I’m very excited to reveal that The Iron Line is now in its final stages. I’ve been agonising a lot this year about how I wanted to publish it – whether I was going to pitch it to agents and publishers, or take a different route. Last week I wrote an article for online news and culture magazine Inside Story about that journey and the decision I’ve finally made to go indie. The full article is republished here with permission.

Mike Licht/Flickr

Publishing’s Parallel Universe

April 2015 was a good month for me. In the space of a week I signed not only a marriage contract, but also something I’d been pursuing for much longer: a book deal.

I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, but it was only in 2014 — after two decades of practice — that I finally finished my first novel, Greythorne, a Gothic mystery set in Victorian England. The writing process itself had been relatively short, just twelve months from the idea to a manuscript I was comfortable submitting to publishers. In November 2014 I took it to an Australian Society of Authors Literary Speed Dating event in Sydney, where I pitched to various agents and editors, and five months later one of those contacts bore fruit.

My contract was with a digital-first imprint of one of the Big Five (the five biggest book publishers in the United States: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster). Digital-first meant it would be available only in ebook and print-on-demand formats, so there’d be no big print runs or distribution to bookshops unless it happened to do very well. At the time I didn’t care; it was a foot in the door.

What followed was a stripping away of any illusions I might have had about the traditional publishing industry. I thought publishers were in the business of marketing books — because they presumably want them to sell. Once upon a time they were, but those days are long gone. These days, a new release has to fend for itself, and if it doesn’t strike paydirt within the first month, then it’s done its dash. But getting lucky is far more likely to happen in some genres than in others — romance and crime, for instance, have hugely dedicated readerships. It certainly doesn’t happen in Gothic mystery.

Of course, I was lucky to have been offered a contract at all. The market for my kind of book is relatively small, and Greythorne is short as novels go, at only 55,000 words, or a bit over 200 standard paperback pages (most publishers prefer them to be around the 80,000-word mark). The development of digital-first imprints — which several major publishers have started in an attempt to tap into the ebook market — means that publishers will sometimes take chances on books like mine, whereas they wouldn’t necessarily consider them for a traditional print run. But these imprints are also often tiny, run by a dedicated but small team of people within a very big company, without the resources to properly market their wares. Essentially, they’re often set up to fail, and this failure then reinforces everything the publishers think they know about the ebook market, namely that it’s impossible to make a go of. (It’s not — trade publishers just don’t do it very well — but more on that later.)

In mid 2016, the imprint I’d been contracted by closed down unexpectedly, or at least it was unexpected for those of us on the outside. A number of authors, me included, were left stranded. On the one hand, our contracts were with the parent company, so they were still valid as long as our books continued to be made available for sale. They were, but what little marketing support there’d been had disappeared. On the other hand, the publisher offered to give us back our rights, but then we’d have to decide what to do with them. I queried an agent about the possibility of pitching the book to another publisher and was basically told not to bother — it’s extremely difficult to resell an already published novel unless it’s a bestseller. I decided to leave Greythorne where it was for the time being, because at least people could still buy it. Then I started looking at options.

In the meantime, I’d begun working on another novel, The Iron Line. This was another Gothic mystery, this time set in Australia in the 1880s. The imprint’s collapse had taken away any temptation to take the path of least resistance by pitching it to them, but it also meant I was essentially back to square one in terms of finding a publisher and/or an agent. It was a demoralising thought.

Around the same time, an author friend introduced me to a Facebook group for “indie” authors. Indie, or independent, authors are what used to be known as self-publishers — people who produce and publish books themselves, in this case using ebook and print-on-demand technology. Indie publishing is very different from vanity publishing, where unscrupulous companies charge inexperienced authors to publish through them, often to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, for little or no meaningful return. Indie authors subcontract services like editing and design themselves, and retain full control of all their intellectual property.

The indie scene underwent a renaissance in the late 2000s, spurred on by Amazon’s release of Kindle Direct Publishing, which allows authors to publish directly to Amazon’s Kindle ebook platform rather than having to go through a third party. In the ten years or so since then, indie publishing has developed into a thriving industry, with an array of services blossoming out of nowhere to support it. Self-publishers are no longer stereotypical narcissists with thousands of badly printed books in their basement; these days they’re businesspeople, and often quite successful ones at that.

Discovering just how many options are available to the modern author — far beyond the “contract or bust” model of yesteryear — was a revelation. But at the same time I baulked at the thought of going indie; deep down, it still felt like the easy way out, or second best to endorsement by a traditional publisher. So I left Greythorne languishing there in limbo, but nevertheless decided to find out exactly what this indie publishing thing was all about.

