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Novella Diary, Claw, Day One

May ProjectSo I’m setting out to write the third novella in the Miriam Aster trilogy this month. It’s been one of those projects that’s been sitting on my to-do list for far too long, and I’d largely blocked out the month of May in order to get it done when I sat down to plan out my year of writing.

As my writing projects go, this one is fairly significant: approximately 30,000 words of narrative while dealing with two novellas worth of back-story and a whole heap of reader expectations that need to be met. This is at odds with my natural impulses when writing fiction – 8,000 words tends to be my comfort zone, and the only time I’ve ever revisited a setting is when I wrote Bleed as the sequel to Horn back in 2009.

So I figured I’d try live-blogging the writing process, both to keep myself honest and ’cause I spend so much time writing about process in general terms for work that it’d be nice to write about something specific.

Also, to be honest, ’cause I want to be conscious of some of the things that I’m doing; I’d like to have a good feel for what my writing day really looks like in terms of getting words down.

SOME BACKGROUND DETAILS WORTH KNOWING

Here’s the first thing you need to know: writing this book scares the shit out of me.

It was originally meant to be finished back in November of 2010, giving Twelfth Planet time to do a 2011 release and do the whole three-books-in-three-years approach to Aster’s storyline. Then my life got complicated. I’ve posted the how and why a couple of times in the archives of this blog, but the short version: my dad had a heart attack; I ended three years of unemployment by getting a job in a toxic workplace that crushed my soul; my writing time, such as it was, got moved on to other projects where I struggled to meet deadlines.

I hate missing deadlines. Really, really hate it. And in the period from November 2010 until the end of 2011, I hit exactly one of the fourteen deadlines on my schedule. Even today, I’m still struggling to get back to the point where I can get everything done. That did some evil shit to my already battered psyche.

And yet, none of this is the entire story. Writers get derailed all the time, for all sorts of reasons, and they manage to come back from it. I hit the end of 2011 and basically disappeared into my job, blithely telling everyone I wasn’t really a writer anymore.

THE BIT I DON’T TALK ABOUT IS THE FEAR

Y’see, Horn wasn’t meant to be published. It was a story I wrote on a dare, just to prove that I could, and it only really became a novella ’cause Angela Slatter heard me reading a fragment of the autopsy scene once and kept badgering me to finish it. She then more-or-less shepherded the book through the publication process, recommending it to Twelfth Planet, and making use of her phenomenal network of writer-types to get it more attention than I ever expected to get.

And people seemed to like the book. I mean, really like it. Despite the fact that it went somewhere fairly graphic and unpleasant about three quarters of the way through.

And I desperately wanted Bleed to be a better book than its predecessor. And it’s possible, in some ways, that it is; I tried to do more, to stretch myself as a writer, and it didn’t rely on the…well, let’s call it stunt writing… that gave Horn its notoriety. There are plenty of people who like it and I doubt they’re all lying to me just to soothe my rumpled writer-ego.

Despite all this, Bleed fell short of my ambitions. It remains on the list of projects that should have been better. It’s too much of a sequel, not enough of a stand-alone story. There are bits I still read and wince, ’cause I know I could do them different now and maybe they’d improve things. There’s a whole bit in there that’s basically a dream sequence, and that bugs me.

And for three years now, I’ve been carrying the idea for Claw around in my head, telling myself it’ll be the chance to rectify that. To produce the book, more or less, that I always hoped Bleed would be.

And I am weary of being afraid. I am weary of using that as an excuse for things that are simply not yet done.

WRITING NOTES

So the plan, such as it is, is to record notes of what I get down every time I open up the manuscript on my writing computer. Some days this could be quite busy. Some days, hopefully, it’ll be a handful of posts. Either way, I’m trying to get a feel for exactly how I go about working on this sort of project, since I have a feeling that it’s going to fly up against all sorts of writing wisdom.

Session 1.1 (8:00 AM – 9:00 AM)
Word count: 282

I didn’t pick May by accident.

My year is a patchwork quilt of busy-periods, largely due to the day-job and a bunch of teaching commitments, which meant May was easily the free period where I could get some sustained work done on a project.

Better yet, it’s the month after the Australian Natcon, where I had the opportunity to double-check whether Twelfth Planet were still interested in a third book and catch up with a bunch of people who basically asked either a) what was I up to, writing wise, or b) if the third book was ever coming out.

I know, from experience, that I come out of Con’s motivated and ready to write. After a while, a writer-con is really just a reminder of how the Big Moat Theory of building a career in the creative arts really works, seeing how all the little projects add up to a reputation and a readership. It’s a chance to minimize the fear and hit the ground running, if only so I can get about 10,000 words into the manuscript before the self-doubt comes creeping up on me.

And while I’m technically starting today, without any real plan, there has been a whole bunch of prep work going on. I’ve reviewed all three of the previous attempts to write this book, looking for the bits I like. I’ve tried out, at current count, five different opening scenes in an attempt to figure out which is the best way to kick things off.

This is one of those things I’ve forgotten about my process: I rewrite like a motherfucker before moving on. None of those five openings have been 100% right, or even all that similar, but each time they’ve given me an element that I can use – a place, a voice, a new character who can get onstage.

There are writers who can just plough forward, content that they’ll fix things in the next draft, but I’m not one of them. I need that kick-off to be right. I need it to be a firm foundation that the entire damn story will be built around, particularly with the all the back-story I’m trying to cover. It flies against all sorts of conventional writing wisdom, but it’s the way I work.

Today is a day-job day, which means I’m working my minimum-acceptable-keyboard-time shift: the hour I’ve got before getting up and having to leave for work.

The morning’s word-count is cripplingly low, given that I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day and generally hope to hit 500 words an hour, but it’s less dire than it seems. There’s the framework of an old scene that that I’m using as a base – about eight or nine hundred words – and I’m overlaying the new bits on top.

