Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

A Writing Process Post

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 12, 2014

Today I started proper work on my second novel, and the first truly original one, not based in anyone else’s universe. This time I’m carefully filing off the numbers from so many other people’s pieces of work before throwing them all together that with luck it’ll look like my own ideas, which is all one can hope for in a piece of (hopefully) commercial fiction.

I don’t know if it’ll get completed, but I think that doing the work in semi-public might help, so what I’m going to do is every so often do a progress report here, talking about the process of writing. I’m also going to send the first draft, in 5000-word increments, to people backing my Patreon funding thing, partly as a backer reward (though whether it’ll be very rewarding is open) but also because the people backing it so far are friends whose opinions I value, and so their feedback would be useful (I’m not drafting them in as unpaid beta-readers — they don’t have to say anything — but if they want to that’d be great. And yes, I am aware that I have 23,000 words of fiction by one of them to provide feedback on myself — I’ve not forgotten).

So I thought that I’d make the first of these irregular writing-in-public posts about the actual process of structuring the novel. I know a lot of people find writing process blog posts tedious — this is for the 1% like me who find them fascinating.

For my first novel, I had been wanting to write a Faction Paradox novel for a while, and was in fact kicking around a space opera plotline which I still may use one day, but it was getting me nowhere, when suddenly, walking through Piccadilly Station in Manchester, I got two images in my head, more or less simultaneously — Scheharazade telling her last story after being beheaded, and a Presidential assassination attempt in modern-day America. I knew the two images were connected, and I could see ways to connect both to the Faction Paradox mythos, but not to each other. Working out the way to connect them was the major part of the effort — once that was done there was only one possible structure for the book, and the plot fell out of the connections.

This one’s rather different. Four hours ago, I didn’t have a plot at all, just an idea — I wanted to do a novel based on a conspiracy theory that some people take seriously, but have it be a supernatural comedy thriller. I knew precisely the mood I wanted to evoke, and could think of many pieces of fiction that played in the same area, but basically all I had was the idea that the connection between four real people could easily create a good basis for a novel.

You can’t base a novel on a single idea, though. You can’t even really base a short story on a single idea — The Adventure of the Piltdown Prelate, my most successful short story by far, needed at least five — and so I have used a two-stage process to go from a single idea to something which can become a novel.

The first stage was to get a lot more ideas. A commercial genre novel is usually between 80,000 and 100,000 words, and I want this novel to be publishable by a trad publisher, so I have to aim for about that. I’m going for the low end, because I tend to underwrite, and find writing at longer lengths uncomfortable. I find the natural length at which I can write on any one subject is usually about 1000 words, so that means I had to find eighty things to write about.

So I sat down in front of a word processor, created a numbered list, and free-associated eighty things that are either subjects I want to write about or are connected in some way to the real people who will be characters in the novel. After an hour or two thinking, I had a list of eighty characters, places, and topics to write about, some of them two or three sentence descriptions, others single words. Not all of these will make it into the novel of course — I suspect “eating boiled eggs and constipated”, “Sapir-Worf hypothesis” and “Apples” will make the cut, while “Independent Labour Party” and “Time travel” probably won’t — but by doing this I forced myself to come up with not only a lot of subjects that can be diversions or add thematic resonance, but a lot of images and scenes that seem to go together.

I still needed a structure, however, so I cheated a bit and took a list of plot beats that all pulp fiction follows, and got a series of headers from that. Normally I wouldn’t do that — my last novel is among other things about subverting that kind of narrative totally — but in this case, two of my characters are writers whose own books fit that template perfectly, and part of the idea is having them trapped in their own story.

I then cut and pasted elements from the list under whichever of those headers they seemed best to fit, and just by doing that, they suddenly became a plot. There’s a narrative through-line, a B-plot, a major villain, a minor villain, and all the other stuff you need for rip-roaring pulp adventure.

That won’t, of course, be the plot that I finally use, but it’s something to work from. Tomorrow, I intend to use that edited list to write up a 1500-word-ish synopsis, telling the story to myself, and I’ll then use that as the basis from which I actually write the novel. Unlike the last one, though, I won’t have to get approval from anyone else before starting to write, so I can deviate as much as I want. And I will — the process of writing is the process of discarding ideas as you get better ones, and of discovering a structure as you go. The most exciting thing for me is when I’m writing with no real idea how I’m going to pull together the five things I threw in earlier because they seemed like a good idea, but just don’t fit with each other. That’s when I always do my best work.

But I always need a structure, even if I later throw it out, and that’s what I’ve got now. Tomorrow, the writing proper can begin.

On the Rowling/Galbraith Thing, And Why Publishers Are Still Necessary

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on July 14, 2013

People seem to be reacting with astonishment to the fact that the book that J. K. Rowling published pseudonymously, through a major publisher, which got decent reviews in some newspapers, had only sold 449 copies in hardback in the last three months.

Those people have obviously never written books.