Entering the indie publishing world is a little bit like entering a parallel universe. Up in the firmament are a whole host of superstars you’ve probably never heard of — Hugh Howey, Joanna Penn, David Gaughran, K.M. Weiland, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, James Scott Bell — many of whom are making five-, six- or occasionally seven-figure incomes from their writing. Further down are the mid-list — people who aren’t quite indie superstars but who are making perfectly respectable money through savvy marketing. Of course, there are still traces of the old self-publishing problem evident in those books that lack decent design and/or editing, but that’s what happens in a democratic marketplace. You could sit the best-quality indie books next to traditionally published books and most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

One characteristic of the most successful indie authors that I noticed early on is that they’re not just authors — they’re businesspeople. Many of them run mini-empires, built around not just their fiction work but also non-fiction, speaking gigs, workshops and other services. To succeed, indie books need to harness a whole marketing ecosystem — an email list, free giveaways, a spot in the coveted BookBub newsletter (which sends free or discounted deals to its subscribers every day and can add thousands to a book’s sales), and so on — and the most successful authors have learned how to make this work for them.

Strangely enough, though, techniques that would be a closely guarded secret in other industries are willingly shared in the indie world. Whether it’s through free sources such as Facebook groups and podcasts, or through non-fiction books, webinars and other media, indie authors are almost always ready to help each other out. In the indie Facebook group I’m part of, members regularly (and constructively) critique each other’s covers and blurbs, offer feedback on drafts, and answer questions about platforms and marketing strategies, even sharing the results of particular promotions they’ve launched and offering lessons learned. You might think that an industry in which members are competing to get their own work noticed would be incredibly vicious, but in fact indies across the board are really nice.

Even those who’ve had enormous success seem to see value in giving back to the community. Hugh Howey became famous as the first indie author to sign a print-only deal (retaining ebook rights because he’d done so well with them on his own) after his dystopian science-fiction trilogy, Silo, was picked up by Simon & Schuster for a six-figure sum. But he’s also known in the indie community as the brains behind the Author Earnings website, which is one of the few sources of sales statistics that don’t come from the major publishers (which don’t usually include ebooks or indie books). It aims to crunch the data across the entire marketplace and give a more accurate snapshot of exactly which types of books are selling and who’s producing them.

The traditional publishers hate this kind of thing because sales figures have always been a tightly held secret, but Author Earnings is in keeping with the openness of the indie community, which is all about sharing information to help authors make informed decisions. Likewise, one of the longest-running podcasts on indie publishing, The Creative Penn, run by British author Joanna Penn, regularly hosts guests from all over the world who share information on all aspects of indie publishing, from writing techniques to exploiting audio rights to getting the most out of Amazon ads. The amount of information available, often for free, is simply extraordinary.

All the same, indie publishing is a huge learning curve, and it’s not for everyone. Some writers just want to write, and that’s fine. As an indie author you have to do it all, and that means being comfortable with marketing. Once upon a time, highly introverted authors were able to hide behind their publisher’s marketing department, but not any more. Even in trade publishing, authors have to do the lion’s share of the work when it comes to getting their book out there, and in indie publishing this is magnified. If that’s not your thing, or if you’re not technologically savvy, you’re going to struggle as an indie author.

The other thing to bear in mind is that some types of books sell better than others. Romance readers, for example, are voracious and loyal, so romance is the perfect genre for indies because the market is huge. Likewise, crime tends to do well, especially “cosy crime” (think Agatha Christie) and thrillers. Speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy, horror and all their various sub-genres — also has a pretty strong market, especially because the ebook retailers’ categories go into quite some detail, so readers can browse very specific varieties of the genre according to their taste. Steampunk, for example — a speculative fiction subset that has fantasy or sci-fi elements set in an alternative Victorian-era world — is a growing market, but not big enough for many traditional publishers to touch it.

On the other hand, middle-grade fiction (chapter books for children aged eight to twelve) is generally accepted as difficult to publish independently. Kids’ books in general are hard to sell this way because you have to market to the parents as well as the child, and these works tend not to be so popular in ebook form anyway. Likewise, if you write literary fiction then indie publishing is a bad idea, because it won’t sell — but then, literary fiction tends not to sell very well in any format, which is why traditional publishers use the earnings from genre fiction bestsellers to cross-subsidise it. Literary fiction authors also depend disproportionately on literary reviews and prizes, neither of which are particularly accepting of indie-published books. But for genre fiction authors like me, there are far more opportunities than ever before.

In early 2017, I decided to dip my toe in the indie publishing waters with a non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-cost Strategies for Community Groups, which I’d written as an asset for my consultancy business (because, like most writers, I also have a day job). In this case, there was never any question of finding a traditional publisher; I deliberately decided to go indie because I wanted to retain full control over the intellectual property rights. I knew I’d be using material from the book in other aspects of my business, such as training courses, and I didn’t want to have to go running to a publisher for permission every time I wanted to do that. So indie it was.

