Thursday 28 June 2012

The Challenge - 52 Short Stories in a Year

Recently I read this blog post by Dean Wesley Smith on how it was possible to earn a living writing short fiction.  Until then I had never heard of Dean, but it seems he's a pretty well-respected speculative fiction writer with a huge number of credits to his name, both traditionally published and indie-published.

His blog caused a huge backlash, particularly on Kindleboards, with numerous indie-writers churning out several thousand words arguing whether he was right or wrong.  I've never been a big one for forums (to be honest, the less time I spend on forums the better – while they can be a great place to learn and make friends they can also suck valuable hours out of a busy day) so I ducked out of that conversation early in order to try to find out for myself.

I know for a fact that you can make good money selling short stories to magazines.  Twice I've cashed checks for well over a hundred dollars for short stories I’ve sold, and of course the possibilities of indie-publishing are infinite.

For me, the biggest problem has always been the work ethic.  I know I can write – I have eight novels, eighty-odd short stories and perhaps twice as much unfinished work sitting on my hard-drive.  I’ve just never been that prolific.  I've never written more than one novel in a year and perhaps 20 short stories in a year is my best effort.

There are many examples from history of writers who've experienced huge success on the back of one book, some even on one short story.  Those people, while highly skilled, had huge elements of luck behind them, as well as the old case of right place, right time.  I've read wonderful books by writers who died unknown, so just writing a good book is not enough.  For the vast majority of us mortals, a high rate of productivity is the key to getting noticed and gradually becoming successful.  I have been trying to sell my writing for fifteen years, so if it takes a few more before I make any money out of it then so be it.

So for me, taking up the challenge of trying to write 52 short stories in a year is more about giving myself a reason to write than trying to prove anyone else right or wrong.  What I am going to do, though, is attempt to sell them.  The good ones at least.

In Dean's post he's very strict on sales channels and pricing.  He says to submit only to magazines offering 5c/word, which is considered by the SFWA to be a professional payment level.  These magazines are very hard to crack (believe me, I've been trying), so I'm going to lower my standards just a little to 3c/word.  I sold to Weird Tales at 3/c a word in 2008 and made a perfectly acceptable amount.  However, I'm done with token payment and for-the-luv markets.  Sorry guys, I ran with you for a while, but with Amazon around now those $5 payments are not worth the months of subbing and waiting for a response.

As for the big gun itself, Amazon, I'll be indie-publishing short stories there if I feel they meet my own standards.  Another writer has set up a website called 52 Shades of Short Stories for writers like me who are taking up the challenge.  I'll be following it closely, mostly as a motivator.  However, I won't be rushing to publish on Amazon and would advise others against it.  I have fifty short stories I could put on Amazon tomorrow, but the reason I haven't is because I don't think they're good enough.  Unless I feel that a story is good enough to make a reader want to read my other stories or novels then it'll stay in the logbook for now.  Perhaps if I put out a few anthologies I'll slip a few of these stories in, but within the limits of my own ability I have pretty high standards.  It's the same reason most of my novels will never see the light of day.

As for Amazon pricing, Dean Wesley Smith recommends a minimum of $2.99 for a short story.  In principle I agree with him, however, I don't have a following or a name or even any major credits.  In short, I'm an unknown.  Since my first short story went up on Amazon in January, I've squeezed out 98 total sales.  Perhaps 30 of those are to friends/family, but even 68 sales to strangers is hardly setting the world alight.  My novel, The Tube Riders, will be staying at $4.99 for the time being, but the short stories will move up and down, looking for their best price point.  I don't like selling stories at .99c, but it's better than selling nothing at all.

So, to the challenge.  I sat down on Thursday, 21st of June to start.  So far, this is what I've written –

              The Ship (short story) – 3850 words (finished)
              Take Me Back With You (short story) – 2500 words (WIP)
              Take me Back with You (novel version of the ss) –2300 words (WIP)
              The Lost Train (short story) – 3400 words (WIP)

                            Total – 12050 total words, one completed work.

Not bad for a week, considering some days I'm out of the house for fourteen hours.

I'll be posting regular updates along the way, to see if I can keep up my progress.  My target is 52 new, completed short stories of at least 2000 words by June 21st, 2013.  Anything else that I come up with is a bonus.

Wish me luck.  It's probably going to break my back, but to be honest it's about time I pulled my finger out and got down to business.  I've been flattering myself that I'm a future bestselling author for the last 15 years, so now it's time to start proving it.


Monday 18 June 2012

My latest marketing attempt - Tube Riders in three parts

It was on my original list of marketing possibilities, but I've finally got around to trying it.  Tube Riders is now available in three parts, London, Bristol, and Cornwall.  You can see the covers below.  I used the same photograph and just changed the colour tint.  Its not the best, I know, but I did it with the express purpose of giving away part one for free.  I did that last week, and got some 330 downloads.  I've since sold six copies of the books, two of each version.  It's not much, but its a start.

