I don’t revise my work very much. Wait, scratch that, it makes me sound like a terrible writer. I mean, I revise my work all the time – while I’m writing it. I’m constantly tweaking, polishing, deleting and rewriting my work as I go, which is one of several reasons why it takes me 20-3 freaking years to write a book.
(The other reasons: day job, energy levels, easily distracted by games, drunk all the time.)
But I don’t tend to do a lot of heavy after-the-fact revision – except for right now, when I’m revising both The Obituarist II (due to be published next week!) and Raven’s Blood (due to be published if the fates are kind!). Yes, I’m elbow-deep and mucking out the word-stables in an attempt to clean the horse poop off these drafts, and it’s clear that my metaphors are not yet fit-for-purpose in 2015.
Anyway – yes, I am working on making my writing better. And if you too are trying to do that, and feel the need for some tips and advice from someone with no more claim to authority or expertise than the adorable dog sleeping at the end of his desk, then read on and marvel.
Read it like a virgin
I think the single best way to start a revision is to read your entire draft manuscript, start to finish, as if you were coming to it for the first time, just as your alpha-readers did, just as any reader would if you were foolish enough to upload it to Amazon right now no stop don’t do that. Take a virgin eye to your work, looking for the bits that don’t work (and relishing the bits that do) and being honest about how well it all hangs together. Don’t let yourself think excuses like this confusing scene in chapter 2 will totally make sense after I read chapter 9 or the worldbuilding in these five pages of exposition is utterly vital, because no-one else is going to cut you that slack. Read it, decide whether or not you actually like it, and then get to the business of making it better.
Slice away the weak spots
Pretty much all drafts (mine included) have big problems – dull characters, confusing plots, every single thing being awful – and little problems. Start with the little problems – the repeated phrases, the excessive adjectives, the punctuation errors, the way half the dialogue starts with ‘Well,…’ and yes I am pretty much talking about myself here. These little moments of weakness are pretty easy to fix and they get you into the mindset of revising so that you gain momentum for the more systemic issues. Think of these small victories as the mooks that protect the end-of-level boss, and your revision as a rising swagger of heroic power. That unnecessary comma? DEAD. His friends? DEAD. The flawed book that commanded them? BRING IT.
Re-connect all your pipes
Structuralists and screenwriters talk about ‘laying pipe’ – putting information in one scene that pays off or unfolds in later scenes. It’s about more than just clever foreshadowing; it’s that consistent logic of narrative that means a story makes sense. But pipe isn’t always laid down cleanly and perfectly in the first draft, as you forget about old ideas and introduce new ones that aren’t fully justified yet. The revision process is the time to finally work out the path you want this story to follow, and to backtrack, reorient and trailblaze so that the map is clear all the way from start to finish. That might mean deleting plot bits that didn’t pay off, or inserting new bits of data in the first half to give stuff in the second half a solid foundation. Then all your pipes will connect up, and your book-water will flow cleanly rather than dribble as stinky effluent from cracks in the middle.
I’d like to apologise for my metaphors. And I wish I could say they’d get better this year.
Kill your darlings, yes, but also birth new ones
Revising is not a time for sentiment. It’s a time for ruthlessness and no weakness, a time to delete (or at least cut-paste into another document) anything that isn’t making your book better. But it’s also a time for creation, because just cutting and flensing is probably going to leave you with a bloody skeleton rather than something readable. Writing small inserts (see above) is just the start; you may need new pages, scenes or whole chapters to make the story better. (Both my works-in-progress needed a new chapter, and Raven’s Blood may end up needing more.) If this is the case, then write them. Duh. Occasionally I hear advice like ‘your final draft should be 10-20% shorter than your first draft’. No, your final draft should be good, and if that means it’s as long or longer as the first draft, but all-killer-no-filler rather than a box full of Hamburger Helper, then you’re doing the job right.
Don’t fix what ain’t broke
And speaking of dumb writing advice – some pundits say that you should rewrite everything, that the first draft is a ‘vomit draft’ or an outlining exercise, and that the second/third/eighth draft should be written from scratch. Good luck to ’em if that works for them, but for my part, fuuuuuuuuuck that. A flawed draft is not a piece of mouldy fruit that is irrevocably riddled with bacteria; it’s a work of craft that can (probably) be improved with time and effort. Your draft has good stuff in it, probably more of it than you thought while writing it, and you should retain that good stuff rather than ditching it. Embrace what works and be proud of it – and then focus on lifting the rest of the work to that high bar you’ve set for yourself.
I’ve kind of got the shits with myself at the moment.
Sure, I’ve been busy. I have a demanding day job, we just moved house and I like to hang out with my friends so that we don’t forget each other. But we’ve reached a point where those stop feeling like reasons and start feeling like excuses, and the thing they’re failing to excuse is not writing.
Shut up, Batman. You’re not even my real dad.
(But I wish you were.)
Like many writers, or indeed many folks in general, I am torn between conflicting desires and motivators. For me, those are:
Imagination: hey, I have a great idea for a story other humans would like to read
Laziness: let’s get drunk and play video games
Self-loathing: you will die alone and forgotten and this is probably for the best
And life for me is a path through these desires, like the stages of grief, until #3 defeats #2 and allows #1 to emerge blinking into the sunlight long enough to bang out the wordcount before retreating back to shelter.
