Time Trial: Coming Soon!

Cover for Timewasters Year One
No cover for Time Trial yet, but here’s my preliminary cover for my first Timewasters short story collection.

Only a brief post today to let you know about the new Timewasters story that I’ll be publishing this month. The story is basically finished, it’s just in the final rewrites stage. Proofreading, cleaning up the style a bit to make it as coherent and readable as possible. It’s a short story called Time Trial and follows Annie, Graham and Mark after they arrive on a planet where time travel is banned. Put on trial by the local authorities, they have to find a way to swing the court in their favour, which will be tricky as they’re guilty.

I’ll be reading, and re-reading, the story as much as possible before my deadline on the fifteenth. I’ll also be writing up the additional bits on pieces that make up the book as well as producing the cover. That means there’ll be lots of little updates until it gets uploaded to the Kindle Store, but I’ll be saving the bigger posts until it’s all done.

The Dark Knight Rises and Narrative Inevitability

New Poster for Dark Knight RisesBeth and I went to see The Dark Knight Rises last night. It didn’t finish until after ten, then we grabbed some food and waited a long time for a taxi that picked a very expensive route home. Fortunately, only one of us had to work in the morning and it wasn’t me. My non-spoilery thoughts on the film can probably be summed up pretty quickly. I shall resist the temptation to say it was the sequel The Dark Night needed, but not the one it deserved.

Basically, I liked it. At no point during the 2:44 runtime did I feel bored and I enjoyed the whole thing. There were, however, parts I enjoyed more than others. It is the only entry in the series that I would say had plotting and pacing problems, but they weren’t hugely intrusive. I thought the first and last 30 minutes were a little weak, but that the 1:45 sat in the middle was a really great film.

However, it did get me thinking about the series as a whole, and just how well made they have been. I should probably post a big SPOILER WARNING about here, as I’m going to be talking about details from all three of Nolan’s Batman films (And a couple of other films too, but mostly older ones). Mainly, I started thinking about one of my favourite elements of storytelling: Narrative Inevitability. When a story’s conclusion feels perfect, as though it could have ended no other way. Inevitability, however, is not the same as predictability. Often the great inevitable conclusions only come to the surface after the audience has experienced the story a few times. A great example of this is Ellen Burstyn getting the shock treatment at the end of Requiem for a Dream; it’s a sequence of a events set into motion from the moment she is asked the be on television. It is unpredictable, and yet the story could end no other way. This is an element of narrative that isn’t just confined to art films and serious drama either. Probably the most famous example of all is Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star in his X-Wing; George Lucas lays the foundations of Star Wars so effectively that this is the inevitable conclusion. He also manages to pull off the same trick again in The Empire Strikes Back, (Jedi, not so much.)

This was something that I felt The Dark Knight Rises lacked in comparison to its predecessors.

Bruce Wayne with the league of shadowsLet’s go all the way back to Batman Begins. I remember seeing this film in the cinema and being really impressed; though the series really took off with The Dark Knight, this is still a really well constructed film. The ending, in its most literal interpretation, has Batman save the city by crashing a train that happens to be carrying a doomsday weapon. However, this event is the conclusion to many different narrative threads that have been established from the earliest scenes in the film. Batman Begins ends the only way it could; Bruce Wayne finally surpasses his mentor and saves Gotham on the train that his father built. Throughout the film this is foreshadowed nicely; the train is the film’s focal point, unifying the rich and the poor while travelling through the heart of the city. Which, of course, is where Ra’s al Ghul aims his doomsday device. It takes more than a good ending to make a film, and Batman Begins has some problems with pacing and characterisation along the way, but being so coherently plotted is a major plus for a comic book movie in this day and age.

Nolan would take this to the next level in The Dark Knight, which manages to be inevitable and yet surprising from start to finish. What works in The Dark Knight’s favour is that the film is marketed as a movie about Batman versus the Joker, but in reality the film is about the character arc of Harvey Dent. The film’s inevitable conclusion, as the Joker points out, is not a fist fight between hero and villain, but one of the heroes putting a gun to the head of a child. The scene is tense and shocking, but completely believable because all other exits were blocked. By the end of the film, Dent’s downfall was the only possible outcome.

