Writing Inspirations, 2 – Podcasts


Right, so here’s the second installment of my “writing inspirations” series. This time it’s the podcasts I listen to on my headphones. Continuing last week’s theme, these concern artists and artistry – in particular, once again, comedy and comedians.

The one I’ve discovered first, and probably because of that my favourite, is RHLSTP (RHLSTP!) – catchily-named Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theater Podcast, which originated out of Herring’s Edinburgh Fringe interview podcasts.

People of my generation, of course, remember Richard Herring from his 90’s double-act with Stewart Lee; his further career – and he’ll be the first to admit – had its ups and downs, but at some point he moved on to internet-kickstart-podcast presence, which was a great decision for everyone involved, as it gave us, by now, well over a hundred interviews, plus additional podcasts, sketch shows like AIOTM (*aiotm!*) and more.

If you know Herring, you’ll know the kind of humour to expect at first – but among the questions about a 6-foot dick and hands made of ham, it moves subtly towards discussions about creativity and comedians’ life in general.

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The other podcast, despite having “comedy” twice in its title, is much more serious. Stuart Goldsmith’s Comedian’s Comedian tends to be much further on the “sad clown” spectrum. Stuart doesn’t shirk from controversial subjects and guests; the interviews are more serious and heavy. My definite favourite is his conversation with Shappi Khorsandi (who’s one of my favourite people anyway) – touching deeply on such subjects as depression, self-harm, bullying and racism, all painted with a contagious optimism.

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The last podcast I have to mention is Sitcom Geeks: a long, ongoing conversation between  James Cary and Dave Cohen about the art of writing and editing – sitcoms, in their case, but most of it is applicable to any sort of writing.

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Writing Inspirations: Netflix


As you might otherwise know, I have recently went through an episode of typing faster than any I’ve ever experienced: 100,000 words in less than two months, to finish the first draft of THE LAST DRAGON KING – the final volume of the Year of the Dragon saga.

I don’t like silence when writing, odd as it may seem, even more so when I have to write plenty and fast. A typing marathon like that requires more than just a random radio station (always BBC R4 or R4 extra 🙂 or TV switched on in the background – it requires something that stirs the muse – something that reminds me of what it’s like to do art. I already wrote about the kind of mangas I like to read – this time it’s about shows I watched and listened to.

Comedians and musicians are, to me, the ultimate artists: the contact with the audience, the instant feedback, the improvisation talent. This is as far from writing as it gets, and perhaps this is why I’m so drawn to stories about them lately.

Netflix’s HIBANA is another one of those quirky Japanese stories about the travails of being an artist – not unlike Bakuman, except about comedians rather than mangakas. It tells the story of a manzai duo – the kind of centuries-old Laurel&Hardy double-act that might seem a bit old-fashioned in the West, having died out with the likes of Morecambe & Wise. But the (semi-autobiographical) story of the main hero’s struggle is as contemporary as it gets – and one that I’ve heard told many times by artists of all walks of life. To go the commercial route, or the esoteric? To aim high or low? How long to wait for the break through – and how not to give up when it doesn’t come? All this told in the cool, brilliantly cinematic manner, with the back streets of Tokyo playing a role equal to the three main characters.

Note of caution: as Japanese stories tend to, it gets really weird at the very end. If you skip the final episode, you will still have a decent, contained story of the SPARKS duo. If you continue, you’ll be taken for the kind of ride that only Kamiya-sensei can take you.

The other Netflix series, the GET DOWN, is very much on the opposite side of the spectrum from Hibana: it’s loud, it’s brash, it’s a made-up, hyperbolic fantasy of a story with at least as many downs as it has ups. It wasn’t well received by the critics and the audience – but I enjoyed it for what it was, a musical fairy-tale about finding your inner artist and sticking to it no matter what. I’m not normally a fan of having to turn off your brain while watching something, but the Get Down had enough going for it otherwise for me to watch it all the way to the end, where all the disparate plot threads meet for an uplifting finale.

And of course, I binged Stranger Things, but then you’ve all seen it by now.

Next week in writing inspirations: Podcasts.

2014 – The Year of the Quitter


A great summary of the 2014 in indie writing, by the ever-honest K.K.Rush.

