Writing for fun or profit

I’ve been struggling lately, not just with moving to a different country and looking for a job, but also with what to write. My main problem, I think, is that because I don’t have a job, I’m feeling undue pressure to write something that sells. And this never works, if any of the published authors I follow on Twitter and any of the writing books I’ve read are anything to go by. And yet, paradoxically, continuing to write and edit a story that is never going to sell is also something even published authors still have to worry about. Every writer has an unfinished manuscript in a (digital) drawer somewhere, even the very best. So how do you* distinguish between a story that you’re writing for fun AND profit, and one that you’re writing for just one of the two?

You’d think it would be easy to determine when you’re not having fun writing something. If you hate working on it, if you have to drag yourself to the keyboard, then obviously you’re not having fun. And yet… Writing isn’t going to always be fun. At least if your goal is to be published, it can’t be just fun and games. You have to write on the days when you don’t want to. You have to keep going. It’s the only way to improve, to get through the 1000 hours of apprenticeship, the 100,000 words before you’re competent. And then there’s all the editing and polishing… Need I say more?

On the side of profit, there are even fewer guarantees. Whatever is trendy at the moment, is not going to be trendy anymore by the time you might be ready to query your manuscript. Never write for the market, because it changes too fast. The only way you can even slightly predict some sort of profit is by writing the best story that you possibly can, and submitting it to the right people, the ones who love stories like yours. It’s by no means an exact science, and probably defies any statistics, as, again, any published author would tell you.

So I’m basically screwed, right? There’s no way of knowing? Not necessarily! You’ll be happy to know this post isn’t all doom and gloom. Most writing advice states that if you believe in a story, with all your heart and imagination and everything else, then that’s the story to tell for fun AND the most likely to get published. It’s the story you will most likely want to keep writing even after bad writing days, or weeks. It’s the story that refuses to leave you alone. If you’re not sure how much you believe in your story, there’s always beta-readers to ask, as long as you ask some unbiased ones (i.e. don’t ask random friends if you should keep working on your stuff, if it’s good enough, because they will almost always lie to protect your feelings). And if someone tells you the story sucks, and you vehemently disagree, then get a second opinion because you’re obviously either still very passionate about it, or blinded by ego.

Now, having puzzled all of this out, my next steps should be simple, right? All I have to do is figure out which one of my writing projects I am most passionate about, and forget about everything else. If only it were that simple…

Is anyone else struggling with picking what story to invest in? Or just struggling in general? I’d love to hear some other perspectives!

 

*And by you I of course mean I…

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Am I talking too much?

How is everyone? Still alive? Survived NaNoWriMo, and life in general, for the last month? Congratulations, even if you didn’t manage 50k words in November, as long as you wrote some words, you can always add more.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

My 6th win. And more importantly, a plot bunny!

I ‘won’ NaNo again, though not by a wide margin this year (only 53k compared to my usual 65k+), and for the first time without any hope of being able to revive the story as it stands. Aside from the many plot holes (also something I don’t usually excel at) I kept having this sinking feeling that there was just way too much dialogue.

It’s hard to find a good balance between action and talking. While there are many non-verbal cues, talking is still the best way to convey who a character is, and what is going on, especially when you’ve got a big cast and a convoluted story-line. When I first did NaNo, I had not nearly enough talking, just action-beats all the way through. Then I did ScriptFrenzy to try and get better at dialogue, and ever since I’ve had a lot of talking in my novels, especially with this story that started out as a script. So where is the line between helpful dialogue and story-stalling conversations?

As with any sort of writing ‘advice’ or contemplation, the answer is that ‘it depends’. There are some great writers out there who have amazing novels that are almost no action, with a large amount of dialogue. I mean, if it worked for Shakespeare… Then there are great novels with almost no dialogue, except inner dialogue maybe. And not all of these novels are necessarily action-packed to compensate. Every writer has their own style, their own balance, crafted out of many millions of words and thousands of hours of practice.

That doesn’t mean however that readers aren’t attracted to a certain kind of balance for a certain kind of story. Specific genres (again with the exception of the great, exceptional books in those genres) tend to come with specific balancing acts. High literature is considered more wordy, more dialogue-y, than fast-paced fantasy or thriller novels. Romance obviously requires some dialogue, at the very least as foreplay to the main ‘action’. Sci-fi has both dialogue and action in a fine balance of the scales. We’re all readers here, we know what we like to see when we pick up a certain type of book.

That’s not to say that dialogue is opposed to action. Dialogue can create action and momentum just as easily as it can stall things entirely. Easy reading however does not make for easy writing, and it’s a lot easier to stall your story with conversation than it is to help move it along. There’s a reason why so many writing guides mention exposition as the Big Bad that must be avoided at all times; it’s a common newbie mistake.

So how do you make your dialogue support and propel the story, the action? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m trying to find out. So if you read this, and you have your own experiences wrestling with the dialogue in your novel, then do please share. If you’ve read a novel that makes excellent use of dialogue, then please share that. Maybe we can figure it out together.

