Saturday, 25 July 2020

Splitting into three

Spent the day soul-searching, and went over ground I've already covered. I've spent a few weeks with Becca Symes' YouTube videos (and books, and Patreon, and Write Better Faster Academy), and I didn't necessarily like the conclusions I've reached. So, in order to change what I didn't like, I went through it again. And again. Just to make sure that all the factors still sum up to the number I've reached that first time around.

I've discussed this with several writer and non-writer friends, who helped confirm inklings I've had. I've always had that voice whisper to me, ever since about 2014, when I hit a point that I'd summarise with "And now what?" I pushed it away, and then I got busy with a different book. And then I got that day job that made a lot of those thoughts complete moot.

It's become very clear I'm just not really as much at ease in the genre I'm currently writing. A consultant would use expressions like "not competitive", but for me it's never been about competition. I'm not competing with anybody but myself. I've sadly once or twice come across people in the genre who were determined to "beat me" (on whatever measures I don't know - they were making 5-10x the money I was making even in my heydays), and it's really weird to be a team player when others are obsessed about "beating you". It's like somebody jogging next to you with gritted teeth and clenched fists.

Part of this is that I've just done my 2019/20 taxes for my company. I'm actually financing writing from my day job income at this point. I'm not making a profit. This is the second year running. It's one reason why I'm now translating books into German (and into English) - I make (much) more money translating other writers' words than writing my own. Writing won't get me out of the day job - translating is much more likely to do that.

The way the industry is structured - click farms, ghostwriter stables, "minimum viable product", people unwilling (and sadly often unable) to pay for ebooks - the model I've been running won't work. It's nonsense to believe that if I keep doing what I'm doing, that things will turn around. Meanwhile, I can't (and won't) compromise on the quality.

As Einstein said, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

The only thing left for me to do is to do something else.

1) I'll keep writing the weird m/m books under this name, because I quite frankly enjoy doing it. I'll have to re-jig my expenses in 2020/21 so I stop financing the writing with the day job. I can't afford to do that, quite frankly. I'm not going to schedule any books, though, and I can't promise any specific books at least until I've phased out the day job and freed up some time and energy.

2) I'll translate my existing books into German when there's a hole in my translation schedule.

3) I'm starting up a mainstream pseudonym to write fantasy and science fiction in German and English. The vote is still out whether it'll be a name I've used before or a new one. I'll likely link that name back to "Aleksandr Voinov" so you can find them and read them - they'll just not be explicit romances, though might contain some romantic elements. Or they might just be straight, and "diverse" books. Depends a bit on what happens.

4) I'll go "play". There will be 1-2 names that won't be linked back to this name. It'll be KU exclusive and it'll be just about quickly generating an income by quickly writing a lot of books. I don't expect any of those will be m/m. It's pure "work for hire", "hit the tropes", "don't worry about anything else", writing. That name may do ghostwriting for others (not sure about the rates) or be a co-writer for hire, but the general idea is to quickly build a backlist and earn some cash so I can quit the day job. I have friends who are already doing it coaching me through that process and it's a fun challenge to try. If it fails, I'll just write off the books, and do something else.

It's just clear that I need to break the pattern and do something else. 

Masterful Plot/Character: Warrior Nun

I have been bingeing Warrior Nun on Netflix. My partner wasn't too convinced about trying it, but after one episode he thought it was interesting, and after two episodes he suggested the next evening we should continue it. Somewhere in the middle we were fully invested.

I believe that both good and bad stories can teach us a lot about how to do our books/stories. I'd recommend Warrior Nun as a good example.

The thing I want to talk about specifically is the payoff.

Because, boy, what a payoff.

(Now, if you haven't seen the show and don't want to get spoilered, go, watch it, then come back.)

In some ways, of course it's a YA story and has quite a few cliches, but it's acted with heart and filmed well, the characters are interesting, and it's frankly refreshing to see so many women/girls on screen driving the plot. I was also really into how the debate "science versus religion" was handled, with the "rational people" not nearly fully rational (or even driven by rationality) and the religious people no crusading fanatics by any means. Excellent mix of grey here, no whites and blacks. A worse writer could have completely ruined that, but the mix was compelling.

But what really blew me away was the payoff.

