PeterMBall

Things I Was Thinking About at 3:30 AM This Morning

It’s 3:30 AM and the insomnia has set in, creeping in behind a mild anxiety moment that hit about six hours ago.

It’s 3:30 AM and the night sky is a dark, luscious shade of indigo that sits above the darker silhouettes of trees and houses and hills. It’s 3:30 AM and I wish the camera on my phone wasn’t broken, so I could distract myself with the attempt to photograph the darkness.

It’s 3:30 AM and everyone on social media is recommending Safia Samatar’s essay about Why You Left Social Media, but it’s not 3:30 AM when you read this and if you were asleep then it’s possible you missed it, and so I’m going to link it here because it is quite extraordinary and maybe you missed it while you slumbered.

It’s 3:30 AM and the guinea pigs are rummaging through their hay, unbothered by my presence on the couch with a clicking laptop.

It’s 3:30 AM and the apartment is cool and pleasant, courtesy of the the air conditioners stripping the muggy heat out of the humid air.

It’s 3:30 AM and I’ve been reading James Patterson books. It’s 3:30 AM and I need to urinate, but the bathroom is next to the bedroom where my partner sleeps, and I do not want to wake here unless I have no other choice, and I do not need to pee so bad. Not yet. I’m happy for her to keep slumbering.

It’s 3:30 AM and the world is magic, but magic isn’t always pleasant and it isn’t always useful.

It’s 3:30 AM and i scare myself with the thought that some lies in wait, hunkered down behind my couch, armed and seeking to do me ill. I fret about the fragility of the barricades separating me from the outside world. i scare myself with the thought of what may be lurking on the tile floor, waiting for my bare feet to come past, and so I rest my heels on the coffee table.

I should turn a light on, but that’s not going to happen.

It’s 3:30 AM and I’m appreciating the irony, given that I tweeted a link to an article about what to do when you cannot sleep about nine hours ago. Maybe people will find it useful? It hasn’t helped me much, even though I came back and read the advice.

It’s 3:30 AM and I’m weirdly content in my insomnia, taking pleasure in being awake when there is no-one else around. Enjoying the quiet and the world that is made small by darkness, contracting down to the light of a laptop screen and an overly busy mind.

It’s not 3:30 AM anymore. It’s 3:49 AM and counting.

It’s 3:30 AM and I shouldn’t be trusted with a keyboard, for the typos come thicker and my editing is weaker. I will mistype simple words and fail to correct them.

It’s 3:30 AM and I’m muttering Pink Floyd lyrics, stuck on the phrase is there anybody out there. 

It’s 3:51 now. 3:52. 3:58. 3:59. Sleep is coming no closer.

 

 

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

Still working on my thesis chapter, and putting some serious work into the draft for the second Brain Jar book, You Do’t Want to Be Published, which is a collection of blog posts and articles about writing. The main task this week is going through and making sure everything in the collection makes sense once removed from the original context, then doing some ‘directors commentary’ around each.

What’s inspiring me this week?

Georgette Heyer’s The Reluctant Widow is one of the more light-hearted Heyer novels that we’ve read for book club, but it’s also delightful and a slight shift in the usual expectations that I tend to bring to her work. Great, bantering dialogue and a surprisingly complex mystery plot lie at the heart of the book’s appeal – it’s possible this is going on my list of novels I use to introduce people to Heyer (or, at least, a close second or third book to solidify their appreciation).

What action do I need to take?

I need to go do some work on the Brain Jar website, getting The Birdcage Heart information upon the page and setting up a news page where things can be announced.

5 Reasons to Go Buy The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales This Week

So this book I’ve been banging on about is finally out in all it’s digital glory. For those who have just arrived on this blog, or keep losing to goldfish when challenging them to memory games, I’m referring to this book:

“Only Peter M. Ball’s fiction makes falling down the rabbit hole feel like flying. Funny and surprising, with moments of extraordinary grace.” Angela Slatter, Author of the World Fantasy Award-winning The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings

Click Here To Purchase From Your Preferred Digital Retailer

It contains twelve short stories, all in the slipstream/magic realism/fantasy line, all of them written by me. If that’s enough to convince you that it’s a must-have item, you can go ahead and click on the link above to acquire your copy. If you’re still up in the air, I’m going to dedicate the rest of this post to convincing you that The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales is worth parting with your hard-earned bucks.

Without further ado:

Five Reasons You Should Go Buy The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales This Week

ONE: TWO NEW STORIES THAT NO-ONE HAS EVER SEEN (AND ONE THAT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE TO TRACK DOWN)

Ten of the stories in this collection have been previously published. A large chunk of those were published online, and thus remain available for reading if you are willing to spend some quality time Googling my name and hunting down the stories one-by-one. This is the nature of short story collections, which is why authors do evil things like sneak shiny, brand-new stories that no-one has ever read into the collection. This collection contains two: one is a tale of wizards and government bureaucracy, and the other is an short story I wrote to entertain Alan Baxter that draws its influences from Lovecraft, 80s action movies, and one of my favourite short stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber.

I love both these stories and I’m really excited for people to read them, but what I’m even happier about is including On the Arrival of the Paddle-Steamer on the Docks of V—. This is one of my favourite stories that I’ve written, originally published by Jonathan Strahan in the late, lamented Eclipse Online just a month or so before the the publisher behind the magazine changed hands and Eclipse closed it’s doors (and the archive disappeared offline). Tracking this one down is incredibly difficult…until now.

