Writers—getting better over time

One thing wannabe writers are told is to write a million words. This makes sense. That’s the equivalent of ten novels. Or, if you rewrite—and of course you rewrite, don’t you—at least four or five. If your writing hasn’t improved by the time you have written a million words, you’re doing something wrong.

What they don’t tell you is that the improvement isn’t a steady upward line. At least, it wasn’t for us. We’d write along at the same level for a while, then get a sudden insight and improve a lot, so that the quality of one book was much improved from the previous two or three.

When we finished writing Linesman we thought it one of the best things we’d written to date. But not the best. It was one of three novels we wrote around the same time which were on a par, writing-wise.

It’s definitely the best now, because it’s been through three major rewrites since.

When we sent Linesman off to our agent we thought it was pretty good. Our agent made suggestions and we re-wrote chunks of it. After she started sending it out and we got feedback from editors we re-wrote it again. Then, once a publisher took it on, our editor made further suggestions and we rewrote once more.

While the base story is the same, there have been some massive changes to a story we thought was good enough to send out. We have learned a lot from our agent and editor’s input. We hope to use what we have learned to improve our stories in the future.

But your writing doesn’t always improve. The first story we wrote after we got our agent (which our agent hasn’t seen) wasn’t very good. Sometimes you slide backward in ability before you start to climb again.

That’s not to say the story isn’t better than, say, Barrain, which is nearly ten years old. Because it is. It’s much, much better. Even we, biased authors that we are, can see that. It’s just that we can also see it clearly needs more work to fix than the book we have just finished.

That’s probably the best part. That we can see it needs more work. Five years ago we probably couldn’t have seen that.

Combined, we’ve done our million words, or close to it. Over that time, our writing has improved. It just hasn’t been the continual ‘always improving’ that we expected it to be.

Posted in Writing general, Writing process

Arted my hardest

If you read Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds, you’ll recognise the quote in the heading. It comes from a recent post of his on why you should write what you love.

Chuck’s big on lists, and he gives five reasons for writing what you love, rather than writing what you think the market wants. Read the whole list here—Chuck words it better than I can.

He makes valid points:

  • Don’t write for the market because what the market wants is the stuff you can’t predict, and the stories that start market trends are generally those written by people who wrote what they wanted to
  • You write better when you’re allowed to write what you want and what you enjoy
  • Because you were passionate about writing it, the reader is more likely to enjoy reading it
  • There’s no guarantee you’ll succeed as a writer. Why do something you may not succeed at if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing?

But it’s his last reason that struck a particular chord with me.

  • Everyone dies in the end. What do you want on your gravestone?

Made mediocre art she didn’t much like because she thought that’s what someone else wanted her to do

or

Arted the hardest …

I know which one I’d prefer.

Posted in Writing general

Expendables 3

I’m a sucker for the Expendables movies, even though I’m sure half the references go over my head. There’s something about Barney Ross and his pals that hits a chord.

Maybe it’s the way the characters laugh at themselves, at the way they laugh (in a good way) about the characters that made them famous. Maybe it’s the banter between them. The set-piece fights are glorious—hopelessly impossible in real life of course, but lots of fun anyway.

And, of course, the names. If ever you want to name-drop, get yourself into an Expendables movie. You’ll be working with some of the best-known action movie stars.

I also love the way they deal with aging. They don’t pretend they’re not getting old, but they kick butt anyway.

If they were books you would reread them over and over and get more out of each reread. You’d have favourite quotes.

“Get out of the seat … Christmas is coming.”

“But it’s only June.”

Yes, we went and saw Expendables 3 yesterday. Enjoyed it too. Even the final fight worked for me. (Not like last time.)

It was good fun.

Posted in Movies

Analysis of an idea

It’s the perennial question people ask of writers. “Where do you get your ideas?”

Everywhere. Anywhere. Ideas come from the strangest places, the most ordinary of places. They pop into your mind suddenly, or come back again and again, sometimes over a period of years.

They don’t all come the same way, they don’t even come when you have pen and paper handy. They just come, whether you’re ready for them or not.

Here’s an idea that popped into my head overnight.

It started with an image. The image of the two snow leopard cubs from Bronx Zoo that’s making its way around the internet right now.

