Rachel, writing

All things novelling-related as I embark on my self-publishing adventure

Archive for the category “novel”

The Nineties, Nirvana and New Model Army

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A recent reviewer of The Syndrome Diaries said the book made her want to go and dig out her Nirvana albums. A mention of an album or a song can dredge up many associations for the reader, so I wanted to talk about putting music in writing, rather than just listening to it while you write.

My central characters in the novel are the same age as me, and the music references in the novel will be familiar to anyone with a bit of a penchant for early 90s indie/alternative. The Wedding Present’s release of a single a month in 1992 crops up, the characters dance to PWEI’s ‘Defcon One,’ New Model Army get several mentions (because they’re still my absolute favourites) and one scene takes place at a Senseless Things gig. That might not seem an obvious choice, but I needed a band who toured at the appropriate timepoint and who played a gig in Leeds. That took some trawling through weblinks, and I thought I’d hit gold with Carter USM, those staples of Student Union discos, until I read the tour schedule and discovered they’d played every single town in the UK except Leeds – it almost looked as if they’d purposefully avoided it to spite me.

Music is fundamental to many people’s identities. For Bourdieu in Distinctions, music preferences are used as cultural capital – a means of displaying status. In Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton develops a theory of subcultural capital which subverts social hierarchies, with particular reference to the dance music scene of the late 80s and early 90s. Reading these books now, the dynamic nature of music and identity is striking. Does classical music still confer social status? I’d argue that memories of Spike Island are, among many of us, more respected (here’s an explanatory link for my Dad).

I found that putting many of these songs on a playlist while I wrote Syndrome helped me get into the writing zone. Other songs were contemporary, but seemed to resonate somehow – Hearts and Minds, by Exit Calm, for example: whether to follow your head or your heart is one of the central themes. Some songs had dual resonances: New Model Army’s Green and Grey is on Thunder and Consolation, which is namechecked early in the novel, but also reminds me of my time as a student in West Yorkshire, the frequent rain, and many a “bus-ride that meanders through the valleys of green and grey” (NMA have associations with nearby Bradford).

Ultimately, the catalogue of music running through the novel may say more about me than any of my characters, but I hope it’ll resonate with at least some of my readers too.

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How to write a novel: 5 Writers’ Groups

There comes a point where, if you’re serious about getting your writing out into the world, you have to let other people see it. The first time I did this, about 10 years ago, was on a writing course. I wasn’t ready for it. I’d written very little, wanted to learn more, but felt compelled to perform. The class format was to write something in maybe 10 or 20 minutes, read it out, and have it critiqued. After a day at work, an evening of word-churning and being bashed back down wasn’t really for me. And so began an avoidance of writing groups.

At the beginning of this year, I knew that had to change. I was well into the editing process with The Syndrome Diaries, and it was time to see what others made of my writing. I made it my New Year’s resolution to join a group.

My first reading was nerve-wracking. I remember getting to the end of the passage, and being met with silence. I thought that I must have written a pile of rubbish and everyone was wondering how to tell me. But then the comments began: helpful, constructive and largely positive. I went home feeling that my writing was OK, and, more importantly, that I could make it better.

Since then, I found a group much closer to home, so I’ve been able to go more regularly than I was able to with the first group. Over time, I’ve come to recognise different styles of feedback and, when comments conflict, I can select which is most useful (which is not necessarily the most flattering!). That in itself is a writing skill.

You can’t please everyone all the time and that can manifest itself rather energetically in a group; this is another lesson I’ve had to learn. One week, Ben’s behaviour in The Syndrome Diaries sparked a particularly heated debate. I wasn’t expecting it and worried that I’d upset others in the group, and that my plot was ‘wrong.’ This is one of the disadvantages of a group: you read extracts, and without the whole, it can be disorientating or appear that someone’s behaviour lacks motives. That’s where your beta readers come in, and that’s the subject of the next instalment of the ‘How to write a novel’ blogs.

But let’s not forget: while a writing group might be your critics, they’re also your champions. Last night, a group member told me she was part way through The Syndrome Diaries, and that she couldn’t put it down. That was the moment when I first realised that the effort I’d put into my writing was now bringing enjoyment to a reader. It’s a moment I’ll always remember, and it’s a moment that I wouldn’t have had without the writers’ group.

Have you joined a writers’ group? Has it helped your writing?