It works. It’s not perfect – that’s a job for the redrafting – but it feels like a beginning and it covers the bits I think need covering. It locks down some characters from the previous book who are relevant to this one, introduces one of the central conflicts that makes Aster who she is, and sets the stage for the appearance of the new character who’ll be making the first chapter run.

Session 1.2 (5:52 PM – 6:06 PM)
Word count: 205 words

Fourteen minutes. 205 words. Such is the power of hitting the bits where I write dialogue instead of scene-setting and back-story. Wrote what may or may not be the end of the first scene. I’ve made three attempts to open a web-browser while doing this, despite the fact that I set up an internet-free writing computer especially for May in order to get his done. Turns out going internet free was a damn good idea.

Also a good idea: sitting down to hammer out words despite the fact that I knew I had, at most, a handful of minutes. Going out to dinner with my Flatmate and Downstairs Neighbour soon. Figure this may involve alcohol, which means there’s good odds there will be no more writing this evening.

Session 1.3 (8:50 PM – 9:34 PM)
Word count: 458 words

Back from dinner at the local bowls club. Had a ten dollar schnitzel while hanging with my Flatmate and Neighbour. The decision to blog the writing process of the novella pays dividends when I decide to limit myself to one beer. Am now slightly bummed, as I always am when I hang with these two; I know I’ll be moving at the end of this year, and odds are against me being able to afford to stay in this area, which means there’s likely to be considerably less hanging out, and my Flatmate and Downstairs Neighbour are pretty awesome.

Still in a dialogue intensive part of the screen, which means it’s relatively easy to get a burst of wordage done. I stopped writing once I hit my needed daily word count (1,000 words), and I’m in the middle of a scene that’ll make it possible to pick things up pretty easily on the morning.

My pattern seems to be 15-20 minutes of work, a quick twitter check-in, and another 15-20 minutes of work. This bothers me a bit – I used to be a lot better at focusing on writing and I’d rather be working in 40 to 50 minute chunks – but it’s nice to know it’s possible to hit the day’s expected word-count by nibbling away at it.

Total Daily Writing Time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Daily Total: 1,035
Manuscript total: 1,035

KPIs and Writing Data

So I have KPIs at the day-job this year, a neat little grid of goals that serve as the line between “doing my job well” and “not quite meeting expectations.”

This is something of a first for me – for most of my life I’ve done contract work or found my way into jobs that were…well, lets say insufficiently defined for the purposes of generating things like key performance indicators. I’ve spent most of my life listening to friends talk about their office jobs and KPIs were part of that arcane language that floated around, reminding me of how little my work-life resembled theirs.

I used to envy that KPI talk. Lots of my friends weren’t fond of the meetings, or found them a waste of time, but for someone who is, at their core, a moderately competitive person, they mean something important. They mean the day-job can be won. There is a line to reach and once I have moved past it I can look back at what I have done and declare victory.

I find this enormously comforting. Daunting, but comforting.

And I find myself thinking back to a conversation I had on twitter late last year, after Catherine Caine posted about metrics for small businesses on her blog, Cash and Joy. The initial point she made in her post – only pay attention to metrics that create decisions – fascinated me from a writing perspective, ’cause a lot of writers track all sorts of information without really knowing why or how it’s going to be useful.

I have a bunch of metric based KPIs at work – this many people need to engage with a particular project, this much money needs to be made in order for a particular project to be sustainable – and they make a good deal of sense to me because I can look at the business plan for our organisation and see how they fit into a long-term vision. They are metrics that are loaded with meaning, and they allow for more informed decisions to be made.

When writing, on the other hand, almost everything I’ve tracked has been instinctual or a case of mimicking others who came before me. I’ve spent time tracking word-count metrics, for example, far more often than I’ve had a use for the information. I used to log into Duotrope and check my acceptance ratio, or spend hours reviewing their response time statistics. Not that I cared about response times, just because there was something comforting about the data. Basically, the metrics I tracked were usually all about making me feel good (or, at the very least, less crappy about the fact that I picked writing as a career; there were a few times when I really, really needed that).

I’m not alone in this. I spent much of the recent guest-post I wrote for the Science of Fiction about acceptance ratios trying to articulate why it was the wrong question to ask, and I’m honestly not sure I did a particularly good job of it. On one hand, it was a fun exercise that fed directly into the stats make me feel good approach, but there really isn’t that much data in my acceptance ratio that allows me – let alone other writers – to make meaningful decisions when it comes time to send work out.

These days I find myself wishing I’d tracked all sorts of information that would have been far more useful than word-count. Data that looks at how long a story take me, for example, would’ve been a pretty fricken’ sweet thing to have over the last couple of years, especially when it came time to manage some tight timelines. A lot of the time I’m going on my gut with this sort of thing, saying yes or no based on my best guess about whether or not I can get a story to a polished standard within say, a year, or six months, or even time-frames as short as a month or a week.

More importantly, I find myself wishing that I’d done a much better job of tracking the information I do have more stringently, since even things like word-count tracking are haphazard, particularly in the instances when, say, I’m enormously busy doing non-writing things (annoyingly, there are exactly the kind of times when even knowing I can realistically produce X number of words in rough draft could be useful).

One of the most fascinating viral posts about writing that I’ve seen in the last twelve months has been Rachel Aaron’s How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. I went and re-read it just prior to putting this post together, simply because it’s an example of how a writer tracking the right things transformed their process. Metrics were tracked with a purpose, which in turn allowed for the process to adapt. I neither track nor apply metrics with anything like the same rigor, although I plan on doing a better job of it over the next twelve months.

I find myself moderately comfortable with the KPIs at work because they feed directly into the approach I’ve taken to writing for the last couple of years – set goals, trying to meet them, think long-term. Despite this, the goals I set myself are frequently more instinctual than anything else. I tell myself I want to learn to write things faster, for example, without having any real metric for what faster actually is. Since I am a competitive type, this frequently drives me crazy, since there’s no way to win at that particular goal. I’ve got no idea what I’m measuring, and I’ve got no idea what came before.

