Thursday, 3 March 2022

How to write like a pro: the secret formula your writing coach won't teach you.

Image c/o Dean Wesley Smith
In 1947, Fantasy Press released Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction. This was a short collection of essays by various Science Fiction authors. Robert Heinlein was one of those authors, and he concluded his guide with a list of business habits, explaining that they were: “a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.” and became known throughout the writing community as Heinlein’s Rules.

Heinlein’s Rules

  • You must write.
  • You must finish what you start.
  • You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  • You must put it on the market.
  • You must keep it on the market until sold.
Many writers overlook their simplicity, but consider the fact that Robert Heinlein wrote 32 novels and over 50 short stories - perhaps there is something in his method.

Do the rules actually work?

In 1981, Dean Wesley Smith was on the cusp of giving up on his dream to be a writer when he chanced upon Heinlein’s Rules. Having nothing to lose, he decided to follow them to the letter. He went from being unable to sell anything to becoming a multiple-times New York Times bestseller. He currently has over 200 novels to his name and is in demand as a ghost writer because he writes fast and delivers on deadlines.
Treat your writing as a business.

Have you ever heard of a plumber with plumber’s block? Or a builder who can only lay bricks when the muse takes him? What about a car mechanic who has to find the right mental zone before attempting an oil change? This is essentially what Heinlein’s first rule is about. You have a job, so get to work. You must write.

Avoid distractions

For novelists, there is a point around the one-third mark when the honeymoon phase ends and the hard work begins. In his regular YouTube show, Author Level Up, Michael La Ronn gives advice about tackling the dreaded one-third mark and how he, after thirty-seven novels, still experiences that moment in every novel he writes. The only practical solution is to work through it: you must finish what you start.
Refrain from rewriting.

This does not mean do not edit or polish. It ties in more with the second rule where you keep questioning your own ability. Adding extra depth, emotion and details in later drafts is fine – you must do that – but what you should avoid doing is to going back and completely rewriting or deleting previous work. Edit, polish and move on. Stop worrying.

Put Your Work on the market.

Don’t worry that people won’t like it. Even the best of the best get one star reviews. It’s called taste. Besides, your book already has one fan... You!

Don’t treat publishing as a lottery. Be strategic. Don’t send a slasher horror to a children’s publisher, or a Minecraft strategy guide to a romance publisher. If you are targeting agents, the same applies – visit their website, find out who they represent and what they want.

Keep it on the market until sold.

So you sent it out and it got rejected. Welcome to the club. You’re in good company.
  • Carrie by Stephen King - 30 rejections.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert - 23 rejections.
  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller - 22 rejections.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding - 21 Rejections.
Even JK Rowling’s original pitch for Harry Potter was rejected twelve times. These authors didn’t give up when editors turned them down. They just moved on, fuelled determination and self belief until they found the right editor.

What if there’s nowhere else to send it? 

There is still another option. Click here to read my blog post on the alternative (and potentially lucrative) route to publication.

For more details on Heinlein's rules, check out Dean Wesley Smith's guide. He goes into much more detail.

post updated: 18/04/22)

Thursday, 24 February 2022

Why it’s okay not to want a publishing deal.

I first decided to make writing a career when I realised that my son’s disability meant he would always need someone at home. It didn’t seem fair that my wife would never be able to return to nursing, so in 2003 we swapped roles. I became Matthew’s full time carer, wrote when he was at school and began submitting book after book.

image c/o seatletimes.com

It took five years and six novels to get “The Call” and when it came, I was ecstatic. This was it, the beginning of a new chapter! We’d be able to make a better life, buy a decent car, maybe even move out of our council house.

A first look at our new council house. Image: Colin Mulhern

Things didn’t work out quite like that. The world of traditional publishing wasn’t quite what I expected.

Promotion

The publisher offered a promotional package that included a London book launch, a professionally produced YouTube trailer, press releases, newspaper reviews and an ebook version – this was the early days of Kindle, the ideal time to break into the ebook market.

