A Quick Note

The Leeth Dossier is a sci-fi/fantasy series about an unusual girl, set in our world about 50 years from now: and 25 years after magic unexpectedly returns. It opens with the book Wild Thing (2015), and continues with Harsh Lessons (2016), Shadow Hunt (2017); then (untitled) (2017/18?), Lost Girl (2018/19?)....
Find Wild Thing with Google

Friday, 23 September 2016

Professional editing (my experience in working with thEditors.com)

(image used with permission.)

Of all the advice given to independent authors, the top two things are probably "Get a professional cover design", and "Pay for a professional editor". Of these, the latter is I think the more important, though it's also the more expensive. A good cover is needed for someone to pause and consider your book, but in the end it's what's inside that really counts.

So it begs questions like:

  • How do you find an editor?
  • How much does an edit cost?
  • How do you find a good editor?"
and many more.

What is editing?    There are different kinds of editing, and therefore different kinds of editors, with varying costs that depend on two things: the type of editing, and the amount of work involved. A short answer is possible, though, by being suitably vague: and that's to say "thousands of Australian dollars". The difference between a professional's work, and that of a skilled amateur, is exactly what you would expect from any other field. It's better. A professional editor working in their area of expertise will not just see problems in your writing clearly, but they'll be able to explain why it's a problem. An amateur may be able to sense that there is some problem, but very likely to be less sure of why. An amateur might say "I liked this chapter" (or not) — which is all well and good, but gives you little help to tackle the issue. A professional should give you much more: the whys, the hows, possible solutions, and so on.

Let's talk about cost first, since it's perhaps the easiest to deal with, and high on the list of authors' concerns. Especially true for indie authors, since the cost of the editing is not hidden inside the package of a deal with a traditional publisher.

Is it worth the money?    Definitely, yes. From my own experience, I can state a personal and unqualified "Yes". And sensitised to the topic by my own experience, I then started picking up strong confirmation from successful authors in general. Read between the lines of the "Acknowledgements" section that prefaces most books, for the thanks given by the author to their editor. (Often, you don't need to read between the lines.) Or attend talks by writers: often, they'll very clearly state just how much credit they owe to their editors. I seem to recall one saying something along the lines "It's almost a dirty little secret: just how much your editor helps you to write the best book you can." I suspect that if you've read a book from an author you loved, and been underwhelmed by them with another of their books, to the point of wondering "How could that author have written that book?", the answer may be "Different editor."

Anyway, back to the topic of cost, you should think of it this way: you're going to be paying a professional to read your work, and to spend time thinking about what can be improved, what isn't working, what to do about it, and to write all that down so you can address all the issues (and perhaps, opportunities). If you're lucky, the editor may include some ideas that you'll kick yourself for not having spotted yourself. Or which simply make you go "Wow, great idea, yes!" and make you want to dive back to the keyboard, or pencil and paper. Another positive thing to consider, when weighing the cost, is that a lot of this is under your control: the clearer your writing, the more things you get right, the less work the editor will have.

Length.    Obviously, the length of the work will affect the cost. A moderate length book is something like 80,000 — 100,000 words. A long book is something like 120k — 150k words. A very long book is 160k — 200k words. And so on. The more words you've written the more time it takes to read them and critique them. I'd also say, the more chance there is for things to go off the rails, and require large portions to be cut. So bear that in mind when thinking about the cost of an editor, and the time you will need to spend on writing the best book you can.

Polishing.    Another point worth making about the cost, is polishing. The more time you can spend improving your work:

  1. the better it will be,
  2. the less work will be required from the editor,
  3. and the lower the cost will be.
So by getting Alpha readers, Beta readers, reviews and critiques of sections by other writers, by spending time learning about POV, POV shifts, passive voice, making characters come alive, "voice", how to write dialogue, pacing, plot vs story, flow, rhythm, punctuation, spelling, (etc., etc.), the stronger your writing will be, the more polished it will be, and again, the less work will be required from an editor. More than that, if you're at such an early point in your mastering of the craft of writing that your editor would have to teach you how to do many of those things, then you're at too early a stage to be paying for an editor. It won't end happily. But you can expect to learn some of those things from your editor: I know I did! As well, the editor will be able to discuss the readers' expectations with you.

So, regarding the cost: think of how many hours and weeks of work you're buying, and then divide the total cost to get a rough idea of how much you're paying the editor per hour. That should help you get a perspective on how much you're "really" paying for.

Finding an editor. So let's consider the question "How do you find a good editor (for your book)?"

As this article is already probably too long, I'll be lazy and just focus on my own experience, rather than trying to give a complete answer. But here's a token effort:

There's a little survey of how different writers approach editing, at: http://www.lexirad.com/income-covers-and-editing-more-fascinating-data-about-indie-authors/, and Ellis Shuman writes about how he found his editor here: Ellis Shuman: How I Found My Editor, while Emily Suess added a Self-Publishing Services Directory to her blog (though that has since become private <shrug>). An internet search will probably turn up the Editorial Freelancers Association website (www.the-efa.org/). It's also worth a Google search of Editors and Predators: you'll find some informative stuff.