As an entree to the industry I probably couldn’t have picked a more difficult book. It was full-colour with lots of lists and diagrams, so was a lot more complicated and expensive to format and print than a traditional black-and-white novel. Marketing non-fiction is also quite different from marketing fiction, and there are fewer resources available. But I got there in the end, and it made me realise just how much freedom and control you have over the entire process, from what you write, to design, release dates, sales and giveaways

By this point I’d finished the first draft of The Iron Line and was getting started on rewriting. It had taken longer than Greythorne (it turns out that starting a new business and finishing a novel aren’t always compatible) but it was rapidly reaching the point where I needed to decide what to do with it. I’d been toying with the idea of indie publishing from early on in the process, but had come up against the stigma that still exists around self-publishing. A successful author friend epitomised this when she said, on hearing that I was thinking of going indie, “Oh no, don’t do that — your writing is far too good and it’d be a waste of your talent.”

So I continued to weigh up my options — agent, major publisher, small press — and in July this year I again went to a Literary Speed Dating event. I had some muted interest, but also “we can’t sell Gothic” and some concerns about the length of The Iron Line, which, although slightly longer than Greythorne, is still on the short side. Even the fact that I already had one book published (and so was slightly less of a risk than a debut author) seemed to make little difference.

In the meantime, I watched Greythorne’s sales ranking slide without being able to do anything about it. If you can’t control the price then you can’t run sales, give books away for free, or implement any of the marketing mechanisms that will actually help it to sell. I knew that the dismal sales figures weren’t because it was a bad book — it had got good reviews, and I’d actually made some pretty decent money, albeit by buying print-on-demand copies and on-selling them myself, which is ultimately an unsustainable way of doing things. Finally, I decided that I wasn’t getting anything from the publisher that I couldn’t get myself, so I got my rights back and have recently re-released Greythorne under my own imprint. Suddenly a whole world of possibility has opened up, and I’m cursing having waited so long to do it.

I started thinking about The Iron Line systematically. What could a traditional publisher give me that I couldn’t get for myself? These days, publishers tend to outsource design and editing to freelancers, so these can be obtained at the same quality you’d get if you went through the trade press. Indies obviously have to finance these themselves, but then the potential returns are also far higher.

The one thing traditional publishers can provide is print distribution into bookshops. But the reality is that most books only stay on the shelves for a month or two, unless they happen to take off. Certainly books in niche genres, like mine, won’t hang around for long. And in any case, bookshops (much as I love them as a reader) only give access to the Australian market, which in global terms is minuscule, whereas indies have access to the entire English-speaking world — and beyond just the usual Western suspects. Some of the places I’ve gained the most traction have, oddly enough, been India, Malaysia and South Africa, and one of my longer-term projects for Greythorne is a Hindi translation.

Another important consideration, and the main reason why the indie mid-list is thriving while it’s all but disappeared from the traditional industry, is royalty distribution. On Amazon, which is still far and away the biggest ebook retailer, any books priced between US$2.99 and US$9.99 yield a 70 per cent royalty (for books outside those parameters it’s 35 per cent). This means that for every US$4.99 copy of Greythorne sold, I make US$3.50. I can’t divulge the royalty rate from my original contract, but I can tell you it was a lot less than that. If you choose to publish exclusively with Amazon, you can also enrol in their subscription program, Kindle Unlimited, which gives readers access to an unlimited number of books in exchange for a monthly subscription, with authors paid by the number of pages read as well as for normal sales.

Other retailers, such as Kobo, give authors a 70 per cent royalty regardless of price. Plenty of research has shown the sweet spot for ebooks — the point where the author will move the most copies but still get a decent return — to be around the three-to-five-dollar mark, which is why indie authors who are savvy with their pricing and marketing are often able to make a decent living. In contrast, most trade publishers still use ebook pricing primarily to drive sales to paperbacks (which is where they make their money), ignoring the many reasons why readers might choose to read ebooks instead. This is why you often see ebooks from traditional publishers priced at anywhere between $10 and $25, which means, of course, that they don’t sell anywhere near as well as their more reasonably priced cousins.

Even though most indie authors still make the majority of their income from ebooks, developments in print-on-demand technology have made indie paperbacks a huge industry. Gone are the days when a minimum print run was 1000 books, which you then had to store until you could sell them. These days, you just upload a file and it gets printed as people order copies. Amazon has its own print production company, CreateSpace, while one of the world’s largest producers of traditionally published books, Ingram Content Group, also runs a print-on-demand arm, IngramSpark, designed for indie publishers. IngramSpark also markets indie books directly to retailers and libraries in the same way that Ingram sells its traditionally published books, meaning that it’s easier than ever for indies to get their work out there.