The ebook never came out. I had to create the YouTube trailer, organise my own book launch, sort out school and library visits and contact local press.

Money

The money was dire, but I had a foot on the ladder. Book 2 did rather well. It sold international rights and was shortlisted for a major YA competition, and book 3 was due for release in 2015. My career was going great, right?

Wrong. There was no more money, the publisher cut all ties and my agent retired.
 

Image credit: Inc. Magazine

Moving on

A new agent represented my next four books but none of them sold. This was getting frustrating, but in real terms, it was the least of my worries.

Hitting the floor

In 2015, when Matthew was sixteen, his disability got the better of him. Grief took over our lives and the world stopped.

Matthew with his mum. Image: Colin Mulhern

After a long break, I set out to write something completely new, something Matthew would have liked. This was a four-book series for young readers. I landed a deal but once again, despite all kinds of promises from the publisher, there was very little promotion and when the first book bombed, the entire series was cancelled.

I was devastated. I had failed in making a better life for Matthew when he was alive, and now I’d failed in doing something in his memory. The traditional world of publishing had led to frustration, misery and depression.

But it wasn’t the end of my writing career. There was another option...

A brave new world

I decided to experiment with self publishing. The process was quick and simple and very enjoyable. It also meant I could write whatever I liked and didn’t have to worry about agents being unable to sell it or publishers pulling the plug. This was true literary freedom.

What about money?

L.J.Ross Image:BBC News
There might be no advance, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make good money, even a full-time living from being a self published author.

L.J. Ross was rejected by traditional publishers. She turned to self publishing and has sold over 7 million books. Other self published giants include Mark Dawson, Michael Anderle, Craig Martel, Chris Fox, Marie Force and Stephanie Hudson – a seven-figure author who made $300,000 in a single month (check out this episode of the SELF PUBLISHING SHOW).

Want to know more about indie publishing? 

A good place to start would be Joanna Penn’s podcast at The Creative Penn or Mark Dawson's at The Self Publishing Formula. Also, Chris Fox's video series

post updated: 18/04/22)


Bladdy Stoodents

I'm a student! Bloody hell!

The Young Ones. Image c/o BBC
I've been toying with the idea of doing a degree in Creative Writing for years, but it would have to be distance learning and the ones that were available didn't really grab my interest. The Open University, for example, is a mish mash of modules from their humanities box with only a couple of modules dedicated to Creative Writing. What I was after was something more like a Fine Art degree, but in writing, something focused on personal development rather than simply studying others.

In the summer, I found it.

The degree is with Falmouth University and fits my wish list like a glove. It's more like a Fine Art degree in it seems to be all about personal development and practical tasks to help you become a better writer, and not just for novel writing. It covers everything from identity and society to creative imagery, blog posting and SEO. I barely paused to take breath and applied the same day. 

It's week 5 and so far, it's really delivering. As online courses go, it's very demanding - minimum 27 hours study per week and a LOT of reading, but I've still got time to read for pleasure and write my own stuff, which is also part of the course. Win win!


Sunday, 15 August 2021

The Wishing Brick is published... so what next?

Available here
The Wishing Brick is published, but I wrestled and twisted and struggled about what to do with it. A few years back I swore I'd never try the traditional route again, but it's something that is so ingrained, it often feels like I'm doing myself an injustice not to try at least a couple of agents, just to test the water. It doesn't mean I actually have to sign on the dotted line. 

And so, back in May I sent out a few submission. I got one reply from an ex-agent, but it was weeks before any of the others got back to me. 

Naturally, this made me doubt the story I'd sent out. There was a crime subplot that didn't sit right with the genre. It was a big job stripping it out, but the result was a new manuscript with fit the light-hearted nature of the genre I was aiming for. 

In August, I sent it out again, only to receive an automated response: “We hope to get back to you within twelve weeks.”