Trying to keep my promises

Earlier this year, I promised I was going to be open about the performance of The Syndrome Diaries once it was published. However, the contract expressly forbids me sharing the content of Amazon sales reports, and I have to respect that if I don’t want to end up in deep legal do-do. I can tell you that I’m about at the point where, when the royalties arrive, I could buy myself a decent lunch here (my favourite café) and probably just about pay for a friend too. The worries I had – no sales at all, or a flurry of derogatory reviews – haven’t materialised.

The book has been available almost a week. People who expressed an interest while I was writing know the book is now available, although I haven’t exactly blitzed the marketing. Word of mouth is a key part of a book’s success, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that somebody out there will like it enough to put some little stars next to it on Amazon to help it on its way.

Reading the experiences of successful self-publishers, my current figures are pretty normal for this stage of the process, so I’m happy. The key to increasing the sales? More books! More writing! So that’s what I’m planning to do.

How to write a novel: 3 The first draft

I’ve found that the best way for me to write a first draft is to join in with NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. During November, Nanoers set themselves the task of writing a 50,000 word novel. The finished item is rough but somewhere in the scramble of words thrown at each day’s target might be the seeds of something special.

When I wrote the first draft of The Syndrome Diaries, it was as a Nanoer during November 2010. I’ve got a pretty good idea of how it went because I joined an online forum and can still access my posts.

On day 1, I was already over my target, and on day 2 even more so, something I attributed to the novel being ‘utter tripe’. I admitted I’d read back what I’d written, despite that being a Nano no-no: reviewing and revising is supposed to come later.

On day 3, I posted this extract:

“I admit I was a little bit in awe. I might have been a bit scared. No, not scared: anxious. I was anxious because there was obviously some reason for her wanting to talk to me, and I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t like turning up to an interview feeling like that. With most people, their agenda would be pretty obvious: sell more copies of their book or record, improve their image in the hope of getting more work, get more bums on seats for their play or film. If they had something unexpected they wanted to get on the record, then I could choose to listen to them, or to try and swing things round to something more word-worthy. I knew this would be different: how can things not be, with that much baggage? But I was not going to be pliable.” 

If you find that a bit clumsy, then you’ll be relieved to know that almost nothing of that passage remains. But the rewrite preserved its intention: to convey my narrator Becky’s worries over a meeting with another main character, India (Becky’s a journalist, India’s a rock musician: they were once best friends but haven’t seen each other since an argument 20 years before). There are sections of the first draft that have survived intact to the final version, but most of it was edited beyond recognition. If you want to read the section where Becky and India meet up, you can do so here.

By the end of day 4 , I’d written nearly 8000 words.

On day 6, I recommended cola to the forum as an ideal toilet cleaner because of its limescale-shifting qualities. I stand by that assertion: why I was discussing it there, I have no idea. It’s certainly not mentioned in the final version of the novel.

On day 7, those on the forum shared their working titles: mine was the same as the final title. This doesn’t usually happen. My next novel will probably be The Illness (working title) or The One Night Stand (working title), and neither has what it takes to go on a book cover. But The Syndrome Diaries has always seemed to generate interest.

By the end of day 9, I was making good progress, although I assessed my efforts as ‘turgid crap.’ Nevertheless, there were hints that the novel-writing magic was starting to happen. I wrote about the characters worming their way into my brain when I should be thinking about other things. And once you start being sucked into the world of your characters, a wonderful sense of flow begins and the novel seems to write itself.

By day 12, the characters were taking on a life of their own and rebelling against my neat plan of what was supposed to happen. And that’s as it should have been.

On day 15, I read through what I’d got. Yes, I know that was against the rules, but my comments are interesting. My draft was heavily plot-biased without any pacing or description. I described it as hurtling down a motorway, rather than meandering through country lanes and enjoying the view. That’s how I draft: the colour and subtlety all comes later.

And on the 21st November, 2010, the first draft – at 50,165 words – was completed. I’ve never finished another NaNoWriMo so far ahead of schedule. Of course, it wasn’t remotely ready for publication (the final version is about 95,000 words). My last post for the year was on December 1st where I reported that I’d started rewriting – and that’s my subject for the next blog.

Do you write drafts fast or slowly? Have you taken part in Nanowrimo? Share your thoughts here!

How to write a novel: 1 The Idea

Perhaps that should be ‘How I write a novel.’ The Syndrome Diaries has been two years in the making, from the first germ of the idea to the edited, polished, proofed and re-proofed manuscript that will soon be going onto Amazon. I thought I’d blog about the process I’ve been through to get it from the ‘aha!’ moment to the finished novel.

The central plot for the novel came to me very quickly while I was out for a run in summer 2010. It started with a question: were there circumstances in which adulterous behaviour might be OK?

