Thoughts for Authors, Issue 1

I’m hoping to make something of a series of this. I thought it might be interesting as there are many developing writers out there, and quite a lot of us are on WordPress. Simultaneously, there are a lot of people writing reviews of books. Maybe some overlap would be possible?

The idea here is that when I’ve read a book (and I often – but not always – read YA fantasy because it’s what I write), I plan to put up a review of it, but rather than simply saying how much I liked it and awarding it “three-out-of-four chocolate cakes”, or some trite nonsense, I’ll write about what I learned from it and how it informs my own process.

I suppose it’s all about getting to know the market and audience better. Hopefully others among you who have read the same book or similar ones, or are working on fiction in this area, will benefit and feel motivated to comment.

I’ll put information about the book, so you’re familiar with what it is, and also a bit about how I got hold of it. I won’t be doing ratings. This issue is about Rachel E. Carter’s book, First Year. The following details refer to the Amazon.co.uk. version.


Details:

Title and author: First Year (The Black Mage book 1) Rachel E. Carter

Length: 322 pages

Publisher: Rachel E. Carter

Primary category:  Kindle Store > Books > Teen & Young Adult > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Sword & Sorcery (Rank #10)

I paid: 99p

 


Amazon description:

Before the age of seventeen, the young men and women of Jerar are given a choice –pursue a trade or enroll in a trial year in one of the realm’s three war schools to study as a soldier, knight, or mage…

For fifteen-year-old Ryiah, the choice has always been easy. Become a mage and train in Combat, the most prestigious faction of magic.

Yet when she arrives, Ry finds herself competing against friend and foe for one of the exalted apprenticeships. Everyone is rooting for her to fail–first and foremost among them is Prince Darren, the school prodigy who has done nothing but make life miserable since she arrived.

Will Ry survive, or will her dream go down in flames?


Why did I read it?

I read a good review. That’s pretty much it, and I’m sorry if that’s disheartening to the many, many folks out there who struggle to get their work reviewed. (NOTE TO SELF #1: Reviews increase conversion)

It was a good review, and I was intrigued because of my unfamiliarity with the genre. I suppose that for a person who often reads YA romance fantasy stuff First Year might seem quite archetypal, but I  almost never read that type of thing as it just doesn’t interest me. Probably the last thing I read that was even vaguely close to First Year would be the Harry Potter books, and that was at least a decade ago now. They’re also set in a school and feature magic, but really that’s about where the similarities end. If anything, this is more like The Worst Witch only with kissing, betrayal and an array of moderately severe injuries.

However, my own writing overlaps with the YA fantasy genre, and so I was intrigued to find out more about a typical top seller. It was on sale for 99p and I thought Why not? (NOTE TO SELF #2: Consider barriers to entry)


What did I learn?

I know, I know, that section title sounds like something a ten year old would write on their homework. I don’t want this to sound like a book report, but part of the joy of being an adult is in allowing oneself to make up the rules as you go.

Apart from the above notes-to-self, the thing that struck me was how my initial cynicism pretty well melted away during the course of the book. Seriously, I went into the thing thinking, Well, of course, I hold far loftier ideals than this, but let’s do it for the sake of study, and ended up enjoying it perfectly well for its own merits.

The thing is, this is not a groundbreaking piece of literature, and that’s absolutely fine. The first impression it gave me, in fact, was that it might be inspired by video game mechanics to some extent. It features some slightly odd references in its early pages that made me genuinely wonder if I was reading an Elder Scrolls Online fan-fiction for the first couple of chapters. Video game style references to whether certain characters wish to specialise in Restoration or Combat, what to do when one’s stamina runs low, and a description of a character’s dark, brooding appearance and deep reddish eyes that surely had to be the portrayal of a dark elf… It all seemed to be inspired by the cannon of role-playing games.