My own experience? I found thEditors through Twitter. Early in my learning about self-publishing, I learned of the importance of authors being involved in social media (to the right degree), and joined Twitter, while trying to work out what it was and what I was supposed to do with it. I still think it's a good way to "curate the internet" — i.e. to learn of useful stuff for you. By Following other authors and people involved in publishing I encountered an ad for thEditors. Their offer was great: you sent them the first few thousand words of your novel, and they'd critique it for free, and indicate whether your manuscript would be a good fit for them.

Now, (don't laugh!), at this point I was just in what I thought was the final stages for self-publishing my novel. I'd put a lot of work into it over the years since its first draft, and it had even been a finalist in a contest. Since then, I'd found some big flaws, and made major improvements, and I'd just spent two more months (since being made redundant at the end of March, 2015), working intensely to learn about self-publishing and to improve the MS ready for publication on Amazon. I thought it was good to go, and that getting an opinion would be something along the lines of (I said, don't laugh!), "This is fine, you don't need our help — go for it."

(Of course, I also read the testimonials on their web site. To me, they seemed genuine: not faked-up or paid-for.)

What I got back, within two weeks!, was a lengthy email, basically encouraging but also with some suggestions for several big issues that needed addressing, and which was full of insightful comments. To me, it was a reality check: I had to agree with at least 95% of what he'd written; he definitely seemed to "get" my book, and even if I did nothing else, I definitely needed to go away and address all the issues he'd pointed out. He was also interested in working with me further on it, and asked a few questions (like: how long was it?)

What to do?

So, we started discussing it, by email.

Now, a good friend, who'd been patiently encouraging and prodding me over a twenty year period (I kid you not) to finish the book and publish it somehow — including reading it and critiquing it in detail — reacted at first with an "Are you sure this isn't just a lure? Do they just want your money? I think you could publish it as-is. You've been polishing it for years."

But my answer was that, 1) all the points they'd made seemed both correct and insightful, to me, and 2) I felt, from all our emails as we'd discussed it, that they were honest, and were not just stringing me along. So I showed my friend a print out of a couple of the emails, and remember Jon reading it and then looking up to me and saying "You're right. He knows what he's talking about. This is good advice. I hadn't seen these things."

And so I decided to go ahead, and spend the money. And then, I thought back to a comment in one of Dave's emails, that said something like "You'll see what I mean from the in-line comments in the document," which I had assumed at the time meant "… after you pay me the money and we get seriously to work." And thinking about it again, I mused, "You know, that really doesn't match my feelings about how thEditors operate. I don't suppose by any chance I overlooked an attachment, in one of the emails…?"


Why, yes. Yes, I had. In that very first lengthy email from Dave, so full of good advice, in fact! There was a Word document attached, and just as he'd said, it had much more detail, including line-by-line comments. And the advice there — well, like his email, only more so. So, by this point it was blindingly clear that I'd have to be stupid to decide to go it on my own.

Kinds of editors.

I'm speaking of my experience with thEditors, who provided me with a line by line structural edit and also numerous developmental suggestions (while also pointing out typos spotted along the way). Their critique identified plenty of sentences that needed attention, and suggested fixes. Much of this focussed on my wordiness, some about over-use of adjectives and adverbs, some was to point out repetition; often it was just advice to shorten: pointing out that if you boil it down and concentrate your writing, the passage will usually have more impact. (I suppose the extreme example of this is poetry.) In my mind, it's what I think of as "the Cameron Edwards principle": if something can be said with fewer words, that's probably the right way to say it. (Based on an insight from a very smart young engineer I worked with, while our team was reviewing an important but lengthy patent we were drafting.) A pity I don't follow Cameron's (and Dave's) advice more, I hear you say! But I'm working on it.

Other kinds of editing range from this level, down to the level of detail of copy editing (proofreading?): identifying typos, grammatical errors, punctuation errors, and simple continuity errors. Have a look at, e.g., http://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions.html or wordcafeblog: Editing workshop 2: what are the different types of editing/ for some definitions.

Rough diamonds.   Anyway, what Dave provided was, metaphorically, taking an uncut gemstone, and cutting and polishing it. Or, perhaps more accurately, advising me where to cut and polish. That included cutting off some lumps of gemstone, removing clumps of clay, and also turning it to present a different angle. All with the purpose of producing something that was already there, but in some sense covered. I don't think the metaphor stretches as far as a sculptor cutting away the stone to reveal the Venus de Milo — or in my case, maybe some kind of fish, is it? — hidden inside (that's probably more the work of a ghost-writer). I'm sure the boundary between what the editor does and what the author does varies, across people, across time, and even across the pages within a single book.

Note though that I qualified that by saying, "working in their area of expertise". If you search on the internet, you can read some tales — from traditionally published authors — of bad experiences with editors. You'll find lots of horror stories of awful and even wrong advice from professional editors who, basically, just didn't "get" what the author was doing. My impression is that it mostly happens when the book the editor has been assigned to is one they wouldn't choose to read themselves, and they're trying to change the book into something they would want to read, even if that means it's no longer the book the author is trying to write. Or it happens when the personalities of the author and editor clash horribly.

