This month Amazon announced a change to the Kindle Unlimited payout system. Effective from July 1st, authors will be paid based on pages read. At present, authors are paid per book, where a reader has read at least 10% of the book. This change is going to have a significant impact on the incomes of authors, with some seeing an increase and others seeing a decrease, but it was also change the kind of content readers see included in the Kindle Unlimited scheme.
This month has not gone as well as I’d hoped for the writing. In fact I’ve not written a word since my last blog post. But I have been thinking. Thinking about what motivates me, thinking about the stories I’m trying to write and the stories I worked on long ago.
With Invisible Duke, I’m a bit unsure on exactly where the crux of the story is, where it begins and where it should end. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t what’s stopping me writing; I’ve written before where I’ve had a go at an idea, not liked it, changed what the start and end and what the focus were, and tried again and ended up with something halfway decent. The story that ended up as Ailith’s Gift (available to read for free at Myths Inscribed) started out a very different story, told from the perspective of the dragon, after the events of Ailith’s Gift. I even had a character called George and this whole take on the old George and the Dragon myth, and themes of change and the baby from Ailith’s Gift growing up and everything. But for a short story, with a target of 3,000 words, it just didn’t work. There was too much to fit in, even if I broke it down to the most important plot points. By changing the focus and reducing the scope, though, I came out with something that did work, that wasn’t too rushed and which met the needs of what I was aiming for.
I think that’s something of what I need to do with Invisible Duke too. I’ve got the concept, I’ve got hints of the story, but I’ve not got the right angle on it. It’s already an amalgam of two ideas, that magical point at which ideas can become stories, but I think it needs a third idea to get there. I just need to work at it some more, but here’s the second problem: I’ve been putting off that work. A couple of weeks ago I heard of a call for submissions for stories that give a new twist on fairytales or subvert them in some way from The Book Smugglers. And it sounds perfect, exactly the sort of thing I should be submitting a story like Invisible Duke to, a story which looks at one of the fundamental assumptions of fairytales. The deadline for submissions is 31 July.
And I’m scared. I’ve not even finished the story, but having realised what an opportunity had landed on my lap when I heard about this, I failed to reach for it, and instead let it intimidate me. I’m not confident. I haven’t ever been, really, but right now my confidence level is at the lowest it’s been in a decade. And that has meant, on this occasion, that I’ve let myself be scared off from a prospect that could help me build up my confidence, help me improve my writing, and possibly even give me my first writing success in a long time.
I don’t what to do now with Invisible Duke. I think I’ve got two options:
1. Leave it til after the Book Smugglers deadline, take a fresh look at it, and try and work out where within the whole concept there’s an interesting story I can tell. Then take my time drawing the story out and getting it right – even if it takes a month.
2. Try to condense all the thinking and all the writing into the four evenings (today included) I have left til the deadline and get something I can submit, if only for the potential feedback I might get if not a real expectation it might be considered.
It’s a decision I’m going to have to make soon. Maybe I’ll have a go at looking at the story this evening and see where I am by bed time, and then decide.
In the meantime, there are other things I’ve been thinking about.
I got stuck at the end of May with the Penal Colony story. Since then I’ve been dancing around the issue I had with it. A soft, slow middle when nothing much happened. I considered reworking the story as a series of short stories, each one with a different character from the last engaged in a complete arc, where the whole thing together told the overall story. That, I decided, was not the answer; it would dilute my core message.
I spent one evening looking in depth at my core theme of justice, and how Fiarra views it as something that is objective, but herself acts very subjectively when attempting to determine what actions are just. I looked at how other characters might disagree with her, how she treats different characters whose crimes are comparable in different ways based on her own personal feelings about them, how she advocates doing things “right” right up until it’s inconvenient for her. I didn’t really come to a solid conclusion on that, on how I should present it and whether it would make the story feel empty or the ending unsatisfying.
Most recently, I’ve thought about how the story has gone so far in the 40,000 words I have written. And actually, it generally goes well for Fiarra. Okay, sure, she gets captured and beaten up and enslaved, but on the whole, by the point at which I stopped writing, she was in a better position than at the start of the story. A few things had gone right for her all in a row, and the things that had not gone right either served the plot or were so insignificant that 5,000 words later they’d leave no impact at all. In short, I’d made it too easy for her.
Or, to be more accurate, I’d made it too easy for me. I wanted to get to the cool speeches and the powerful emotional parts and everything I wrote that wasn’t that was designed to enable me to get to those parts.
I should know better.
