Part of the Amazon is not your friend series.
I have been speculating about Amazon’s business plan for a while. You may have read my thoughts over the other posts in this series, and there’s a lot more to come yet. The post series may be new, but this is an issue that has been percolating in my brain for many months now, rife with suspicions and hopes and cynical sighs.
Recently, I received an email that made it all click into place. Those suspicions that I had been harbouring and finally dared to write down, the thoughts that I was afraid to express in case I was being unfair or maybe just misinformed, all of it seems justified now.
Maybe I am still joining the dots the wrong way, but the patterns are so strong that I’m pretty sure I’m not. Amazon wants a monopoly. It wants to crush traditional publishing out of the picture. It wants full control of the book industry.
Why am I so sure now? Because Amazon has just announced its new publishing program: Kindle Scout / Kindle Press. Here we see it setting itself up as direct competition to publishers, the entities it is trying to strangle into a very Amazon-favourable contract.
In this new program, authors will be able to submit for the chance to win a traditional-style publishing contract with Amazon (Kindle Press). Their submissions will go up publicly, to be voted on by anyone who chooses to weigh in (Kindle Scout); the top-voted submissions get a contract.
On the surface, it sounds great. But with everything Amazon does, you have to ignore the surface and look further to see what it really means. They have a pretty skilled marketing department and they are ruthless: both of these things are cause for suspicion.
Spoiler: this is not a good deal for authors. Every time I look at it, there’s something new that gives me the urge to skitter far, far away. Read on for why…
Let’s start with the submission process. This sounds like a wonderful process. Readers get to vote on what books get published! And when something they voted on does get published, they get a copy for free. How awesome is that?
Well, let’s see.
Firstly, yes, it is nice to see a publishing contract not being controlled by gatekeepers. I like the model of people voting for stories they would like to read in full. However, it’s not quite that straightforward: Amazon are only committing to considering the highest-voted books, and there are gatekeepers between top votes and publication. So not quite a win there.
You’ll probably see people whining about how this will lead to less ‘quality’ books being published. Well, I say bollocks to them: traditional publishers have always been interested in what sells, not what’s quality (look at Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, and many other books with errors and fallacies and inconsistencies in them; quality is not a defining factor of gatekeepered (yes, that is a word – now) fiction).
However, from the few details that Amazon have released about this program already, I have reservations about how effective this will truly be. The key point for me is that voters get a free copy of books they vote for. What does this mean? It means that they are encouraged to vote for what they want to read, but not for something they would be willing to pay for.
For many, this might be the same thing. For others, they can go in, vote for loads of random stuff, and wait for the freebies to turn up on their Kindle. Do I care about people gaming the system? No.
Amazon is using Scout as a way to predict what books will sell. But it’s not asking voters to put their money where their mouth is. Also, it’s giving away books to people who might otherwise pay for them, robbing the author of that chunk of income.
Really, Amazon? I get that you need to entice reader into the system to vote for books, but couldn’t you have offered them half price copies? Compromised?
Once again, I see Amazon offering very delicious rewards to enter into a system they want to build up quickly. And once again, I am dubious of the outcome of it all.
Then let’s think about the type of books that are likely to get the popular vote. What about niche books? Genre? What are the chances of this giving us a slew of new Twilights?
Actually, I’m not sure I want to think about that at this point. Let’s move on.
All right, let’s say you want to give this thing a go. What do you need to do? You need to provide a book that is complete and ready for publishing. What does that mean? Here’s a list:
- Fully edited manuscript ready to be published
- Bio and photo of you
- One-liner for the book
- Blurb for the book
- Other related marketing materials
In short: you have to do everything a self-publishing author has to do. Put another way: Amazon are providing nothing as part of the publishing deal to prepare your book for publishing. The cost of all of this is yours, and the quality is all dependent on you.
(Note: consider the usual breakdown of who pays for what in a contract situation. This is flexible, depending on your contract, but be aware that these are all things that can be negotiated on and they all influence the money side of the deal. Or, they should!)
This is an important point. Why? Read on.
The Publishing Deal
Okay, so let’s say you’ve won the public over and got the contract in your hot little hands. Awesome! So, what do you get?
A $1,500-dollar advance. Sweet! According to Jim C Hines, this is on par with a very small publisher’s advance, not mainstream or traditional-level publishing. Hmm, it’s a little sweet.
50% royalty for ebook sales! That’s way better than a traditional deal! Right? Actually, it could be a lot worse. Reputable publishing contracts offer royalties on the sale price of the book (gross); this is the norm for traditional contracts. Amazon, however, is offering royalties on the profit from book sales (net). The distinction is crucial.
For me, this is the chief factor that means this is a bad contract for authors.
Writer Beware has a thorough write-up of why this kind of deal is not good for writers. Let’s hit the main points of contention:
- Royalties from gross mean publishers have to manage their own costs and sell the books at a sufficient price to pay the authors their fee and make a profit for themselves. Traditional publishing agreements are more like partnerships.
- Royalties from net mean that the publisher isn’t a partner; the author is their customer. The costs reduce what they have to pay the author, and they are making profit twofold: from the sale of the book and from the sale of their publishing services to the author. It is not in Amazon’s interests to keep the costs low, but rather to inflate them. The author has no visibility or control over this.
- The author has no control over the price of the book. (This is stated in the Kindle Press terms and conditions.) This means that Amazon can price the book any way they like, discount it, or just plain reduce it to cost if they like. It is very easy for them to squeeze an author’s royalties down to nothing.
Be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Authors can easily wind up with very little return for their work, while Amazon has the scope to make all kinds of profit from the sales.
(Side note: Random House tries this tactic in early 2013 when they brought out their Alibi and Hydra imprints. Respected sources like Writer Beware and John Scalzi advised writers to run away then. This is scarily familiar.)
(Other note: this isn’t the first time that Amazon have offered net royalties. They also did this on their Kindle Worlds scheme to publish authorised fanfic.)
Also, the offered royalty rate is lower than the KDP one. KDP Select and some KDP sales earn 70% on the list price. My first question is: why?
In traditional contracts, lower royalty rates are a trade-off in exchange for publishing services: editing, cover art, marketing expertise, etc. However, in this contract, Amazon is asking authors to do all of that themselves (see the Submission information above). They already have an engine to automatically convert files into ebooks for free. So what are they doing to earn their 50% of the profits?