TWO: YOU GET ABOUT 46,000 WORDS OF PRETTY KICK-ASS FICTION

I’ve written some pretty good stories over the past ten years. And yes, I know, check out the ego on me, but I’m not saying you need to take my word on this. I mean, holy shit, have you seen some of the editors and magazines who have published some of these stories? For your reference, here’s a short list: Jack Dann; Cat Rambo; Strange Horizons; Jonathan Strahan; Shimmer; Catherynne M. Valente. Some of the stories in this  collection have ended up in Years Best collections and on the Locus Recommended List. If you travelled back to 2007 and told me I’d sell stories to them inside of a decade, I would have laughed and thought you were crazy.

THREE: YOU LIKE YOUR FICTION STRANGE

Let’s be honest: I write odd stories. Much as I love a good sword-and-sorcery tale, they aren’t my wheelhouse when it comes to storytelling. I sit over on the other side of fantasy, hanging out with the slipstream and the weird tales and the magic realism.

There are no swords in this collection, but there are steampunk mecha built out of old shipwrecks by angry merfolk, clockwork goats used as pawns in a game of status between magi, fey that travel the world on paddle-steamers, and endless stairwells descending to god-knows-where that have become tourist attractions. There are stories about men with birdcages for hearts and small towns trying to stop the end of the world.

There’s a story about government bureaucracy and the people forced to work the desks, but there might be a wizard in it.

FOUR: YOU WANT TO SEE BRAIN JAR PRESS DO BIGGER AND BETTER THINGS

Right now, Brain Jar Press is tiny. It’s me and a handful of software, some drafts-in-progress and a bunch of things I hold the rights too. The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales is the first release, but it’s the tiny seed from which all the other projects grow.

Let’s be clear: I have plans. Oh my, do I have plans. But those plans are adaptable, balancing long-term needs against the short-term desire to do things like pay my mortgage and eat. I’m spending the next week putting together my quarterly plan, outlining all the projects and deadlines I’m working towards across December, January, and February. Early support for projects like this justify putting a lot more effort into the things that come next.

Buying The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales now is an investment in future cool things coming your way.

FIVE: YOU WANT ME TO BLOG MORE

I love blogging, and I really love blogging about writing and publishing. It’s also a project that requires an enormous amount of time, which means that it’s the first project to get moved down the to-do list when paying projects (or day-job gigs) starts putting pressure on my writing time.

This means there’s a direct correlation between how well the writing side of my income is doing and how much I tend to blog about writing. Therefore, the easiest way to get more blogging out of me is to buy my books and put me in a position where I don’t need to go find a part-time gig to pay my mortgage.

I’ve looked at options like Petreon before, but I prefer to keep blogging for free and making an income from other parts of my writing.

You know, like fiction.

I really like writing fiction. And working on fiction, thinking it through, is where I start getting ideas for blog posts that feel interesting enough to talk about it.

So here I am, with this book all shiny and new, where a large chunk of the money comes my way every time it sells. You don’t have to pick up a copy via a link from the blog, but every sale is a little reminder that there’s an audience here on this blog that digs what I do.

 

What’s Really Going On At A Successful Book Launch Event

Tonight I’m off to the Brisbane launch of The Silver Well, a short story collection by Kim Wilkins and Kate Forsyth. There will be wine, readings, finger food, book signings, and an evening spent celebrating two awesome writers who have done something new.

Some time tomorrow, depending on the timezone the various sales sites are using, my short story collection The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales will be available for sale.  The launch will consist of a blog post, a handful of tweets spaced out over the last few weeks, and me going back to work on my next project for Brain Jar Press.

Today I’m going to talk about why.

WHAT NEW WRITERS THINK BOOK LAUNCHES ARE ALL ABOUT

New writers look forward to their book launch, but they don’t always understand how they fit into the publishing ecosystem. In the five years I spent answering phones at Queensland Writers Centre, the calls where people asked “how can I get people/the media to come to my book launch and sell books?” were among the most frustrating and difficult to answer because the disconnect between what people expected from their launch and what launches actually do were incredibly wide.

The misconception largely comes about because writers see their book as a big event, a milestone on par with getting married or having a baby or turning twenty-one. The book is the culmination of years spent toiling away at their craft, navigating the publishing landscape (whether traditional or indie), and it becomes an object loaded with hopes and expectations.

And just like getting married, or having a baby, or turning twenty-one, publishing can book is a milestone worth celebrating. It’s a chance to gather together family and friends who are invested in your success and feting all that effort.

The thing that warps expectations is the assumption that, unlike a wedding or a new child or a twenty-first, the release of the book is big news for people they don’t know.

New books, by and large, aren’t that big a deal. There are several hundred thousand new titles published every year, and all of them are competing for eyeballs and attention. While some are big news, it’s usually got very little to do with the fact that they’re being released and a whole lot to do with who has written them.

WHAT BOOK LAUNCHES ARE ACTUALLY ABOUT

The advice I always gave people over the phone, at QWC, was book launches are just a celebration for family and friends. They don’t draw in new readers (or the press) on their own. The reality is a little more complex than that, but it’s incredibly hard to convey it over the phone.

Here’s the truth: in some circumstances, book launches will sell books and they will sell books to people who don’t necessarily know you personally. They just tend not to happen if it’s your first book, and they definitely don’t happen if you’re looking at holding a stand-alone event just to generate sales.