The reason I keep going back to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender time and time again (current count: 7) is in no small part because of Zuko’s arc. I did a character study on him not long ago. There’s an end point that he reaches, that he is destined to reach, and there are points along the path where it seems that he might make it, but at those points, where has has the opportunity to befriend Aang and switch sides, he doesn’t, because he’s not done cooking yet. He’s not gained the experience he needs to be the kind of person who will decide that this is what he needs to do, that this is the person he should be, until he’s made the wrong decisions and lived the consequences.
I love that. I love watching it. I love seeing Zuko undergo that change, come to that gradual realisation. And yet I’m not putting that into my writing. I’m too eager to write the end of the journey – the emotional reunions, the important speeches, the redemptive actions – that I rush things along and forget to put enough of the journey in to make those turning points powerful.
With Penal Colony, therefore, I need to take a step back and work out where I’m making things too easy and make them harder. Where the turning point scenes are too early I need to move them later, to change them and deny those scenes the happy endings I crave so that the story can be told at the right pace, where victories are truly won and not handed over when I feel I can get away with it.
I need to start asking myself, with every scene I write, every paragraph even, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and then write it.
The other problem with Penal Colony is that I still don’t have as good a grasp on my characters as I would want. I struggle to hear their voices, the way they speak or think or act. I don’t know much what they look like. I haven’t grasped their mannerisms or their attitudes. It’s all very superficial in the 40,000 words I did write – Prentor is friendly, Laik is cold and laconic. At least, they are for as long as that serves the story. In one scene Laik became very frank and clear because I wanted things spelled out for Fiarra, and that was wrong (not to mention way too early in the plot). It’s something I need to work on.
The Snowflake Method might be a good starting point for working out the characters. It’ll give me the space to think about their own arcs – another flaw in my approach so far for Penal Colony – and expand upon who each character is, what they want, and how they interact with other characters and with their environments.
The next step after that, I think, would be to try to write short stories about each character or tackle certain scenes in the novel from their point of view, as an exercise to understand them rather than as part of the narrative. It certainly helped me earlier in the process when I did this for Laik, though a lot has changed since then and even that short scene might need an update.
In my lowest moment, driving home after a long day and frustrating at work, I considered giving up on this story entirely. I believed it wasn’t working and was never going to work. But I do still believe I’ve got something here. I’ve got a story I’ve been trying to tell, over and over and over again in various guises, for years. In fact it’s only as a result of my recent contemplations that I’ve come to realise exactly how deep that truth goes. I know I’ve been writing stories with this master-slave dynamic and this shift of power for at least eight years. The theme of justice has definitely been strong too; I even had an immortal character named Justice in one of my worlds, and at least three stories with him in. So yes, this is the story I’m going to tell, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll try with something else but I’m not going to give up until I’ve given it a thorough try.
I’m finally coming to realise exactly how much work writing a book really is.
I guess the next steps involve stepping back. I’ve still got some re-evaluation to do, but now also I’ve got a lot of planning to do, a lot of legwork to put in so that when the time comes for me to start writing again I’ve got the confidence to start and to keep writing, and so that I’ve got something to write.
For Invisible Duke, I’ll see if I can make option 2 work, and try to work out where my story is then write like the wind to meet the deadline – of, if that doesn’t work out, take the time to get it right next month.
With Penal Colony, I’ve got to start from scratch: learn who the characters are and how they act; make sure I understand the world of the story; and consider how to get the most out of it and make my characters work for their victories so they meet their destinies when the time is right, not when I really want it to happen.
In June I didn’t write much. Not a word on my novel, a couple of prompt-inspired shorts, and a few scenes inspired by a dream that are not compatible with any sort of actual publishable story. In July I need to ramp things up again a bit, but I’m not feeling good about the novel right now. I worry it’s too wordy, and by the end of May I’d reached a part which I’m rather stuck on in terms of not having much to drive the story forward. I think it might be time to set that aside for a while and focus on becoming a better writer.
In July I’m going to have a go at writing a few short stories from prompts. At the same time I’m also going to pick up some books about writing and pick out a few things from what I read to comment on and investigate in more depth. Here’s the general plan:
1 – 7 July: Invisible Duke
This is a prompt that came up months ago for a /r/writingprompts contest involving a title generator. This is the title that the generator produced for me, and I had an idea for it but never got to writing it. I’m going to have a fresh go, possibly dropping the old idea, or most of it, and see where it takes me. Seven days should be enough for a short story – if I can get it planned out in the first two days, I should manage to write some 4,000 words in the remaining five days.
8 – 10 July: Four words
I’ll flip through a dictionary, pick out four words at random (with vetos for words that are too common or too rare – I’m not having “the” as a prompt word) and see what I can make from that. I’ve put three days for this since I want it to be fairly intuitive a challenge – not too much thinking before I have to write. I’ll start with half an hour’s brainstorming, then jump right in. This story should end up around 2,000 words.
