Rachel, writing

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

Archive for the tag “culture”

The rise of the introvert

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There seems to have been a lot of talk of introverts recently, with books extolling our virtues making best-seller lists. Like many writers, I generally prefer my own company to that of others. I like to meet up with people, but after an hour or so, begin to feel drained.

We’re still often seen as needing help, or viewed negatively. One friend said she considered introverts by definition to be selfish – but isn’t needing other people to be around you more selfish? We seem to be seen as problematic because we don’t fit the majority view of what’s desirable.  I’ve realised that I tick a lot of boxes for schizoid personality disorder simply by being an introvert, which is something that therapists think should be ‘fixed’ (no, I don’t need fixing. I’m not broken). I’m not sure whether this is lack of understanding or an urge to pathologise for profit’s sake.

I’m quite capable of social interaction when required. I’m not shy. I’m not desperate to belong or be accepted. My instant reaction when receiving social invitations is ‘How can I wriggle out of this without seeming rude?’ A couple of hours with a friend? No problem. An evening with a crowd? No thanks. But if I need to mingle, I can do so perfectly competently – with some effort, I have to admit.

As Anneli Rufus observes in Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, introversion is regularly associated with crime. Serial killers are often described as ‘loners,’ but this may be misguided: they are more likely to be outcasts, who want to join in but are rejected. Introverts are quite happy on their own, thank you very much. To add some balance, here’s a youtube thingy of Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun who’s had several TV series in the UK on art appreciation. I heard her interviewed on the radio over Christmas for Desert Island Discs,  and she figured the only thing she’d miss on a desert island was attending Mass – other than that, the isolation would be a huge positive for her. Someone once said to her that she was the only person he knew who was perfectly happy without other people – “And it wasn’t a compliment,” she said.

Reading Rufus’ book has made me question my preferences. Why do I love my evenings at my writers’ group? (Because you can sit and listen, in your own little world, and there’s no pressure to make polite conversation). Why do I enjoy running in a group? (Because you can trot along, in your own little world, and nobody’s capable of non-stop talking because they need the breath) Why am I unfazed by public speaking, or leading an exercise class, but freeze when asked to play piano to an audience? (I really have no idea. Any suggestions?)

As far as writing goes, introversion is probably an advantage: it’s quite an isolated activity. It’s also possibly the reason that so many of my characters are relative introverts too. I can relate to them. I found writing India’s dialogue and diary entries in The Syndrome Diaries the most challenging part of the novel, as her extroversion was quite alien to the way I am.

Do you identify more as an introvert or extrovert? Do you think it affects the way you write – in terms of your writing activity, or the content?

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.

“It’s not very girly, is it?”

About 18 months ago, I went to an Interpol gig. The audience was predominantly male, and a couple of guys there commented to me that Interpol wasn’t particularly ‘girly’ music. ‘Girly’ music, apparently, means James Blunt.

Now, music is an integral part of The Syndrome Diaries, my current work-in-progress. The main characters’ lives are heavily coloured by music in various ways, and references to songs appear through the novel as an important element of scene-setting and to provide shared culture to reinforce relationships.

The novel is probably best described as mainstream women’s fiction, yet when I’ve read passages out to writers’ groups, there’s been an instant, strong response from the men to the music references (which are more Interpol than James Blunt).

Some informal research in a music psychology class I was co-teaching demonstrated how difficult it can be to ascribe lists of favourite pieces of music to one sex or the other. Another of my research projects suggested that middle-aged women are often partial to heavy metal music when they work out at the gym, yet they probably wouldn’t be considered the target market for that style.

So, is there really such a thing as ‘girls’ music’ and ‘boys’ music’? And, if so, should I compel my heroine to listen to James Blunt? She’s really more an Interpol kind of person. Do I risk alienating readers with the wrong music?

How Can I Find Time to Write?

For most writers, writing is something that has to be done alongside work and family commitments, and finding time can be challenging. It’s too easy for the evening to draw in towards bedtime without having written anything creative that day.

I’m lucky because my time is more flexible than many people’s, but my writing is still juggled with a PhD and accompanying career-development activities, running and gym visits, plus regular trips to Germany to see my husband who’s working there (my work patterns fit around Ryanair schedules better than his do). There’s a huge temptation to put things off until a never-arriving tomorrow.

I’ve managed to pass the 80,000 word hurdle on my novel, so it seemed appropriate to reflect on how I’ve done it. It’s taken a year and a half in total, including an initial rough draft, honing, editing and rewriting. While it is possible to write a lot of basic draft material very quickly, the same can’t be said for well-crafted, quality writing that I’d be happy to put in front of other people. It’s been a case of doing a little most days – I’d love to say every day, but I can’t! Some days writing isn’t a viable activity, while other days I seem to have a block. When that happens, I’ve found the best plan is to change tack and read the novel, from the beginning, using a print-out or an iPod. Every reading reveals more opportunities for improvement, and the time isn’t wasted. Instead, I start spotting the inconsistencies that could only be achieved if my protagonist had four arms, a doppelganger and an Imelda Marcos shoe collection in her pocket.

