Decisions, decisions

It’s been a great week. I've never had this much time to dedicate completely to writing, and I feel like I've gotten lots done even though I've not actually written a word. I've gone through the whole novel from start to finish and have extensive character notes, timeline fixes and general improvements to the book. I also have a shiny new bit of software that’s going to make it a hell of a lot easier to implement those changes and come out with something on the other side that I’ll be pretty happy with. Just need to knuckle down and get it done. I'm already into reworking the second chapter, so only another 24 to go. As well as the work itself, however, I've also been doing a lot of thinking about my potential writing career and how I want it to take shape. My assumption always was, as I've said before, to go down the traditional publishing route, however hard that happened to be. As I've done more and more reading (and podcast listening) though, it seems that it’s more and more a closed system, an impenetrable bubble that now only exists to service its established authors and big brand names.

Yesterday we went to our local ginormo-shopping village to buy a coat (I know, the excitement, right?) and I took a stroll into WHSmiths to have a look at the books and try and avoid yet more clothes shops. I wish I’d taken a picture of what I saw in there, because it totally summed up my view of the state of traditional publishing right now. There were two long aisles of books, along the shelves of which were big cards sticking out to make the big brand authors stick out. Stephen King, Dan Brown, Lee Child etc. When you looked at the shelves themselves, the books of these big names accounted for at least 80% of the books on offer. There was no room for the little man, unless you happen to have made it onto the shelf marked ‘Richard & Judy Book Club’ or ‘Booker Nominees.’

Thoroughly depressing. But it confirmed what I've suspected for a while now. I need to go down a different road. I'm going to self publish.

Thinking about it, committing yourself to the traditional route at the expense of all other options is a bit like forming a band and only ever releasing an album if one of the major labels come and pick you up. If I only listened to bands that did that, well shit, I’d never listen to music again. My own sensibilities in music, art, reading and pretty much everything else run to the more independently minded, so why the hell wouldn't I be an independent author? Live and die by the quality of your work, put the effort in and give it a shot, on your own terms.

So that’s the decision; but of course off of that come a whole range of other decisions. All the advice I've seen says that in order to market yourself properly that you need more than one property to market. At the moment I don’t even have that. So the first decision I'm taking is to do NaNoWriMo this year. I’ll put aside the work on Blood on the Motorway for the whole of November and try and thrash out the bulk of a first draft for its sequel. Then I’ll have one book close to completion, one at least under way, and perhaps I can think about launching the both of them by the end of next year, along with a third book, a non-fiction book based around my 500 album challenge.

It’s a lot of work, and there’s an awful lot of research I need to do to work out how to do it right. Ideally, I’d like to be looking at being able to do this full time within a decade. How feasible that is depends on a ridiculous amount of factors, but it’s good to have a goal.

Thankfully the self-publishing crowd seems to be one that’s really open to helping new authors. It looks from the outside to be a community that’s determined to help the whole grow. From The Self Publishing Podcast (I’ve made it 20 episodes in now, only another 140 to go), to bloggers like David Goughran and Joanna Penn there’s a hell of a lot of advice out there to go on.

Death to the Word

I can remember the first thing I ever wrote, a short story of abuse set in an elderly care home called ‘Granny Farming in the UK’. It was inspired by a Carter USM B-Side, and was written the old fashioned way, on paper with a pen. It was the last time that would ever happen. I can’t really remember what the next thing I wrote was, but I know one thing, it was written in Microsoft Word. When I first started writing it was roughly around the time that my school started getting these big old boxes delivered into classrooms called computers. IT became a new subject and I was introduced to Word, the writing software that would become my default word processor for the decades to come, save for those occasions where I had to resort to Open Office, itself a poor cousin of the Microsoft behemoth.

Word is a pain in the arse, quite frankly. I know a lot of my fellow writers still love it, but it drives me up the wall, especially if you try and write a novel in a single document. Every time you open it it goes straight back to the top of the document, meaning you have to scroll through a couple of hundred of pages to get to the end. Formatting is a nightmare; if you try working on a few different computers and collate your work into one document you’ll find all kinds of inconsistencies (my book is littered with different ‘ marks, for instance). Maybe it’s better than I think and I’ve just been using it like a dumbass (not entirely outside the realms of possibility) but it drives me nuts.

Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about another way to go; Scrivener. As I’ve been delving more into the world of self-publishing (more on that another time) I’ve been hearing a lot of authors talking about this magical platform that makes writing easier and allows you to export your book into e-book formats. I watched a ten minute video on it and was hooked. I’ve been using it for four days now (there’s a 30 day free trial) and while I initially lost a day setting the novel up in the new format (and it really is a completely different experience) it’s already paying massive dividends.

Rather than a single document to work with I now have a project, which splits each chapter down individually or allows you to work on the whole document, but also allows you to gather research materials, character profiles and anything else that you want into the project, This has been an absolute lifesaver as I’ve been going through the editing process. Now each chapter has an easy synopsis so that I can navigate it easily, plus its own notes section that can hold all the things I want to change about it in the next draft.

So now I’m back on track, and using a new piece of software that actually feels like it’s designed with writers in mind. How novel.

I’ve got the third drafting blues

Progress on Blood of the Motorway, my soon-to-be-mediocre-selling tale of apocalypse and stale sandwiches, has slowed of late, because its author (me, keep up) has entered waters as yet uncharted. The murky world of the third draft. The first two drafts were easy. Actually, that’s a lie. The first two drafts have been like drawing a particularly stubborn splinter out of the sole of my feet, but taking years to do it. In fact, if we’re going to use that analogy, I spent three years pulling the splinter out of my foot before deliberately and consciously making a copy of the original splinter and then reinserting it; before taking another year and a half to extract it again.

Still, second draft was officially finished about a month ago, leaving me with a manuscript that I’m fairly happy with, albeit one that still needs a fair bit of TLC. But what to do now? When I finished my first draft I’d also just read On Writing by Stephen King, which it seemed to me had a lot of good stuff to say about approaching your second draft. Firstly, stick it in a drawer for at least six weeks. I did that. Then go through it making notes. Did that too. Then retype the whole thing, rather than tinkering with an existing manuscript.

I did that too, and my book is in a hell of a lot better shape as a result. When you have to manually retype the whole lot, you get a lot less precious about keeping stuff, allowing you to really strip out the dead wood, or completely deviate from the original draft when things aren’t working. This is why I have a manuscript I’m pretty happy with. If you’re a writer rounding off your first draft I’d highly recommend it.

For this new phase, however, it’s really hard to get motivated. I have a manuscript, but it needs work. It needs me to re-read things I’ve read through many times, and try and fix the problems. It’s no longer creative, it’s maintenance. As it stands my main task is to go through the whole book making note of every character, every event, every way in which my three timelines work, noting where I need to deepen my characters, check the timelines work out, note the plot holes along the way. It is, to be frank, a deeply unexciting job. I have a project planner for the whole thing ant it looks remarkably like the kind of work I already do all day. I don’t want to do more of what I already do all day.

But I have to suck it up. I’ve given years over to this thing, endless nights when I could have just as easily spent my time watching DVD’s or eating cake, or even eating cake whilst watching DVD’s. I can’t let it all be a waste just because it’s boring crossing the final hurdle.

Once more unto the draft, dear writer.

Recharged

It’s been nearly a month now since I did any work on the novel, and as per usual after this length of time away I’m starting to get a hankering to go back to it. Thank the hypothetical non-specific deity of choice for that. I live in perpetual fear that one of these days I’ll take a little break from writing to recharge my creative batteries and find that they are leaking acid all over the place and need to be binned forever and that’ll be it, my illustrious writing career over before I’ve even managed to finish a single book. Thankfully there seems to be some juice in that tank still, so come Monday I’ll be dusting off the old manuscript and seeing if I can eke out a thousand words or so more towards the end of the second draft. There’s three reasons behind the hankering, I think, beyond the old fashioned stubbornness of wanting to finish the bloody thing after so long. First, going back to Sunderland, my University town of old and the starting place for the novel, rekindled some of what first started me down this road, back when I first sat down and started writing about two guys dreaming of a road trip in a very different book to the one I’m now writing. Being stood outside my old house with the friend who was the basis for one of those characters didn’t hurt either. Ever since then half formed thoughts and notes keep popping into my head, and I’m itching to go back to those early chapters and revisit them.