So yeah, I’m behind schedule on Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data. I was meant to finish it in July, but here it is in late September and I’m only just getting to the point where Kendall Barber [CENSORED CENSORED SECRET REDACTED BUT LORD LEMME TELL YOU IT AIN’T GOOD]. Which is not acceptable.
To fix things, I’m going into what I call BURN MODE, mostly because I like being overdramatic.
Burn mode is when I set myself a specific, easily quantifiable target and then just fucking write it every night that I physically can until I’m done. For Obituarist II, as it was for Obituarist I, that target is one complete chapter of around 1000 words – beginning, middle, end that makes you turn the page to the next instalment. Which is kind of harder than just 1000 words, because everything’s got to be self-contained and wrap up/hook on at the end, and I have to work out an entire, coherent block of plot over my lunch hour, but that also kind of makes it more enjoyable and engaging.
But burn mode is a jealous mistress. If I’m to knock off this story and get it to my editor and alpha readers before heading overseas for this year’s international adventures, I can’t have no distractions. So I’m taking a break from blogging for about two weeks, and this is my long-winded way of telling you folks that.
It gets the words out of my system. Cut me some slack.
See you when I’m done. But as a parting gift, enjoy this – the first glimpse of the cover of the new book, completed long before it was finished!
Now get outta my way. I gotta put kerosene in this motherfucker.
Welcome to June, or as I call it, The Month (and a half) in Which I Write Another Bloody Novella.
Yes, the omens are clear, the nights are still warm enough to write without losing a finger and I won’t have my Raven’s Blood notes back until the end of July, so it’s time to knuckle down on The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data!
This book has been on the agenda since, well, pretty much since people finished reading The Obituarist – still available from all fine ebook retailers, and also Amazon – and started demanding a sequel. I wrote the short story ‘Inbox Zero’ as a quick thank-you to tide them over, but that was ages ago. Now, two years since I published that first story about Kendall Barber, social media undertaker, it’s time to visit Port Virtue again and see what’s hiding under its grease-stained rocks.
This time around, Kendall is hired to disentangle the online affairs of the late, unloved Earl Northanger, a scrap metal tycoon who killed himself in his private zoo. At the same time, he reluctantly takes on a job for a Port Virtue police captain whose online identity was hacked – and he’s being pursued by a local journalist who wants to find out all his secrets. And Kendall has more secrets than anyone else might think.
The world of the digital afterlife industry is again the focus for this second book – a world that’s had some interesting developments in two years, a world that’s no longer so unfamiliar to people. But Dead Men’s Data also explores some other ideas – secrets, lies, death, identity, Nazis, poor tattooing decisions, unexamined privilege, urban decay, the speed at which limbs decay in cement and more.
It also has a fight between a badger and a baboon, because I don’t know why just roll with it.
Anyway, this is the start of the writing process, and I’m hoping to get through this book faster than the last couple. The target is around 24 000 words, writing a full 1000-word-odd chapter (two pages of manuscript, because I find it’s easier to calibrate by page than paragraph) a night, four nights a week for six weeks. I could write it faster than that if I knuckled down – my friend Peter Ball is cranking out 2000 words of novella a day, because he’s hugely talented and works hard. I, on the other hand, have both a terrible work ethic and I’m (as usual) pantsing the hell out of this book. I know the start, I have a pretty good vision of the end, there are some snapshots in the middle… and then the writing process is a day of typing, a day of checking my Port Virtue map, looking through all my digital-afterlife-links and working out what the hell to do next.
(That approach also tends to mean I miss that 1000-word target at the start of the book, but nail chapters thick and fast by the end. It’s all much easier when you have some idea what you’re doing. I should probably learn from that. But I won’t.)
Anyway, enough talk of process – let’s wrap this up with the WORLDWIDE EXCLUSIVE first glimpse of the novella-in-progress! (Please note, this is unedited, untweaked and not yet funny-clever enough. But it’s a start.)
ECCENTRIC MILLIONAIRE COMMITS SUICIDE-BY-BEAR read the headline. The subtitle underneath directly contradicted it – Scrap metal tycoonEarl Northanger shoots himself; body mauled by bear in his private zoo – but who reads subtitles? The headline was pure print-clickbait and it did the job of grabbing eyeballs and sales. God knows the Port Virtue Voice and Advertiser needed them.
‘I’m very sorry for your loss,’ I said to my new client. That sounds like a lame platitude, but it’s usually the right thing to say to someone in mourning. You’re not saying you know how they feel, you’re not claiming to also be in mourning. You’re just expressing a personal sympathy for them and the difficulties they’re having in their time of grief.
Imogene Northanger shrugged; she didn’t seem especially grief-stricken. ‘My grandfather and I weren’t what you would call close, Mister Barber,’ she said. ‘I just want to focus on sorting out his affairs, execute his will and then go back home.’
‘Understood,’ I said, and mentally trashed the remainder of my sympathetic-yet-professional-in-this-difficult-time routine. Fortunately I could use the let’s-get-this-over-with routine instead. I had a bunch of these filed away in my head; I’d practiced them in front of the mirror.
I tried to give her back her newspaper; when she waved it away, I put the Voice and Advertiser to one side. In truth I’d read the paper a few days ago when it was new, although I’d only skimmed the story on Old Man Northanger. I was more interested in the story about the human remains being recovered from the bridge construction site, which had already faded back to page four. There was also a story about me on page twelve, but that was a problem for another time.
