The Punk Book

punk-book-coverAs you might remember (or not), I’ve written the Toronto Novel Marathon charity event a number of times (three). Each time I finished a novel. The first one was my longest: The Punk Book, which is a fictionalized account of my early years in a punk band in Hamilton’s 1990s music scene.

Well, the time has come to put this one up on the shelf. So I’ve printed up a few dozen copies and I’m launching it on Saturday, November 19.

It’s a fun book, but it took me a long time to figure out how to write it. Many of the stories in the book are based on my own very memorable experiences; but fictionalizing one’s own life is a difficult process. It’s hard to make it about the people without making it a navel-gazing exercise. But I think I figured it out, and the result is this book. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. Except for Larry, because screw that guy.

I’m lucky to be in a band with such great guys as Jonny Palmateer and Derek Fivehole. It’s really tough to write about this kind of thing without being arch, or cloying, or – much worse – boring. But according to Jon, it’s the best book ever written, so I figure I must have hit close to the mark.

What’s it about? Tom is a young guy who gets into punk music and tries out for a local band. He’s brought in as the bassist. The band gets a bit too big, a bit too fast. The band is run by a punk-savant songwriter and pathological liar named Larry. Tom has a thing for a girl in another band. He’s balancing the band and his job as a delivery guy for a Chinese restaurant. Almost all these things are true. (Especially about the pathological liar. Holy crap is that ever true.)

So why am I launching this particular book on Saturday? Mainly because of this:

The Stephen Stanley Band and The Goalies

Yes, my longtime punk band the Goalies has a rare opening spot for the Stephen Stanley band. (If you’re not familiar with that name, Stephen Stanley was the lead guitarist for the Lowest of the Low, which was a band I was fairly obsessed with in the crazy early-90s music scene.) It’s going to be a big, crazy show. And book launch.

In the end, I’m not trying to sell a million copies of this book. It’s punk: fun and crazy and who cares about rules. But I’m proud of the book, too, and I want to get it out there on this night of nights.

Because as I said at the start of the book:

This book was written as part of the 2014 Toronto Novel Marathon. It is therefore short, crude, and a lot more fun for the person yelling than for the audience.

And also the Author’s Note:

Absolutely nothing in this novel is true.

Which is definitely the case.

Except for the stuff about Larry. Because screw that guy.

Writing Sprints

cheetahWant to get something done? Have you got 15 minutes? That’s a good place to start.

This is how I’ve been doing a lot of my writing lately. I gather with a few friends in an online chatroom, and one of us sets a 15-minute timer. When it starts, we write. When it stops, we stop and compare word counts.

It’s an excellent system.

The approach is often known as the Pomodoro Technique (the name comes from the originator using a timer shaped like a tomato). Francesco Cirillo popularized the technique by working in 25-minute bursts, with five-minute breaks in between. While the timer is running, you write (or do whatever work you want to). When the timer stops, you check your e-mail, browse twitter, see if anything new is posted to reddit.

The idea is that your brain works better with a nearing deadline, but also only works at full speed for so long. So you find a balance between the two by setting a timer periodically and working repeatedly towards it. (I know that many writers do something like four “poms” in a row, and then take

For me, 25 minutes is too long; I find that my mind wanders around the 15- or 20-minute mark. The same goes for my lunch hour writing compadres. So we do 15 minutes at a time.

We used to call them Word Wars, and would actually compete to get the highest possible word count. But I have two problems with this: one, I’m not a huge fan of unnecessarily martial metaphors; and two, the competitive element should be internal – we’re competing with ourselves, not each other.

Even the idea of competition with yourself is too much, really. The important thing is that you get the words down, keep up the forward momentum. That’s why we now call them word sprints; they are really exercises, a chance to stretch and build your muscles.

You might not want to write only with word sprints; you might find that you’re losing a lot of writing time between them. But for jump-starting your writing engine, this is a great technique.

