Indie Authors: Don’t Give Up On Your Original Voice When Sales Are Bad

https://www.amazon.com/Longbourn-Jo-Baker-ebook/dp/B00CQ1D3BYFive years ago, when I started writing online, I was lucky enough to meet some outstanding writers on Goodreads (I’ve met others since, on Authonomy before it packed up and elsewhere, but here I’m talking about that original base of writer friends).

They were mostly women, varying in age. Some came from my native England, some from the US, and a couple from the Antipodes. Their genre varied, but they all had one thing in common….

They didn’t write formulaic, predictable stories. They broke rules; they used humour; they featured strong female leads (otherwise, I wouldn’t have enjoyed their stories). They were often a bit cross genre, and this was probably one of the reasons why they hadn’t got that elusive contract with an agent or publisher.

They wanted to achieve something original. Yes, they wanted success and sales – who doesn’t? – but above that, they wanted to write with an individual voice and to get readers for the novels that they had loved creating.

In those days, things were a lot easier from the sales point of view. My goodness, back then Amazon hadn’t introduced Amazon Select and Pages Read, both of which have led to a catastrophic fall in sales.

Why, in 2014 my spoof Regency (technically, late Georgian) Romance ‘Ravensdale’ sold thousands – enough for me to take my daughter on holiday to Paris.

It also attracted a good many resentful reviews from readers who disliked their favourite tropes being satirized, however gently, but that is the price of notoriety, and I think most writers, like me, would rather attract sales and public notice than have no controversy, obscurity, and dismal sales.

Incidentally, since the introduction of Amazon’s new sales policies, sales of ‘Ravensdale’ have plummeted. Because it is sinking into obscurity, I have made it free on Smashwords. I have tried to make it free on Amazon, but they ignore me. Here is the Smashwords link for that:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/721130

My own view is, that while it is nice to make money out of writing, that isn’t why I went into it; in fact, that is only the icing on the cake. The reason I went into it, is because I wanted people to read my stuff.

If I – as someone (I hope) at least partially sane – had gone into writing to make a profit out of it, then I’d be writing: ‘The Duke Gets His Breeches Down: Dastardly Duke Series 101’.

That is the way to make high sales and money out of writing.

Most of those writer friends haven’t sold as much as they deserve. But then, if they got their just deserts, they’d be best selling authors.

Sadly, the market doesn’t work like that; the market recognises the price of everything, and the value of nothing, as someone once said.  As often as not, it’s not the talented and original authors who are among the most successful.

Sadly, I think some of them have become discouraged about writing. Some are taking a long break from the whole business of writing and the weary slog of publicity, and finding it a relief. Of course, many of them are very busy; some of them still have children, and a job…The wonder is anyone in that situation produces good work at all.  But I suspect some have been discouraged by mediocre sales, and the lack of a breakthrough.

I personally, think it would be a great loss if they gave up altogether. Rather, I think that if an author is making a pittance from her writing and it has no visibility on the sales ranks on Amazon, she might as well make her books free.

Smashwords will do it happily enough. The problem is Amazon, who seem to turn a deaf ear when it suits them.

However, they have made my first book, ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ free. For anyone interested, the new edition, complete with a faster start, is available here https://www.amazon.com/That-Scoundrel-Émile-Dubois-Light-ebook/dp/B00AOA4FN4

and here

By the way, I wouldn’t like to give the impression that all wonderfully original works are doomed to poor sales and lack of public recognition.  Many receive the recognition they deserve (though sometimes it happens after the author is dead).

There is Jo Baker’s ‘Longbourn’, for instance. What a brilliant work!

I found it such a refreshing change to read a book set in the UK of the Regency era which is about ordinary people – not the aristocracy (the families of approximately 700 men) or the gentry (approximately 1.5 per cent of the population).

But I will be writing a post about that soon. For now, I would like to say that I wish that all of my original writer friends were back to writing again. I miss them.

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Mid Point Crisis in Novel Writing

grey outcastOh dear. It’s happened; I think I have come to the midpoint crisis in writing my latest.

This is the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I had already done the first quarter – about 40,000  before I broke off to write, ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Vennns’. As it combines and hopefully resolves many themes, it is epic length, about 120,000 words.

I have moved fairly smoothly through the next twelve thousand words, and now, I suddenly feel I am running out of steam.

Small wonder: I’m at approximately the mid point, and this is the point that so often causes much anguish. There are various pieces of advice available online.

