Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Under the weather

I'm currently on a course of penicillin, which has some interesting effects. Mostly, I'm just really, really tired and unfocused, which means anything more complex than a Twitter conversation or watching football is way out of my mental league. Thankfully, work at work is currently slow.

Writing is even slower, though. I have ideas, but they somehow don't make it onto the page. Any page. There's a co-project I need to tackle, there's my own novel that has been sitting for two weeks, and there's a short contemporary I want to write. Right now, I don't seem to be able to find the emotional grit to push through, so I'm excusing myself with watching football (which was fun, though the last game, Spain versus Portugal, was tense, and way long).

The pills run out over the weekend, so I'm hoping to be back to normal in the next three days. Mostly, I'd be happy just to curl up and sleep. I'm also having weird insatiable appetites for red meat and yoghurt. Right now I could just live off a kilo of beef or lamb mince per day.

High point of the week is tomorrow, when I'm having the fitting appointment for my new bespoke suit at lunch. This time, I went for a three-piece dark blue pinstripe (plus a handful of shirts). It'll replace the grey pinstripe and the very dark grey suit, which by now look a bit scuffed and tired. If I like how it's turned out, I'll get another one a bit further down the line. Then on the weekend I'll have a look for a tie like the one on my avatar. So, yeah, looking forward to that--have been for a couple months, actually.

Anyway. Suit tomorrow. Bring on Thursday. 

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Reader letter - thoughts on success

I'm just quickly updating to share with you a couple sentences from a happy-making reader letter (I shouldreally share more of them, I think they just spread the love and job). I'm always a bit concerned about being seen to brag (personally, I think it's sharing the love and appreciation) or anonymity (so I'm not going to attribute these to anybody but a "Reader").

So, A Reader wrote:

"I find that knowing what I want or need isn't always necessary; if I know it when I see it, I know where to look, and chances are it'll be there again, and again. So it is with your work, all of which I've read and not once come away empty-handed."

Isn't that awesome? Empty-handed is a fantastic expression for that hollow, "I just had too much sugar" feeling I get when I read empty texts (call them texts without soul or energy or art - regardless of the genre). Walking away empty-handed. Perfect. Full-handed isn't really a concept, though. Nourished? I often compare texts with food - feeding our brains and souls and hearts with fiction. Sustaining us during real life events or stresses, allowing a kind of guided tour of the imagination - making a different world if just for a few hours.

But the "not once come away empty-handed"- that means a great deal to me. I always strive to "deliver", to "give" something, and always throw in muy best effort, even though I can never be sure (in fact, it's one of the most torturous doubts), whether I manage to do it. It's awesome when it works. To keep delivering (and satifying "my" readers, even if they did'nt know they'd like it, even if it's totally unexpected to them) - this for me is the yardstick of success.

Thank you, Reader.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Quality versus Quantity

Read a fascinating post by Vacuous Minx yesterday and had some time to mull it over. Just gathering my thoughts here, possibly not completely coherently or convincingly, but I'm mostly thinking out loud, with audience.

Lack of quantity does not equal skill

There's a curious argument that all quickly-written things are necessarily crap. I've seen a great many authors who can't write worth a damn and who labour over their fantasy trilogy for fifteen years. It's still crap, even with the hand-drawn cover, and even though mum said she loved it. Honest.

So, skill level. A hack can slave away for ten years to write their debut, and it's still crap.

An accomplished, skilled author can write a quick book and it's a solid-to-good book. I've seen amazingly talented people crank out a novella in a week. (Personally, if I write a novella in a week, I'm dead for the three weeks after and the Muse sits in the corner and is only good for playing Gears of War, but there are authors who can do this and you won't notice the difference).

Self-editing is even more important for fast authors

Even if some people manage to write a novella in a week (hey, I've done it), self-editing is as vital a skill as editing. In the rush of excitement, things get mixed up - it's almost impossible to stay completely internally consistent if you're doing 10k a day. Worse if you have a co-writer. Then you have two minds that can get muddled in the rush. Pacing is one of those things that are hard to keep track of - at that speed, everything is kind of a blur. There are people that just pile up words and scenes with no regards to whether the story needs it. That "flab" or "fatty tissue", as I call it, needs cutting before the book hits an unsuspecting reader in the brain. But self-editing is a skill. It's hard-won, and many authors never get there at all. Even if you're a decent self-editor, getting a good outside editor on this is extremely important (a good editor can tell you when a chapter stinks, and will).