If you strip back the advice I delivered over the phone to its heart, it’s really a simple idea: book launches are an opportunity to trade social and professional capital into sales and profile. A critical mass of readers picking up your book and talking about it is a good thing, as it transforms the release into a conversation and attaches it to social networks. In a world where the most prevalent reason for picking up a book is familiarity with the author, and the second-most-prevalent reason is recommendation from a trusted friend, these conversations can be critical.

The problem for most new writers is that their social capital is  pretty low – the people invested in their careers are largely the same people who are invested in other major life milestones. 

MODES OF CAPITAL AT WORK IN BOOK LAUNCHES

There are ways around this if you’re a new writer, most noticeably trading on other people’s social capital. The first time I had an actual wine-reading-signings kind of book launch was way back in 2009, when Horn was launched at the National Science Fiction conference in Adelaide.

I was a new-to-SF writer at the time, attending my second-ever conference, and away from the network of friends and family I’d built up in Brisbane. This meant I had a handful fo social connections at the conference to entice people along, but they were pretty small. What made that launch work was the social capital developed by Twelfth Planet Press as a small publisher doing interesting things in the SF space, and the general community capital that exists at science fiction conferences where dedicated readers who truly love the genre are looking for something new (and where you will find people who take a chance on new writers/works ‘for the good of the community’ more often than not).

Similarly, when you look at the Wilkins and Forsyth event I’m attending later tonight, they are two writers with a bunch of connections. Both are award-winning novelists deep into their careers, with over 60 novels between them. They’ve won awards, hit best-seller lists, and have an established pool of readers and professional connections spread around the country. Their launch is an opportunity to leverage social capital through personal networks, professional networks, and reader networks, and the associated prestige they both hold within the genre they’re working can also sway genre fans attached to those networks.

Their book launch may not be big news within the wide community in the way that household names like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer would be, but for fans of SF and Fantasy the status of the writers (and the fact that it’s released through a small press) makes a collaborate book a noteworthy thing.

THE QUESTION TO ASK: WHAT ARE YOU TRADING THAT CAPITAL FOR?

Book launches can be costly events, even when they’re relatively small. Not just in terms of the social capital and goodwill they trade upon, but also in terms of hard costs (which, contrary to the ideas most writers have about the industry, aren’t always covered by the publisher). If you’re going to leverage your social capital and actual, hard cash on a launch event, you also want to a pretty good idea of what you’re getting in that space.

While there’s a definite ego-boost inherent to launching a book, you’d want to keep costs low if that’s all you’re going to get out of the exercise. The secondary concern is the illusive idea known as buzz – the value of the launch lies not in the immediate sales you get, but in the way those sales spiral out into social media conversations and reader recommendations over the weeks that follow. The most valuable thing about a launch is not that it’s a place where books are sold, but that it’s an event that sees your book talked about.

A few years back Goodreads did a study on how readers discover new books they want to read, By far the largest reason was they already knew the work of the author, followed by recommendations from trusted friends. They also discovered that it takes between 6 and 12 ‘touchpoints’ where a potential reader hears about the book before it actually converts into a sale/readership. The stronger a touchpoint (such as a friend recommending it directly, or mentioning it on social media, or getting a review from a trusted source), the fewer the touchpoints that were needed.

(If you’ve ever picked up a really popular book that’s outside your ordinary reading habits just to see what the fuss is about – say, The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight – then you’ve seen the power of touchpoints in real time. The book is so prevalent, so talked about, that it’s overriding your usual buying habits)

So a good book launch has ripple effects in the form of touchpoints – first people talk about being at the event on social media, then they talk about the book afterwards, then they talk to people who weren’t at the event that they expected to be there. The one-to-one relationship that’s built up by signing a book and talking to an author helps too, as we’re more likely to talk about books where we feel like there’s a meaningful connection to the author.

Book launches are particularly useful in the traditional publishing space, where building up buzz early is important due to the short sales cycle (about two to six weeks) that will see the book on store shelves. If you look at the launch and marketing cycles of most traditionally published books, they’re all about packing as many touchpoints as they can into that six weeks, from launch events to reviews to interviews and marketing.

Good buzz – even in small circles or dedicated communities – is a valuable thing for a book. It’s why picking up launches at events where communities are already gathering, like cons, is a really useful thing; the event is already generating conversations and your book becomes part of it. It’s why it worked particularly well for me, as a new author back in 2009, where the more sensational aspects of Horn’s ‘unicorn porn’ reputation generated a good amount of conversation before and after the launch.

SO WHY AM I LAUNCHING THE BIRDCAGE HEART IN SUCH A LOW-KEY MANNER?

If we’ve established buzz is valuable, let’s talk about the reasons I’m basically launching The Birdcage Heart and Other Strange Tales with a blog post rather than an event.

There’s an obvious answer in the fact that it’s ebook only at the moment, with the print version lined up for mid 2018, but that’s only part of it. Even if I was doing the print version straight off, I’d still be launching with a blog post and getting on with the next thing on my list – a physical launch is not an efficient leveraging of capital at this time.

One of the great advantages of indie publishing, and in particular the ebook side of things, is the space for books to find their audience. Rather than expending effort and capital to generate as much buzz as possible in the first month that the book is available for sale, the book can build sales over time as part of a perpetually-available backlist.

A good book launch leverages your social and community capital in order to get the best result you can for the book you’re trying to launch, but the metrics you use to measure that will be dependant on your business model.

