Selling ebooks: Smashwords and Amazon

I joined Smashwords in 2011 after I had published my second book. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it probably was. Smashwords provided free ebook file conversions for the many ereading devices that were just being produced by companies such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Sony. Each had their own peculiarities and technicalities, necessities and demands. Once converted your files would be available to customers and would also be listed in the catalogues of other associated booksellers (such as Barnes & Noble, which was trying to break in on the digital book marketplace to augment its standing retail outlets). The settings were pretty open as well, allowing you to choose how much of your book prospective buyers could sample for free, how much you’d like to charge, and later whether or not you’d like to offer it for free to libraries. All of that made much sense to me, and all of that remains now as well for current users; little in that regard has changed. My own works are no longer on Smashwords though, and that is because what has changed – the world – has forced that difficult decision on me.

The ebook market is even more dominated today by Amazon and its Kindle device than it was then. This is the reality of the situation, and as writers we need to face that reality whatever our ideals or feelings about the matter may be. I will admit to not being an ereader (all of my books are of the paper kind, which I’ve taken to calling “real books” to differentiate), and so I’m not sure what the advantages are of the Kindle versus other devices or platforms, but I am – I suppose – an ewriter and so I’ve had to learn a bit more about how it all works in preparing to launch Freedom’s Mask (not long now, only cover and proof copy issues remain to be dealt with). Of course, it is possible to offer your book through Amazon and Smashwords, and for the past six years I’ve done just that. What made me stop was the emergence of Amazon’s KDP Select service.

To enroll your books on KDP Select they must not be available anywhere else; naturally that appears to limit a book’s potential reach – but only in some ways, or maybe not at all. This is where a hard look at the overall situation is necessary, and it will no doubt vary for each struggling – or not – writer out there. In my own case I had many hundreds of sample downloads from Smashwords but few sales. Now this could perhaps simply be because my books stink and after reading the samples no one chose to buy them; that could be, but based on the reviews I’ve gotten on the books and the comments I’ve had from readers I suspect that the books are in fact not quite that bad. (Self-delusion probably clouds my judgment here; feel free to tell me in the comments to this post if you disagree!) One problem is the sheer volume of books on Smashwords, over 465,000 and constantly counting, and how their site is organized: a search for my own full name turned up over two thousand hits (all “Andrew”s). Genres are tagged of course, but finding anything on there without a direct link is painstaking and off-putting, you almost have to rely on happy accidents to occur. Moreover, as stated, these other ereader machines are quite simply dying or dead – Kindle is king. The final negative factor with Smashwords that made me choose to quit the service so that I could sign up with KDP Select was that Smashwords forces you to use PayPal for all royalties. For many this is perhaps not an issue, but for me it is. I don’t use PayPal and don’t want to. Simple, end of story.

What are the advantages to KDP Select? That tale has yet to unfold, we’ll see how things go with my books on the program and whether or not I do actually find sales increasing (remember that my books might well stink!). When you do join it is for three month blocks at a time, and in that three months you can make your work(s) available for free for any five day period of your liking – a nice promotional tool. You also qualify to receive royalties at a 70% rate instead of the standard 35%, but there’s a catch to that: your book must be priced at a minimum of US$2.99 in order to get the 70%, otherwise you’re stuck at 35% even if you are on KDP Select. My own books are now both at US$0.99 and for reasons discussed last week I don’t want to charge any more than that. Another promotional tool that KDP Select offers is a countdown sale wherein your book’s price is reduced for a set amount of time and advertised as such – but there again you must be at the US$2.99 or higher mark to take part. Still, just by being on KDP Select your title is automatically added to the Kindle Unlimited (a service for Amazon Prime members) and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library catalogues, and there is a global fund set up such that for every page of your work that a member reads for the first time you receive royalties (via a portion of the overall fund). For me though the main advantage to it all is not so much the money but all of the internal advertising that Amazon does for its KDP Select titles. With most digital readers being Kindle readers this could mean that by “limiting” yourself to only Amazon you are actually greatly increasing your work’s exposure. Let’s hope so, anyway.