Worse, since I’m also a lazy competitive type, victories that seem too hard to achieve are frequently the victories I don’t bother trying to win.

So I find myself pondering the same question, over and over: what are the really useful things writers should be tracking? Not the stuff that makes us feel good, but the data that has a meaningful impact on the way we do business? I’m not sure I’ve got an answer for that, but I’ve asked other writers a couple of times and it’s always been an interesting conversation.

Since I know there’s a couple of writer-types who visit here regularly, I’m putting the call out there: what kind of things do you current track in relation to your writing? How do you use the data once you’ve got it together? What kind of connections exist between your data collection and your writing goals?

If you need me today, I’ll be (quietly) freaking the fuck out

image

7:20 on a Thursday morning and I’m set up in the cafe at the State Library, killing time before I head upstairs to go and kick the dayjob into gear. It’s a dreary kind of morning with drizzling rain and grey skies and people clutching at umbrellas, although some people choose to job bare-chested through it all and some people forgot their umbrellas. I know you can’t actually see the rain in the photograph, but trust me, it’s there.

A gentlemen who just walked past who is the very definition of dapper. I have no idea who he is, but he’s easily on the far side of fifty and he’s totally rocking his chosen look.

I haven’t had much sleep.

There’s nothing particular unusual about this. Not having much sleep is something of my natural state, although this time around the sleep debt is entirely intentional. I went to bed after midnight last night, I woke up around 5:00, which is part of my cunning ploy to ensure I get to bed at an early hour tonight (hah) in order to rack up some Zzzs prior to flying down to Melbourne at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning.

Today is going to be crazy.

Oh god, today is going to be crazy.

There were a half-dozen deadlines that absolutely, positively needed to be done for the dayjob this week and none of them were easy. Worse, none of them were really all that well-ranked in terms of this is the one you can let slide if things get crazy. Then Brisbane went and flooded, which meant we were all out of the office for a day on account of our office being down by the Brisbane river, and even though that was a blessing for one of the projects, it put me behind on a bunch of others.

Today is my last day at work for the week. Therefore: crazy. Once nine o’clock hits I’m required to be a productivity ninja for the next eight hours.

Then I can go home and pack.

Before that, there will be writing though. And before that, there will be coffee.

Time to go kick out the jams, wot?

Sri Lankan Love Cake FTW

So the QWC Bake-off is over and I’m pleased to report that my shameless pandering to the internet has succeeded in securing me first place in the fund-raising. Net result: I get myself a hat of awesome and you guys get the recipe for kick-ass Sri Lankan Love Cake *and* my inevitable humiliation via the medium of dance and the internet (Assuming, of course, the chap who gets to decide the music for said dance actually makes up his mind at some point. At the moment he’s wavering between having me dance to All the Single Ladies and having me do the opening cheer sequence from Bring It On).

I should really point out that the real winner here is Pancreatic Cancer Research, on account of the fact that our bake-off raised over $1,400 in a two-week period. Near as we can tell, you guys are responsible for a good $630 of that number, give or take a few donations that didn’t come in with a vote. Which is to say, you guys UTTERLY FREAKIN’ ROCK and it’ll be my pleasure to humiliate myself for your entertainment.

But that’s in a week or so, depending on how long it takes for the logistics to get worked out. For now, I share this:

SRI LANKAN LOVE CAKE WITH HONEY-GINGER CREAM

Picture courtesy of Bake-Off Organizer Aimee Lindorff

To make this, you’re going to need the following:

Half a dozen eggs.
500 grams of Castor Sugar
150 grams of unsalted butter
enough honey to make both cake and cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence, if you’re me and you can’t be arsed trying to track down rosewater (replace this with two tablespoons of rosewater if you want to get all authentic)
1 lime
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
250g raw cashews, chopped into tiny bits of cashew-rubble
250g semolina
300 ml of Double Cream
1 tablespoon of grated ginger

The things you’ve gotta do:

Okay, strap yourselves in, ’cause I don’t do the cake thing often and when I do engage in a spot of baking, I largely do so with the intention of making something that’s relatively mind-blowing in its awesomeness. Sure, I’ll admit, I fail at that *a lot*, but it’s the effort that matters in this instance, and occasionally the aftermath when you actually take the food and serve it to people. What I’m trying to say is this: I’m a long way from being a kitchen ninja, but I can manage this cake if I’m okay with making a mess, and it’s a cake that’s designed to impress when people don’t expect you to have mad baking skills.

Step One: find an oven someone’s willing to let you use and crank the thing to about 150 degrees. I’m working in Celsius here, ’cause that’s how Australian’s roll; if your oven is working in Fahrenheit or some other weird measurement, hit the internets and find the appropriate conversions.

Step Two: Bung the eggs and the sugar in a mixing bowl and generally BEAT THE HOLY HELL OUT OF IT. Generally I do this with electric beaters and mixers and stuff, but history suggests you can do it by hand if you’re willing to put the work into it. Keep going until the mixture is kinda pale and you don’t see things that are obviously egg yolks or bits of un-mixed sugar in the mixture.

Step Three: Add butter, 60 milometers of honey, nutmeg, cardamon, and your vanilla essence. Track down a grater and zest the hell out of your lime. Seriously, go at it until you’ve transformed the skin of the lime into something like finely grated cheese, then toss the grated lime-skin into the mixture. Yes, I’ve put more effort into this step than is really necessary. What can I say – zesting the lime is traditionally my favourite part of the process, largely cause it’s an excuse to use one of these bad-boys, and my fine-grain hand-grater is, like, my third-favourite kitchen utensil.

