Archives for January 2012

Sky Pirates Released

I can remember the exact moment when I got the idea for Sky Pirates. I was reading one of Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian books, The Gods Of Mars. I came across his descriptions of the savage green men and, of course, I thought of orcs. For some reason, from then on the idea of Burroughs Green Men and orcs became conjoined in my mind. My brain was filled with the idea of orcish hordes rampaging across the desiccated landscapes of a dying world not unlike Barsoom.

Thuvia, Maid of Mars is one of the very first SF novels I can remember reading as a small kid. I can still picture the cover (by Bruce Pennington I think) in my mind. It had a very scantily clad Thuvia and a Thark on it. It made a lasting impression on me. There’s something very primal about Burroughs work that certainly appealed to me as a child– the wish-fulfilment fantasy element of being an earth-gravity superman on a different planet, the flying ships, the ruined cities haunted by white apes and over-run by the migratory hordes of Green Men. You cannot write SF like that any more, of course, and I’ve always had a hankering to. Even when Burroughs was writing it, one hundred years ago, it was not terribly realistic and now it is purest fantasy. And that was the key the green men gave me. I thought you can’t write SF like that but you could write a fantasy novel.

The idea excited me. At first it was simply my intention to transpose a Burroughs setting to fantasy. It was going to be a dying world of embattled city states with hordes of orcs in the deserts. The flying ships would be powered by magic. The warriors would be lightly armoured swash-bucklers just as they are on Barsoom, but in this case it is because they are protected by magical deflection shields like those in Dune. As I kept writing other desert world fantasies kept infecting my brain. Magic made me think of Vance’s wonderful Dying Earth stories and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique so elements of those crept in. The attitude and speech style of the wizards began to resemble those of Vance’s self-centred, peacock mages. The morality came to reflect the decadence of Smith’s lushly creepy fin de siecle fantasies. Zothique made me think of the evocative Bruce Pennington paintings on Smith’s books which reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun which the artist also did the UK covers for. Necromancy snuck in. Mars got me thinking of Leigh Brackett’s noir tributes to Burrough’s Mars and hero Ulrik began to resemble one of her cynical, damaged, romantic protagonists. Other far future images invaded my mind. The cat-girl Rhea could have stepped straight out of Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality.

The world began to mutate away from a simple Burroughs pastiche under all these influences. This was an ancient world where astonishingly powerful magic had once been worked. It had, like Vance’s world, been invaded many times by legions of demons. Magic was used to power amazing flying ships and to do many other things. Magical technology snuck in. This was a world where people could have demonic body parts grafted to their bodies, and demonic organs transplanted within. Shades of cyberpunk! Flying ships got me to thinking about Final Fantasy, my favourite ever series of Japanese role-playing games, which got me to thinking about all the anime I had watched since back in the 80’s. The post-Apocalyptic landscapes of Fist of the North Star and Genesis Survivor Gaearth provided me with more visual inspiration.

Flying ships also made me think of sky pirates which gave me the title and once I had the title I figured the central character would need to be a sky pirate. Enter Ulrik, once a sky pirate captain now captured and sentenced to death in the arena (I had to do it– how often did that happen to John Carter.) Being a sky pirate, Ulrik is a considerably darker character than John Carter though. I decided I did not want to soften or glamourise his deeds, so his backstory is quite brutal. I liked the Vancian wizards so Ulrik swiftly found himself embroiled in the schemes of the sinister Valerius, a self-important dandy with great magical skills who needs his services as a bodyguard and a guide to the city of the sky pirates. Rhea, the cat-girl, Valerius’s henchwoman became another important character as the story progressed. And progress it did. I knew I wanted to do an action-adventure tale in the Burrough’s mode and I knew I wanted it to feature glorious air-battles and hair’s breadth escapes. Everything raced along at a breakneck pace as our not-terribly-heroic heroes try to thwart the mad schemes of the half-demon sorcerer Molok. I had a rousing good time writing the book and I hope it shows.

It’s out now on Amazon’s Kindle in the US and UK.