Marketing? Advertising? Possibly. However, the contract is vague on this point and makes no firm commitment.
Basically, authors are expected to do everything a self-published author would do, but pay Amazon like it’s a traditional publisher. This is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if I’m missing something.
On top of that, the contract also offers 20/25% royalties on audio and translation sales. However, Amazon make no commitment to making those publications actually happen The contract is unclear just who would pay for the audio to be produced or the text to be translated. Given what they expect for the initial manuscript, why would we assume they’re willing to outlay any money at all? If so, how do they justify such low royalties? How is a book in French any different to a book in German, when it comes to digital files and royalties?
(Note: I don’t know the normal kinds of royalties for audio books. If anyone can give me some insight, please do!)
Compared to their own KDP Select program, I’m struggling to see what kind of advantage an author would have as part of the Kindle Scout program.
In a publishing deal, it is expected that both sides take a risk. The publisher invests capital to get the book published and out there, and the author trusts the publisher to help make their book a success, and not let it languish in licensing rights hell for years on end, never to see the light of day. Risk on both sides, resting on the faith that this book that both parties are investing in will sell well.
Apart from a measly initial outlay of $1,500, Amazon are taking no risk at all. And considering the millions they’re pumping into the KDP Select program right now, that hardly seems like a drop in the bucket. The risk is all on the author.
Those are the scariest parts of the contract. There are many more items in it than that, and I encourage you to take a look.
Preying on Inexperienced Authors
This is a big concern of mine. I consider myself fairly savvy, and even I’m surprised about just how brazenly unethical and disreputable Amazon’s terms are.
I worry that writers won’t question those terms enough. Amazon is doing a good job of spotlighting the parts they want people to see. It’s easy to be dazzled and tempted by everything that a publishing contract has to offer. It’s easy to assume that Amazon is good to authors (after all, look at the awesome success stories that have come out of KDP Select, and that was all Amazon, right?). It’s easy to assume that this contract must be a standard publishing one, because why would they offer anything else?
Publishers of all sizes and types offer dodgy contracts all the time. Amazon is not blazing new ground here; part of why I jumped on this so quick is that it is sadly familiar. Reputable sites will tell you that the kind of things I have pointed out are not good for you, your books, or your career.
It’s the inexperienced authors that are most at risk to tactics such as this. First-time authors with dreams in their eyes. I know, I get it; I’ve been there, and sometimes I still feel that way. But please, please, don’t let it blind you.
Beware, my friends. Always get a professional opinion on a deal like this – any deal, Amazon-born or otherwise. Publishing contracts are a minefield and while it’s tempting to skip on through it with delight, because hey, publishing contract, stop. Stop and check and demand a good deal, because you deserve it.
I don’t think any authors deserve what Amazon is offering them.
Part of the Amazon is not your friend series.
To start us off, I thought we’d delve a little into the history of publishing with Amazon. Namely: the KDP Select program and its impacts.
KDP Select is the main tool Amazon has been using against independent authors, and one of the key ways it is trying to build a monopoly in the ebook business.
What’s that? I’m crazy, do I hear you say? Independent authors who are part of the KDP Select program are making reams of money. It has helped some authors break into the mainstream; helped authors feed their families; built careers; opened doors.
That is true, for a small number of authors. Making money – never mind a living – from writing books is hard. And I’m pleased for them! I always love to hear a good success story. (For the purposes of this post series, I will refer to KDP Select program members as Amazon authors and non-KDP Select authors as indies, because the exclusivity means that Amazon authors are not truly independent.)
Don’t let yourself be distracted by the shiny promises, though: KDP Select is not the gift horse that many will claim it to be. I might even go as far as to say it’s dangerous. Why, you ask? Because in order to be a member, you have to give Amazon exclusive rights to your work (specifically, to every book you make a part of the program). You cannot put any books enrolled in the program out through any other store. Amazon wants them all to itself.
Let me pause here to make this point: this is not a publishing contract: it’s a distribution agreement. Distribution agreements for books are not exclusive with any other distributor or store (traditional publishing contracts are exclusive and that’s normal, but as I said, that’s not what this is). This, if nothing else, raises a red flag.
What does this mean for an independent author? One who wants to have their books available in every store on the planet, to reach every possible audience, on every device? One who doesn’t sign up to be exclusive? It means you are severely disadvantaged in the Amazon marketplace. Increasingly, independent authors are being excluded from the distribution that Amazon has to offer. It is a carrot-and-stick methodology.
When I first published my ebooks with Amazon, I saw no real reason to join the KDP Select program. Sure, I missed out on a few bumps in marketing and exposure, and wasn’t included in their lender’s library, but the trade-off with having access to more stores (and potential readers) was worth it (I publish through Smashwords to a whole heap of book sources, including the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, Sony, libraries, Oyster, etc, as well as through KDP). I had access to the same royalties as KDP Select authors, so it was all good in my book.
Oh, how things change. Since then (2010), Amazon has changed the rules of the game. Every time it opens a Kindle store in a new country, indie authors are no longer allowed the same royalties as Amazon authors. Instead of the competitive 70% royalty, we’re restricted to only the 35% royalty for sales through those stores. It hasn’t taken away the 70% royalty available in a handful of stores, but still, 35% and an invitation to KDP Select is what we get for almost half of the available Amazon Kindle stores now.
In addition to this, KDP gives all of its authors (Select and non-Select) only 35% royalty for any books under $2.99 and over $9.99. What does this mean? It means that the most lucrative price points (around $1.99 – $3.99, according to the latest Smashwords analysis), and the books with the biggest returns (because their prices are larger) pay authors the least money. I don’t know of any other store that does this. (Side note: it’s not unusual for non-fiction ebooks to be over $9.99, so it’s possible this hits non-fiction indies more than fiction.)
I know of no other store that puts such restrictions on its pricing, and I can see no good reason to do this. Delivering a $10 ebook costs no more than delivering a $5 ebook, so why does Amazon suddenly need more of the list price?
Let me be clear on this: Amazon’s 35% is the worst royalty offered to indie authors for ebook sales. The next lowest that I know of is 60%: almost double what Amazon is giving indies. (If anyone knows of a worse rate, please, I’d like to know!)