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Distribution channels and pricing

There are many pluses and minuses to the various print on demand services (POD) available to self-pubbers wishing to release paperback versions of their books. We here at the Drugstore use and recommend CreateSpace, which is probably the biggest and most well-known of the group. That doesn’t always mean that it’s the simplest, however, and as with seemingly everything that relates to self-pubbing these days once a POD has been chosen your decisions are nowhere near over.

Take distribution. There is of course little sense in going through the difficult and time-consuming process of preparing your book to be published if it will not then be widely available to readers. (This is the case, by the way, even for ebooks, which have their own quirks and demands when getting the files ready – unless you just want to slap a pdf version up on a website or something, but then there might be compatibility issues with the various ebook readers that people use and you could possibly be limiting your readership to those willing to scroll through on a regular pc, smartphone, or tablet. Fine for a short story maybe, but not for a whole book.) Every POD has their own website and webstore, but without a link and without hearing about your book elsewhere how will a reader find it? Even once they have heard about your new release and want to order it what limitations will they face? Will they need to pay for shipping from the US or can they use domestic rates? What about taxes? VAT and all the rest of it? Again, there is much to consider.

Let’s look at CreateSpace: It is directly connected with Amazon and as such its titles are automatically listed not just on Amazon’s original US site but on all its (now quite many) other country-specific sites. That means that someone ordering your CreateSpace-printed paperback can buy it in their own currency, have all domestic tax issues already handled, and use local shipping to boot. Those are huge advantages for both your readers and for you as the author/seller. A real no-brainer. That is not CreateSpace’s only avenue of distribution, however, and here is where things become more complicated and a bit murkier.

CreateSpace titles go up on Amazon standardly, and they also go up on CreateSpace’s own estore site. (N.B., one feature of that estore worth knowing is that authors can order their own books through it at a discount; that is not an option with Amazon.) There are three other “Expanded Distribution” channels though, and they are: 1) Bookstores and Online Retailers, 2) Libraries and Academic Institutions, and 3) CreateSpace Direct. Essentially what all these other channels do is to allow middlemen other than Amazon to come into the process. This potentially enhances both the reach and exposure of your book; something which can only be good, right? Well, not necessarily. The big drawback to these additional channels is that, by allowing others into the sales interaction, the price of each copy perforce goes up.

Consider my forthcoming Freedom’s Mask, for example. Sized and formatted it stands at 592 total pages. That is a lot of pages! And the vast majority of a book’s price comes from its production costs and the added taxes (sales tax, VAT, etc.), meaning that the longer the book the more it will cost to make and therefore sell. (Remember that no POD will allow you to sell at a loss.) I want to make my books as inexpensive as possible for the reader and so when I’ve set the pricing for them I have always reduced my royalties to a bare minimum. That’s the ethos we operate under at Drugstore Books and it’s a personal ethos for me as well. Playing around with the settings on CreateSpace for my new title I find that if I enable the Expanded Distribution channels my book’s production costs force me to sell it at US$6/book higher than if I only use the standard distribution routes. This added moola of course goes to the introduced middlemen. Now this makes for a quandary. I would like to have the extra reach and I would most definitely like to support brick-and-mortar bookstores (as they’ve (oddly, in my opinion) come to be called), but I do not want to be compelled to pass on the extra price hike to readers; and yet there is no way that I can avoid passing it on. What to do? Here is what I’ve decided: I will initially release the book only through the Amazons and the estore to offer it as modestly as possible, and then later, in order to support very worthy outlets like bookshops and libraries, and too so as to help the book reach more people, turn on the other channels and reluctantly increase the price. That seems fairest to me and it also seems like a reasonable way to go about a book launch, though certainly there are many other approaches that could be taken. One thing everyone can agree on though is to be sure to order my new work early. (Wink, wink!)

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Formatting a book’s interior: Blissful tedium

There are few feelings better in this writing life of ours than when a project is nearing its completion. The heady early days of The Idea are long gone, the creative bursts of the planning stages when all the world seemed at your fingertips have passed, the love/hate relationship of the first full draft has already become simply the hate of the edit, the edit, the edit, the edit that just will not end – and then it finally does. Your bleary and blood-stained eyes at last can glance into the rearview mirror and see something of substance left behind. You are on your way to holding your book in your hands, and what a moment of glory that will be. Yet prior to that lie the finishing interior touches, and dealing with a few of them is what I want to consider in this week’s post.