In TP (traditional publishing), the balance of power lies with the publishing company and editor: unless the author agrees to make the changes the editor requires, the book will not be published. That, I'm sure, can be anguishing — and sometimes destructive and wrong, for the book. On the other hand, in SP (self-publishing or indie publishing), the balance of power lies with the author. "Terrific!" you exclaim — until you realise that the author is typically blind to the problems in their own work, which means there will be some awful works published because the SP author ignored the advice of their editor….

Working with an editor

So, what was it like, working with thEditors? The short answer is "great!", but a longer answer is probably helpful.

At this point, my MS was 150k words: after a lot of effort, I'd managed to cut it from 169k to 150k. And, mind you, this was ten years after realising that in the version of the MS that had been one of ten finalists in the inaugural George Turner contest, I'd realised that the whole second half of the novel had plenty of story and action — but not much in the way of plot. So I'd chopped it in half, and then added a grand new plot element and carefully wove that through the 1st half. Which grew the MS back past it's original length.

Why do I mention that? Well, along with the thousands of in-line comments, there were a three big issues that Dave identified (opening his email with "So don't have a heart attack ... but"):

  1. Too much POV shifting. Far too much.
  2. One long arc needed a major rewrite
  3. The book probably needed splitting into three; or maybe just two.

I should also add that Dave gave me some feedback (points 1 and 3, above) that I could think about while he was completing his critique. That was really helpful.

Anyway, we discussed, at length, the pros and cons of splitting the MS into two, or three, books: what would have to be done, including ideas for new plot elements and various structural changes. In the end we came to agree that splitting it in two was the way to go.

So I tackled the big issues first, but while working through the line-by-line comments, addressing each in turn. For those where I thought a question remained, I'd add a comment to reply to Dave's; for those where I thought no questions remained, I'd delete Dave's comments.

And then, when I'd addressed all the comments, and all the issues, and after some more discussion with Dave by email, I now had a new MS that had been 1) chopped in half to 70k words, and 2) grown back to 115k words (from memory). It seemed obvious to me that there was enough new material, that a 2nd round of editing would be sensible. I discussed it with Dave, we discussed the cost, considering that he was already familiar with much of it, and we agreed on a cost and I sent it back.

Once again, Dave critiqued it thoroughly, and had more good suggestions, mainly for the new material. So once again I worked through the critique, in the same way as before, and at the end the MS had grown back to about 130k words. So, again we discussed the idea of a final, 3rd critique, and I sent it off.

I had set myself a publication date of 11th December, as that would be the anniversary of my wife's death, to whom the book was dedicated, but the date was looming very close. I got Dave's critique back close to that date, but there were still some issues that he'd identified, and so on the last day, we started working across a 10-hour timezone gap, with me saying "Well, as long as I publish on 11th Dec US time, I can tell myself I published on that date." Alas, Dave and I both came to the conclusion at about the same late hour, that I was dreaming, and could not meet my self-imposed deadline.

So we both collapsed, in separate countries, and I worked through the remaining issues, publishing in Amazon's KDP program on I think Dec 17th. Reassuring myself that Stella would have wanted it done right, more than on time. Especially having watched me working on it for over twenty years!

Schedules. This is probably a good point to comment on schedules.

Having worked for decades for a company that was owned by the Japanese, I've learned that meeting high quality standards is not enough: you also have to meet deadlines; and perhaps more especially, it important to avoid giving unwelcome surprises to the people you're working with.

I was careful to let Dave know my plans, and to work as hard as needed to me the deadlines I'd set. Most of these were optimistic (I think Dave may have thought me crazy), but I had all my time available to spend on this, so I worked as hard as I could, and managed to meet my deadlines, more or less. I also sent him a concise progress report as the deadlines approached, so he could see for himself how I was tracking, and use his own expertise to sense whether I was getting into difficulties or not. I think this was helpful to him.

We were also both pretty flexible to changes, and discussed and re-planned things a few times, especially for the 2nd and 3rd critiques.

Now, if anyone takes a look at the revision history for Wild Thing, or the (too?) detailed lists of changes that I've made available on the website here, you will no doubt think I was stupid to say that I would handle the proof-reading myself. I think I'm very good at that, but it's hard to get it right, yourself. Dave could have provided that service too, but I felt that I could handle it myself. Admittedly, more than two thirds of those changes are me retroactively polishing the text at the sentence level, but fully a third are either typos, grammatical, continuity or other errors. I'm indebted to Louise Harris for picking up the largest slab of problems after several rounds of my own self-correction, and getting it to a professional level of quality. No doubt a few more typos still lurk, waiting to be corrected as the years pass.