Allow me to add another bit of context: in recent communications (which another post will go into detail on), Amazon is claiming to want to give authors more ‘fair’ royalties for ebook sales. They’re not so willing to back up this claim by offering a royalty that is even remotely fair or competitive themselves, however.
There are other services that indie authors are excluded from. The Kindle library is one, and lately Amazon have added Kindle Unlimited, their new subscription service. Only KDP Select books will be available in this service, tying authors more and more tightly to the Amazon banner.
(It also doesn’t live up to its name. Unlimited? They’ve limited it to exclusive books. Fail, Amazon, fail.)
Do I believe that Amazon should allow everyone the same advantages? No, I don’t. This isn’t some whine about why Amazon authors have all the cool toys. What it does with its store is its choice, but let’s be clear on what this all means:
- Indie authors are disadvantaged in their store and services.
- Amazon claims to want to promote a good reader culture and have everything available at low prices, but actively excludes books from its services.
- Amazon claims to want authors to get a better slice of royalties, but refuses to give a rate even close to the standard to indie authors.
Amazon is shameless in demanding exclusivity in a way that no other store would dare. And let’s remember: Amazon is a store, not a publisher. It only supports one e-reading device, too, which has implications all on its own. It’s like a movie only being playable on a single brand of Bluray player, or an mp3 album that only plays on a single brand of smartphone.
It’s an outrageous demand. In single cases, this might happen, but the KDP Select program is much larger than this. It is becoming the rule, not the exception.
How is Amazon getting away with this? Because it’s big enough and aggressively muscling other stores aside. The more people who sign up with the KDP Select program, the more support and weight Amazon has. The reason that it has so much power is that we – indie authors – are giving it to them. This doesn’t look good for the long term.
Not convinced? Check out the Smashwords opinion of what exclusivity will do to the market and for indie authors. Mark Coker says it way better than I have!
So am I telling authors that they shouldn’t join the KDP Select program? I believe it is completely each author’s choice, and I believe in arming those authors with the most complete information I have available. The KDP Select program is a good source of income for many writers, and it’s an easy route to having some success with your book. All those enticements it offers are good for those who take part – for now. All I ask is that authors are aware of the cost. Be aware that exclusivity hurts other book stores and supports Amazon’s monopolistic strategy.
Be aware of what you’re signing up to, what you’re signing away, and what it all means in the long run, and then decide what is most important to you.
Personally, I can’t in all conscience sign up to the program. I have been tempted many times, but the more I see of Amazon and the big picture looming before us, the more I shy away.
More on all this soon!
There’s a lot going around about Amazon right now: in the press, on social media, blogs, forums, etc. Anyone who loves books would probably have to work hard not to hear about it. I’ve been meaning to react to it for a while but haven’t been able to get to it. I think it’s time I put my thoughts down here.
Let me start with a simple statement: Amazon is not your friend. I don’t care if you’re a reader, a writer, or a customer who buys gadgets from the megastore: Amazon is not your friend.
Amazon is a business. It cares about its bottom line (and it has historically struggled to turn a profit) and it cares about keeping its shareholders happy. That’s it. It does not care about books, the book industry, or those who create it. It doesn’t care about the ‘reader community’. It doesn’t even care about its own employees.
It is claiming the opposite. Don’t believe a word of it; this is an underhanded tactic to excuse its business practices and tactics. They’re trying to get you on their side so you don’t look too closely at what’s really going on.
From everything I’ve seen over the past year or two, Amazon is attempting to build itself a monopoly in the book industry. This is a bad thing for everyone involved in the industry, from creators to publishers to distributors to stores to consumers. There are reasons why there are laws against monopolies.
But the law would stop them if that was the case, right? Well, clearly it hasn’t yet. I’m putting together a lot of pieces and seeing a pattern, but it might not be formed enough for formal proceedings yet. I’m not sure. I’m most worried about where current actions are heading, and the damage that is being done in the meantime.
The more I think and write about this, the longer this post gets. To make it easier for everyone to digest, I’m going to break this down and post the chunks individually.
Here are the chunks I have so far:
- Amazon vs Independent Authors: KDP Select
- Amazon vs Independent Authors: KDP Select Fund
- Amazon vs Big Publishing: the Hachette Battle
- Amazon vs Authors: the Hachette Battle
- Amazon vs Big Publishing: direct competition
Watch this space (and the Amazon tag); I’ll try to keep these pieces going up regularly.
If you’re writing fantasy, whether it’s urban, epic, far-future, alternate dimension, there’s likely to be some magic in it. The thing with magic is that it can do anything, right? Well, yes, but a better answer is ‘no, it can’t do everything (and here’s why)’.
An undefined magic system that can do anything is the sign of lazy worldbuilding and is often used as a ‘get out of jail’ free card when the plot gets stuck. It’s a symptom of bad writing.
Let’s be better than that. To be a system, it has to be defined, have rules of some kind, and make internal sense. Yes, it might be magic, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make logical sense! It can be kick-ass and consistent.
But where to start? Let’s see if we can narrow down what we’re going for here.
What type of magic is it?
The term ‘magic’ covers a whole spectrum of fantastical possibilities. Here’s a list that is probably far from exhaustive:
- Elemental (fire, water, air, earth, metal, etc)
- Psionic (mind manipulation: illusions, control, communication)
- Telekinesis (manipulation of matter or energy by the brain: physical objects, fire, electricity, etc)
- Wards, enchantments, and curses (places or objects imbued with power, temporary or permanent)
- Alchemy (concoctions of awesome, transmutation)
- Shapeshifting (manipulating one’s own matter to take another shape, voluntarily or otherwise)
- Necromancy (raising the dead, spirit talking, spirit wielding)
- Clairvoyance (visions across time, divining)
- Science (if it’s fantastical enough, it’s just like magic!)
Okay, I’m not going to talk about the last one so much, but you get the idea.
You’re not restricted to any one of these types; mix and match at will. You might even want all of them, but be aware that everything you include needs to have the mechanics figured out, one way or another.
Where does the power come from?
Magical effects have to be driven by some kind of power. It’s worth thinking about what kind of power or energy this is, and where it might have come from. Some options are:
- Life (or death, or both)
- Deities (singular or plural)
- Mystical or magical energy (sometimes magic is a power in itself)
- The caster or user’s own self
Some of these can easily cross over with each other: a blood sacrifice; the magic user’s own life force; the use of a holy talisman that draws power from the deity that blessed it.
