131. Writing through the lockdown

Lockdown isn’t totally unlike normal life for me. I get up, check e-mails, write, keep in touch with friends. Not so different from before.  I think coping with the social distancing depends a lot on a set of factors that writers probably have in spades:

  • Creating structure on your day and your week
  • The ability to enjoy isolation
  • The satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a task

My day, as I said, has structure. Though my writing group has stopped meeting, we continue to circulate drafts to each other as before once a week on Thursdays. Every Wednesday, I write a story for Friday Fictioneers.

Writing, though its product is an intensely social collaboration between author and reader, involves solitary hours communing with the keyboard. So the new isolation is much like the old isolation.

Isolation

The act of writing is immensely satisfying, creating something that never existed before. For me, each story is an act of discovery, of wrestling meaning from an initial vague intuition. I accomplish tasks every day. And, with my novel The Tears of Boadbil going into production, I get to see my work taking physical shape. Last week I returned to style proofs for page layout. I asked for a change in font size, line spacing, and some other details, including drop caps at the beginning of chapters. I love drop caps. Working on my book production, publicity and marketing gives me a way to engage with a future beyond the pandemic.

Boabdil style proofs

I know, of course, that I’m immensely privileged. I can pay my bills, there are no small children to be entertained, and we have a garden to potter around in. For many others, it is much grimmer.

For writers this is a time to be producing. You’d think now is not be the time publishers will want pandemic books. But Penguin says sales of Albert Camus’ The Plague were up 150% in February compared with the previous year and at the end of March, the number two book on Amazon’s charts was The Eyes of Darkness by Dean Koonz, about the fictional epidemic virus Wuhan-400.

couple on seashore

The impact of the virus on our lives and our societies will necessarily provoke thoughts about what matters and how we should live our lives. It’s inconceivable coming out the other side of this emergency that the answers to these questions won’t be changed. And who better to reflect on them than writers?

What’s your self-isolation recipe?

Friday Fictioneers – The Experiment

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PHOTO PROMPT © Jeff Arnold

I am aghast. “It’s monstrous,” I say.

He seems faintly amused by my outrage and turns from the keyboard with a shake of his silver head. “It’s necessary,” he says. “The way we stop this disease is to isolate the vulnerable and let the healthy catch it. Most will recover and when they do we’ll have a shield of herd immunity.”

“You can’t know that,” I say. “You’re running a terrible experiment with millions of lives.”

His mane tosses like a lion’s. “The peak will be sharp, but it’ll be short.”

Somewhere, faintly, a phone is ringing.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Dreams

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PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

They promised me cheap and plentiful power, Dick Tracy watches, moon bases, freedom to make the life I wanted. They promised me flying cars.

I guess I got the watch. The internet was unexpected, and that’s wonderful. The nastiness, less so.

Where’s my flying car?

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

130. Who do you turn to? Choosing self-publishing help

My first novel, The Tears of Boabdil, will be published in September. Navigating the swamp of vanity publishers, charlatans, hybrid publishing, and cheap-and-cheerful self-publishing isn’t easy. This post shares my experience, which may be helpful to you. Even if you make different choices, the questions I asked may be useful.

I had always said I wouldn’t self-publish. Not because of any snobbery: self-publishing is no longer synonymous with vanity publishing, but is a way for writers to get their foot on the ladder. I knew, though, that while it’s easy to physically produce a book, the average self-published book sells around 250 copies over its lifetime. This compares, according to the Publisher’s Weekly in 2006, with an average of 3,000 lifetime sales for traditionally published books.

lifetime book sales

Of course, a few self-published books break through and sell tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies. But 250 is an average. Some sell less. One self-publishing company achieved an average of 2.3 sales per title over a million books.

Producing a book isn’t the problem—letting people know it’s there and persuading them to buy it is.

