate absolutes, even if they have the evidence to back things up. Sometimes, so-called ‘weasel words’ are actually honest words that define the limitations of our knowledge. Bernoff says:

For example, this Wall Street Journal native ad piece includes the sentence “Most companies with traditional business models probably have a few radical developers on staff.” Rewrite as “Every company has a radical developer or two.”

But does he have evidence that every single company has a radical developer in their ranks? Really? The WSJ hedges their bets because they cannot claim to know the types of developers employed by every company, and neither can Bernoff. Instead, he has provided the reader with a sweeping generalisation that he cannot back up with data. Indeed, as an editor I’d reject such certainty without a solid reference to back it up.

When you find yourself using hedging words, and you will, ask yourself why. Such words and phrases can be used to cover up the insecurity of the writer, to moderate overconfident claims, or to indicate uncertainty in the data. If your data is uncertain, for example you have two data sources that give different figures, then say so. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t work and it’s best to hedge, but at least explain why you’re hedging. It’s OK to be uncertain, as long as you explain why.

If you’re moderating an overconfident claim, then you should reconsider whether you want to make that claim at all. Find a different way to make your point which does not rely on making a sweeping generalisation that you can’t stand up.

If you’re trying to cover up your own insecurities, that’s when you need to eradicate hedging words. You do not serve yourself well by prefacing everything with “I think” or “generally” or “the tendency is.”

Again, sometimes hedging is necessary, but you should always be on the look out for equivocation and ask yourself whether it is performing a useful function, or whether it is just making you look insecure or weaselly.

5 Replace jargon with clarity.

Another favourite bug bear of pretty much every non-fiction writer is jargon. And yes, jargon can sometimes be meaningless drivel, but not always. One man’s jargon can be another man’s technical language, so before you toss out all the jargon, consider your audience: Will they understand technical language, or are you writing for a generalist audience? If the latter, does the jargon merely need to provide a clear definition before you go on to use it throughout the piece, or is it incomprehensible even with a definition?

Consider the word ‘murine’. It means ‘relating to or affecting mice or related rodents’, so when biologists talk about ‘the murine model’, they are talking about a biological model that uses mice and/or related rodents to stand in for humans. But you can’t just swap in the phrase ‘the mouse model’, because house rats are also used in the murine model. Using ‘the mouse and rat model’ is more accurate, but clunky. All you need to do as a writer is define ’murine’ and then away you go.

It’s also important to remember that converting jargon to non-jargon is often a lossy process; you might actually lose information if you’re not very careful. Take Bernoff’s example, where he replaces SAP’s

“As the digital transformation revolution reaches maturity, companies have the opportunity to shift business models within their industry disruptively to create new sources of defensible competitive advantage”

with

“New technology creates new ways to do business”.

Well, Bernoff’s might be shorter, and the originally might be a mess, but it contains information Bernoff misses out. “Digital transformation” is not just about technology per se, it’s not about robots or self-driving cars, it’s about digital information. “Maturity” is a key concept too, telling the reader either that they’re late taking the digital transformation seriously or that they can feel safe knowing that it’s not a fad, depending on their existing mindset. “Within their industry” is also important, as this is saying that it’s not about moving sectors but about getting one up on your existing competitors… and so on.

Now I’m not saying SAP’s quote could not have been worded better. It absolutely could have. But Bernoff’s version gains little and loses much.

To use or not use technical language is a choice that needs to be made every time you come across a technical term, and is entirely dependent on your audience and their existing level of knowledge. Indeed, dumbing down technical content for a technical audience will achieve nothing more than make you look inept and make them feel that you are talking down to them.

6 Cite numbers effectively. 

Probably the only bit of advice I can fully agree with. If you are going to use statistics, do it properly. And if you don’t understand statistics, either get some training or find someone who knows their numbers.

7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.”

Again, a simplistic rule that’s not actually a hard and fast rule, but a decision that’s highly contextual. Whilst there is a move towards informality in business communications, it is not something to be assumed. Whether you use personal pronouns or not depends entirely on your client’s brand voice, what you’re writing, who your audience is, and all the other things you should be taking into account as a professional writer.

Again, Bernoff’s rewritten example loses information. “No bag or item larger than 16” x 16” x 8” will be permitted inside the Park” gives you the exact dimensions for the bag you’re allowed to carry with you, so you can make a judgement as to whether your bag is too big or not. Bernoff’s version, “Security staff won’t let you in the park if your bag is too big” not only omits that essential information, it also makes an impartial rule into a personal decision made by security staff against you.