Some of it is excellent, but I was a bit dismayed by the advice of one writer on these infamous mid point doldrums, basically, that you shouldn’t have them because you ought to have written a plan before you  started writing.

I never write out a detailed plan. I  know the beginning and the end, and I  roughly know which way the story will go, but not in detail. Whether that is necessarily a bad thing I don’t know. I tend to think that it is.

Each time I swear that next time I will write out a plan. Each time I forget. That must say something about unconscious resistance to that highly sensible idea…

I certainly agree that the challenge of keeping the tension building, the conflicts increasing, and holding the reader’s interest until the end are of course, vital – and  it is here that the novel cannot afford to be loosely structured.

Rinaldo looking poshOne writer even stated that she usually abandons books at the mid point, rather than before. I find that interesting, as if I’ve read that far, a ridiculous sort of feeling that I mustn’t in some way ‘waste’ the effort that has gone before keeps me going. If I’m going to stop reading, it will be somewhere in the first quarter.  I have, however, sometimes been guilty of stopping careful reading somewhere round this point, instead ‘skim reading’ either to a more interesting point, or if it doesn’t seem in my view to pick up again, to the end.

That is, of course, anyway a qualified success for the author, as I do want to know what happens in the end.

These ideas on avoiding the ‘sagging middle’ in a book by defining the turning point from this website are apposite:

http://www.writerstoauthors.com/story-structure-the-midpoint

‘What’s a midpoint?

A midpoint in the realm of story structure is the point where your character moves from reactionary to action. He makes the leap to start going after his problem instead of running from it.’

Rinaldo in pubThis information on the following link is a good reminder of the function of the middle of a novel:

http://www.aliciarasley.com/artmid.htm

‘Our openings and climaxes usually work pretty well because we know why we write them. The book’s opening has introduced the setting, the major characters, the themes, and the basic “problem” or premise of the plot. The climax brings all these elements together in an ending that explodes with released tension. But few of us know why we write the middle, except to join the beginning and the end.

But the middle is more than a transition from point C to point W. The important middle scenes develop conflict and explore the setting, characters, and theme, while moving the plot forward.

The plot purpose is the most obvious– the middle scenes present most of the events of the story, showing how each leads into the next. The cause-effect chain of the story events must be strongest here in the middle. At the end of the first few chapters, the protagonist has embarked on a journey, and every event marks an advance towards the destination. But we have to be ruthless here so that the journey isn’t a meandering one with too many blind alleys– every scene should be centered on an irrevocable event that changes the course of the plot.

The middle is the time of rising conflict, where the “on-the-brink” situation in the opening chapters gets more and more intense…

200px-Eugene_Onegin_01_(Kardovsky)Another fundamental purpose is to develop the characters, especially the protagonist(s), so that their motivations are understandable and their actions clearly further the plot. These middle scenes also hint at and then gradually reveal any hidden issues or secrets within the major characters.

This is also where we develop the relationships between the protagonist and others. Their interactions, of course, will cause many of the important events– the conflicts, the alliances, the rivalries– that move the plot along.

The middle also has the purpose of deepening the “world” of the novel. Here you can explore the setting and its effect on the characters and events, examine the protagonist’s relationship to the society, and develop the themes or values that drive the protagonist and the society.

Most important, perhaps, is the evolving of the problem or question which drives the plot. If you’re writing a mystery, the problem is “whodunnit?” The question in a romance is “Why do they come to love each other, and how does this change them?” The middle of the book assembles the “evidence” that will eventually solve the problem or answer the question.

Finally, of course, the middle builds towards the climax, setting up the elements necessary for resolutions of the conflicts and the central problem or question…

The middle sags when some of the above purposes are unfulfilled, or fulfilled in a dreary way, or fulfilled not simultaneously but one by one. Experienced readers can identify these single-purpose scenes…

The middle can, however, be deepened and strengthened by following this advice: Have three purposes at least for each scene. One should be “advance the external plot”. For the others, consider these:

Develop character.
Show character interaction.
Explore setting or culture and values.
Introduce new character or subplot.
Forward subplot.
Increase tension and suspense.
Increase reader identification.
Anticipate solution to problem.
Divert attention from solution (but still show it).
Show how character reacts to events or causes events.
Show event from new point of view.
Foreshadow some climactic event.
Flashback or tell some mysterious past event that has consequences now.
Reveal something the protagonist has kept hidden.
Reveal something crucial to protagonist and/or reader.
Advance or hinder protagonist’s “quest”.