You probably have an answer to that in your head right now, and I found myself in a very heated discussion on morals and motivations after reading out an extract at my writers’ group. But the question on its own isn’t  much of a plot. I had to create the circumstances around the temptation to stray, and that led me to introduce a third main character. As my ideas grew shoots and leaves, this third character decided she wanted a starring role, and she pretty much got it – or rather, her diaries did.

So where did all this come from? I have never committed adultery and neither, to my knowledge, has my husband or anyone else I’ve been in a long-term relationship with. It might have been from the many newspaper articles giving statistics on staying faithful. Perhaps it’s simply an age-old human dilemma that most of us hope we’ll never have to deal with.

If you asked me how I got my ideas, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. What I do know is that they come suddenly and they grow rapidly, branching out in sub-plots and detail that I have to start taming into a plan before I can start to write – and that’s the subject of my next blog.

Do you have a method for generating ideas? Or do you have to wait for the muse to strike?

I won! Now for some work…

I finished another draft novel yesterday, hitting the 50,000-word target at Camp NaNoWriMo. Will I do the regular NaNoWriMo in November? Quite probably! Nano is a useful exercise because it forces you to write, write, write and edit later. How many of us have started Chapter One, honed and honed it within an inch of its life, and never got any further? I also find that I’m more productive in my academic work if I’m writing regularly.

So it’s back to work on The Syndrome Diaries. I’ve had feedback from my beta readers who have been wonderfully picky and wonderfully encouraging too (sorry, they’re mine! You can’t have them!). I had specific requests not to change too much, but there are some things that need tweaking, so that will be completed in September.

If you’ve visited this blog before, you might also notice its name-change and some new pages across the top. I’m trying it out as a web presence on the recommendation of several people. I’m also trying to get out more in an online kind of way, which means reading more blogs. There are so many people out there with great blogs, entertaining and full of ideas, and I need to do more visiting. It often seems like an indulgence, but I know that it’s also motivating and creativity-boosting to see what other people are doing.

I need to set up a Facebook page for my novels, and also tweet more. I’ve no intention of doing those ‘Buy my book!’ tweets that make me unfollow people (see my blog on promotion a few weeks back), but I do want to be on people’s radar. It feels slightly dirty confessing to all my platform-building activities, as if I should be striving for my art and letting its quality do the rest, but this is the real world. And I said I’d blog what I was doing.

What do you think is the best way of raising awareness of your work without inviting unfollows and unfriends?

 

One month, one 50,000 word novel

Right now, I’m at CampNanowrimo. It’s a virtual summercamp where campers do just what they’d do in November’s ‘full fat’ version of Nanowrimo: write a 50,000 word novel in a month. The trick is to write, write write: no editing, no rewrites, no tweaking things about (that comes later, before anybody thinks I’m going to clog up Amazon with a raw brain-dump). And, of course, August has one more day than November, so it’s a smidge more relaxing. If you want to join in, visit the website. It’s only just started, there’s a weekend ahead and catching up is still realistic. You can find details of my nanonovel, complete with a short, hardly-edited extract, by searching for Raich on the Campnanowrimo site.

The beta version of The Syndrome Diaries – which started life as a Nanowrimo novel nearly 2 years ago – has been sent off to four readers. I’ve had feedback from two of them and it’s been very positive. These are two people who will be as critical as they need to be, and one of them is a published author who has given some great feedback during the honing I’ve been doing over the last six months. I still have to do some more editing to make sure the book is as good as it can be, but there is no radical reworking involved, and an Autumn release for the ebook looks realistic.

How much is that novel in the window?

We’re onto the second marketing ‘p’: pricing. This is a real challenge for self-publishers, particularly for a first novel. Every week brings news of some phenomenal self-publishing success, and many of us dream of achieving those lofty sales figures – after all, why publish your work unless you want to reach a wide audience? And wouldn’t it be great to be able to afford to give up your day job?

But these are two separate aims: reaching a wide audience depends purely on sales volume while making writing pay depends on a balance of volume and pricing. Which is more important to you, sales volume or income? What costs do you need to cover? You need to take these issues into account before you set your price.

What are your costs?
I’m going to consider costs first because it’s very tempting to spend money that you won’t recoup. We want our books to be as good as they can be, and for some people, this means professional editing and cover design. Before incurring this cost, writers need to think very carefully. Involvement of professionals is likely to result in improved product. However, will professional input increase sales enough to cover its costs? In my case, the answer is probably not. I’m not well-known, I’m reliant on circles of friends and family and word of mouth to generate sales, and if I sell more than a hundred copies, I’ll be delighted. That’ll probably mean a couple of hundred quid income. If hiring a professional designer and editor quadrupled my sales, I still wouldn’t have covered their costs.