I’ve stopped looking at my Amazon stats, because to see them requires seeing the reviews, and my blood pressure won’t cope with that, but I looked at them regularly for the first eighteen months or so I published books. My books, as those who read them know, appeal only to a very niche market. They range in sales (or did when I last checked, a few months back) from one or two copies a day on average to one or two copies a month on average (I’m talking here about my proper books, not the little ebooks of short stories).

And (again, last I checked) my books were regularly in the top 10% of books sold on Amazon.

Not the top 10% self-published, or the top 10% ebooks, or the top 10% books analysing the music of the Monkees, or whatever — the top 10% books.

That means that on average, most books don’t sell. At all. On any given day, 90% of the books available on Amazon sell zero copies. It’s entirely possible, though I can’t look at anyone else’s stats, that a majority of them have never sold a copy to anyone who isn’t a close friend or relative of the author.

And this is why self-publishing is, ultimately, not a sustainable business model for writers, any more than sticking your albums up on bandcamp or CDBaby is for musicians. And it’s because record companies and publishers aren’t really in the business of selling music or books. The business they’re actually in is using money earned by huge sellers to subsidise those who don’t sell. Almost no writers (or musicians) earn out their advances — but some of those who do make *staggering* amounts of money. And that’s enough to offset the advances paid to the loss-making authors (most of them). And those advances are — for people who sell not all that many more books than I do — enough to live on.

And this is why, for all that I self-publish, I think the current trend of vilifying publishers and record companies as “unnecessary middle-men” is counter-productive (though the record companies don’t exactly make it easy on themselves by insisting on ever-greater monopolistic copyright “rights”). I self-publish because my stuff is *incredibly* niche, and there’s no point in even asking if a major publisher wants to put out something like my Seven Soldiers book.

This is, incidentally, why I’ve set the bar so incredibly low on my current Kickstarter — because the audience for *any* book these days, except huge bestsellers, is tiny, to the extent that if all my Twitter followers were to buy my next book (the Beach Boys one, which should be out in a couple of weeks) in the same week, it’d make the Sunday Times top ten for non-fiction.

The inefficiencies in the publishing system are the only reason that anyone under a very small handful of writers makes a living writing. As those inefficiencies disappear, we’re going to need to find a new way to fund writing, unless we want a world where J K Rowling is the only writer making a living at all.

Anyone have any ideas?

A Pleasant Thought

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on October 13, 2012

I’ve been battering my head against a couple of bits of fiction I’m writing at the moment, for places other than this blog. Or, should I say, that I’m not writing, even though one of the deadlines is tomorrow. But I’m prevaricating *very hard* on both of them. (Don’t worry, people who asked for them, if you’re reading this. I don’t miss deadlines.)

One of the problems I have with writing fiction is my prose style. I don’t like it. It does the job, but is very Asimovian. My words never sing, there’s no real beauty to them.

This is not, incidentally, a way of persuading other people to tell me “Oh, your prose style is lovely!”. Even had I the turn of phrase of a Wodehouse combined with the clarity of an Orwell, I’m talking about my own reactions to my writing here. And I can see the joins. I’m a reasonably facile imitator of other people’s styles (which is why so much of my fiction is written in the voice of others — first-person narrative is much easier for me than third person, because I can use someone else’s voice) but I have no good style of my own.

And this has been holding me back, because I’ve been thinking “I’m in my 30s now. I’m probably stuck with the style I’ve got. I’ll not get much better.”

But yesterday, the new collection of Terry Pratchett’s short fiction — A Blink Of The Screen — arrived. Now this is, in many ways, a sad event. It’s the sort of collection of ephemera that would normally be published posthumously — it’s very like Douglas Adams’ The Salmon Of Doubt, for example — but given that Pratchett knows he’s living with a terminal illness, it’s come out more prehumously, as a tidying-up of loose ends. (Although it’s important to note that, as Granny Weatherwax would put it, he aten’t dead. This is his fourth book this year, and he’s writing more.)

So it’s a collection of all his post-fame short fiction (much of it very good), along with selections from his pre-fame work.

And the pre-fame work has *exactly* the same problems that my own prose does. From reading this, and from his early novels, it becomes apparent that Pratchett didn’t actually find his voice until he was about 37 or so — even though he was a working, professional, writer from the age of 18 (working as a journalist and press officer). Pratchett’s work from the ages of about twenty-eight to about thirty-five reads *very* like my own work. If anything mine’s slightly better. There’s the same rushed nature, as if he’s desperate to get to the ending, even if the ending isn’t very good. There’s the same sense of reading a couple of good sentences that suddenly land with a thud in a leaden cliche. There’s the same sense of someone who’s read a lot of good writing, and can recognise it, but can’t quite do it yet.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t hold Pratchett up as an example of Great Literature, but the man can *definitely* write now. But his ‘juvenilia’ lasted well into his thirties, while most of the writers I like had their style fully-formed from their early twenties.