If a draft falls in a forest…

There comes a time in every serious writer’s life, when they first have to expose their draft-baby to the outside world (and showing it to your mother doesn’t count, as parents in my experience usually provide nothing but false confidence). Although I’ve put short stories online, and queried a previous (mother-approved) version of my work-in-progress, I know in my heart-of-hearts that beta-readers, editors and/or proofreaders are a crucial part of the writing process. And so, as my current (and hopefully last) rewrite of The Painted Past is moving slowly towards the finish line, I am starting to think about the next step.

As any writer will tell you (my personal reference for this is Mur Lafferty’s You Should Be Writing podcast, available on iTunes), good beta-readers are hard to find. They have to be honest, critical and helpful at the same time. Telling someone you don’t like their work is easy, telling them what you don’t like in a constructive manner is hard.

Muppets

These guys are probably not the best choice for constructive criticism.

There are a few ways of finding beta-readers. If you happen to be friends with an established author, feel free to harass them, although don’t expect them to have the time to help. For the rest of us who aren’t so lucky, friends are usually a bad source of beta-reading, unless they happen to also be writers and/or avid readers, because our friends and family members are usually not only more invested in not hurting our feelings than in providing honest, brutal feedback, but also don’t tend to have the right kind of background to help us become better writers. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but these magical critical friends can take a lot of time to find. In short, while you should share your work with as many people as possible, don’t expect your friends to have any in-depth advice.

A writing group, online or IRL, is a better alternative for finding beta-readers. The people there already have an established interest in writing and have their own work that they would also like to have critiqued. The trick here is to find the group that’s right for you, which can also take some time. Every group has a different dynamic and focus. Some groups consist of people who thrive on pointing out mistakes, which isn’t a helpful goal. Some groups are in contrast too supportive, acting like your mother. A group of writers that are all serious about publishing their work, write in the same or similar genre, and are of compatible personalities, is the ideal. Depending on where you live, you are more likely to find such a group online, on the forum of a writer you all love or a publishing house perhaps. While Absolute Write is often hailed as the go-to destination for newbie writers, it can be difficult in such a large group to find someone who is compatible and willing to read through your work. Finding a beta is a lot like dating, really.

There are professionals you can hire, people paid to read through and edit your work. Personally I would hire these people only after you’ve had some people tell you that your work is worth the investment. An editor can provide an invaluable service, since they know the industry and how to make your work shine. But they can’t make something that is never meant to work shine, or at the least it will cost a lot more money. To give yourself and them the best chance of making your work work, it is important to provide them with the best draft possible. It is important to note that there are also scam-editors out there, trying to take advantage of the despair of hopeful writers convinced they have a bestseller on their hands. Always make sure any editor you decide to hire is associated with a legitimate editing society or comes with personal recommendations from people you know before you hire them.

Of course the ideal situation any writer hopes to find themselves in is to send their polished draft to an agent or publishing company, have it accepted, and then work with an editor paid for by someone else to fine-tune the work. Agents are often the best beta-readers. But we have to find out if our work is good enough for them first, and we can’t do that on our own.

I have no idea which of the options will work best for me, probably the second one, but I do know that it will be very scary to let someone I don’t know very well read my novel for the first time, and that it is absolutely necessary for me to do so before I query it.

Editing versus Rewriting – The great slog onwards

In 2009 I completed my first novel as part of National Novel Writing Month.

In 2012, after 3 more NaNo-wins and in my opinion completely unsalvageable but finished first drafts, I finally got up the courage to go back to that first novel and start editing it.

I went through the novel, editing and shifting and refining it over the course of several months. By the start of spring 2013 I thought it was time to show it to other people. I even took part in PitchMas, a twitter agent/editor pitching session.

I am very grateful for this, because it taught me two things:

1. My novel idea can generate interest

2. It needs a complete rewrite

Now the agent I corresponded with only suggested changing the start to be more dynamic, but it opened my eyes to a whole load of other problems that my friends would have never pointed out to me. So now I am starting from scratch, which is terrifying in itself, and adding a new POV character, which will be very challenging, and just generally trying to avoid making the same mistakes I did last time.

The reasons I am sharing this is because I want to learn from my mistakes, and maybe you can too. So next time, I will:

1. Look at the big picture; does the story stand out among everything else on the bookshelves right now?

2. Create more emotional distance. After the first draft is done, it’s ok to accept that you need to start from scratch and rewrite the book with a clearer picture of what’s going on. Like Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

3. Not waste time polishing a turd, even/especially when people close to you say it’s not a turd at all. Sure there might be hidden gems in the text, but that doesn’t matter if the overall plot has holes in it as big as, or just lacks action in general.

4. Trust my instincts. When a novel is worth editing, then it is worth rewriting as well. It shouldn’t take 3 years to figure that out.

Now I’m sure there are people out there who can write something on the first go, and only have to edit it later on, but I am not (yet) one of those people. And even though I’ve written other novels since, this is still the one I think is most likely to be published (based on nothing but instinct and years of reading). So I am diving in, scared but determined, convinced that I have something worth saying. I just hope I will manage to convey it on the page.

Wish me luck!