Ms Northanger was a well-dressed, well-accessorised woman in her I-would-guess-forties, with short hair and square-rimmed glasses, and when she took those glasses off it was an obvious signal that she was ready to Tell it Like it Was.
‘Let’s just cut the bullshit, Mister Barber. My grandfather was racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic – if it wasn’t like him, he hated it and he let everyone know it. Family gatherings were dire at best, at worst… it was a relief when I came out and the family just shitcanned the whole idea of ever getting together in case it gave him apoplexy. I’m sure he was furious that I was the only family he had left, and if he’d realised that I’d be the one made executor of his will he would have broken his neck sprinting to change it. But too bad for him. Now I just want to wrap up his affairs, sell off his assets, put him in the ground and get the hell out of this town once and for all. Can you help me with that?’
Oh, I liked this lady. She was not at home to Mister Fucking About.
I know I said I would take time off after finishing the foundation draft of Raven’s Blood, and I have. More or less.
But May has had other ideas, and in fact it’s been a bit hectic down on the ranch this last while. Some of that hecticness has been respectable and productive, and some of it has involved the kind of aggressive, determined sloth that accomplishes nothing but leaves you nonetheless exhausted.
…holy shit, that is a really scary-looking aggressive sloth. Calm the fuck down, man. Have a burrito or something.
Anyway, in lieu of a more substantive post – that may come next weekend, once I regrow some updates – here’s a swag of updates, links and disconnected bits. Which is pretty much like the rest of the internet, I guess.
Continuum X is in two weeks! The programme is out now, and you’ll find that I am speaking on a number of panels, as if I had something to say rather than just being some random yahoo off the street. Those are:
Remembering Iain Banks
It’s All Been Done: Writing in the Age of TV Tropes
Those are all on Monday 9 June, the last day of the con, so come along to hear my too-rapid ramblings after you’ve had your fill of everything and everyone else. On the other days, look for me in the local bars, especially if they’re karaoke bars; I have a feeling some of the GenreCon crowd and I are going to want to belt out ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ over a couple of tequilas.
As we all know, when I’m not writing I’m slacking off playing games, and I felt I deserved to play something after April’s efforts. So I borrowed Batman: Arkham Origins from a co-worker, and thanks to some time off caused by mild food poisoning (yay) I was able to play it all the way through over a couple of weeks.
And I kinda liked it! I played Arkham City a few years back, and you may recall that while I enjoyed the gameplay I thought the story and tone was aaaaallll over the shop, and that the constant misogyny just ground all the joy out of playing. Well, Origins avoids the worst of that; it has a clear, consistent direction and it knows where to draw the storytelling line to keep everything hanging together. The core storyline – Batman fights a horde of assassins in the course of one night while early in his career – stays the course, while the side adventures never drift too far away from that in mood. (And it avoids misogyny largely by having no female characters to speak off, but that’s sadly predictable.) There’s even an honest-to-god character arc.
Of course it’s still overly grimdark to the point of being goofy, Batman is a violent thug and everything in Gotham is on fire ALL THE TIME, but that seems to be the established norm for this character now. While the addition of more detective-oriented plot bits is welcome, they all boil down to [push button to have Alfred identify murderer for you], the end-game is anti-climatic, and it runs into the problem all prequels do in that it has to try to foreshadow everything that comes later.
But still. Pretty fun. Definitely worth the nothing I paid for it.
It was a strange ending, though, one that took in time travel and paradoxes, and pushed those to the point of rewriting everything that had gone before. That’s a hard road for a story to follow, and it’s made me think a fair bit about the nature of stories like that, the need for foreshadowing (and how to make that work), and whether you can end a story with ‘this story didn’t happen’ while still making it satisfying for the audience for whom it did.
Hmm. More thoughts on that later, perhaps – especially once I see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which looks to be trying to pull off something similar. Hopefully their special effects budget is bigger than mine. Although will they have as many Dr Who references? Probably not, he said smugly.
My dog continues to be pretty freakin’ cute.
The Emerging Writers Festival starts this week! I’m not involved in it this year, but if I get organised I’ll be heading off to various events and seeing how many friendly faces I recognise. If you’re headed that way, let me know what you’re going to and maybe we can have a play date. Come on, motivate me; don’t let me slack off.
Speaking of writing, the first couple of alpha-reader reviews have come back on Raven’s Blood, and they’re pretty positive. I think. I haven’t really looked at them; I’m trying to keep that book out of my head entirely for a while until I’m ready to rewrite.
In the meantime, I just finished a short story for an anthology that… actually, I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about that yet. But it’s an odd little piece that was fun to write; let’s hope the editor likes it.
And then next week, to kick off June, I begin work on the next book, for which I can finally reveal the title:
The Obituarist II: Dead Men’s Data
Yes, the continuing adventures of Kendall Barker, um, continue. Come back to the poorly-swept streets of Port Virtue for another tale of death, social media and spreadsheet abuse! There’ll be thrills! Spills! Returning characters! New characters! Poor life choices! Swearing! And some bits that I hope take readers by surprise.
The plan is to write this novella throughout June, aiming for a total of around 24 000 words by the start of July ready to hand over to test readers and my editor. (Who I also have to hire again, along with my cover designer.) I found a good rhythm with the first novella, punching out one 1000-odd word chapter each night; if I can get that vibe again I should easily be able to hit the deadline while still taking time off a few nights each week for nerding and bourbon.
And once that’s done, it’ll be time for Raven’s Blood rewrites.