When it comes to getting the novel written – and all the other daily tasks too – I confess I’m an app fiend. Here are my favourites:

  • Day Planner: divide your day into blocks, with alarms if you like, and allocate tasks accordingly. Colour-code! Add pictures! This might sound a bit of a time-waster, but an initial investment reaps rewards. I always know what I shouldbe doing…
  • Firetask:project management using in-trays, today lists and all kinds of other fun gadgetry. I have tasks on daily and weekly repeat, and currently there are 17 projects on there, ranging from PhD experiments to improving general quality of life, and including novelling. If you ever forget vital tasks as your mind is on something else, this app is perfect.
  • My Writing Spot: a useful app to make sure you never lose a writing project, and handy for reading your work on an iPod. It’s not so great as an editing tool for anything more than small tweaks and correcting typos, but once you’ve synced the app with your latest updates, you don’t need internet access to read your novel – very handy for airport queues!

Allocating time to writing has been central to getting this far. Sometimes I feel guilty dropping another project in favour of novelling, but a ‘write some novel’ alarm seems to counteract that. If the writing alarm goes off, I feel guilty if I don’t get stuck in. But a novel is not just about getting the words down on the page; it’s also about feeling their effect, understanding them, playing with them and bending them to my will. When, reading through my novel, I find that time slips by and I become engrossed, I know it’s coming together.

Writers’ Groups: Stepping outside the comfort zone

In her 1934 classic, ‘Becoming a Writer’, Dorothea Brande suggests that writers should cultivate ‘two persons’ within themselves: one should be practical and objective, the other sensitive and creative. We are often so caught up with the latter as we write that the pragmatist side – which is far more use for getting our work improved and noticed – is neglected.

One way of addressing that is to join a writers’ group. It’s tempting to hone, edit and generally tweak writing around for years, but constructive feedback from a critical audience is vital to help make the finished work as good as it can be. More fundamentally, if you are serious about getting your writing read by others, you need to be used to negative as well as positive feedback. You can’t be to everyone’s taste, however good a writer you are.

I admit that my instinct has always been to go it alone (I still have the school report from when I was 9, which said I preferred my own ideas to those of others, and never was a truer word spoken…). I’d lasted a couple of weeks on a 10-week creative writing course some years back, largely because it felt like being back at school; disciplined, rigorous and, as a newbie writer, I struggled to engage with the highly critical environment (or, to be more accurate, the highly critical tutor). Ever since then, I’ve avoided anything combining writing and groups, but my New Year’s Resolution was to start going outside my comfort zone, and the writing group had to be done. I went online to the Meetup website, found this group http://www.meetup.com/Writers-Connect-Manchester/ and went along to a meeting.

It wasn’t like school. We sat in easy chairs in Costa, and I wasn’t the only first-timer, and nor was I the only one worrying about what might be coming next. We started off with a writing exercise, then went round the group, reading out our efforts. Mine was OK – some of the writing was better than mine, but I still felt I could hold my own. We critiqued another member’s poem (rather good, and written in her second language). I came away wondering how a prepared extract of my writing would fare. The next meeting, I took a few pages of my novel along.

Altogether, I had four pages of writing. I thought it might be a little long, but at the end of the first page, they were happy for me to keep going, so I did. As I finished the last sentence, there was a long silence. That was the worst moment: I wondered if I was about to be taken down a few pegs and put firmly in my place as a beginner. But that wasn’t the case. I think it may just have been that general reluctance we often have to be the first one to speak, and once we started discussing the passage, I got some really helpful feedback on adding some detail and taking a little away. We talked about the kind of market it would appeal to – perhaps a little narrower than I’d first hoped, but realistic, and, as I said earlier, you aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. There were some positive comments too, regarding the way I’d used the characters to create a sense of awkwardness. It’s one thing to feel a particular mood as you write a scene, but quite another thing to be sure that others can also sense the same atmosphere, so feedback was important here.

I came home feeling pleased I’d had the guts to have my work dissected, and still more pleased that it had generated such useful critiques. I revised the passage, and you can read it here http://www.rachelhallettwriter.co.uk/page_2629079.html. Stepping outside your comfort zone is easily avoided, but once you’ve done it, you see the rewards. I’m trying to more of it in everyday life – to say yes when my instinct is to say “Aaargh!”, and I’m having a lot of fun.

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