We spend a lot of time in what at first felt like the "debate" beat - the "will she/won't she" moment of "will she accept her destiny or live selfishly etc". Ava has all reasons to not want to become the Warrior Nun - her experiences with religion aren't exactly positive (a nun tried to euthanise her), and quite frankly, she's a teenager and likes cute boys and partying and running along the beach (considering she's been confined to a room all of her her life). It's "faith versus fun". "Self-focus versus "team player". She has good reasons to be selfish, of course, considering she's been on her own from an early age. We also know from the start that she cares about people.

She's rebellious, she's a smart-arse, she questions authority, and very much has her own ideas. She's a tricky customer to have if you're a medieval demon-fighting order of Catholic nuns who know she's the Chosen One. Many think she was chosen by accident, and some decide that her chosen status needs to be taken away so the order can move on and fulfill its purpose. Clearly, somebody who takes her super powers and runs away with the cute boy instead of meekly serving her new purpose is a big fat problem.

Over the course of the last few episodes, we see her "accept her destiny" (though she's doing it very much on her own terms, in part inspired by "Shotgun" Mary). She marries "fun" and "faith" - clearly enjoying the company and friendship of the other nuns, as well as the "mission" to find the tomb of the angel (for reasons).

This is when the big question is answered. Ava (from her perspective) faces the choice to return the "halo" to the trapped angel (who's alive in the tomb). Her compassion for those who are trapped and betrayed (as she was) wars with her dis-belief (the person she sees down there has been alive for a thousand years while trapped in a small cave, so hard to explain that with science), and, from what she knows, he's been betrayed and the halo that gives her super powers is actually rightfully his and will restore him to full angelic power.

On the other hand, she has reason to believe that returning it will kill her or at least return her to her previous state (quadriplegic, no super powers, unable to walk or move or escape that tomb). And how smart to set this in a tomb - these choices always happen in caves, archetypically, with Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader in the cave on Dagobah for the first time.

This is when we realise that any other of the nuns would have given the angel the halo back. They're Christians who've been trained to follow the hierarchy, despite their personal misgivings. Any other halo bearer would have (we get to assume). But not Ava. Her rebelliousness and general mistrust of authority - as well as a well-developed ego - make her go "hang on a minute". Luckily, the halo also gives her access to visions of the actual history.

Turns out, whatever the immortal guy is, he's not an angel.

The whole scene could be taught as part of a master class in writing. The deepest structures of the main character working synergistically with the all-important question of the plot. The big decision of the story is answered in one specific way like only the heroine can. We know she'd give up the halo (at the cost of her life/health/freedom), but her ego and her strength to question what's put before her allow her to pull back from the brink and realise it's not redemption or liberation, but truly the Cave of Death.

We know she's the "Chosen One" because all other nuns would have given up the halo. And other humans simply wouldn't have gotten far enough to get asked the question in the first place, since it took the halo's powers and a super human effort to get there. Or rather - we know she's special. We also know that she appears to be the "Chosen One" to others. On a different level, she's a strong person making the best of a weird situation and retaining her agency against overwhelming odds. It's been some of the most riveting minutes of visual story telling I've seen in a long time.

(The episode then ends with a Major Character Betrayal, and just before a big fight, so it's a nasty cliffhanger, but I'd strongly recommend watching the show for the "scene in the tomb" alone. I've rarely seen it done so well.)

Sunday, 12 July 2020

"Mean Machine" vs "Counterpunch"

I think I keep telling the story - "Mean Machine" is the book I wrote that had the most title changes. Some books have always been called on thing from the start, or maybe there was a working title. Well, "Mean Machine" started as "Untouchable", then became "Counterpunch" when it was published by Storm Moon Press.

When the rights reverted, I knew the book wasn't quite right. Reviewers talked about how the ending was "abrupt", and some felt the book was rushed. No wonder - trying to tell that much story in about 54,000 words was complete nonsense. It's safe to say I've learned some things about plotting since Counterpunch was published first in 2011.

So when the rights came back to me, I was no longer comfortable with the series it was (loosely) set in - besides, I didn't have the rights to the overarching elements in that series and wouldn't have wanted them if my lawyer would have secured them. What needed to go were the "series elements", so I looked into re-building the world, and attacked that problem from multiple angles. It was still going to be somewhat dystopian in tone, but much closer to reality in some ways - plus I extrapolated a "worst case" Brexit, considering how much time and energy I ultimately had to spend on understanding and preparing for that. (That was way before COVID-19 really changed the game completely.) I also researched and thought a lot about criminal justice systems and trends currently going on the UK.