Having put up my cruddy Word-drawn map of Crosswater last week to deafening acclaim – I must be deaf as I didn’t hear anything – I’d like to follow up with my map of Port Virtue, the seedy seaside city that is the setting of The Obituarist. It’s equally cruddy, but I think it shows how different stories have very different priorities, and how place can work very differently.
And now, through the magic of <insert text box>, I give you:
What the hell kind of map is this? I mean, last week’s attempt was a bit rubbish, but it least it had some proper features like rivers. This is just some words and an arrow pointing north – might as well be a mind map!
Well, yes – and it nearly was a mind map, but that started getting messy.
Tone first, geography second
When I looked back through The Obituarist to make this map – because I’d never drawn or envisioned one while writing it – I discovered that there was only one statement about a physical direction in the entire book. (Someone says ‘west side’ towards the end of the novella.) And yet Port Virtue is clear in my head – a run-down faded city of harsh lights, broken concrete and crappy nightlife – and readers have said to me that it’s been vivid for them as well. But all of that comes out through tone and from individual scenes, rather than how those scenes and places sit alongside each other.
Not every story needs a map, and not every map needs to show physical things. This diagram shows me tone more than anything else – there’s the boring part of town, a shitty part, a wet part where people probably get drowned, a relatively nice parts my stories will probably never visit and so on. Even though I have a rough direction marker, thanks to that one bit of dialogue, the important thing is seeing that if Kendall goes back to the crappy part (and he will) then it gets even crappy further out; if he stays at home he’ll get bored; if he goes into the middle of town there are cops on his arse again. That’s what I need and that’s what I think my readers want, more than a sense that Kendall can see the Brick House from his balcony.
Piecing things together
As I said, I made this map after the fact (specifically I made it last night), and most of that work was trying to work out where various locations fit into my… let’s call it a ‘tonal gradient’ because it makes me sound clever. That’s an interesting experience – like trying to puzzle out directions that I’d forgotten I’d written, possibly due to drunkenness at some point.
It’s like – okay, D-Block’s hideout is on the waterfront, that’s obvious. But the Brick House is in the shitty industrial part of town, and that turned out to be on the other side of the city. The biker lab must also be over there, because it’s crappy as fuck – but it’s in an old housing district, so it’s probably near a residential area, and probably the boring part rather than the nicer part. Where should I put the storage place? Waterfront sounds good.
It’s part detective work, part jigsaw puzzle, part throwing shit to see where it sticks – and it’s kind of fun. If your story is done and you never created a map for it, there can be value in going back to it and working out where everything goes, whether physically or conceptually. It can help you see connections that hadn’t occurred to you, suggest ideas for further events and even encourage dreams where the old Clint Eastwood biker guy has brunch with Benny Boorns.
No districts, no place names, no fiddle-dee-dee
The Obituarist is around 22 000 words long. I ain’t got time to be naming things! I can’t indulge my little fetish for portmanteaus; place names chew up wordcount every time they appear. Ditto descriptions of places as discrete units, or attempts to flesh out the context of the snippets of space I have for setting scenes. No, no time for that; just tone and purpose, that’s all there’s room for.
You write to fill the space you want; you edit down to fill the space you need. And if something isn’t actually useful in the story – a description, a place name, a WELCOME TO SHITSVILLE ACRES PLEASE COME AGAIN street sign – then cut that crap out. Or don’t write it in the first place.
A shame. Shitsville Acres is really quite lovely in the spring.
Room to expand
Like most modern cities, I figure Port Virtue doesn’t have a wall around it or a distinct start and finish. One moment you’re driving down a rutted highway, then you pass some crappy houses and burned-out trucks, and a couple of minutes later you’re being carjacked in a traffic jam and wishing you’d gone to Zurich for your holiday. Cities are smears on the landscape, and a lack of a formal boundary helps give that sense of reality to your place.
It also gives room to add more detail as ideas and stories demand. The cliffs and the Jericho estate come from the semi-sequel short story ‘Inbox Zero’ – completely free to download, if you haven’t already – and I figure that the Jericho Bible printing factory is somewhere along the waterfront. And out further west, we see a few hints of what’s coming in The Obituarist II: Electric Boogaloo, which I’ll be working on as soon as I finish with Raven’s Blood. Who is Old Man Northanger and why does he have a zoo and a scrap yard out in the boondocks? You’ll find out soon enough – and learn the terrible secret of what lurks in the boring part of town!
Well, maybe. Still working that part out. And it’s probably not that terrible a secret. Not unless the next story involves Scooby Doo.
…I’m not ruling that out.
Two different cities, two different maps, two (or more) different purposes for those maps. I think that’s kind of cool.
I hope some of y’all agree. Speak up if you do. Or don’t.
So ‘Inbox Zero’ was released into the wilds last Sunday and since then has racked up a measly 20 downloads. That’s not as many as I would like, given that it’s a free story and that I’ve sold more than 100 copies of The Obituarist and if you LOVED me you’d READ it and DISSEMINATE it and I wouldn’t have to BEG you to do YOUR PART in making this RELATIONSHIP work.
But I’m not going to get into that. Readers will find it, in their own time and own way, without any whining on my part. I’ve moved on.
Instead, I would like to talk a bit tonight about what ‘Inbox Zero’ might (or might not) mean for the ongoing development of the Obituarist concept. Because as a result of this story, I find myself starting to think of Kendall Barber as someone who has… adventures.