Book 2. I won't go into details for Book 2, other than to say it was eerily similar to what happened for Book 1 — even down to the advice to split it in half again! The big problem which Dave had identified, at the very start of my work on book 2 (working from Dave's original critique of the MS before I'd split it), was that it was going to be too long. We had discussed a pacing problem in what would be book 2, and I had proposed that instead of cutting some chapters, I add a chapter or two (a "Mean Girls" story arc), to break up the slow patch and fix the pacing. Unfortunately, this grew into a rather major story arc of 50-60 pages, and suddenly the book was heading towards 600 pages long. In addition, when Dave saw the revised MS for Book 2, he pointed out that I had missed an opportunity for a very satisfying denouement and natural ending, at about the mid-point.

So, yeah: split again! And I have to credit Dave with the idea for Marcie, Superman, and the message of hope. And for making things go badly for Marcie, at the end. Which I saw the sense of, and tried to produce. At which point, Leeth refused to co-operate, or perhaps I should say, refused to give up, and the rather more dramatic and shocking ending came about.

So, right now I'm quietly working to piece things back together now that Leeth threw a major spanner in the works, and I'm in discussion with Dave about the re-planning for Book 3, and scheduling the critique of it when I'm ready.

Working with, and disagreeing with, your editor.

When I talked to other writers, about my experience in working with thEditors, one thing I observed is that I agree with somewhere between 90%-95% of Dave's comments and suggestions. This is, apparently, highly unusual. One would expect more disagreement than that. I attribute this to two things. The biggest one being that Dave and I are on the same wavelength — he "gets" what I'm doing, and understands the characters, despite their oddities (indeed, I hope, their uniqueness). Sci fi and fantasy is one of the genres he understands and enjoys. (Other members of their team have other areas of special expertise.)

The second thing I suppose is that I'm quite open to criticism and feedback. Again, decades of working with groups of people as smart as and smarter than me, reviewing and critiquing each other's work to improve it, provided me with a deep appreciation for the whole review and critiquing process. I respect Dave's opinion; and he respects mine.

Going back to an earlier point, about the author being the boss, that's something Dave always highlights. Basic grammar aside, he never says "you must do this", but rather "I think", or "how about?". (Well, perhaps with one exception. I have a mental image of Dave tearing his hair out after the 24th POV shift between four characters interleaving through one particular chapter. At that point Dave had some frank observations for me. :-)

I learned that I'm unusually comfortable with POV shifts. If you don't believe me, here's what the POV situation looked like, in the MS which will soon have evolved into three books. It looks a mess, eh? And yes: that graph is saying there were 24 POV shifts (orange diamonds) in the 21-page-long Chapter 44 (blue squares):

You'll be pleased to learn that Chapters 44-46 (an upcoming arc in Shadow Hunt), has had the POV shifts removed. I've learned my lesson: POV continuity trumps temporal continuity.

Okay, but, what do you do when you can't agree?   This didn't happen much, largely because I followed advice from other writers, and a dash of common sense, and didn't just "agree to disagree", but instead kept discussing until we each understood what the other person's point of view was. Mostly, that meant that we did in the end reach agreement.

Who's queen?   Incidentally, I think the "power relationship" between an indie author and an editor can be far healthier — if you let it — than is often the case in traditional publishing. The tricky part is knowing when to go with your heart, your gut instinct, over the advice of your editor — the expert you're paying for their insights. Dave and I always talked things through (by email, or in-comments), until we both understood the other's perspective. For my part, I tried to err on the side of taking Dave's advice. (Though, yes, I know: I still need to learn to cut more.)

In a handful of instances, I simply did what Dave recommended. And in another handful of instances, where I cared strongly, I went ahead and did what I thought was right. One of the errors this lead to, was that some sections of Wild Thing are too slow: more should have been cut to improve the pace in some sections. And Dave always thought I was taking a huge risk on the sexual and abuse side of things: which I have to agree with; but I think they're such a key element for what's unfolding, that I couldn't soften those as far as he would have liked. And indeed, I think it's why some reviewers have found this aspect of the book(s) repellent. But I think that's a fair point of view, too: what happens is disturbing, and even horrifying. But it's an integral part of my vision, and of Leeth's journey. Probably if I had followed his advice to the letter in this area I'd have fewer reviewers complaining, but I think the story wouldn't have been what I wanted. It would not be as raw and visceral. Certainly the upward climb, for Leeth, would have been shorter and simpler. But sometimes you have to take risks. And the result, I hope, is a book that the reader will either love or hate. And I'm okay with that.


So with all that said (at too great length, no doubt!), Dave was happy for me to ask him a few questions….

A quick interview with Dave Taylor, Editor-in-chief of www.thEditors.com:

What was your background — how did you develop your skills and understanding, to become an editor? Was it a straight path, or a convoluted one?

Dave: As an author myself I used to do a lot of beta reading for people. What I was saying seemed to strike a chord. When I no longer had time for it, one of the authors offered to pay me to read and comment on their book. That got me thinking.

I attended a few courses and along with another editor (who has since moved on) I began offering my services part-time. It gathered momentum over time, mainly through recommendations, until I was able to do it full-time.

What types of writing, or perhaps genres, do thEditors prefer to focus on?

Dave: We're willing to look at all genres, but our favourites are probably science fiction and fantasy.