The other exciting area where indies are leading the way is audio. In the last five years, the audiobook market has taken off, driven in large part by the ubiquity of the smartphone and the resultant podcast revolution, which changed people’s listening habits. Most traditional publishers, realising just how valuable audio rights are, will now force authors to sign them over (whereas previously you could choose to retain these and nobody cared), even if they have no intention of exploiting them, which deprives authors of a valuable asset. In addition, unlike with print books, it’s not possible for authors to pitch directly to audiobook publishers such as Bolinda. They deal directly with print publishers, so even if you retain your audio rights, there’s no way you can get an independent deal with them.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon is leading the way in indie audiobook production, like it did with ebooks, through its own platform, Audiobook Creation Exchange. ACX pairs authors with narrators, through either a fee-for-service or royalty-sharing arrangement, and then publishes the audiobook to Amazon’s massive Audible platform, as well as to iTunes. Books published on Audible are also made available for sale on Amazon alongside the ebook and paperback versions, and it’s becoming increasingly common for customers to buy both the ebook and the audiobook, especially as they sync on a smartphone or tablet to allow seamless transitions between the two formats. (You can read up to a certain point in the ebook, and the audiobook will pick up where you left off, and vice versa.)

But ACX isn’t available everywhere — Australia, as you might expect, is one of the places yet to receive it — and other companies such as Findaway Voices are rapidly filling the gaps. The growth of in-home voice-activated services such as Google Home and Amazon Echo is also likely to bolster the audiobook market, and indies are in a prime position to take advantage of it.

Looking at it this way, in cold, unemotional business terms, it was clear to me what the best option was. But if this sounds like an easy decision, it wasn’t. Indie publishing is hard work. It also, strangely, felt a bit like admitting defeat. I hadn’t realised how deeply I’d internalised the idea that the only people who self-publish are those who can’t get a traditional contract.

Thankfully, this perception is gradually changing, especially as more and more well-known authors start choosing the hybrid model — some books published traditionally, some indie. In December 2016, bestselling Australian author John Birmingham (He Died with a Felafel in His Hand) announced that, although he still had some trade contracts, he was going to be indie publishing a lot of his work from now on, after a falling-out with his publisher. Such high-profile defections help give legitimacy to indie publishing, as does the fact that many publishing awards are now increasingly open to indies. In fact, the annual ACT Publishing Awards are open only to books published either independently or by small presses, in recognition of the fact that high-quality work exists outside the publishing mainstream.

For me, ultimately, it came down to freedom. I certainly don’t expect to make my fortune overnight — indie publishing is a long game — but I have control over my own destiny, and that’s hugely important to me. Indie publishing gives me freedom not just in the business sense of deciding release dates, pricing and when to run sales, but also creatively. The accepted wisdom in traditional publishing is that once you publish your first novel you need to keep writing more of the same in order not to confuse readers, but in indie publishing, you can write whatever you want. It’s true that deviating hugely from your normal genre may not be the best business decision, at least under the same name, but if I want to jump from Gothic mystery to steampunk, for instance, that’s not such a huge leap. Realising I have the freedom to experiment creatively and to take risks (some of which may not pay off, but some of which I’m hoping will) is incredibly liberating. And even if I lose the respect of many in the traditional publishing industry, I can connect directly with my readers, which is one of the things I love most about being an author.

For many writers, a traditional publishing contract will still be the pinnacle of success, and others just want to write without the pressure of running their career like a business. And I haven’t ruled it out entirely; if the right trade contract came along, I’d happily be a hybrid author. Considering that just a decade ago everyone seemed to be decrying the death of the book industry, it’s incredibly exciting to realise that it’s not just surviving but thriving. It may not look exactly like it used to, but as both an author and a reader I feel there’s great cause for optimism.

A few weeks ago I watched the 1990s Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks classic rom-com You’ve Got Mail. The basic premise, for those who’ve never seen it, is love in the age of the internet. This is how IMDb succinctly describes it: “Two business rivals who despise each other in real life unwittingly fall in love over the internet.” The most notable thing about the film, especially watching it almost 20 years after it was made, is its depictions of technology and the social response to it – dial-up modems, brick-like laptops, electric typewriters, and an obvious lack of mobile phones in general, let alone smartphones (a scene where Tom Hanks’ character stands up Meg Ryan’s for a date, for example, wouldn’t really have been feasible in the age of widespread mobile phone use). It was also a time when online dating was still considered a bit shameful or desperate, a tactic reserved for those who weren’t capable of getting a date in real life.

I’ve seen this film a number of times and noticed all this before, but what really struck me this time was the way the movie depicts the book industry. When IMDb says the two characters are “business rivals”, what it fails to mention is that the business they’re in is books. Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox, is the multimillionaire owner of mega-chain Fox Books (clearly modelled on Borders), while Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, owns a small independent children’s book store, The Shop Around the Corner. Spoilers – a Fox Books outlet opens up across the street and eventually puts The Shop Around the Corner out of business, which is depicted as basically inevitable from the start.