Obviously you won’t usually pick out three of these purposes and deliberately insert them into a scene. Rather, realize that action, dialogue, narration, description, and internalization can all be used in the same scene to add greater depth.’

So, taking all this fine advice into account, I hope I will yet survive not having a detailed plan (returns, sourly, to the keyboard, glaring at it as if it were an enemy)…

Originality and Breaking the Rules in Writing

grey outcastWhen I first started writing, it was in the days before the internet. The aspiring writer had to seek out and buy a ‘How To’ book, or borrow it from the library.

The first of these that I read contained this helpful piece of advice from the male author, very successful, but you might say, ‘one of the old school’. I have never forgotten his words, either: ‘If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about your dog, or your wife.’ Seriously, in that order.

But I digress…

For many years now, for excellent writing advice, you can go online and in a few keystrokes, locate many websites full of suggestions and guidance for aspiring and already published (self and traditional) writers about the technical issues of writing and the latest market trends in publishing.

It invaluable to have so many sources giving varied advice regarding such key matters as the issues surrounding the need to have a clearly defined protagonist, point of view, how to create believable and interesting characters, the perils of having a Mary Sue or Marty Stu main character, and all the rest of it.

220px-Renoir23If one is interested in following market trends in publishing, and the latest rumoured top hates of agents, then one can find all sorts of discussions about those.

Writing from the second person point of view is, I think, the only one that strikes a chord with me.

It seems that the current pet hates among literary agents and publishers also include a prologue, a story starting with the main character starting awake from a dream which indicates psychic communication, plus – bizarrely – large blocks of italics. I must say that I consider that last to be unreasonable, as it is a convention that letters etc should be depicted in italics. If we have a long letter in the story, are we then supposed not to put it in italic form?

And finally on these hates of agents and publishers, it seems that they hate brackets, too.

And that isn’t even starting on the ways they hate various themes, ie, hate children’s stories about discovering hidden treasure in a sinister secret passage in a castle (rather strange: I never met a child under nine who didn’t emjoy a story about that).

Rinaldo looking poshQuite honestly, it does seem to be getting to the point where agents should state what they don’t hate, rather than what they do, because it would surely be briefer.

But it also seems to me, with all this talk and advice about writing styles and what agents and publishers find desirable, what is currently fashionable among readers, and all the rest of it, that something important is being neglected.

Originality in writing means breaking the rules.

Originality means thinking outside the box, and writing the story the way it flowed from your fingers during one of those wonderful times when the story seems to write itself.

We all are all – hopefully- inspired by great writers. To name just a few who have personally inspired me, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Alexander Pushkin, Turgenev, Elizabeth Gaskell, all the Bronte sisters, George Elliot,  Balzac, Zola, Joseph Conrad, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, George Orwell, Irwin Shaw, Patrick Hamilton, Harlan Ellison, Susan Hill, Stephen King and Margaret Attwood…

Of course, that’s failing to mention of my many talented indie author associates. I’ll spare their blushes, but several have inspired me.

But the main thing is, we mustn’t write like those writers we admire.

We can hopefully learn many things from them about structure, plot, characters, and all the rest of it. To name just one instance, when I read Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent Harlequin Said The Ticktockman’ at fourteen, I saw a demonstration of how writing about a dystopia doesn’t have to mean writing a story without absurdity. Absurdity and horror so often go hand in hand.

But finally, if we want to try and write something original, something memorable, we must strike out on our own, like youngsters breaking away from parental control. That is what the writers we admire did. Their writing would not stand out if they hadn’t. We don’t want to write a second rate version of what someone has already done.

That – and I know I have said it before – is why finally we should go with our instincts  about  writing, even if it sometimes means going against the flow.

Because – and again, I know I have said much the same in a previous post – we may shelve an idea we love, because it breaks some rule or other. And who knows but some other writer may not produce a book which becomes all the rage, and which breaks exactly those rules to which we kowtowed.

mrx%2BnecronomiconI’m not saying that it’s a good idea to send out manuscripts which, just for the sake of it, begin with a prologue in dream form, are written from the second person point of view, crammed full of italics and brackets, and feature treasure hidden in secret passages.

Well, come to think of it, maybe it is. It would be funny to see those agents and publishers’ faces…

Leaving that wonderful vision aside,  I do think if we keep too closely to the rules, we risk sacrificing our own individual style.