With The Dark Knight Rises, I didn’t come away with that sense of inevitability. I might in the future; I probably need to see it again, but right now here’s where my head is. The Dark Knight Rises suffers in two areas. Firstly, the idea that eight years has passed since The Dark Knight is a good one, but it creates a lot of gaps that need filling. The first act of the film essentially introduces a lot of new elements to the series that take some time to process. This wouldn’t be too bad, but the main section of the film is huge and a little complex, which means the film feels on slightly shaky foundations from the get go. It never collapses like a lot of films do, but it never feels sturdy enough to carry all the weighty issues it keeps piling on. Secondly, it ends with something of a plot twist. The problem with plot twists is that they need to be surprising, that means they can’t be established too openly or they don’t work.

BIG SPECIFIC SPOILERS AGAIN: So, when Miranda reveals herself to be Talia, it needs to feel to the audience almost as if it came out of nowhere. It’s a massive new element to the narrative that is introduced too late in the film. This is unlike Batman Begins and the Dark Knight where more of the players, and their motivations, are clearly established in the first hour. There are benefits to a film that plays on “surprise,” but the pleasure in watching The Dark Knight came from watching all the pieces slowly fall into place over nearly three hours. The Dark Knight Rises lasts three hours and is a very enjoyable film, but it never quite communicates that feeling of a mess that becomes a shape. Perhaps it wasn’t trying to, it would certainly be in keeping with the theme of anarchy, but I doubt it because when the ending came I got the feeling I was supposed to be thrilled at the joining of the dots. Entertained, yes. Thrilled, no.

So, some of you are probably thinking that The Dark Knight Rises did have that sort of ending? After all, it was forshadowed and hinted at over the course, and maybe you’re right. As I’ve said, I need to see it again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film was trying too hard to close the book on the trilogy that, in the words of Ra’s al Ghul, “it sacrificed sure footing for a killing blow.” This is a series of films about one man’s fight against apathy, and it ends with a giant helicopter carrying a nuclear bomb into the ocean. That Bruce fakes his own death ties up nicely with one narrative thread, but it’s an unsatisfying end to a whole heap of others. Perhaps the problem is that the film indulges in the usual folly of Comic book movies and tries to squeeze in a few too many characters. That Catwoman made it to a Nolan film is nice, but her contribution to the overall narrative is shoehorned it at best.

This all got me thinking about storytelling and, specifically, the kind of storyteller that I want to be. I think “blocking off the exits” is a storytelling concept I’d like to master. I’ve never been a fan of plot twists and surprise reveals, but I relish in a film that shows characters you know and understand, forced into remarkable situations. Stories like these tend to be so satisfying, not only because they are so well constructed, but because they resonate with that part of us which understands how little control we have over our future. I’m certainly not a fatalist, but we are all very aware that we do not know what tomorrow will bring. Watching people we understand, forced into situations we don’t, brings out prejudices and empathies we never knew we had. I think that’s what art is all about.

So, what did I like about the film? Blake. His character arc is one of the most interesting in the whole film, and his story ends with inevitability. The end of his story was always to lose his faith in the police, after failing to get those children across the bridge. Not only that, but the inclusion of his character is the bright spot, the hope you can latch on to that was missing from The Dark Knight. It stops the film from descending into an unrelenting tragedy and is, in my opinion, one of the best decisions made in the creation of this film. I found Bane to be totally compelling villain, and I was very impressed with the way they avoided falling into the trap of giving the audience everything they’d asked for since The Dark Knight. That way lies madness. It is the third film in a trilogy, and those are always the hardest to land, but I think it was one of the best I’ve seen.

I look forward to grabbing the blu-ray and watching all three again soon.

A few rambling thoughts on vacuums, gaps and building an audience.