I found it really interesting to reflect on this 20 years on, in light of all the massive disruptions to the publishing and bookselling industries that have occurred in the interim. In 1998, when the film was made, chains like Borders and Angus & Robertson were in their heyday. It was only logical that the small indies didn’t have a hope of survival against the huge multinational conglomerates and their ability to buy in huge amounts and offer steep discounts (as well as add-on businesses like in-store cafes). This was how the American capitalist model had worked for decades and, as far as anyone could see, this was how it was likely to continue.

Then two major things happened: Amazon and the iPhone.

It’s not overstating it to say that these two products revolutionised the way we consume media in general – not just books, of course, but they both played a major role in reshaping the book industry. When the Kindle came along it made reading digital books feasible and comfortable for the first time, and spawned a host of other e-readers and online stores in competition. The iPhone (and the iPad) gave us instant access to enormous amounts of media in our pockets. Why carry around a single hardback book when you could now have hundreds on a device far thinner and lighter than a paperback?

Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail was caught at a particularly unfortunate time in history. If she’d managed to hold on for just a few more years, Fox Books would have been the one going under (Borders finally folded in 2010 after several years of struggle) and she would have been able to be part of the indie renaissance. The development of ebooks, as well as the advent cheap hard copies from the likes of Amazon and The Book Depository, meant that the superstores were suddenly uncompetitive due to their higher running costs – but indie stores that specialise and offer premium products, as well as support for authors and other services to readers such as niche events, have managed not only to survive but thrive. A speciality children’s store like The Shop Around the Corner would probably do very well in today’s climate, with the resurgence of interest in artisan products and unique experiences.

We get so used to the small day-to-day changes in technology that it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come in just such a short time. When the ebook disruption first occurred, people were decrying the death of the book industry; now you regularly see reports on the resurgence of print and how the ebook was a fad – all of which, to my mind, are greatly exaggerated. As far as I’m concerned, now is an incredibly exciting time to be a reader, with all the various formats available (not just print and ebook, but audiobooks and graphic novels too, both of which are growing very fast). It’s just as exciting a time to be a writer, with the growth in accessibility and professionalisation of indie publishing and small presses meaning that we now have more options than ever beyond the traditional publishing deal. Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly could never have imagined it.

About a month ago I attended my 15-year school reunion. I hadn’t planned to go – it just so happened I was back in my hometown for work the weekend it was on, and one of my best friends was going, so I figured there’d be safety in numbers. I was actually surprised by how nervous I was, because high school for me was a complicated mix of emotions (as it probably is for everyone), which shaped my character in both good and not-so-good ways, and I wasn’t all that keen to revisit it. It was also the first reunion I’d been to – I’d been out of town for the others – so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I pictured all the worst sorts of high-school reunion tropes, where everyone is just as cliquey and bitchy as you remember, and it becomes a pissing contest over who’s the most ‘successful’. The fact that I was going to be one of the few there without kids was also a bit of a worry – I envisioned being bored to death by a host of yummy mummies (it was a girls school). My friend and I reassured each other that we only needed to stay an hour, then we could bunk off and go shopping.

To say I was pleasantly surprised, however, was an understatement. When we arrived at the pub where it was being held there was only a small group there – all girls I remembered as being ‘cool’ and having it totally together (while my friend and I were paid-up members of Club Nerd) -and my heart sank a little. Then I started talking to them, and all my misconceptions got blown away.

There are many debates about the merits (or otherwise) of single-sex education, but two things stood out very strongly to me – our year group has produced a lot of kick-ass women who are doing amazing things, and most of us credit this to the fact that we were never given the impression at school that we couldn’t do something just because we were girls. If your passion was maths or physics or agriculture you could go right ahead (the creative fields were a bit more problematic, because although it had a fabulous art program, it was still a hothouse private school that wasn’t terribly tolerant of the more eccentric aspects of creative personalities, especially when it came to dress). We left there believing we could do anything – and although for some of us, me included, this put us on a bit of a crash-course with the reality of workplace sexism down the track, it also gave us the tools to fight it.

The other thing that struck me about the gathering was how interesting and diverse the stories were. There were health issues, religion found and lost, creativity discovered, identities established in myriad different ways. A number had gone on to become teachers themselves after initially pursuing other careers, and many more had had a variety of career and life changes. Motherhood was part of this for many of them, but it wasn’t the sole part, and we had far more in common than I’d thought. I also realised how little I’d known about these women when we were at school. Some had been facing various upheavals at home; others had struggled with learning difficulties or other things that made life harder. And the greatest revelation was that those same ‘cool’ girls whom I’d envied in high school had felt just as dislocated as me all along. Turns out we were all faking it, but none of us dared admit it.

