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.

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.

Kings Park in Perth – not a bad place to do some editing!

After letting The Iron Line ferment for six weeks or so, I’ve just started editing it. This first read-through is always a bit painful, although it has its upsides too. Sometimes I come across a particularly well-turned phrase and get a little ‘I can’t believe I wrote that’ thrill, but more often than not, all I can see is what needs to be fixed.

This time around, I’m also facing the problem of social media. When I wrote Greythorne I wasn’t following any authors, publishers or bookshops on Instagram or Twitter, and I wasn’t active in Facebook author groups or reading lots of book blogs. But now, it seems like everywhere I turn I see authors (both traditional and indie) who have ‘made it,’ with their beautiful, deeply moving, award-winning books in all the best shops and giving talks at writers’ festivals from here to Timbuktu. And I feel like I’m back in high school – the nerdy girl standing on the outside of the popular crowd, hoping her attempts at imitating their style will be enough for her to gain acceptance.

Thankfully, I’m not 15 years old any more, and I know this is ridiculous. It’s even more so because in general I don’t really compare my life with others’ on social media – I’m well aware that to do so would be comparing my warts-and-all exposé with their highlight reels. But when it comes to books I clearly have a weak spot.

The real challenge is not to let this fit of comparitonitis influence my writing. The Iron Line isn’t a bad book, although it still needs work, and fans of Greythorne will hopefully enjoy it. But I can’t help feeling that I should be writing ‘great literature’ of the type showing up in my social media feeds (I.e. The type determined by the publishing industry’s gatekeepers) and that to do so is the only way to gain acceptance to this clique. And yet, stories are what really matter. Readers, like you, are what matter. So I’ll keep on editing my own story, and I hope you’ll enjoy the result.

Ghost train

Well, it’s done. I’ve finished the first draft of The Iron LineI should be ecstatic, but to be honest, I feel a bit, well…flat. I can’t remember how I felt when I completed Greythorne, but I think it was probably more elated than this – probably because it was the first time, so it felt like a bigger achievement, and also I was much more ignorant of the process that follows. So these are my raw, honest reflections in the immediate aftermath of completion, because with this blog post series I said I’d take you behind the scenes, warts and all.

  • It’s too short. I was aiming for 80,000 words, which I then revised down to 70,000, then 60,000 but it’s come in at just over 57,000. That’s 10,000 words longer than Greythorne, but it’s still on the bottom end of novel-length works. I know that word count really shouldn’t matter, because every story has an optimum length, and when you start trying to pad it out is when you get problems. But I somehow feel like less of a writer for producing such a short novel (although Dragonscale is 90,000 words, so I’m clearly capable of doing it). Word count is one of my recurring writing-related neuroses.
  • It’s not the book I envisaged. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I set out to write Australian Gothic and ended up with a much more stock-standard murder mystery. It’s still fun and I still enjoyed writing it, but I think upping the creepiness factor is something I’ll need to fix in the next draft.
  • I can’t tell if the twist is really shocking. This was the same with Greythorne – I knew it so well that it was hard to tell if I was foreshadowing too much or not enough. This is why I have beta readers and copy editors.
  • This draft came much more easily than Greythorne did. I remember getting hugely bogged down in the middle of Greythorne. That happened a bit here too, but to nowhere near the same extent, and I was able to get over it fairly easily, although I still don’t know if the pacing is right.
  • Scrivener is the best thing ever. If you’re a serious writer and haven’t tried it yet, get on it.
  • Writing sprints work for me. I know I go on about this a bit, but they really do. Writing this way was what allowed me to finish it in a bit over four months.

So now the hard work really begins. I haven’t even read the full draft through yet, although I’ve been making notes to myself as I go about things I need to check – word use, internal consistency and so on. Now I’ll give it to my husband, who is my alpha reader and the only person allowed to see my first drafts. This is because the first draft is almost like a baby – it’s still new and vulnerable. The second and third drafts are less a part of me and are more able to stand on their own, so sending them out to beta readers isn’t so much of an issue. Around the fourth or fifth draft is when my books tend to enter adulthood and are ready to go out into the world.

So I’m going to take a break and work on other projects while Tristan reads it, then I’ll give it a big overhaul. Then I’ll hit up my beta readers, revise it with their feedback, and then we’ll see where we’re at. I expect that process will take at least three months.

In the midst of all the planning for editing, though, I think I need to take some time out and remember something: I wrote another novel. Something I only ever dreamed of doing, I’ve now done three times. A little perspective never hurt anyone.