This didn’t worry me as I like the Elder Scrolls games very much (Morrowind fan alert – and speaking of which, I can’t believe it turned 15 last month!). Indeed, I hoped that Carter might have had something to say about the relationship between the verbal rhetoric of books, in which words communicate meaning, and the tension that many games exhibit between reliance on verbal rhetoric and procedural rhetoric, in which performing actions imparts meaning, but this didn’t arise. I can see why Carter didn’t fancy that route: It may be interesting theoretically, but to incorporate that discussion into the book would surely have increased the complexity of the writing process beyond what her workflow requires. That’s a perfectly valid reason for keeping things simple, to my mind.

And that, perhaps, is my main takeaway from the book. It doesn’t set so much as a toe off the edge of the path set out by its genre conventions (as far as I understand them), but it is also tightly plotted, rapidly yet smoothly paced, populated with enough characters and content to be vibrant without tipping over into bloat, and it’s also fairly short. It knows the job it needs to do, it knows the audience it’s addressing and the content they expect, and then it delivers a good quality interpretation of that form. I suppose it’s a bit like ordering a meal in a restaurant – it may be the same thing you’ve had before, but if it’s well prepared and presented it’s still entirely satisfying.

Irrespective of content, provided a book passes a certain bar of quality, I think the concept of providing a small, simple, well-made product to an audience who knows what it likes is a useful one for me to bear in mind. It’s not exactly where I position my own writing, but if you’re in business this is always going to be a balancing act between being wildly original and being familiar enough to be trusted.


I hope you  enjoyed my thoughts on this, whether you agree with them or not. I would love to know where you come down on the question too, and whether this is a book you’ve read. Please let me know!

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Making yourself write

I’ve decided to try a little something, an experiment, if you will. I was watching a video on YouTube the other day from a filmmaker whose work I enjoy a great deal – Khyan, seen here – who was talking about the dangers of “falling into a kind of pre-satisfaction” as a content-creator, in which telling everyone you’re about to produce some new work actually stops you doing it. Why? Because you’ve already had the buzz. The satisfaction of being told “Hey, that’s a great idea, can’t wait to see/read/hear it!” kills the desire to make it happen.

In his video, Khyan concluded the technique would, however, probably still be valuable if in failing to put out everything you promised, you still put out more than you otherwise would have. That is the spirit of this post: announce greatness; achieve more than nothing.

Anyway, I’ve got a new fantasy novel out (Right here, fans of quality and excitement). But how to attract audience? How to drink sweet, sweet nectar of popular acceptance? Do I write more? Market… somehow? (That’s an arcane art, and is it me or are there exactly equal numbers of people promoting certain approaches as there are issuing assurances that they don’t work?)

I know one thing, and that’s that a novel (even a mighty 500+ page meisterwerk) sitting all alone by itself is a sad thing. It needs a little brother. So, I’m going to write one, 1000 words at a time. And to prove to myself and the nonexistent audience of this blog that I can do it, I’m going to do 1000 words per day, and post it here each and every day for your delectation until it’s done. Then, after a week or two, I’ll have a little novella that I can put up alongside the novel. Genius. Watch this space.

PhDs: A dissection featuring bullet points

I’ve been thinking about something that was said to me recently… “PhDs aren’t worth it.”

It would be easy to dismiss such a claim, bearing in mind the claimant was only 21 years old and hasn’t actually done a PhD, but at the same time, to pretend that any PhD student spends their whole four-plus years brimming with assurance would be a lie.

I would say I was one of the more confident people I knew of the dozen or so doing a similar thing, but that’s not just senility talking. Some people brim with confidence when they shouldn’t because their minds are incapable of grasping the enormity of their circumstances, but I’ll give myself slightly more credit than that for two reasons.

  • For one, I love writing. It’s my “thing”, as it were, and has been for many years. In fact, now I’ve finished the PhD I’ve taken up writing full time (for a year or so), but this love isn’t shared by all. Sometimes fellow students would say things to me like “I hate writing”, and my response would be one of blunt astonishment. Well why are you doing a PhD then? You’re basically writing a book!
  • Secondly, I’m very interested in the subject area. I wrote about the architecture of large, modern central public libraries in the UK, which is a topic that fascinates on a number of levels: architectural (obviously), library science (obviously), but also engineering, psychology, sociology, philosophy (there is a Ph in PhD, after all), history, politics… etc. etc.