If you don’t have other writers to do sprints with, you can check out MyWriteClub – they have writing sprints going on all the time, and you can create your own there too if you like.

The Ebook Is Dead, Long Live the Ebook

Last month, I attended Book Summit, an annual conference in Toronto for people in the book trade – publishers, editors, writers, the whole lot.

I’ve been a handful of times, and as a writer it’s not always terribly useful. Hearing about what the content producers are worried about is of interest, of course, but there isn’t much direct knowledge I can take from this day of keynotes and panels. But it’s still interesting and the whole day is very well produced.

I admit I didn’t look too closely at the materials they provided in advance, and I think a lot of the theme was outlined there. So I wasn’t ready for the opening remarks by Cynthia Good – formerly president and editorial director at Penguin Books, and founder of the publishing program at Humber College.

Let’s back up before I get to my point. Book Summit is put on by the Book and Periodical Council, an organization I have extremely high regard for. I have worked directly with members of their board and administrative staff, and these people are among the best people in the writing world in Canada.

But the BPC represents big publishers. And big publishers are so scared about the massive changes sweeping the publishing world that they have no idea at all what to do. Nobody knows what to do. We’re all hanging on, trying to stay in the car as it careers off a cliff.

The Digital Dust Has Settled

Here was the opening statement that Cynthia Good made, the very first words uttered into a mic at the conference:

The digital dust has settled. The book is back.

The rationale for this statement? E-book sales have plateaued, and print book sales are edging up.

The publishers are assuming that this means that things are going back to the old ways. They don’t need to worry; things have gotten as bad as they’re ever going to, and we can go back to our old business model. The ebook revolution that had thrown the publishing world into a tailspin is now over.

They could not be more wrong.

The Print Book Anomaly

Remember when Sudoku was all the rage, back in the early 2000s? There were thousands of sudoku book published, with their clever themes and attractive covers and different skill levels. A huge boon to publishers–people were addicted to the puzzles, and sudoku was a great way to spend a boring train or subway ride.

They’re still out there, of course, but in much smaller numbers. The fad passed, and I’d wager more people are playing sudoku on their phones than packing a book and pencil for their morning commute.

Sudoku was a publishing blip. And last year it was repeated, in the colouring book.

The colouring book for adults was a huge craze in 2015. The colouring book made millions of people put their phones down in favour of their markers and pencil crayons. They are a tactile, spatial, and sensory experience. They come bundled with an appealing call back to one’s childhood.

And most amazingly, there is no digital adjunct. Colouring books have to be physically printed. An amazing boon to publishers who have the resources to deal with large-scale print publication!

They are a fad, though, and they won’t be around forever. They’re still all over the place, but in a year’s time I suspect they’ll be taking up about as much space on the shelf as sudoku books do now.

So a one-time blip in printed books led to a small increase in print sales last year. The print book isn’t dead, but one year does not make a trend.

In the meantime, what about the ebook? The publishers are seeing their ebook sales taper off, and they’re now in a plateau. What’s up with that?

The Ebook Isn’t Over

The big publishers are seeing their ebook sales decline, and their print book sales increase. So the day of the ebook is over; cancel the alarm. All is well. Right?

The new publishing model is about to devastate the big publishers, and they don’t even see it yet.

They’re blindered by their own success, by having a century of being the only game in town. So they’re not asking, if the ebook sales are slowing down for them, where are those sales going?

If colouring books are indeed the reason for the rise in print book sales last year, then ebook sales aren’t going to print. Are people just giving up on ebooks?

No. People are still buying and reading ebooks.

They’re just not reading the books that publishers are giving them.

Self-publishing is the culprit. On Amazon, at least a third of the ebook sales are self-published books, and that proportion is rising.

Meanwhile, publishers are pegging ebook prices to the hardcover prices, then the trade paperback, then the mass market paperback. They claim that the costs of the print and distribution process are so well-established and amortized that they do not significantly affect the ebook price.

