The Spoken Word (Part 3)

I gave a speech recently at the Thirroul Library covering three topics which have occupied my mind to a great extent over the past year or two. The topics were Wings, eBooks and Writing. This post contains the third topic, which is some thoughts on writing. (Here are the links to the earlier parts of the speech about Wings and eBooks).

The audience seemed to enjoy my talk, so I’ve decided to post it here on my blog. I hope you enjoy it too …

The final thing I’ll do tonight is share a few thoughts about writing.

Given I’m not a professional author (in that it’s not my main source of income), the hardest aspect of writing is making the time to do it. When asked for their most important tip to would be authors, many established authors simply respond with one word: ‘write’. But it’s easier said than done. I have a wife, a full-time job and four kids. I like to exercise as well.

Finding time to write amongst those responsibilities is easier said than done. When I’m in the midst of a writing project, I try to aim for 700 – 1000 words a day on at least 5 days a week. That word count typically takes me around an hour, often split over two or three mini-sessions. Possible times include early in the morning before anyone in the house is awake, a few minutes in my lunchbreak at work or in the evening when the kids are in bed and my wife is catching up on her soapies. It’s a regime that needs to be kept up over weeks and months in order to craft a novel, and relies more on dedication and planning than any particular writing genius.

It’s not a regime that I’ve been able to keep up year-in and year-out, but is something that I can manage for a few months at a time.

What else can I say about writing? Lots of reading is important. The aim of reading is not to find new story ideas, but to develop new techniques and ways of telling a story. Someone once described it to me as reading with a writer’s eye, attempting to analyse what the author is trying to achieve and how they’re doing it.

For me, professional assistance was also important in taking the step up to be published. I received this assistance twice. The first time was when I initially submitted Wings to a publisher. They replied telling me that they liked the concept, and the writing was good, but it wasn’t quite at publishable standard. They suggested I get a “reader’s report” – a review of Wings written by a professional editor highlighting weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. I did as they suggested, and received a report with a number of suggestions.

It took me a couple of months to work the suggestions into the manuscript. When I had done so, I submitted to Really Blue Books, and received an acceptance within a few short weeks. However, that wasn’t the end of the professional development.

I spent another few months revising Wings, incorporating the subtle changes and improvements that Sarah, my publisher, suggested. The overall story didn’t undergo too much in the way of surgery, but the enhancements and clarifying touches that she brought to the entire process elevated the finished product to another level. There wasn’t a page that didn’t have at least one minor revision and I was delighted with what she brought to the table.

Having seen how much the manuscript was enhanced through the input of a professional editor, I would be very reluctant to self-publish something which hadn’t been through such a process. This is despite the fact that I obviously learnt many things from these skilful editors which I have incorporated into my subsequent writing.

Given Wings has been professionally edited and had a cover designed for it, I did take the opportunity to make it available in hardcopy (Mum really wanted one and she doesn’t have an eReader). This was a very satisfying process. Despite all the positive aspects of eBooks, I really enjoyed holding a physical copy of my own creation.

Writing remains a work in progress for me. Since Wings, I’ve written a novella about parents whose first baby develops complications and is whisked into intensive care within a few hours of the birth. This novella (A Painted Room) is currently being edited. I’m also halfway through my next novel, called Lessons from a Two Year Old. This is about a thirty-something, single IT geek who still lives with his parents. He gets dragged into baby-sitting his two year old niece, and she turns his life upside down. He’ll have plenty of mishaps along the way, as, inspired by his independence seeking niece, he seeks a new job, a new wardrobe, and – of course – his first girlfriend.

I’ve often been asked where I get my ideas from. The short answer is that I derive them from my own experiences and observations. As mentioned, Wings is inspired by the lives of my grandfather and brother. A Painted Room was written following the birth of my youngest son who spent the first week of his life in intensive care (thankfully he’s made a full recovery and is a happy and healthy one year old). Lessons from a Two-Year old originated from a conversation at work. A friend was talking about her two year old and how he had displayed a momentary touch of wisdom. I replied to her that she was getting lessons from a two year old and the turn of phrase grabbed my fancy. I wrote it down, and then spent a bit of time trying to think of a plot that could support such a title. I’m hoping that the plot I have developed will be a winner for me, although I’ve still got plenty of hard work in front of me in order to make it a reality.

Thanks again for listening to me today. I hope that at least some of what I’ve shared about Wings and my writing has been of interest to you. If you do have any questions, I’d be happy to try to answer them.