If you are trad-pubbing you will have limited input on the aspects to be considered, but if you are self-pubbing then your project is YOUR project and a myriad of details will demand your attention. What size will you make your book? What font will you use? What font size? Do you want all chapters to begin on the right side (odd-numbered pages) of the book or don’t you care? Will you try to limit the total number of pages or let them run as they will dependent on the book’s dimensions? How will you divide your chapters and/or sections? Will you insert illustrations, images, photos, etc., or won’t you? If you will put them in then how? There is very much to consider.

In my own case with my forthcoming Freedom’s Mask the size question was easy as I wanted to make it the same as Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies and Randolph’s One Bedroom. (For Green Skies Eric and I opted for a physically much bigger book as it suits the graphic format better.) With that answered, what next? CreateSpace offers templates of all of their various sizes but I didn’t find the files terribly useful (somehow they simply didn’t work with the way my brain does; I have heard good things about them from others). It came down then to changing everything manually, which was easily enough done through Word’s Page Layout tools. But then another issue immediately came up: margins. Having dealt with this now at the end I would recommend doing it at the beginning. Decide on what you want to set them at and then, again through Page Layout, make the necessary adjustments, keeping in mind that you’ll first need to choose the option for “open spread view” (or whatever your version of Word calls it; mine is in Japanese and I’m uncertain of the US type’s title on that) so that you get the interior and exterior choices and not just top, bottom, right, left. (The interior margin will need to be slightly bigger than the exterior to account for binding.) The margin sizes you choose will also, of course, have a big impact on the total number of your pages.

With that set I’d also advise taking care of the page numbers. If you want your first page to begin with the first chapter (and not right at the opening of the file where things like the title page, dedication, matters page, etc. will go) then you will need to use the section break option (found in the Insert tools). With your chapters in a separate section you can put the page numbers in to start counting from that section rather than starting with the whole file, and while you are at it don’t forget to choose the option that sets odd-numbered and even-numbered headers (or footers) differently. Your page numbers will either be in a header or footer and so dealing with that at the same time will make everything easier; check under Word’s Design tools. By doing the odd/even headers or footers separately you can make the odd-numbered pages (again, the right side of the book as you hold it) be right-oriented and the even-numbered pages left-oriented, meaning that for both the page numbers will appear on the outside of the page. This is also the time when you can set any text you want in the headers or footers too, and if you really want to get fancy you could even make each new chapter a section break and then assign the header/footer accordingly (e.g. with that chapter’s specific title). Don’t neglect to add a new section break at the end as well or otherwise your book’s final pages (if you want to insert any) will have the same page number and header/footer settings as your chapter pages do.

One final practical note connected with all of this is on spacing. We naturally think of spacing when it comes to book size, margins, fonts, what have you, but what can escape our attention is the word to word spacing within the text itself. These days everyone (quite justifiably – pun intended!) has their content set to justified so that the word processing software stretches and squeezes as you go along. Problems can come up, however, when your A4/letter-sized file gets shifted to its book size file. Suddenly a string of words that was just fine before comes out looking odd with giant spaces within some sentences and none at all within others. This especially happens if you have hyphenations as they are read by the software as a single – and therefore mandatory to hold together – word. One trick that I learned is to insert a technically unnecessary space within the hyphenated phrase to trick the software into alternative spacing. What I mean is that if you have something like “her adversary’s ne’er-do-well-but-do-it-anyway attitude” which is gumming up your otherwise evenly spaced and fine-looking paragraph then you guess and check on how the phrase might be split to even out the spacing by inserting an extra space anywhere within the string of “ne’er-do-well-but-do-it-anyway”: perhaps after the “well-” would work, or after the “it-“. In such a way the phrase will be adjusted to wrap from one line to the next the way long words used to be split when writing them in notebooks or on old typewriters (for those of us who remember writing by candlelight). That little trick proved quite useful for me.

The bottom line when it comes to interior settings though is this: Be prepared to go through the entire document many times and be prepared for many headaches when making all these adjustments. (Discipline yet again, does it ever leave us?) The payoff, though, is a book that looks just as pretty on the inside as it does on the outside.

