Rachel, writing

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

How to write a novel: 2 The Plan

Plans for The Syndrome Diaries

To plan or not to plan? Some writers like to have a detailed road-map while others prefer to wing it. As you can see from the picture on the left, which has various tables and notes I used in the early stages of The Syndrome Diaries, I’m a planner.

I usually plan on several levels before I start writing:

Overview: roughly a third of the way through the book, something significant will happen that really sets the story moving forwards. Roughly two thirds of the way through the book, there’ll be a second major incident that drives the story towards its conclusion. I need to know what these events are so that I can set them up.

Wordage: all my first drafts that I’ve completed have been done with NaNoWriMo, so the next level of planning divides up my 50,000 word target, adding some more detail in terms of scenes and events that need to take place. (NB: this is the first draft: the final version of The Syndrome Diaries is around 95,000 words. Forthcoming blogs on the rewriting process will help to explain why!)

Details that I need to remember: characters’ surnames, timelines to make sure events make chronological sense (that’s the long, wiggly line on the top piece of paper in the picture) and anything that I’m likely to forget. Sometimes I fill in character sheets; I’ve got a full set for the novel I’m about to start work on (drafted 2009), but didn’t use them for The Syndrome Diaries.

Once I start writing, plans will be ignored, rehashed and turned upside-down. My characters will begin to take on a life of their own at between 20,000 and 30,000 words and refuse to do what I’d had in mind for them. But at the outset, I find I can write better if I have some idea of where I might be heading. In the next blog, I’ll tell you more about how I write first drafts.

Do you plan or do you dive in and see where the writing takes you? 

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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?

The bit of marketing that people forget

Do you monitor your blog/twitter/Facebook stats?

It’s vital you know what’s working and what isn’t if you’re going to use your  time on social media productively. I know that this blog is the bit of my platform that sees the most action. That’s why this overdue posting is what I should have been doing instead of hanging out quite so much on Twitter.

This blog has been checked out 72 times this week, and it has 4 new followers, despite me not doing very much. This might be because I visited other blogs (I love visiting blogs!) and commented on them.

I’ve been reading tweets (I love reading tweets!) but failing to contribute. Still, I picked up 3 new followers and tweeted 23 times. I’ve tried to diversify my tweets, although they still have a bit of an academic bias. I suspect academics are  my main category of followers, so maybe that’s not so bad – if you want to know why, here’s my day job.

I posted a few times to my Facebook author page, and got a couple of likes for my 1990 youtube indie disco, but there is tumbleweed rolling across the dancefloor. Now that the page is there, it’s not high maintenance, but it’s rather pointless at the moment as a website can provide all the information and more. I’m hoping it will be home to discussions about the book once it’s published (assuming some people buy it!).

I made no effort at all with LinkedIn, and I still don’t ‘get’ it. In return, it made no effort with me.

Ultimately, none of this matters if there is no book. This week (please imagine a small trumpet fanfare) I finished my final ‘does it all hang together?’ read-through of The Syndrome Diaries, so I can now progress to the next stage: formatting it for Amazon.

Last week I mentioned putting together a sheet I could record stats on. Did I do it? Yes I did! That’s where the numbers above are pulled from. They are (ahem) modest, but useful as a picture of what happens if I slack off. That’s a good reason to turn up the activity this week and see how the figures compare.

Do you monitor your author platform? Is there anything you’ve found that surprised you? And do you ‘get’ LinkedIn?

Not long to go now

I’d love to have an exact launch date for The Syndrome Diaries, but even if I knew the day it will upload to Amazon, the time it takes Amazon to process new e-books varies. So I’ll just have to say I’m aiming for mid-October.

The final edits are going quicker than I expected. I’m adding a little more colour into one of my main characters and also sowing a few more seeds for a twist at the end of the book. I thought I had put enough pointers in for it to make sense, but my beta readers tell me not. The predictability of a plot’s twists and turns are impossible to gauge as the author, so this feedback has been particularly useful.

