If in doubt, throw it out – a motto for writing

Quite a bit of what’s written – certainly in this day and age – is really practise, like a pianist running through those interminable Czerny exercises. And like those exercises, the result isn’t really intended to see the light of day.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

I suspect a lot of it does, though – courtesy of the fact that in this age of self-publishing, anybody can publish anything. And a lot of people do. There’s often a mood in writing circles about the preciousness of words. ‘My babies’.

Actually, I’m a great fan of writers throwing stuff away. It’s important – surprisingly so, in fact. Words are merely a tool for expression. If they’re not right – or if the author is on a learning curve – then the best thing, sometimes, is to chuck out the old and re-write. That’s also good practise, because it forces authors to think about how they’re expressing themselves – and to work at tackling the problem from a variety of angles.

It’s a technique that even practised writers – the ones who’re ‘unconsciously competent’ at the art – have to use. Jack Kerouac, allegedly, wrote On The Road in one massive pep-pill fuelled burst. What we might not realise from the “scroll” that poured in one huge sellotaped roll out of his typewriter is that he’d already had several attempts at the book.

They weren’t failures. Kerouac abandoned them because they weren’t capturing what he wanted. But if hadn’t taken the time to get his thoughts into line by writing them, he wouldn’t have been able to then write the “scroll” as he did.

My axiom? Words are easy to assemble. Moulding them to the intended meaning is a lot harder. That’s why I say: if in doubt, throw it out. And (of course) start again. This time having had the practise of expressing the idea once. It’ll work better the second time.

Or the third.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Thanks to E L James’ publicity fail I might have to write Proust fan-fic

In what has to be classed as an epic publicity fail, E. L. James’ Twitter Q&A this week turned into farce when the feed was bombed by people who – well, they didn’t exactly like her books.  Or her.

Wright_Typewriter01
I have to ask. What were her publicists thinking? Sure, Grey is one of the fastest-selling books of all time, following up the previous trilogy. And sure, there have to be a lot of, shall we say, gratified customers out there. But those sales have happened on the back of a repute for those books being very, very badly written porn, reportedly derived from ‘Twilight’ fan fiction.

I have to say ‘repute’ because I haven’t actually read any of James’s work – nor will I. Still, the fact remains that sales are skyrocketing and James is reportedly worth anything from $38 to $58 million, depending on which site you look at. And what did the late Phineas Taylor Barnum once say about nobody ever losing money by under-estimating the taste of the public? Obviously this is where the market’s at, so I now have to decide which famous novel to redo as very, very badly written porn fan fic. Maybe you can help. Which should I pick?

  • Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
  • John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.

My vote’s with the last, but that’s just me. I always did want to summarise Proust.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

OK so what does ‘Kindle Unlimited’ author payment by the page really mean?

I’m not sure yet what to think of the Amazon plan to pay authors enrolled in their Kindle Unlimited programme on a page-basis. This system doesn’t replace the sale model –it runs alongside it and makes books available for Kindle readers, free. Amazon pays authors instead from an undefined ‘pool’.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

This latest amendment simply changes the method of payment from a “10 percent” threshold to a “pages read” measure, in which Amazon defines the page length.

That concept of paying authors ‘compensation’ for royalties lost when books are provided free isn’t original to Amazon. A number of governments – including New Zealand’s – run schemes to provide compensatory royalties to authors that have been otherwise lost via public library borrowing. But it’s not defined on a ‘pages read’ basis.

I can’t help thinking that one outcome of the Amazon initiative will be a reduction of literature to a relentless succession of eight-word advertising jingles and characters dangling off cliffs because, in the author’s mind, they HAVE to get the reader to turn that next page so they’ll get another one half of one cent or whatever it is the Amazon ‘pool’ devolves.

I don’t like the idea that authors who want to join that scheme also have to be ‘exclusive’ to Amazon. That’s not original to Amazon either – I’ve written books that way for a major book chain in the past. But I made sure I was properly paid for it – a defined, up-front figure which I negotiated. It wasn’t dependent on sales. And nor should it be; a shop wanting to be the sole stockist of a particular item should be prepared to buy that monopoly. The difference with the Amazon scheme is that the return is undefined, and to me that’s wrong.

The other objection I have is that in order to pay authors by page, Amazon need to know which pages their customers have read. And they do, because Kindle phones home. A lot. This, my friends, is the age of Big Data and Big Intrusion into ordinary things we do. And on one level, who really cares if Amazon know what, how much, and when you’re reading, and on what device? But the collection of this little bit of trivia, or that, by a variety of service providers, has been normalised in all our dealings with the information age. We don’t know – can’t know – where that might go in a couple of generations. The risk is that the future dystopia we face isn’t George Orwell’s, it’s Aldous Huxley’s. The worry is that it will then become Orwell’s.