So yeah, zest your lime and add the zest to the mixture. Do whatever the hell you want with the rest of the lime – you’re not going to need it here. I recommend finding some post-cake coctail that needs a dash of lime-juice, but that’s just me.

Step Four: Mix the hell out of everything you’ve just thrown into the bowl.

Step Five: If you’re using the electric mixture, it’s time to abandon it and do the next few steps by hand, ’cause it’s time to throw in your chopped cashews and you generally want them to be somewhat-chunk-like rather than processed into fine dust. Do the same with the semolina once you’re done mixing in the cashews. Mix well.

Step Six: Put some greased baking paper in a largish, rectangular cake-tin. Pour your mixture into the tin. Trust me when I say you’ll regret forgetting the baking paper step if you don’t do it.

Step Seven: Throw everything into the oven and leave it to bake for about an hour. Timing will vary depending on your oven and how well it handles such things, but you’re basically aiming for a cake that’s a nice golden-brown on the top and still moist inside. If you’re a fan of the skewer test, you’re largely looking for the opposite of what you’d normally looking for – if the skewer comes out clean, you’ve overcooked things.

Fortunately, this cake is still fairly delicious if you overcook things. Plus, we’ve got the Honey-Ginger Cream to make up for any mistakes you may have made on that front. And, unlike the cake, the cream is dead fucking simple.

So, Step Eight: At some point during the hour your cake is in the oven, either clean your mixing bowl (or grab another one) and throw in your ginger, your double-cream, and two table-spoons of honey. Mix like hell, until things are, well, mixed. When you’re done, cover the bowl and put your honey-ginger cream into the fridge until you need it.

Easy.

When your hour is up, take your cake out of the oven. If you’re sensible, let it cool a little before you start cutting it into squares and serving it with a dollop of cream on the top. If you’re me, cut it into squares while it’s still warm and eat a few peices, ’cause it’s way better that way.

Night of the Wolverine

ONE

Wednesday morning. The office – home, not dayjob – is humid and muggy. In the coming months it’ll be muggy as hell, which is probably the queue I need to go buy a fan in order to get through summer. Although, knowing me, I’ll just open a window and go, geez, the office is muggy as hell today. This will usually be followed by the phrase fuck you, Brisbane. ‘Cause, really, there’s no need for this.

TWO

Meetings at the day-job yesterday. Good meetings, for me, at least. In 2013 I’ll be working at the day-job three days a week and keeping the other four to use for MY OWN NEFARIOUS PURPOSES.

Which means, you know, writing.

If you do not believe that writing counts as a NEFARIOUS PURPOSE, you obviously don’t live inside my head.

This is, however, a case of getting what I wanted without necessarily being a case of getting what I planned for. I dislike living without a plan. Ignoring a plan, sure, I can do that, but not having one freaks me out a little. My plans for 2013 were all you can get done what you can get done in the morning writing shifts.

That no longer applies. It’s time to think a little, a little more long-term.

The next thirty days are going to be spent spinning through a bunch of projects and potential projects, trying to figure out which will appear on my schedule first.

THREE

There is not enough coffee. I’m sure you’re shocked by this.

FOUR

There’s something about a muggy, no-good kind of morning like this one that always bring me back to Dave Graney. No matter how hot and ugly it gets, I can throw Night of the Wolverine on the stereo and pretend I’m somewhere dark and cool and built for the consumption of alcohol. Ditto Rock and Roll is Where I Hide, which I’m willing to defend as the greatest pop song in the history of pop songs.

FIVE

I’m going to be scarce December through February. I’m not entirely sure *how scarce* yet, but I’ve got a lot on, and the recent changes have meant that I’m setting aside that three-month block in order to focus on rewriting a novel.

Which, on the down side, means I won’t be kicking around here as much, entertaining you all with my sparkling wit.

On the other hand, it means, you know, a novel.

This was on the cards before the change in work-schedule – I’d taken a whole bunch of leave in December, which wasn’t exactly for this purpose but may as well be now – but now I’m going to throw it out there as a public goal (On the whole, I know which one we’d all prefer, but I’m going to focus on the novel anyway).

SIX

Also, I plan on using December to finally play Mass Effect 3. Yes, I’ve been pre-warned that the ending is pants. Yes, I’m going to play it anyway. I bought the damn game when it was BRAND FREAKIN’ NEW and haven’t had time to play it since then.

Playing Mass Effect 3 will probably result in me re-playing 1 and 2. After all, it’s been a year.

To borrow a phrase from another SF franchise altogether: if you need me, I’ll be in my bunk.

SEVEN

I have to play croquet today. I’ve never played croquet before.

It’s got something to do with flamingos, right?

Four Years On

This is what my author bio used to look like, circa early 2007:

Peter is a perpetual student and occasional writer. He lives in Brisbane with a fiancé, two cats and a never-ending thesis.

I had reason to look up the story it was attached to over the weekend – a flash piece that was among the first pieces of fiction I unleashed upon the world – and it was a profoundly weird experience. I mean, that was from February-March in 2007, which means it’s a little under six years ago, and pretty much everything in that bio was irrelivant by the time I launched this blog a few later. These days, the only things that remain in any way accurate is my name and the fact I live in Brisbane.

I’ve been kinda worrying at that thought for the last couple of days, putting it into perspective. It all feels like stuff that happened to someone else.

I mean, most days I don’t actually remember being engaged – the relationship, sure, which had good bits and bad bits, but not the engagement.

I vaguely remember asking and going to buy a ring, the conversations about the wedding that followed. The fact that it seems so distant to me these days probably says all that needs saying about why its a good thing we never actually reached the stage with vows and the cake.

My fiancé owned the cats, so they went with her. I’m not sure when that happened, exactly, but I’m pretty sure that relationship was over by the end of 2007.

My vague intentions to finish the thesis lingered for longer.