Early buzz is at it’s most valuable in the traditional model, and in particular in the traditional model where only a handful of books (and thus, only a handful of attempts to leverage social capital) are released by the author every year. The indie author has less need to generate buzz about a book, and more need to generate buzz about the author and the press. This is less reliant on launch events and more reliant on other things the press/author is doing – regular releases that allow readers to touch base with the writer more often; ongoing engagement with dedicated readers throughout the year rather than drawing in general readers for a one-off bust.

This doesn’t mean early buzz isn’t valuable – it would still be great if people acquired the book early and talking about it in whatever venue they feel comfortable – but it isn’t one of the measures that will allow a book to sink or swim the way it will when there’s a short sales window. My metrics of success for the book have a lot more to do with how many copies are selling in 2019 and how many people find their way to my newsletter, not how many I’m selling by the end of 2017.

 

 

On Taking Processes of Autopilot

A lot of the advice for newer writers involves hacking the basal ganglia in order to make writing easier. All the old favourites about setting a regular schedule, picking a specific place and time where you invite the writing process in, is really about setting up triggers and associated habit loops that help you to overcome the initial resistance to writing (particularly when you know what you’re doing isn’t up to the standard you want). It’s one of the reasons I recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits as a foundational how-to-write book, even though it has nothing at all specific to the writing process.

The thing about setting up new routines, though, is that they’re often the solution to a very particular problem. Those early time/space triggers are great when you’re starting out and desperately trying to carve time out of your busy life to get work done, but they can be far less effective when your career starts to scale up and you find yourself trying to process more mail, or suddenly have to find editing time for your first draft while still attempting to write a new thing.

Context matters, when it comes to habit, and automatic activities are sensitive to changes in context. The writing habits that served me well when I went to an office regularly no longer work for me when I’m working from home, because the triggers that made them effective (going to work, coming home) are now absent. It’s why so many writers who suddenly go freelance find themselves struggling to work or match their output from the days when they worked around dayjobs.

Basically, solutions to problems that no longer exist – or automatic habits that no longer serve our needs – can be as big an issue as the original problem. It’s why it’s worth spring-cleaning your habits every couple of months, taking a look at what you do without thinking and figuring out whether it’s worth hacking or altering the habit.

I tend to throw my habit review into my Quarterly Review, picking an aspect of my life and taking a close look at the associated habits to see how I can make them more effective.

I’m tackling two at the moment, although only one has something specifically related to writing: a few months ago I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, hoping that the momentary hesitation would result in me using the phone for more productive things during “distraction times” like sitting on public transport or queues. I could still access social media, but I’d do it using the phone’s browser.

This worked really well for a while, but it frequently resulted in me leaving a social media tab open in the browser and defaulting to it every time the browser opened. Since the browser was the central logo in the tray at the bottom of the screen, alongside the icons to get my messages and email, it resulted in me opening Chrome with the kind of pavlovian regularity that the Facebook icon used to incite.

Earlier this week I started hacking that habit – I took the Chrome icon out of its central position and moved it onto a secondary screen, hidden away behind a folder that would require me to engage the conscious thought in order to find it. In its place, I put the logo for my kindle app, figuring that if the habitual spot I triggered while waiting for something involved a book, I’d probably spend some additional time reading instead of surfing social media.

It’s been three days now, and I open my Kindle app a lot more than I used to do. I also read a lot more, because the moment an ebook pops up instead of a browser, my conscious brain kicks in and I make a choice. Sometimes I do still go back and check social media instead, but I’ve made a conscious decision to do be there instead of defaulting to it out of habit. The net result has been more reading, which in turn gives me more stuff I can use for writing.

Taking processes off autopilot every now and then means giving yourself a break to look at them objectively, figuring out where you can be more efficient or make changes that get you closer to the person you want to be.

The other habit I’m hacking? Making the bed every morning, after breakfast, and using that as a trigger for further cleaning and tidying. This has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the fact that a) I’m a dude who now lives with another person; b) mess and clutter has an adverse affect on my mental health, and c) as a dude I habitually see mess and cleaning as someone else’s problem, and therefore point where I feel like I’m doing enough in terms of household chores falls way shorter than an equal distribution of domestic labor.

Sometimes taking habits off automatic is a chance to rethink who you want to be, instead of who you default to being.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

Top of the list this week is getting about 1250 words on my thesis chapter written, walking people through the concepts I’ll need them to be aware of before I get into the really meaty bits of talking about the differences between writing series and writing closed narratives. I’m hoping that the relatively low pace (approximately 250 words a day on my designated writing days) will be enough to keep me focused and contained, rather than freaking out.

My secondary projects are getting back to work on Hell Track and kicking around the novelette that does not currently have a name. My main goal is to do some work on these every day, through November and December, so I’m still in touch with the projects and ready to pick them up once the thesis chapter is done.

What’s inspiring me this week?

Given that it was mentioned in both my newsletter and the blog earlier this week, it’s probably not a huge surprise that David Mittel’s Complex TV has set my brain buzzing over the last seven days. A fantastic look at how television has changed since the advent of the DVD boxed set, with a prolonged study of how that has affected the way we read character, storyworld, etc. Not just a useful book for writing, but a useful model for approaching the study of series I’m doing for my PhD exegesis. I’ve not had a book get me this hyped up when I consider how narrative works in years, and I can’t wait to start pulling apart the ideas and apply them to fiction.

What action do I need to take?

I fell back into the habit of blogging last week and I’m tempted to go back to daily posting for a while. This does mean I’d need to start developing a content plan and finding an extra two hours a day to write a post (or, it should be noted, look at doing quicker, shorter posts than the 2000-word average I tend to write once I start exploring an idea).