How do you decide whether to work with someone on their manuscript?


  1. Do I like it?

  2. Do I think I can help make it better?

  3. Is the author friendly and easy to work with?

When you and an author disagree, how do you try to resolve the disagreement? What kinds of things do you feel get in the way of getting to the bottom of differences of opinion?

Dave: I always like to say the author is the boss. I will state my case and discuss it with you as much as you wish, but I won't fight you over it. Nobody knows your book as well as you, and if you disagree the last word is yours.

What advice do you have for indie authors?


1. Pay for a good cover designer.

2. Pay for a good editor (I would say that, but it's true).

3. Produce many books or a series of books.

What advice do you have for indie authors who can't afford the services of a professional editor?

Dave: I think one of the most important things you can do is read. Read as much as you can, especially in your genre. You can't expect to write good books if you don't read any. Also, no matter what, you will really have to get somebody competent to proofread it.

What things can authors do, to make your job easier?

Dave: Keep in regular contact and stick to agreed schedules. Oh, and write great books!

What's been the most difficult thing for you, working with me — what should I myself aim to improve? :-)

Dave: Occasionally setting very tight deadlines!!

And I think that's a nice point on which to end this too-long blog post!

Sunday, 11 September 2016

The Creative Process and the Unconscious

I'm fascinated by the creative process, and I've had a few pieces of luck, perhaps, in getting some insights into it.

I'm right now in the middle of watching a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) which I found on Shannon Ellison's absorbing blog at Nearly Eloquent (more specially in Four Tips on Writing Well), about the creative process.

(image courtesy of Pexels)

Elizabeth's talk is great (as so many TED talks are!), and I think would resonate with most creative people. She speaks of the pressures that the creative writing career (and creative careers in general) place upon the creator: two of the big ones being "My work is crap; what if I never achieve success?" and if you're lucky enough to have a big success: "What if for the whole rest of my career, I never produce anything anywhere near as good as that first big success?"

She goes on to say that only in the last 500 years or so did the notion that all the creativity came from within the individual arise — the idea that that person, and that person alone, was owed all the (narcissism-inducing) glory of the success, and all the (soul-destroying) acid for all the failures. She said that the ancient Romans idea of genius was a spirit that lived literally in the walls of your home, and which came out and assisted the creator invent. So, the burden of both success and failure was a shared one. She told fascinating stories of interviewing the great American poet Ruth Stone when she was in her 90s who spoke of being able to sense when a poem was on its way: to her it was like a thunderous wind barrelling toward her across the plains, like a great storm. And unless she could get inside, get to a pencil and paper, by the time this might storm train of a poem crashed through her, she would lose it. So she'd run for the house: and if she got there in time, she could capture the poem and copy it down to the paper, but if she was too late, it would surge through her and past, and be lost. But if she could grab a pencil before it had passed completely through her, she could kind of reach out and spear it with the pencil tip, and drag it back inside her body, gripping it until she could find a piece of paper, in which case she would then haul it back inside her, word by word, transcribing it onto the paper. And most fascinating of all, it would be in reverse: word for word, backwards.

She also spoke of also interviewing the musician Tom Waits, who had similar experiences, until in middle life he did something novel one day which changed his whole process. She tells how he was driving on the freeway in Los Angeles, unable to stop, and suddenly heard in his head a most delightful melody, and he knew he needed to capture it at once, or it would be lost. So all the usual stress and tension started building up. And so, she said, instead of panicking, he looked up into the sky and said out loud "Excuse me, do you not see that I'm driving? Does it look like I can do anything for you right now? So, either you come back later, when I can give you the care and attention you need, or go and bother someone else; go and bother Leonard Cohen."

And she told the story of one of the depressing times while working on Eat, Pray, Love, when she became convinced that what she was writing was not just going to be the worst book she'd ever written, but the worst book ever written. And she remembered what Tom Waits had said to her, and leaned back in her chair and spoke to an empty corner of the room, and said, "Look, you and I both know that this isn't all just on me: I'm doing the best I can; I'm putting everything I have into this; but it needs the both of us. So if you're not going to do your part… well, I'm going to sit here and keep working. But I'd like the record to show that I showed up for my part of the job."

Elizabeth's thought was that by putting all the credit for success and failure on the shoulders of a single person, we're putting incredible pressure on each creative individual, and it's this awful pressure that leads to the so well known stories of writers and other artists literally dying: if not through conscious suicide, then often through disabling addictions or disastrous life choices. That by acknowledging a spiritual dimension to the process, that huge burden can be shared.

Now, from what I've read on the web and from seen in interviews and heard in conversation from other writers, most would agree, and welcome that. I think I'm an oddity: I don't seem to be assailed by self-doubt, but nor do I feel overweening pride in my abilities. I think I have a talent, but I think I'm far, far from the best, and still far from the best that I can be. But I'm learning and improving, and I don't need to be the best: it's not a competition, and anyway, what strikes one reader as genius will quite likely leave other readers cold and unimpressed. There are two parts to creating and appreciating artistic works — there's creativity on both sides, not just the artist's. As much, perhaps, goes on inside the reader as it does in the writer, as words or pictures resonate with the receiver's own life experiences and they add their own layer of meaning to the picture. So there is no "best writer", there are only "the writers who best resonate with some set of readers". My guess is that it would be hard to even find two readers who agreed completely on which set of writers they'd collect in their "best writers" bag.