The school years are a relatively short time of your life – I’ve now been out of school longer than I was there – but they seem to have a disproportionately large impact, coming as they do at such a seminal stage. Before the reunion I hadn’t seen the point in revisiting a time when, for large chunks of it, I’d been quite unhappy. But afterwards I realised how important it can be to revisit your perceptions, the stories you tell yourself about a particular time or people, and to sometimes have those turned on their head. In the end, I didn’t just stay for an hour and then go shopping – I spent six hours talking to these funny, smart, amazing women and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’ll be at the 20-year reunion with bells on.

I’ve just sent the second draft of The Iron Line off to beta readers (which I’ll write about in more detail at some point), and I’m now left with that rather strange feeling which, I imagine, is a bit like seeing your child off on their first day of school. One of those beta readers, who also happens to be my former high-school English teacher, reminded me of Anne Bradstreet’s wonderful poem ‘The Author to Her Book’, which sums it up far better than I can. So I’ll just leave this here.

The Author to Her Book
Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

My stall at the Independent Publishing Fair (it was very cold!)

Last week was the third annual Noted Festival, held in Canberra, where I live. I’d heard about it the previous two years, but for various reasons had never got round to actually participating in anything.

Noted isn’t like other writers festivals – for one thing, it has “an explicit commitment to emerging and experimental writing from diverse backgrounds.” From what I could tell, in practice this looks like a couple of different things. First, and most obviously, the festival celebrates writers regardless of race, gender, sexuality or disability. One of the most powerful moments for me was at the festival launch, where the Welcome to Country was delivered by Ngunnawal elder Aunty Nin Janette Phillips, who spoke of the importance of telling Indigenous stories and the role that all Australian writers, regardless of their heritage, can play in bringing to light the stories of the First Australians.

The second, less obvious aspect of celebrating diversity was the range of events on offer, across all types of writing and art more broadly. This doesn’t seem like such a big deal unless you understand what a closed shop the Australian literary scene is, and how often genre fiction (i.e. anything that’s not literary fiction) is scorned by the mainstream book world, including most major writers festivals. I know multi-award-winning genre authors (including winners of the Aurealis Awards, Australia’s premier speculative fiction award) who can’t get panel slots at the major writers festivals. Noted was the exact opposite of this – egalitarian and just damned good fun, without an ounce of snobbery. There was a spirit of playfulness that pervaded the festival, and everyone there just seemed to be having a really good time.

My favourite event was ‘Ghosts in the Seams,’ held on Friday evening in one of the city’s large op-shops (second-hand clothing stores). We were invited to develop a character of our choosing – either a new one or one we’d been working on for a while – and then to find clothes that we thought encapsulated that character and dress up. The clothes served as inspiration and we then had a 20-minute writing session where we wrote about the character or a scene from their story. It sounds crazy, but the dressing up was actually hugely inspiring. Actually putting a character’s clothes on made them seem so much more real than when you just meet them in your head. I dressed up as Jane Adams from my new novel, The Iron Line, and in the process fell in love with a pair of black steampunk-style combat boots that suited both her and me perfectly (and being an op-shop, I could buy them for just $4 and take them home!). I wrote in my last post about the importance of creative play, and this was another experience of that. I came away from it feeling re-energised and inspired.

I also got the chance to participate as a stallholder in the Independent Publishing Fair, which showcased individual authors, small presses, zines and other independent creatives, as well as poetry and performance art. Regardless of the sales side of things, I just really enjoyed talking to the people who came by, many of whom were writers or enthusiastic readers. It’s made me consider the possibility of doing other markets, because I just really enjoy getting out there and meeting people who love books as much as I do.

So, all in all it was a great festival, and I’m already looking forward to Noted 2018.

I’ve just come home from five wonderful days at the Sydney Artists Retreat, which I try to get to every year. On the drive back, I happened to listen to a fantastic podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) with Liz Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear) discussing creativity.

One of the many topics that came up was the blocks that people often have about creativity – her statistic was that something like 78 per cent of people say they’ve been told at some point that they’re not creative (e.g. that they “can’t” sing/dance/paint/write), which often leads to people becoming blocked or giving up on certain art forms. Often, sadly, this occurs in our childhood and adolescence, and a lot of us never get over it. Julia Cameron’s seminal book The Artist’s Way is used by practically every artist I know to address this – but that’s a post for another time.

Anyway, the thing that struck me most about this in the context of the retreat was that even if we’ve got over our blocks sufficiently to develop a primary art form, many of us still feel that way about other types of art, as if they’re all mutually exclusive. There’s still the idea that you’re a writer or a visual artist or a musician, when in fact creativity often crosses boundaries. Although it’s true that most artists excel in one main field – due to the sheer amount of time and effort involved in developing talent to a high standard – it can be immensely freeing to engage in creative play in mediums that aren’t your natural inclination.