It’s not clear to me, yet, where this is heading for authors and readers. I think schemes such as Kindle Unlimited are symptomatic of the fact that we’re in the early days of a revolution in the way books are published and sold. It’s riding on the back of a bigger general change driven by the information revolution, which I think – certainly sociologically – will be in the same league as the industrial revolution 250 years ago.

Amazon are leading the pack at the moment, as far as books are concerned. But the more important outcome, I think, isn’t so much which company dominates as the systems and expectations that flow from the way that information revolution is applied to reading and writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Free is not the answer for selling your e-book

These days I find myself barraged with offers to download books – for nothing, with the blessing of their authors. ‘Here, my book’s always free! Pleeeeeze download it!’

Wright_Typewriter2Bah! I can’t stand ‘always free’. It takes income away from writers. It takes income away from publishers.

I know how it happens. One of the axioms of economic theory is that demand rises inversely to price. Make something free, and – in theory – you have infinite demand. In practise, of course, that doesn’t happen, but that’s because people usually buy books for more reasons than just price. Interest and time enter the mix. So does discovery. A free book can sit there, not shifting, because nobody knows about it – a problem in this internet age when everybody is screaming for attention and everything gets lost in the noise.

Another axiom of economic theory is that – assuming steady demand – price falls if supply rises. This explains, pretty much, why the money’s gone out of book-writing of late. In the old days – and by that, I mean five or ten years ago – publishing was the province of mainstream businesses, involving authors, agents, editors, publishers, marketing and retail bookstores, all using hard copy.

Enter Kindle, and all that changed. Really it was the same revolution as happened to print photography, music and all the rest, applied to books.

With one other outcome. Anybody could publish – so anybody did. The gatekeepers were gone, and one outcome has been Chuck Wendig’s ‘shit volcano‘. Would-be authors suddenly got to publish the 23-volume epic saga they’d been writing on their cellphone while riding to work every day since 2003. And for them it’s not for the money – so they chuck it out free.

That’s a problem for mainstream authors and publishers, because they feel obligated to match it. And so they scrabble for cash just when the traditional business is changing.

What’s the answer? There’s an expectation in Generation Z, or AA, or whatever one we’re up to, that anybody has a right to help themselves to stuff online. The concept hasn’t been helped by Google, who offer everything for nothing because it’s a vehicle for their real business, advertising. (Google is an advertising company – trust me!)

But this idea of ‘free content’ is killing the writing and publishing industry – not because everything suddenly has to be free, but because it’s driven down the expectation of price. Free is handy for give-away moments – a quick promotion to get the book into the hands of key people who might help promote it – but free – and low-cost –doesn’t generate income, either for author or publisher. And there are costs to publishing, even in the new paradigm. Books still have to be designed – especially the cover – edited and proofed. There are marketing costs. And authors like to be paid. If they’re not, chances are they won’t be able to carry on writing.

In this sense, all ‘free’ does is take money out of the business. Besides, if you’ve got good quality content – well, it’s reasonable that those wanting to consume it should also pay for it.

‘Free’ or ‘low cost’ also implies that the author doesn’t value their work.

My take? Use ‘free’ judiciously to promote – but otherwise, set a realistic price that’s going to meet costs and give the author a return on time. It’s fair, and it’s reasonable. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The real difference between editors and authors

I am often intrigued by the number of authors who, for various reasons, believe they can also be good editors – and market themselves as such.

Wright_Typewriter2Sometimes it works. More often it doesn’t. Several times, now, I’ve had manuscripts butchered during the publishing process by contract editors who, in fact, were obviously writers. One of them totally failed to ‘get’ what I was doing in one of my books and tried to totally re-write it, as if he were the author, sourcing his re-writes with stuff he’d pulled from a single other book, and sprinkling the MS with patronising comments along the way as if I were a novice in his field. (When I last looked, I had ten times the number of books published that this guy had managed, over a far longer period. Sigh…).

It happens, though. And my first port of call in such circumstance is to ask the publisher to find another editor and get the job done competently. Sometimes that happens.