ImagePart of the problem when you start trying to build an audience, whether you’re working on customers for your new business or trying to spread word about a worthy cause, is the long gaps where nothing seems to happen. Nothing feels less satisfying then shouting into a vacuum, and yet so much of connecting with people for the first time is doing just that. Eventually you shout enough words out there into the black-hole of the internet that someone passes near enough to hear and starts shouting some back. If I’m making this sound like a very negative post, don’t let me give you the wrong idea. I wrote last time about becoming a full time writer without really noticing, sort of, and in that post I talked about how much I’m loving it. I meant it, but I still have to deal with the patience testing gaps that seem so large in your early days.

My current gap is one of necessity, it is an unclosable gap because I am currently working as quickly as possible towards the other side and don’t have the resources to fill it. My one and only book on the kindle store has settled down to its usual no-sales a month (Not a worry, as I said before, that’s sort if its job) and I’m working on a new story that should be coming out in a couple of months. In the meantime, I am writing every day, updating this very blog, tweeting many witty and charming tweets which you can read by looking slightly to your right, and doing my best to make friends in the wide and wonderful world of books. And still there seems to be time in the day.

This is probably because one of my strengths has also become something of a curse. I can write very quickly, if I choose to. This means that if I set myself a daily goal of 1000 words, I can have that done before breakfast and by ready to complain about being bored by noon. Of course, the ideal solution would be to have a go at another 1000 words, but my lazy brain does not agree. “What!?” It asks, sounding remarkably like Danny DeVito,”We did the thousand, two thousand wasn’t part of the deal.” While changing to a 2000 word goal usually leaves me fighting to accomplish it all in one sitting and getting frustrated and miserable.

I try not to worry about this too much. I do, after all, always make my 1000 a day. It’s not huge, but it’s enough to keep anyone moving forward. We all have our little work habits and when your only supervisor is yourself, you have to find what works. Still, with all this time I have been thinking more and more about the gaps between milestones. How we keep going, and closing some of the smaller ones. This is part of the reason I like to have a blog, and part of the reason they always fall by the wayside when bigger things start happening. Again, I feel much like I am shouting into a vacuum, but it is a way to write without letting my brain know that I am writing. Furthermore, each post is a step forward. Audience bait sent out into the great black-hole in the hopes of pulling in some kind of mixed-metaphor, space fish.

For now, I will try to relish my gaps. It is my fondest hope that in the not too distant future, I will have less of them. I will be replying to emails, managing and promoting more than my lone short story and, of course, spending my huge bags of cash. When that day comes along, I will miss my quiet little gaps.

How writing became my day job without my noticing.

Writer at DeskI have been editing the same short story for a week now. As always, my patience is starting to wear a bit thin and I wished I’d devoted myself to a different art. I’m quite sure all artistic endeavours take just a much polishing bring to completion, but doing a hard job always makes other jobs seem easier and I’m only human. My greatest weakness has been revealed once again, I am terrible at staying glued to my seat and finishing a job. Too frequently I let myself pace around the room indulging in imaginary conversations or checking the fridge when I should be pushing on to the next paragraph, and after an hour I sit and beat myself up because I’ve done half the work I set for myself. The problem is that no matter how much you love doing something, when it becomes part of your daily routine, there’s always something you would enjoy doing more.

And I suppose that’s when it really hit me for the first time; since January I took the most important step in my life, I began living like a full time writer. Sure, there are a few obstacles. My writing does not bring in any money and there’s that awkward weekend job to worry about, but my whole perspective has shifted and the day to day routine of my life has shifted around it. When I wake up in the morning, I grab my breakfast on my way to the chaotic part of the living room I am calling my office. From there I will alternate between working on my latest piece and tweeting and socialising to promote myself as a writer. From the moment I sit in my writer’s chair (the special swivel chair that’s a little too low for comfort and the back doesn’t go up properly,) I approach the business I want to devote the rest of my life to with as much confidence and sincerity as I can manage until Beth comes home from work.