One of my paintings from the Sydney Artists Retreat

One of the things I love about the Sydney Artists Retreat is that it’s one of the few places I’ve been that actively encourages this. The competitive aspect of art is stripped away and attendees are encouraged to engage in whatever art form they feel called to, even if it’s not the project they came to work on. So, despite intending to spend the week working on the second draft of The Iron Line, what I did most was paint, sing, play piano and make things out of clay. Was it immediately ‘useful’? No. I’m a writer, and words will always be my primary art form. But it was incredibly relaxing and refreshing, which was exactly what I needed after several months of stress and creative paralysis. It didn’t matter if my paintings were ‘good’ or not – what was important was that the act of creating them tapped a well in me that I was worried was starting to run dry.

So I guess the moral of this story (and I’m sure Liz Gilbert would agree) is don’t be afraid to play. It doesn’t have to be great – it doesn’t even have to be good, whatever that is. Just get stuck in – sculpt, paint, write, dance, sing, sew – whatever gives you joy. Because ultimately we’re all creative beings – we just have to stop telling ourselves we’re not.

One of the great myths about writing is that it only occurs when you’re typing on a keyboard (or writing by hand, if you prefer). In my case, however – and I know I’m not alone here – a great deal of my ‘writing’ takes place when I’m away from my desk, often when I’m doing something mundane, like housework or waiting for the bus. Different stories take different lengths of time to percolate, and I’ve found no relationship between the length of the story and the time required. Greythorne, for example, came together relatively quickly – within a week of getting the idea I was writing it down, and I had a first draft in three months – but The Iron Line is taking a bit longer. And, weirdly enough, I just finished a 2000-word short story, Reset (which I hope to make available to my newsletter subscribers very soon), which has been percolating for nine months – a long time for such a short piece.

In recognition of the idea that ‘writing’ actually often consists of random musings while doing other things, a growing number of authors have turned to technology, especially dictation software, to fill the gap. Indie superstar Joanna Penn often dicusses how she dictates her books while going on long walks, and many others have followed suit. In the past, I’ve found that switching mediums (especially going from the computer to writing by hand) can really help me when I’m feeling creatively blocked, so I decided to test-run the dictation thing, with interesting results. I used Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictated directly into Scrivener at first, before switching to recording directly into my phone for the second experiment.

Conclusion 1: Dictating my novel directly doesn’t work for me.

Dictation software has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and it’s now actually pretty accurate most of the time (especially if you have a decent mic). My dislike of dictation stems not from the reliability of the software, but from the way it changed my thought processes, which was completely unexpected.

I’m a very visual person and, it turns out, there’s also something about the touch of the keyboard or pen that helps words flow for me. When I had to dictate them, my brain felt sluggish, as if it couldn’t handle having to get the words out through my mouth rather than my hands. Pauses were more awkward, as I felt like I should be speaking fluently, and at the same time I was very conscious about having to speak clearly so the software would pick it up.

It’s also worth noting that I’m a fast typist, so I didn’t gain a lot time-wise from dictating, especially when you factor in the time needed to go back and edit the mistakes (one of the best ones was when I mentioned how someone “smiled with his mouth but not his eyes” and it heard “mouth” as “mouse”). However, if you’re a slower typist, have issues like RSI, or are more of an auditory person, dictation may work very well for you.

Conclusion 2: Abstract recording (as opposed to direct dictation) really helps when I’m blocked.

I’m currently working on the second draft of The Iron Line, which is written in the first person. In the past when I’ve got stuck, I’ve often ‘interviewed’ my characters in my head and written down their responses. During a particularly blocked patch about a month ago, I decided to go one step further and record myself speaking in the voice of the main character, just as if it was a proper interview. I’d been taking some improv acting classes and was feeling much more comfortable about developing a character on the fly, so I figured it was worth a try.

It worked a treat. Unlike the direct dictation, where I kept getting stuck looking for the right word, these ‘interviews’ were more guides for the plot than anything else. I basically asked my character ‘What happened next and how did it make you feel?’ and then got in her head and told the story in her voice. The words didn’t necessarily make it into the written version verbatim, but listening to the recording helped keep the plot on track, and there was much less pressure just sitting on the couch and talking, rather than staring at a screen. Perhaps it’s because of my journalism background, and the fact that I’ve done a lot of interviews on both sides of the mic, but I found it really unlocked something just by approaching it a different way.

So I guess the moral of this story is don’t be afraid to try new things. We’re so lucky with the way technology is developing and that we now have so many innovative solutions available to us – not just as writers, but in daily life. If something isn’t working for you, change it up – you never know, you may just hit on the key that unlocks it all.

Communications for Volunteers cover

Well, I have some exciting news – my first non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers: Low-Cost Strategies for Community Groups is out on Monday! It’s an introductory-level communications handbook for grassroots volunteer groups, which I was inspired to write through my own volunteering experience (I realised that many volunteer groups don’t have a good understanding of how best to market themselves or communicate with their members, and there aren’t many resources out there to help them).