Writing Resolutions for the New Year: Why Writers Might Take a Look at That Unfinished Manuscript in the Drawer

3f2d6d5a693742ecd2ef850e8192b69eI wonder what people’s writing resolutions for 2017 are?

My personal writing resolution is to finish the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ and then, if there is time, to get a novella out which commemorates the St Peter’s Field Massacre of 1818.

I had already written the first third of that sequel in the first six months after publishing ‘Ravensdale’ back in 2014. But then I allowed myself to be distracted by other projects – including the one that ended up as ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Venns’.

I had all sorts of difficulties with that one.  At one point, I had weeks of writer’s block – really dismal – I did a post about that on this blog.

I wrote 50,000 words of a serious version, and 22,000 words of a frivolous version, and I worried over a conflict between the strain of the comic mode of presentation and the tragic back story –but in the end I thought that I had found a way round that – and I hope that readers agree. The result is dark comedy, and perhaps that is the approach that suits me best. Well, there is one chapter which is not comic at all – and that’s the tragic backstory involving a forced abduction.

Anyway, all that took ages to resolve.

the-villainous-viscount-2500x1563-amazon-smashwords-kobo-apple

But back to the present.  Now,  I  resolve not to let anything in the writing line distract me for too long from that sequel – not even the novella I have been musing over these past few months on the St Peter’s Fields, the horrible ‘Peterloo’ Massacre of 1818 – though I do want to publish a novella in time to commemorate the bicentenary of that event.

I must admit that getting the B.R.A.G award for ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ did encourage me to get back to working on more of the eponymous scoundrel and Sophie’s adventures (not to mention those of Ravensdale and the one-time-highwaywoman Isabella) – and I’ve been working on it since November.

I hope that a lot of writers are making similar New Year’s resolutions about that Project in Abeyance. There’s so much promising writing, so many projects started out full of hope that end up that way, so it would be good if we all unearthed the good ones.

mrx%2Bnecronomicon

The awful thing is, if it is left too long, that Project In Abeyance threatens to become The Manuscript in the Drawer, and for manuscripts, that’s like being in cast into a dungeon and forgotten.

After all, as I have commented on this blog before, one of my favourite novellas, Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Dubrovsky’ ended up as incomplete because he put it to one side, and never got back to it.

This, one of the first ‘robber novels’ was an attempt to combine genre writing with literary merit.  He hoped to extend the borders of genre fiction  (sound familiar on this blog?)

As such, ‘Dubrovsky’ was a source of inspiration for me to write ‘Ravensdale’, particularly in the comic scenes where the outlaw hero shakes with passion when he disguises himself as a librarian in the house of his true love Isabella, and comes upon his true love.

In the manner of a true late Regency hero, that is exactly what Dubrovsky does when he enters the house of  his own true love, Aurelia, disguised as a humble tutor.

dubrovsky-again

Pushkin, after working steadily on ‘Dubrovsky’ for about 33,000 words in 1832, put it aside – perhaps through problems with the structure and possibly, waning interest after that first rush of enthusiasm – never to return to it.

Unfortunately, the remaining years left to him were few. He was mortally wounded in a duel over his wife only five years later. ‘Dubrovsky’ was only published posthumously in 1842.

That is the problem with laying things aside, though it is unlikely that many writers will be killed in duels in the coming five years. But it is so easy for a writer to adopt the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to what was possibly something really promising, and to be distracted by other projects to the point that s/he or he never returns to it.

dubrovskyI hope that I have made the case for those sad, neglected, lonely Manuscripts in the Drawer being worth a second glance.  Some have been left incarcerated for so long that they may have been stored on the memory of BBC micras (in the UK, that is, or on Smart). They are suffering like the Counts of Monte Christo and their plight should arouse compassion.

220px-louis_francais-dantes_sur_son_rocher

There are, admittedly, if my own early writings are anything to go by, some of these which were abandoned with good reason, which certainly will never deserve to see the light of day again.  There was one of mine, written when I was perhaps thirteen and  clearly inspired by Norah Lofts’ ‘Madselin’ (Marcher Baron, anyone?) that literally made me cringe.

But, if anyone reading this were to take a moment to glance through his or her own manuscripts in a drawer, it might lead to something really worthwhile being hauled out from the dismal company of  (I hope the contents of this drawer of mine was more rebarbative than average) a dead spider, a sweet wrapper, a battered how to booklet on Making Money From Your Writing and a grubby pound coin (was that all the money I managed to accumulate from the said booklet?)

madselin

Anyway, Happy New Year, everyone.