Order Out of Chaos

So the end of the month is sneaking closer and I am still working away. As I mentioned at the start of the month, I planned on writing 2K of new fiction every working day this year as well as revising work for publication. I also mentioned that I was having trouble settling down into a routine. (New babies and lack of sleep tend to have that effect!) Of late, I have been plagued by the flu and persecuted by the Machine God as well. However, in spite of all this, I have started to get the feeling that my goals for this year are at least possible. I am settling down into a new method of working, which is just as well, because I need to.

I begin each day by revising what I wrote the work day before. (Obviously this means that on Monday I revise what I wrote on Friday.) Sometimes I re-read the whole work from the beginning if I feel the need to get my hooks back into it. I have set Scrivener so that it discounts negative word counts– i.e. this means that it ignores any cuts I make (and there are many!) but adds the new words to the total. I let these count towards my 2000 word goal. It’s a cheap trick but sometimes cheap tricks are what you need to motivate you. Having built up some momentum on the revision, I launch myself into the goal of writing 2K proper. Once that is done, I move on to editing the work that needs it. At the moment this is usually a different project. I try to have a gap between the different elements of my work schedule. Doing one thing, taking a break and then starting on the next project works for me. It seems important that my mind gets a clear signal about such things. I need spaces and routines for this stuff. It used to be a case of doing things at a certain time of the day. With illness and the baby, this is difficult so I am falling back to having procedures and priorities instead.

There’s been a lot of disruption this month which has made this all the more important. My MacBook Pro, which has been my major work machine for a couple of years now, packed in. It’s been ailing for months with a dodgy trackpad and a tendency to freeze but now it was not even booting. I surprised myself by replacing it with a MacBook Air. I genuinely thought I was going to make the switch to PC this time but I changed my mind at the last moment for a number of reasons. The first is that I have a number of diaries and research projects in Mac only formats and it would be a lot of work to export them and import them into different software. All of this takes time and that was in short supply. ( A clear demonstration of the benefits of platform lock-in for vendors there.)  With the Air all I had to do was start the machine and migrate my files across from my Time Machine backup. So far, it seems to have worked a treat. The second reason was even more simple. The Lenovo dealership is a long way from where I live and there are two Apple dealerships within a short walk of my house. Tired and with the flu, it was just easier to go this route.

There were other reasons, the most important being familiarity. Buying a new work computer is a big purchase for me and I was driving myself mad trying to find one that filled my requirements. I had a couple in mind, both Thinkpads, but I was not entirely sure they would do what I needed. I know I am happy using the keyboard on the Mac (an important thing because of RSI) and I was happy with its performance. Scrivener on OSX still reigns supreme among writing programs for me, although the Windows version is really very good. There’s not a lot to say about the new MacBook. It is very much like the old one, only lighter and more powerful, and that’s about the only thing I can say about it. In any case, I plumped for the familiar and the habitual. It saved me time and thought and let me get back to work.

On the subject of which, it’s time for me to go and write something…

SOPA Strike

No post today. Like many other people I am protesting against SOPA which I believe is not a good thing. But Bill, I hear you say, this is a post. Fair enough but you know what I mean!

The Hundredth Post

Back in the 80s my brother sold insurance. He occasionally attended sales conferences and sometimes came back with motivational books. One day, bored, with nothing better to do, I read one. It started a life-long habit of reading books about selling and the life of a salesman. In case you are wondering what possible relevance any of those could have to the life of a writer, let me just point out that writers and salesmen have more in common than you might think. Both writers and salesmen need to be self-starters. There is usually no one else around to motivate you. Both live in worlds where the possibility of rejection arises daily, and both need to be able to keep going in the face of that rejection. Both have jobs where they are entirely judged by numbers. If you have the romantic view that writers live for their art, talk to a full-time professional one some time. They will tell you that their careers live and die by their numbers. Fall below a certain threshold of sales and your publisher will very swiftly lose interest in your next book. I could go on but I am sure you get the picture.

All of this may seem a very strange thing to bring up as I celebrate my hundredth post on the blog but bear with me. There is a point and I have, at last, got to it. That long ago first motivational book contained one absolute gem of information which has stood me in good stead ever since. In a section about perfectionism and the fear of failure, it pointed out that you would not judge your ability to draw by your first effort if you had never drawn before. You need time and practise if you ever expect to be able to draw properly. It suggested an experiment, namely that you should attempt 100 sketches of something before you decided whether you were a good, bad or indifferent portraitist. It put forward the idea that you apply this principle to everything that you attempt in your life as a means of taking the pressure to be perfect at the first attempt off. As an antidote for the paralysing need to get things right the first time, that many people, including myself, suffer from, it is a good one. It takes away the heavy burden of judgement from your initial, usually very poor efforts, and frees you to just get on with it.