And I don’t really want that. Or at least, I don’t want to acknowledge it.
But to make sense of this, let’s first talk about dramatic license.
What do we mean by ‘dramatic license’? I think that, in simplest terms, it’s about choosing the interesting over the realistic; it’s making a decision that the world of the story would be better served by not making it line up with the world of the reader. That’s not the same thing as just including things in the story that don’t exist in reality, like dragons or faster-than-light travel; you can have those things and still write a story that cleaves to reality – it’s just a reality with extra stuff in it.
No, dramatic license is about making choices about how the elements of the story (real or imaginary, and let’s face it, they’re all imaginary) behave and develop, and why they go in that direction. To make the facts serve the story, rather than have the story serve the facts. Or at the very least, making up your own facts to replace the inconvenient ones of reality.
Some genre fiction is pretty forgiving to dramatic license, especially fantasy and science fiction. Crime fiction is much less so, because the best crime stories give the impression that they could have really happened, and hewing as close as possible to the real helps immeasurably with that. (Horror stories swap between realism and unrealism depending on what makes a story scarier or more emotionally unsettling, which is why horror is so much fun to write.)
Sometimes license is about physics and medical procedures and the physical doodads of a story, but more often it’s about character – about the decisions and actions characters take and the way the world reacts to those. On that character level, dramatic license usually boils down to ‘things don’t change’ – because logical consequences aren’t always the consequences you want to explore, and a bad guy that followed all the pointers on those interminable ‘If I Was an Evil Overlord’ lists would bring your story to an early, not-very enjoyable halt. Vampires stay hidden behind the scenes despite investigators learning of their existence. The Dark Lord overlooks that one thing that allows a plucky young adventurer to find his weakness and cast him down. A superhero’s amazing inventions don’t transform the world, and he doesn’t have brain damage or post-traumatic stress disorder despite being punched in the skull by Bane every couple of days.
(You can write a cool story exploring what happens when you don’t take those dramatic liberties, of course. But those stories tend to deconstruct their genres, rather than celebrating them, and sometimes you want to read Justice League (Morrison-era, obviously) rather than Watchmen.)
So to bring this back to The Obituarist, I’ve set up a base in the novella that Kendall Barber is not a detective, and that he doesn’t go around solving crimes all the time – his job is unusual but mundane, his life deliberately ordinary, and when a crime falls into his lap he reluctantly gets involved mostly due to poor decision-making. That’s the setup for a stand-alone crime story, something with boundaries – you pass through, go out the other side and get back to reality.
But now here’s ‘Inbox Zero’, another situation where Kendall gets involved with a crime. I’m also planning a proper sequel, a longer story where – you guessed it – Kendall gets involved with a crime. There’ll probably be 2-4 more stories, long and short, in which our regular guy has to play Sherlock Holmes.
And the logical, real-world effect of this would be that the character does start to think of himself as a detective, as do the people around him, and that he attracts attention due to that; that his world and his personality change to reflect what he does. Which would mean that I wouldn’t be able to write the stories that I want to write – i.e. ones without that change.
So can I fall back on dramatic license and handwave away that logical development in tone and character while staying in the grounded genre of crime fiction?
I sure as hell can, ‘cos I’m gonna play the Murder, She Wrote defence.
How many crimes does your average homicide detective solve in a lifetime? Ten, fifteen, maybe more, maybe less, maybe depends what you mean by ‘solved’, and all that over the course of a 20-30 year career. Jessica Fletcher, a retired teacher turned crime writer, solved 268 murders in 12 years – and no-one said shit about it. No-one went ‘holy crap, that’s impossible’; no-one went ‘holy crap, she must be a serial killer’; the FBI didn’t hire her or lock her up. Within the confines of the narrative, no-one pointed out the sheer crazy fucking impossibility of Jessica Fletcher, and dealing with 268 murders didn’t drive her to drink, heroin or Chippendale shagging.
That’s the big dramatic conceit of ongoing crime fiction – that you can right a wrong and not be changed by it, and not have the world see you differently. That you can do it again, and again, and still be who you were at the start.
And that suits me fine at this point. Don’t get me wrong, I have changes and consequences in mind for Kendall Barber; I have shit planned that will turn you white. But I want to keep him in the Jessica Fletcher zone while I do so, and have him say ‘I’m just an IT undertaker, not a detective’ and not have anyone in the story – and hopefully none of you – call bullshit on him (or me).
Come on. You let Angel of Death Fletcher get away with it, and she’s seen more bodies than Larry Flynt.
After all of that waffle about what I want to do with my writing, let’s flip it around – what should you do with yours?
Well, whatever you want. Duh.
If you want to do painstaking research and hew as close to the real as possible, with little or no bending of physics, psychology or logic, then that’s great – many awesome books do exactly that, and their grounding in reality makes them feel genuine and engaging. And if you don’t want to do any of that, if you want to do whatever makes sense for your story even if it doesn’t outside its pages, then that’s fine too, and more than fine, ask guys doing affordable research papers. Because being a writer is a license to make shit up in service to the narrative, and you’re the one who gets to decide when to keep it real and when to dump logic and realism in a sack and set them on fire.
Write what you know, sure – use the real world as your foundation and your font of ideas. Keep your readers engaged with tiny details, make them feel that your world and characters are genuine and not just amorphous blobs.