You could say I took research to pretty extreme levels, considering most the stuff only showed up in a few sentences and shaped a lot of stuff that's not even on the page (Nathaniel's whole POV is missing - and he'd think a lot harder about that stuff than Brook would). I also went back hardcore into boxing research - watched fights and read biographies to get into the headspace of people inside the sport (now, there's some very serious dystopia - it's clear that Brook is both exceptional and exceptionally lucky).

I also did a structural analysis of the book and worked out that some very important emotional beats/signposts were completely missing. Luckily, I had about 15k or so of a sequel of sorts that never went anywhere (called "Suckerpunch"). I took both apart, worked out which bits were missing and while I ended up taking very little from the "sequel", I decided to call the "new" version "Suckerpunch" to help readers not get lost about what the book actually is (I didn't want them to think it was still part of the old series). Once I'd found my stride, "Suckerpunch" grew very nicely. I'd had about 50,000 words from the old version and a few thousand from the sequel, but by the time I was done, I had 110,000 words. Arguably, there's a lot more "Suckerpunch" in there than "Counterpunch", but now all the beats/signposts were there and all subplots were properly developed.

THIS is now the story I wanted to tell - and I definitely failed in the first attempt.

"Suckerpunch" then went to the publisher - I worked with a publisher on this because the day job is so intense I knew I wouldn't have the time to promo and look after reviewers etc. What little time I have left at the end of the day I'm pouring into writing, so partnering with a publisher for this one made sense.

The publisher then informed me they'd contracted a different book called "Suckerpunch", so I needed to change the title. My first suggestion was "Southpaw", but during the edits "Mean Machine" moved to the foreground. Brook's defining characteristic isn't that he's a lefty, it's really his ring name. And if you'd think that "Mean Machine" also works when applied to both the sport of boxing and the world the book is set in, you wouldn't go wrong. I then asked for the title change and the various editors and staffers agreed.

Of course, Goodreads still thinks that Mean Machine is the same as "Counterpunch". I've had my struggles with that site over the years, and I've given up fighting back against people who apparently know my books and intentions better than I do. Mean Machine really, really isn't the same. It's more than twice the size and set in a different world, for starters.

And now to a few questions I've been asked.

Will you get paid for the book?  

I've received my pre-order royalties without problems. I'd assume I'll get paid for the rest. And should that change, I have recourse to solutions. So yes, please buy the book either directly at the publisher (I get paid more and a lot more quickly for direct sales) or whichever internet or brick and mortar retailer is best for you.

I see it's published via DSP Editions, so does that mean it's not a romance?

[This contains hints that might constitute a mild spoiler]

A specific scene later in the book violated DSP's policy regarding what content is permissible in "romance", so they asked me if I was all right with it moving under the mainstream label or whether I might be willing to change the book so it could go in under the romance label.

Considering that scene pulls together Brook's whole emotional arch (it's not gratuitous at all), moving it under a mainstream label made more sense. The book still has a HEA and focuses on both Brook's career/development/redemption and his romantic relationship with Nathaniel. It's happy endings all around, I promise. 

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Songs of self-isolation

Since people have been reaching out (thank you!), here's a quick update. As COVID-19 spreads, I've been working from home since 13 March, and my partner followed on 17 March, so we're basically self-isolating, only dashing out of the house for supplies, and we expect that to continue for the foreseeable future. Our hearts go out to everybody who can't work from home or who got laid off or people who are in the "at risk" categories - we're doing what we can to support small businesses and make sure the virus doesn't spread because of us.

Obviously, Salon du Livre in Paris was cancelled, so I didn't get to meet my French/Belgian/Francophone readers - I hope to get to Paris later in the year or, worst case, next year.

Amid dealing with the changed circumstances and reorganizing our days and routines, I've been focused on proofreading Mean Machine (was: Counterpunch, was Suckerpunch, was Southpaw), which is a 110k book and is scheduled, I believe, for June. I've gone through the book about ten times now so the very final pass is ironically the slowest because I'm now pretty blind to the actual text. I should finish tomorrow if I stay disciplined for a few days. I think what really strikes me now is how casually everybody in the book touches - that's probably the biggest cultural shift that we're going through.

