Update: Gaining Confidence

September 15, 2010 in Blogging, On Writing, Study

Just a quick one because lately I’ve been flat out with assignments, articles, reviews, interviews and so forth, most of which are unrelated to this blog.  I still have a bunch of drafts of posts waiting for me to attend to them, including Joss Whedon’s talk at the Sydney Opera House, my visit to the Moscow Circus, a new trip in November, a website where I am buying loads of books from, and a final post on my Hunter Valley trip.  I am hopeful that after today, I’ll have some time to pump them out, even though the pace does not look like it’s slowing down (no pun intended).

In related news, I am seriously contemplating extending my writing course for another 6 months, which would give me a Masters degree as opposed to a diploma.  Most people I have spoken to are in favour of the idea, though there have been a couple that suggested experience as being much more important than a piece of paper in this industry.

I dunno, but I need to make up my mind soon.  Another 6 months of this would be terrific, especially as I am finally starting to figure out what the heck I am doing.  I’ve been reading like a madman, writing articles and reviews (some of which are finally appearing or will be appearing in various publications), and conducting interviews.  I’m also in negotiations to write for a couple of other things.  It’s insanely busy and at times insomnia-inducing (too much on my mind) but I’m enjoying the ride at the moment and trying to learn as much as I can.  It would be good if I had a bit more time to work on my stagnant novel (untouched for months) and get started on the non-fiction collaboration I had been planning with a friend, but right now, I’m not complaining.

I’m still scared most of the time, but even I can tell I’m beginning to gain a bit more confidence in what I am doing.  I did a post a couple of weeks ago about my first face-to-face interview, which I declared an absolute disaster (and make no mistake, it was).  I stuttered and muttered the whole way through and it was a miracle that the guy even understood what I was attempting to say.  Since then, I’ve done 3 more (2 in the last couple of days), and I’ve noticed a significant improvement in each one.

People say it’s the most obvious thing, but the most important thing you can do in an interview is LISTEN.  I was too nervous to do that at the beginning, constantly trying to think of what to ask next, and it stuffed me up.  Being genuinely interested in what the person has to say (which, I must admit, I was not in my first interview) also helps a great deal.

Now, instead of writing down a mechanical list of questions, I just jot down a few general ‘areas of discussion’ I want to go into, and let the conversation take us wherever it decides to.  The responses usually end up being a lot more candid and natural that way.  Rather than an ‘interview’ per se, I try and treat it like a ‘guided conversation’.  It’s worked so well that yesterday I didn’t even need to use pre-prepared notes at all.

Anyway, I hope this confidence thing continues to grow because I’m going to need it.  As one of my subjects (a top Australian journalist) told me, it’s good to be nervous because it keeps you on your toes and reminds you that you’re alive.

Stay tuned.  More posts are coming.  Maybe…

PS: not sure if any bloggers have experienced the same thing — but after a few weeks where my blog hits have almost halved, they appear to be back on the rise again.

The Reluctant Journalist

August 25, 2010 in On Writing, Study

I’ve been a little quiet on the posting front lately because I’ve been shitting bricks about my writing course.  One of my subjects involves writing features, which involves actual human interaction in calling people and going out for face-to-face interviews.  It’s essentially a journalism subject (but they allow us lowly writer students to do it too) that aims to produce publishable work.  Great experience, though frightening for those with no experience (like me).

Anyway, the first assessment is due in a couple of weeks I’m doing a piece on mobile speed cameras.  And it’s a “feature”, so it’s more than just gathering a bunch of stats and figures and piecing them together.  I need to add what my lecturer calls “colour” to it.  A “human element”, she said, which is difficult considering my subject is machines.

And so I tried to see if there was anyone out there that has recently received a speeding fine.  Apart from the usual avenues (asking friends, Facebook call out, etc), I signed up for a few online forums where people discuss cars, motorbikes, and driving in general.  Five, of them, in fact.  I posted a friendly query at around 9am and rubbed my hands, waiting for the responses to flood in.

At around 5pm that afternoon, I went and checked the responses.  I got about 10 reply posts in total across all forums…and not ONE was helpful!  Instead, all I got were narky and sarcastic comments, and comments that made absolutely no sense.  Is this what our society has come down to?  Or was I looking for answers in the wrong place?  I mean, what did I expect from people who visit forums to talk about and post pictures of their cars and motorbikes?  During work hours?