Dragonscale
This, incidentally, is why authors should never design their own covers!

When my husband Tristan and I first started dating three years ago, we had a ‘food-for-stories’ deal – he’d make me dinner and in return I’d read him the next chapter of Dragonscale, the long-running young adult fantasy novel I’d been writing off and on since 2007. We each thought we got the better end of the deal, although I’m still convinced I ultimately did. The unconditional support he expressed for my writing in those early days was one of the many things that convinced me this relationship was going places.

But over the intervening years, life got busy and Dragonscale lapsed. I went through a rough time at work and a period of quite crippling creative drought where I found it very hard to apply myself to anything; it took a new idea in a completely new genre – which ultimately became Greythorne – to snap me out of it. In the meantime, Tristan and I moved house, got married and I got the contract for Greythorne while on our honeymoon, so poor old Dragonscale languished in a corner of my hard drive.

It wasn’t until I went back to it earlier this year that I realised how close to finished it actually was. During a particularly obsessive phase I’d mapped out the content chapter by chapter, so I knew exactly where it was going and what needed to be done. Then I had a brainwave: Tristan and I were coming up to our first wedding anniversary in April, which is the ‘paper’ anniversary, and what gift could be more ‘paper’ than a manuscript? Finally I’d complete my end of the food-for-stories bargain and he’d get the ending he’d been waiting patiently for for three years.

I only made this decision in March, so it was a bit touch-and-go as to whether I’d finish it in time, but there’s nothing like a deadline to motivate you! And I got there…just. Here it is, all nicely finished and bound.

Dragonscale bound

As to what will happen to it now, that’s a good question. It needs a lot of editing, and Tristan is the only person I trust to read what Anne Lamott aptly calls ‘shitty first drafts’, so no one else will be getting their hands on it for a little while. I’m off to a retreat at the end of April where I’ll give it the first overhaul, and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully by the second half of the year it’ll be in decent enough shape that I can begin shopping it to publishers, so watch this space. I can’t lie though, it feels pretty damn good to have finally finished a book that’s been nearly 10 years in the making.

Am Writing

There are few things more frustrating as a writer than seeing all your writer friends using #amwriting on social media when you’ve hit a slow patch. Thankfully though, despite a few false starts, I can now once again claim to be part of that select, productive group (hooray!).

I recently left the full-time workforce to start my own communications consultancy, which means I’m working from home and am able to allocate a bit more time to writing than I could previously (and at civilised hours!), so I’ve actually had a run of productive days and I’ve just finished Chapter 1 of my new novel, which I’ve tentatively titled The Iron Line. Here’s a short synopsis:

Jane Adams is only nineteen, but she’s already a widow. A daughter of the railway, she takes a job as a level-crossing operator in the little town of Tungold, out at the end of the line. But all is not right in Tungold. The townspeople are frosty and unwelcoming, and Jane’s only ally is the new young police constable, Alec Ward, an outsider just like her.

When Jane is woken in the night by a mysterious ghost train, she becomes determined to get to the bottom of the town’s secrets. But Jane is also hiding a secret of her own…

In some ways I’m following a similar process to that of writing Greythorne (doing a bit every day) but I’ve refined it to take into account things I’ve learned along the way and to make it more efficient. For example, after I’d finished the first draft of Greythorne, I realised that if I didn’t have a good grasp of my characters, and particularly their motivations, they tended to come out looking two-dimensional and a bit clunky, which can be hard to fix later on. So this time around I’ve done preemptive character studies for Jane and Alec, and I’ll probably do some more on important figures in the town as I go along (I’m not really sure who the ringleaders are at the moment out of my cluster of minor characters,  but I daresay they’ll reveal themselves in time).

I’ve also started using Scrivener, which I’m finding really useful so far – I love having all my outlines, research and drafts in one place, rather than in five million files that I have to keep switching between. I also love its target word count feature – previously I used an Excel spreadsheet to calculate my daily and overall targets and how close I was to reaching them, but Scrivener does all that for you (you just put in the estimated word count of the manuscript and how many you aim to write per day and it calculates it for you. It even goes from red to yellow to green as you near your target).

