Saturday, July 19, 2014

Good news, bad news.

One of my favourite writers on the subject of screenwriting is Bill Martell, he's a dedicated writer of action scripts and is the go-to guy if you want to learn how to make your action sequences worthwhile and memorable.

The following is all gleaned from his daily script tips and the applied to some prose writing I've been doing recently (in fact I've been writing stories almost exclusively for the past year - it's all part of a cunning plan).

So, I've been serialising a Steampunk story, set in 1874, on Google Plus (my social medium of choice), and it's been getting good feedback. The writing itself is a bit rough in places because I'm essentially publishing a first draft. I write it on a train on Friday afternoon, it gets read over by me and my alpha reader and published within 12 hours (usually less). Luckily, my first drafts aren't totally appalling.

The episode I wrote yesterday was an explosion of action after weeks of building the tension as the first three men in space, discover they aren't and board an apparently derelict spaceship, only to find evidence of fighting and finally someone alive who pulls a gun on them.

What happens next is the good news-bad news approach to action sequences, as delineated by Bill Martell. You can read what he has to say here: Reversals in Action Of course this uses movies as examples because, well, Bill is a screenwriter.

But this works perfectly in prose writing as well, it should it's about suspense and engagement.

The following is a description of the action good news-bad news. If you haven't read it then this will completely spoil it. You can read it here first.

Our protagonist has just thrown his helmet at the man who has his gun trained on the three crew, exploring the apparently derelict ship, to distract him.

Good news: He's distracted! And fires off a random shot.

Bad news: There's an explosion in the hull and the air starts rushing out into space.

Good news: The bad guy retreats, presumably to get his own spacesuit on.

Bad news: Protagonist's helmet is being pulled towards the ruptured hull.

Worse news: He's hanging in the air weightless, with no way of moving.

Good news (phew): The Captain deliberately bumps into him to push him to the wall.

Bad news: It's going to be a close thing but

Good news: He launches himself to get his helmet.

Bad news: He misses and comes up against the window.

Worse news: Our protagonist looks through the window and sees three men in spacesuits, and guns.

Good news: The Engineer grabs his helmet and blocks the escaping air with his body.

Better news: Protagonist gets his helmet.

Awful news: It's got a hole in it from the random gunshot!

Good-ish news: The engineer starts to remove his own helmet to give it to him.

Bad news: The engineer is shot by the men outside.

And that's it. This also illustrates the importance of stakes. We've been with the protagonist for a few weeks and, though he's a bit of a wimp, he's a decent guy in a strange situation. I knew this scene was coming so I spent the previous two episodes building up the engineer, because until he'd been something of a non-entity. And we needed to care more about him so that this scene had more impact.

I hope that's valuable.

What's on the turntable? "Second sitting for the Last Supper" by 10cc from "The Original Soundtrack"

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Selling books like Hendrix playing

In the various communities of writers you often see posts from people saying "I've just self-published my first book how do I promote it?" which, roughly translated, means "how do I make people buy my book?"

The answer to this question is very simple: You don't. The very last thing you want to do is waste energy (or worse, money) trying. Seriously, just don't. And here's why:

You're on stage with your guitar, standing behind your amplifier. You play a single note. It rings out strong, filling the auditorium and then fades to nothing. Gone.

That's what happens if you publish one book (although you will get some sales forever). But what if you could do this:

You stand in front of your amplifier, you play that same note and it sings out forever - because the sound from the amplifier vibrates the string, which gets played out of the amplifier, which vibrates the string, which gets played out of the amplifier and so on, ad infinitum. Or at least until you get bored or someone unplugs the amp.

That is positive feedback and that's what you're looking for regardless of whether it's traditional or self-publishing. It's just a lot easier to achieve in self-publishing.

Positive feedback in publishing? Yes indeed.

If you have just one book...

When you first publish a book (on, say, Amazon) they give it a little bit of a kick to help it along. Why not? They'd love to make money out of you. So a few people buy the book, pushes it up the chart a bit, makes it a little more visible but once they've bought it they've bought it, so sales drop, the rating drops,visibility (or, more accurately "discoverability") becomes less, which makes it even less likely anyone else will buy it. The sales tail off and die.

You can do some advance marketing, this can help. The start-up kick is bigger but the people who are going to see it and buy it will buy it and after a while it drops down the charts.

Or, maybe you get lucky, maybe this really is a popular book you've written (think Fifty Shades of Grey) and the kick is big, but word of mouth pushes more sales, discoverability goes up and more people buy it. It gets in the news, and sales explode. This is a positive feedback loop but even this eventually tails off, everybody who's going to buy it eventually does and the decline sets in.

What if you have more than one book?

This is stretching the analogy but a single guitar string is equivalent to one book. Every book you publish adds a string like this:

Let's say you take the first option above, you publish a book and don't promote it. Instead you write another book (preferably a sequel). That's published and gets some sales, people like it and they come back and find you have another book, so they buy that. Two sales where before you had just one.

Third book: three sales for one launch. Four books? Four sales. And so it goes on.

But here's the point: As you build the number of books your discoverability increases (you have more books) and when you get a follow-up sale that's another kick in the discoverability of that book. And with all your books cross-promoting each other and pushing each other up the charts you now have positive feedback.

And the analogy completely breaks down.

Because a book is not a recyclable sound wave and guitars seldom have more than six strings.