Secondly, I’ve recently joined an online writing group, and their daily posts and nudges and discussions popping up in my facebook feed are far more effective at getting me back to the computer than I thought they’d be. I normally avoid these kinds of groups, composed as they usually are of people flogging their own solutions, blogs, courses etc. But this group is much more laid back than all that. It all started off the back of a writing competition for the book club of a dreadful celebrity couple with no taste. When they failed to announce their shortlist at the pre-announced time their facebook page was bombarded with impatient writers wanting updates. Over the course of the next few days, this slowly turned into a blitz spirit as people sat hitting refresh on the page as the hope drained away with every passing hour. Predictably, with it being all wannabe writers, some of the threads became incredibly amusing and heartfelt and probably more readable than the incredibly generic sounding titles that made the eventual shortlist.

Some bright spark decided to form a group off the back of it, and quite accidentally it’s become an actual thing that lives and breathes. I’m not really into sharing my work online with them for critiquing as a lot of them do (mainly because I can barely find the time to write as it is, let alone returning the critiquing favour) but the discussions on there are great, and there’s always stuff going up about new competitions and submission guidelines and all that sort of thing. It’s quite splendid really, and every time I see someone posting about their daily progress it makes me want to sit back down and open the manuscript again. So if any of you are reading this, cheers!

Lastly, I’m reading an absolutely brilliant book at the moment, which always provokes the contrary twin reactions of self-doubt and inspiration. Self-doubt because great writing always makes me question whether I could ever reach those kinds of levels, and inspiration because I want to be someone who does. The book I’m reading at the moment is Old Gold by Jay Stringer, the husband of my oldest internet friend. I’ve meant to get round to it for ages (he’s recently published the third in the series) because you should support people you (kind of) know and because his aforementioned wife is a stonkingly awesome person (and a fantastically talented writer herself), and I’ve been feeling guilty about not picking it up. I’m now three quarters of the way through Old Gold and I can add feeling stupid to feeling guilty, because it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years. If you like crime novels then you should absolutely get on it, because it’s both brilliantly inventive and wonderfully written, with a central character who is utterly identifiable to me even though I’m in no way a half Romany ex-policeman living in Wolverhampton. Anyway, I’m burning through it at a rate of knots at the moment, and already have books two and three lined up to follow it, and with every page I am itching to open my own novel and try and make my imaginary reader feel the same way Jay is making me feel.

Work, football, sleep, work etc

I tell you, it ain’t half draining, this World Cup. I’m trying to watch as much of it as I can possibly manage, and even then I’m missing at least one match a day. I keep looking at the 11pm kick off and thinking I might just give it ago, but then my common sense engines kick in again and I force myself to bed and watch the highlights the next day. Last night at dinner E turned to me and said ‘you know you don’t have to watch every match.’ At least I think that’s what she was saying, I was only half listening because the football was on. But it’s not a question of ‘having’ to watch the matches. I want to. This tournament has been quite brilliant so far, with the exception of the odd match here and there. It’s a right royal festival of football and I’m in until the end, even if it’s at the expense of having any other free time, doing any writing or indeed conversing with my family.

Reading that back I must seem like some kind of monster (not the Metallica documentary, or indeed the rubbish Metallica song it’s named after) and maybe I am, but I’m very lucky to have a partner who hates football but is happy to put up with the excesses of this particular part of my personality. She’s fab really. Either that or she’s secretly pleased of the opportunity to have Netflix to herself and stare at John Hamm each evening. I suspect it’s actually the latter. Anyway it’s Spain v Chile later, so let’s see if one of the favourites can get knocked out of the tournament after only their second game. I will be cheering on Chile, along with I suspect almost everyone who isn’t Spanish.

In other news, it seems that persistence does pay off after all, as there is a brand new Kindle winging its way to me as we speak. Hopefully I should be able to get my greasy little mitts on it tomorrow, which means I need to buy those Jon Ronson books again. Turns out having a fancy title in your email signature does have benefits after all.

Footenballus Interruptus

I’ve got more on the general news of renewal shortly but in the meantime there’s a festival of sport starting tonight and I’m too excited to think about anything else. I’m like a hyperactive schoolchild presented with a month long supply of sweets. So I’ve decided in the interest of my own sanity to take a break from writing for the next month to allow me to soak up the utter majesty of the world’s greatest festival of sport and corruption. Don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging though. Or; sorry, I won’t be stopping with the blogging. Depending on your outlook.

