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.