As far as marketing goes, you might notice the appearance of a Facebook ‘like’ widget over to the right. Yes, I got my author page set up! Now I have to work out what to do with it, and it’s one more thing to keep tabs on and update. I have to admit I have reminders on my organiser/project management app to tweet and to go and read blogs. It’s easy to think of them as luxury activities for spare time, and ticking them off a to-do list gets me out of that mindset. I’d better add a recurring Facebook task.

There seems to have been slightly more activity on my blog, and because I’m now using WordPress for two other projects, I’m getting better at finding my way round. Now I need to start paying attention to the statistics on here: there’s so much interesting and useful information. I think I need to structure it with a weekly report where I collect specific figures, rather than just having a look when I feel like it. That’ll be another app task…

How do you manage your platform and stats without it taking over your life? All tips gratefully received.

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?

 

Question Time

I’m currently reading The Best of Catherine, Caffeinated: Caffeine-Infused Self-Publishing Advice by Catherine Ryan Howard, which is a fascinating insight into Catherine’s experiences of self-publishing Mousetrapped, a book she wrote about her experiences working at Walt Disney World. She describes the process she went through to upload her book, the different e-book channels she used, the sales she made and her income, along with what went wrong. I can thoroughly recommend it if you want some insight from someone normal rather than a “You can make a gazillion megabucks tomorrow” type of guide.

I’m hoping to do something similar to Catherine’s book with this blog although my experiences will differ from hers in that my book is fiction. I thought now would be a good opportunity to ask if there was anything people particularly wanted to know. Obviously sales figures and income generate the most curiosity, and I’m quite happy to dish out details. I’m also going to blog about the publishing process along with any steps I take to spread the word.

My timetable is:

August/September: work on the final edits. I’ve had feedback from 3 beta readers, and notes on half the book from the 4th and final beta reader (she’s still reading it). It’s generally been positive, so the editing I’ve yet to do will be polishing rather than any major rewrites.

September: formatting, pricing, uploading to Amazon. I’ve got some idea of what this involves, but I’m not sure exactly how long it will take. I’m hoping another of Catherine’s books, Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing will help me out here. No, she’s not paying me to put these links up – I just like her books.

October: The launch!

Is there anything particular you’d like to see me blog about during this period? And what do you want to see post-publication? Let me know, and I’ll do my best to post the information you’d like.

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.

Positioning, Polarising and Publishing

Positioning is all about creating an identity for what you’re offering people. It ties in with branding, and also combines lots of other aspects of the marketing mix that I’ve been covering over the last few blogs. Covers and pricing, for example, are central to positioning.

Since I wrote my last blog entry, there have been some major challenges for me regarding the positioning of The Syndrome Diaries.

I read out an extract at my writing group, expecting the usual suggestions of developing some dialogue, making a character’s motives a little clearer, and so on. But half an hour after I’d finished reading, the room was still engaged in a heated debate regarding the behaviour of one of my main characters. This is perfectly justified: what he’s doing is very polarising and different people are bound to respond to it in different ways. But I wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction, and I was worried that I’d upset people by what I’d written (which is something I have to learn to deal with, as a lot of my writing involves controversial subjects).

Although going to writing groups has improved my writing, the difficulty is that I’m only reading out relatively short extracts, so the way that the whole plot hangs together can’t be immediately clear. Some of the feedback was quite tough to deal with because if I were to implement it, the whole novel would fall apart. I was left wondering whether I’d written something that, ultimately, wasn’t worth putting out there without a complete rewrite.

But after a chat with a couple of the group’s members, the issue is more to do with positioning. While another group had labelled the novel as women’s fiction, it isn’t. It’s too edgy. Much as I love Maeve Binchy’s wonderful story-telling, I’m not writing Maeve Binchy feel-good, happy-ending fiction. The character causing the problem is entitled to do just that (and I don’t think there’s any stopping him), but the book cannot be put in a pink, fluffy category. And I don’t think it ever really was; I was quite surprised that the first group thought that was where it fitted, and so much feedback since then has suggested that it doesn’t.