Twelve weeks

I checked my previous agent submissions, the ones that went out in May. Of the ten agents I sent samples to, only four got back to me. The get-out clause is in their submission guidelines: “If you haven’t heard from us in x weeks, consider it a no.”

Do I really want to wait twelve weeks, just twiddling my thumbs wondering whether or not I’ll even get a reply? Did I ever mention how slow the cogs of traditional publishing move? How little money you actually get? 

I'm itching to move onto something new, but can't because I'll be locked in emotionally limbo over what might or might not happen with this book. 

Sod that. All the work was in place. I’d even done the internal layouts while I was pondering. The only job left was to knock out a cover and upload the thing. And so, less than a week after getting that auto response, my book is published and promoted and even part of the Amazon Storyteller 2021 competition. 

So what next? A sequel? Why not? I've really enjoyed writing in this genre and can't help wondering what's going to happen next. 


Monday, 3 May 2021

Pulp fiction

The the harsh reality of traditional publishing is this: if books don't sell, they get pulped. In the case of Buttercup, the publisher is moving distribution companies, which means the pulping decision is pushed on them a little earlier than they'd like. They sent me an email saying they were sorry that things hadn't gone better and that publishing is a bit of a gamble at the best of times, however, for the price of postage, I can have the remaining stock. Well, if nothing else, I'd have loved a full class set, or even just a group set for my low ability readers. Unfortunately, the publisher hadn't updated my email address, so the warning sat unnoticed in an old account. I only found it by chance the other day. By then, of course, it was too late.

It's not necessarily the end of the road though, as they have reverted the rights which means I could take the title somewhere else. I doubt that another publisher would consider it, but I could do it myself - I'd just need a new cover and internal layouts. That's easy enough as the artwork is based on my own illustrations. As for the series, I originally planned it as four books, three of which were written, the fourth was planned out in note form to bring the whole thing to a suitable end.

However, times move on, and right now, I'm writing a different kind of fiction. Buttercup helped to get me through a difficult time. It was fun to write and I really enjoyed the opportunity to illustrate it (which ended up more work that I realised!) but for now, the whole episode is being filed under the Downside of Traditional Publishing. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

CAMP TOMBSTONE: Night of the Pickled Donut

This has been a fun little project. Back in the summer, I thought this story would sit in my hard drive and go no further. I wrote the original script when I had an agent. She loved it but couldn't sell it, so I thought that was the end of the road for this little story. But during the summer, listening to a podcast called the Self Publishing Show, I heard Karen Inglis talk about her own self published children's books. Until then, I never thought self publishing was an option for children's authors. The simple reason that kids don't buy ebooks and as that it the primary income for most self published authors, it wasn't a viable business.

But, there was something I didn't consider. The reason that self published authors make most of their money through ebooks is because the paperbacks are too expensive. The printing costs are high meaning the cover price has to be high in order to make any profit. Even just a 50p profit margin is enough to price yourself out of the market, so for many KDP authors, paperbacks are simply not worth the effort. However, children's books are shorter. Less pages = lower printing costs. This makes a huge difference.

Monday, 22 June 2020

Virus Lockdown Birthday Blues.

It's t-shirt prison for you, young fella-me-lad
Birthday blues? Nah, not really. So okay, I might have missed out on sea and sun and sangria as my surprise holiday in Spain was cancelled, but on the bright side, I got this cool t-shirt. I liked it so much, I've put it in a frame. My actual party was a very small affair - about six of us, all spaced out in my sister-in-law's back garden. A couple of cans, few shots and an afternoon of baking sun. Didn't really need Spain at all. It was fun. Different, but still fun.

Sometimes it's important to focus on the good stuff and try not to get bogged down with the negatives. Now, more than ever, it's very easy to get wrapped up in the down side of things, and 24hr news coverage replaying the same stories, the same predictions and interviews doesn't help one bit.