Cross-Training for Writers

It has been a weird couple of weeks in the UK, and not exactly the backdrop to the launch of my book I was expecting. It is released on the fourth of July, available to order in both digital and physical formats from all the usual online book places and I hope to get it into some local book shops too. Well obviously, I hope it eventually makes it into a lot of book shops but one step at a time. I’m very happy to have already had some pre-orders so we are on our way but you have to break these grand projects down into small steps.

This takes me to the heart of what I wanted to discuss.

When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the book coming soon, I was asked, ‘When did you find time to write a book?’

In my roundabout way I will attempt to answer that question.

I have fiddled with words in one form or another for most of my life. I have always loved reading, and I fiddled with little stories, wrote bad songs with the occasional good lyric, and helped arrange better songs. A couple of years ago, having somehow written two books over the course of perhaps a decade I began to get more serious. I started writing short stories for competitions; I started submitting to magazines and agents.

I also started to think more about writing. How to get better at it, or at least how I would try. There’s all kind of books and articles written about how to write. I’m not going to be exhaustive in advice that worked for me, what I wanted to talk about now is how I got better at writing books by not writing books. Specifically, the cross-training that informed how I approach writing books and I think made me better than I was. It is up to other people to decide if the resulting books are actually good.

Cross-training, is an idea from sports where you train in different disciplines to get better at your main sport.

16-06-30 Weights

Why a picture of weights? I want to talk about how lifting weights has made me a better writer. This might seem a little strange, but trust me there is a rationale behind it. The obvious benefit would be that a writer spends a lot of time hunched at a keyboard, or over paper depending on your method, so performing any kind of exercise helps keep you fit and gets the blood moving.

However, what I wanted to talk about is how making the regular lifting of weights a part of my life has helped me make writing a regular part of my life, and it’s not just that it is another habit I have picked up.

I am by no means an expert, my numbers would be singularly unimpressive to a lot of people and I definitely do not have washboard abs. However, over the years of trying, failing, and finally finding a routine that works for me I’ve noticed the habits picked up lifting weights are very similar to the ones I use for writing.

Approach – A Marathon Not A Sprint

Fitness is one of those areas where everyone has a shortcut, or a plan to sell you, not helped with the offseason claims of pro-athletes to have added 20 Ibs of muscle or dropped to an impossible body fat percentage.

In some ways it is easy, want to get stronger? Lift heavy, lift often, and crucially, be patient. It takes time to build strength. Most people can’t walk into a gym and deadlift 100kgs. The truth is, there are no shortcuts. You have to go through the process. In fact you have to enjoy the process, and you have to be prepared to put the work in.

Want to write a book. Write. Write often, and crucially, be patient. It takes time to build a book. You have to take a story idea, and turn it into words, all the while watching as it twists in the process of writing into something different to what you first imagined. You have to cut things you love because they don’t serve the story you are telling. You have to enjoy the process enough to keep going.

Planning – Something in Mind

If you wander into a gym with no plan, then you are not going to build towards something, and will very likely hurt yourself.

If you sit down and write a book without a plan, then you might write something brilliant, but the odds are that you are not a reincarnation of Shakespeare or Dickens and I’m pretty sure that the idea of them sitting down and just writing masterpieces is rubbish – they had to work at it like the rest of us.

For lifting, I am using a version of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program. I have modified it a bit so it works for me, but only after doing it for a year and figuring out that I get better results with smaller increments and learning to be flexible but keep getting the main lifts and body weight work in.

There’s a strong chance that you have no idea what that last paragraph means. That doesn’t really matter for our purposes. The key thing here is that I had a plan, I modified it slightly but stuck to the principles, and most importantly, I listened to my body.

For writing, this means write often, but if writing every day without fail turns your love into a chore, give yourself the weekends off. You have to watch that rest doesn’t turn into the habit of not writing, but if you enjoy a process then you are more likely to keep doing it.

With weight training and exercise rest is incredibly important, it is not just a matter of getting bored by the same routine, you have to factor in recovery and adjust as your body dictates. You really have to give your body time to build more muscle.