My parents have now read the completed beta version of the novel: this is the version which is as polished as I can make it without other people reading the entire manuscript. They came up with some ideas for improvements which I agree with, but I was quite surprised at how much they thought should stay as it is – including the ending, which I was considering changing. Although they’re my parents and one might expect a bit of daughter-directed bias, my Dad in particular can be very critical although he’s constructive with it. The beta version is going to another two readers who are acquaintances rather than close friends/family; I trust them to come back with quality feedback, and it’ll be interesting to see whether they think the ending is convincing.

The blogs I’ll be writing over the next couple of months will be about the beta feedback and revisions, and then it’s time to self-publish. I’ll also be documenting the steps to get the book on Amazon, as it’ll be the first time I’ve gone through the process. And then I’ll be covering what happens next (i.e. real sales figures, not those headline-generating, exception-to-the-rule numbers).

If you’d like to follow the novel’s progress you can:

  • sign up to receive alerts when I publish a blog here (there’s a button in the column to the right)
  • join my emailing list
  • see more information on my website

It’s a bit early for speeches, but…

While slaving away over Scrivener may seem an isolated affair, getting my novel to publication stage certainly isn’t something I’m doing on my own. The research grant may not stretch to employing editors and cover designers, but I’m hoping the proceeds from novel sales will stretch to a few beers/curries for the people who’ve had some input. The sixth ‘P’ of the marketing mix is people. These are mine:

Dad: proof-reader extraordinaire. Now and again, I get a phone call which begins in a tone of voice that makes me anticipate news of a tragic death. “Rae,” it says. “That blog you’ve just posted? There’s a typo on the fifth line.”

Nivette: encouraging friend. I told my friend Nivette about my work-in-progress about a year ago. “That sounds amazing,” she said. “You are amazing.” I heart Nivette.

Writers Connect Manchester: writers’ group. I was pretty apprehensive about joining a group, but this lot are great, providing constructive criticism not only on what I’ve written but sharing their ideas about its potential market. I haven’t managed to get there for a while (it’s a bit of a trek, and tends to clash with running activities), but they are lovely.

Renegade Writers, Stoke-on-Trent/Newcastle-under-Lyme: writers’ group. Fortunately, this is only a couple of miles down the road, so most Wednesday evenings you’ll find me in The Red Lion with my fellow Renegades. The writers here are generally more experienced and have more publications under their collective belts than the people I’ve met at Manchester, but they’ve never been anything other than encouraging, and have given some fantastic feedback on my writing which I think has improved it considerably.

My Beta Readers: I have several people lined up to read through the almost-ready Beta version of the novel. I know they’re busy people, and I also know they’ll give me some excellent advice for the final polishing before the book gets uploaded. This is going to be the most scary bit of the process. I’ve been working on the novel for nearly two years, but I’m the only one at the moment who knows the whole plot and the way it fits together. I’m just hoping it makes sense.

Someone who will remain anonymous: I’m not going to spill the beans on who this was. I was in a bookshop with this person, flicking through books on the art of novelling, wondering out loud whether to make a purchase. “I don’t know why you’d want that,” said Anon. “You’re never going to finish that novel anyway.” The determination to prove Anon wrong has helped drive the novelling since then!

Who inspires your writing? And does Anon deserve beer and curry in return for providing motivation?

This is the seventh Blog from a series on marketing. The eighth, and final instalment – on positioning – will follow soon!

Judging a Book by its Cover

We’re onto the fifth P of marketing: packaging. For a book, this of course means the cover. In a previous blog on pricing, my sales forecast made it clear that the costs of a professional cover designer would not be recouped. So, it’s up to me.

The important points to remember with my cover design are:

  • What works in a bookshop doesn’t necessarily work online, and I have to design with Amazon in mind
  • The cover that comes up on someone’s screen when browsing Amazon might be tiny
  • If the potential reader is on their Kindle, the photo will be black and white
  • My name is not important because few people have heard of me, and this is my first novel
  • The style I choose will give some indication of genre

When I worked in music publishing, we distributed a self-published book of songs for children by a very popular composer of music for junior schools. The songs were suitable for older junior school children, but the cover art was the composer’s pre-schooler daughter’s work, giving the impression that the content was aimed at very young children. Teachers of older children would ignore it, while teachers of younger children would open it up only to find it was unsuitable for their needs. This shows how important the cover of a book is to convey its content.