Ahh…back to the drawing board.

The Depressing World of Publishing

August 4, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

I’m back into the swing of things with my writing course, which has so far been extremely satisfying and enjoyable (for the most part).  Two of my subjects this term are editing and writing feature articles, both aspects of writing I’m really looking forward to.  The classes this first week have been small (less than 10, though a lot of people who were supposed to be there didn’t rock up) — and about 50% of students are ex-lawyers!  That says it all, doesn’t it?

Anyway, it was interesting and depressing to learn about how difficult it is to crack into the publishing world and how difficult it is to stay there once you make that breakthrough.  It’s hard, it’s rough, and for the vast majority, little money to be made (especially in a small market place like Australia).

For starters, most big publishing houses these days don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts.  They just don’t have time for slush piles, 99% of which is unpublishable drivel anyway (or so they say).  That means you need a literary agent, but not many agents accept people who have never been published.  Does that even make sense?  You can’t publish unless you can get an agent but you can’t get an agent unless you’re published.

Secondly, publishing has evolved into an industry where it’s all about making money.  Gone are the days where commercial fiction is used to prop up the literary fiction that generally don’t make any money.  If your book is unlikely to sell, then chances are the publisher won’t even consider it.  It could be a masterpiece, but if there is no market for the book, it’s unlikely the book will see the light of day.

There are some boutique publishers these days more willing to take on unknown writers and literary fiction writers, but the money to be made there is very small (clearly not enough to live off) and their budget for advertising/promotion etc will obviously be a lot more limited.  But at least there’s a chance.

Thirdly, and relatedly, it’s hard to keep books on the shelves these days with the increasingly accurate counting of book sales (thanks to systems such as Bookscan).  Bookscan essentially tabulates real sales from most bookstores across Australia (I’m sure there are similar systems across the world) into an exact, concrete figure.

This is important because back in the old days it was easier for publishers to inflate the success of their writers by manipulating the numbers.  For instance, you may print 5,000 books in your first run, and 4,000 of them are sold to bookstores.  The publisher might then say you sold 4,000 books, which is technically true — but of those 4,000, perhaps only 2,000 are sold from the stores, with the rest returned.  Now, there’s no hiding the truth.  If you sold 163 copies, you sold 163 copies.

So if you finally managed to get that first book published but it sold poorly, your chances of getting a second book published becomes that much harder.  You can’t even go to another publisher and lie about the success of your first book because they’ll have all the numbers right there in front of them.

Fourthly, and also related, is the fact that books don’t stay on the shelves for very long.  New titles that don’t perform well are pulled off the shelves within 3 months.  3 months!  How does that even give people a chance?  How can you build any momentum, any word of mouth?  It may take 3 months just for some people to read the book!

The need to make money out of every book on the shelf as become a recurring nightmare for aspiring authors.  That’s why we have the vicious cycle of the same books remaining on the bestsellers lists every week — you know, the Stieg Larssons, the Stephenie Meyers, the JK Rowlings and the Dan Browns — because these books are proven sellers.  People tend to gravitate to what’s “hot”, what everyone else is reading.  Hence instead of bringing in new books, book stores prefer to stock new versions (often just different sizes and covers) of existing titles to freshen them up a bit — the best example I can think of are the movie-tie-in versions and the Twilight red page-edge versions.

Let’s face it, the chances of becoming one of those superstar authors mentioned above are a hundred million to one.  Those guys can live (well, except for Larsson because he’s dead) off the sales of one book for the rest of their lives.  For everyone else, they’ll have to keep writing.

The advances on royalties for new authors in Australia are excrutiatingly small.  Essentially what they do is make a prediction of how many books you will sell, and then multiple that by 10% of the price of the book.  So if the book costs $30 and they think you will sell 2,000 copies, then your advance is $6,000.  Considering the book may have taken you 10 years to write, that’s not a lot of money.  And if the book ends up selling more than 2,000 copies, then each additional copy sold will earn you 10% in royalties.

The problem is, in a small market such as Australia, selling around 15,000 to 20,000 (in total) would be considered successful.  Even if each book is priced at $50, that’s still only $75,000-$100,000 — not exactly money you can retire on — and that’s only if your book is a success.