Scrivener word count
Scrivener word count target

I’m trying to get the first draft done in time for an artists’ retreat I’m going on in late April, which would be the perfect place to do the first-round edits…but there’s a few other things on the boil as well so we’ll see how it goes. I generally like deadlines, and not just in the Douglas Adams sense (“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by”) because I like having something to aim for, but I’m having to learn not to beat myself up so much if I don’t meet them. It’s the same with the daily word count – I’m aiming for 1500 words a day, but I need to stop myself saying ‘I only wrote 800 today’ and instead think ‘Well, I have 800 more words  today than I did yesterday’.’  I’m not always great at being nice to myself, so this is a challenge! It feels fantastic though to be back in the saddle again with a story that so far seems to be working. If you’d like to get exclusive updates and excerpts please subscribe to my newsletter. I’ve also just started a new monthly giveaway, so every month new subscribers will go into the draw to win a signed copy of Greythorne.

From here.
From here.

As I’ve said before, books, like laws and sausages, are things you may not want to see getting made, and this is why. I think there’s a popular perception that authors just come up with a great idea and then write it down, but the reality is much messier. It’s not so much taking a road from A to B as finding your way through a labyrinth.

I wrote in  my last Anatomy of a Novel post about some of the unexpected difficulties I’ve been encountering recently with my newest story idea. The challenge (and I guess this is where experience comes in) is working out whether those difficulties are just minor speed bumps or terminal obstacles. In the case of The Dark Before the Dawn, I initially thought they were the former, but I’m increasingly getting the feeling that they’re the latter. Basically the middle is non-existent, and 200 pages of characters just wandering round the wilderness is pretty boring – just look at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There’s not many writers who can pull that off successfully, and especially not plot-driven ones like me.

The good news is that I’m blessed with a husband who’s a wonderful sounding board for ideas, and between us we’ve come up with something new. It’s still set in Australia, still in the 1860s, but it’s much more in traditional mystery territory rather than quasi-literary fiction and there’ll be a murder and a ghost train, among other things. I’ve only done a rough outline at this point, but I already feel much more excited and enthused about it.

So what is it? Join my mailing list to find out – plus if you sign up in January you’ll automatically go into the running to win a signed copy of Greythorne or a $25 Amazon voucher.

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Nepean River, Camden, NSW. Postcard company: Valentine's No. 3224
Nepean River, Camden, NSW. Postcard company: Valentine’s No. 3224. From here.

A couple of weekends ago we had to go to a wedding at Camden, which is a smallish town at the northern end of the Southern Highlands, about an hour’s drive south of Sydney (in fact it’s basically become a commuter town due to Sydney’s ridiculous sprawl). For various reasons, the wedding was on a Monday, so we decided to make a long weekend of it and explore the region, as this is the area where I’m planning to set The Dark Before the Dawn, and I really don’t know as much about it as I should.

The Southern Highlands is a gorgeous and fascinating part of the world, and if you’re ever visiting eastern Australia I can highly recommend it as a place for a weekend away. Situated on the Great Dividing Range – the mountain range that runs thousands of kilometres down the east coast of Australia, from southern Queensland to Victoria – the environment is all towering eucalyptus forests, sandstone gorges and meandering rivers. In the autumn the foliage is nothing short of spectacular.

Fitzroy Falls
Fitzroy Falls

The region is full of historic towns, beautiful bushwalks and great food and wine. It’s also got an amazing history, if that’s your thing – these towns were some of the first settlements on mainland Australia and were at the heart of the country’s developing wheat and wool industries.

This history is one of the main reasons I chose this area for the setting of The Dark Before the Dawn – because it’s brimming with bushrangers (like highwaymen or outlaws) and adventures and ghost stories and folklore. In short, it’s a rich vein for a writer like me and I don’t know why I didn’t think of mining it earlier. I suspect there’s the good old Australian ‘cultural cringe‘ involved – one of the things about growing up Australian is that most of us remain generally ignorant about the richness of our own history, as it’s not taught much in school (or at least wasn’t in my day). This is even more true when it comes to Indigenous history – it’s embarrassing how ignorant I am of Aboriginal history and culture.

Anyway, since we were in the area I decided to visit some of the places I’d been thinking about in the context of the story, and the first stop was Bargo. Bargo was an important staging post before the railway went through, and the infamous Bargo Brush was home to the highest concentration of bushrangers in the colony (the Bargo Brush was a particularly thick type of scrubby bush, which made it perfect for bushrangers to hide out in and attack coaches). I’d expected Bargo to be a historic town like Bowral, Camden or the other smaller Southern Highlands villages, with their colonial architecture and museums, but I was sorely disappointed – there was nothing there but a meagre collection of shops and a cluster of houses that wouldn’t have been out of place in the suburbs of Melbourne or Sydney. We stopped for lunch at the local takeaway joint (which did pretty good burgers, I have to say) and then went on our way.