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Writing about writing

There’s an old saying that “Those who can’t, teach.” (And fans of School of Rock will remember Jack Black’s character’s immediately juxtaposed corollary: “And those who can’t teach, teach gym.”) I don’t think that’s true, or at least not often true, but it is funny and it is thought-provoking. Many, maybe most of us, certainly assume it relates to writing when it comes to the critics.

I get the print version of The Japan Times – and may print versions of newspapers never die – and recently on Sundays they’ve been running a series on historical literary critics in the Time Out: Books section. Now, I am not a Japanese scholar and not a historian and so take the following with a grain of salt, but it seems that fiction in Japan didn’t really get off its feet until the Meiji Period, which was the time that oversaw the restoration of imperial rule and spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Japanese culture had of course produced fictional works prior to that (the thousand year old Tale of Genji being perhaps the most famous example), but such were mostly for court consumption and were often difficult and dense texts that required very high levels of education to access. For the masses there were ghost stories, and there continued to be little else until the aforementioned Meiji Period. Naturally improvements in literacy greatly helped the situation when it came to fictional works becoming more popular, but the issue was really not just one of accessibility but also – possibly more so – one of attitude. Here is where literary criticism seems to have played a definitive role. Fiction had been viewed on these shores mostly negatively, a bit like Stolid Literary Appreciators today might approach a Spider-Man comic. The critics, however, were amongst the social forces able to change that by writing about writing, by taking what has really always been a bit of nothing (flights of fancy and all that) and applying theory to it. What is the value in this?

Fiction, literature, is at its heart an examination of the human condition. Even when done very poorly and schlockily (e.g. anything with the words “Star Wars” in its title) it is a view, an exercise, in what it is and what it means to be human, and this is done from the inside. We enter the characters’ minds and situations and we feel along with them as their circumstances and journeys through life unfold. Along the way we learn something even if they don’t. This is fiction’s great contribution to our species and it is a wondrous, enormous contribution, undoubtedly of far more value than all the academic treatises put together – and I say that as a professional academic and not someone taking pot shots at eggheads. These stories we tell each other and ourselves let us see who, what, and how we are as we struggle along in ever-rotting bodies inhabiting a world that cannot last. They, again, tell us this from an internal perspective.

Literary criticism flips that as it looks in from the outside. It examines not life but the writing about life that is fiction. It applies theory to this writing and by so doing it abstracts what is otherwise a very visceral encounter. What I mean is that it moves the experience of literature out of the gut, out of the heart, and into the head. (And as a sidebar here I note that traditionally in Japanese thinking the stomach was the seat of the emotions, not the heart.) From felt to thought. This process of abstraction is probably as necessary for us in coming to terms with being human as the originary work of fiction is. As the creatures we are we live on the conceptual level, and we look out at our environments from that middle-sized point of view: we are categorizing, ideas-based animals, and we cannot function otherwise. Critics contribute to this great process, this exhausting effort, of self-examination by giving us the means to take a step back from the tales we tell and, from that other side, learn even more about what is really going on here. And so thanks to them, really, and thanks to the writers whose work they dissect. We are indebted to you all.

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Off for summer/winter and new title on the way

To escape the heat and wish once more that we could join our Southern Hemisphere friends at this time of year, we will be taking a (well-deserved?) blogging break for a few weeks. We’ll be back in mid-September with a whole lot more lined up for the final third of 2017, including – drumroll please – the launch of Andrew’s new novel, Freedom’s Mask. It is a first-person tale of inner discovery and outer relations, following fast on the heels of writers and thinkers like Camus and Hesse. With a hard look at identity, self-making, and what it is to be alive and to be alone among so many others it’s the kind of book that haunts you long after you’ve put it down. You won’t want to miss it so keep both eyes peeled.

Till then!