Navigating my blog

Thanks for stopping by my blog. After an intensive six months of blogging, I’m taking a break to spend more time with my family and work on my next book. But wait! Don’t go. There’s plenty of interesting material on this site to keep you entertained and informed so make yourself a coffee, settle back in your chair, and keep browsing.

To make things easy, I’ve compiled a roadmap to help you find the posts most relevant for you.

My two favourite posts (and they’re very different) were An Innocent’s Introduction to Horror and The Circle of Life (which was also my very first post).

I have excerpts from Wings introducing the two main characters, Walt and Scott.

If you’re interested in how I go about writing a novel, checkout 700 words a day, Structured or Unstructured, Evolution of a Cover, or Editors: Who needs them?

Want to know more about setting and achieving goals? See Which Goals to Chase, Fear of Failure, The Daily Habit, The Importance of Being Precise, The Benefits of Lists or Post-goal Letdown.

There are also posts about the use of social media, some great interviews with other authors and even a few jokes!

Thanks again for visiting. I hope the extensive links above will help to give you an insight into writing, assist you to be more productive or simply give you a chuckle. If you’d like to give me feedback about this blog or Wings, or there’s any other questions you’d like to ask, don’t hesitate to drop me a line. My details are on the contact page.

Is blogging a waste of time?

In the old days, if you wanted to be heard in a crowd, you brought a soap box along and stood on it so you’d be visible. But what if everyone stood on a soap box? How could you be heard then?

I wonder if the current situation where every author has a social media platform – including Twitter, blogging, Facebook and Goodreads – is akin to everyone standing on a soap box. Is a social media platform enabling you to stand out from the crowd? Or simply making you a part of the crowd?

Today’s post is intended to be thought-provoking and raises more questions than answers. Consider the following:

  • If you get a new follower on Twitter who already follows 5,000 others, what is the likelihood that he’s going to engage with you, much less buy your book?
  • How many blog posts will it take before you get someone over the line and they decide to finally buy your book? 1 blog post? 5 posts? 10 posts?
  • Is it essential that you post regularly and religiously? Or once you’ve built up a store of posts, is that enough to give people a sense of who you are and what you’re about? Should you confine your social media activities to the immediate period before/after the release of a new book?
  • What is the purpose of a social media platform? An enjoyable activity? To connect with others? To sell books? To build up a brand or presence? To distract you from your writing?
  • How can you make your social media platform stand out? Are you simply using a soap-box that’s the same size as everyone else? Are you simply part of the crowd?

Perhaps the most important question of all: What return are you getting from your blogging and is it worth your while to keep doing it?

Editors – Who needs them?

With the advent of Ebooks, publishing a novel is easier than it’s ever been. There is the small task of writing the novel, but once that’s done you simply need to slap on a cover and upload it to Amazon or an equivalent site. The traditional role of an editor is seemingly no longer required. Or is it?

There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.”

I certainly found this to be the case when I wrote my novel, Wings. It took more than a year to write, although this included a period of nine months when it sat in the drawer, untouched and almost forgotten. When it was finished, I sent it to a publisher and prepared to wait.

I didn’t have to wait long.

“We like it,” replied the publisher within a week. “But it’s not of publishable standard yet. You can pitch it to other publishers if you like, but our recommendation would be to obtain a reader’s report.”

I took their advice and requested a reader’s report, which is a manuscript assessment by an accomplished editor. After six weeks, the report came back. It contained general comments about areas of weakness, as well as a specific example of where the weakness could be found in my manuscript. It was up to me to understand the comment and example and work out how to apply the feedback to the remainder of the manuscript.

The two major weaknesses were a lack of revelation of the character’s emotional response to major events and a scarcity of description about setting. They did observe that my natural writing style was lean and uncluttered, so they cautioned me against going too far with my descriptions and emotional responses. There were also some mechanical issues such as an over-reliance on “ly” adverbs and a passive writing style through the use of words such as “had”, “was” and “am”.

The reader’s report was an excellent initiative and assisted me to make the leap from “gifted amateur” to “polished professional.” The suggestions rang true and the fact that they used examples of my own writing to point out the areas for improvement helped me to grasp their suggestion and apply it to the rest of the novel. The fact that a publisher expressed interest in my work provided more than enough incentive for me to continue the process of refinement.

It took me a couple of months to rework the manuscript in accordance with the feedback. Within ten days of submitting Wings to Really Blue Books, I had an offer to publish. This was not the end of the editing process. My fantastic editor at Really Blue Books went through Wings line by line, identifying inconsistencies and weaknesses, and making numerous suggestions for improvements. None of the changes by themselves were large, but when put together, they have combined to make Wings immeasurably better than my first (and second) attempt.