This, of course, comes across to most buyers as a transparent lie. And confronted with the choice between a $21.99 ebook from an established author and a $2.99 ebook by a self-published author with hundreds of five-star reviews – well, the choice is becoming clearer and clearer.

Time to Wake Up

I remember hearing a podcast by Michael Stackpole several years ago, where he pretended to be walking through a disused book warehouse, his steps echoing loudly as he paced the empty space. His claim was that before too long, this would be the state of traditional publishing; the old model of mass printings, returns, and advances was going to be completely undermined by the new e-publishing model.

I wasn’t convinced back then, but now I’m pretty sure he was right. Books have always been only a way of delivering words in a specific order; the rest is logistics. As technology starts to provide new ways of delivering those words, every aspect of the existing publishing model is being put to the test.

Here in Canada, signs are clear that ebooks are on the rise. The National Reading Survey in 2013 showed that 7% of citizens did not read electronic publications at all; for 47% their electronic reading had not changed; 28% read moderately more electronic material, and 17% read significantly more. Those are extremely strong numbers in favour of electronic reading in general, and positive signs for ebooks.

And still the publishers remain adamant that the models will persist. The digital dust has settled. The book is back.

Cynthia’s Book Summit opening remarks were an extinction burst from the old publishing model. Publishers don’t want to confront the reality of the new world they inhabit, but they will have to, and soon.

That doesn’t mean it’s over for the traditional publishers. They’ve flourished despite huge problems in the past. They employ a great number of smart, creative people, and they have the resources and capabilities to overcome this change in publishing. (There are many hopeful signs, like Tor removing all DRM from its books a few years back.)

But they’re not going to do it by hoping that the good old days of the single traditional publishing model are going to hang around. The digital dust has far from settled; it’s about to become a digital storm. And unless publishers confront that reality and work within it, they’re in real trouble.

The book isn’t back; it never left. Now figure out where it is, and go out and get it, publishers. You’re not going to be around for too long if you don’t.

Big news! Brendan’s Way!

I am ridiculously late in posting this, probably because I had already plastered this on social media. But the big news is, Bundoran Press (of Ottawa, Ontario) made an offer for my book, Brendan’s Way. And guess what I accepted.

Hooray for everyone!

The book is slated for publication in April next year – blazingly fast for the print publication world. I’ll be working on the publisher’s suggested rewrites all summer, and we’ll be doing production etc. in the fall. The launch will be at the Ad Astra conference in Toronto.

I’m thrilled – I hadn’t offered the book to any other publishers, and have a very high opinion of other books that Bundoran has put out. I’m looking forward to this whole process. Updates will be coming much more frequently as we move towards the publication of Brendan’s Way!

The Taste – Now Available

Taste KoboAll right, folkingtons – it’s available! Whether you’re an Amazon Canada customer…

Amazon Dot Com customer…

Kobo customer…

or Apple iBookstore customer…

…”The Taste” is now available for your enjoyment.

Coming Very Soon – The Taste

thetaste-800I have spoken once or twice about writing my merry little novel marathons. (Hey! The next one is coming up in August! You can support me here!)

Last year, I went in with an idea of some bad things that could happen, and a couple of disturbing images in my head. By the end of the weekend I had the awful little novella you see here.

I’ve never written horror before – I’m not even much of a horror reader. I even got slightly uneasy making the fake blood you can see on the cover. But I like the book, and I hope others will like it too.

It releases on Friday, April 29, coinciding with my appearances at the Ad Astra convention. If you’re there, come say hi. And feel free to buy the book

  • On Kobo
  • On Amazon
  • On Barnes and Noble, Apple iBookstore, And whatever other purveyor of fine e-books you tend to shop at. (If you don’t find it at your favourite ebookstore, let me know so I can get it up there!)

Oh, and by the way, if you sponsored me for the Toronto Novel Marathon in the past, I will gladly send you a copy of The Taste absolutely free. Just contact me and I’ll get you a copy in the format of your choosing.

