The writing process: attack from all sides!

I’ve been helping a friend with his writing process.

And though I’ve only published one book, that’s still enough to take it from “the blind leading the blind” to “in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.  My advice has some merit.

By coincidence, today we were both stuck at different stages of our drafts. So I gave him the advice that was as much for me as it was for him:

Getting stuck, losing motivation – these difficulties aren’t obstacles to the writing process, they are the writing process. And there’s no single secret or technique to getting past these obstacles, other than to keep attacking them from every possible angle, to keep pushing towards your goal.

The beauty of writing fantasy is that your own goal of publishing one, two or ten books can be viewed as a “hero’s journey” in its own right, parallel to whatever journey you’re exploring within the story. The challenges you face are largely emotional, motivational, and sometimes intellectual. You can’t see the way forward, you don’t know what should happen next, the story suddenly feels very dull, you realise you have to go back and rewrite major scenes, or even cut out scenes or sub-plots that you really enjoyed.

(Looking at it this way, I sometimes wonder if fantasy stories are a kind of code created by storytellers to describe their own frustrations and victories in creating stories, but that’s a little too meta.)

But like any hero’s journey, you have to take stock of where you’re really at. Maybe you’ve finished your first book and it feels like a triumph, or maybe you’re struggling to decide your setting and it feels like a major battle.

At times like these it’s good to stand back and consider the big picture: you might feel like Sam and Frodo on the verge of their ascent to Mount Doom, but maybe you’re actually Sam and Frodo wringing their hands over how soon they should leave for Crickhollow?

I’m using a similar thought to help keep me on track as I write the sequel to my first novel To Create a World. I figure that in order to make any kind of reasonable living from self/indie published ebooks I need between five and ten of them up for sale, preferably by yesterday. So in my mind, I’m not hesitantly agonising over the plot of my second novel, I’m desperately playing catch-up to my fourth or fifth book in the series.

I’m not the hero defeating his first big baddie, I’m the hero stalking his second, thinking about how far I have to go before i can face the final enemy.

At the same time, I have to admit that even this mindset is a little contrived or naive. Real veterans might scoff, or just shrug their shoulders and continue with the work. But that’s just the way the journey unfolds.

My aforementioned first novel is selling slowly. I’m not too worried, since I’m not investing in marketing at this stage. It’s more about doing what I can to have it available, and keep myself on track to finish the sequel(s).

One thing I’ve noticed so far is that the sequel feels much more consistent with the genre. To Create a World draws on some very big ideas that (as far as I can tell) don’t usually show up in fantasy quite so explicitly. I’m excited to see how the sequel turns out, but so far I’d have to say there’s a much higher ratio of fantasy content to mind-blowing philosophy than in the first book. Check it out on Amazon, or click on the pic for all other online stores.

Writing with the power of panic

I think I’ll need somewhere between five and ten good quality ebooks for sale before I stand a chance of really making a living from it.

Bearing in mind that my idea of “making a living” is pretty frugal. Last time I checked, my family of three was living quite comfortably on what the OECD considers the poverty-line for a single adult in Australia.

But as my son gets bigger I’m starting to feel the need for a bigger place to live. He won’t fit in that cardboard box forever.

So while it was exciting to publish my first ebook recently, it’s really only the start. I’ve arbitrarily set myself a June deadline for the first draft of the sequel to To Create a World. If I write 1,000 words a day that will give me about 75,000 words, but I’m expecting the sequel to be bigger than the original, so I’m counting on passing my word-count more days than not.

That’s a lot to write. I won’t get there without making a major effort, and this realisation has done something to my mind.

With my first book, I took my time. I wanted it to be right at each stage. The first draft felt right, right up until the moment my wife finished reading it and paused a long, long time before giving her opinion.  In the end To Create a World took seven drafts to complete. Some were minor fixes, others were major additions or rewrites.

So this time I’m not waiting to see if it feels right when I write. Instead, I’m using my panic over the looming deadline to keep me focused, and my knowledge that rewrites are inevitable to keep me relaxed.

It’s finally making sense why people say not to edit until you’ve finished. If I stop now, I’ll never get it done.

The literal deadline doesn’t matter too much. It’s just there to give me something to strive towards. If the story stretches the draft out to 100,000 or more I’ll keep going until it’s done. But I can’t afford to slow down or dawdle. Even when the sequel is finished, I won’t be.