I know I was still making noise about finishing it at the start of 2009, as evidenced by the fact that I still have a tag related to academia in my tag-cloud, but I’m pretty sure that too had fallen by the wayside by the end of the year. I’d hit a point where I was no longer happy working at universities and the idea of finishing my thesis and finding an academic job filled me with apathy and unhappiness.

These days I find myself struggling to remember what life was like when I taught at uni, although I still feel a short thrill of schadenfreude every time my friends start posting about their piles of marking on twitter.

I’ve been hard on the last couple of years. I mean, really, really hard. In retrospect, that makes a kind of sense – both the relationship and the thesis were probably enormously important to my sense of self at the time.

The years that followed had some pretty shitfull experiences as well. Deaths in the family. Major health scares for my dad. Hideous, soul-destroying day-jobs. My parents habit of going overseas and almost dying in car crashes. The kind of epic, prolonged unemployment that cripples you emotionally, financially, and socially. There were a succession of years where I’d hit the end of November, look back at everything that happened, and say, “yeah, seriously, fuck this year.”

And the weird part is that I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

This surprises me to some extent, ’cause I’m largely caught off-guard by being happy these days. Content, sure. I got really, really good at being content in the last six years, finding ways to maintain a balance and get on with the next thing, but happy felt like something that happened to other people. My life became very, very small between 2007 and 2011. Today, in many ways, it’s characterized by abundance. Also, by a sense that I’m better at saying no, actually, this isn’t what I want. 

PeterMBall.com turns four this month. I kicked off this blog on the 27th of November, 2008, and looking back over the archives November has always been a month with a certain amount of introspection.

In 2009 I was finishing up the draft of Bleed and submitting to Twelfth Planet Press, figuring out what happened next. It was a year marked by big dreams, largely ’cause I was trying to hide the panic of being out of a job for a year.

In 2010 I was largely absent while my dad had his heart surgery and I started at my old day-job, wondering what the hell had just happened to life.

In 2011, I set myself a goal for the coming year: figure out how to write while working a full-time job. It took me the better part of a year to do it, but I think I’ve got that figured out how. I’ll already have more work out in 2013 than I did this year, and I’m gearing up for another crack at redrafting my novel during the time-off I’ve got in December with the goal of finishing it by the end of February.

This year, I’m going to mark the anniversary of this blog by being thankful and making a note to myself: don’t fuck this up anymore than you have too. Life is good, you’re happy, try and keep doing whatever your doing.

Really, as life-goals go, I’m willing to call that a win.

Scattershot

 BAKE-OFF UPDATE

So, an update on the QWC Bake-Off and my quest to win the hat of awesome.

The Good News: We’ve hit our $1000 target, which means that should I win the Hat of Awesome, you’ll definitely be getting HIGHLY EMBARRASSING video of me dancing to a song selected by the most generous of the supporters who chipped and vote for my Sri Lankan Love Cake in the bake-off. Currently that honour is held by my friend Craig, who was last reported using phrases like “Beyonce” and “Single Ladies” and “If you like, you should have put a ring on it.”

I am, it must be said, a little nervous about what might happen next.

Of course, all this OUTRIGHT HUMILIATION only occurs if I win the bake-off, and I’m currently only $70 ahead of the gratuitous stunt-baking of my workmate’s Cherbumple. Given the pace that donations have been coming in, I could be in second place by the end of the day.

There’s ten days to go and anything could happen, which is why I demand nothing short of FLAWLESS VICTORY before I hand over the tattered shreds of my dignity and get my groove on while wearing a silly hat.

NEXT BIG THING

There’s an awesome piece of web-meme going around writer’s blogs dubbed The Next Big thing meme. Every writer involved answers some questions about their current project and pings another five writers to be involved, thus creating a massive chain of emerging writers talking about their work. It’s very cool. You can see some of my favourite emerging writers answering said questions on their websites.

That said, I’m a bear of very little brain at the moment (ditto time), and I tend to find answering questions about my work time-consuming. Especially these days, when I don’t really have a project du jour so much as a stretch where I get whatever I can get done in this here free half-hour, and the interview is kinda…book focused.

If you’re thinking about tagging me to take part, be aware that my standard response will be thanks for thinking of me, but I’m not really up for it right now followed by HOURS AND HOURS OF SELF-RECRIMINATION for not having a book to work on. I’m not a fan of that, ’cause I’m kinda happy working on short-stories for the moment. They fit into the empty spaces in my life. Also, my day job? Kinda cool.

If you’re interested in seeing some interview responses from writers who are actually working on books, I recommend the following list:

Kirstyn McDermott

Jason Nahrung

Alan Baxter

Angela Slatter

Also, as a bonus, writers who haven’t filled out their interviews yet, but I’m pretty sure will be included soon:

Tansy Rayner Roberts

Patrick O’Duffy

Jason Fischer

LL Hannet

 AVAST, CAPTAIN, THERE BE FREE TIME AHEAD

This is my final week as a full-time employee of QWC for the foreseeable future. Next week I’m taking some time-off due in attempt to recover from the large number of weekends I’ve been working of late (four in a row, including GenreCon), and starting in December I go back to four-days a week at the day-job. I also took a whole bunch of annual leave in December, most of which I plan on spending locked away in the house, refusing to interact with the human race.

It’s possible I’ll write some stuff. Or watch a fucking ass-load of wrestling on DVD. Or read some goddamn books. One of the three. I’ve never really had a holiday that was, like, a holiday rather than a desperate scramble to pay the bills while I wasn’t earning money at a sessional teaching job. I’m kinda curious to see what it’s like and how long it takes the empty days to drive me crazy.

 

There is No Peter Here This Week

Sorry folks, I’m off to Sydney this week to run this piece of business:

GenreCon Logo

which promises to be wild and crazy and just a little exhausting, but also kinda time consuming. If you’re in Sydney over the weekend and interested in genre writing, come along and say hi.