I have applied this principle in my life, and you know something, it works. I decided I would not judge my success or failure as a writer until I had made a hundred submissions. As it happened I sold my third and I have kept on selling (mostly) ever since. There was a time, you may find it hard to believe, when I found writing novels intimidating. I resolved to make one hundred attempts to write one before I gave up on the idea of being a novelist. It took a lot more than three attempts this time but I got there in the end. I am sure you can see where I am going with this now.

I’ve made various attempts at blogging before but I’ve never been very good at sticking with it for any length of time. I never particularly enjoyed it and I pretty much always felt that my books should do my talking for me to any audience that might be interested.

Anyway, the world moves on. We live in the internet age and the need for publicity is a given. Everyone tells you a writer should have a blog. Last year I decided that I would give blogging another try and I would make at least one hundred posts before I decided whether to stick with it or not. I further committed myself to posting three times a week because that is what various experts recommended. To give myself some credit, I have pretty much stuck with that although a few of my posts have consisted of making excuses for why I have not posted this week and one of them was not written by me at all but by my good friend Matt Forbeck, to whom I am eternally grateful. It’s certainly been a learning experience.

There have been many times when I have struggled to find something to say. There have been times when I have felt (nay, known!) that blogging was cutting into my working time. There were times when blogging has offered me a fine excuse to procrastinate as far as my fiction writing was concerned. There have been times when it has been a lot of fun.

Writing blog posts, it turns out, is an art form albeit one I don’t have much talent for. I have done my best. I confess that there have been many, many times when I have found the discipline of posting three times a week, while trying to meet deadlines and run a small business and write my own personal fiction projects, to be an enormous strain. There have most definitely been times when posting on this blog has short circuited my writing on other things that needed to be done, knocking me out of the head-space for fiction and breaking up the rhythm of my work. And yet, I have enjoyed it, and I have enjoyed your comments and emails.

The thing is, in addition to writing for Black Library and running my own small, self-publishing venture and all of the other stuff I have to do, I now have a baby son in the flat which also happens to be my workplace. I am getting less sleep than I used to and I have less energy. Something has to give. I’ve decided that I like blogging but I just can’t keep up 3 posts a week. I am going to fall back to posting once a week, most likely on a Wednesday. I may post more often if I have some special announcement to make and I’ll try not to post less often.

And so I shall bid you adieu, until next Wednesday.

The E-Book Experiment: 6 Month Report

When I started my e-book experiment I decided I would wait six months before passing any judgements. That would be a long enough period to collect some data and see how the whole thing worked for me. You hear all sorts of contradictory reports about e-publishing but I’ve always liked to collect empirical evidence for myself, rather than listen to who shouts loudest on the internet. I decided I was just going to release the backlist I had and work on projects that interested me in the gaps between my work for Black Library.

Well, six months have passed so now I am going to assess how it went with particular reference to my Terrarch series. I am going to discuss actual numbers and amounts of money earned so if you are the sort of person who is squeamish about such things I suggest you look away.

First up here are the monthly figures for the Terrarch books over the past 6 calendar months.

July

41

August

78

September

301

October

689

November

1085

December

1587

 

As you can see there has been fairly steady growth as I added new titles. The big jump in September came about when I reduced the price of Death’s Angels, the first book in the series, to 99 cents as a loss leader. As a strategy this fairly obviously worked. All in all I sold 3781 Terrarch books in the first 6 months. I am pleased with the results, particularly since the vast majority of the sales have occurred in the past couple of months and that the upward trend in sales appears to be holding steady into January.

Far and away the biggest selling title is Death’s Angels then sales occur as you would expect descending in order of release date.