It was a tough year for all of us in the business. I struggled through, but I have seen many fall around me. Kristine, quoting profusely from 2014 year summaries by other blogging writers (which all tell the same story), provides the most complete explanation for what has happened since last New Year’s I have yet read.

Bullet-points:

Writing is hard – Solitude and making things up is not for everyone.

Self-publishing is hard – If you don’t learn to love business, self-publishing can be a soul-sucking experience. 

Success is hard – Even major success—paid sales in the tens or hundreds of thousands—requires undreamed-of work. 

The gold rush has ended – You are not entitled to fame and riches just because you published a book. 

Read the rest at: Business Musings: Things Indie Writers Learned in 2014.

Writer’s anime – unblocking the block


The Withering FlameDraft Two of “The Withering Flame” is now happily done, and I finally have a little time to rest and write the blog.

There was a point earlier this year where things didn’t seem going in that direction at all. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I had a hard time starting with this book, struggling through a long and arduous writer’s block all through the summer and autumn.

Out of several things I tried to break through it, there was one that helped the most, and it’s something I hadn’t tried in years – watching some anime. I used to be a serious anime and manga fan a long time ago – not quite otaku level, but I did watch a lot. It’s been quite a while since I watched a full new series; I lost track of what was going on; after a few years of binge watching, like any pop-culture genre, it all got a bit samey.

But then, while mindlessly browsing YouTube for “inspiration”, I stumbled upon two new series that got me hooked – and, eventually, helped me break out of the stupor. Their subjects were similar: slice of life shows about struggling artists. Even the titles sound almost the same – Barakamon and Bakuman.

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Barakamon is a fantastic series; a true gem of an anime, calm, with all the whimsical, summery lightness of Yotsuba&! It’s a tale of a calligrapher overcoming an artist’s block – so obviously, a story close to my heart. Barakamon is, quite rightly, widely praised for its characters, art and smooth pacing. It’s a short series – only twelve episodes; as such, it doesn’t suffer from the common anime problems, like fillers and over-the-top plot complications. It’s a simple, straightforward story: the main character moves to a remote southern island, to find inspiration far away from the big city crowds – but the true inspiration comes to him not from self-imposed solitude, but from interactions with the local villagers.

The series relies on child characters, so it was easy to make it either too sweet, or too annoying, but the writers manage to steer clear of either of the obstacles. The script is an exercise in life-like moderation. There are teenagers here, but no angst. There are good friendships, but they are not overbearing. Even the ending nears perfection, breaking through the common cliches and expectations.

Twelve episodes is a quick watch, and it’s all on YouTube, so do yourselves a favour and try it out.

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I actually ended up reading the manga, rather than watching the anime of Bakuman. It seemed fitting: after all, this is a manga about writing a manga.

If this sounds a bit meta, that’s not even the start of it. Bakuman is a shonen battle manga about writing shonen battle mangas, written by the masters of the genre – the authors behind Death Note and Hikaru no Go; so when they set out to show what it takes to create a #1 series, you can take their word for it – these guys know what they’re talking about.

I did say that it’s a battle manga… The battle element comes from the publishing system used by manga magazines like Shonen Jump: weekly rankings and ratings are the key to having your series continued or cancelled. Every issue of Jump is a new battle, every new mangaka is a potential enemy.

This is all fairly interesting, but it’s not what makes Bakuman the perfect series for breaking out of a writer’s block. It’s the passion all the characters show for their work. The mangaka’s life is, by all possible measures, a terrible one. No sleep, no holidays, pushing the deadlines, constant need to be on the top of one’s game… in a faint hope that you’ll be the one guy or girl out of the struggling hundreds to make the big time. A failure is unforgivable – and, often, irreversible. And yet, they keep doing it, just for the sake of creating art and telling stories.

The manga is not without its flaws. Unlike Barakamon, Bakuman is a long and winding series, and it tends to get rambling at times. The cast of characters is mind-bogglingly vast, the plot arcs at times get ridiculously complex and unrealistic. The romance plot is far too romantic and sugary for my liking – although, to their credit, the authors don’t stray from showing the sexism prevalent in the entertainment industry. But all that is insignificant compared to the sheer force of inspiration emanating from the pages, a force that makes you want to drop everything and start drawing/writing/composing that long forgotten piece of art you had lost all hope for.