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Choosing projects, or The heart knows

Writers wishing to be read have never had such choice. Writers wishing to be read have never had it so good. We are spoiled for chances, awash in potential, the globe at our fingertips and hundreds of thousands – millions, billions – of readers only a click away. Such times would be unimaginable if they were not a part of daily life. Never before has human society been positioned with both an accessible lingua franca and the means for worldwide, instant distribution in that lingua franca. What’s more, a good deal of you reading this probably speak and write that lingua franca as your native language, and those of you who don’t are no doubt so skilled in it that it may as well be your native language. The creative communicative forces waiting to be unleashed by such circumstances are hard to even begin to fathom.

The down side to all this is of course the deafening din – the drowning roar – that it tosses up. We not only stand in and with the whole Earth, singing in a single voice, we also stand in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of our own generating, and are attempting to yell through its swirling chaos at our readers on the other side. If writers are now spoiled for choice then readers are doubly, triply so. How to make oneself heard? How to even start to get noticed, attract some attention, let others know that you are here, amongst them, amongst us, writing with your own clear and unique voice that has been honed over tens of thousands of hours and is ready and waiting to be read, heard, regarded, remarked on, considered. What do you offer today’s reader? What are you holding out that cannot be gotten elsewhere? And if it can be gotten elsewhere then why get it from you and not someone – something – else?

These, I think, are the wrong questions to be asking. We write and so we want to be read, nothing could be more natural. Chefs do not of course throw away their own cooking, even if they never eat it themselves. Painters do not cover their completed canvases with sheets or hide them in trunks (usually anyway, they can be a strange lot). Musicians do not cut a track only to erase the recording. But all this is secondary, really, because as wonderful as our interconnected and interwoven world is it is filled to bursting with the cacophony of us, all of us bleary-eyed hacks hunched over our keyboards with our sallow skin sagging and craned heads filled with the dreams of our characters, arguments, points, plots, stories, critiques, commentaries. We can hope to be read, and we can make efforts to be read, but we can hardly set out to write thinking that we will be read. At least, we can hardly realistically set out to write thinking that we will be read by a great many. Some, no doubt, but hundreds of thousands? Millions? Billions? Come on!

And so we write for other reasons, we write for our own reasons. What are they? Well, ask yourself, you must know. Then – and this I think is the right question to be asking – figure out what. Not why, because we already know why, but what. What am I, in the midst of all this wondrous potential and endless choice, going to put into the world? What am I going to pursue? Chasing after readers or (goodness no) money are reasons to write, and they are bad reasons at that. We do not seek and do not need any reasons to write. We are writers, it comes to us like breathing. Rather we do – or should – seek and need projects, outlets for our energies, yet there too the possibilities are without limit and ideas tumble down one after another like drops from a waterfall. How to find one worth grabbing onto, and then how to commit to that?

I would like to suggest an annoyingly simple answer: Intuition. If we are not seeking some kind of external compensation through our writing then the task becomes valuable in and of itself. And only in and of itself. It becomes worth doing and worth sticking with, worth the inevitable – and inevitably grueling – struggle not because of what it wins from others but because of what it garners for us from us. To write is to go within, often quite deeply within regardless of what is being written, for the very act of writing is to heave a new creation out of nothing but one’s own depths. We listen to those depths, trusting them, trusting us, to tell us what it is that we seek. The subconscious mind communicating to the conscious mind. The automatic brain humming along beneath the surface to the rattling and sloppy brain incessantly chattering away in our internal monologues. We might need some practice at this listening, and we might find ourselves starting and abandoning any number of projects that at first seemed so promising, but over time and with age and experience we will learn. And then, having learned, we will carry out our projects with all the blessings and benefits that we are capable of giving ourselves. That will have been worth it, that will be its own sweet reward.

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Darkness, and the delete button

You thought it was a great idea. Everything seemed to flow so well and make so much sense when you wrote it. But then you finished writing and re-read it. What happened in the meantime? How did those beautiful words become this? Where did all the warts and blemishes come from? Flaws, mistakes, holes, detritus, flotsam, waste. This is not an aesthetic wabisabi, there is no grace in imperfection here – it’s just plain ugly. Disgust sets in and a certain button glistening there on the top right of your keyboard calls. But then you wonder: Is the text actually fixable? Is the core idea salvageable? Are the characters still with us or have they been put on life support, the pinging of their breathing apparatuses growing ever more faint and far between? Your index finger moves, then pauses, you take a breath, you close the file, and you walk away. To be continued.