We spent  most of the next day at the fabulous Trainworks museum at Thirlmere, which is all about the development of rail in New South Wales and is full to the brim (the site is 5 hectares/12.3 acres) with restored carriages and locomotives of various vintages. It’s a paradise for kids and fascinating for adults if you have any interest in infrastructure or history (or, obviously, trains). The coming of the railway in the mid-1860s revolutionised the colony – where it once would have taken a week to get from Sydney to Goulburn by coach (a distance of about 200km), it could be done overnight on the train. The implications for farmers in southern NSW were enormous – suddenly it was possible to get their produce to Sydney before it spoilt, opening up whole new markets.

The 'pay bus' at Trainworks, Thirlmere. This 'bus on rails' used to travel the NSW rail network in the early 20th century delivering the workers' paycheques.
The ‘pay bus’ at Trainworks, Thirlmere. This gorgeous art deco ‘bus on rails’ used to travel the NSW rail network in the early 20th century delivering the workers’ paychecks.

Thirlmere is just down the road from Picton, and this is where I found the history I’d been looking for. Picton is another old staging town, at the foot of the escarpment known as the Razorback. The original road over the Razorback was hand-built by convicts and apparently there are still old milestones nestled in the forest. We stayed at the lovely Pepper Tree Ridge bed-and-breakfast and had a good chat with the host, Barry, who recommended the local historical society and museum if I wanted to find out about the region’s ghosts and bushrangers. Australian country town historical societies are an untapped wealth of records and stories compiled by people who are passionate about their districts and who often come from families who have been there for generations. Unfortunately we didn’t have time on this trip, but I feel a proper research visit is in order very soon. All my other books have been set in either fantastical worlds or areas that aren’t directly accessible to me (like northern England), so it’s quite a novelty to be able to explore a setting in my own backyard – it really brings it to life.

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel. Part 1 can be viewed here.

Art blues

A couple of days after I wrote about unexpectedly bombing out of NaNoWriMo, this article from ArtsHub, ‘Eight ways to deal with post-project blues’, fortuitously popped up in my Facebook feed. It was quite a revelation to me, because I hadn’t realised that what I’ve been feeling lately is actually kind of normal for artists (of all persuasions) coming to the end of a major project. This part in particular rang especially true:

For cabaret artist and jazz singer Mama Alto, post-show blues take the form of exhaustion and deep questioning. While the exhaustion passes over time, the questioning is the scary part, said Alto. ‘The mind races: What will I do next? What’s the next step? What’s my next project? Has the work been received favourably?

‘These questions sometimes devolve into unhelpful, overly critical, and unrealistic perspectives. Am I good enough? Was this work good enough? If it was, how on earth can my next work be as good? Am I a fraud?’

The tl;dr version of the eight tips is this:

  1. Accept that it’s normal
  2. Understand that you’re experiencing loss
  3. Face down the critic within
  4. Learn to anticipate the blues
  5. Take a break
  6. Start thinking about the next project
  7. Look after yourself
  8. Don’t forget to celebrate the achievement

I’ve found all of these to be really helpful, and the good news is I’m starting to find my way back through an unexpected avenue. Sometimes when I’m at a bit of a creative loss I go back and look at some of my old writing to see if there’s anything worth resurrecting, even just the glimmer of an idea that has merit. Lurking in my ‘Stories’ folder (which is a treasure trove of 20 years’ worth of writing – some of which I still can’t bear to look at) is a 70,000 word young adult fantasy manuscript called Dragonscale that is so close to being finished I can almost taste it (although when I say ‘finished’ I mean a first draft – there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done after that). And, surprisingly, parts of it aren’t too bad. Even better, I wrote it during an obsessive ‘plotting’ stage, so there’s also a meticulous chapter-by-chapter outline and backstory. So I can pretty much pick up where I left off, even though the last time I worked on it was two years ago.

I have no idea if this manuscript will ever see the light of day, even after it’s finished – it’s very different to Greythorne and doesn’t really fit with my new incarnation as a horror writer. But it’s the book that taught me how to write, and so I feel that I owe it to the story to at least finish it.  Quite a few of the Greythorne reviews have mentioned that it doesn’t read like a debut novel, and that’s because it’s not. Although it’s the first novel I’ve published, Dragonscale is what I cut my novelist’s teeth on and where I found my voice. It’s no wonder really that it’s been eight years in the making. It’s also just a fun story – I enjoy spending time with the characters and it’s a good old fantasy romp. The Dark Before the Dawn will not be either of those things – the protagonist and the plot are far darker and more complex, and I just don’t have the emotional energy for that right now. Ultimately, I write because it brings me joy, and what I’ve learned over the last little while is that stories have their own time and place. For whatever reason, it seems that now is Dragonscale‘s time. I’ll keep you posted.