So, tonight I will be strapping in to watch Brazil play Croatia while all around them the home team’s country burns in a fire of fully justified protestation, so if you need me, that’s where I’ll be. I should be boycotting the tournament on the grounds of, well, FIFA, but gosh darn it it’s the World Cup, and they only come around every four years, and I’m far too excited. Not only that, but I’m actually excited about an England line up for the first time since Euro 96!

Come on footenballers, score a footenballengoal!

Change in the house of me; part the first

Note: This was written before I heard about Rik Mayall. Needless to say it's horrible that one of my childhood heroes has gone. Rubbish. Anyway... It’s been all go with me recently. I’m a sucker for a self improvement project, even if I’ve rarely seen them through to the end. Mostly I blog about wanting to do something and then that’s as far as it goes, as anyone who remembers my ‘Year of Health’ debacle can attest. Before I get to the good stuff, however, I suffered something of a minor bereavement this week. I was travelling with work, and it involved an overnight stay in a hotel chain that one tends to associate with its heiress’ indiscretions. Naturally, with a total of 8 hours travel and an overnight stay I had my Kindle with me. Unfortunately, when I got home I no longer had it. I left it in the room, and the hotel are now disavowing all knowledge, despite the fact that I totally left it in my bed.

So now I am Kindle-less. I loved my Kindle. As an avid technophile on a limited budget, I was ecstatic when I won it in a work competition nearly a year and a half ago. I went from paper books to screens with nary a backward glance, and my book consumption rate skyrocketed, despite the ever present distraction of the entire internet. I even overlooked the fact that the Kindle OS is cumbersome and refuses to stock more than a handful of decent apps.

I phoned Amazon and they were very good about it, even refunding me the money for the triple pack of Jon Ronson books I had queued up for when I finally trudged through Pride & Prejudice. But now I am a sad man.

In order to cheer myself up I headed straight for the nearest supermarket (well, I was going there anyway to buy wine to ease the pain) and picked up a book at random, a schlocky thriller by a first time author that described itself as ‘Bourne meets Homeland meets The Wire’ which I am already enjoying immensely. It’s heavy though, and I can’t seem to access Tumblr through it.

I wont be getting a Kindle next time, if I can avoid it, for the reasons listed above. I’d like more of an actual tablet next time. But given that I’m not likely to find myself able to get one until a bearded fat man in a red suit brings me one, looks like it’s back to the paper age I go.

The hiatus

I can definitely state that my decision to take a two week hiatus from writing was a good one, at least from my current perspective of someone with nearly a week of hiatusy goodness still ahead of him. Quite what I will think of it next week when I’m trying to re-engage my brain to the task of writing is another matter, and one for the future, so let’s not worry about it now. Last week was a write off for reasons of stress and time and stress and depleted brainpower, not to mention stress, but I’ve now had two evenings that would normally have been spent wrestling words out of my head that have instead been spent in blissful relaxation. I’ve watched Sopranos, I’ve sped through the third book of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy at an alarming (for me) rate, and I’ve listened to the new and incredible Swans album on endless repeat, all safe in the knowledge that I’m completely free to do these things, freed by the magical power of the hiatus.

The problem is that a boy could get used to this, to putting the kids to bed when my partner is working the night shift and not immediately opening the same laptop I’ve been using all day and trying to turn my head back on. I sat on the sofa last night, listening to the aforementioned album, reading the aforementioned book and wondered to myself why I don’t allow myself to do this every night.

The answer, of course, is guilt. I feel guilty when I think about the time that I’ve already put into my writing, and how it would have been wasted if I don’t carry on. I feel guilty about the demands I’ve put on my family in the name of ‘becoming a writer.’ But mostly I feel guilty when I think about the younger me, the one who always dreamed of being an author, who wanted that above almost anything other than being an international rock star, and I feel guilty that I’ve not quite managed to turn that dream into a reality.

I have to keep trying, for him. That’s what I’ll tell myself next Monday, when it’s time to crack open the manuscript again. Hopefully that’ll be enough.