If anyone’s got any concepts they’d like to see covered, drop me a line.

Also: the first Sunday Circle kicked off on the 29th of November, 2015, which means this is probably our two-year anniversary. Thanks to everyone for being involved – hopefully the weekly check-in and discussion has been as useful for you as it has for me.

Fuck it, Let’s Talk About Profanity and Blogging

Every now and then I write something that gets linked to a whole bunch and a whole bunch of people hit the site for the first time. Most of them read, nod, and move on about their day. Some of them…

Well, they object to the profanity.

Some even go so far as to email me about it.

I understand this, to a certain extent. I know a lot of people who object to profanity – my mother is definitely not a fan – but I’m a much bigger fan of using it for emphasis. More importantly, I’m a fan of using it here on the blog because all those shits, fucks, goddamns, and mother-fuckers do two very important things.

SWEARING FILTERS THE AUDIENCE

Less than 1% of the blog posts people respond to tend to be actually profanity, and even then it largely depends on your stance on words like goddamn and screwed. It’s not a lot by reasonable standards, but they stand out because certain words are less polite than others.

That’s as it should be. That’s why I use them. Think of those words as a shark’s fin, cutting through the surf, warning you that danger is on its way. Because, if you object to those words, you’re going to object to everything I’ve got published in longer forms.

I once worked out that something like 5% of the word count in the Flotsam series is devoted to swearing. Contextually, its an important thing: the characters in those books are fraying at the edges, breaking down as their whole world falls apart around them. Swearing is going to be as natural as breathing, in those circumstances, and so they swear.

Horn and Bleed aren’t quite that bad, but they’re definitely right up there on the profanity stakes and, one again, we’re talking about a character for whom profanity is a means of holding it together.

More importantly than the words in all those books, there is the content. I don’t write particularly polite books. If you object to the swearing, you’re definitely going to object to the subject matter in those books. The same applies to the majority of my short stories. I mentioned, yesterday, that the beginning of a story teaches you how to read it. They foreground not just the world and the characters, but the narrative style and the tone that will be used.

If you start a story with a single character, walking the street, pondering his troubles, it will suggest a very different kind of resolution to problem than two characters exchanging banter, or an acton sequence. Starting in media res and letting the audience catch up foregrounds a kind of narrative complexity, suggesting that the reader will need to pick up on the subtle clues and interpret things for themselves.

Your blog and your social media aren’t the beginning of a story, but they form a kind of meta-text that surrounds your work. The tone you set there will inform the way in which you’re perceived and read, and it’ll attach itself to the things people bring to your work.

Swearing is a part of that, for me. It foregrounds that I’m not going to be polite about things as a storyteller, and the narrative isn’t going to stay on the side of the street where heroes are square-jawed and willing to help old bunny rabbits across the road. If you object to swearing, you’re sure-as-shit going to lose your mind if you go out and read, say, Horn.

SWEARING CONTEXTUALISES THE ADVICE

More importantly, swearing contextualises me as a blogger. It lets you know where I’m coming from as someone talking about writing, a shorthand that lets you what my interests are and how I prefer to run my career. A lot of the time I’m talking to myself and making the results public, forcing myself to focus in on something that’s been frustrating me and hoping it’ll resonate with the readers around me.

I am always wary of the fact that I don’t know shit about writing and publishing. Over the years, in workshops and writing classes, I’ve recommended all sorts of books about writing and publishing that people have gone off and taken as gospel, even though my advice is generally read this, take this bit, and see what you get out of it. Disregard the shit that doesn’t make sense.

There is a tendency among some people, usually the newer writers, to regard everything they write as gospel and follow advice blindly. Some of them will use it as a tool to self-flagellate, or talk themselves out of writing, and that’s always the danger of putting certain advice out there.

I don’t want to be regarded as an expert on these things. I know some shit, sure – enough to get me through nearly fifteen years where teaching writers has been a significant component of my dayjob – but at the end of the day I’m always aware of just how much I don’t know. I write this blog to throw out ideas, and talk about the things I wish I’d known a decade ago.

I know fucking nothing, and the swearing is your notice to take all advice with a grain of salt.

Some Reasons I’m Excited To See What Happens With Series Fiction Over The Next Ten Years

I started a new story this week, the first in a series of novelettes featuring dinosaurs, time rifts, orangutans, and a ’77 Holden Monaro that has definitely seen better days. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve attempted to write a story without planning it, and the guiding words for the story are “short, fast, pulp, wahoo!” because I’m tyring to focus on establishing tone and structure above all else. When stuck on the plot point, I break out Lester Dent’s pulp formula. Or send a velociraptor through the door with a shotgun.

Here is what I know about this story, beyond those details: not a goddamn thing.

Except that’s not entirely true, because that’s not how writing works. There are structures to the way that stories develop, a rhythm that has built up over centuries of people telling us stories and shaping our expectations. We know that tension escalates. We know that characters attempt to resolve problems. We know there are specific beats that mark the end of the first act. Knowing these things is not exactly the same as having a detail, meticulous map, but it does give you a pretty good idea of how the terrain works and provide you with enough survival skills to muddle through. You may need to backtrack every now and then, figuring out a new path, but you can make it through.