In summary, professional editing help can be of great assistance in raising the standard of your novel and making it attractive to publishers. Despite the fact that Wings had been written to a high standard, the advice and feedback I have received from my editors has enabled me to raise the bar significantly. The Japanese proverb has proven true. The insights I have gained from my editors have been worth more than a thousand days diligent labour on my part, and I can now apply the learnings to my future novels. However, even with the learnings I have attained, I’ll still be looking for an editor when I’m ready to release my next book!

Three ways to increase the efficiency of your Twitter Usage

Twitter Tools My previous post discussed three ways of using Twitter to further your writing career. It covered some underlying approaches and philosophies to increase the effectiveness of twitter usage. Today’s post is about some of the tools to help you to be more efficient in your tweeting.

  1. The first thing you can do is schedule your tweets. Using tools such as hootsuite, tweetdeck or bufferapp you can line up your tweets to help you maintain an online presence, even when you’re away. You can also use these tools to pre-plan your tweets around major events such as publication dates or significant promotions; this will enable you to unleash a coherent and well-thought out set of tweets to coincide with your big day.
  2. It’s one thing to schedule your tweets, but how do you know the best time to release them? Tweriod is one tool which can help you understand the profile of your followers. If you log onto tweriod.com, you can request an analysis of your tweets and followers. Tweriod will provide you a free report, showing the number of your followers online on an hour-by-hour basis.  You can use this information to schedule your tweets for the most optimum times (for me, the best times were between 2AM and 3AM, and between 6AM and 7AM). For important tweets, it also makes sense to schedule the same message multiple times (to cater for different timezones) using your scheduling tool.
  3. Tweepi is another useful tool you can use to manage your followers and those you follow. It offers functionality such as automatically cease following those who aren’t following you in return, reciprocate and follow any followers you don’t currently follow, or find a swag of relevant followers by automatically following an @user’s followers.

I’m still learning about Twitter so I’m sure there are other tools I haven’t come across yet. I’d be very happy to receive any comments or suggestions about such tools.

Three ways to use Twitter more effectively

Twitter is a social media platform used by hundreds of millions of people to connect, stay in touch and share information. However, with only 140 characters with which to communicate, many people wonder how Twitter can be used effectively. There are three overall approaches I use to get benefit out of Twitter.

1. I follow writers. Many writers tweet about writing related topics (writing technique, marketing, etc) which gives me a great opportunity to learn new tools or consider innovative new approaches I hadn’t previously considered.  Some of my favourite writers to follow include @JaniceHardy, @JodyHedlund and @mooderino.

2. I have found numerous book reviewers via Twitter. For starters, you can search for “book review” or “book reviewer” or “book lover”. Secondly, the writers you’re following (point 1 above) often tweet about reviews of their book and who did them. You can follow the trail to the reviewer, make contact with them and source a review for your book.

3. Grow your own pool of followers through being a positive and insightful contributor to Twitter. Be a personable tweeter, providing information and good humour. Retweet comments you find interesting or useful. Engage in conversations. Follow those who follow you. And don’t just spruik your own book - this will turn people off. As a rule of thumb, I suggest that no more than thirty percent of your tweets should be promotional. You need to give as well as take.

Using the three techniques listed above can ensure great value is derived from Twitter. They’re approaches to help you be effective in your use of this relatively new platform. Next week, I’ll post about three tools you can use to help you increase the efficiency of your Tweeting efforts.

No Fantasy

My son is an avid Harry Potter fan. He has read each book in the series numerous times, and it seems like the first thing he does after working through all of the books is start again with ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’. He also moderates a Harry Potter fan-site with more than fifteen thousand followers. He recently asked me if I’d write a fantasy novel.

“I can’t see that happening,” I replied. “Unfortunately my imagination doesn’t work in that way.”

Although I have read and enjoyed numerous fantasy series – Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and the Belgariad for starters – they only constitute a small part of my reading diet. I’m not so enthused about the fantasy genre that I’d be willing to spend the time working through all the details required to create a brand new world.

In order to invest the emotional energy to complete a novel, I have found that I have to pick a subject, theme or characters about which I feel strongly and understand. I have to stay within my circle of competence – things I know – and I have to write about truth as I see it.

This doesn’t mean I can’t research things to supplement my knowledge.

However, it does mean that when I write, the core of what I’m writing has to be familiar and well understood. This applies to the subjects I cover and also the underlying themes. Sticking to what is true for me is the only way I can sit down for weeks and months on end to write tens of thousands of words.

Maybe when I’m a more experienced author, I’ll be able to write novels about anything. For the moment, I need to stick to writing what I know.