So all this is just by way of saying, I think I'm a realist when it comes to evaluating my own work. I generally like it, and often even love it; I can see flaws in it — undoubtedly, not all the flaws — but when I do, I work to fix them. But I rarely (never?) look at something I've written and say "That's crap." Maybe because I tend to write from the heart, and I try to always write with honesty. And if I don't have anything that I feel driven to write, well, I either don't write, or don't put it in the same box as I do with the stuff I care about. If it's just a cooking recipe, or a note about how to fix some problem on my computer, or an email about some practical matter, then that's all it is. I know that not everyone will like what I write. I know I can't please everyone, and that I shouldn't try. I've set my bar for success, with just a little thought, as "If my writing generates more hours of reading pleasure than hours of writing effort, I'll consider myself successful." So for me, I don't think I place a huge burden on my shoulders: I write the best I can, and try to learn and improve, and if that's not good enough to please some people — that's okay. And if I'm one day lucky enough to have a best-seller — well, I know that there is luck involved, and that there are many other writers equally worthy of such success. Writing is not a rare talent, there are hundreds of thousands of good writers around the world, all working away to create literary wealth for the human race. I'm just a drop in that ocean. So I think that knowledge is enough to ward off the narcissism which success could all too easily induce.

One of the lucky events I experienced was a talk from a successful self-publishing writer and illustrator, where I was fortunate enough to be able to ask the question "How do you avoid the danger of becoming self-indulgent, and stay open to criticism?" And instead of taking the question in the spirit in which it was intended, he took offence and said that he knew better than anyone what he wanted to create, and had learned to ignore criticism. I'd been thinking of the astonishing and unfortunate level of misogyny that his work had developed following a bitter split up with his girlfriend; and he proceeded to demonstrate that, yes, the danger of becoming self-indulgent was all too real. (I think it's an even bigger risk for self-publishers, since they really can choose to have complete creative control.)

And my viewing of Elizabeth Gilbert's talk came just days after watching a TV documentary on Philip K Dick. I hadn't known that he was troubled by visions, that he dabbled in counter-culture stuff — maybe including drugs — and maybe even had some mental problems. But there's no question that he had enormous creativity, and genius, and has been hugely and deservedly influential in Western culture. Many people credit him (through Bladerunner, initially), as being the person who made sci-fi palatable and even desirable to Hollywood, and through it, to mainstream culture. Today, it's mainly only the literary crowd who really look down on and turn their nose up at all genre fiction, especially sci-fi and romance. But until Bladerunner, and probably Star Wars, sci-fi was commercially uninteresting to Hollywood.

Anyway, the thing was, that many of Dick's ideas for short stories or novels came to him from a place that seemed outside himself. He spoke of being hit by a beam of pinkish-red light from the crystal piece of jewellery around the neck of a young female Christian visitor one day, that knocked him into an altered state of consciousness. He spoke of being hit by a beam of ultra-bright pink light on later occasions too, that seemed to pour cosmic knowledge into him. He "intuited" a medical problem in he and his wife's young boy, and urgently insisted on taking his son to a doctor, and tests showed that he was perfectly correct, and the appropriate treatment was applied. It was around that time, and IIRC while stalled while trying to write "The Man in the High Castle", that he started using the I-Ching to solve his plot problems. When faced with a problem, he'd cast the sticks, read the appropriate entry from the I-Ching, and then apply that to his novel. Apparently he used that technique from then on, since he found it worked so well.

In a similar vein, I'd read advice about creating plots for role-playing adventures in which you used a deck of Tarot cards to lay out pieces that would be used to create the characters and the threats for a session or a whole campaign, kind of in a similar way to using them to read someone's fortune.

Now, all these stories sound very much like spiritual interventions, or tapping into some mystical well of creativity or knowledge, right? After all, such stories are part and parcel of human history through the ages. And it could be what's happening: I can't disprove it. And it would be a very comforting thing to be true.

(image courtesy of Pixabay)

But I think there is an alternative explanation, and it's simply rooted in possibly the most amazing thing in the universe: the brain, and its ongoing process, the mind. Another piece of serendipity was receiving a day of training on creativity, on innovation in the workplace, at the R&D company I worked at for many years (hi, CiSRA!). This training was unusual in being science-based, drawing on research into how the mind worked, and what influenced creativity. It was run with a mixture of lectures and workshop exercises in small groups, and all of it was fascinating — from the theory to the practice to watching how the group dynamics affected all this. One of the key pieces of the theory was about the unconscious or sub-conscious, as opposed to the conscious rational part of the mind.