This took me, via Twitter, to a site called ZooBorns—cute baby creatures born in zoos—where I read about a cheetah cub abandoned by its mother who had been paired with a puppy. The cub and the puppy will be raised together, and as they get older the dog’s body language lets the cheetah know that there is nothing to fear in new or strange surroundings. There are four such cheetah-dog pairings at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

Cheetah and companion. Photo credit: Ken Bohn, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Cheetah and companion. Photo credit: Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Safari Park

This is part of a photo from the ZooBorns site. The picture was taken by Ken Bohn, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

My first thought—after the initial, “Aw, cute,”—was, “Do the cheetahs ever eat the dogs?” I mean, cheetahs are fast and can bring down a sizeable prey.

I didn’t seriously think they would or the zoo wouldn’t pair them, but it’s in the writer’s mind to always wonder what if …

What if a cheetah killed its companion?

What if it killed it in front of an audience of zoo patrons?

That’s when the imagination starts to go wild. What if the dog wanted to be killed and eaten, for it knew that its essence would be taken into the cat and they’d be companions forever?

What if the companion wasn’t a dog at all? What if the cat was alien, and the companion human? What if, in this universe, there were some races who thought of humans as no more than animals?

And then, what if this human had allowed himself to be captured because he needed to meld his soul into the cat’s so that he and the cat between them could overthrow the aliens who considered both races as non-sentient?

What if …

And so it goes? The idea morphs from what it originally was into something else altogether. The final story is likely to end up as something entirely different. Like, maybe an alien feline species who always pair their soul with another sentient species, and chance upon a strange, two-legged race (which they don’t realise is sentient), and one of them accidentally ingests a human soul.

For us, that’s where it stops for this particular idea. Neither of us are enamoured with it. It’s a dead-end. But it’s only one idea.

Ideas are everywhere.

Posted in Writing process

Predicting the future of publishing

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I believe indie publishing has peaked.

I write science fiction, and science fiction writers always trying to predict trends. And like any science fiction writer I can get it horribly wrong, but I do think that indie publishing has peaked.

At GenreCon last year I noticed that everyone, but everyone, seemed to be pushing the indie-pub option. If you look at conference schedules for the various genres this year every one of them has at least one session devoted to the subject. Many have more. Even San Diego Comic Con had a session.

Even so, I am starting to see a trend away from the enthusiastic, “Forget about traditional publishers, indie is the only way to go,” back to a more measured assessment of whether alternate publishing models work.

I can understand that, because self-publishing isn’t the nirvana everyone wants it to be. From my perspective as both a reader and a writer there’s a lot that doesn’t work for me with the indie publishing model.

As a reader

I used to buy and read a lot of indie author work. I don’t any more. It’s too hard to trawl through the badly-formatted, poorly written stuff to get to the gems. (I shop like that too. I hate sales, with those tables of sale items you have to sift through to find the bargains. I can’t be bothered.)

I used to follow a number of authors whose writing I liked and who showed promise, but their writing never improved, so in the end I gave up on them.

I still occasionally chance on new self-pubbed authors but nowadays most of those I read are authors I liked through traditional publishing who later moved on to publishing for themselves.

It seems to me too that the indie-published authors I do read are finding it hard. I read their blogs and they say it’s a lot of work. A couple have already transitioned back to traditional publishing for some of their work.

As a writer

Self-publishing is hard work. Not only do you have to write the book, you have to edit it (or better yet, organise editors—pay them, even), arrange covers, market it on your own, be your own technical person and so on. In short, you have to be the author, editor, marketing person, sales person, and everything else your agent and publisher do. Me, I just want to write books. That’s enough work on its own.

Plus, don’t discount the value of the work your agent and editor do for you. Our first book improved out of sight after our agent suggested revisions. It improved again after our editor got out her electronic red pen.

There’s also the issue of money. There is no real competitor for Amazon in self-publishing. I can see that the commission they pay on self-published books won’t stay high forever, especially if they win the Hachette-Amazon dispute.

My prediction

My gut feel is that indie publishing will follow a traditional bacterial growth curve, with logarithmic growth—as we have seen in the last few years—followed by a decline until it settles down to a stable position.

This is where I think we're at

This is where I think we’re at

I don’t think it will go away. It has a place, and will be accepted alongside traditional publishing as a viable publishing option.