But stories have their own logic. Drama has its own needs. Characters will do as they must, even if it only makes sense to them (and you). And when the needs of the narrative demand that rivers flow upstream from the sea, then turn your boat around and paddle up a waterfall.
Because if you do it well, if you write it powerfully, your readers will pick up their oars and row right behind you. Reality be damned.
No, this is a THREE-STORY MONTH – and what better way to hit the trifecta than with a sequel to The Obituarist?
‘Inbox Zero’ is a short story set a while after The Obituarist, in which social media undertaker Kendall Barber is working for a new client, a publisher of customised Bibles. When settling accounts for his recently deceased client, Kendall comes across a Deathswitch email – a message the dead man wanted sent to his family after he passed away. What’s in the email – and why is Kendall’s client so eager to see it?
‘Inbox Zero’ is available for download right now at Smashwords, and it’s completely free – which, unfortunately, means I can’t offer it through Amazon. But it’s available in Kindle-friendly MOBI format, as well as EPUB and PDF, and I’ll be offering a slightly nicer PDF through my Downloads page a bit later in the week (once I find the time to put one together). It should also propagate out to other stores, such as Barnes & Noble and the iBookstore, over the next few weeks.
For those readers who’ve been clamouring over the last few months for an Obituarist sequel, ‘Inbox Zero’ is not it. I mean, it is a sequel, but it’s not the sequel; Obituarist 2 (Electric Boogaloo) is on my to-do list and will probably come out in about six months. This story is more of a quick diversion, a stand-alone story that doesn’t require you to have read The Obituarist already (although it couldn’t hurt) and that will hopefully tide you over until the real deal is ready.
A key element of this story is Deathswitch, a real service that lets you set up an email to be sent after your death. The folks there were kind enough to read my first draft and check the accuracy of the piece, which was very kind of them. As part of my research I set up an account for myself, then failed to respond to my emails, and soon got my email to notify me that I was dead. That was… well, a little odd, but I do whatever is necessary for the verisimilitude of my work.
Because this story is free, I highly recommend sharing the absolute shit out of it. Email it to everyone you know! Put it on torrent sites! Read it aloud on public transport! If it can find some readers and drive them back to The Obituarist, I’ll be happy. Heck, I’ll be happy even if it doesn’t. I have lots to be happy about. Although if you want to make me extra happy, you could leave a comment to tell me you liked the story. And/or a review on Smashwords.
And with that, I’m done with short fiction for a bit. Time to get my head back into YA fantasy and Raven’s Blood.
(And maybe Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Just a little.)
BEHOLD THE TERROR I FOUND ‘PON MY DOORSTEP YESTERDAY!
NOW BEHOLD IT IN REGULAR PHOTO-VISION!
Yes, the super-limited print run (ie I could only afford to print ten) of The Obituarist arrived yesterday from Blurb, and a lovely little set of books it is too. I’m really happy with the way it came out – the cover looks good in print and the book came to a short-but-not-too-short 100 pages, perfect for pocket storage and convenient reading.
Would I recommend Blurb to others? Yes, definitely, although you’ll need to fine-tune your book files and be prepared to fiddle around for longer than you’d like with their software. But nothing good in this world comes without a bit of effort, and it was worth it in the end.
So now I have ten copies of my little book! One goes on the shelf for reference, and I think two more have already been earmarked for friends, leaving seven to take around some local bookshops to see if they’ll accept it on consignment. If you’d like to trouser one of them first, shoot me a line or leave a comment. I think I’m selling them for, umm… $15? $13? Still not sure how much I should charge, but that’s about the right level to make a sensible profit on them. Anyway, hit me up if you’re interested.
If I sell all of them, I may look at doing another short run – or a small run of Hotel Flamingo, which people still ask about. On that note, the giveaway of that and Godheads ends this weekend, so if you know someone who might like them, send them here to find the details.
And with that short post, I must away – N. and I are going to Fiji tomorrow night, and we have to tidy and pack! This means no blog posts for two weeks; please, try to control your misery. Eventually I will return with holiday snaps and more book talk.
Until then, I’ll be drunk on a beach somewhere with Irish people. Pray for me.
Hey guys! Let’s talk about The Obituarist! You know, that ebook about the obituary writer who teams up with a slightly-mad WWII veteran and goes around interviewing his old squadmates just before they all conveniently wind up dead!
A few weeks after publishing The Obituarist, I got a heads-up from someone – sorry, I’ve forgotten who, but you know who you are – that someone else has just published a ebook with the exact same name via the same channels!
What are the odds? I mean, seriously, what are the odds? Does anyone have some data on that?
Of course I went and checked the book out, in case it was some strange Nigerian-scam copy of mine or something. But it wasn’t. Instead, in a bizarre case of parallel evolution, author Paul Waters and I had both picked the same slightly archaic old term to use as the title of our novellas. And frankly, he’d used it more properly, whereas I’d made up a whole new meaning to suit my idea.
So what to do? Just ignore it? Well, that seemed a bit rude, so I sent Paul an email to say hello. In it, I said:
This isn’t a ‘cease or desist’ or any nonsense like that; it’s a good title and there’s plenty of room for people to use it. And, to be honest, you use it more accurately than I do; I kept the term but changed the meaning to suit my own purposes.
I’m just writing because it’s a funny coincidence and I thought you might be amused too. If I get any customers who buy my book by mistake instead of yours, I’ll point them back at you; I hope you’ll do the same for me.