There are 176 chapters of the manga available as scanlations, and three seasons of anime. Even if you stick to manga, you will want to watch at least bits of the anime, to see how the “shows within the shows” are brought to life – the fake openings are better than most real ones I’ve seen lately 🙂

Winning #Nanowrimo 2014


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Yesterday, at 10pm, I hit the 50,000 words mark, thus winning Nanowrimo 2014 – with three days to spare!
This year I was talking it far more seriously, as at the start I had to overcome a serious bout of writer’s block – and finish the first draft “The Withering Flame” as soon as possible. Since I started out with 30k already written on Nov 1, that means the full manuscript, at 80,000, is now pretty much completed!

nanoIt was quite an odyssey this month, as you can see from the chart above. A few days after a good start, the poor performance crept in. Half-way through, I was more than 4000 words behind – almost three full days of writing.

The Withering FlameBy the end of last week, I caught a flu – which was luckier than it sounds, as fever makes me write faster. That surge of wordcount the last four days – that’s 38 degrees speaking 🙂 Not sure about the quality, but then that’s what first drafts – and Nanowrimo manuscripts – are like.

I give myself two days of rest now – and start revising the draft on Sunday. Barring any unforeseen accidents, I foresee “The Withering Flame” to be ready sometime early next year. Stay tuned!

Plotting the draft, part 2: Volume 6, Sato’s POV


Hi Guys,

Volume 6 (which I have not yet formally announced – that’s for a future post) is coming along… slowly. I’m perhaps half-way through the first draft. Partly that’s because I was travelling again this summer, but partly, because it has the most complex and convoluted plot of all the books so far. At long last, things seem to be coming to a head in Yamato…

Earlier this year I showed you how I tried to make sense of the plot of “Chrysanthemum Seal“. I managed to fit most of it on a single piece of A5 paper.

This picture, on the other hand, shows a single plot-line of the next book (mostly POVs of Sato and Shoin).

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The good news is, I already have Nagomi’s POV largely done and dusted. The bad news? Bran’s plot-line is not yet even touched upon…

Sigh. Maybe I should’ve stuck to writing novellas 😉

Plotting the “Chrysanthemum Seal” Draft


A peek into my creative process.

I’m finally wrapping up the first draft of the Chrysanthemum Seal, and immediately getting to work on second draft (there’s so much to fix already!) but first, I have to finally sit down and order the scenes around.

I managed to write this draft scene-by-scene in no particular order, as I felt it, with the entire plot in my head; but it eventually grew so complicated that before I could set the whole thing into chapters, I had to draw this: the order of events, as they happen in book-time.

Pixellated for spoilers :)
Pixellated for spoilers, of course 🙂

Oh, and the first person to suggest I should have been using Scrivener for this, gets banned 😉

NaNoWriMo 2013


2013-Participant-Facebook-Profile Since I’m already writing the 5th book of The Year of the Dragon saga, “The Chrysanthemum Seal”, and I’m on a self-imposed schedule anyway, I figured I might as well do the NaNoWriMo this year, for the first time.

Most of you probably know what National Novel Writing Month is, and if you don’t – it’s that thing where you have to write 50,000 words in one month (of one novel) to “win” (a bucket of self-esteem and a virtual pat on the back :). It’s a big thing now, with sponsorships, meetings, discussion panels etc. etc. and it’s starting tomorrow.

The part I’m interested in is the word count tool itself. I’ve got ca. 12k words of the first draft already, and I need way more than 50,000 words to get even close to how long I want the finished book to be (the usual 80,000+ words per volume); it would be nice to finish the first draft by the end of the year. Perhaps NaNoWriMo will be that little extra motivation needed to do just that.

You can find me here, if you’d like to add me as a buddy. I’ll try to post updates there as often as possible.

Letters to the Editor :) Q&A


Letter
(c) Garry Wilmore, Flickr

I gathered a decent collection of questions over the last few weeks/months, and while I try to answer them individually, some questions an answers are worth posting in public for the benefit of others.

Here are a few of them.


My first book has been out for less than a month, with KDP select. (…) Supposing I have another book out in a few months, which I will, do you think it’s worth waiting until then to do the second promotion?