Then I relax, more satisfied than I have ever been after a long day scanning items at the supermarket. I’m not sure when the switch happened, maybe it has been gradual or maybe it happened at the weekend, but writing has become my job, my career and my life. That supermarket thing? That’s just a weekend job to make ends meet and one day, when I don’t need it anymore, I’ll get my weekend back but nothing else will have changed.

Why I decided to self publish.

Christmas Past Book CoverThere can be no doubt that Amazon’s KDP program has changed publishing. Some would argue that it has not been a change for the better, but it has brought something undeniably new to the table. For the first time in history, people have been able to self publish for free and get their book on Amazon’s cyber shelves. This is monumental and it has completely changed how we look at self publishing. While we could debate endlessly about the lack of a gatekeeper for Amazon’s kindle story, I’d rather talk about why made my decisions. A lot of people are asking themselves, “should I self publish my book?” and I’d like to explain why self publishing your work makes real sense to me.

First, a bit of background. I have written for as long as I can remember. My early adventures online were all in writing and while I dabbled in music and art, writing was always my first love. Still, at the back of my mind, I never really expected to publish. Sure, I had the usual writer’s doubts about the quality of my work, but for me it was the feeling that getting published was more like buying a lottery ticket then making a business proposal. Even if you wrote the finest novel in the English language, you still had to find a publisher suited to it, hope they teamed you up with a decent staff and then pray that they bothered to market. Then, after all that, you had to hope they didn’t stiff you on the royalty checks.

Traditional publishing didn’t seem realistic, it didn’t seem fair, it just seemed like the only option. I just couldn’t get the motivation to write for that. Sure, I could write a book, but why spend hours writing and rewriting a manuscript nobody else would ever read. Things changed when I left University, the economy collapsed, my job sucked, I didn’t work enough hours to fill the day and I found myself writing again, only this time I was really writing. I had ideas, I wanted to tell stories even if they were just light adventures, but publishing was still a lottery. I needed another way.

First I looked into how to self publish, then how to self publish for free and finally how to self publish for free and actually make any money from it. There weren’t many options, but one that seemed to be gaining traction was the Kindle store. Some guy named Konrath was selling his books on there, though he was still telling people not to do it (at the time, ) and so I sat down and I decided to write a novel for the Kindle store.

It went well. Sort of. I never finished it, but I wrote faster and better than I ever had before. I scrapped it eventually due to personal reasons that were eating all my time, but while I was on a hiatus something happened. Amanda Hocking became a millionaire. That was when the penny dropped. I didn’t think my stories would make me a millionaire, but I decided then and there that I would sell my books on the Kindle store because I had as much chance there as anywhere else. Since then I have written everything with the intention that it will end up for sale on Amazon some day.

So, how does this apply to writing, and writers, in general?

Cover to a pulp magazine featuring a story by ayn randI think the writing industry has changed more than people realise. For the last twenty years, publishers have only been concerned with novels. Short stories, poetry and plays are much less profitable and so the industry tends to focus on only the largest, most commercial novels (most of the time.) However, breaking into writing by writing a novel is not easy. It is a huge undertaking that is, quite understandably, beyond most people. This is part of the reason that traditional publishing feels like such a lottery, there’s a whole world of wannabe writers out there writing their first novels and submitting them. You have to be exceptional to rise above a slush pile like this.

The literary world wasn’t always like this, and the big problem is the decline of the short story in magazines. Once upon a time short stories were the bread and butter of writers, but that market has completely dried up now with only a few niche literary magazines remaining. What the fiction magazine offered to writers was an entry level publishing experience, an experience that was easier to succeed in but that required a level of professionalism. How does a writer cut their teeth now, not only in storytelling but in editing and publishing? Who can write and edit a novel to a standard that will please a publisher for their first real venture into the world of writing?  It is an unrealistic standard to ask of writers and one that is seriously damaging the progression of amateurs to professionals that is necessary to keep the industry going.