Publishing fifty shitty stories a year is not a career plan

I could amend this into "publishing twenty mediocre stories a year is not a career plan". Editing takes time. Even brainstorming takes time. I have more ideas than I can ever hope long enough to turn into books. How do I know a story is worth writing at all? I sit on it for a week. (Yes, the time it would take some authors to WRITE the damn thing). If it's still compelling after a week, wakes me up at night, and my life would be poorer without it, I'm likely to have hit gold. Something that speaks to me beyond the flash of "oh, awesome, wouldn't it be cool if..." But usually, I examine the idea for a few days at least. Ideally, I'm examining the idea while I'm wrapping up the current project, so that gives me a few weeks, even months.

So far, my best ideas (just talking of solo published stuff here) were those with staying power. Counterpunch robbed me of my sleep for two months before I did it. Scorpion had a good start (I was on holidays and bored and should have written the other book, the one I've been mulling for more than two years now), after twenty thousand words, it stalled, I was about to give up. Several months later, the idea hit me again, HARDER this time, and I finished. The WWII novel I'm writing? Six months. The OTHER WWII novel? Two years and counting. Dark Soul? Twenty years. These are ideas that electrify me and keep me going. And they take as long as they take. And I think they were worth the wait and didn't actually weaken while my mind wrestled with them. If you fight with an angel, the harder you fight, the stronger they become.

Yes, there is pressure to publish more

I have readers clamouring for sequels/prequels/spin-offs to, in no particular order: The Gorgon Series, Special Forces, Dark Edge of Honor, Lion of Kent, unnamed WIP of 2008 I shared in a forum, Risky Maneuvers, Dark Soul, Scorpion, Counterpunch, Country Mouse. I can write sequels and prequels to all of them, and I might, but I can only write so much, so working through the list may take ten years. Or five.

I used to feel the pressure (I like to keep my readers happy, I do, you guys allow me to overpay my mortgage, too!) - it's moral pressure, and it's fun to be wanted and to have people jump up and down on the internet and swoon all over the writing - but I can't allow it to dictate how many words I write a day.

I can use this to be more disciplined ("people are waiting, so get off your arse and sit down and write!"), but I can't use it to write more per session or not write when I really can't and have no clue. Writing when I'm "written out" or when I really don't feel like it is torture, and writing's supposed to be fun (at least when it's not torture by itself). There's a difference between "motivated to write more often" and "churning out shit so you hit 10k/day". I'm trying very hard to stay on the former side of this. Because I want to give my readers what they want, but I want to give them good quality rather than badly-composed shit I wrote because I felt I had to. The expectation creates a huge obligation - I know they want a good book when they want what they want. They don't just want any book. And my readers? Are a discerning lot. They can tell the difference when (if) I try to pull a quickie. Nothing will do but me at the top of my game, because they will call me out on it. They are keeping me honest. And I'm grateful for it - many authors don't have that kind of back-up and quality control.

(I love you, guys/gals!)

Good writing, like good wine and cheese, takes time

A good parmesan takes time to mature. There are lots of people who are happy with just the fresh milk. And all power to them. There are many readers who can't tell the difference between a first draft that's been comma-checked (and with many publishers in our tiny cottage industry, not even that!) and a well-edited book that's been thought through by the author and then edited to a high standard.

BUT - producing anything "vintage" or "artisan" takes time. Personally, I'd rather read one Erastes book a year that's been painstakingly put together than fifty books by Effluvia Writesalot that are all crap. Yes, there are people who can't tell the difference between the gooey plastic on their pizza and an artisan cheese. There are people who think the gooey plastic stuff IS cheese and they eat so much of it that they wouldn't recognize a good Manchego or Parmesan or Cheddar as cheese if it jumped on their bagel screaming "eat me! I'm cheese, too!" But I don't think they are the majority. And if they are, the people who know their stuff are still enough to make it worthwhile, financially and critically.

Personally, bad prose and a badly edited book feel to me like a cheese-grater on my exposed brain. I can't read it. I can't finish it. And I'll never, ever, buy it (I read samples, a lot of samples, thanks to my Kindle). To me, a badly-made book is like a do-it-yourself lobotomy. Thanks, but no thanks. So to everybody who makes artisan prose - please do not stop, because my sanity needs you. I need you so bad and I will buy everything you do and tell all my friends about you. Please do not throw away your Manchegos and Parmesans to make plastic cheese. Please.