If you haven’t heard from me by this time next week, odds are I’ve either been torn apart by wild genre writers or my flight home from Sydney has been delayed.

Superhero GM Advice Borrowed from Kelly Link: Fine Tune Your Subconscious

For the most part I’ve been writing about superhero gaming while my regular game was on hiatus due to a player being in the UK, but as of last night the hiatus is over. We got together despite some jetlag and played the thirty-first session of Shock and Awesome, which involved some call-backs to the very first sessions of the campaign in addition to the events of session 30. The character’s school trip to the Museum of Natural History was interrupted when Doctor Jurassic and his three Demon Dinosaurs (velociraptors with superpowers) attacked and made off with the prize of the museum’s new exhibit – fragments of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs several billion years ago.

It was probably the most fun I’ve had running bad guys in a long while, which is a sign that the villain audit I talked about last week is doing it’s job. I don’t think I’ve got my problems with combat licked yet, but this certainly *felt* like a very different fight compared to a lot of the other villain battles we had prior to the hiatus (admittedly, it was also marred by some abysmal die rolls for one of the players, which meant one of the dinosaur powers didn’t quite get the play it should have).

The other reason the fight was fun comes down to the choice of bad guys: Jurassic and his henchmen were geekily fun to stat up and create, largely because they appeal to the part of my brain that loves comic books.  It came about cause of a little exercise I borrowed from an SF writer named Kelly Link, which is all about connecting your conscious processes with the subconscious part of your brain that throws up ideas. In a lot of ways, this process is a spiritual successor to the Villain Audit when it comes to breaking out of a rut.

Superhero GM Advice Borrowed from Kelly Link: Fine Tune Your Subconscious

You can read about Kelly Link’s theory about collaborating with your subconscious here, but the short version goes something like this: your subconscious throws up ideas without regard to quality, providing you wish a mess of good ideas, bad ideas, and mediocre stuff. You consciously seize on certain ideas as being worthwhile, effectively training your subconscious to provide more of that type. The more you choose a particular idea, the more likely you are to see the same themes or approaches coming up over and over.

There’s no doubt that repeating myself over and over was a big problem in my campaign after looking over my villain audit, and it’s something I really wanted to do something about. Repetition should be a conscious thing used to generate effect, especially since my players aren’t the only ones who get bored by the same thing week after week – I lose interest in things as well, on some level, and that listlessness carries over to the way I prepared and ran my games. It was time to fine-tune the kind of ideas I was generating as a GM, so I borrowed one of Kelly Link’s exercises for doing so.

Link’s fine-tuning method is deceptively simple – she writes a list of the things she most likes to see in other people’s fiction, which serves as a guidepost for her subconscious. She works fast and the list covers a lot of ground, ranging from the thematic to the very general to the crazily specific, and eventually new ideas started appearing as the items she listed triggered something in her brain.

I’ve used this exercise dozens of times in writing since I first came across it a few years ago, but somehow it never actually occurred to me that it’d have a use in gaming until last week. In hindsight, it’s a near-perfect tool for GMs looking to have more fun in their games – we usually start campaigns because we’re fans of a particular genre, but how often do we sit down and work out what it is about the genre that we really like? More importantly, how often do we let the list of things we like seeing stay static, when in reality it’s constantly evolving. Go on a forty-issue Iron Man binge, for example, and you’re probably going to be a little burnt out on the Armoured Avenger and his slew of technology-based villains, but more than ready for the change of pace provided by some mystical Iron Fist action or pulp-like Hellboy horror or even some space-wahoo-craziness Green Lantern storylines.

With that in mind, I sat down and created my Things I like to see in comics list, hammering out as many things as I could in the space of twenty minutes. The result went something like this:

 

battle suits

ninjas

giant robots that aren’t goofy

interpersonal angst

Golden and silver age villains updated with a modern look

Homage’s to goofy silver-age tropes a-la early Invincible

dinosaurs

evil girlfriends who aren’t really evil

cops in trenchcoats

Kirby quartets

lame villains reclaimed for cool purposes

creator owned universes

“greatest hits” villainous team-ups (ie the Sinister Six)

telekinesis

villainous teams built as a homage to heroes and villains in another company (IE the Extremists in DC)

crazy plans

Creator owned universes

time travel

meta-text

martial arts heroes

Plans that make no sense on the surface, but perfect sense to the villains

fight scenes in dramatic locations

Masked/bizarre crime lords

retro villain concepts

weird science

evil cults

chasing people through the sewers

bitter cops who secretly like the hero

ineffectual secondary characters who are oblivious to all that’s going on under their noses

secondary characters who gets something up, but don’t drag out the investigation

inappropriate guest stars

investigation montages a-la early Power Man and Iron Fist

evil goatees

Mercenary soldiers

jobber villains – guys so low-rent and/or weird you wonder why they were created; working class crooks who are just interested in the money despite their powers.

Born losers

crazy plans that just might work

magic that doesn’t really feel like magic

rival teams

secret societies taking over the world

playing games with continuity

rewarding long-term readers by linking back to old plots without making it explicit

interesting double-teams

traps

police forces who actually realise there are super-villains and have protocols for dealing with them

enclosed spaces

ooze

lamp-shading series absurdity

Weird colours to costumes

big scenes full of people

plans that are slowly revealed and proven to be crazy ambitious

Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha

Now I’ve got a copy of this list posted into the front of my GM folder where I can revisit it, add to it, and alter it every couple of weeks. It’s not a complete list, but it’s a pretty good one – it captures many of the things that give me a little frisson of pleasure when they’re well-handled in comic books. In essence, they’re the things that make me a comic-book fan.

A lot of these things have also been getting plenty of play in Shock and Awesome as well – secret societies, battle-suits, and mercenary soldiers have all made regular appearances, enough so that they were going stale. They’d started bringing me less pleasure than I expected, which meant they weren’t as much fun anymore.