Sometimes, omitting pronouns serves a purpose. In this case, it depersonalises a rule and defuses potentially confrontational situation by not bringing the security staff’s decision making process into the frame at all.

8 Move key insights up.

See 1, burying the lead.

9 Cite examples.

Well, yes, examples can make text “come alive”, but only use them if they are relevant and fit in with your brief. Don’t be cramming them in for the sake of it.

10 Give us some signposts. 

Bernoff recommends that “After you’ve stated your main thesis, write this: ‘Here’s how I’ll explain this.’ Then include a few short sentences or a numbered list. It’s that easy!”

If you’re writing a long piece, use an intro to set up your main thesis, and then use subheadings to break up the text into sensible sections. People can and do easily scan subheadings to see what they’re in for. It’s not hard.

A well structured article doesn’t need an index, which is what a numbered list is. And if you do find yourself creating an index, then you have to ask whether you’re writing an article or a report, and whether your article might benefit from being split out into a series of pieces instead.

What you really need to do

It’s always very tempting to look for shortcuts in the process of learning to write, especially if you want to get paid to write. But the best way to learn your craft is to do it, to work with a good editor who has more experience than you do, and to read extensively in whatever oeuvre or genre you’re writing in. When you stumble on lists of rules like this, the first thing you should do is ask when they don’t apply. Think about how you would decide whether or not you are going to apply a rule, and what would happen if you did the opposite.

Your job as a writer is not to slavishly adhere to random lists of rules on the internet, but to understand your commission or brief, to write clearly and elegantly, and to think for yourself.

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For the love of typewriters

by Suw on February 27, 2015

My creative writing process has changed a lot over the years. Back in 2001 when I was commuting between Reading and London on a daily basis, I was doing most of my writing on a Philips Velo, a delightful little device that was a bit bigger than a PDA, had a full keyboard, but was lightweight and easy to carry around.

Philips Velo

In 2004-ish I got my first decent laptop, a by then already quite old Mac Tibook. I started writing on that, instead, given that I was carrying it around so much anyway. The laptop remained my tool of choice for a long while, with only the model, operating system and writing software changing.

Of course, I still used pen and paper, keeping ideas in various notebooks, but I didn’t take longhand writing seriously until I started using a Livescribe Echo smartpen, which Kevin had bought for me one Christmas a few years ago. I loved it – I could write a first draft by hand, upload it to my Mac, and then put it through handwriting recognition software and skip the typing up process.

The problem was that longhand writing takes so, well, long. I needed to write carefully so that the software could understand my scrawl, which meant writing relatively slowly. That’s fine for a short story or a novelette, but would be a real drag for a novel and, if I’m honest, probably contributed to my not actually starting one.

That said, writing slowly is a good thing for my brain. I can touch type quite well, and writing a first draft of fiction on my computer would invariably lead to my fingers moving faster than my brain and taking my characters down ill-considered routes that usually ended up in narrative disaster.

There’s a great talk by Clive Thompson on the differences between writing by hand and typing which is well worth pausing to watch.

(The bit about people taking notes on a laptop turning into verbatim transcriptionists? Yeah. Me. Totally. Was almost famous for my conference notes for a while. I must say, though that transcription fluency only works if your idea are already queued up, it’s no good if you’re still organising them.)

I need to have a relatively slow way of writing in order for my brain to have time to properly consider what comes next. Handwriting provides slowness. But perhaps too much slowness.

As is inevitable with technology, the screen on my Echo died. The pen itself still works, but I can’t tell if it’s turned on or off, which is a bit of an issue. I’d find myself constantly turning the volume up, just so that I could hear it click and feel reassured that the thing was on and recording my writing. At that point, I fell very much out of love with the Echo, and with Livescribe as a company. I expected the Echo to last longer than the 18 months than it did and, given that the screen dying is a common problem with the Echo thus indicating a manufacturing flaw, I’d expected better than just ‘buy another’.

After the Livescribe, I tried various iPad apps in an attempt to find a new way to write longhand digitally. One such app, SmartNote, actually has fantastic handwriting recognition, but the user interface is irritating in the extreme. Not only does the interface not right itself when you turn your iPad round, you can only write one paragraph per page, and each page is really very short. That might be fine if you’re writing little notes, but it’s no good if you’re doing something meatier. Again, the idea of writing a whole novel this way was enough to put me off the whole idea.