On the positive side for me personally, my stress levels are actually way down. I'm an introvert, so skipping the cattle train to and from London, the shoulder-to-shoulder Tube, the busy open-plan office where I share a desk with chatty co-workers and a micromanaging boss just dropped my background stress level by at least 50%. It feels like I can relax, possibly for the first time in five years. Which is ironic in a global pandemic, but there goes. My pension fund got slaughtered, and we'll see how much will be left of the economy on the other side of this, but on the positive side (again), "leftist" or "extreme left" policies such as nationalisation and a universal basic income are now mainstream topics (I'm definitely in favour of UBI and think some things should be run and/or controlled by the state). If I received UBI, for example, I'd be freed up to write more books.

We're dealing with the isolation part by reaching out to friends on Skype and I've even signed up for a roleplaying game (which I haven't had the time for before) played via Roll20. Thank Gods for broadband (yet another basic utility that everybody should have). I've been pondering how to support the wider community - should I do "public writing" on Google Docs or maybe use some online streaming service to read my work? But I'm really not a great reader and I'm not currently writing (I will though, once Mean Machine is all wrapped up). I don't have anything fresh to publish that I could fast-track. Many authors are already offering free books - any contribution from me would just vanish in the masses being offered. Please comment if you have any ideas!

I was thinking to deal with the backlog of work - ie for once attempt to get my inbox to zero, do my tax filing and attack the piles of unread books for research, as well as make solid progress on one of the next books. I have online drawing and writing courses I want to get through. I've already completely reorganised my desk and caught up with the laundry.

I'm hoping you're all safe and sound; be kind to yourselves, take this thing at the speed you can cope with. This, too, shall pass. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Happy New Year!

Boy, it's been a ride.

I'm not sure how useful it is to look back over the whole decade; 34 to 44 is kind of the middle chunk of "adulthood", and the super big changes that seem to be so common didn't happen for me (no children, no major illnesses, no major life crisis). Still, here goes.

In 2010, I managed to jump from "journalist" to "editor" and switched from covering private equity in the DACH region to even weirder financial products: global exchange-traded derivatives. Wrote a few smashing articles (if I dare say so myself) and my first deed at the new day job was literally to call US lawyers and ask them what they made of the Wall Street Act. I'd just bought a house and was deliriously happy about the £5k/pa pay rise that still put me well below London average wage, and there were no benefits and the company was super-toxic with a weekly "name and shame the writer of this headline" culture.

I had a real sense of "growing up" when we moved into our house. I didn't write much that year, but Scorpion happened to me (or rather, I picked that 18k fragment back up and finished it). Finished that year by getting out of that toxic workplace to switch over to my Favourite Job Ever at an investment bank with a massive pay rise, much less stress and a much nicer office. This allowed me to spend money on courses and self-development, which I did. So yeah, 2011 was good, even great, though ended with us all getting fired again. That job gave me a lot of time to write and edit and look at this writing gig seriously, which continued for a few years. I was keeping my head down and focused on writing, meeting good people and other people who proved to be a complete waste of my time and energy, but I did put out a solid amount of work, which was the main investment and payoff. Laid off again from a super boring job in general financial services, and loathing Canary Wharf by that point.

Having dodged unemployment during the actual financial crisis, things caught up with me in mid-2014. Major reorientation; too much time to think, depressed, sleeping a lot, not very productive overall. Hopes I could live off writing. I did work for three months at an insurance magazine in a start-up - main lesson: if a start-up run by a former McKinsey consultant offers you a job, laugh, but not so much that you can't run hard. Miserable three months; holy hell, can office work be awful. Self-published Return on Investment, which did much better than expected - strong sense that self-publishing is the way forward. During ten months of "unemployment", I studied massage in a formalised setting, but worked out I love massage but don't want to ruin my hands/wrists for that kind of pay. Had a seriously mystical experience during massage practice. Finally decided to get Reiki attuned (level 1). Did the NLP Practitioner course after learning TFT and hypnosis. Used my new sharp skillz to get my current job in 2015.

Much of 2015 passed in a blur of work-related stress. Trying very hard to find a new balance between work and life, and failed for 6-10 months, until I slowly clawed back my creativity. 2016 - Witches of London happened when I asked the question, "What should I write and what do I actually know/care about?" and a lingering sense of deep burnout from erotic romance. Decision to let my freak flag fly. That book set me on the path to Asatru and astrology - nothing like writing a book as an offering to a divine entity, and learning astrology so I could work out how Julian thinks (I got things wrong there, but by now I think a lot more like Julian - funny how that works). Got Reiki level 2. Did the NLP Master Practitioner plus hypnosis. Still the question of "What do I want to be when I grow up?", with so many of my former  "dream careers" falling well short of expectations or being actively destructive of things I love and value, though I did work out I love coaching and hypnosis, and am actually great at hypnosis, and people found the coaching valuable.