What is required to use this magic?
This can be closely linked to the previous question: what does someone have to do in order to cast a spell or activate a magical effect? Think about all the different ways that magic is cast. Here are a few ideas:
- Words (chanting, magical words, commands)
- Gestures (by hands, wands, or any body part; maybe even a dance)
- Physical ingredients or components
- Actions (more than just a gesture, like the spilling of blood, the taking of a life, breaking an object, etc)
- Patterns (alignment of stars, seasons, planets, the position of the moon, or something created manually, like the positioning of the four elements at the four compass points)
- Symbols or runes
- Talismen or objects imbued with power
These might be required to unlock the power already identified, or they might be used to shape that power into the desired effect, or both. Many magical systems combine several of these elements; for example, the style of magic in the Supernatural TV show can involve physical components, words, gestures, and runes drawn on the ground, all to perform a single spell.
Who can use magic?
Restricting the use of magic is not unusual, but there must be some rhyme and reason to it. This is where you’ll be able to spin out its effects on the people of the world most directly, as access to power tends to has a lot of impacts.
Those who use magic could be:
- Anyone. Maybe it’s common enough that everyone is able to do it. Can everyone use it to the same extent?
- Born with it (it’s probably not Mabeline). Is it genetic? Inherited in some way? Passed from one bearer to the next, or multiplied by having many children?
- Adults. A certain level of physical or emotional maturity is required to access it. Linking it to puberty and coming of age is not unusual and tends to work well.
- Children. It can be something lost at puberty, instead of gained. This is often linked to the loss of innocence (but doesn’t have to be).
- Ritually imbued. A person has to go through some kind of rite to gain access to the power, like a spirit quest, a ritual, or a challenge.
- Educated. It’s a learned skill that requires study, usually many years of intense activity and training.
- Pure. Spiritual, emotional, or physical purity could be linked to the ability to use magic. Sin or sex could cost someone their ability to wield true magic.
- Divine or pious. Magic might require devotion to a deity or religion.
- Mutilated or mutated. Having a certain physical attribute or physically changing the body might be the way to gain access to magic. It could be natural or fabrication, like losing a finger, castration, a third eye, or symbiosis with another entity.
- Bearer of a gift. Perhaps it’s an object or ability bestowed by a person or entity. It could be a physical object, a mark, or something less obvious.
The definition of the group who can use magic (and its related power) tends to be important to a world’s society and political setup. Think about all the ways that the restrictions around who can use magic might impact the power balance in a particular type of society. Think about their relationship with those who cannot use magic. Are they equal? Are they blessed or cursed?
Who controls magic and its use?
The answer to this may seem obvious, given the previous question, but it isn’t always straightforward. Do the magic users govern themselves, or is there an external party? A caste system? Rules and laws they must follow? Are the magic-users slaves to a group, god, or system (for example, in the Dragon Age games)? Do they serve the government? Do they sit outside of it? Do they run their own state or country, independent of the magicless ones entirely (like in the Harry Potter world)? Who pulls their strings, and how?
Think back over your answers to the above questions and consider how someone might have control over the magic-users. If certain substances are required to use magic, the source or trade of those substances becomes an essential link in the chain. Access to specific locations or objects could be controlled to leash users.
Consider also how magic users interact with other parts of society. Are they well-thought-of? Feared? Despised? Envied?
The answers to these questions will pick out how magic shapes this world you’re building, as well as how the world shapes the use of magic.
What are the limits of this magic?
Magic can, potentially, do anything. However, it really shouldn’t be able to do everything. To avoid it becoming over-powered and swamping your world and story with too many implausibilities, and to make it fundamentally more interesting, give it some limits. Having a character have to figure out how to best use a small amount of magic to solve a problem is far more interesting than a character who can fix any issue with the wave of the hand.
There are lots of ways to put limits on magic. Think about things like:
- What’s required to use it. Things like components, blood, and even life tend to be limited sources.
- The source of the energy. If drawing from something like nature or a mystical energy, local sources might need some time to recharge.
- Fatigue of the user. If the user is a conduit for the magic, mental or physical fatigue (or other cost) could be a natural limit.
- Natural laws. Magic’s limits could simply be defined by the physical laws of your world.
There are lots of other options. Be creative! And be clear.
What are its weaknesses?
Balance is important. If something is powerful, it should also have a weakness somewhere.
Is there a way to protect against magic? Tinfoil hats, cold iron, a pentagram drawn the right way up? Is there something a non-user can do or use against magic?
Protection against magic is only part of it; what advantages do non-magic users have against magic users? Do magic users have an Achilles heel? Think about ways to destabilise magic or its use, and things that magic users might be susceptible to. For example, cold iron often burns magical creatures in some mythologies (for example, some faerie magic systems) and they cannot defend against it at all.
Weaknesses add interesting and fun complications to a world, and your story. Embrace them, play with them, and they’ll do great things for you.
Got all that? Good. Now you should have a defined magic system and lots of elements to throw into your story.
Go crazy, do fantastical things, and most of all: have fun.
Lately, I’ve been doing a series of worldbuilding sessions with my writing group. Building a fictional world is a big job and huge amounts of fun. I thought I’d start sharing my notes and approach here, too.
Now, I’m not going to tell you what world you should build, or how your world should work. Your world is your own. What I’m going to do is present some questions, some common wisdoms, and some things for you to think about. What choices you make, how you choose to apply certain techniques or facets of worldbuilding, are completely up to you.
There are so many things to think about when building a world that it’s not possible to do it any kind of justice in a single blog post or writing group meeting. So I’m going to break it down into focussed areas, such as:
- Creating a magic system
- Building a space station
- Creating a colony
Many of these areas will bleed into each other; they can’t be considered in isolation. Influences will flow back and forth between them and that’s up to you to balance. These are starting points, thinking points, and hopefully something you can have a bit of fun with.
Before we get started, it’s probably a good idea to go over my high-level philosophy when it comes to world-building.
Your world needs to make sense.
It doesn’t matter what genre or type of world you’re building, whether it’s fantastical, far future, alien, historical, or an alternate dimension where gravity is a repelling force instead of an attracting one. Internal logic and consistency are key if readers are going to buy into it and travel through it with you.
