Rachel, writing

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

Archive for the tag “writing”

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!

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?

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.

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!

The Three Pillars of Promotion

Imagine: your friend has invited you round to her house. She’s having a bit of a get-together, and there’ll be some people there you know, but also lots who you won’t. She answers the door, possibly noting that you’re the only guest who hasn’t brought a bottle, and introduces you to someone you haven’t met before.

“This is Janice,” she says, “We work together.”

“Would you like to buy my book, Janice?” you say. “I’ve got a copy in my bag. It’s on special offer today – only 99p.”

You wouldn’t do that, would you? Few people would… unless they’re on Twitter. And then I unfollow them: end of relationship.

I’m not going to advise you to use Facebook, or Twitter or any other particular social platform; they’ll all come and go. Instead, I’m going to suggest a strategy that applies to whatever medium you use. Here are my three pillars of promotion.

Number One: Be in it for the long term

Relationships take time to grow. I’ve been blogging and posting on threads on various sites for some years now. Although they aren’t writer sites, I’ve found a beta reader, Tweeps and bloggers and  when I publish my novel I know these people will be interested, just as I’m interested in what they’re up to. I’d want them to post a link to their book because I like them as people and so I think I might like their books too, and hopefully they think the same of me. That takes months, if not years, to build.

Number Two: Follow the principle of reciprocity

I’m a research student in psychology, and part of the process of carrying out studies involves getting ethical approval because I have human participants. It’s desirable (though not imperative) that there’s something in it for them; some researchers are able to pay participants for their time, others give them feedback on their results that might help them in some way and others might enter them into a prize draw. I’ve found that if you want to recruit people to do a survey, a box of chocolates on the desk seems to increase the numbers willing to take part, although most of them won’t eat any! The same idea of reciprocity applies in promoting your writing. Writers I follow via Twitter or subscribing to their emails, such as Joanna Penn and Jeff Goins, spend time providing useful information for other writers for free. They’re generous in sharing their discoveries. When they publish a book, I trust that it’ll be of the same quality, and will certainly look at what they’re offering.

Number Three: Deliver on quality

This third point is an amalgamation of the first two. When someone buys your book, it has to be good. This leads to two results: firstly, your reader will be more likely to buy your next book, and secondly, they might recommend it to friends – word of mouth is a form of promotion, but you can only achieve it once you’ve delivered something worth talking about. This is a long-term relationship, where both sides give and take. I’ve read Caitlin Moran’s ‘How to Be a Woman,’ her tweets frequently make me laugh out loud, and when her next book comes out, I’ll be buying it. And here I am, plugging it – if rather explicit feminist hilarity appeals, you might want to check it out.

If you want to sell millions of copies tomorrow, these tips aren’t going to help you do that (but there’s nothing out there that would, and you know that). If, instead of thinking ‘I must promote my new book,’ you thought ‘In five years, I’d like this person to be interested in a book that I haven’t even imagined yet,’ what would be your approach? That’s what creates interest from your market.

This is the fifth blog in a series of eight about marketing.

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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