Death’s Angels (July 8th )

1753

The Serpent Tower (August 16th )

811

The Queen’s Assassin (September 16th )

692

Shadowblood (November 3rd )

525

 

Such sales figures are very unlikely to cause the English language editors who rejected the novels any lack of sleep but look at this from my point of view. The books have so far earned roughly $4000/ £2500 after covering production costs. Death’s Angels is currently averaging around 25-28 sales a day, the rest of the Terrarch books are averaging around 10-12 per title. In very rough terms, because of the generous royalty rates on e-books, this works out to an income of just under $3000/£1900 a month. For a midlist author such as myself, that is pretty good money being earned by just four novels. Add to this the fact that Amazon reports sales in near real time and pays monthly by bank transfer and you have a compelling package. In traditional publishing, with things like reserves held against returns, it can take eighteen months to two years to get paid for some books.

Obviously there is no guarantee that sales will continue at these levels. They may very well go down, but they may also increase as the number of people with e-readers and smartphones increases. This is a new industry with a new distribution system. It is very early days yet to draw any conclusions about this but I am hopeful. I will report back in another six months and we’ll see how things hold up.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the effects of e-books on writers, publishers and bookstores. I am perfectly willing to believe that for some traditional publishers and most bookshops they have been a complete disaster. Speaking as a working writer I can only say that they have given me a soaring sense of excitement about the possibilities of my chosen career.

To take the Terrarch books as an example, they are about as niche as niche can get, gunpowder military fantasy with elements of Lovecraftian horror. The numbers are not fantastic by the standards of conventional publishing and yet the money they are earning is excellent compared to what most traditionally published writers would get unless they were very good sellers. 

These are books that won’t go out of print or be stripped and returned. Even if sales of the Terrarchs fall to a tiny fraction of what they currently are, they will still earn money, which books that go out of print singularly fail to do. It’s a gambler’s annuity which may well pay off for the rest of my life, and which, unlike an annuity, I can pass on to my wife and children.

I can write new books and be certain that they will be out there until they have a chance to find a readership if one exists.  I can write in lots of the small genres I love, like sword and sorcery, and know I can get paid for it, and it means I can experiment with things that interest me and know they will get out there eventually. All I have to do is to remember to release them.  There is no treadmill of sending books out and waiting for a response and, even if they are accepted, waiting for up to a couple of years for them to get into print. There is no need to think about whether a book  has a potential audience large enough to make it worthwhile for a publisher to consider (and yes, Virginia, professional writers do take such things into consideration, at least some of us need to if we intend to pay the rent and feed our families.)

Are there any conclusions I would draw from this that might help other writers in my position?

There is one very obvious one. Take a look at the upward curve of sales. It’s taken 6 months and 4 books to get to 1500+ sales per month starting from a very low base. It takes time for books to embed themselves in Amazon’s recommendation engines, to get reviews, to reach some sort of critical mass.

I have no doubt that writing series helps. The sales of the other Terrarch books have tracked those of Death’s Angels on about a 50% basis until recently. For every two Death’s Angels sold, one Serpent Tower would sell. There was a surge of sales on Death’s Angels during the holidays, and the follow on sales dropped slightly but seem to be picking up again. That being the case having a low cost, loss-leader first volume in a series would seem to make sense. That’s about all I can think of.

If anybody has any tips they can give me, I would be happy to hear them!

Addendum: At 8pm this evening (January 9) Death’s Angels sold its 2000th copy. Thanks to everyone who bought the book!

Changing Habits

I am a creature of habit. I like to do the same things in the same ways. I don’t think habits are of necessity bad things. They can be either good or bad, depending on the habit and the circumstances. The habit of smoking 60 cigarettes a day I once had was undoubtedly a bad one. The habit of writing 2000 words a day has done my life and my career no harm at all as far as I can tell and it has provided a number of positive benefits.

Scientists think we have habits for a reason. They save having to make complex decisions for parts of our life where it is easier to automate things. I am in the habit of going to Mama’s Coffee House in Prague most days to get my daily (now decaff) Americano. For health reasons I had to give up the  caffeine. The habit of going to the place where I like to work and where I am now writing this remains. The habit of going here means I don’t have to go through a long involved process of decision making every time I go out the door looking for a place to sit down with my laptop and get some writing done. I already know the way. I already know I like the people. I already know its an environment in which I can work. I can employ my limited brainpower thinking about something else as I walk there, such as what I am going to blog about today.