It’s not just window dressing.
Worldbuilding is more than scenery or description. It’s a lot more than just a map; geography is part of it, but you have so many more tools to use than that. It’s all those things that make it different from the world we experience every day. It’s a place in history (even if that history is our future). It’s laws and rules, it’s society and people, it’s belief and purpose. Go nuts!
Elements in your world can conflict with each other, as long as the logic remains true.
You can mix magic and science, you can have the laws of physics and break them. In fact, you can get a lot of story elements out of these things! Harmony is nice but it’s not required (and sometimes it’s downright boring!). It’s okay if things clash or contradict, as long as it makes sense that they would exist in the same world. Just be aware that you might need to explain why the contradiction isn’t impossible.
Don’t get lost in your worldbuilding.
It’s so easy: worlds are fascinating places, and we pour so much creative energy into building them that it can suck up all of our time and inspiration before we realise what has happened. I know writers who spend so much time building their worlds that they never get to the actual story the world is for. If building the world is what you’re really interested in, that’s fine! But if you want to write a story, be careful of tumbling all the way down the rabbit-hole without your characters along for the ride.
You don’t have to build the whole world before you start your story.
Just like any kind of research, you don’t need to know everything before you start: you just need enough. How much is enough? That depends on a lot of things, such as how different your world is from our reality, and how crucial the elements are to how your story will go. You need to be confident that you know the world well enough to write in it without stumbling.
It’s also okay to pause in your writing to work out more things about the world. You’re going to end up in places in your story that you probably didn’t expect, and you’ll need to fill in gaps as you go. Keep your world consistent (build it out, rather than rebuilding it at will), and you’ll be fine. No-one will notice! If you’re not writing a live serial like I am, you have the freedom to go back and rework things if you do have to rebuild something. Make sure you keep your story straight!
Keep an eye out for story elements.
I can’t recommend this enough. Worldbuilding is such a great source of things a story can play with: character facets; plot elements; conflict; obstacles; motivation… the list is endless. If you’re feeling that a story idea is too thin, it’s worth having a go at some worldbuilding around it; you might be surprised by some of the things that rise up and deepen your idea into something fat and juicy.
Have fun with it!
If worldbuilding is a chore, you’re not doing it right. If you’re bored, then maybe your readers will be, too. Build a world that excites you, build a world you can’t wait to delve into. It might be a place you’d never want to walk yourself, but it can still be a great setting for a story.
Hopefully, that gives you an idea of what I go for with my worldbuilding (and worldbuilding advice). More posts on this coming up. Keep an eye on the worldbuilding tag!
Writing is a solitary activity. We build worlds in our heads, make up characters that make sense only to us, imagine stories, and then put fingers to the page, pushing it all out into a story or poem. We shut ourselves up in garrets, or sit alone in cafes, or close the door to our room or office. We put in our headphones and tune out the world.
We struggle, we strive, all in the privacy of the writer. We get used to not speaking to anyone about it. We get used to not trying to explain this strange, wondrous, draining, hard thing we do.
We’re also pretty damned stupid.
Writing does not have to be a solitary activity. There are people just like you, all around you. They might not be your family, your colleagues, or your friends – yet. If you look for them, you’ll find them everywhere.
So reach out. See if you can find some like-minded people in your area. Online works, too, but try closer to home, too. You’ll be surprised!
You can join writing groups, or if there aren’t any that suit what you’re looking for, start your own. You can join NaNoWriMo. You can hold your own write-ins. Join forums and boards and Twitter conversations.
You don’t have to get together for formal meetings. You don’t have to read each other’s work (or share your own). You could do all of that, or you just get together to sit in companionable silence in a cafe or someone’s lounge, typing and scribbling down words. What you do is completely up to you, but make sure you do.
Everyone needs a support network, and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of those who understand those voices in your head, the plot point you’re struggling with, or the word you just can’t think of. It’s startling how productive a session of writing with a bunch of people can be, when common sense says that you’d probably be too distracted.
It’s not about writing the same piece, or collaborating, or comparing notes, or who can write the most in ten minutes. Writers are the least competitive group I’ve ever come across (though word wars (writing sprints) do work!). It’s about people who get you. It’s about sharing something and feeling supported. It’s about knowing that you’re not really alone, even when you’re writing something deeply personal and private.
So reach out. Find those other writers who are just brimming to talk about that thing they’re working on, to someone who just gets it. Revel in the wondrous feeling of an awesome community. Call each other by internet handles, or pen-names, or random nicknames. Laugh about wayward characters who won’t behave. Bounce ideas off each other. Be lifted up by the enthusiasm of the group. Be inspired.
I did. I’ll never look back. Best decision for my life and my writing I’ve ever made.
I recently read an interesting article about how the shortening of our attention spans was causing the rise of short stories. The internet’s easily-consumable morsels mean that our attention spans are shortening, and therefore short stories are becoming a lot more popular.
It sounds so very logical, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple.
Now, I can completely believe that the internet and the vast array of content that is begging for digital consumption is changing the way we approach and digest information. Items online, whether text, image, or video, have a very short window with which to grab our attention, but I don’t think this is ADHD-related, and I don’t think that we get bored and wander off, unable to maintain focus for more than- SQUIRREL.
Online, people are becoming increasingly savvy in making quick judgements about whether or not a piece of content is worth their time. It’s not possible to absorb the whole internet and it’s actually pretty hard to find the good stuff. If you’re looking for something new, you have to dip your toe in and try the water, before you find what you want to dive into.
In that way, online content is its own advert, and the same kind of snap-judgement methodology applies: grab them quick or lose them forever.
So how does this all apply to fiction?
It means that the opening to your story is crucial. If you don’t have a kick-ass hook in the first paragraph – preferably the first sentence – then readers are less likely to read your story.
Is this new? No, this is advice that I have been hearing my whole life, and wasn’t new when it was first given to me (I am, sadly, old enough for this to have been before the internet became a Thing). It’s good advice whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, and whether you’re going to sell/distribute on paper or electronically. The old-fashioned version of clicking away is putting the book back on the shelf, or flipping the page to a different short story.