Life at this point took a majorly spiritual turn; truly a year or two of The Hermit, as I go inside and look at the stuff I find. Meet my coven mates, and finding spiritual people so much more pleasant than my former associations. Deciding to get back into tarot seriously, dabbled in various magickal systems, work out I'm a total intuitive. Past-life regressions and dealing with old karma; conscious decision to "play white"; examined multiple spiritual orders and practices and worked out I'm not a Buddhist but love Buddhism, and occult orders very much aren't for me. Enjoying the writing of weird books, though it's a departure from the easy erotic stuff, though the Brexit referendum is decided and puts a dark cloud over everything.

2017 - getting my stuff back together and refocusing on writing/publishing. Eagle's Shadow gets published, as well as Exile and Shadow's Watching. Mostly I'm busy going through the old backlist, proofing and editing and then re-publishing books while the day job remains intense. I also translate Witches of London into German as a exercise to get my language skills back up and publish that. Part of the language thing is due to the thought that I might have to return to Germany and some translation experience might be good to have, just in case.

2018 - Spiritual questing continues, and I waste too much time following US/UK politics, but in happier news, I re-jig our overall diet towards being more plant-based. Several crises of faith about the day job, but can't seem to find a way out. Reached an agreement to split the rights of co-written books, freeing me to publish some stuff and getting most of my old books back out under the "new" branding after a spit and polish.

2019 - Moonstruck is the last of the old books that don't need major re-writes and gets published in April. Layoffs result in major stress increase at work; months spent trying to work out how to get to part-time lead to nothing. Have multiple job interviews but am not biting. Brexit a major stressor; I'm making more contingency plans in case I can't secure Settled Status. Southpaw (formerly Suckerpunch, formerly Counterpunch, and originally Untouchable) doubles in length and is acquired by Dreamspinner and now called Mean Machine. I waste too much time following US/UK politics. I apply my strong financial background to personal finance and re-jig our finances, putting an actual plan in place to quit the rat race.

Overall, I created a solid body of work and grown tremendously as a person. Financially, I went from really quite precarious to having a solid foundation in place. Struck it lucky multiple times when it came to job changes and salary increases. My partner's been my rock throughout. So glad to have my spiritual and witchy people, and a plan to go forwards. Some of my best experiences in publishing were about working with great voice talent, my foreign-language publishers Triskell and Juno in Italy and France respectively, and my translators, of course. It was great to sign translation deals for French, Italy, and Hungary over those past few years.

I also deeply value my writing friends, editors, cover artists and beta readers - all of those are relationships that happened in those past 10 years and I'm looking forward to taking those with me into the next decade. Some of my happiest times were relating to travel too (Lanzarote, France, Germany, New Zealand especially, though I also went to the US a few times, Russia, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands), and if anything, I want to travel more next year, though places right on the water are really the best for me. And there were so many fun and energising encounters with readers and clients. I'm hoping to make more time for those as well.

I've really only set a few goals, and these will be adjusted and reprioritised as time goes on.
- Write/finish 2-3 books and publish them
- Maintain my overall spiritual practice
- Trim down/optimise possessions
- Contribute a certain amount to investments, pension plans and the mortgage
- Do more coaching work and consultations (writing, astrology, tarot, etc)
- Ignore politics unless I can actually do something about it - it's not like there will be many surprises from here

Just looking back over the past decade, it would have been impossible for me in 2010 to predict or plan for "me" in 2019 - though the seeds were there and the actions were there. I did harvest from work I put in during that time, and the overall trajectory is very much "up". Money, people, writing, spiritual wellbeing are all so much better now.

The one thing I can plan for is financial independence; by 2030 and with current cash flows, I should be able to have quit the day job and do something else. My date for that is 2025. I might work part-time because having a bit of structure helps me.  Maybe the consultation stuff actually pays my bills. It would be great to have found an actual structure/office hours for the stuff I love doing and get paid for it, while I keep writing. I can't tell where the spiritual quest will be leading me.