So I think maybe there’s hope for me yet. I think I’ll get back to that story now…

One big rule if you’re writing about politics

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on September 21, 2012

There are people supporting every party and none who can make convincing arguments for a point of view, and who it’s worth reading whether you agree with them or not. But I find they are increasingly outnumbered by people who it’s simply not worth reading.

And there is a simple way of telling who they are — they use canned phrases that seem to come from some political party’s central office.

Mostly these seem to come from Labour supporters at the moment (possibly because Labour are the most popular party, possibly because my social circle skews leftwards). Some of these phrases sound reasonable, others definitely don’t, but they include “Conservative-led government”, “savage cuts”, “our NHS”, “most right-wing government in [insert time period]“, “ConDems”. The problem is when those phrases get used by everyone simultaneously.

It’s certainly not confined solely to Labour, though — “Tony Bliar”, “ZaNuLieBore”, “cleaning up Labour’s mess”, “Red Ed, the unions’ man”… these all have the same effect.

If you’re using these insta-cliches, which tend to spread through political twitterers and bloggers like herpes, then to anyone who is unaligned, or does not share your particular alignment, or even who agrees with you but has an aesthetic sense about the use of words, your post will actually be saying to that person “I have not actually thought about this issue myself, rather I have read a press release from the party of my choice, please ignore me.”

If I read someone saying “We must protect our NHS from the effects of the savage cuts brought in by this Conservative-led government, cuts which are too deep and too fast”, then I know that they haven’t actually thought about the issue themselves and there’s no point reading what they have to say.

If, on the other hand, I read someone saying “We need to protect *the* NHS from government cuts, which I think are far deeper than necessary”, I think “this is a person with whom I could have a discussion, and find out which cuts she thinks are most damaging and what we could do about them. It may turn out that she’s wrong, but it may not.”

Likewise, someone saying “The government need to do this because they’re cleaning up ZaNuLieBore’s mess!” gets instantly disregarded. Someone saying “Realistically, if we want the economy to recover, then some things need to be cut, and while it’s bad, better to cut this than let the recession continue” is, again, someone with whom discussion is possible. They may well be someone I disagree with, but I will at least be disagreeing with *her*, not with a press release she glanced at.

Each of these phrases sound focus-group-chosen to be convincing on an emotional level. “OUR NHS” sounds much more important than “THE NHS”, doesn’t it? But after hearing them a thousand times, they’re not. They’re manipulative, and to me at least they have an actively scary, creepy feel to them, like being surrounded by beings that have been mind-controlled by aliens.

But luckily, there’s a very simple rule you can follow, which will allow you to write convincingly and without people looking at you in the expectation that your faceplate will fall off to reveal the robot underneath. It’s this:

Think about what it is you want to say, and what words you can use to say that as clearly as possible.

It’s a simple rule, but one that’s rarely followed by bloggers and twitterers (and, reading through Orwell’s essays, it appears never to have been followed by pamphleteers).

If you’ve thought about something, and you have a clear idea of what it is you want to say, and you have chosen the words you think will best express your thoughts — chosen them yourself, not picked phrases that have been handed to you by a third party — then people will, when they read your writing, say “That’s a good point” or “I never thought of that”, or “You’re wrong, here’s why…” — all of which are useful reactions if you’re wanting to convince people of something.

If, on the other hand, you string a bunch of stock phrases together, you may well get five hundred retweets from people who already agree with you, but you’ll never change a single mind, except to possibly make some people who did agree with you before disagree with you in disgust.

(Doctor Who post will be up tonight, nearly a week late…)

Howto: Create a Manuscript in ‘Standard Manuscript Format’ in LyX

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on February 12, 2012

I’m currently in the process of submitting stories to various paying markets, and most of the big SF magazines, while they take email submissions, still want the files to *look* like they came out of a mechanical typewriter ca. 1970 – monospaced font, double-spacing and all.

This is a bit of a pain to do, and Google isn’t much help – if you Google Standard Manuscript Format LyX, what you get is people asking how to do it, and other people ‘helpfully’ responding “you don’t want to do that, LyX’s default is much prettier than that”.

But I’ve eventually found how to do this with a lot of Google-fu, and it turns out there is a simple template for LyX to do this. You will need the SFFMS LaTeX package, which should have installed with your LaTeX distribution, but if you want to check then it’s part of the package texlive-latex-extra in Debian-based GNU/Linux distros (other OSes may vary).

All you need to do then is to visit and download the two files sffms_novel.layout and sffms_short.layout. Copy them to the directory in which LyX stores its layout files (on Debianesque Gnu/Linux distros this will be /usr/share/lyx/layouts , but you can see it in Tools-Preferences-Paths in your copy of LyX).

Then in LyX go to Tools-Reconfigure, and restart LyX once this has finished. Now when you start a new document, go to Document-Settings and in the Document Class dropdown choose either SFFMS (Short Story) or SFFMS (Novel).

Kinks post later tonight or tomorrow morning.

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