What about the rising popularity of short fiction online? Personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘people prefer bite-sized fiction’. That might be a factor, but the truth is, short fiction has always been popular. Anthologies have always existed, and magazines and newspapers have hosted short stories for centuries. They are a mainstay because people like and read them.
However, it has never been lucrative nor easy to publish short stories. An author couldn’t publish individual short stories, because they were too small to form a viable print run (usually due to cost but sometimes also on physical or practical level). They were forced to combine stories into anthologies to make it worth putting them through the printing press, or submitting to newspapers and magazines. (There’s nothing wrong with any of this!)
With the rise of the ebook, however, things changed. ‘Book’ length was no longer an issue, because ebooks don’t go through printing presses. The reliance on ‘preferred novel length’ for a published book fell away and authors can freely publish ebooks containing individual short stories. Add to that the ease of being able to post a short story on a website, and you have two very fundamental changes to the way that short stories have been made available to readers.
Similarly, novellas are now much easier to make available to readers, for the same reasons. Printing a novella was always tricky (unless you’re writing for Mills and Boon), but digital copies are much easier and less restricted.
Side note: let’s also not attribute any of this to Kindle Singles as the article linked above does; it may have helped, but it was only jumping on the bandwagon that was already in motion and picking up speed. Ebooks have been flexible in their length since their inception and Amazon haven’t pioneered any of this (my short prequel ebook, approximately 7,000 words, was out before Kindle Singles was announced).
Long story short (ha ha), it’s much easier for authors to provide and for readers to find short stories online than it was when they were on paper. Is it a surprise that readers are consuming more short fiction now than they were pre-internet? Not really.
What about a rising preference for short stories? I haven’t seen any evidence that this is happening. Yes, readers may be consuming more short stories than in the past, but not to the detriment of longer fiction. In fact, the sales statistics suggest the opposite is true: ebook consumers prefer longer books, according to the statistics that Smashwords analyses annually. This has been the case for the past few years.
So what does this all mean? TL;DR version:
- Fiction is now more accessible in all of its forms, including short(er than novels)*.
- Readers love bite-sized stuff
- Readers prefer long (100,000+ words) fiction overall
- There is a healthy, rich market for short stories and novellas, and authors should go out and make the most of it!
* And poetry, flash fiction, epics, serials, etc.
(Warning: inappropriate unicorns below)
Writers are always striving to write better. (Or at least, the good ones are, and that’s who I’m writing these tips for, so let’s stick with that assumption, okay?)
We take classes, read blog posts, buy numerous books on writing by writers, read at least some of those books, write stuff, cry over feedback, write more stuff, entrust our precious work to editors, write more stuff. We are always chasing that better phrasing, the more fitting word, the image crafted so finely that it shines. We try to pin down a character in ways that will really reach people. We search for ways to twist the knife that will make people ask for more.
In short, we are always, always trying to perfect what it is that we do.
This is absolutely the right thing to do. We will never learn or grow if we aren’t constantly reaching for something better.
But there is no such thing as perfect writing. It is a myth, the unicorn at the end of a rainbow we can’t even see. That unicorn is laughing at us.
Why is it laughing? Because we know our work isn’t perfect. We sit and squint at it, and poke, and prod, change a word here, a phrase there, throw our hands up and switch tense in the whole piece, cut a paragraph out there, add another page in here. We primp and stroke and preen. We tear it up because it’ll never be any good. Our hands hover over the Delete key. We tuck it in a drawer because the next one, that’ll be the one that works. It’ll be right. But this one, this piece right here, it’s not good enough, and it’ll never be good enough. We just need to keep working at it, at our craft, at the next four pieces, until we’re good enough.
The thing is, we’re our own worst critics and the whole notion of ‘good enough’ means, for most of us, ‘perfection’. And like I said, there is no such thing as perfect writing. We’re sitting there, brushing and brushing a Shetland pony in the hopes that it’ll magically turn into a unicorn. In the meantime, the poor pony’s going bald and has probably started to eat our shoes.
Magic. Unicorn. You see where I’m going here.
So should we stop trying? No, we should not. Self-improvement is the lifeblood of good writing. But there’s trying to improve something and there’s going beyond all need and reason.
Because too much editing and rewriting can suck the life out of a piece. In chasing perfection, you can write away all the spark and passion it had when it was fresh and raw. Just like with cooking, at some point you need to stop stirring and poking and adjusting, or you’ll overcook it and then no-one will enjoy it. Or like whittling, paring and paring away at a carving until there’s only a nub of wood left.
More than that, it can stop you ever feeling like you’ve finished something. You miss that feeling of achievement.
This is where it becomes counter-productive. This is where it damages more than helps.
If you’re never submitting because that piece ‘isn’t quite right’? If you never show anyone your work because you’ve just re-written the first paragraph for the fifth time? If you never get to the end because you’ve been working on the first chapter for three months? If you tinker until you hate the sight of a piece? You’re chasing unicorns and you need to stop. Right now. Put that pen down; step away from the keyboard.
Because perfection is the enemy of done. Perfection is the enemy of looking at a piece and thinking ‘I’ve done something great here’ or ‘this is ready to go’. Perfection is the enemy of pressing ‘send’. Perfection is the enemy of saying ‘look at what I did’ and being proud of it.
That unicorn is not your friend. I’m telling you, it’s laughing at you.
Do you want to know a secret? The definition of what’s ‘good enough’ is mutable. It’s a line you can move, completely at your own choice. And if your line is pushed right up against your desirable perfection, then you need to move it.
It’s a learning process. Don’t expect to get it right every time. But learn to recognise when you’re starting to beat the horse because it’s not a unicorn and you’re about to end up with a dead horse no-one wants to play with any more. Learn when it’s time to put the tools down.
Take a deep breath. Accept that there is no such thing as perfection. Be brave. Let your writing grow wings and fly to wherever you aim it to go. Let it go.
Treat every submission or publication as a learning experience. Know that you’ll take what you learn from one into the writing of the next, and that each piece brings you closer to really good writing. Share your journey and your stories, because it’s good to be human and imperfect.
Know that, in that one way at least, you’re like every other writer on the planet, and that’s okay.
Aim high, my friends. Aim higher. But don’t be afraid to pull the trigger.