Did I like doing this?  Not really.  In some senses I feel it's cheating the reader, because, while the novel does split neatly into three parts, they are part of the same novel.  However, there are dozens of indies out there who claim to have a 'trilogy' when each novel is barely the same length of one of these parts.  I wrote Tube Riders with an eye on getting professionally published, not as a marketing ploy.  However, I'm making almost no sales and I'm getting almost no exposure, when far, far worse writers are making a living.  I'm no Dickens but just from what I've read of other indies I'd say with all modesty I'm easily in the top 10%.  I glanced at a Look Inside section of a novel of a guy constantly whining on the KDP forums about not making any sales, and he had a simple spelling error in his first sentence.  I mean, come on.

I don't want to cheat anyone, and I want to offer the best product that I can.  But I really want Tube Riders (and my other novels) to sell, because, compared to so much of the other self-published stuff I've seen, they deserve to.


Thursday 7 June 2012

Sado Island

Our passenger ferry

We began our journey at the small port town of Naoetsu on the Sea of Japan in Niigata Prefecture.  Apart from ferries to Sado, Naoetsu is famous for a wonderfully cheap but pretty interesting aquarium, a MacDonalds and some rather dirty beaches. 

Ferry travel J-style - no seats!  2nd Class passengers sit in carpeted rooms.
Most people just go to sleep or watch TV.

The journey to Sado takes 2 hours 40 minutes by regular ferry, and costs about 4000 yen per person (cars cost a fair bit more).  A hydrofoil goes from Niigata City, further up the coast, and takes just 40 minutes to make the crossing.

The coast of the mainland receding behind us.

We were accompanied on our journey by a large number of hungry sea birds.

There are a lot of things you're not allowed to do on the ferries,
including punching the staff or breaking the furniture.

When we arrived on the island the weather had closed in, so we headed for a nearby tourist attraction to get a bit of shelter.  The place we went to played on Sado's gold mining history, but was unfortunately a shameless tourist trap.  We paid 700 yen for thirty minutes of sifting through sand looking for tiny pieces of gold, which if we found any (I didn't) we had to pay an extra 500 yen to have them mounted in a little credit card sized pouch.

The place must make a fortune.

By the time we'd finished panning for gold we were getting a little hungry.  The only food available at the gold panning place was a little ramen stand outside.  We proceeded to have the worst ramen I've ever had in my life.  Usually you get a piece of pork in there, but as you can see from the picture below they used processed ham instead.  There was some slimy seaweed stuff in there, too, along with the bland tasting noodles.  Apparently it was "Sado-style" ramen.  It's a wonder they don't all starve to death.

So bad it was good.  Actually, it wasn't, it was terrible.

Afterwards we headed back to the port town of Ogi, where we had some proper lunch.  By this time the rain was incessant, so we decided that since we were soaking wet already we might as well go and take a hot spring bath.  Up on the hill behind Ogi was Ogi Onsen, which some nice views of the harbour.

Lunch was pork cutlets back at the port - very delicious

The area of the island we were in.

Ogi back streets.

Ogi is a sleepy little town which is only really famous for the Earth Celebration, an  annual drumming festival performed by the Kodo, a world famous taiko drumming group who live near the village and tour the world for large parts of each year.

A pretty shrine in Ogi.

A view of Ogi port from Ogi Onsen.

A taribune boat (a model, obviously).

The other thing Ogi is famous for is 'taribune', small, round bottom boats that are rowed by women in traditional dress.  You can get rides near the port for 500 yen but since it was pouring with rain we didn't bother.  I'm not quite sure why the town is famous for them - they seem to be utterly impractical in every way.

So we headed back.  On the return journey we had first class reclining seats, which made things much more pleasant, even if the sea was a bit choppy and the boat was making some horrible grinding noises that made me think it was falling apart.  All in all, an interesting day out!


Friday 1 June 2012

On "head-hopping" and listening to writing advice

I've recently been giving a polishing edit to the second novel of mine that I intend to self-publish, a stand-alone ghost story set in a small village in Devon, England, called The Man Who Built the World.  This was the fifth novel I wrote, and actually dates back to 2003.

This one is going to be my first cover as
it's my favorite!

Back then I was significantly more prolific than now, but while my writing was sometimes inspired, with some of my best stories dating from that period (and in fact, the plot in TMWBTW is one of my most inventive) I was raw and knew very little about the mechanics of writing.  This was in part because in British school they didn't teach grammar (at least in mine they didn't - I sucked at French because the teacher kept on about tense names and I didn't even know their equivalents in English) and part because for me writing was a natural process, one I didn't think about, I just did it.