The fact is that editing is a separate skill of its own, one that demands less creativity and more technical analysis than writing. Editors also have to be able to stand back and accept that the author’s voice is valid, even if it isn’t how the editor would necessarily express themselves. If the archetypes are to be believed, authors and editors are actually two different sorts of people:

1. The Archetypal Editor is…

– analytical thinking
– goal-focussed
– structured
– identifies boundaries
– word-focussed
– technical

2. The Archetypal Author is…

– visual/creative
– has original thoughts
– identifies boundaries in order to break them
– dreams
– relational/conceptual thinking

See what I mean? As I say, sometimes you’ll get an author who fills both categories. But not often. And that’s why authors really shouldn’t present themselves as editors – unless, of course, they have those ‘editorial’ analytical skills. And a red pen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: handling the skill transition

There are no two ways about it. Writing is a learned skill, like any other. And like most skills it takes time to master – I’ve seen figures like a million words or 10,000 hours. On my own experience, that seems about right.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That shouldn’t daunt hopeful authors. Writing is a learning process and there are points along that learning curve where the material’s going to be good enough. It just takes longer to produce.

The four main steps of writing are the usual ones – starting with ‘unconscious incompetence’. You don’t know what you don’t know, haven’t learned self-critique, and joyously plough in, making every writing mistake known to humanity but having a whale of a time doing it.

In the old days, that never used to see the light of day because the traditional publishing system provided a fairly high entry barrier.

These days, anybody can publish – and a lot do, creating what US author Chuck Wendig calls a ‘shit volcano’. (Gotta love the term).

But there’s much, much more to writing. Three more stages, in fact. And it comes with training and practise. The second-to-fourth stages are:

– ‘conscious incompetence’, where you realise how much there is to learn;

– ‘conscious competence’, where you’ve learned the stuff but have to think about it; and

– ‘unconscious competence’, where it’s become second nature and writing is part of your soul.

I think the second is probably the most challenging, because suddenly the writer realises how much there is to learn – and how difficult many of the techniques actually are. A writer has to have mastery of the words, of grammar, and of language; they need mastery of the field they’re writing about; and they need mastery of the form they’re writing in – be it fiction, non-fiction or whatever.

It’s daunting, and I think a lot of writers at the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage stress over it; they so want to write, they’ve pushed ahead and got this far – discovering  how hard it is, and they fear they’ll never learn or be good enough.

To which I say – don’t sweat it. There’s a LOT to learn, but it’ll happen! If you’ve got this far you’ll get the rest of the way, step-wise. The trick is to keep writing – but to do so in a meaningful way. My suggestion? Every time you sit down to write, try asking three questions:

  1. What can I learn from this that will make me write better? Is there something I need to practise?
  2.  Where can I discover more information about this aspect of writing?
  3. How can I apply that when writing?

These questions, incidentally, apply for all writers – not just those on the learning curve. As Hemingway put it, we are all apprentices in the craft. And once you have the answers, sit down and apply them. Write something that uses the lesson. Even if it’s then thrown away – this is practise, remember. Concert pianists don’t just sit down and chop out Beethoven piano sonatas. They spend hours, days, weeks, months and years practising. And writing’s the same.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Can you sell through social media? Not directly…

A while back I ran into a writer friend on the street, began chatting, and we ended up lamenting the complete disconnect between the popularity of our respective blogs and the number of books actually sold through them.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIn a way it’s an idle expectation. I don’t blog specifically to sell things. I’ve put click-to-buy links up (hint, hint), but to me the blog is more a place where I can publish stuff that interests me (and hopefully you), such as my science posts – and, more to the point, engage in interesting discussions with the people I’ve made contact with through social media.

Still, I’d kind of hope there might be the odd click-through – you know, those large book covers on the right. No?

I’ve found it’s not just a matter of indifference. If I put up a post that directly promotes a book just published, my readership disappears. Those posts simply don’t attract many views by comparison with the others (especially the science ones).

It’s not just a ‘books’ thing. My sister teaches about making craft wools, mostly online. Her main business is in the US, where she regularly tours and lectures (Florida, in April). And she runs a good deal of social media to support it. Same deal. Direct promotions simply don’t work, and if you DO hard-sell, your readers go away.

The reason’s clear. People don’t go to social media to buy things. They go to be entertained, distracted, make contact with people – all free. What’s more, the defining nature of this media is a constant stream, like a radio or TV broadcast. That means content is transient. In fact it’s becoming more transient as time goes on. When I began blogging in 2010, my posts typically attracted a fair number of views for two or three days. Now the ‘novelty burst’ is down to 24 hours.

I suspect the reason for that is the spread of media. We have Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Pinterest, StumbleUpon (check it out if you haven’t already), Reddit, Google+ and a host of other services competing for our time. I’ve seen some scary figures about the actual time people spend on any one post, picture or thing – and the number actually browsed in any social media session. What that tells me is that attention spans are down.

As for using it to market? No. And yet, I suspect, most authors will have ready buyers for their books; and that highlights the real challenge for writers these days. Discovery. In that, blogging – and other social media – can help. But it won’t sell directly.

Have you had similar experiences with blogging and books? How do you see social media? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015