Often when we write, we see the story like a movie in our heads. Sometimes the picture is complete; sometimes it’s not. Sometimes only certain elements are in focus. Sometimes it all rolls by in a technicolor wave we can’t hope to do justice to with our meagre writer’s hands.
Whatever that picture is, it’s one of our challenges as writers to transplant it into the mind of our readers. We have to write in such a way that they see what we do. Words are the film and the book is the projector, whether it be electronic or paper.
Actually building an image in someone else’s mind is impossible (at least it is with current, non-invasive technology, so let’s go with it as fact for now). So how do we do it?
Easy: we cheat. We make the reader build the image themselves.
One writer described it as ‘renting space in your reader’s imagination’. It’s your reader’s imagination that you need to speak to, because this is what will do all the heavy lifting for you. All you need to do is give it the right prompts.
When you’re describing something, less is more.
Building an image in a reader’s mind isn’t about describing every single little detail, every tiny shift, and all the spaces in between. The brain is an amazing machine and can operate well on shockingly little information. It’s about giving the reader the right details so that they’ll fill in the rest for you. It’s about giving them enough to understand the scene. It’s about clues and nudges and those key things that you need to bring into focus.
Your reader has a hungry brain, ripe and empty, and it’ll slather all over itself to work for you, so use it shamelessly. Don’t waste a single word.
But where do flowery language and florid descriptions fit in? Readers enjoy those too (or some do!). They have their place and the same rule applies: you don’t need to describe absolutely everything. Describing one perfect plant in a garden might take half a page (or four pages), and that might be all you need for the entire garden; you don’t have to describe each and every plant the same way. Again, with the right cues, the reader will do it without thinking.
This rule of thumb doesn’t just apply to descriptions, either. Action can be picked out in its key moments (do we need to hear about every jarring step, or the angle at which the protagonist slid around three different corners, or just that last slither to a stop when the quarry is within reach?) and the reader will assume the whole journey; reactions can be hinted at (especially when the reader knows the characters well); and background information can be inferred from many sources (avoiding the infodump).
Focus on what’s truly important to your story: that’s what should appear in your words. You are renting space in someone else’s head and setting up spotlights. Your reader will come in and turn all the other lights on. They’ll join all of those dots while you’re busy doing something bigger, and they won’t even realise they’re doing it. They’ll paint the walls and tile the floor. They’ll figure out how to get from one spotlight to the other and sort out the plumbing. They’ll draw patterns and pitch the lighting at just the right level. They’ll know how long the character’s hair is without being told, and know what that curl of the lips means. They’ll hear voices in their head without any aural input. They’ll be dazzled by your stars and colour the sky in between them at the same time.
So don’t worry about putting every detail into your piece: worry about putting in the right details. And trust your readers to do the rest.
After reading a list by Chuck Wendig of 25 gifts for writer, (and his additional 10 ideas, omg!) and seeing as it’s my birthday soon, I thought I’d put together my own list of irresistible shinies for those who like to spin stories in their brains.
#1: Things that mark words on other things
You can’t go wrong with a simple, beautiful implement filled with inky possibilities. The options are endless: ballpoints, fineliners, mechanical pencils, wooden pencils, fountain pens, clicky pens, twisty pens, novelty pens, felt-tip pens, pens with fancy barrels engraved with our (pen)name. Us writer-types will grip it and use it and doodle with it. We’ll chew on it and noodle out nuances on napkins. We might even write words down in a story-like format.
A writer can never have too many pens or pencils. Okay, I might have a pencil case or two brimming full enough to prove otherwise, but the sight of a new pen always makes me happy. It makes me want to create an excuse to use it. I might do all of my actual fiction-writing on a keyboard, but I take notes the old-fashioned way; all of my planning is done on paper or notecard. So pens are always welcome.
#2: Things that make coloured marks on other things
Coloured ink. Coloured pencils. Glitter ink. Paint – okay, paint might be going a bit far, but you never know with some writers (they are creative types, after all). Colour is fun! Help your writer-friend make their words sparkle in a non-sucky way* by giving them a something a little different.
Why is this a different suggestion than the one above? Because it’s optional. But changing up the colour you use to write can be good for shaking loose a fresh perspective. I like to colour-code what I write on my notecards when I’m planning a project. I like glittery ink, because it makes the whole process more fun. And it helps me to pretend my writing is nicer than it is because hey, pretty!
It’s also a fun thing to use to write in other people’s birthday cards, too. Why stick to boring blue or black? Fuck no, I’m an artist. Watch me shine. And sparkle. And glitter.
#3: Things to write words down in
I think I have successfully conveyed the important of pens. It’s also helpful to have something to use them on other than a napkin or a receipt from the bottom of our wallet. Notebooks are always good!
Now, some writers will tell you that they have too many unused notebooks already. This is because it is very hard to walk past a nice one, especially if it’s on sale and calling to us. But I’ve yet to meet a writer who isn’t delighted by getting one as a gift. (All of this paragraph applies to me, by the way.)
I suggest making subtle enquiries of the writer to see what their notebooking preferences are. Do they prefer lined or blank pages? Moleskin covers? Ring-bound ones? Something small enough to tuck into a handbag or is big enough for a backpack okay? Must it be recycled or made from panda poop?**
#4: Sticky notes
Continuing with the stationery theme, sticky notes are wonderful! They capture our thoughts so they don’t escape on us, and we can stick them to any surface for later reference (sometimes, I want to use my forehead, but its adhesive qualities are sub-optimal for retaining reminders).
Be creative. You can go with the standard yellow squares of the stereotypical Post-it Notes, or you can look for different shapes and colours. They exist! They’re fun! Writers like fun. (I know, I know: shocking!)
#5: Caffeinated goodness
I have yet to meet a writer who didn’t appreciate liquid stimulation of some description. Okay, it’s not always caffeine: it might be tea, or hot chocolate, or smoothies, or alcohol-based internal fire.
For the most part, though, it’s coffee. If you cut us, we only bleed red because we haven’t had enough coffee today. Yet.
So think about how you can best support your writer friend’s essential habit. Coffee beans crapped out by a monkey?** A Starbucks card loaded up with enough credit to caffeinate an elephant? (You may wish to check how discerning your writer friend is before trying this one; some prefer to give the lowly stuff to the elephant.) Funky-flavoured grounds?
So many options, so much caffeine to consume.