I do think, however, that the glory days of indie publishing are past us.

Posted in ePublishing, Writing general

Getting back into the second book

Getting back into a book you’ve left half completed is always interesting. Especially one we’ve left half-way through a draft, which we don’t normally do.

After we delivered the edits on book one we took a few days break and then it was back to book two. When we left it we were 104,000 words and 90% of the way through the story. The last thing we did before we stopped to work on book one was to outline what was going to happen at the end of book two.

Naturally, the first thing we did was read through it again.

It was bad. So very, very bad.

People say the second book is harder to write. I would agree. There’s a different sort of pressure, most of which you put on yourself. You want to deliver a book that’s as good as the first, so you’re trying to write a story like the first one instead of letting the second story fly alone. You have less time to write it in. We started writing Linesman in 2010. It is 2014 now. Linesman 2 has to be delivered in May 2015. That’s four years for the first book, one for the second. We are also trying to match the tone of book one—light-hearted—and it’s a tone you can’t force. Not only that, we provided a synopsis for book two which our editor accepted. We have to write to that basic story. That’s a constraint we’ve never had before.

Our reread showed that we struggled with all these things. The first half was literally a telling of what happened. It was so bad we were starting to think we’d have to rewrite the whole book. Especially those parts involving the main protagonist, which turned out to be one massive info dump after another.

Then, halfway through, the story picked up. It took half a book but we’d found the rhythm.

There were even moments when we went, “Oh, this is fun. I like this story.”

So we’re going to have to rewrite the first half of the book, but there’s a good story in there. One that we’re enjoying coming back to.

Posted in Writing process

Impressions of editing

The first round of edits are back with our editor. Like most writers, there were periods of panic and calm.

Here’s a mini diary of the last month of writing.

Before the edits arrive

We’re seesawing between

  • We hope she sends them soon, otherwise we won’t have time to do them
  • We hope she doesn’t send them yet, the next book’s going well, we’re on a roll and don’t want to be interrupted.

When the edits arrive

As the days go by

  • There are so many changes, we’ll never get through them in the time
  • It’s not so bad, we can do it
  • We’ll race through the inline edits in a week, which will give us plenty of time for the big picture stuff (do other writers do the big-picture stuff first?)
  • Argh. Three weeks in and we’re only three quarters of the way through the inline edits. We’ll never make it
  • That wasn’t so bad. Last chapter. Now to go back and see if we’ve covered everything off
  • Nearly deadline, and all those yellow highlighted ‘to-do’s’ still to do
  • I know, I know. We need to fix this but the editor hasn’t marked it, so do we have to?
  • I can’t read this book any more. I am so over it
  • You know, this book is much better than it was
  • One last read-through
  • I’m not going to look any more. If we find another typo I’ll scream.

At last, it’s away

  • It’s done. That was hard work
  • We really should go back to the next book
  • Yes, but let’s go out and celebrate first.
  • We go out to dinner and hardly talk all night, we’re so drained.

A few days later

One of us picks opens the story and flicks through it

  • We didn’t fix the issue on page 47
  • We’ll do in the next round of edits. Meantime, we’ve got a massive plot hole here in book two. How do we fix that?
Posted in Writing as a team, Writing process

Life in the cloud is great until the cloud stops working

The internet was down yesterday.

Outside on the street I could see four massive cherry-pickers, at least twenty workers and one new power pole. I’m not sure why the internet was off and the power was on when they were working on the electricity but it was.

You would think that time off the internet would give you time to write without distractions.

It’s good if you are writing your first draft. It’s not so good when you’re in the middle of edits. Especially if you are using the cloud to share files.

Nowadays if you want to share edits and you’re both working on those edits at the same time, it will probably be via some form of server connection. For most of us, that means the internet.

If the cloud worked the way spin doctors told us it would, being off-line shouldn’t matter. I would make my edits on my version, Sherylyn would make hers on her version and when the internet came back up the two files would synchronise and all would be fine.

Except as anyone who’s tried to sync files will tell you, it doesn’t work like that. File synchronisation is an inexact science at best. It’s still very buggy. Sometimes it seems that the moons have to be aligned, you’ve touched your lucky rabbit’s foot, and prayed to all the gods you can think of just to make it work properly, and woe betide if you do these things in the wrong order.