What’s tricky about pantsing this particular story is the decision to make it the first of a series. It’s comparatively easy to pants a stand-alone, because the decisions you’re maing in the text will only affect that text. When you’re pantsing a series, you’ve got a whole new bit of terrain that needs to be considered in the form of every other story you may write in that series.

WHAT COMPLEX TV CAN TEACH US ABOUT SERIES BEGINNINGS

I mentioned David Mittel’s Complex TV in my newsletter this week, and it’s largely the reason I’m attempting to pants this way. He’s got an entire chapter devoted to beginnings – and particular TV pilots – and his breakdown is illuminating and delivers a new set of tools for navigating the series as a form.

Mittel breaks down a number of things a pilot is meant to do: assemble the cast and introduce them to the viewer; provide a blueprint for future stories; deliver necessary exposition about the story world and the characters; provide enough familiarity to draw in viewers who watch a particular genre, but promise enough surprises that they’ll feel like they’re seeing something new done in the space.

More importantly, one of the primary purposes of a TV pilot is to teach the viewer how the program should be read and spur the viewer to keep watching. This is more than just establishing what the viewer needs to know about the world and the characters – it’s foregrounding the style and the narrative strategies at work so the viewer can attune themselves to what’s coming.

This is true of any opening, when you get right down to it. I’ve been known to point at the opening for Charlies Angels 2 as a great thing for writers to study, even though it’s an excessively goofy film and probably not to your taste. What it does do, exceptionally well, is deliver an incredible amount of over-the-top action and characterization in the opening minutes, including a diving-off-a-bridge-and-into-a-helicopter sequence where the laws of physics aren’t so much bent as frozen, shattered, and swept up in a dustpan. This opening is the most ridiculous action sequence in the entire film, the sort of thing most people would attempt at the climax, but they put it up front to teach people an important lesson: Realism and character depth has no place in the Charlie’s Angels film franchise.

Now if you stay, the second film’s opening will turn many people off…but if you stay, accepting the films premise, then it’s told you exactly what to expect from everything that follows.

WHAT COMPLEX TV CAN TEACH US ABOUT SERIES ENDINGS

Mittel also brings up something that it’s worth being aware of when you start a story: the presence of a beginning presupposes that there will be an ending. This is balanced against the fact that many TV viewers aren’t necessarily going to see a pilot episode, particularly in the days before streaming and DVDs, which can mean that the original point lies deep in a program’s history. Further, television has a history of stopping rather than ending; we may get a final episode, but we rarely get the feeling of a story being concluded and a character arc wrapped up. What we tended to get was a whole bunch of character revisiting, and a feel-good moment as people moved on.

The birth of Complex TV – basically, the kind of television that is both episodic and accumulates narrative episode-by-episode until you’ve got a season-long arc – owes a lot to the rise of technology that makes it easier to go back and revisit the beginnings of things and re-examine part of the story. Prior to that, keeping things episodic (and hitting the conceptual reset button at the end of episode) was a much safer bet for retaining viewer engagement, especially in the days when missing an episode meant it was gone forever (or until you caught it in re-runs).

The model of Complex TV offers a number of measures to counteract the ending problem. Stories can conclude at the end of a series, and the next season opener may serve as a re-set for expectations, an opportunity to reiterate and re-educate. New plot elements can be introduced that open up new stories, rather than building the series around the same iconic, unchanging characters and structures (although many shows used to have nd the occasional breach of the series structure, carefully foregrounded to adjust viewer expectations, to serve as a change of pace. See every Halloween episode in which a show takes a detour through horror).

WHY THIS MAKES ME EXCITED AS A WRITER (AND A READER)

Although fiction and television are very different, these concerns aren’t unique to the TV series. I’ve talked about the problems that prose writers have faced with series on this blog before, but the limitations of fiction publishing often mean that series works defaulted to short arcs like trilogies, or retained the episodic model where each book was designed to serve as a stand-alone with a central, iconic character sitting at their heart.

Even if we set aside the writing time required to do a 20-installment series with a cumulative arc, and particularly doing it fast enough that the arc would be easy to follow, the market forces around publishing wouldn’t necessarily sustain it outside of a few outliers. Publishers would often balk at committing to a rapid run of that many novels, and it would be damn difficult to establish any kind of continuity in short-stories unless a venue agreed up-front (the nearest thing I can think of in the short fiction space is Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, which featured three arcs across nine instalments, and Hugh Howey’s Wool series, which was self-published as a series of novelettes before being collected into a novel).

Given those limitations, episodic stories tended to trump writing serialised fiction, or any blending of the two approaches, right up until the rise of independent publishing meant a bunch of writers started using TV as the model, complete with “boxed sets” that brought together a season-long arc as a singular story.

The kindle may be ten years old, but we’re still in the early days of this compared to the speed with which television has been adapting to the technological change (and continues to adapt, now that the streaming model has freed structural concerns based on timeslot and episode length).

I’m looking forward to seeing how series narratives shift and evolve in the fiction space, in light of all this. Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading up on the first waves of people to start making a success out of independently publishing short-story length series instalments (without necessarily serializing), particularly as the practice moves outside of the erotica space where it dominated for a few years.

Right now, the implementation of the model is mimicking television because TV is ahead of the game, but as it grows more prevalent in the fiction space and more people try it out, there’s pretty good odds it will evolve into its own thing (in much the same way that film stopped mimicking the photograph and theatre, and started developing its own techniques).

Let’s Talk About The Ways Money Fucks With The Writing Process

So here’s the thing about writing no-one tells you: the money is going to fuck with you and affect your creative process.