He came back with:
I admit that I was gutted to see your title after I published mine. Though as you say, and I hope you’re right, it’s a good title. And your story is definitely different.
I’m looking at it as a funny coincidence too.
And since then we’ve been having a bit of a chat about epublishing and writing and the cor-blimey-strike-a-light-it’s-a-funny-old-world of it all. Culminating in today, when he’s written a blog post about the whole thing, and I’m doing the same. Because recursion is awesome.
I like Paul; he’s charming and pleasant and he appears to be some kind of pirate DJ donkey from his blog avatar, which I cannot help but admire. So if you get a chance, go check out his Obituarist at Smashwords or Amazon; it’s a short tongue-in-cheek thriller packed with shaggy dog stories in the best British tradition. And honour obliges me to note that his book is 24 cents cheaper than mine (although mine is longer).
So we’ve gone from a world short of obituarists to one crammed with them, but that’s okay. It’s not like there are a shortage of books from different authors with the same titles, as this LibraryThing article can attest. (And a quick Amazon check shows plenty of other books called Raven’s Blood and Arcadia, but such is life.) I think we can live with the occasional moment of confusion.
And hey, at least I know what not to call the next book in order to stay on Paul’s good side, because in his email he also said:
Blackwatertown is the title of a longer book I’m still trying to get published via more traditional routes. Please don’t tell me you have one with the same name up your sleeve.
And I could only reply with the truth:
As it happens I lived for a time in a town called Blackwater – but I was about one year old at the time, so I have no plans to write about that!
It’s been a long and very busy May for me, what with a new book to sell and promote, and… wait, what? It’s already June? Like nearly two weeks into June? Well, shit. That just shows how deep in the self-publishing K-hole I’ve been these last 5-6 weeks.
‘Self-publishing K-hole’, by the way, is a phrase you will never see used in Amazon’s publicity for KDP Select.
Anyway, it’s been close to six weeks since The Obituarist came out, and I’ve tried to abide by my promise not to talk incessantly about it here and become a boring spammy snake-oil merchant. But I also promised, back when I started this blog, to be as open as possible about the process of not just writing but creating, promoting and selling my ebooks, in the hope that any data I can share might help someone else with their own efforts.
So it’s in that spirit of sharing, rather than shilling, that I’m here to pick apart the numbers of how The Obituarist is going so far, where it might go next, what conclusions we might draw from the ebb and flow of sales and whether I’m ever going to make enough money from it to justify writing the sequel I’ve already started plotting out.
(If that sounds boring, you have my permission to skip this weekend’s update. There’ll be new flash fiction later in the week – come back for that, it should be fun!)
As of today, I have sold 94 copies of The Obituarist, netting me a pre-tax royalty of something like $160. It’s hard to know exactly how much, because Smashwords and Amazon both work in US dollars (or in pounds for the three copies that sold through Amazon UK). Let’s assume that the currency conversion and the 5% that the IRS will retain more or less cancel each other out and stick with $160 for argument’s sake.
In case you’re wondering, THIS IS GREAT.
94 copies in about five weeks? I’m really goddamn happy about that! That’s more than double the number of copies of Godheads I’ve sold in a year, and not that much less than what I’ve sold of Hotel Flamingo in 18 months. And $160 is about a dollar more than what I’ve made from Flamingo‘s sales to date (thanks to dropping the price to 99c back in January). Right now this means that I’ve made a little more than half my expenses back, and I can assume that if I sell another 90 books I’ll be in the black and can start writing the sequel everyone keeps asking about.
It has a badger in it.
Of course, this is the initial sales point, and it’ll either slow down markedly or dramatically surge as I become SUPER FAMOUS WRITING DUDE. Which is more likely? Well, let’s look at the Amazon sales graph.
First thought – man, Amazon sales rankings make no fucking sense. They measure something like books sold in a specific period of time as compared to other books in the same category, which leads to things like The Obituarist having its highest ranking (about #22 000) the day after it was published, because it had sold half-a-dozen copies overnight, but being 50 000 spots lower a month later after selling a bunch more copies. I get the concept, but it’s weird.
Second thought – I can map the spikes and jumps to specific times I’ve promoted or talked about the book. For instance, the big jump on May 23 is when I was on Byte Into It to talk about the concept and the book. That gigantic jump – from #200 000 to #63 000 – is only four sales, but that’s just Amazon weirdness. So what I should do is confirm what gets the attention for those spikes and keep doing it, and I’ll talk about that below.
Third thought – I haven’t sold a single copy yet this month. Which isn’t good. For all that I get more money from Smashword sales, Amazon sales rankings are really important because they can increase a book’s visibility and improve the chances that someone discovers the book on their own rather than because I’m pushing it on them. So I need to turn this around soon.
And speaking of Smashwords, here’s a set of graphs from them:
Do they line up with the Amazon graph? Hmm. Kinda. You see some spikes and peaks in the same areas – like, obviously, the launch day – but not in others. That Byte Into It spike isn’t there, for instance – well, it might be, but it’s a sale of one copy if it is. Does that mean people who hear/read about the book are more likely to head to Amazon? Probably, and that’s something to take into account.
The next thing to note is how page views translate into sales and samples – or how they don’t. Again, lots of spikes at the start of the process, and lots of downloads to match, but later the page views fall faster and further than the downloads. This might mean people check it out when it hits the SW front page right after launch while not buying it; it might mean later interest comes from a smaller group of non-browsing customers who want this specific book; hell, it might mean that all the data-mining bots swarmed on it to gather data right away and now only boring humans care. There’s information there, but it’s hard to translate.