Which means, no fantasy.

The Daily Habit

One of the problems with doing things that are good for us is that it can often be hard to summon the energy or willpower to start.

Take exercise for example. When the alarm goes off at six o’clock in the morning, the last thing you may feel like is getting up and lacing on the joggers. Smacking the alarm clock, rolling over and attempting to grab another hour of sleep may be your natural reaction.

Similarly for those who write, sitting in front of the keyboard and a blank screen can be quite a daunting prospect. At times like this, checking email, Facebook, twitter or the news may seem like a much more attractive proposition.

However, giving in to immediate temptation (whether it be sleep or email) will not help you get to where you want to go.

Someone once told me that you never feel worse after exercising. I have always found this to be true*. Similarly, there are few first drafts so bad they cannot be revised and edited into something presentable at a later date. However you can do nothing with a blank sheet of paper.

If you are shooting for a long-term goal, do keep making the right decisions to support that goal on a day by day basis, because these decisions will be habit forming. I have read that it can take a month of daily repetition for something to become a habit. The first month may be hard (particularly the second and third weeks), but if you push through it gets easier after that point. When you are struggling through these hard weeks, think about how far ahead you’ll be after three months of regular exercise or daily writing** compared to daily procrastination. After a few months, the difference between nothing and a daily something could be five or ten kilos off your weight or twenty thousand words down on paper, to say nothing of your improved sense of well-being.

The final thing I should say is that I often fall short in my attempts to maintain my daily habits so if you’ve got any tips which help you maintain your enthusiasm, I’d be interested in hearing them.

* If you were to get run over by a car whilst completing your morning jog, you probably would feel worse, so do make sure you look both ways before crossing the street.

** Insert your own benefits here, depending on what your goal and desired regular routine is.

Structured or Unstructured?

I’ve been asked a number of times whether I write in a fully planned and structured way or fly by the seat of my pants.

The answer is a bit of both. I’m working on my third novel, and so far they’ve all developed in a similar way. I start off with a rush of enthusiasm and just write. I have a vague idea about the storyline and characters but no real sense of where it’s going or how it will end.

This works for a while – usually about ten thousand words – and then I seem to run out of steam. I find it difficult to continue, and sometimes, I come to the realisation that not everything I’ve written is working.

It is at this point that I normally sit down and plan the rest of the novel. I identify the major plot developments, a good number of the scenes and what will happen to the characters. I use ‘Scrivener’ as my writing tool, and it is fantastic for creating placeholders for all of these pieces. I normally identify all of the chapters, as well as the main scenes in each chapter.

I often have to throw away a chunk of what was written in the initial burst of enthusiasm – often as much as a third or even a half – although I don’t mind because this creative outpouring plays a significant role in shaping the story in my mind.

With the novel now planned out in detail, it’s time to write again. I focus on completing each of the scenes identified in my outline, one at a time. My work is very structured when I’m in this mode, although there is still room for spontaneity. Often as I’m working through a scene I’ll get some new ideas which take the scene in a different direction than I originally anticipated. I also get ideas for new scenes which I register in Scrivener for subsequent development.

Once all the scenes have been written, the first draft is complete. Then it’s time for the real work to begin!

Fear of Failure?

One barrier which can prevent us chasing our goals is fear of failure. Whether this comes about because we’re scared of the sensation of failing, of what others may think of us or some other reason, the effect is the same: we remain paralysed.

When I find myself in that situation, there are three things I often think about to help me move forward.

The first is that failure situations can be the opportunities for greatest growth. Almost every member of the world champion Australian cricket team got dropped at some point in their career. They all came back better than ever. When we fail, it can prompt us to stop and reflect. We analyse what we did wrong and how we could do it better. This can be a great gift which can help us establish new insights and propel us to greater heights.

I’ll throw to J.K. Rowling for the second consideration. She said:

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

I don’t think there’s anything I need to add to that.

The third thing to consider is managing consequences so that if you do fail, you fail in a safe way. This is an optional consideration. When nothing but your absolute all will do, there may be times when it is appropriate to adopt the ‘crash, or crash through’ mentality. In other situations, you can take action to reduce the consequences of failure. For example, although I am trying to establish myself as a writer, I haven’t given up my day job. This means if I don’t sell millions of books, I will still have a roof over my head. Similarly, in my early days of writing, I was worried about what people might think, so I wrote in a low profile way, telling few people about what I was doing.

By taking these three steps, I have found that I am able to move beyond the fear of failure in order to chase my goals. Of course, I don’t always succeed (at least the first time), but that is often part of the opportunity for growth.