This book was turned around relatively quickly – nine months from concept to publication – and it’s also my first foray into indie publishing, which has been a massive learning curve. At the same time, I’ve also been trying to edit and rewrite The Iron Line, which has taken a lot longer and been a lot more difficult than I anticipated, and it’s got me thinking a lot about the differences between fiction and non-fiction.

Many authors prefer to focus on either fiction or non-fiction, but I’ve been lucky in that, over the years, I’ve learned to write in many different styles. I’ve written fiction for almost as long as I can remember (and I’m still learning so much about the craft), but I’ve also worked as a journalist,  published various academic articles (and written a PhD thesis), and worked as an editor and writing trainer for the government, which is a whole different style again.

For me, non-fiction is a whole lot easier than fiction. I’m now pretty comfortable with straight-up general non-fiction, which is what my communications book is, but I still feel I’m on an incredibly steep learning curve with fiction. In general non-fiction, you still have to worry about structure, tone, voice and many other ‘craft’ aspects, but I find them a lot more straightforward to master than in fiction, where you also have to deal with characterisation, plot, subtext, dialogue, emotion and a whole raft of other things. It’s the difference between learning to juggle with two balls and then having to juggle ten – while they’re on fire.

The one writing style I still have a lot of trouble with is creative non-fiction. I’m a huge fan of longform journalism and personal essays, but I feel like a complete novice when I try to write them myself. I recently had a piece rejected by a literary journal (after getting quite a long way through the process) because in the end it was based too heavily on reportage, without enough ‘literary’-style analysis. I guess the moral of the story is that you never, ever stop learning, and just because you’re good at one style or genre doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a master of them all. I have to remind myself of this sometimes when I get a bit despondent about how The Iron Line is progressing – like at the moment, when I’m feeling like every word I write is garbage – and remember that this is a process of growth that takes years, if not your whole life. I think part of the reason I’m finding The Iron Line so challenging is that, now that I know I can finish a book (which was the main goal of Greythorne), I’m pushing myself in other ways. This will hopefully make for a better novel, but it’s pretty painful when you’re in the middle of it. In any case, for now I’m just enjoying the feeling of once again seeing my words between covers. That never gets old.

It’s taken four months, but I’ve finally finished the first read-through of The Iron Line and I’m starting to overhaul it. I naively thought the second book would be easier than the first – because I know what I’m doing now, right? Wrong.

The first draft of Greythorne took three months to write and I let it percolate for only three weeks before I launched into editing and rewriting. The first draft of The Iron Line took a similar amount of time – four months, although it’s also longer than Greythorne – and I finished it in September last year…and haven’t touched it since. To be fair, I also completed a non-fiction book in the middle there and had a few other projects on the go as well, but this one needed a bit more time to stew. The first draft read like a bad episode of Midsomer Murders, and I couldn’t really see a way out.

troubleshooting-your-novel-cover

Then, while I was in Sydney over Christmas, I picked up Steven James’s excellent book, Troubleshooting Your Novel, which was exactly what I needed to get me out of the writing funk I’ve been in. The book is broken into bite-sized chapters that each deal with a different technical aspect of writing, such as causality, escalation, believability, subtext and many more (there are 80 in total!), and James gives great advice on how to identify problems in your manuscript and – even better – how to fix them.

One of the tactics he recommends when looking at causality is to make a list of events (he says in a particular scene, but I did it for the whole book) and how they lead into each other – essentially showing cause and effect. This was a revelation for me and led to a complete overhauling of the plot. When I mapped out the sequence of events it was easy to see that I had the main plot and the subplot mixed up, and the whole thing feels much more coherent now. There are still plenty of things wrong with the story, but I think this problem was the main one. I find I get a gut feeling when a story is working (or isn’t), and with the new outline it feels like the pieces have fallen into place. The same thing happened with Greythorne – everything was slightly out of whack until one of my beta readers suggested a change to the ending, which then fixed a whole bunch of other problems as well.

People tend to think that fiction-writing is primarily a creative or right-brained pursuit, and in the first draft it is. But once that first draft’s done it becomes highly analytical – it’s all about problem-solving, technique and craft. This was the thing it took me many years to learn – that to be a successful writer (‘successful’ by my definition meaning you actually finish things and people read them and don’t think they’re terrible) you have to be able to meld the creative and the analytical. It’s not enough to just have great ideas – you need to have a strong enough understanding of technique to be able to execute them properly. In that sense, it’s like any other art form (no one would suggest you can become a concert pianist without doing lots and lots of scales), but I think most readers – and many beginning writers – don’t understand just how important the craft side is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became a much better creative writer around the same time that my analytical skills were kicked up a gear by doing a PhD in an unrelated field.

Anyhow, after several months of feeling rather ‘bleugh’ about the novel, I feel like I’ve now got my mojo back and I’m ready to tackle the next draft. In the meantime, my new non-fiction book, Communications for Volunteers, will be out in early March. I’ll keep you posted.