Having made it through and out the other side, I have some suggestions for anyone wondering whether to take a PhD, little questions you must ask yourself whether you can achieve. Bear in mind that I did a qualitative PhD, meaning the data came from discussions and conversations, rather than from numbers and statics, so the following is relevant to PhDs more commonly found in humanities and social sciences.

  • A PhD is fundamentally three things.
    • There’s the academic study, the reading and writing. You’ll have to do a lot of this.
    • There’s the research, which tends to involve a plan to get data, legwork, resistance to failure, modification of the plan, and then more legwork. It also – crucially – involved analysing the data. Analysis is a big one. Assume it will take months and hurt a lot.
    • Then there’s the construction of the thesis. This isn’t just writing and it isn’t just analysis. It’s working out exactly what to write, planning how long it will take you, hitting writing targets for month after month, and then editing, editing, editing. Then printing. Then viva preparation. Then corrections. Then resubmission. Then, and only then, graduation.

Sounds pretty tiring, huh? Here are some pointers.

  • A good relationship with your supervisor is essential. My supervisor was absolutely brilliant. She understood the subject, she really engaged with what I’d been doing every month, she read stuff promptly and gave detailed feedback. We got on, so the whole things clicked along from start to end.
  • Discover something specific to write about. It doesn’t have to be there at first. It doesn’t even have to be there halfway through. It might not (probably won’t) arrive until you’ve got the data and are halfway through analysing it. I didn’t write about libraries, I wrote about young people’s (1) experiences (2) of the architecture (3) of large (4), modern (5), central public libraries (6) in the UK (7). That’s pretty specific, but it took the data to tell me what I really had.
  • Plan the writing. Even though I like writing I needed a detailed plan of all the sections and their word counts, complete with progress bars (see below).

embedded-thesis-word-counts-1

  • This was used in the final year, when I had to actually turn everything into a thesis. I already had a load of writing, but 80,000 is heck of a lot, so I had about 50,000 to go. I knew editing would take a long time (seriously – the version I handed in was draft #7. It took me six months just to edit and another month to proofread). Working backwards from when I wanted to finish meant to knew I had eight months to write those 50,000. That’s where the following table came in:

embedded-thesis-word-counts-2

  • This does several jobs. “Date” shows the current day. Every day I had to be writing. “Word target” shows the amount of writing I’d need to have by that point in order to hit 80,000 by my self-imposed deadline. “Word count” shows what I’ve actually got. This comes from the first table. “Daily total” shows how much I’ve written on any given day. Negative figures are when I’ve cut stuff out. “Difference” shows me how ahead or behind target I am. When I’m ahead the cell goes green. If I’m behind it’s red. “10 day avg” is how much I’ve averaged over the previous ten days. The idea is to sustain high output. Again, the cell goes green if the average is higher than what I need to finish on time. “Needed to finish” shows how many words I’d have to write each day in order to finish on time. Believe it or not, this is a lifesaver. If you stop when it begins to hurt, you probably won’t be writing enough.

embedded-thesis-word-counts-3

  • Finally, we have a graph generated from the above table. I like visual things, and this graph shows me two important bits of information. I did my “writing up” from Jan to Sept 2015, shown here.
    • The blue line is what I needed to hit to reach 80,000 words at my self-imposed deadline (remember: finished is better than perfect). There’s a kink in it because on the 17th June I had my last internal review and decided to reward myself with a longer deadline. Setting impossible targets is fine if in missing them you still end up better off than you would otherwise have been.
    • The other one is not a line, it’s a scar, a wound on my soul, a slow, agonising ascent in which days of sustained effort could be wiped out in an instant by realising that something I’d written two years earlier was no longer usable and would have to be cut. As you can see though, sometimes, bits got pasted back in again too.

So, are you considering a PhD? Were you, until you read this? If so, what subject area?