In this series of posts I’m going to be giving you a warts-and-all look at the process of writing my next novel, an Australian Gothic thriller tentatively titled The Dark Before the Dawn.

Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.
Ruins in Joadja, NSW. From here.

The first week of NaNoWriMo is over, and to be honest it’s been a bit of a bust for me. I have a grand total of 3685 words so far across one-and-a-bit chapters (i.e. practically nothing). Unfortunately this week I was struck down with a bad case of Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong did. Work went crazy, home life was hectic and getting up early to write suddenly became very difficult. The evenings and weekends have been spent alternately catching up on life admin and binge-watching episodes of Castle, because I don’t have much energy left right now at the tail-end of a very big year and it’s easier to watch a TV show about a writer than to actually be one.

Had this happened during my first crack at NaNoWriMo (the one that produced Greythorne), I’d probably be beating myself up pretty badly right about now. But I’ve come to value the NaNo experience not so much for the word count as for the things it teaches me about writing and about myself.

As I’ve mentioned before, last time around NaNoWriMo taught me discipline. I learned that if you just keep showing up day after day you’ll eventually get somewhere. But this time around I’m learning to be a bit kinder to myself. I no longer have to prove to myself that I can do it – I know I can. The proof is sitting there in boxes on my living-room floor. Writing a novel is hard – especially psychologically – but it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And sometimes the shit hits the fan and all your best-laid plans get thrown completely out of whack, and that’s ok. I’m fortunate in that I’m not up against a deadline, so I have the luxury of sitting back and letting things unfold at their own pace. And given my perfectionist tendencies, this has all come as a bit of an epiphany.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in those 3685 words is trying to get a sense of authenticity. It was only after I started writing that I began to realise I’ve fallen into the trap I’m always warning beginning writers about – I haven’t read enough of the genre I want to write. Looking back, I can see just how much nineteenth-century British adventure/horror fiction I’d read before I started Greythorne, and how that made it so much easier to tap into the tropes of the genre and make it sound authentic. Trying to transpose the Gothic themes to an Australian setting is proving much harder, because it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything set in my home country.

Throughout NaNoWriMo you get sent pep talks from experienced writers and, as fate would have it, this one popped into my inbox this week from graphic novel author and artist Gene Luen Yang. This is what he had to say about ‘writer’s block’ (which is a term I don’t much like, but I’ll rant about that another day):

Writer’s block can kick the wind right out of you. When I was just starting out, a serious bout of writer’s block would make me question my worth as a writer. Maybe the ideas weren’t coming because I wasn’t creative enough, or clever enough. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Now I realize that I just didn’t have enough input. Your brain doesn’t generate ideas out of thin air. It generates ideas by taking what it’s already experienced and reshaping it in new and interesting ways. If you’re not getting good output, maybe it’s because you haven’t taken in enough input.

When writer’s block hits, do research. Flip through old photographs. Watch a documentary. Read a nonfiction book, preferably one that’s been out of print for years. Visit a place you’ve never been and talk to people you don’t know. Gather input.

This input-output equation makes so much sense to me, and reading this confirmed what I’d already suspected – I just haven’t read enough yet. I like to think of it a bit like music. I’m a pretty average musician – I play piano and euphonium and sing, and I love it, but I’ll never be a concert pianist or an opera singer. I have only a basic knowledge of music theory, but lately I’ve been dabbling in a bit of songwriting. I know the kinds of things I like, and occasionally I get lucky and hit on something magical, but I couldn’t tell you why it works. Compare that to  the jazz musician who’s had years of training before even starting to improvise. It’s only by knowing the rules that they can break them and go to incredible places. Writing is exactly the same. You don’t read the genre because you want to copy it – you read it to gain a knowledge of how things are done, so that you can then make conscious technical decisions to change them to achieve your desired effect. As far as Australian Gothic goes, I’m still just plunking away and occasionally getting lucky, so I’ve realised it’s time to go back to basics before I can even think about putting my own spin on it. So I may have only 3685 words but, with that realisation, I think I can still count NaNo a success so far.

And now I’m off to read some books.