I also found myself starting to worry about permanence. If I write a novel on my iPad, what happens if it crashes and loses my work? Or if I lose my iPad and haven’t had a chance to back it up? Not new problems, to be sure, but ones that I hadn’t worried about when writing longhand, because I always have the hard copy to fall back on.

The antique typewriters

Last March, I flew over to Sheboygan from the UK to pick a house with Kevin. The day after I landed, I was going round houses, looking for a place to live. We settled on a lovely house, built in 1900 and now showing just how badly the poor thing has been hacked around by overenthusiastic DIYers. But whilst we were driving round, looking at houses, we stumbled on an estate sale (house clearance sale). Sitting on the floor in the basement was a typewriter, a Smith-Corona Sterling, which I later found out was built in 1960, in its original case. We bought it for $12, and then I went back home to the UK.

Fast forward nearly a year, and New Year’s Day saw us driving through Rockford, IL, and past the antiques mall where Kevin had bought his gorgeous 1935 Royal Standard Portable typewriter for $18 some 20 years ago. I had been playing with Kevin’s Royal Standard and had totally fallen in love with it. Yet it felt a bit odd to be writing on someone else’s typewriter, rather like it feels wrong to use someone else’s pen, so getting one of my own became a priority.

Looking round the mall, we stumbled on a gorgeous Royal, with little windows in the side and the old round glass keys that mark out an early typewriter. It was a Royal Number 10 from 1930, in great condition overall but desperately in need of a clean and some TLC, which I have not yet had a chance to give it. The type bars are all mucky and they don’t connect with the platen evenly, so the type is  both faint and blotchy.

Royal Number 10

But until I have some time to devote to cleaning up the No. 10, I’ve been using the Smith-Corona. When we first took it out of its case, it was a bit stinky and very gummed up, but Kevin cleaned it out and after a bit of use it works just fine. Apparently, typewriter connoisseurs believe that it is one of the best typewriters ever built. I find it harder going than the No. 10, which has a much lighter, smoother action.

Still, I got a myself an old typing table and now my typewriter set-up is complete.

Smith-Corona Sterling

A new process

And so, over the last few months, a new writing process has evolved. At the moment, all my first drafts are written on the Smith-Corona Sterling. I then do the first edit on paper, before typing it up in Scrivener and at the same time, doing a second edit. Then it gets printed out, read by Kevin and then I do a third edit on paper, with those corrections and a fourth edit in Scrivener again.

It’s a fairly paper-intensive process, but I’m pleased with how it’s working out. I feel more excited about writing, and more connected to the physical process of getting ink on to paper. For some reason I find it much easier to edit on paper. There’s something very satisfying about scribbling red ink all over everything.

I also get my hard copies, although they aren’t in nice neat notebooks, which is a shame, but I can still file them away and refer back to them if needed. And when I’m travelling, I can still use my laptop or write longhand in a notebook if I want to. I’m not married to the typewriter, but I do find it a very comfortable and creative way to write.

I will switch to the No. 10 eventually, though I won’t get the time until April to clean it up. I already have new ribbons for it, though, so all I need to do is get some denatured alcohol and find some instructions written for idiots and the time to devote to it, and away I go! And, come the spring, I’ll be taking the typing table apart too, refinishing the top and painting the frame. By summer, I hope to have the perfect set-up, and it amuses me that, after all these years of experimentation, I’m finally settling on a piece of technology that’s 85 years old.

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Why I’m stopping self-publishing

by Suw on December 12, 2014

tl;dr: For those who’ve come from any of the various posts mentioning this one, I do want to be very clear up front: I’m not stopping writing, I’m stopping selling what I’ve written. The mechanics of self-publishing were working against me, so I’ve refocused on writing and connecting with my readers via my newsletter, rather than publishing and promoting. 

This decision has been a long time coming, but as of about now, I am ceasing to self-publish my fiction. I shall continue to make my work available, but I shan’t be self-publishing in the way that most people understand it. There are a few things at play, and I’ll unpick them one by one.

The unholy mess that is VATMOSS

For those of you who haven’t heard, some time ago the EU decided that member countries would earn more in tax if only people selling digital ‘services’ (defined by the EU in the same way normal people would define ‘products’) would just pay tax in the country where that service was bought, rather than the country where the person or corporation selling resided. The is entirely because big companies like Amazon had set themselves up in Luxembourg to take advantage of a ridiculously low VAT rate, thus cheating other countries out of their dues.