Amazon and its self publishing revolution has helped rebuild the ladder from the bottom to the top. Where once a new writer could submit stories to a magazine, they can now work towards self publishing their work, gaining a lot of experience in the process of bringing a story to true completion.

So, you’re new to writing and you’re wondering if you should you publish your work? Sure, it’s the bottom rung of the ladder, but at least you’re on the ladder.

Making the most of your KDP select free days.

Part of the problem with self-publishing is finding an effective promotion strategy. It’s not that opportunities are hard to come by, but that no author wants their marketing to be intrusive, or even worse, expensive. Price and ethics, unfortunately, are not problems for traditional publishers with giant marketing branches but they’re an endless headache for an independent.

When I published my short story, Christmas Past, back in January, I had very little idea of what to expect in self publishing. I didn’t expect my story to sell at all, then after it sold a couple of copies, I expected it to sell lots. Which it didn’t. I’m at a slight disadvantage, I’m an unknown author trying to sell a single short story with Christmas in the title as we move further and further from December.

However, like many self published authors, I entered my book into Amazon’s KDP select program. I wasn’t expecting much to come from it; the only reason I went with KDP was because I didn’t intended to fight with Smashwords’ ridiculous formatting standards. If I was going to be publishing solely to Amazon anyway, I might as well take the benefits. Now, a few months on and the whole world seems to be publishing KDP select results and mulling over the advantages and disadvantages. I thought I’d join the fray and share what hasn’t worked for me, and what has.

What hasn’t? The lending library for Prime customers. Perhaps this will benefit me in the future when I have lengthier books out, but right now nobody wants to waste their valuable free book borrows on a short story. Understandable.

What I can talk about is KDP select and free promotions. Free days have been crucial to me in the last few months. Originally, they were something of a disappointment. Yes, they’d get me a bundle of free downloads but they never translated into sales. Where they did benefit me was in reviews. My story currently has three reviews on Amazon.com and three on Amazon.co.uk. This isn’t a huge amount, but they all came after a free promotion.

However, what I understand now that I didn’t understand then is that you really have to make the most of your select free days. Don’t just make the book free, couple it with a big marketing push and ask your friends and family to push it a little too. I ran another free day this week, but I also tweeted about the book, posted to google plus and asked all my friends on facebook to help share the book too. I managed to break into a few of Amazon’s rankings and ranked higher than I ever have before. More importantly, the sale ended a few days ago and Christmas Past is taken in a few real paid sales since then.

Now, I haven’t made any real money out of it, but bumping from no sales to five or six in a few days is a really dramatic increase. I’m sure these will drop off a bit once my promotion wears off, but it’s a helpful indicator as to what works and what doesn’t. My only hope is that the effect is amplified when you have a greater, more diverse platform to promote.

My little short story isn’t much of a performer and it’s a struggle to sell every copy, so not everything I say will apply to other people’s books, but I hope my own little experiences are helpful to you.

Building backstory into sci-fi short fiction.

Darth Vader Luke

 

I really enjoy writing short stories for a lot of reasons. Perhaps the biggest reason is that a good short story is almost pure in concept. Short fiction forces a writer to concentrate all the best elements of their idea into a single narrative. When this is done well, the results are exceptional. However, this can be pretty trick when it comes to Science Fiction.

One of the best Science Fiction writers was the amazing Philip K. Dick, famous for Total Recall, Minority Report and the basis for Blade Runner. What a lot of people don’t know is that most of Dick’s tales were short stories. One of his greatest strengths was in creating backstory through implication and dialogue which kept his stories short but densely packed with meaning and concept.

The problem with short fiction backstory is that the writer does not have time to really establish much outside the main narrative. Info-dumping (long passages of background being fed to the reader) is frowned upon in a novel, in a short story it’s a disaster. The novelist, however, has a way around this and can drop little details bit by bit over the course of the book. Characters can be debriefed, read a newspaper, have a conversation with a new friend, and so knowledge is imparted to the reader. In the short story, these options are much less common.