It’s all about the marketing

What changed my mind about self-publishing my novel, The Tears of Boabdil, was an upcoming marketing opportunity. The novel deals with an undercover cop having a relationship with a woman who is his target. The delayed Undercover Policing Enquiry, set up in 2015 following revelations about just such a scandal, is due to start hearing evidence in the summer of 2020. Mired in controversy, with victims’ groups having withdrawn their participation when the chairman decided to grant anonymity to the policemen, this event seemed certain to generate news interest.

COPS

The time scale had become too short to conventionally publish.

The starting point is, of course, the manuscript. Unless you have a good book, it’s unlikely to sell. I had a manuscript that had been through extensive critique, editing and revision and had been pored over by beta readers. And I am very proud of it.

But the next step was to consider whether I could sell at least 2,000 copies. By myself, obviously not. I was less interested in the usual publicity route of review copies and blog tours than I was in achieving substantial news and features coverage. Given that some 190,000 books a year are sold in the UK and 173,000 new titles launched traditional PR for an unknown author was going to be wasted effort.

I scrutinised lists of publicists and short-listed three.  I went with Palamedes PR an award winning agency run by ex-journalists who offer money-back guarantees on achieving press coverage.

Palamedes

It took several days of consideration and discussion before they agreed to take me on. They offered opinion leader articles, but I wanted news coverage. Quite reasonably, they wanted to know what the news angle was. I simply hadn’t considered the possibility that the book might not be news in its own right, but it was blindingly obvious when the question was asked.

We settled on the strategy of using my career in the field of human rights and international aid. That would give me the credibility to make statements about intelligence services infiltrating charities and misusing aid as an instrument of counter-insurgency and espionage.

Production quality is paramount

Quality matters in the book trade. Print on demand technology and the rise of self-publishing companies like Lulu and Amazon’s KDP have revolutionised the ease of producing your own book. But nothing will turn readers off more quickly than a book that looks amateurish. A standout cover, professional layout, close proof-reading to spot errors, and quality printing were essential to me. All of this, along with the PR, costs money.

I considered using Lulu, who quoted me the dollar equivalent of around £1,500 to manage the design, proofing and printing of the book. In the end, after comparing prices and listening to the experience of others, I decided to pick a print firm with recommendations by the Alliance of Independent Authors and the Publishing Service Index. That led me to the Index’s top ranked company, Matador. They also have a distribution arms, supplying major bookshops.

Matador

Being clear about objectives

There was never going to be a simple return on investment calculation. My main objective was to achieve creditable sales of a quality product that would advance my writing career. Hence the expenditure on PR. I am prepared to lose money on this in order to improve my chances for the future.

objective

As a very rough rule of thumb, independent authors are likely to be approached by agents and traditional publishers when they achieve sales in excess of 5,000 copies. They are likely to be written off as proven failures if they sell less than 2,000 copies. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

Friday Fictioneers – The Knock

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PHOTO PROMPT © Ceayr

It cannot be so terrible, so decisive. Look! The sparrows continue their squabbling in the branches. A thin rain is falling, like yesterday, warm and gentle. The sun continues its climb up the wall of the sky as always, and the water plays in the fountain.

Nothing decisive has happened. When the summons comes, I will open the door.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Seed Bank

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PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

“That’s such a great idea,” Pfennig said. “A seed bank.”

And it was true. The metal shelves held hazelnuts, garlic cloves, and lumpy nodules I couldn’t identify.

We’d survive, Pfennig decided. Dig up the parks, plant the seeds, harvest our own food. When the soldiers at last removed the barriers around the city, they’d find us healthy and thriving. Then we’d walk out proudly into the sunshine of the new world.

He clapped me on the back, and I beamed with pride, unable to confess a squirrel had done the collecting. All I’d been gathering was graffiti.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Friday Fictioneers – Progress

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PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

The curtain rose. She gave a gasp. The first time she’d seen live theatre, and her reaction was everything I’d hoped.

“Why isn’t it in colour?” she whispered.

I explained the play was about the old days, and things then were in black and white because colour hadn’t yet been invented.