Storm clouds. They strike all of us. In last week’s post we considered writing’s seasons and there is no doubt that winter is a long and bleak one. The bigger the project they harder it falls, as Jimmy Cliff might have sung had he been slightly differently artistically inclined. This seems especially true when we are nearing the end of yet another round of editing and can no longer even see straight, let alone think straight. Is there anything of real quality there? Perfection is what we desire yet perfection can never be had. Never. Nor will our shining diamond ever appear as much more than a lump of carbon to us. Inadequacy itself. But to the reader? That, there, is the rub.

When depression has really set in and the twelve bottles of wine that were meant to shine a spotlight on the hidden brilliance of the project have instead made us want to retch all over it, the time has come to show the work in progress to someone else. Preferably someone trustworthy but not kind enough to just tell us what we want to hear. Such people can be very hard to find, but often the mere act of thinking along those lines will somehow conjure up a name. How much to share with them? Just the structure? Only the overall plot idea? Sections that we’ve found particularly troublesome? A whole chapter? Whole book? There can be no guidelines here other than intuition and situational considerations. The feedback we receive might kill our project, or it might give it a new life. It might even demonstrate how there had been life there all along, but we were simply in too deep to see it.

And that, really, is after all where we live: in too deep. Our works consume us to the point that nothing else makes sense, or seems even worth thinking about. We are creators and so we are obsessed by our creations, and cutting a line between time on and time off hardly seems possible. How will it feel to actually be done with a project? To be satisfied with it? Can a writer ever really be satisfied? The history of our field seems to suggest not; yet here we are, trudging on with our glum faces to the wind and tired eyes squinting at the horizon. Dawn will come, they tell us, a new day will arrive and with it a fresh perspective, an illuminating glow. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, when the muses have gone silent and the words that have been piled up so high appear more like the city dump than anything else, all we can do is stop and wait. The work might indeed be destined for the trash, but not yet, not yet. Give it a chance, give it another set of eyes willing to scan it over, consider it, weigh it. That tiny button on the top right of your keyboard will still be there later if you do actually need it. Let’s pray not though. The writing life is a life only half-lived as it is, at least let’s leave something to show for it – no matter who is looking.

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Writing’s seasons

The rains come in spring (and summer and fall if you live in East Asia), the wheat, corn, rice, grows tall and proud, ripens, and is harvested. The soil rests, recovers, and the late winter or early spring sees another round of preparing, planting, tending, waiting. The moon waxes and wanes, the temperatures rise and fall, the world turns and the cycles with it.

A project is conceived, ideas sketched, outlines given shape, structures given form, plots planned and characters given lives, interactions conceived, events unfolded. Writing commences, continues, flows, stops, pauses and unpauses, re-starts, re-forms. The clock swings round and the process begins anew. A flourish, a finish, a sigh of relief. No gratification. The next stage begins in earnest, the pain redoubles, trebles, the edits, the edits, the edits. The end no longer in sight, bogged down, stuck, interest wanes. Isn’t this good enough? No, it is not. If it’s worth doing then it’s worth doing. Really doing. Fully. Painfully. Heart rendingly so. You start again, and again, and again. The Winter of our Discontent. The long slog, the realization that this is not what we signed up for – but also that this is the most crucial part of any season. The harvest.

We yearn to create yet here we are, stuck in seemingly endless months of rewrites. What once seemed fine – good even – turns out to be crap on a second reading, a third. Nuances tweaked, scenes rewritten, character traits extenuated, minimized, maximized, expanded, interactions cut and added, events tossed out and others introduced. Such is the stuff of our lives, and what tedium it can seem.

Gumption is what is called for, and an alternation of expectations. The snows will melt, the ice will break, and sooner or later we will achieve the point at which we – finally – know that enough is enough, that we have reached our limits, that the book is now ours and is, at least marginally and with the humility that comes from baring one’s soul, completed.