11 – 15 July: Music prompt
I’m open to suggestions for this, or I’ll click through “related videos” on Youtube until I find something that works. Whatever it is, it won’t be something I’m familiar with, so no Lord of the Rings soundtrack, no Lindsey Stirling, no Einaudi, no Holst, etc. The idea here is that I’ll listen to the track and make notes while listening, and then see where I can build a story from it. I’m putting five days for this, but that might change depending on how well it goes.
If you would like to suggest a music prompt for this please email me by 10 July at email@example.com with the subject line “Music Prompt”. I won’t open the links until the day I start this prompt. Music with or without lyrics will be welcome. I know most of the better known classical, a lot of movie soundtracks, but game music could work nicely, or even just something from a Youtube musician I am not familiar with.
16 – 22 July: History prompt
History is a rich and diverse source of inspiration for writers of all genres, especially fantasy (and historical fiction, of course). Last time I was at the British Museum I bought a book about the treasures on display there, Masterpieces of the British Museum, so I’ll look through that, find something from a culture I know little or nothing about, and research it, then see what I can do about turning that research – and that object – into a story. Usually I rely on either ancient Greece or pre-Roman Britain for my historical inspiration, so this will allow me to push beyond my usual boundaries as far as that is concerned, educate myself on something I don’t know about yet, and take a story from a fresh source of inspiration. So the one rule I’ll use when finding a suitable object is “not European”.
23 – 31 July: The revival
Some time ago on this blog I critiqued the opening to a piece I wrote when I was 19, Discord’s Secret. There’s definitely a story I want to tell in there, but I think it got buried. So to close out my challenge month, I’m going to reread everything I wrote for that story and work out how I might redo it. For this challenge, I won’t actually write the story, but rather rework what I want from it and then plan this new version out in detail, including character sheets for all key characters, a chapter-by-chapter plot synopsis, a map and location info sheets.
Reading about Writing
There are a few books I’ve got about writing, some of which I’ve read and some of which I haven’t. I’ll tackle four of these in July, and for each one pick out at least one point and comment about it here on the blog, including what the advice or opinion is, whether I agree with it, how I might apply it to my own writing, and anything else that comes to mind, depending on what the advice or opinion is.
The books I’ll be looking at are:
- Stephen King, On Writing
- Chris Sykes, How to Craft a Great Story (Teach Yourself)
- Antonio del Drago, The Mythic Guide to Characters
- Della Galton, How to Write and Sell Short Stories
If this experiment goes well I may continue this part of my July challenge into August with the various other books on writing that I own.
So that’s the plan for July: write based on some prompts, and read and comment on some advice. Hopefully by the end of the month I’ll have some half-decent fiction and a slightly better understanding of what it is I’m doing.
Improving as a writer is all about practice. That’s why it has been said that you write a million words of crap before you write anything really good. After being involved in writing groups and online communities, I’ve come across quite a few little exercises that have helped me with my writing. Here are a few.
The Inanimate Object
This is about getting into the mind of your character, with a bit of a twist. You pick an inanimate object – a wine bottle, an old mobile phone in the back of someone’s drawer, a broken sign post, an apple in a fruit bowl – and you tell a story from the point of view of that object. What does it want? What thoughts and feelings might it have about its situation? What does it hope humans will do?
I’ve said before that I have trouble with endings. I just don’t have enough practice with them. And it’s still presenting a problem. But I’ve realised recently that I’m not that good at finishing things in general. I start a lot of new stories that never get far, and I start a lot of Minecraft worlds that I give up on after a while. I’ve started a lot of games I’ve not finished, including the Nuzlocke Run on Pokemon Heart Gold. I’ve created a lot of new characters on Guild Wars and more recently Guild Wars 2, and deleted them in favour of starting another new character before getting far into the story. There are a few drafts to blog posts I’ve never finished.
Finishing things evades me.
I’ve been in a rut recently. I said I’d try to write 40,000 words this month for Camp NaNoWriMo and I only lasted a few days, and a little over 6,000 words. Before that I kept having ideas but never got far in writing them. Whatever I’ve tried hasn’t worked. I suspect it’s a confidence issue; I never wrote so much as when I believed in myself and my story, and at the moment, frankly, I don’t. I tell myself that what I write, as a first draft, doesn’t need to be good, but I know that’s a tacit acceptance that it isn’t good.
And I’ve neglected this blog too – infrequent posts, no advice (since I don’t feel qualified to give any) and I’ve been checking my stats less too.
So I’m trying something new, again. It’s less ambitious than other attempt to stimulate my writing. It is simply this: the one-hour story.