For the last nine years I have been an English language teacher, teaching grammar at a variety of levels to first Spanish, then Italian, and now Japanese students.

I know my way around my tenses now, that's for sure.

However, over the same period, pretty much since I've had a decent internet connection, I've been learning about storytelling skills.

I take all the things I read about with a pinch of salt, because in general I trust my own judgement and am pretty confident in my skill to create a well-written story.  I'm no genius, but I've read a lot worse.

However, I do seem to read a lot more about what you shouldn't do than what you should.  And one of those things I've read about a lot of times is what is known as "head-hopping".

In short, this is when you change viewpoint from one character to another in the middle of a scene, in a worst case scenario bouncing your viewpoint back and forth like the proverbial yo-yo.

And in general, it is considered a big no-no.

If you google "head-hopping", you come up with lots of sites telling you not to do it.  In fact, I couldn't find a single one telling me it was okay.

Now, just to clarify, as a general rule, I don't do it.  In my novel, The Tube Riders, I took great care to make sure I didn't do it, with each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character, or if not, with a hash-break in the text to make it clear where changes in viewpoint occurred.

However, when I came to go back over The Man Who Built the World, I found a couple of sections where I had head-hopped a little, in particular the scenes containing the sisters, Elaina and Liana Meredith. Everything I had ever read told me it was a bad idea, but then I realised that due to the nature of their connection (the story is what gets called "paranormal" these days, so its not just a regular flesh and blood connection) it made for an interesting concept to have the viewpoint in the scenes they share together shift from one to the other (not literally mid-sentence, of course, but every few paragraphs).  Convention tells me not to do it, but I don't like to listen to convention.  Convention is for writers who don't have enough spark in their writing and instead have to rely on stylistic correctness in order to convey their message.

Personally, I like the unconventional.  No one who ever read House of Leaves could ever call it conventional, but it's one hell of a book.  Of course, a lot of people do it poorly, but I think there comes a time when any writer who wants to have his or her own voice needs to just can the rule book once and for all.  As long as you trust your judgement, you'll be okay.  I, for one, hate passive verbs and info dumps.  However, something I do love to do is switch from past to present tense midway through a scene.  Okay, so it only happens once in TMWBTW, when Matt is basically going insane, and I think I pull it off pretty well -

(possible spoiler alert!)

Come here, Matty.’ Her voice was like the sound of tatty newspaper, caught on a fence and flapping about in the wind. ‘Come give Mummy hugs.’
Mummy?’ Eyes filled with tears as his head swung up. He turned towards the window, refusing to look at the shape hunched to his left, an amorphous smudge at the edge of his vision.
Come give Mummy hugs, Matty.’
He saw the shape of his own reflection, a black silhouette sat in a black room against a black background, saw the shapes of the things around him, the walls, the door the bed, the – what the hell is that? – all outlined in black. The lines wavered as though alive, a writhing nest of snakes made from shadow, shifting in and out of focus.
And then he sees a shadow deeper than night beside him, hunched and irregular, not man-shaped, not woman-shaped not shaped
he sees his own mouth form slurred words
- come give Mummy hugs, Matty
hears tissue paper rustling in his throat
feels arms fall around his shoulders
(no no rag and bone)
cold like dead tree bark
but can no longer see
can’t see
see –
Come to Mummy, Matty –’
From out there in the darkness, out beyond the window and the amorphous shapes and the blurred vision and the twisted limbs, out there in the darkness where the rain sheets and the wind roars, the crashing, rolling, cacophony of the fighting, colliding tree limbs form words and call his name –
Matty –

(this might all get edited out in the final draft, of course!)

Okay, shameless plug over.  Writing like this, for better or worse, is not something I plan.  It's something that just comes out when I'm in the grip of the story.  It might work, it might not (I'll leave that up to the reader to decide).  But I think it is important for a writer to tell their story in the way they want it to be told.

Certain styles will irritate people.  Endless info dumping is boring, however the first 80 pages of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is pretty much one long info dump, and look how many that's sold (I actually almost quit at about page 70, but its worth soldiering through).  I'm also currently reading a book by John Grisham where one chapter has a three-page info dump followed by a conversation where the viewpoint switches midway through.  It's clear when it happens, but there are a still a lot of writing sites that will tell you not to do this.  However, I'd judge by the millions of books Grisham has sold that his fans can't hate it too much.

Go with what you feel.  Take every naysaying piece of writing advice you read with a pinch of salt and use your own judgement as to whether it works or not.  Remember, one man's trash is another man's gold, and you'll soon see from the reviews whether people are liking it or not.

And on that note, you probably want to ignore everything I've just said.

Write, and enjoy.