Look, there are still plenty of local success stories out there, such as Rebecca James (author of Beautiful Malice), which I talked about in this post here.  But these are rare, rare cases.  It’s like winning the lottery.

Few authors can become international superstars like Meyer and Rowling, but there are many minor to moderately successful writers who have been snapped up for multiple book deals at a price equivalent to working in a decent job (say $100,000-$200,000 a year).  That’s a pretty comfortable living.

However, the pressure of churning out one or even two books a year could take the fun out of the writing, and more importantly, the quality of the books will suffer.  Can you imagine being contracted to write one book every 12 months, especially if you say took 5 years to write your first one?  Can you write one every 6 months, and expect to put in the same amount of effort and ensure the same level of quality as your previous books?

That’s exactly why we have so many reasonably well-known authors (not going to mention names) that seem to continuously bring out new books, but each one is worse than the next.  It gets people wondering why the quality of their new stuff is so much less inspiring than their old stuff.  But at the end of the day, they still sell, and that’s what publishers care about.  After all, they are the ones putting up the money.

So it’s hard to get an agent.  It’s hard to get published.  It’s hard to stay on the shelves.  It’s even harder to get republished.  The money is unlikely to be good.  And even if you do get signed for more books, it might not be exactly what you were hoping for.

And yet, despite all of this, I continue to write, and I continue to dream.  Why?  It reminds me of this awful movie I just watched (review coming shortly) where a woman says that her daughter is studying and wants to get into creative writing.  Her male companion is shocked and says, “But how is she going to make any money?”  The woman responds stoically, “She’s doing what she loves.”  I can relate to that.

500 Posts!

August 2, 2010 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing, Study

Can you believe it?  This is my 500th post!

I started this blog on 11 January 2010 while I was (supposed to be) studying and bored out of my mind.  18 months, 420,000 hits and 1,200 comments later, I’m still studying (albeit a completely different field) — but the crucial difference is that I love what I’m doing.

Anyway, after a lengthy semester break (where I naturally did less writing than I intended do) I attended my first post-break class tonight.  Editing.  I took the elective because I thought it would be helpful for my writing (and in case I wanted to pursue a career in the publishing field).  So far, no complaints.

It was a little depressing to learn just how rough it is these days to crack into the publishing world, and how tough it is even if you do end up selling that first book (ie for most people there’s little money but lots and lots of pressure and stress), but the class was informative and fun.  We learned about the publishing hierarchy and the publishing process (I had no idea!).  We were getting real world and practical advice as opposed to merely theoretical advice.  Plus the readings have all been excellent pieces.  I never thought I’d say or admit this, but I’m enjoying studying.

On the writing front, not much progress on the novel(s), sadly, but I am finally making some progress on the non-fiction writing, getting my reviews and article ideas out to publications.  Still lots more to do, but it lLooks like I’m going to have a busy 6 months coming up.

Visit to An Author’s House

July 30, 2010 in Novel, On Writing

The author's home I visited

A few weeks ago I went to visit an old family friend, an ex-neighbour who has retired and moved down south to live by the beach.  He’s been a family friend, our closest family friend, for as long as I can remember.  I grew up with his son and in many ways he’s been like a father to me.  He also happens to be a published author (a novel, a few novellas, short stories and poetry), a fact that didn’t mean much to me throughout my childhood.

The last time I went down there to his new house (a couple of years ago), it wasn’t even close to being finished.  This time, it still wasn’t, but at least it’s getting there.  I recall the last time I saw him — it was just before I was about to leave for the UK.  At that time I hadn’t decided writing was what I wanted to do, but by then I already had a keen interest in it (and was secretly plotting my escape from the law).  Even back then, we talked a little about writing and what it was like to be a part-time writer (he did have a full-time day job).  The only thing I came away with was that it’s very very hard.

This time, things were different.  I had finally made the decision to give the writing a serious go, and our conversation naturally gravitated towards that.  Over a long lunch, dessert and tea, we talked about what it was like to be a writer and how to become one.  These are some of the pointers I took away from that day.