Writing Longhand

HandwritingRecently a friend tweeted this article, about how taking notes by hand helps you to learn and retain information better.

It turns out that handwriting engages your brain in different ways from typing:

The benefits of handwriting — though it’s a disappearing skill — have been documented by lots of educational psychologists, who have found that handwriting engages parts of the brain that typing neglects, especially areas associated with memory formation. For these reasons, the arguments go, kids come up with more ideas when they’re writing in cursive versus typing.

But I knew this already.

When I was first thinking about writing novels, I made a lot of false starts. This was in the late nineties and early oughts; at that time, there was no wifi, and e-mail wasn’t something you had all the time–if you wanted to take a file off one computer and put it on another, you put it on a floppy disk and used the walknet to transfer it–that is, you carried it from one place to another. I didn’t get a USB drive until 2006. I didn’t even have high-speed internet till the end of 2000.

But I started having ideas for novels, so I would sit down at the laptop (if I had one at the time) or desktop, and started to write.

And stopped.

I quickly learned that the keyboard and screen were not a source of creativity; everything was a false start. Usually I couldn’t get more than a paragraph written, and never more than a page.

I found a similar effect when I was working, as a technical writer at the time. I could write user manuals and technical documents just fine, but if I had to figure out the structure, or put together an outline, I reached for pen and paper, and put it together there first.

So when an idea for a novel hit me hard, I bought a notebook and tried writing it there. And it worked. I finished the (short, very poor) novel. After that, I was clear: creative writing was to be done by hand; non-creative work could be done on a keyboard.

That’s what I did from then on. I wrote my first published book, L.M.F., entirely longhand. I even started a novel for NaNoWriMo on the keyboard, stalled, and then went on to finish it longhand. The sequel as well. And two other novels since.

There were a couple of real advantages to writing this way. One was the security of it: the notebooks wouldn’t get corrupted, wouldn’t get obsolete. I’d never open an outdated file and work on it. I was forced to write at least somewhat procedurally: I couldn’t jump from scene to scene (not that I like to write that way anyhow).

And one of the extra tasks in writing the first draft longhand was to retype the book once it was finished; that turned out to be a positive, not a negative. It forced me to give a very close read-through and light edit along the way. This was a good way to identify contradictions and inconsistencies, as well as find poorly-written sentences.

One interesting effect I found in retyping: I would start typing a handwritten sentence, and halfway through discover some kind of flaw in the way I had executed it. I would start to change it… and then by the end of the sentence would realize that I had been right the first time. Sometimes it was a little linguistic twist, sometimes it was a way to bring in some idea I wanted to connect up. But I was surprised how my writing would take me in one direction, and then land somewhere I didn’t expect.

Then two things changed: I started outlining, and I had an idea.

They started at the same time. I bought myself an Android tablet, one of the Asus Transformers. The tablet had a detachable keyboard which was actually a joy to type on despite its slightly smaller size, and was very easy to carry around–that is, out of the office and down to the coffee shop without people noticing. A few days after I got the tablet, I landed on an idea.

A book had never thrown itself open to me in this way before. It was a science fiction book–a genre I hadn’t read much in the preceding 15 years, and had never written–and the idea quickly became an outline that spilled out in a torrent.

I finished the 9,000-word outline in two days. I started writing immediately–on the tablet. I wrote it in five months. My previous record for finishing a novel was closer to a year and a half.

I noticed something else, too: I wrote much, much faster on the keyboard. Part of that was the outline, surely; I wasn’t sitting and trying to think of what came next. But longhand, I would write at most three 175-word pages in an hour. On the tablet, I averaged about 1200 words, and in more productive sessions, I could top 1500 without straining myself.

But I noticed another thing: I wasn’t as interesting a writer. Granted, it was genre fiction, but in re-reading the stuff I wrote, I found that my writing wasn’t as coloured as it could have been; I was missing opportunities. The writing was functional, but lacked energy.