While you’re waiting for me to finish, read my debut novel To Create a World. I’ve pitched it at middle-grade readers, but so far the majority of people who’ve read it (and enjoyed it) have been adults. I’m sure that’s something I’ll have to rethink in future.

To Create a World: another great review!

High praise from Daan in the Netherlands:

Zac Alstin has managed to take one of the greatest themes in humanity’s history, that of wrongful usurpation of power, and turned it into a highly readable and entertaining fantasy novel. It evokes a strong reminiscence of Narnia at first, but the depth of the main characters and the reflections the story arouses raise the book to a higher level, in my perception. If you like fantasy, and are not averse to big questions in life, read this novel.

A higher level than Narnia? Thanks Daan!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, click on the link below for details:

To Create a World – and an ebook!

So I’ve finally published my first ebook!

It’s been, in all honesty, one of the most exciting and enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

final4thumb

To Create a World is a middle-grade fantasy novel about a boy named Tom who enters a hidden magical world in search of a magician who can heal his sick sister. When he arrives, he finds that the hidden world is all but empty and the magician is long gone. It’s up to Tom to rebuild the world, and fill it with all the magic and adventure a hidden world ought to have.

…and it turns out that writing fiction is awesome. Or, to be precise, finishing writing fiction is awesome. It’s so incredibly satisfying to have reached this point after about fifteen months of working on the manuscript, on top of two or so years of trying to figure out how to write fiction in the first place.

Along the way I’ve been astounded and full of barely-contained glee at all the things that have come together in my life, in my mind, and in my writing as this book took shape.

It’s as though everything has become a metaphor for everything else. Even my experiments with making things like cheese and bacon and beer have flowed back into this creative process, until writing and publishing an ebook became a natural extension of the DIY ethos.

In other words, I’m stoked.

But as with all my other creations, the keyword is experimental. There’s still so much to learn about writing, publishing, and marketing. Expectations are realistic. I have another four books to write in the medium-term along with blog posts and articles to support and publicise this one.

I’m really looking forward to sharing some of my insights and observations along the way!

A big thank you to everyone who reads this blog, and especially to the people who supported me directly and indirectly in writing To Create a World.

The links will take you to my ebook page which lists all the available digital stores. You can purchase it from Amazon if you use a kindle, or the kindle-for-pc app, and it’s available on the iTunes iBook store if you have an iPad or iPhone. Other digital stores can be found on this page.

Ebooks aren’t books, don’t have covers

I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to design an ebook cover for my new novel.

Who would have thought that over ten years of writing have done nothing – nothing – to improve my graphic design and drawing skills?

But I really want to get this book out there. So while I submit my manuscript to the few traditional publishers in Australia who actually welcome submissions, I’ve continued to research and experiment with cover designs that might not destroy all hope and curiosity in the would-be reader.

After investigating a number of options from crowdsourcing to having no cover at all, I finally succumbed to despair.

Fortunately, despair is where I do my best work.

I concluded it was hard to decide on a cover because I actually don’t care much about it, despite everyone saying a good cover is one of the key determinants of success.

But what does a book cover mean to me? I admit that a good cover is a wonderful thing…but I never before considered how these covers were made or where they came from. Now I know that publishers employ artists and graphic designers to create covers, but that’s part of the publisher’s trade along with printing and book binding.

Despite the prospect of “self-publishing” on Amazon, uploading an ebook doesn’t really make me a publisher anymore than playing a guitar on youtube would make me a recording company.

What I’ve actually done – and all I really wanted to do – is to write a story. It’s the publisher’s job to print books, and despite the neologism, an ebook is not a book.

To be precise, what I’ll finally be distributing on Amazon is a .mobi file containing my story. There is no cover, because there is no book. What we anachronistically refer to as ebook covers are simply advertisements.

Looking at it this way helps demystify the ebook cover a little. Plenty of people have already explained that an ebook cover is different from a physical book cover, and how the latter often fails to transfer successfully into a digital form. But it’s so different, perhaps it’s better not to think of it as a cover at all.

If nothing else, this helps me lower my expectations. At this stage, I don’t want to hire an artist to create something for my book.  Nor do I want to leave it blank or text-only. That leaves plenty of room for compromise.

At the very least, it only needs to not scare people away. If it draws some people in, better still. But we’re a long way from the ideal of having an amazing artist read your book and create something that captures the very essence of your story.

Maybe one day.