Authors have the right to slow the fuck down

I'm productive. I also like to think that, even if I write fast, I'm a decent writer on the technical level. One of my friends describes me, in the context of our genre, as a critically acclaimed mid-list author (and she's right, which means my reviews are strong, but my sales do not reflect that), but I can't live off writing. I likely never will. I could likely produce (note the word choice) twice as much as I currently do. I've written 500k in 2.5 years, that's 200k a year, or three full-sized novels. Right now, I'd say I'm at about half that, or maybe 60% (I did write Dark Soul in about six months, and change). In the last months, I've slowed down. I'm writing a historical novel, which for me is slow work. I'm weighing options. Scenes. Individual sentences. I'm checking my facts. I'm aiming for 500 words a day - that's about two pages. The WWII novel is 1/3 done, and I'm expecting to finish this in the next 2-3 months. We're talking another 50k here. And editing. Lots of editing and fact-checking and testing, and then query-writing, which is an art that will likely mean a few weeks of work (just writing a half-page letter).

From being incredibly prolific for a few years, I've realized the toll it takes on my life (I did nothing else for years), on my partnership, my health, my sanity. I've written books that I literally cannot remember writing, as I was so desperate to "make my mark". It's led to lazy writing habits, low standards for self-editing, and frankly, I wish I hadn't done it, and I've spent the last 8-10 months just repairing the damage I've done to my craft with that. I've stopped being lazy. I'm working really damned hard on everything I do now. There are books I'm not proud to have written, because I could have done a much better job if I'd thought them through, if I'd actually thought about them while I wrote them. I wish I had. I feel guilty for them. Mortified, even.

Writing more slowly (disciplined and hopefully every day, but slowly), I'm finding the prose I write is more intense, like I'm focusing that "energy" or that "voice" much better. What I write is better. I like to savour a book while I write it. I want to remember to have written it, too. I want to ruminate on it. Let it resonate in my soul. Believe in it. Make it totally real for me - and that just takes time, and growth, and internal and emotional work that cannot be rushed.

I'm at my best when I'm laser-focused, but that focus is tough like hell to maintain, and some days I write a thousand words and am mentally and emotionally exhausted afterwards. Maybe I'm a delicate little flower who's simply not tough enough to write 10k a day. I know authors who can write 5-10k a day and write beautifully and cleanly, or authors who produce the same amount in first draft and then self-edit themselves within an inch of their sanity - nothing I write here is meant to diss you guys, and you know who you are.

I, for one (and I'm just speaking for myself), am better when I'm slow-ish. And "slow-ish" means - two novels a year, which is 0.5 novels more than Stephen King says you should write, if I remember him correctly. I'm more sane, more healthy, more intense, more focused, I have time for my partner and my house and my full-time job and my publisher and for exercise and good food and movies. Small price to pay for being "slow". I am trying to do a short story or novella "in between" to show people I'm alive and working, but I'm never going to rush a piece of writing again. Writing them - really feeling them - is too much fun, and I'm simply a better writer that way.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The social media saturation point

Several weeks ago, I've clearly reached the saturation point when it comes to social media. I like the idea of "circles" - there's the circle of intimate family (hah, small group, that) and friends, the circle of close friends, then casual friends, close contacts, contacts, remote contacts, and, the last circle is "I'm aware they exist". The widest of them all is, of course "total strangers".

Recently, I've lost the will to follow the drama of contacts, remote contacts and total strangers. If we're continuing with the circle idea, I can really expand my awareness only so far. To be blunt: Somebody somewhere on the internet is an asshat. If I go out looking for asshats, that's what I'll find (and usually I only have to look for five minutes, especially on places like Facebook or Goodreads).

The usually pattern for me was to get pointed (or stumble across)  an asshat's asshattery (on a blog, review place, forum) and then work myself in a lather over their asshattery. Needless to say, that really didn't do much for my writing. It either took time away from my current book, or it killed the spark to write. Or it throttled my faith in the genre.

The thing is, if you keep horses, they produce horse shit, not gold - it's not rocket science, but it took me years to understand that. I'm an INFJ - this shit really distresses me. I pick up moods well before most others do (yep, that would make me a good financial investor, if I could be bothered to crunch the numbers more often). I'm the canary in the coal mine. I feel this shit like a dog feels an earthquake before the glasses start shaking in the cabinet.