It’s taken time to get used to the keyboard. But over time, I’ve modified my writing style to better handle the words through my fingertips rather than the nib of a pen. Still, when I really want my writing to count, my first draft is often a handwritten draft.

Your tools are important; the medium might not be the message but it inevitably shapes the message. And my creativity is best captured with ink and paper. That’s laughable to some, abhorrent to some, but next time you’re stuck, give it a try. As it was for me, it might be a way to open up something new.

 

* Check out Kaarina’s site, OnPoint Writing and Editing!

Rushed Scenes

Seems RushedIn editing work – my own and others’ – I often come across scenes that feel rushed. The action swings by so quickly that we don’t feel like it really happened; instead we have an uncomfortable feeling that we have missed something.

When I feel that a scene is rushed, I find that it’s usually because I haven’t grounded it in the real world enough. This isn’t just a matter of adding description; it’s writing the scene so that it is experienced from the given point of view.

So what do I do?

Eliminate Reported Dialogue

First, I look for reported dialogue, where the narrator summarizes what a character said. The characters need to say their words; readers can sense when you’ve taken a shortcut.

Of course, we also don’t want reams and reams of uninteresting dialogue in the scene, right? If that’s your worry, though, then why did the narrator have to report that something was said?

So our options here are to remove the reported dialogue completely, or find a way to make it into interesting dialogue that’s actually on the page.

Use the Senses

One of the most easily missed opportunities in enhancing a scene is looking for ways to bring in the senses of your characters – especially senses other than sight.

That doesn’t mean the point of view character needs to touch and smell everything in the room; it’s a matter of being aware of the environment the character inhabits. Is the air dry, moist, warm, cool? Is there any background noise? (We are very rarely in a completely silent environment.) What is the light like? Is there an unfamiliar smell?

Put yourself in the point of view, and describe that experience.

Inhabit the Point of View

The sensory descriptions are a good start; but to really make a scene feel right, the narration needs to truly inhabit the scene.

This can be hard work, but I find it gives the biggest payoff for readers. It goes deeper than just sensory description, too; you need to not only feel what the POV character feels, but think what the POV character thinks.

Imagine your character walks into a study in a stately home. What does she notice? If she’s a bookish character, she would scan the volumes on the shelves to see if there’s anything interesting. If he’s the son of the owner of the study, he might look at the desk–what was dad working on? If she’s trying to find the dead study owner’s will, she’ll be on the lookout for hidey-holes and secret spaces in the furniture. If he’s the study owner’s mortal enemy, he might notice–disgusting!–the elephant’s foot wastebasket and stuffed tiger head on the wall.

It’s not a matter of describing everything in the room; it’s a matter of making choices about what’s worth describing, and making those choices based on the character whose eyes are actually viewing the scene.

 

Scenes seem rushed not because they’re short, and not because things happen too fast; they seem rushed when the scene doesn’t have enough relevance for the reader. Look for ways to truly inhabit the scene, and it will be not faster, not slower, but right.

Outlining – Why Bother?

Finding time and energy to write can be difficult enough. If you’re going to add a step to the creative process–one that itself has some disadvantages, as I discussed last week–you’re going to need to get some serious benefits from it.

But in this case, outlining has a ton of things going for it, and some of them directly counteract the effects of the disadvantages. A good outline makes a better book, and makes it easier to get the damn thing written. An outline is a good deal all around.

The number one advantage of an outline is that it is the number one way to defeat writer’s block. Now, I’m one of those who refuses to buy that writer’s block even exists; it’s a convenient excuse, and one that I’ve readily used myself in the past. But when your writing is stalled, I think it’s a sign not that you’re blocked, but that you need to do more thinking.