#6: A receptacle for caffeinated goodness
Maybe you’re not sure what kind of coffee your friend enjoys, or if they can do anything with beans but wish really hard, because there’s no grinder at home. Never fear! Coffee-drinking has accessories (and essential ones at that), and they all make good gifts. Some of them come in funky colours and patterns, so you might even find something in their chosen geeky area (we all have them, let’s be honest here).
So what might it be? A nice set of matching cups and saucers might be nice, but what about a new coffee press? A mug the size of their head? A travel mug so they can never be parted from their one true love? A coffee press in a travel mug the size of their head?
#7: Writing rewards
Some writers need rewards for reaching milestones. It’s both stick and carrot! Sometimes it’ll be that snack they’ve been wanting but are putting off until they’ve finished a full 1,000 words, usually chocolate or cake. Sometimes it’ll be a trip to the bathroom (not something I do or recommend – that can only get messy, but apparently an overfull bladder can be a wicked encouragement).
What about something that they wouldn’t normally treat themselves with? Like a massage, or a facial. A ticket to that musical they’ve been talking about. A trip to see a movie (or even just the popcorn).
Feel free to wrap it in something that says ‘to be opened when you’ve finished x story’. They’ll love it! And possibly hate you a little bit. Sometimes external encouragement and reward is exactly what we need. Be careful, however, of making them time-dependent (like a ticket), just in case they’re a lazy slacker who never finishes a damned thing. No point wasting a perfectly good ticket.
#8 BOOKS (fiction)
I know, I know: how come books aren’t number 1? Suspense is what keeps people reading, you know.*
Writers love books. They love stories. A gift of a book is always, always a wonderful thing.
But how do you know what they’ve got? What they like? What if you choose something offensive to them? Well, you could always ask. Or just guess; that often works, too.
I saw something recently that I think is an awesome idea: give a writer your favourite book. There are so many reasons why that’s a great thing: it means more to the recipient to know that you’re giving something you love, not just something random you picked up. A joy shared is a joy more than doubled.
#9 BOOKS (non-fiction)
Writers must research things. They can be very random things, or scary things, or downright disturbing things. We are magpies, collecting shiny bits of information that might be useless to most, but are golden nuggets for us.
So when thinking about gifts, maybe think about that project that your writer-friend is researching. Have a look around for potential research material that might be related. Even if it’s tangentially related, it might be useful! If it looks interesting, offers handy morsels of information, and is in book form, chances are, your writer will love it.
#10 BOOKS (other)
Nope, not quite done with the books section of our writery gift-o-rama. But if you’ve done fiction and non-fiction, what else is there, I hear you ask? There’s inspiration: that’s what.
I’m thinking of coffee table books full of gorgeous pictures. I’m thinking of guides to steampunk fashion, fantastical landscapes, strange portraits, or aliens scraped from the inside of an artist’s brain. Inspiration brimming at every turn of the page.
You can match them to your writer’s favourite genre, but entirely random stuff works, too. Don’t underestimate the value of something thought-provoking; it might spark an unexpected idea or even story.
#11 Research activities
Like I mentioned earlier, writers love to do research (and worldbuilding), sometimes to the detriment of ever starting their story. But let’s pretend it’s not getting in the way, for the purposes of this list. Or let’s say that you can help give your writer-friend a kick-start he or she might not be expecting.
So what is the idea here? The idea is to take your writer out to do something they’ve never done before. The more real an experience is, the more research material you’re giving them!
Now, I’m not talking about taking them out to the wilderness and leaving them there for a ‘survival experience’. I’m not talking about hooking them up with drugs or surprising them with a brothel visit (surprise whore! Happy birthday!). Those might be hilarious to contemplate but let’s steer shy of getting ourselves into trouble (or jail).
I’m talking about things like a day at a shooting range, or a stunt-driving course, or flying lessons, or a seminar in medieval blacksmithing, or a lecture on the search for exo-planets. (Incidentally, I would love all of those, and have actually done the last one.)
Some of these will cost a bit; some might cost nothing but time. It’s a good idea to look around to see what’s in your area: for example, universities often offer free lectures for the public. The sky’s the limit! (Though, just so you know, you can buy trips into outer space now. Just saying: the sky’s not actually the limit. But you can go there. Or further. Go further (with me).*)
#12 Inspiration cards
Most of these suggestions have involved some monetary outlay, some more than others. But there are other things that you can do that won’t cost you money. One is inspiration cards: something for your writer friend to pin to the wall above their working area, or carry with them when they’re out and about. Something to look at when they’re searching for words to put down or starting to doubt their abilities. Because as writers, we doubt ourselves a lot. We have crises of faith and convince ourselves that everything we do is shit. Never doubt the value of a reminder that we’re actually pretty crazy (or crazy-good; that would be a nice thing to believe!).
You can probably buy some fun and well-worded cards. I’m sure they exist. They might have pretty pictures on! Or you could print out fun memes from the internet (like the picture of the Avengers with the ‘You should be writing’ caption; that one always works).
But you know what would be even more awesome? If you made the cards out of comments on the writer’s own work. Have a look through places where they might have been reviewed or had comments posted, and note down the ones that are worth waving around like flags. Then make these quotes into the cards, however your skills are best suited.
If their work is not online so much, maybe ask friends who have read their work for quotes. Make some up yourself. Feel free to decorate them. Most of all: make it personal. The more you put in, the more they’ll get out of them.
Writers love stickers. Not just Post-it-style notes: actual stickers with pictures on. Or stars, or letters, or parts of an image. NaNoWriMo has taught me that: above all else, we get great responses for giving out stickers. Not even NaNo-specific ones; any stickers will do. Especially if the writer has to earn them.
Any shape. Any picture. Preferably something fun, but plain is good, too. So go nuts. Get that fun, random set of stickers for your writer friend. Even better: give them a progress chart to stick ‘em to.
Because all writers are secretly big kids who like stickering all over the place.
Phew. Is that enough? I think I’ve covered all the writer-specific stuff.
What about you? What do you like to receive as a gift? Tell us! Because if you don’t ask, you won’t get.
Now to wait and see what turns up for my birthday. A geeky writer-girl can hope, right?
* You see what I did there?
** Yes, this exists. Who thinks ‘hey, this’ll be an awesome idea!’?