Fortunately, the list also touched on plenty of stuff that’d fallen by the wayside – we’d had one really strong homage villain in the early days of the campaign, but that was more or less it. He overstayed his welcome a bit, but It’d been long enough that I felt like was ready for another homage – and this time it was a homage to a very different set of characters. For the last week I’d look at their character sheets and feel that little thrill of excitement that said man, I really love comics, even if that thrill would have seemed weird to anyone else (hopefully it carried through into last night’s game).

It occurs to that at this point that while this kind of list is useful for a GM, it’s probably one of those exercises that makes sense across the board in a gaming group. RPGs are a collaborative storytelling exercise, after all, even if the GM has the busiest job of the process. GMs and players are, in effect, co-creators who are constantly negotiating how the world works among themselves. Anything that lets a GM get a feel for what the players truly love in the genre is a useful reference point. More importantly, other people lists are likely to inspire a few additions to your own, and a group that can get a firm cross-sections of comic tropes they love is probably in a pretty good place.

So here’s your chance: there’s twenty minutes on the clock and space in the comments to post your list of things you love to see in comics. Have at it, and let me know if any cool ideals spring up as a result.

Things I would do if I were planning on becoming an indie publisher…

The title of this post is actually a little disingenuous: I already self-published back in 2005, when I first started self-publishing ebooks for roleplaying games, and I kept at it until 2007 or so when, for various reasons related to edition wars and the level of misogyny among gamers, writing fiction started to look more appealing. The interesting thing about the RPG field is that it went through it’s teething problems with ebooks a little earlier than the rest of the world, which means I frequently find myself frustrated when I get involved in conversations about indie publishing ’cause there’s a certain level of been-there-done-that-made-all-the-stupid-mistakes-already. I’d been around epublishing for a while before that, though, so I’m naturally interested in the ebook/indie publisher explosion that’s happened over the last couple of years. It’s only gotten worse since I started working for a forward-thinking writers centre with an electronic publishing think-tank attached to it.

It also means that common phrases like I’m going to experiment with ebooks drive me crazy, since most of these experiments revolve around things RPG ebooks did six or seven years back. So after a couple of frustrating conversations, I sat down and put some serious thought into what I’d do if I were planning on starting an indie-publisher today, based on my own experiences and the data and resources I’ve come across at work.

A caveat: this is mostly a thought experiment – I have no immediate plans to indie-publish anything, and I’d put significantly more thought into things if I did – and it shouldn’t really be taken as anything other than me putting together an early sketch of a plan. I should also note that this is a I want to make ebooks my primarily writing/income type strategy – there are plenty of other reasons to go indie that have nothing to do with the above.

1) LEARN TO WRITE FASTER

To put it bluntly: I wouldn’t even bother epublishing until I was routinely cranking out 2,500 to 3,000 words every day on a regular basis. Admittedly this isn’t necessarily a difficult number to hit, even for slackers such as myself, but it’s worth noting that it’s been a very long time since I could routinely be relied upon to maintain that kind of writing pace over a prolonged period of time. I work a day-job, after all, and I’m well and truly out of practice.

The thing is this  – writing has always been a numbers game. The more you produce, the more likely you are to have a sustainable career that’s financially rewarding. Literary Agent Donald Maas has said you’re not really a writer until you have five books published – that’s roughly the point when you can safely assume you have an audience. I’ve heard that number pushed out to as high as ten books in other venues. Your mileage may vary.

Being electronic doesn’t mean you avoid the basic problem of needing to produce a lot of stuff. In fact, this goes double when you’re publishing your own work electronically, where the long-tail element can really pay off and new books serve to connect readers with your older products as well. The always-available-all-the-time element of ebooks can’t be discounted – only a handful of the sixty ebooks I produced for roleplaying games still available, but they still earn $5 to $10 dollars a month in sales on average over the course of the year. That’s with no real promotion, new releases, or marketing since around April of 2007. They aren’t even for a system that’s dominant in the marketplace these days (if I was smart, I’d finish updating them all and re-release them).

As a newish writer whose backlist is almost entirely short fiction, I want to be producing as much as possible as fast as possible, so ensuring I have the routine to keep pace with my ideal release schedule is important to me. Rule one remains write faster, produce more, accept the fact that you’re now closer to being a fast-food vendor producing good product regularly than a gourmet chef who slow-cooks one novel ever four to five years.

2) WRITE A BUSINESS PLAN

One of the things I noticed when I first started RPG publishing was the number of people who launched themselves into it without a plan. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but one of the first things I did when I started out was a business plan that had some research behind it and an overall strategy for earning enough money to make the time and energy I put into publishing pay off. In that plan I worked out the niches I would occupy that no-one else was covering, figured out how I’d diversify product lines so I wasn’t relying on one idea to pay off, and generally had a release schedule worked out for the first six months. All of that proved to be remarkably useful when I did actually launch, and it allowed me to build readers and income faster than I would have if I’d simply thrown stuff out there on my own schedule.

I’m a big advocate of the business plan for another reason too: it reminds you that you’re actually running a business. Figuring out your expected costs versus projected income might not be sexy, but it’s sobering and it makes shit real very fast. In self-publishing, as in writing itself, I’m a big fan of treating your business like a fucking business instead of half-assing it or making it up as you go along. If always staggers me when I talk to writers who have no business plan or sense of direction – if you plan on writing full-time someday, at least put more than twenty seconds of vague dreaming into how you plan on making that living wage and keeping it running.

My business plan for self-published fiction would probably look at producing work in two or more genres, having a mix of series books and stand-alone fiction, and would look carefully at methods of reusing work I did in other areas. Admittedly these are initial thoughts – the stuff I’ve written down off the top of my head. I’d be putting a whole damn lot of research into things at this stage before I actually kicked things off.