Well, this particular canary has now found a way to move the cage OUT of the coal mine. Because those places are fucking dangerous, with all the gas leaking out and killing *me* first. This includes, BTW, not following Google alerts. Boy, the stuff I've read when following those search terms (my name, usually) and all the pirated copies. All the nastiness. Gone. Done.

There were times when Goodreads was my second home on the net. I do respond to comments and every now and then sweep in to check reviews of my current releases, but I used to start threads and posted there a lot. A LOT. I had a lot of friendly contact there. I also had a lot of less-friendly contact there. I thought leaving behind the trans*-baiting and trans*-phobic Goodreads M/M Romance group was a good start (for the record, I don't say every member is a transphobe, but the moderators' attitudes are pretty clear on that count).

Maybe it's the perception that Goodreads is "for readers only and authors SHUT UP!" that's quite annoying and aggressively pushed by pretty militant readers who resent authors in general and on principle. I've been bitchslapped on there several times too often, and frankly now can't be bothered to make a large contribution. Firstly, I don't have the time, secondly, it detracts from my writing. In terms of Goodreads, I'm saturated. I'll still check in, but only because I have friends on there and for professional reasons. Answer emails and questions, and leave discussions well alone before a reader tells me again to "get the fuck lost".

Then review blogs. I frankly only read those of a few friends - unless published by one of the places I wouldn't visit if it was the last blog on earth. That's it.

And that's plenty for me. I'm still just one tweet away, and I respond to personal emails, and do everything else according to ability and free time. But the times when I let any of this nonsense take away from my writing (or editing, or exercise, or overall joy in life) are over. It's not my drama. The people driving the drama are doing a splendid job on their own, nobody really needs my help.

I'll be over here, writing.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

One third done, two more to go

I have a vague idea that I'm one-third done with the WWII novel. The last weeks, I've added a couple words here and there, never really hitting a glorious stretch of say, 1,700 or 2,500 words or even more. It's very much a book that gets written paragraph by paragraph rather than scene by scene or even chapter by chapter.

In total, it's past the 23k mark now, and I'm doing my best to hit 500 words per day on it. (For me, that's a laughable rate of productivity - I'd normally shoot for twice that at least in mid-project.) I'm getting the sense it's 60-70k, so we're looking at a novel (if it weren't, it would be a hydrocephalus of a novella). At 500 words/day, I'm aiming to get this done in the next 3-4 months, hopefully 3 months, because I'll be wanting to write the OTHER WWII novel when I'm going on my writing retreat.

In other news, I've finished editing and rewriting the sci-fi novella. My editor at Riptide, Kristen, made me rewrite around 20% of it, which for me is a pretty high percentage. (It's something I need to keep an eye on. Either my self-edit sucked or I have become a lazy bastard - or both.) But it's turned back in now. I'm now expecting back the WWII short story.

And I keep thinking how much more saner and balanced I feel since detangling myself a bit from the internet. I love my readers and other authors, and I still hang out with them a lot, but I've stopped getting myself involved in whatever the drama of the day is. I've learned some lessons in that regard for sure, and at the end of the day, I need to focus on both my writing and on Riptide, and drama simply takes up too much of my headspace. (And it's getting crowded in that head, with all those stories jostling around.)

There are still assholes out there, and people who crave stirring up shit and act out their frustrations or their cynicism, but I'm not letting these people kill my writing or my productivity. The proof of any author in the writing. And every reader is entitled to their response to that writing, but the author is also entitled to his or her own personal space and to ignore reviews, for example, or whatever is the drama of the day. We all have the right to live in our own bubble and ignore what is getting us down or pisses us off. Since I've stopped reading a number of blogs, I feel more balanced. Since I'm no longer spending two hours a day on Goodreads, I actually feel a whole lot saner.

Above all, I have a book to write that's taking most of my remaining headspace, so yes, I'm currently quieter, but I'm actually liking it - I can only see my reflection in the pool when the water is quiet. I'm still around to goof off on Twitter, and email, and working a lot behind the scenes at Riptide. But yeah, the WWII novel has just passed the one-third mark. I think it's getting somewhere now. Certainly, now with all my pieces in place, I can kick off the secondary plot.

And maybe after that, I'll write something short and quick on French r├ęsistants. The time is just rife with possibility.