(Just as an aside, my understanding of things is that brain is the hardware for our thinking, affected of course by our proprioceptive senses, hormones, chemistry and health — as well as external influences like very strong magnetic fields, flashing lights, or pounding beats and heart-swelling chords — and the mind is what emerges from processes running on that astonishing hardware.)

The rational mind is basically a single process (in the computer sense: if you're not into computers, you could think of it as a connected series of mental tasks, a series of logical steps in some chain of reasoning). Rational thought is pretty logical, and proceeds step by step in a line that can be straight or meandering and even looping. Unconscious thought, in contrast, uses huge amounts of parallelism. I don't think we yet understand how much cross-connectivity and echoing and rebounding resonances operate to simultaneously evoke memories and form new connections; but we do know that in addition to that complex process, there are somewhere around fifty different processes at work, or available to work, on certain kinds of problems. Some of these, I assume, are tied to sensory input, but not all. All this complexity and richness is I think why the myth of people only using ten percent of their brain developed: it's because we have areas in the brain specialised to deal with certain problems. Just as parts of the visual system break sight down into pieces, some recognising horizontal and vertical lines, other recognising movement, some (I'm sure!) evolved to detect an eye pointed in our direction, and so on. All layered together in a hierarchy or network of networks. All able to cross-communicate. So using all parts of the brain would only happen if we were being flooded with all sorts of sensory inputs, as well as facing challenging problems.

But the rational mind, being serial in nature, and tending to be logical, is the only part that can handle certain problems: like counting and working out sums, and purely logical reasoning. Whereas the unconscious is great at making connections between ideas, weighing up pros and cons, relating one memory to another, matching patterns, and so on. There are some fascinating research papers about this, which you can find by Googling "Unconscious thought theory." One way of applying the theory to solve problems, especially creative problems, is basically this:

1) Learn or revise as much as you can that is related to the problem at hand.

2) Consciously pose yourself the question you want to answer or the problem you need to solve.

3) Distract your conscious/rational mind for at least ten minutes, doing something like a crossword puzzle.

4) Return to the question, and then, as quickly as you can, pick from the available options, or jot down an answer to the problem, without trying to analyse or reason it out.

I have confidence that this works, since it worked on the day of our training to solve a good range of problems, and I've used it often since then when I faced creative problems in my writing. On numerous occasions I had plot problems, or needed some creative idea that satisfied a whole web of logical and emotional issues. Often, they were daunting, and I wondered if there even was any solution at all. But I simply set aside the fear and self doubts (thank you, ratbag cops from Perisher Valley back in about 1983, for forcing me to learn that lesson), and let my subconscious churn away it; sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. And then, when I felt the time was right, I'd sit down or lay down with pencil and paper and start writing: sometimes with a brief note explaining what needed to happen, sometimes then picturing in my head various options, sometimes just writing down bits and pieces that might help, sometimes a mix of all those things — and in short order, suddenly the plot and/or story would flow, with the actors and action unfolding as I wrote.

So, all I'm really saying here, is that we each carry around inside a fount of creativity that we can tap into quite easily. It's sensitive to our moods, it's sensitive to and absorbing facts and impressions, sights and sounds and smells, from the world around us; it's synthesising ideas and joining facts together, juggling things together and looking for patterns, and best of all, if something is important to us and we consciously pose a problem, that mighty unconscious array of mental powers can be put to work at solving the problem.

Go and watch Elizabeth's TED talk (Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius): even though she comes to a quite different conclusion to me, I think her idea would work as well or better than mine, for many people. Her idea is more romantic than mine, and I think more appealing for many people. But for me, the idea that this creative genius can be inside all of us is just as exciting.

And now, back to work on book 3...

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Series launch with two books, Vol 3 progress

I originally put this post over on my blog about self-publishing, since it seemed the natural thing to do, as a kind of wrap-up for having blogged about what was involved in organising and preparing the launch. So this article is just copied from my blog about self-publishing, A Toe in the Ocean of Books, with just a little added at the end.

Anyway, Saturday July 9th was the big day, and my sister made a little video of the people speaking at the launch.  I hadn't done the whole "artistic release" business or gained approval in advance from attendees to film them, so it's a video of just the emceee, Jon Marshall, the guest speaker, Sandra Wigzell of Book Expo Australia, and myself, with a short reading from Wild Thing, at the end.  (From the scene that introduces Sara/Leeth, in which Dr Alex Harmon "acquires" her for his research.)

Considering that I hadn't explained how to operate the camera, I think my big sister did a fantastic job (thanks, Lisa!).  The little Canon Ixus170 did a pretty good job, too: it went from completely out of focus to nicely in-focus within 20 seconds, all on its own we think.  For the first 20 seconds, Lisa was getting it framed correctly, so I've replaced that portion of the video with a still shot taken by Alfred Bellanti (thank you, Alfred!) who came along with Lama Jabr (of Xana Publishing & Marketing), who has been very helpful to me, and Gabriella Kovac, Ehssan, and I think perhaps Andrew A., and others too.

Apologies also for missing the first few seconds of Jon's intro, in which he thanked everyone, and went on to say that because I dreamed up Leeth for an RPG campaign that we played for about five years in the early 90s, he'd known Leeth for a long time: longer than her age of around eighteen (by the end of Vol 2).