I think most people want to see Amazon and other big players pay their fair share of tax, so on the surface of it the new legislation seems fine. But it isn’t. The new VAT law coming into force on Jan 1 also applies to every other person or company selling any digital service (aka product) in Europe. This law is known as VATMOSS after the ‘VAT mini one stop shop’ where you would register to pay your EU VAT.

This law applies globally, not just to people in the EU. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you sell a qualifying service (aka product), you have to register to pay VAT. And if you register to pay VAT on your EU sales, you (may, see below) also have to pay VAT on your UK sales, even if your turnover falls below the current £81k VAT threshold.

There has been an uproar about this amongst sole traders, the self-employed, and tiny businesses, whom HMRC totally ignored as they were drawing up their new VAT implementation. Luckily, there are rumblings that some changes might be on the way that would make it easier for small businesses like mine, such as allowing people to pay VAT only on their EU sales and not on their UK sales. But I have to make a decision before the end of the year: Keep on selling ebooks and deal with the VATMESS, or stop and avoid it.

I earn so little through ebook sales that there’s just no point in me continuing to sell them, as the time, energy and money spent on dealing with VATMOSS would be entirely wasted. There’s just no way that I would earn it back. So before the end of the year I will be removing my ebooks from sale here on Chocolate and Vodka.

Now, I know some people will simply say “Oh, but you can just sell through Amazon and not have to deal with VATMOSS!”, and yes, that’s true. Except I don’t want to sell through Amazon. I don’t like Amazon’s treatment of its employees and contract workers, the way it avoids tax, or the way that it treats the publishing industry in general. That doesn’t mean I’m a Big 5 shill — I believe they need to sort their shit out too. But I have for the last couple of years minimised my interactions with Amazon as much as I can. I’ve not been able to eradicate them completely, but I’ve done what I can to reduce how much money I give them. So no, I shall not be selling my ebooks via Amazon.

And yes, there are other etailers I could sell through, but again, there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done and, given my meagre back catalogue and the fact that I am not producing new works at a fast enough rate, I’m back to finding it not worth the time right now.

Furthermore, selling through a marketplace simply means that you don’t have to register with VATMOSS, it doesn’t mean that you won’t pay VAT. Marketplaces such as Amazon will be responsible for dealing with VAT payments throughout the EU, but that cost will be passed on to the publisher by reducing the percentage of the list price that they earn. Basically, all your digital sales, no matter where you are and no matter what your annual turnover is, are about to take a hit of about 15 to 27 percent for VAT.

This upends the whole purpose of having a VAT threshold: If a UK business turns over less than £81k they should not be be paying VAT at all. This new law means that all suppliers of digital services (products) will now be paying VAT, either through the back door via the marketplaces they use, or paying it upfront through VATMOSS, making a complete mockery of the very concept of a VAT threshold.

I’ll also note that there’s a metric fuckton of other things wrong with VATMOSS which I’m not going to go into here. Just search Twitter for #VATMOSS and you’ll find a bunch of links to informative posts by people more expert than I. It really is a total clusterfuck.

The unholy mess that is self-publishing

Even without VATMOSS, I would be pulling my books offline. I’ve been thinking about doing it for months, I have just been preoccupied with first Ada Lovelace Day, and then with finishing up my online social media strategy course and haven’t had time to sort it out.

I have entirely fallen out of love with self-publishing. I started to get fed up with the verbiage, the self-congratulatory bullshit, the boasting, the ideologues preaching to their choirs, the judgemental cockwombles, and the ridiculous purity tests about a year ago.

Then came this move to the USA and I asked Forbes if I could have some time off from writing for them which they graciously agreed to. And over the last twelve months I have discovered that I rather like not writing about self-publishing. The conversations had become too combative, too politicised, too full of utter fucking shit to be either useful or enjoyable.

I tried to make sensible points in a sensible manner, tried to deflate some of the pockets of hot gas the would regularly blow up, but no one likes common sense. All people seemed to want was a good old bun fight, a nice little argument where they could spout their ideology and then shout at anyone who disagreed with them. I’m not one for arguing with testosterone-fuelled dickweasels, so yeah. Fuck. That. Shit.

And then there are the utterly batshit, arrogant self-published writers who behave like spoilt children denied their pudding. Not all of that bad behaviour was online, though a lot of it was (and is). But I saw it in person. Face to face. For example, the self-published writer with literally no experience of social media telling me that they know how Twitter works better than I do. Seriously. I’m not one to go all ‘Do you know who I fucking am?’ on people, but seriously, I’ve been doing social media for longer than it’s been called social media. If you want to tell me that you know best, you had better have a long fucking career in social media behind you and actual fucking evidence. Not a shitty novel and an ego the size of the Pacific.