The good news is that I’m still selling copies on Smashwords in June while Amazon is quiet. The bad news is that I’ve sold like three copies – and yes, that’s better than zero, but I’m not setting fire to my underwear with joy about the difference.
In any event, it’s clear that May was an excellent month for me, but also that it was a launch month when the book’s visibility was high and when I was all over the internet talking about it. The last week has seen less of that and more of me talking about it in real space, such as at the EWF and Continuum, and that’s not been as effective. That’s not surprising – the best way to sell a book you find on the internet is to market and promote it on the internet. And I don’t regret that period, because it’s been good to tell people about it face-to-face – and, indeed, to talk to people full stop. People are cool.
But if I’m going to stop that slow spiral down to the bottom, I need to pull out a few more stops. And I have some ideas about what to do next.
Exciting new forms
The Obituarist is an ebook not because DIGITAL RULES DEADTREE DROOLS but because it’s hard to make a print novella commercially viable – but not impossible. I picked up a couple of discount vouchers for custom-publishing outfit Blurb during the EWF and I’m looking into the costs and possibilities of doing a small print run of physical copies. The tricky part will be working out whether the return will be worth the cost – not just of printing the book but of distributing it to customers and to local bookstores – and how much I’d need to charge to get that return. But it’s definitely something worth trying, even if in the end I only print 50 books; if nothing else I can give them away as Christmas presents to people I want to make feel guilty for not buying it already.
But that’s not all! I’m in discussion with awesome voice actor (and BFF) Ben McKenzie about doing an audiobook version! Ben actually read the first chapter aloud to the very, very small audience we had for our reading session at Continuum yesterday and he sounded amazing. We’re working out the costs, practical difficulties and potential for distribution and hopefully can come up with a plan in the next week or two. Believe me, when it comes together, I’ll be on here talking the hell out of it. You won’t miss out on Ben’s melodious voice and the charming, almost-but-not-quite-British inflection he brings to my book where people say ‘fuck’ a lot.
Make Goodreads my bitch
Goodreads is shaping up as one of the most important social media sites for books and readers, and I want to explore it much further to see what I can get out of it – and, just as important, what I can bring to it to make it more worthwhile for its users.
Obviously The Obituarist already has a page on the site, and people have been leaving reviews and putting it on their to-read lists, which is great – but I need to see what else I can do. One option is advertising; Goodreads has a number of pay-per-click advertising packages for authors. I will admit that I rarely – okay, pretty much never – bother clicking on ads on the site (or indeed many others), but that doesn’t mean that others don’t or that those ads can’t be useful as well as annoying. So I’m going to check those out and maybe give them a limited try to see how it all works.
Goodreads also has a large number of discussion groups dedicated to crime, ebooks, Australian fiction and more, and I’m going to start checking those out and maybe joining a few. However, I’m not going to just join and then dump a HEY DOODZ BUY MY BOOK IT’S GREAT SEE YA post, because that’s just spammy bullshit. The thing I keep telling people who ask about ebook promotion – other than that they should really ask someone more qualified – is that it’s about being genuine and about being honestly interested in your book, your genre, your themes and your readers (or at least how they engage with those things). So joining those Goodreads groups – and for that matter similar groups elsewhere – needs to be a genuine attempt to be part of those communities. Which can be time-consuming, but it can also be rewarding, and not just in the Amazon-sales-spike fashion.
And hey, if you are on Goodreads and have read or are thinking of reading The Obituarist, it’d be pretty goddamn sweet if you could add it to your list or leave a review. Every bit helps. If you’re super keen you could recommend it to others, too, but obviously I’d never ask that of you. NEVER.
The thing I’ve gleaned from the graphs above is that the most effective things I’ve done are the various interviews I’ve done about the book on other people’s blogs and on RRR. And that’s not surprising, because interviews and discussions are a chance to not sell the book but to talk about its themes and ideas, the whole digital afterlife concept, my take on Chandlerian crime and other topics – in other words, a chance to talk about and be enthusiastic about writing rather than just this one thing I’ve written. Enthusiasm is infectious, after all, and interviews are a chance to share the love without being a (say it with me) boring spammy snake-oil merchant. They’re also just plain fun to do.
I’ve had a ball doing the ones from last month, and I’m hoping more opportunities come up soon, especially with crime-focused blogs/podcasts or those based outside Australia. I’m working on that, but if you have such a blog, podcast or platform and would be interested in having me pop in for a while to rabbit on about death and Facebook, give me a holler.
Hang on, let me check the wordcount on this post OH HOLY FUCK.
Man, I could go on about this, but if you’ve stuck around for the last 1900 words then I don’t want to punish you by making you endure a thousand more. Let’s bring it back to the core concept – I’ve sold some books, I’m really happy, but I’m going to try to sell more without being any more boring about it than I am already.
Jesus, I could have just said that two hours ago and then gone to bed. The long weekend has left me verbose; we should all be grateful that the day job usually leaves me too exhausted to do much more than type a few paragraphs and dump in a LOLcat.
If any of this has been useful to you, I am a) shocked and b) glad. And if you think my ideas have gaps or holes, or that I really should learn to edit them down, then speak up! Please, help turn this blog’s comment function into more than a spam-trap and leave me your thoughts.