As I mentioned in an earlier post I decided to tinker with my work habits this year in the hope of making myself marginally more productive. I am at the end of the first week and I am noticing some consequences of this. I decided to try and write 2000 words per day come what may, rather than my usual workflow of writing them until I have completed my first draft and then revising and completing what I have written. This has caused me some discomfort this week, which let’s be honest, is exactly what you would expect when you try and change your habits.

For one thing, I have found myself working on four projects at once. I have been revising one and writing two different works of fiction while preparing for a third. Normally I would be doing only two of these things. Editing the project that needs to be and letting some small part of my brain simmer on a potential future project.

The commitment to write 2000 words of new fiction every work day has prodded me into writing stuff I would not normally write. It feels a little strange because some days I have no idea what I am going to write when I sit down to do those two thousand words. I did not have any plan when I made the resolution and I am living with the consequences. Right now I am editing Sky Pirates, writing sections of Stealer of Flesh, a Kormak story, and The Distressed Lady, a novel about my Victorian detective Jack Brodie. I am reading the Dark Eldar sourcebook and making notes for the second Macharius novel as well.

The writing has been fun. Normally I plan everything in advance but the daily commitment has forced me to sit down some days and invent even though I have no idea where I am going. A lot of the stuff has amused me and I think its good although I may end up dumping it in the long run because it just does not fit. I am still learning as I go though.

This method actually works with the Brodie books. Detective stories are the only sort of fiction I would dream of sitting down and writing without some sort of plan. There is a method in my madness here. In a detective story the structure is actually implicit in the form. I don’t really need much of a plan because the outline of a detective story is pretty much always the same. A crime has been committed and it needs to be solved by the end of the book. This will come about by having the detective wander around interviewing suspects, overcoming obstacles and most likely, by having a man come through the door with a gun at some stage. To write a detective story, I just need a crime, a bunch of suspects and a detective. In some ways there is an advantage in not knowing too much because it puts me in the same position as the narrator as he uncovers new clues and encounters new people.

As fate would have it, for The Distressed Lady, I already have a detective, Jack Brodie, ex-Bow Street Runner. I have a setting, Victorian London in 1841. I just needed the crime and the suspects and I was good to go. In the case of this book, the story may turn out to have something to do with the double meaning in the title. (In the Victorian period being distressed did not just mean you were upset. It meant you were undergoing a legal process in which all your goods were being sold off to pay the debts you could not otherwise pay.) I even had an opening line (even in her distress, she was beautiful) which set up a scene. We have Brodie sitting in his traditionally dingy office listening to a beautiful and somewhat morally ambiguous woman ask him to find her missing husband. After accepting the case, Brodie’s next moves are clear. He needs to find out more about the husband and how he went missing so off he sets to interview the man’s employer and workmates. A structure is already starting to emerge. Writing in this style actually suits the change of habit.

The Kormak story actually does have a plan. I stopped working on it to work on Mask of the Necromancer, for reasons I can no longer remember. Now it was just a case of sitting back down and making a start and getting Kormak back on the trail of the body-switching demon he is trailing through the Eastern city of the Four Warlords.

With Macharius I am at a different stage. I am working through the structure of the book, trying to fit and balance the elements together. This is the middle book of the trilogy and it is the fulcrum of the series. At this point, we are at the height of the Crusade, Macharius is at the peak of his powers and things can only go down hill from there. The job of this book is to show this crucial turning point in his career. It needs to show him utterly triumphant and it needs to begin to expose his weakness and the things that will eventually bring him down. This too implies a sort of structure and an arc that needs to be followed, one that will take a lot more planning than the winging it, I am attempting with the detective story.

There have been some problems adjusting. I have not done nearly as much revising on Sky Pirates as I would like because I tend to get caught up in the new writing and knocked out of the mental head space I need to be in for revising that book. I may need to make a formal separation of times for the different types of work, maybe new writing in the morning and editing in the afternoon. Part of me is already considering heading back to the old method simply because I am more comfortable with it, which is always a problem when you try and change your habits.  On the other hand, part of me is really enjoying trying something new so I think I shall most likely stick with it for at least a few months. There is some evidence to suggest that it takes around 6 weeks for a new pattern of habits to replace an old one, and I intend to test that. And that’s where things stand with me and my New Year resolutions at the moment. How about you?