Here are some examples of other authors’ covers:

It’s clearly going to be a romcom. This cover also stands out from the other books in a similar genre. It would probably have more appeal to women than men (it’s rather pink), but avoids the teeny-skinny-people-cartoon-and-curly-writing cliché that is the badge of chicklit. I’ve just started reading this: it’s very, very funny, though explicit. The cover has a hint of saucy British postcard about it, and that’s perhaps a clue to what’s inside.

This screams chicklit: pink, girly silhouette. It’s a fabulous book, tackling serious issues in the context of a love story, and it’s both funny and very sad. The cover, to me, makes it look more frivolous than it is. Online, it doesn’t work well: there’s not enough contrast between some of the text and the background, so when I went on Amazon, all I could read was ‘Before’ and the author’s name. My Dad loved it too and thought it was extremely well-written, but he read it because I mentioned it in an earlier blog. I doubt the cover would have caught his attention.

Almost perfect for the web, although some of the text is too small (‘Twenty years, two people’ in particular). This has strong images and has been mentioned by quite a few commentators for its step away from traditional design. I bought this in bookshop quite soon after it was published, having not heard of it. The cover attracted me to the book, and inside the concept and opening scene (University in the 80s, which I caught the back end of) hooked me in. Online, the cover would have grabbed my attention and the sample would have led to me buying the book.

Well, it’s chicklit, I presume. It has a cartoon girl on the front and lots of pink. But I can’t read the title. This is a HarperCollins book – a publisher who can surely afford a decent graphic designer.

Again, a cover marred by illegible text, and it doesn’t appear to be available other than as a download, so the cover needs to be particularly web-friendly. All that catches my eye is the huge bunch of roses. To me, that indicates Englishness, a female protagonist and there’s something melancholic abut the photo, suggesting tragedy. It actually states on the cover that it’s a love story, set in the US, but I couldn’t read that until I went into the product details on Amazon. The tiny writing at the bottom is in an illegible curly font – it’s actually quoting a review, and covers will normally use a very clear font for quotes.

So there are some examples of what works for me and what doesn’t. Translating that into my own cover is a little more challenging; I can see what’s good and not so good in other peoples’ designs, but pulling something together that attracts the kind of readers who would enjoy my book has proved difficult.

I wanted to produce something early on to go on my website and started off with this:

The main problem is the title font. It’s not clear. I wanted it to have a hand-written feel and tried to make it clearer by highlighting it, but it just looks messy. I’m not entirely sure about the photo. I suspect the story has more appeal to women than men; that’s what one of the writers’ groups I took it to thought too. In the other writers’ group, the men seem to be getting into it perhaps more than the women. I’m not sure how much appeal the cover has to women. My husband says he’d pick the book up because as a hot-blooded male he’d be drawn towards an image of the female form, but inside it’s not really his kind of thing (which would be Tom Clancy).

The story hinges around a successful female rock musician (Syndrome is the name of her band) who’s written some diaries, and the cover depicts her. There are some quite dark themes in the book, although there’s also a romance central to the story. It’s written in the style of mainstream fiction – not frivolous, but not heavy-going either. I wanted a female image with a guitar; it’s actually a bass. I found the original image on clipart, and cropped it quite a lot (partly to get rid of the four tuning pegs as a regular guitar would have six). So with a cover budget of zero, there is some compromise!

I’ve subsequently redone the cover, with clearer text.

I’m not entirely convinced by the red, as it looks a bit ‘thriller,’ but having tried different colours, this is what stands out without going monochrome (although I think my name might work better in black and white, as in the previous version). The ‘Kindle image’ is below, and small: the text isn’t as clear as I’d like.

There’s still some time to play with the cover. The best-I-can-make-it version will shortly be going to my beta readers, freeing me up to work on other aspects of the book.

  • What covers have you seen that you thought were particularly good (or bad!)?
  • How would you improve my cover?

This is the 6th blog in a series on marketing.

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