And that is exactly what the outline forces you to do: get your thinking out of the way early on. You have already gone through the process of figuring out who does what, and when, and why. You’ve already got those scenes mapped out, to some level. And by separating the thinking from the writing means that instead of getting blocked, you can get to the fun part of making the scenes come alive.

But an outline can do even better than this. You have probably had the experience of sitting down to write, and watching the cursor blink for a few minutes before you really get down to the business of making another cup of tea. And maybe petting the cat for a while, and doing some dishes, and painting the porch.

What I’m saying is that writing is often a matter of momentum. When you sit down, it can be really hard to get back into the scene, and to remember what the next paragraph, the next line, the next word was going to be. Each time you return to your manuscript, you’re resetting your mind completely.

An outline gets you past that. It was written by you, as a guide to writing the book; it’s probably the best possible way to get your mind back into the groove. I found that my writing speed picked up immensely without having to wait for the right idea to reintroduce itself to my frontal lobes.

I’m not the only one, either. An outline is the number one piece of advice from SFF Rachel Aaron, who created a sensation a while ago with her blog post (and later e-book) about going from 2,000 to 10,000 words a day. Read it, and check out her e-book as well. If you’re struggling to increase your output, you’ll definitely want to take a look at her advice.

So outlining helps with the day-to-day task of putting words on the page. But it is also, of course, a big picture tool. How many times have you found yourself halfway through a novel, wishing you’d taken just a slightly different approach to that character? How many times have you had to go back and shoehorn a brand new scene into an already completed part of the book?

If you’re outlining, it’s easy to do those things: you go back to the earlier part of the outline and change it. Add a chapter, add six chapters, move things all around if you like. And if you discover that you could add something awesome but that would need wholesale changes throughout the manuscript, you can do that too.

So the outline has a lot going for it: it can make you a better writer in many, many ways. However, as we’ve discussed before, an outline can also have its disadvantages. So next time I’ll tell you the secret to outlining, the thing that made me the outliner I am today: finding your outlining level.

E-book Redistributors: Disadvantages

Cross-posted from the Calamus Communications blog.

 

E-book redistributors (start here if you’re not familiar with the term) make a compelling case for independent authors: they are an easy and cheap way to get your e-books up on multiple platforms, which can mean higher sales and visibility. There are plenty of other advantages, too. But it’s not all good news.

The main problem with any one-size-fits-all solution is that the size may not fit everyone exactly right, or in exactly the same way. This is definitely the case when you publish an e-book once to get it on a multitude of different sites.

All of the e-book sales platforms require mostly the same basic information about the book, which is why these redistributors work at all. But they also might use this information differently. For example, Amazon allows only seven keywords, and in some cases they have specific uses (for example, the keywords might determine which sub-categories a book goes into).

And some authors have found ways to supercharge their Amazon keywords too – ways that might cause issues on other sites. You want to maximize your sales on all the different sites where your books are sold. For the ease of publishing on multiple sites at once, you could be trading away significant royalty dollars in return.

Another problem is the follow-on sales from e-books. One tried and true means of boosting sales is to include links to other books in the same series or by the same author at the end of every book. If a reader just finished your book and is desperate to read another one, putting a link right there in the e-book might lead to a second sale.

But using a redistributor means that you can’t add those links in. You’ll only be able to put the links in for one site at a time, and some sites, if not all of them, will simply delete links to their competitors’ sites. (Why would Kobo want you to go to Amazon to buy the next in the series?)

Another trade-off is control. You can’t tweak your book to look its very best on every device; all your content has to be at the lowest common denominator among the different sales platforms. And to make sure that your images and content look right, you’ll have to publish the book, and then test it out on each platform or device separately.

It’s always the same story: the trade-off between convenience and perfection. If you’re just starting out with e-books, and you aren’t doing anything complicated with them, you might be fine with the redistributor approach. But you also need to think about what the convenience is costing you, not just in their commission, but in potential sales as well.

In the last post in this series, we’ll look at some of the redistributors who are out there – and recommend our favourite!