How long does all this take? I have no idea. I’ve been working on my latest for two years now and hands down the edit has been the hardest part. The worthiest, no doubt, but also the hardest. Editing is what makes or breaks a project – or makes or breaks its writer. Is there a way to get better at it? Surely going through the cycle multiple times will help. Lessons can be learned and techniques grasped and applied. The danger? Re-working your style from book to book. I think that I’ve finally learned that first person is what works best for me and there is no way at this point that I want to mess with that. The task is hard enough as it is! Any kind of genre-hopping on top of that just strikes me as beyond the pale, at least for now.

Writing is an unforgiving lover, one that demands constant attention and is confident enough in itself and in its entrapment of you that it feels no need to give anything back. Slaving away we go through the cycles, but there, at the end of the rainbow, the carrot on the stick, lies the next bright idea. Hope tries to fly out of Pandora’s box but she closes the lid just in time, though not fast enough to rob us of a glimpse of it. Is hope a blessing or a curse? Either way, if you’re a writer then you write. You write until it finally and fully defeats you. You write because it is not only in your soul, it is your soul. So salud to you, salud to us, basket cases that we are, carrying the world on our shoulders, standing outside it that we might observe and comment on it. An idea strikes, another season of planting, the world turns again. Where will it take us this time? The journey is the answer, the path the only destination. Alive in our heads and dead to all else, we cast our lots and pray for a good harvest. All the while life moves outside our windows. Yet somehow, despite it all, contentment sinks in. Our fates seem fulfilling and not cruel, our identities satisfying, our heads held high. We write, we watch, we guard and record the human condition. We keep the gates: may they open for us.

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Using symbolism

A snake, a crow.

Let me set the scene: I was walking to work on a gushingly rainy day and noticed a piece of litter under some bushes running along the sidewalk. I crossed the sidewalk to pick it up for a more proper disposal and heard a loud thud behind me. Turning I saw a very large snake right in the middle of the section I had just passed. I am no expert in snakes and have no idea what kind it was but the effect was of course startling; there, suddenly, was a good over one-meter long and possibly venomous slitherer with its tongue out and one beady eye set on me. Where had it come from? I glanced up into the branches of a moss-covered tree on the opposite side of the sidewalk and saw a large black crow sitting there majestically, calm and in perfect control of his world. Had the crow evicted the snake from an upper branch? Had there been an altercation? I paused, fascinated. I watched the snake as she moved towards the bushes, then seemed to change her mind and head back towards the tree, then the bushes again, then the tree. I looked up and the crow had silently disappeared. The snake made her way to the bare earth beneath the tree. I carried on to work.

There are many ways such an event could be interpreted. It might be nothing at all, a chance encounter with the natural world we often ignore (to our detriment, I’d say). It might be something though, perhaps even something very significant. It might be a sign of spiritual or psychological import, a gift from the unseen, a message from the only-felt the way that dreams sometimes strike us as being. On that note, it might be an inner voice manifesting itself externally. Me getting my attention. If you are still with me on this then I applaud you for your patience, for surely those last few sentences will ring the warning bells of dirty hippiedom quite loudly.

Yet why should that be? Here is the point, and the reason I wanted to bring such up. Whatever the snake and the crow meant or might mean (and I wish to make no hermeneutic claims here, whether of an augury sort or otherwise), the occurrence presented me with a rich experience rife with possible responses. What I make of it or don’t make of it will depend entirely on me, on my perceptual and conceptual approach, on the underlying framework through which I mentally engage the world. In other words, it is far less a matter of an empirically measurable event and far more a matter of my personal character.