O-ho, there, you may be thinking, foolish Peter, there is no money in writing, and I totally understand why you’re thinking that. You’ve been hammered with that message from day one, ever since you began stringing words together to generate meaning. People will gleefully inform you that writers don’t make a living, and even those who skip that step will imply it by asking the kind of questions that make it clear your options are: a) become JK Rowling and have books in every store every time they walk in, or b) die in a gutter.

And that’s where the fucking with your process begins, because you do not want to die in the gutter. Which means your process is shaped by the perception that making a living as a writer is either a one-in-a-million chance where your craft matters not at all, or by the perception that the only way to make a living as a writer involves constantly delivering at the top of your game because only the very best of the best get to make a living.

You can probably be a competent at most jobs and make a living, but there are few where you are actively told that competence will never be enough. What we get is this: You don’t get to be good at writing if you want a career, you have to be mind-blowingly great (or, worse, you convince yourself you are mind-blowingly great and best-sellers like Rowlings, King, and Childs are merely average, and somehow you cannot make a living because you refuse to dumb your work down because readers are stupid).

You start obsessing about delivering a single book that will sweep the world as a publishing phenomenon, when the reality is that most full-time writers traditionally got where they’re going by building up a backlist and constantly moving forward.Or you assume that you’ll never make money and it can only ever be a bit of fun, and you never pursue it with any seriousness.

The money fucks with you.

Then, assuming you get past that, it keeps fucking with you as your career develops. You may start selling stories or get your first book out. You get advances and write invoices and start racking up a fair bit of bank for your words. You’re still working a dayjob to pay the rent, so that writing money is gravy. A little extra you can throw around and buy some new books, or pick up a new computer to help get that novel written, or throw on the mortgage and knock a few weeks off the end-date of the decades-long loan you’ve taken out to own a house. You’re making good cash, but your dayjob gets in the way. If only you had more time, you could get more done and earn more money.

Holy shit, you think, this writing this is great and I don’t actually need to be Rowling to get paid. Maybe it is possible to make a living with it one-day.

Let’s be clear: this thought is a trap. It’s money setting you up to be fucked with all over again.

Day jobs are fucking magic things, despite the feelings most people have about them. Day-jobs involve a nice, clean exchange of time and skills for cash. You show up for eight hours and do your job and a regular, agreed-upon amount of cash appears in your bank-account from your employer. You know when the money is coming, and how much will be there, and it largely arrives whether you’ve done a okay job or a great job or a fucking brilliant job every week. You can spend your last fifty bucks on Tuesday and know you’ll be okay because Thursday is payday and you’ll make it work.

Also, sick leave. Holy fuck. If you ever want to see a look of bewilderment, take someone who has worked as a gig-economy freelancer/contractor until age thirty and put them in a job where they can call in sick and still pay rent that week.

But this is not a keep-your-day-job rant, much as it may seem like it on the surface. What I’m suggesting here is that the system of regular-payment-for-your-job is ingrained into the way most people think, and the way our culture works. Almost all financial advice is predicted on making saving on your weekly paycheque, starting with the ubiquitous “give up your morning latte and save enough money to buy a second-hand car each year.”

The moment you’re a full-time writer, you are no longer part of that world. You become a small business owner where the payments are irregular and hard to predict, and you cannot assume that your next payday is going to arrive on line. Those big chunks of money that were gravy when you worked a day-job are now have to buy the core meat of your finances, paying rent and buying groceries and getting your car serviced.

You think you are ready for that transition, but I promise that you’re not. Because the writing that seemed so hard to get done working around your day-job suddenly has a new weight added to it, a pressure that says if this isn’t brilliant, you ain’t going to get paid. You find yourself finishing novels and thinking, if this doesn’t sell enough to find another gig, I’m not going to be able to live next year.

Couple that with the fact that you rarely have access to the data that will tell you how your books are doing, outside of a twice-yearly royalty report, and you’re effectively writing blind and hoping it will work out. To say this is stressful is an understatement.

The irregular nature of money means you start taking on more gigs, pushing yourself harder, and even with all that extra time you’ve got by leaving the dayjob behind you’re still going to be in a place where you’re delivering work that starts feeling a little rushed. Your work might not have changed, but it feels different. You’ve lost touch with that thing you really value in your writing, because money becomes the most pressing measure of success that you’re chasing. I used to be great, you find yourself thinking, and now I’m settling for good. Or, shit, am I actually just bad now? You resent the gigs that pull you away from the work you want to be doing, because if you didn’t have to take them just to pay rent, you could go back to being great. Or, at least, put together an elaborate plan to eliminate JK Rowling and slide into her spot.

Then you get sick, or you haven’t had a holiday in five years, and you refuse to take a break and recharge because it no longer matters how long you spend working and holy fuck, all those deadlines. Writers don’t get paid by the hour, they get paid when the work is done and the money is the same regardless of how long it took.

This can start putting enormous amount of pressure on you and your work, and it just get compounded if a gig falls through or a book sells less than expected.

Irregular income is a hard thing to live with and a harder thing to work through, and it just gets worse when everyone you know is still collecting a paycheque and doesn’t understand how your finances work now.

It gets so much worse again when some motherfucker on the internet talks shit about artists wanting to get paid for their art, like it’s some grievous sin, and you aren’t able to shiv said motherfucker in the eye with a fork like he probably deserves.

The money fucks with you, and it fucks with your writing process.