In some cases, this isn’t a problem. If you’re writing a character driven piece about a teenager leaving home for the first time or a period piece set in a familiar environment, you can probably stick to narrative and characterisation. The essential facts will be enough to set the mood.

For a sci-fi story, this just won’t work. One of the great things about fantasy, sci-fi and horror is that the sky is the limit. The freedom to write anything and everything is not only why readers enjoy the books, but it’s also why they’re fun to write. The problem is that it is very difficult to write a book when you, as a writer, have no limitations. The touch people, whether it is to move them or to frighten them, requires a strong element of connection. This is impossible to do when you’re writing about a world they don’t recognise. In these situations you must create a world with its own boundaries and quirks. Science Fiction fans will be your worst nightmare and your best friend, they will highlight whenever your world breaks its own rules, grows too outlandish or fails to entertain. The positive side is that they want to love the world you create, and if you do a good job they will flock to your books and spread them to others.

One of the most important rules in writing science fiction is to establish a world clearly and then stick to it, but how do you establish something a complex as a fictional universe in a single short story? Here’s a technique that really works for me.

If you’re trying to establish a world that is built around a new technology or a new discovery, one of the best ways to do this is to show characters taking the tech for granted. In your story, do people change bodies the way they change clothes in the morning? Write it like that.

“Grant was late. Big meeting today, he flicked through his outfits. He’d probably go in tall today, maybe something african for the press conference. The media loved that multi-cultural stuff.”

Used well, this technique gets across so much to your reader. The technology exists, it’s been around so long it’s considered mundane, it’s in the public knowledge. How about limitations?

“He had planned on wearing the 56, a professional looking Chinese ensemble, but he’d taken it away on a weekend and it only had about three hours before decay set in.”

Here we have a character adressing one of the technical limitations of this new technology, but it’s brought up naturally. What these passage also do is establish that despite this new body wearing technology, the world it largely the same. People still have meetings, companies,  the press is still around. China and Africa are still around (or still remembered) and people still go away for the weekend. We also pick up a few details about the character. He’s a businessman of some sort, probably has a bit of money, represents his company and tries to take in the PR angle.

Now, we’ve established everything the reader needs to know in a single paragraph and without using infodumps. From here on out we can probably write the rest of the story without explaining any more back story to the reader.

Now I’m going to go write the rest of that story.

The Future and the Past

Christmas Past Book CoverHello World!

I thought I’d christen my new blog with a bit of news on what’s coming up for the rest of this year. It’s also a good time to look back on Christmas Past and fill you all in on how that has been doing.

Firstly, news. Since the release of Christmas Past I have been working on a six part series of Timewasters short stories. A few things have changed along the way, but I have six short stories all at some stage of completion that I am happy with. The first should be ready to go sometime in August, but I’ll have more detailed information about that soon. After that, the following stories should be released on a monthly schedule as long as everything goes to plan. So far these stories are proving great fun to write; the series (and the characters) are developing really well and I hope you will enjoy reading them soon.

So, how did Christmas Past fare in 2012 so far?

Honestly, not great.

I published the story in January 2012, a bit late for Christmas, but the experience overall was a positive one. From the start the goal was not to sell books, but to force myself into a completing a story to the point where it was publishable. Due to a few administrative hiccups, that didn’t quite work out and the manuscript I uploaded to KDP was a disaster in so many ways. Fortunately, those issues have been ironed out now and the produce currently on sale is something I’m very proud of. Unfortunately the book has barely sold a copy since its first couple of months. I’m not too surprised, it’s a 99 cent short story by an unknown author, and I’d be lying if I said I’d been doing my best to market it. While it would be nice if Christmas Past did have a surge in popularity, at the end of the day writing it pushed me to where I am now, ready to release a series of six stories over six months. It’s a tough sell and at the end of the day I’d rather be working on the next release than worrying over a short story that has already served its purpose for me.