There are richly powerful symbols in our cultural heritages, and while some vary greatly depending on place and time, some appear to be almost universal in the human consideration of them. Chords struck in psyches, leftovers of our common evolutionary legacy and the ingrained reactions and judgments (which have become automatic and intuitive) that our ancestors made to them. A direct connection between our environments and our preconsciousnesses (or subconsciousnesses, if you prefer, though to me the nuance between “pre” and “sub” is important). Whenever we encounter the symbolic or the potentially symbolic an emotion is stirred in us which we do not often notice rationally, consciously, and if we do take stock of it such will not happen until after the emotion’s expression. Here the reasoning mind may step in and offer an explanation (“The front door’s midnight banging scared me so badly that I wet the bed”), but the simple cause and effect relations that we draw are at best mere sketches of more deeply complex biological and psychological processes. This is an important hint to the fundamental way in which we are far more than the goings-on of our thinking brains, and it is that “far more” that symbols have direct access to and hence what makes them the promising storytelling tools that they are. Although care, I think, is called for, as our above thoughts on interpretation indicate. In our use of symbolism, or in the symbolic use or meaning that we impart to the events we depict, we need to recall both the cultural backgrounds of our likely readers and the mental baggage that our characters carry from their own pasts and inheritances. Every reader will have many filters through which they process our words, and every character will have similar ones that they apply to the worlds we set them in. All this creates a somewhat heavy burden on the writer, but just an awareness of the issues involved itself is a large step-up on the way to better planning and execution. Fiction writing has never been simple, but then neither has the world outside our doorsteps. Best to keep one’s eyes – and mind – open.

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Turning points

You have your main character and she is busy at work in your book, battling evil robotic androids in chapters one and two that evidently plan on enslaving humanity to work in their giant banana plantations. Then in chapter three she discovers that the androids are not robotic at all, nor are they even androids – they’re aliens! Aliens that thrive on potassium; suddenly the banana plantations make much more sense. In chapter four she falls in love but the beloved turns out in chapter five to actually be an alien in clever disguise. Torn between her love and her desire not to see her species reduced to a mute and enfeebled breed of the sort wonderfully depicted in the classic Planet of the Apes movie (Heston, not Wahlberg (although Wahlberg did a fine job too, really)), she… What? What does she do at this crucial juncture?

These are the points at which a plot is made or broken, a story arc enlivened, energized, or run off a cliff. These are the clearings in the philosophical sense, where what had been the character’s entire world flips itself inside out and in a sparkling moment of realization the character is transported not from here to there but from Planet Heretofore to Planet Unforeseen. These are the moments of rebirth, and each of our lives is filled (one hopes) with countless examples of them – and so too, naturally, for our characters.

Character development does not just entail acquiring knowledge and skill. Even a largely one-dimensional character such as the type used in action/thriller stories grows psychologically through the effects and nuances of the experiences they undergo. It would after all be impossible for them not to, for each of us moves through life in this way as we partake in what our fates dish out and how we respond to what we are served. This is most evident in the evolution of a character’s perspective; and as writers it is in the description and explication of character viewpoint where we are most able to bring this out. We have access to all of the inner workings of at least our main character’s mind (for first person works), and quite possibly for every character’s mind (third person, deep third, head-jumping, etc.). Through this privilege of place we can bring the reader in to observe – or even to be involved with, to participate in – the unfolding of this new world for the character in question. Think back to a time when your own mind clicked over and your eyes blinked once, twice, and the cosmos was transformed: nothing was for you the way it had been only a moment before. Call it an enlightenment, call it a moment of grace, call it a bolt of intuition, a touch of the unexpected, or even a simple transformative random encounter; whatever label you attach the profundity of such is unquestionable. Far more than any external occurrence it is times like these that define the course of our characters and our books.

Momentous events like these are by their nature rare, but they are no less important for that. They can be overused, and there is most definitely a sense in which we are all the products of our early formative years and try as we might – or the universe trying as it might – there are aspects of every person that simply cannot or do not change. For a character to go from a thoughtful and kind person to a malicious and cruel villain in the space of a few sentences would obviously be an outrage (well, short of a botched lobotomy or the like); but for a character to go from operating under one point of view to a freshly shifted one is entirely within the realm of possibility. Whether that is, or becomes, a welcome or unwelcome possibility is for the rest of the narrative to decide – and the potentials there are endless.

The judicious use of psychological turning points in our plots and subplots can add depth and beauty to our works. In my own reading of others it is these moments that really stand out for me in my memory of the stories, it is these moments that really separate out the good from the bad, quality from mediocrity, the heartfelt and lasting from the bland and forgettable. The effective employment of this technique is something that I think every writer needs to have in their toolkit, and it all starts from a consideration of just how very much is involved. In realizing that we can then start to consider, from our own pasts and from what we’ve read or seen, how such can be expressed. And then we plan. We experiment and we fail. We get it right; and the world (and our book) turns over a new page.

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