I've hesitated to admit the detailed genesis for Leeth, since my own experience of reading novelisations of role-playing game campaigns is that they've been uniformly pretty awful.  I feel that this (turning an RPG campaign into a novel) is what lay behind the only failure(s) - to my mind - of my literary hero, Roger Zelazny.  But some things from an RPG and a novel are in complete agreement - and that's the characters, first and foremost. And secondly, the world.  Or at least, the feel of the world: I completely replaced the RPG world with one of my own creation.

These fictional worlds shared the same blending of magic and science, and were set in similar time periods in our future; there's even some similarities in the mix of races, and how magic works. (Which is based on real world ideas of the hermetic and shamanic forms of magic, with interesting bits and pieces of Carlos Castaneda's curious experiences stirred in to spice things up.)  I think Shadowrun was a bit more dystopian than my own near-future world: for me, there are lots of good bits, too.  I think of it as a "mixtopian" future.

Some games really spark, and work brilliantly; our Shadowrun campaign was like that.  The character I played for some years was my most fun character ever; and his ending was as traumatic as it was dramatic.  Thinking about it now, I rather suspect that Leeth was my way of coping with that loss: I set myself the goal of inventing a character who would be even more fun and original and challenging to play than Mike d'Angelo - a big ask!

I took along some "show and tell" for the launch:

  • My original hand-written MS (of about 400 sheets of closely-written, mostly-A4 sheets of paper, each carefully numbered).
  • A fake scientific (sociological) paper about the disenfranchised people, the cast-offs of the advanced and successful society only a few miles away, who lived in the shattered and now undesirable parts of the city.  I did this half for fun, and half to clarify in my own mind how this second society functioned.
  • Leeth's original character notes, and the formal "character sheet" which included an illustration of what Leeth looked like, in the persona she was operating under for the campaign.  When you eventually see "Bonnie" turn up, you'll know I've finally started to delve into some of the actual experiences from the campaign!  I think some of the conversations may well appear in the books.  You'll then be able to judge whether or not I succeed in my approach to novelising a few parts from the game.
  • Notes on the personnel and purpose of the Institute for Paranormal Dysfunction, along with a map of the building and grounds.
  • Notes on the personnel and purpose of the Bureau for Internal Development (or at least, the ultra-secret Department concealed within it).
  • A kind of graph or time-line which I titled "The Genesis of Leeth", in discussion with my step-daughter Leonie ("Do you think it should have a title, Luke?") at about 2pm on the day of the launch.  It showed the thousands of hours of work put in to the creation of Leeth across the years, with significant events and milestones marked.

Thanks once again to everyone who was able to come along to the launch in person, and who made it such a happy event for me.  And best wishes to those who wanted to come along, but for whom circumstances or obligations conspired against them.

Progress on Volume 3

Following the launch, I took a break, taking care of some family stuff, having a rest, doing some long-delayed chores around the house, and even starting to catch up on reading some of the 200-odd books waiting in my piles of books-to-be-read, and watching some DVDs. (I devoured seasons 4, 5, 6 of Archer over four nights: wonderful!) More recently, I've been discussing Shadow Hunt with my editor, Dave @ThEditors.com. Since Leeth went off and did her own thing, it meant that Vol 3 needs to change - the question is, how much? I think I have a nice set of changes that flows and fits naturally, and we're in discussion about that. As well, as I've written various scenes to be fitted in to what I already had. If the clever plan I worked out last week is as good as I think it is, I'll be in very good shape. If the clever plan does not hold water, however, I'll have a lot more work to do.

If the former, Shadow Hunt is probably 90% complete. if the latter, something like 70% complete. We'll see. I'm also itching to get back to writing Lost Girl (Volume 4). For that one, I need to just write, to learn what happens next.

In either case, for volume three Dave and I both agree that Leeth needs to be much more in the driver seat; much more in control.

And from some of the reviews on Amazon, I also realise that some readers may have been assuming that the "Leeth Dossier Volume #N" thing meant that this was going to be a trilogy. Even before the multiple splits of book 1, I've always thought of Leeth's tale as at least a five book series, so if one were to assume that because the 1st book will have split into four, that means it will be an eight book series; but you could say, "Well, each book might wind up turning into four." But I don't see The Leeth Dossier as being a twenty-volume saga like Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series (oh: 25, now!), or Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden (maybe?). But who knows? I think there's at least ten books, though. And goodness knows, there are quite a few plots threading through. I suppose I'm still learning how to flag which plot is wrapping up in any given book, and which plots are still worming their way through for later explosions....

I've also been in touch with the wonderful Mirella de Santana, and we're planning some subtle changes to the spines. Which reminds me: I should dust off my artistic brief for her and start discussing the cover for Shadow Hunt.

Finally, I promise I will blog more frequently here. I expect my self-publishing blogging to slow down, and this one to ramp up. Hopefully I don't have as much to learn (and say) about self-publishing as I do about writing, and about Leeth in particular.