Once a person has bought a book they don't need to buy it again. So while you can reach a sort of positive feedback point, you still have to keep putting out books to keep triggering a round of further sales. (And reach new people.) If you stop producing the sales will eventually tail off, not to zero but some low level.

Notice that unlike traditional publishing ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks can always continue to be produced. They are always in the shop waiting to be bought.

Additional factors

If you can't write nothing in the universe will make the positive feedback kick in, I don't care how many books you're written. (Fifty Shades may not have been a very well written book but it was readable and caught the public imagination.)

Speed of getting them out. The faster you can produce books the sooner you'll reach the positive feedback point. Although naturally that depends on lots of other factors.

Pricing is not a major point, as long as you don't price too high.

Once you have a number of books available you can then indulge in promotion and marketing but deciding the point at which it becomes worthwhile is an imponderable. These things work best if you are already doing well.

What's on the turntable? "Red House" by Jimi Hendrix

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Writer has 3 Heads

Or How to be the Worzel Gummidge* of writing.

I am very vehement and opinionated -- we could put a full stop there but let us continue -- about how writers should feel about their work. I think you should love your work, love it now, love it in a year and enjoy reading it again in ten years.

Yes, you might see how you could have done it better, after all you have ten years more experience but you should be able to read it and enjoy it. I do. And I think it comes down to interchangeable heads.

Most people talk about the Writer and Editor heads. But I would also add the Reader head.

Everyone in the writing game will tell you: Don't edit when you're writing. This is excellent advice. When you're writing you should only be wearing your Writer head. If you wear your Editor head as well you'll be forever correcting your work and you'll progress so much slower, it's also confusing. And if you have the Reader head in place you'll be noticing how bad your writing is when it's first draft. Well the first draft of anything is shit as Ernest Hemingway eloquently observed. No reader is going to like it.

So then you get to the editing stage. Again the popular advice is leave your manuscript alone for two weeks to a month. Why do they say that? It's so you have time and space to remove your Writer head in relation to that piece of work, so that you can put your Editor head on properly. If you keep your Writer head on you will be arguing with yourself about whether something needs correcting or changing. The Editor head knows what's wrong. The Writer head does not. (And the Reader head doesn't get a look in for the same reason as before.)

What happens when you get notes from other editors or beta-readers? You put your Writer head back on, and see how you can creatively fix the problems. Sometimes it's obvious, but there are times when it isn't.

One problem writers have is knowing when something is ready. A writer is a creative person and can go on creating and recreating forever. Tweaking and changing. Same with the Editor head you can always make improvements. And that's why you need the Reader head, there must be a point where you can don the Reader head, and go through your work as if someone else, completely separate from you, wrote it. I'm not going to claim it's easy, it needs to be practiced.

And if the Reader head likes it, can enjoy it without running into poor sentence construction or plot holes, then you know it's ready.

As you become more skilled and experienced you will learn to swap heads faster and more completely, which is just as it should be. Cultivate your Reader head. (Possibly by planting it in compost - old Worzel would approve.)

* Worzel Gummidge - a scarecrow character from a series of children's books by Barbara Euphan Todd, and played in the 1979-1981 ITV series by Jon Pertwee (Dr Who) and Una Stubbs (most recently in Sherlock) as Aunt Sally. The character had different heads for different occasions.

Worzel Gummidge, ITV

What's on the turntable? Closer to Your Heart by Clannad from Lore.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

May you live in interesting times

Normally I'm very British about things but on this occasion I am going to forego the whole British reserve thing and just say:

I am excited.

Seriously I am very excited.

Why? Well, because the whole writing thing is really coming together, finally.
  • My second novella Blood Sky at Night will be released in about two weeks.
  • I'll be launching the free sample issue of The Lazarus Device comic book somewhere in that time.
  • I'm planning a major non-fiction book related to my day job to be released in the summer.
  • My serialised story Frozen Beauty continues to develop on the Voidships website.
  • And, at long last, I have been commissioned to write a feature film script for real money. (To be delivered in eight weeks or so, and filmed this summer - they're on a deadline.)
Not that I can afford to give up the day job yet, but this is all just brilliant.

What's on the turntable? "Hlj├│malind" by Sigur Ros from "Hvarf/Heim"

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fighting your way to square one.

I'm sorry I've been away for so long. I have been very busy on all sorts of projects but everything has been in such a state of flux that, on the one hand, I didn't feel I had time to write a blog while on the other I wasn't sure I had anything worth saying.

But things are beginning to come together.

In my last post back in March, I ended by saying we had a new plan and that's what I've been working on. I will be going into detail about these things later but let's take an overview.

The big goal is to create a "platform" on which we could base another crowd-funding exercise to fund the making of The Lazarus Machine web-series. (That's actually not the biggest goal but it's the one we're concentrating on.)

To that end it became imperative to build interest in the Voidships universe. "Voidships" is the name of the steampunk universe that Chris Payne and I have created, and in which The Lazarus Machine takes place. Even before the crowd-funding I had written and planned other stories in this universe. And there's a website devoted to it here.

However getting those stories out into the real world - just getting to square one - has been something of a marathon. Well the first story has been published and there are more to come.

And, as I said, I'll be going into this in more detail over the next few weeks.

To be sure you don't miss anything, go to Voidships and add yourself to the mailing list so you stay up-to-date on everything and can take advantage of the free stuff that's coming (it's a proper mailing list and you can unsubscribe easily if you ever want to). Let me leave you with this:

What's on the turntable? "Your Gold Teeth II" by Steely Dan from "Katy Lied"