3. FOCUS ON FORMS PRINT PUBLISHING SHIES AWAY FROM

Novellas. Short novels around the 50 to 60,000 word mark. Short story collections. Things I can produce fast and release, that aren’t going to compete with the formats that print publishing largely has a lock on (IE, 100,000 word novels). I’d also look at writing in series, and kick off with three different series that I’d aim to maintain for at least a trilogy of novellas/novels. Part of the joy of ebooks is instant gratification and the ability to pick up the next book immediately, and series work connects that.

Not that almost all these numbers are based around my particular genre-set (SF and Fantasy).

4. STOCKPILE BEFORE LAUNCHING

So here’s the thing: I wouldn’t even dream of launching a self-publishing concern without having six-to-nine books ready to go. Of those nine books, I’d be looking at releasing a little over half in the first three months to establish my indie press, with the following three on a monthly basis afterwards. And because I’d made sure I was working at a faster rate before I considered any of this, I’d be working hard to maintain a quick pace for new releases.

 5. FIND A POSSE

Epub suffers from the same problem that small/self-publishing has always had – production is relatively easy, promotion/discoverability is hard. You may build your brand and your author platform and all those other things that writers do to promote their work, but you’re still a lone voice among the thousands and thousands of voices who exist in the ebook marketplace.

This is usually what leads to all sorts of discussions about price-point and one-dollar ebooks and a whole bunch of other noise that exists in the ebook sphere, but I learned my lesson on that front in the past. I can see the point of discounting a loss-leader, but routinely pricing books low in order to draw in customers ends up being a complete pain in the arse long-term. Also, writers devalue their work. Actually, that understates it. Let me rewrite it like this: OH FUCKING GOD, DO WRITERS DEVALUE THEIR WORK. By the time I hit the end of my game-publishing escapades, my price-points were worked out something like this – figure out how much I felt like I could charge for something. Then add a buck. Oddly enough, my sales didn’t really suffer any for the increased price-point.

All that’s a distraction, though. We’re not talking about price, we’re talking about discoverability, and my solution to that would be to go out and grab a bunch of motivated, like-minded writer-types and band together as a posse. Five or six loosely allied writers who produce work at a reasonable pace, include excerpts in one-another’s books, and do the occasional cross-promotional thing (a short anthology of stories featuring one story from each writer, for example). Multiple writers working multiple platforms working in concert and building on one-another’s audiences.

Two caveats with this: A) I have no idea if it’d work, just a gut instinct that it’d be a good idea; B) I’m not actually planning on self-publishing at present, so I’m not actually looking for or interested in being in a posse. Please don’t email me and ask me to be part of yours.

6) LOOK AT ALTERNATIVE DISTRIBUTION METHODS

It’s easy to get fixated on one kind of distribution method for work, especially if its easy. Amazon and Smashwords (and other services of a similar ilk) will give you some pretty wide distribution in ebook terms. For gamers, the RPGnow/DrivethroughRPG stores are similarly useful as a one-stop-shop where the vast majority of the customer base is used to shopping.

On the other hand, it’s hard to avoid getting twitchy when all your eggs are in one basket like that, and there’s plenty of authors out there who are trying innovative ways of getting their work into readers hands. If I started looking at indie publishing as a serious thing, I’d also spend some quality time looking at things like crowd-sourcing, setting up some kind of subscription service through my website, and similar methods of producing and selling work outside of the standard produce-product-sell-product paradigm.

I can think of a whole bunch of authors I’d take a really, really close look at when planning this kind of stuff. Caitlin Kiernan and Catherynne Valente have both author-run short story subscription services that I’ve subscribed to in the past. Matt Forbeck’s use of Kickstarter for his twelve-for-twelve project has been fascinating to watch. Chuck Wendig strikes me as one of the smartest writers working today and I’d pay real close attention to pretty much everything he does (including his hybrid approach to publishing and self-publishing, which strikes me as a much better idea than doing it all myself).

All of these writers have a far more substantial profile than I do at present, but there are lessons to be learned from the way they use the internet as part of their process for distributing and getting paid for creative work. Also, all of the above leverage fans at two levels – the passionate and the casual. I have nothing against casual fans, also known as the folks who are content to pick up books and read them, but looking at alternate delivery methods gives the passionate fans something to be passionate about.

7) QUALITY CONTROL

I know my weaknesses as a writer/editor/publisher, and I’d put a whole bunch of processes in place to make sure my ass is covered on things. I’d also insert all the usual self-publishing rhetoric about making sure your self-published book is indistinguishable from the professional published work. For bonus points, I’d add some rhetoric about making sure my products were compatible with whatever long-term vision I came up with back in the business plan stage.

In short: treat your business like a fucking business. It’s a rule for life.

8) THINK LIKE A MAMMAL, NOT A DINOSAUR

The watchwords for whatever workflow I adopted would basically be “move fast, think agile.” In many respects, this was my favourite thing about being an e-publisher – the ability to go from concept to completion relatively fast (my record was twenty-four hours, in response to a forum thread where lots of people talked about squirrels in D&D, but that was largely an in-joke).

On the other hand, for all I could write and produce fast, I couldn’t *adapt* fast to a changing marketplace because my workflow wasn’t built that way. I developed a lot of bad habits that made it nearly impossible to, say, convert the gaming PDFs I produced into something that could be sent to a POD publisher (everything needed to be laid out again and re-proofed). I run into the same problem every time I think I should go convert a whole bunch of d20 PDFS to the Pathfinder system, or ponder whether it’s viable adding gaming books to epub files. The spirit is willing , the workflow is weak.

Were I to start producing ebooks, I’d want to take a real close look at my workflow in order to make sure I could adapt one file to multiple uses if needed (there are a bunch of tools that help with this side of thing – the Pressbooks platform comes to mind). Basically, my main priority would be processes that made adapting easy, rather than a whole new production step that had to be started from the beginning.