I have no solutions to this, beyond being aware of it. My own response to finding out how badly freelancing fucked with my process was going and getting a part-time job, so I could take comfort in a regular paycheque and still enjoy the things I wrote.

Not everyone wants to make that decision. Many people actively loathe the idea.

Still, one of the nice things about writers talking about money more often is the ease with which you can track down information telling you how to manage things, and that you aren’t alone.

Three Quick and Dirty Time Management Hacks For Writers

I started reading time and project management books a few years back, when it became apparent that my ability to manage my studies was fairly limited. I ramped up my reading in 2011 when I found myself working in an organisation with multiple people for the first time, since I was pretty much used to working on my own or in small groups.

Over the years I’ve tried a bunch of systems and kept stuff from each of them, but this list collects together three of the quick-and-dirty time management hacks that have been particularly useful to me as a writer. All are part of larger, more complex systems that have their own strengths and weaknesses, but I am pretty ruthless about keeping the things that work for me and searching for new options when something doesn’t.

HACK ONE: PRIORITISE THE TASKS THAT UNLOCK OTHER PEOPLE’S CAPACITY TO WORK ON YOUR BEHALF

I picked this one up from Dan Charnas incredible book about chefs, time management, and mise-en-place, Work Clean, and it remains the advice I turn to every time I found myself paralysed by indecision about what needs to come next.

One of the base-lines of Charnas’ approach is simple: the action you take now is infinitely more valuable than the action you take in the future, because the action you take now can trigger next actions. The action you might take later, even if it’s a slightly better call, cannot start follow-up actions until then (and sucks up psychological resources while you manage your own inaction).

In this system, the optimal use of time when all other considerations are equal is doing a task that unlocks someone else’s capacity to work on your behalf.

It’s easy to see the importance of this principle when you’re working in a larger office, particularly if you’ve ever worked in a place where management approval is the black hole where all projects stall and die.

It’s harder easy to grasp the importance when you’re writing, and everything seems equally important in your little office of one, but there is actually hundreds of small tasks that it’s easy to downgrade until you think about them in this way. Here is just a small handful of tasks I’ve noted over the last few years:

  • Reading and signing contracts unlocks publishers ability to work on your behalf, as does filling out an invoice for work done and mailing it off (which unlocks the capacity for people to do one of my favourite things – pay me).
  • Answering an email about taking part in an interview, or responding to a guest-post request, unlocks the capacity for other people to promote you. So does actually doing the work when such things arrive.
  • Researching a new market for that story that got rejected may take ten minutes, but it immediately unlocks the capacity for slush readers and editors to work on your behalf.
  • Filling in grant and scholarship applications unlocks work in all sorts of ways, particularly if it’s the kind of thing where you’re going to need to ask questions. Reading Charnas book is one of the reasons I got a PhD scholarship, ‘cause if I hadn’t I would have left the application process too late to get advice on many of the things I needed help navigating.
  • Editing your existing story so you can submit it will get more people working than writing a new one will. Similarly, getting your story out to beta readers will mean more than the ten minutes you’d gain working on something new.
  • Dragging your feet on a shared project that needs you to do something before other people can do their part has obvious delays built in (although, I’ll admit, I still struggle with this one).

When time is short I used to struggle with prioritizing any of this stuff over creating new words. Now I dedicate a portion of my day solely to the process of unlocking other people’s capacity.

HACK TWO: SPEND A HALF-HOUR PLOTTING OUT YOUR COMMITMENTS OVER THE NEXT THREE MONTHS IN ADDITION TO YOUR PROJECTS

This one is lifted from The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and I’d actually recommend doing his whole Quarterly Checkpoint if you’ve got the time and inclination. If you don’t, I recommend this single step as one of the things that helped me start being more in-control of my writing process.

The theory here is simple: it’s easy to overlook the impact things will have on your life and available time, which means you’ll frequently overestimate how much you can get done in the coming three months. Taking a few moments to list the hard and soft commitments you expect to see happening every quarter will shape your expectations in advance, and allow you to plan accordingly.

For example, if I look at the period from November through to January, I can see that I’ve got a series of huge deadlines for the PhD, plus a number of weeks where I’m going to lose work time due to holiday commitments. Even if I don’t take said holidays myself, there will be days where my family and partner have time off and want to spend time with me. January is also heavy with family Birthdays and similar events, which means I’ll need to factor in both birthday celebrations and purchasing gifts during one of the busiest times of year.

If I just planned out my quarterly projects right now, this week, my perceptions would be informed by the fact that I’m largely commitment free and capable of fitting in additional project time. it would be easy to overlook these events and simply assume that the majority of the week will be blissfully free of things that will pull my focus away from work.

Doing this three months out gives you plenty of time to adjust your expectations and plan around the interruptions, whereas a one month window tends to put more pressure on you.

HACK THREE: NUMBER AND INDEX EVERY NOTEBOOK YOU USE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT IT’S USED FOR

This one is straight out of the bullet journal process put together by Ryder Carroll, but it remains the single best idea I’ve seen for keeping track of what’s in a notebook. Even if you don’t intend to use the full bujo method, getting into the habit of numbering notebook pages and indexing their contents saves countless hours of trying to remember what note you’ve put down where. I use this with bullet journals, but also pocket notebooks used for quick notes and shoping lists, larger notebooks where I write story drafts, and the various notebooks I use for tracking what’s going on in gaming.

There are thousands of systems out there for adequately filing your notes online and in filing cabinets, but this is the closes thing I’ve seen to keeping things manageable in books themselves.