Be paranoid. Be very paranoid. Back. Up. Everything. Every day. Twice a day if you feel more comfortable.

Check before you start working on a document, just to be sure that you have synched, because sometimes the synchronisation gets out of order and an old version overwrites a newer one.

The internet came back up at 4pm. I have to say, the editing went much faster after that.

Posted in Writing general

Obtaining an ITIN, part 2

Obtaining an ITIN, part 2

A couple of months back we posted about obtaining an ITIN (international tax identification number).

Our ITINs came through today. As you can imagine, we are happy. It was relatively painless, which we didn’t expect, given that so many people posting on the internet seemed to have issues.

In part 1 we talked about why we needed it and how to get one.

This is what we needed:

  • A certified copy of our passport
  • The tax treaty paragraph number
  • An exception letter
  • W-7 form to fill out

A certified copy of our passport

We knew we needed an apostille, which is a specially certified copy of our passport. These are provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

We took our passports in to the closest passport office, queued up to organise the request, paid our money (A$60 each) and went back two days later to collect them.

Very easy, and painless.

The tax treaty paragraph number

This actually caused the biggest problem, and it was totally our own misunderstanding.

When you fill out the W7 form, and give the reason for applying for ITIN, you are asked to provide the treaty country and the treaty article number. For some reason we read that as being the ID of the treaty itself, and there are around three different document numbers quoted depending whether you go to the US site, Australia or other places on the internet. So we spent some time trying to work this out, and eventually even called the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) to see if they could help us with what to put there. ATO called us back and walked us through the context of the question. Thanks ATO. :)

You are not looking for the treaty, you looking for the paragraph number inside the treaty that refers specifically to why you are requesting an ITIN. For us, that was paragraph 12, the paragraph that referred to copyrights.

Exception letter

We thought this would be the hardest, but it was actually the easiest. We asked the people at our agency about this, they asked Penguin and Penguin supplied a letter which had everything we needed.

Penguin was great, they supplied more than just the letter. They supplied instructions and links for the W-7 form, plus instructions and links for the W8-BEN. We could have worked out everything we needed to do from their email. No research required.

W-7 form

As I said, Penguin supplied a link to the latest form. All we had to do was fill it in.

Based on other people’s experiences, we were careful to:

  • Fill in every field we could, putting N/A where a question was not applicable
  • Not use abbreviations

And of course, the easiest mistake for anyone who normally writes their dates dd/mm/yyyy

  • Made sure we wrote the dates in mm/dd/yyyy format.

In the reason for submitting form W-7 we ticked reason a) and reason h).

Filling out the reason you're applying

The trickiest part on the W-7 form

 How long did it take?

The IRS said it would take 8-10 weeks to get the ITIN, and that was spot on. We sent our request mid-May, received it mid-July.

Where to from here

Now we have our ITIN, we can fill in the W-8-BEN.


Obtaining an ITIN, part 1

Posted in Business

Library reserve system helps me keep up with new authors

Once upon a time our library used to charge for reserving books. I can’t remember how much it cost. Around a dollar, I think. I can’t even remember when the library stopped charging. It’s a long time ago now.

What I do know is that the ability to reserve books at no cost has changed my reading habits and introduced me to a lot of authors I might otherwise have missed.

Before they changed the system I’d go to the library and pick out the books I wanted to read. I’d browse along the shelves and find books by authors I knew. I also picked up a few lucky-dip books where the cover or first page looked interesting.

Occasionally I’d search for a specific book. One that a friend had recommended, or that I was particularly looking forward to.

The books I missed, however, were the new releases that I had read about when newly published but had forgotten about by the time the book arrived in the library as it was usually months afterwards, and the books where I read a review that made me think, “Oh, I might like that,” but which didn’t have the personal recommendation.

I’m on the computer all the time. It doesn’t take much to log on to our local library. If I’m reading about a book I think I’ll like, I can go into the reservation system and order it. If it’s not in their catalogue and I really want to read it I can even recommend that the library purchase it.

Then, months after I’ve ordered it, an email arrives telling me that a book I had totally forgotten about is ready to collect.

I still browse at the library, but the no-charge reservations system has allowed me to read books that in the past I would have missed. In particular I read more new authors, and I have gained lots of new favourites out of it.

Posted in Resources
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