So how much should I charge for my e-book?

I’m going to run through some of the strategies, then discuss how they apply to me, a debut novelist planning to publish online. This is quite a long blog, as there are lots of options – I hope you find it useful.

Price penetration involves setting your price low to maximise sales volume. These are the 75p books you see on Amazon. The advantage of this approach is that people are likely to impulse-buy your book and won’t consider it a risky purchase (if it’s a dud, they haven’t lost much). But the disadvantage is that you will compromise your royalties and possibly give a bad impression of your book. Amazon’s royalties system means that selling a 75p e-book will earn you 26p, while selling a £1.49 e-book brings in £1.04. Will you sell four times as many copies at 75p as you will at £1.49? If the answer’s no, you’ll earn more at the higher price, although your sales volume may be smaller. Bear in mind that ‘cheap’ has connotations of low quality: is that what you want for your book? Is your market looking for a bargain, or will they assume that a low price means the book isn’t much good?

Price skimming is where you set the price high initially, gradually reducing it. Publishers take this approach by publishing a hardback at a premium price for hardcore fans, then a cheaper paperback for those willing to wait and unprepared to pay hardback prices. This is not a strategy for the first-time novelist; you need a solid, devoted fan base.

Premium pricing means pricing your book at the top end of a realistic scale. What is the top price that other novels in your genre by unknown writers are selling for? The advantage is that with this approach, you’ll earn a high royalty for each sale but you need to be absolutely sure you’ll deliver on quality, because at a higher price, there is no scope for the typos and grammatical errors that litter many self-publishing debuts. A higher price carries a greater risk for the buyer and so they are more likely to try a sample before buying. If the opening of your book is a work of genius, this could be an advantage. If anything lets it down, you won’t convert the trial to a sale.

Loss leader describes the freebie: this is where you offer your work for free.
My advice is to avoid this. If you give away the results of many hours of hard work, what does that say about the value you place on efforts and your belief in your abilities? Apart from the obvious consequence that you will earn nothing from your hours of effort, you potentially devalue your writing. The exceptions are brief promotions in the hope of word-of-mouth recommendations, or as a way of increasing sales for your other books if you have a larger portfolio.

Psychological pricing refers to that little trick that we’re all familiar with: £1.99 is much more attractive to buyers than £2.01 because people look at the most significant digit of a price. You’re likely to do better at the slightly lower price, and the loss of royalties per sale is tiny.

So what’s the answer?

There isn’t a correct answer. A book is a unique product, and many authors regularly adjust their prices to gauge the effects. But I can rule out some strategies.

Firstly, I need to consider my aims. I don’t have costs to cover, so any income will be pin money. I don’t have any inclination to give up the day job: I’m a postgraduate research student and I love it! However, research grants are well below the average UK salary and some extra income would be extremely useful. This will be my only e-book when it’s published, so I can’t use it to generate interest in my other novels which are very rough drafts at the moment. This rules out loss-leading, at least for the time being.

Although I won’t have a professional editor or designer, I know from experience that my proof-reader (Hi, Dad!) will pick up tiny errors and ambiguities. Members of my writing group are giving me feedback on extracts and I have a couple of beta readers who have promised to give me objective critiques of my final draft. However, it’s possible that my novel won’t be quite as polished as many books from big publishing houses, making me wary of premium pricing. Neither do I have the fan base to try price skimming.

Nevertheless, my novel’s quality will compare well with other e-books on the market. It’s a decent length – around 90,000 words – and is the product of multiple drafts and input from knowledgeable friends and acquaintances. I’m confident that it’s worth more than 75p. While high sales volumes (and they really would have to be spectacular) could attract a publisher, a publishing contract is not on my wish list and maximising my earnings will have more impact on me than maximising sales volume. This points towards a price above Amazon’s 70% threshold, yet the book needs to compete with established writers and traditionally-published best-sellers, suggesting the price should be under £2.50 and possibly under £2.

I haven’t made a final decision, and would be interested to know what other people think (if you’d like a taster of the style and plot, you can find out more here). Are there particular strategies that have worked – or that haven’t worked – for you?

This blog is the third in a series on marketing for writers. Next time: place. What sales channels should you consider? Yes, that online versus print argument again – and more.

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