Definitely. A book in a series is far more popular with readers. The possibility to try the first volume of a saga is irresistible; a stand-alone book is just not rewarding enough for the effort of downloading.

Did you try to have your free promo days coincide with author interviews, or guest posts on blogs?

Not really. Unless you can secure a place on a blog with several thousand daily views, the boost from these is insignificant. You really need to reach thousands of readers; even if you gain a hundred downloads from a guest post (which I find unlikely – the conversion rate for blog posts is minimal) it’s nowhere near enough to make a difference.

How long do you stay on KDP select before the returns diminish? I’d like to leave them after six months.

I did not yet get to that point. There are millions of readers out there, and I feel I’ve only really scratched the surface.

What does diminish are returns from paid ads. The Big Four (PoI, ENT, KND and BookBub) serve an audience that is relatively big, but not infinite. Sooner or later everyone who’s subscribed to these services will have seen your ad, and then you have to come up with another way of reaching your audience.

Note that many writers have one of their books free permanently – and the popular ones keep being downloaded just as they have been on day one. So the potential for giveaways is enormous.

How did you get a review from Publisher’s Weekly? I thought they only did trad pub books. 

I’ve reached semi-finals of ABNA in 2012. A reward for that is a review from PW.

That said, PW now offers paid packages for indies in their “PW Select” program, which include an official review. They are a bit too expensive for my taste, though. If you’re interested, you can find the details here.

Did the promos and free downloads result in more reviews for your books? And did those free downloaders have good things to say, or was it, “I like romance! This isn’t romance! One star!”?

Yes and yes. I got three times as many reviews for Vol. 1 as for Vol. 2 and 3, which were never on Select, so it certainly helped. And yes, I got some bad reviews for vol. 1 from people who obviously didn’t care for the genre or the type of the story, and happened upon my book by pure accident.

I want to know who did your book covers. I love the pseudo-anime art style! I’d like to hire them for my own book covers, if possible. 

I’ve worked with three great artists so far. The covers to “The Shadow of Black Wings” and “The Warrior’s Soul” was drawn by Sakimichan. The cover to “The Islands in the Mist” (and upcoming “The Rising Tide”) was created by Sulev Daekazu, and the cover to “Dragonbone Chest” was drawn by Collette J Ellis.

I’ve just begun using Goodreads as a serious method of promoting my writing, and as a fellow writer, I was wondering if you have any advice you can provide regarding obtaining more reviews and reads?

These days there are many places where you can look for reviewers; simply Google “indie book reviews” and follow the first few links. You can also look for dedicated groups on Goodreads, like Making Connections.

Two things to keep in mind: 1) good reviewers will always be busy (booked for months ahead). Be wary of anyone who has free slots immediately (unless they’re just starting) or even solicit reviews themselves. There’s always a catch. And 2) never pay for reviews. The only acceptable fee is a free copy of your book. (unless you’re fully aware of the dodgy moral implications of the move and decide to do it anyway. Then my only advice to you is: make sure you get good value for your money).

I offer poetry collections that are available in full on Goodreads and a couple external sources, as they’re non-profit. Any tips?

I’m afraid I know next to nothing about selling poetry. I can only guess that unless you’ve won some prestigious contests and started featuring in magazines, it will be impossible to earn anything decent (and even then it will be difficult. Poetry does not sell).

As a fellow author I’d be really interested in any advice or tips you could offer. Thanks a lot and great job!

Keep reading my blog! 😉 I’ll be writing about giving good and bad advice in my next post (and a list of places where you can find good advice), so that may be useful for you.

Please let me know when “The Rising Tide” is available.

I’m aiming for an April release, but whether it will be nearer the beginning or the end of the month, I cannot say (but let’s assume the end, to be on the safe side :).

I have a query concerning formatting ebooks. When I paste in the code above the body tag as per point 3 in the first article, I get the following I/O error message: Cannot save: java.io.CharConversionException: Failed to encode the character ‘″’ (U+2033) at column 19 in line 1 with the encoding “windows-1252”. Have you any thoughts why this might be?

In JEdit, go to Utilities -> Buffer Options -> Character Encoding – Switch to UTF-8

Contact phone number. How long have you been business . Number of books you format each year. Thank you Odinhouse.

Uh… I’m sorry, do we know each other? Also, my name is not Odinhouse…