I had come to a point of feeling bitterly disillusioned with self-publishing. Even the fact that there are some really wonderful, kind and generous people in self-publishing wasn’t enough to keep me feeling positive. In fact, some of those wonderful people in self-publishing told me that they too were feeling unhappy about how the public discourse was going, and how they were going to stay away from commenting on the more politicised aspects of it, because it had become just too toxic.

So that shit can get fucked and stay fucked.

The unholy mess that is my writing

But even if self-publishing was entirely devoid of the sort of bollockfaced shitnubbins (thank you, Buzzfeed, for that one) that drive me up the fucking wall, even if only delightfully lucid, intelligent, rational, sensible and evidence-driven people self-published, I would still be pulling my books off the internet.

Because self-publishing has stopped me from writing. I didn’t anticipate that particular side-effect. In fact, I had anticipated quite the opposite. I write my best stuff when I know it’s going to be read. I wouldn’t blog if I didn’t know that someone out there would be reading it. (Sorry for all the swearing in this, Aunty Jane, though hopefully you’ve picked up some new invective for use in everyday life.)

I was expecting my self-publishing to be a great new way to motivate me to write more, and instead, it has caused me to write less. I have had issues for a long time with getting my brain to co-operate with this whole writing malarkey. I’ve had years where not been a single idea has raised its head above the parapet. Years and years. And then I’ve had times where I’ve been happily writing daily, a joyous pig in only the very best of shit.

But there’s something about declaiming one’s status as a self-publisher that eats away at the exhilaration of writing, for me, anyway. There’s all that promotion you’re supposed to do, all that expectation attached to sales numbers, all that tedium about metadata. And I know some people love that, or at least put up with it without it harming their writing. Good luck to them. That’s not how it worked for me.

Instead, I found that it had become a form of creative poison. There was almost a sense of dread around the idea of finishing a new story, because if I finished a new story that meant moving on to the noxious phase of self-publishing — all the self-promotional crap that I hate doing, am bad at doing, and don’t want to do.

When you do something you love for a hobby and then try to turn that hobby into a business it can suck all the joy out of that thing that you do. Instead of being something you lie in bed dreaming of doing first thing the next morning, you find yourself thinking of literally anything else except that thing. Your hobby becomes a dry, tasteless, colourless husk of a thing, withered on the vine of your imagination.

I used to lie in bed and lull myself to sleep thinking of stories, of dialogue, of scenes, of characters and their backstories. Now I lull myself to sleep thinking of how I’m going to embroider my next Christmas tree ornament. And there really are only so many ways you can sew a bead or a bit of gold thread on to a circular bit of red linen.

If I’m ever going to write again, I need to reclaim it as something akin to hobby. It’s not, at this point in time or at this point in my life, a business, although that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t jump at any financial opportunities that came my way. But I need to find the joy in writing again, in the process of getting words on to paper, in the editing and the shaping and the polishing. I can do that better if I’m not thinking about what happens to the end product much beyond “…and then some people read it”.

So what am I going to do?

I do still want people to read what I write. I do still want an audience. But I want a smaller audience, a more intimate audience, one that I feel a greater connection to. So I shall be releasing my writing, in full and for free, to the people on my mailing list.

My feeling is that if someone cares enough about my writing to subscribe to my newsletter, then I care about producing the very best writing I can for them to enjoy. I will still put excerpts and some selected pieces in full on my website, as and when I feel like it, but the majority of my writing will go out to my subscribers.

How long this remains my modus operandi depends a lot on whether or not I get into a decent rhythm with my writing. If I can produce more work more regularly, then there’s a chance that I may do the occasional Kickstarter project to produce print books, but I won’t be able to sell ebooks directly at all until (or unless) the VATMESS is sorted out. Or my main business starts turning over more than £81k per year, and I think we all know how likely that is.

The demagogues of self-publishing encourage us to think big, but sometimes big is the wrong way to think. In the end, I felt uncomfortable self-publishing. I felt like I was walking round in clothes that were ten sizes too large. I need something more my size, and I think this small plan will do me nicely for now.

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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.

Add to Cart

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

July 9, 2013

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, [...]

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Argleton and Queen of the May by the numbers

July 5, 2013

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 [...]

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Queen of the May reading at the Brixton Book Jam

July 1, 2013

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 [...]

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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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