“You know,” I said, “like in the old movies.”

As the crowd spilled out of the auditorium, she announced “I’m going to be an actor when I grow up.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was all done by avatars now.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Friday Fictioneers – Parting

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PHOTO PROMPT © Dawn Miller

Perhaps because his mother was not of this land, he was always able to dream of other things, places, possibilities.

But when the opportunity came to leave, he hesitated. It would mean parting from Bertha. If only she would bid him go with an easy heart! But she couldn’t. She cried and begged.

And his going was soured.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

129. How does a story mean?

The meaning of a story exists outside the text. I was struck recently by the way a story can be simple but its meaning can be perplexing.

sparkler

A story is a set of events linked by causality—the kingdom withered because the king died of grief. The king was sad because the queen had died.

Meaning depends on understanding how things fit together. The meaning of an event in the story (the queen died) lies in the part it plays in the whole, what it causes (the king died).

Stories tell us what goes with what, what is important and what is unimportant, who to praise and who to blame.

But the chain of meaning also extends beyond the story. To follow it, we need to know what a king is, what marriage is, what love is. This knowledge pre-exists and lies outside the tale. Meanings are social—they depend on how a particular community understands the world. These shared references and a stock of agreed narratives allow an audience to decode the story and clad it in meaning.

So, it is possible to create a story in which the chain of linked events is clear, but the meaning is opaque because it depends on assumptions that subvert social understanding of how to code events.

An example

This is what happened with a story I wrote. It imagines a world being destroyed by a race of giants. The giants are the offspring of people and angels. A man and his grandson are chased by a giant. The grandson says the angels have warned him a great flood is coming and that he should build a boat. The old man argues the important thing is not to survive the flood but to stop it by preventing the destruction of the world.  He believes the angels’ mischief is the root cause of the problem and decides the solution lies in taming the giants and putting their great strength to work in repairing the world.

giant

Simple, right?

Yet many readers were perplexed. I wondered why. One told me he didn’t understand bad angels—angels, he felt, were good. The Noah figure, with his Old Testament resonances, who wants to build the boat is young and credulous rather than old, wise, and virtuous. This too creates what psychologists call cognitive dissonance—the discomfort caused by trying to hold two contradictory beliefs.

If we lack the key to decode the story’s meaning, the story doesn’t work for us, even if all the events and the connections between them are clear. This, I believe, is what happened with my tale.

Allegory, unreliable narrators, and allusion

The allegorical implications also perplexed readers. Did the giants represent machines, they wondered? Were the angels fallen angels? In allegory, the meanings necessarily exist outside the story itself since everything in the story is doubled by a set of mappings onto another space.

But there are other circumstances than allegory where a simple story may have an opaque meaning. An obvious example is the unreliable narrator, where not only the credibility of the narrator but also of the events is brought into question. Another is stories that make extensive reference to other stories, which may not be familiar to the audience. The use of classical allusion, once readily understandable among educated people, may be an example here.

Plot, Story, and Narrative

Here’s a simple way of thinking about this.

  • Plot is the causal sequence of a tale (the WHAT of a tale).
  • Story is the way this sequence is told (the HOW of a tale),
  • Narrative is what it means (the WHY of a tale), the interpretation of events and characters within the tale.

Note that narrative can only come into existence when a work is read or heard. The writer may have intended something, but the reader may pick up quite a different interpretation. Meaning comes in existence through an interaction between the writer and from the reader, not from the text. Both writer and reader participate in the creation of meaning.  In an important sense then, meaning must always lie outside the story itself.

Friday Fictioneers – Meal by Cloud

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PHOTO PROMPT © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

That’s what we’ve come to name it—meal by cloud. Quarantined in our own homes, we take to inviting virtual guests for dinner over Skype. We call from window to window across the city “stay strong”.

Only ambulance sirens and the rumble of military vehicles echo between buildings in the empty boulevards.

It must end soon. This cannot be forever.

 

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here