Write what you know

He said it was important for a fiction writer, especially writers just starting out, to write about what they know.  By this I don’t mean writing narrative non-fiction or anything like that.  It means using your life’s experiences and things that you know about to form the foundation of your story.

Fiction, naturally, is about making stuff up.  But it helps to start off with something you are familiar with and branch off from there.  It’s doesn’t even have to be something you have experienced personally.  It can be something you read in the paper or a story you heard from a relative or friend that you thought was interesting.  Steal bits and pieces here and there to create your own reality.

Sounded like good advice to me.  The problem is, I always feel like my life experiences and knowledge of the world are somewhat limited.  I was fascinated to learn that he has held dozens of jobs throughout his life and had plenty of amazing experiences as a youngster.  For example, he travelled to Europe as a twenty-something kid.  With hardly any money in his pockets, he purchased a bike and rode it from Paris through Belgium and Germany all the way up to the Netherlands.  He relied on a book that taught him how to live off a pound a day and slept wherever he ended up for the day.  Of course, it was a different era back then, but I could only imagine the type of things he would have seen, the people he would have encountered.  Similarly, when both his parents passed away, he travelled to India to get a better perspective on life, and came back realising just how lucky he was.

Me?  I’ve lived in four countries at various times in my life but I’ve only worked in one full-time job (that clearly was not for me!).  I’ve travelled to many places but always as a sheltered and ignorant tourist.  I’ve worked hard but have never tasted any true hardship in life (and continue to hope to avoid it).  No wonder I can’t come up with any good ideas!  Looks like I’ll need to either get out a bit more or start stealing.

Characters make or break a story

This is often said but not appreciated as often as it should be.  He said it’s always his aim to write interesting characters — characters that are real, characters that connect with the reader.  Characters with special quirks that readers are likely to remember.

He listed a few writers (I won’t name them) who don’t necessarily write the best books or come up with the best stories, but have succeeded over time because of an endearing character they’ve created.  I thought about it and knew it was true.  Sometimes all you need is a unique character with memorable traits and you’ve got a book franchise!

He acknowledged the success of crime fiction at the moment and suggested perhaps I could create a quirky detective who happens to be an ex-lawyer!  Mmm…maybe he’s onto something here…

Read, read and read

Another piece of advice that writers hear all the time.  To write, you have to read.  To become a better writer, you have to read as much as you can.

He told me that even the crap books you read will help you in some way (because they help you realise what NOT to do).  Everything you read will help you (consciously or subconsciously) when you write, but it’s good to read the classics.  Read the Russian greats, read Dickens, read Shakespeare.  These are classics for a reason.  Learn their techniques and harness them.  He said a crap writer can make the most exciting event boring, but a great writer can make the most boring event exciting.

This is a person who left school in the eighth grade (to make money) but is a terrific writer because of the amount he reads.  At one stage, he told me, he would read one book a night.  He’d start reading and he wouldn’t stop until he finished it, even if it was 3 or 4 in the morning.

I don’t have the attention span to read a single book in one sitting, but it wouldn’t hurt if I read more.  Or at least tried to.

Planning

It’s good to plan your story out in advance, but it’s even better to let the story take a life of its own.  Let the story guide you.

I still have trouble with this planning business to be perfectly honest.  When I don’t plan, the story or chapter simply becomes a complete mess with no direction or structure.  But no matter how much I plan, when it comes to the actual writing I always end up breaking away from the plan.  I wouldn’t say the story necessarily “takes a life of its own” because I usually end up getting stuck and not knowing what I should do next.  That can be really frustrating.

Poetry

Write poetry only when you feel like it — then use it to wipe your bum.

It was a great day chatting like we had never chatted before.  He told me that the publishing business is all about making the right contacts.  It’s hard to get through that door, but once you do, things get much easier.

The biggest shock of the day?  He told me that he really only had one proper novel published and it was the worst piece of shit he had ever written.  The reason?  He co-wrote it with some stupid moron — his editor.  He developed the plot and the characters and wrote the first half of the story and he/she extended it and wrote a second half.  As a result it was obvious that the two parts of the book were written by different people.  And he/she insisted that his/her name should be put first on the novel.  He said he didn’t give a stuff so he agreed but it annoyed him.  And when he showed me the novel I was stunned to find that the co-author was my lecturer!  How’s that for a small world?

 
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