I believe it is the same for writing. You have to plot, plan, but adjust your plan as words drop into place and twist away from you. Trust me, sometimes I’m as surprised at a character’s actions as you are. Maybe there a writers who can do all this at the same time as they type or write with a pen, I can’t. I have some idea of where I’m going, but the scenes takes shape over days. I can see problems on the horizon and solutions present themselves when I’m not trying, but when my brain is roaming. Carrying a note book for these moments has proven to be a good idea.

Execution – Goal Setting and Tracking

You don’t just need to plan your lifts, you have to track them and update them. I have a nerdy spreadsheet to keep track of my four week cycles. I know what sequence I am doing my three different workouts a week, what weights progressions I should go through. The workouts move days or swap around as the week dictates, but I make sure I complete all of them.

For writing I have rough word counts. These change depending on if I’m blogging about the NFL (a practice that in of itself is cross training) or here. I don’t worry about long term goals and getting a particular quantity of words written in a month. I have a full time job, a band, and I write books and a blog. I can get 20, 000 words out in a month during the NFL season, but whilst I’m tracking what I do, I am not aiming for word limits but certain articles each week. Even then I don’t always make it. Life gets in the way.

With fiction, I aim to write between 300-400 words when I sit down to write. It doesn’t sound like a lot. It isn’t a lot really. However, if you keep adding them together they add up. If I have to break out into a deep bit of research to sort a problem then I don’t beat myself up for missing my creative writing total for that day. I keep a log so I can see it moving along. Keep doing that, and whilst the world sails around you, a book appears.

I’m still working on a sequel to A Ghost Called Dog. I’m still working on benching 225Ibs.

And as long as I keep chipping away in small steps using what I’ve learned under the bar to inform what I do at the keyboard, I am confident I will achieve both.

The difference is that 225Ibs will always be 225Ibs (physicists please let me ignore fluctuations in gravity for this comparison), while a book may be finished, but it doesn’t mean it will be any good. That’s why editors are amazing.

I think that pretty much anyone would benefit from some form of strength training just to feel healthier, but it might not be such a bad idea for your writing either.

A Book is Coming

A book is coming. In Fact, technically it already exists as a physical object, although somehow in a twist of fate, out of the various people actively involved in the project, I am the only one who has not seen a copy yet. Some have gone to the publishers to be issued to the UK copyright libraries, others have gone to the marketing company and our copies were delivered to my parents as they had the advantage of being in! I will see them soon, but let’s go back to how we got here first.

The last couple of months have been a bit of blur for me, so I shall spare myself and you an attempt at piecing together an exact timeline of what happened, but here is what did.

Having submitted my edited and proofed manuscript we set about the fun task of getting the book typeset and designed. I had been already talking to artists about an illustration for the cover, and having been given a helpful steer by my godmother I was put in contact with Rose Hutchings who after a telephone discussion agreed to do it. This was an interesting process for me as I had some compositional ideas about what I wanted to feature, but I had not considered anything like the emotional tone. After our discussion, and having been sent a copy of my redrafted manuscript, Rose produced a number of sketches for me and with a certain amount of canvassing of other people to check my opinions, I selected the one that would become our cover. Rose continued to work things up for me, tweaking near the end until I had the illustration that you see below:

16-06-09 GCD v001

If I had some ideas about how I wanted the cover to look, I was slightly taken aback to find myself momentarily without an opinion about what I wanted for the actual layout. I love books as objects, and definitely have preferences for design, but hadn’t really thought about it much for my own project. So when Catherine very reasonably asked about things like font preferences, I was only able to offer up a liking for working in Palatine Linotype, which I hardly ever bother with as the first thing I have to do when submitting a manuscript is change the font to the usually requested Times New Roman. However, once Catherine and the people from 2QT started sending me some mock-ups of various design options and fonts, then preferences quickly came to the fore. After a conference round my parents dining table with various print-outs, and me grabbing my dad’s printing eye glass, we quickly settled on a font (for the record, Palatino was the first to be thrown out so as ever, I know nothing) and eventually we were able come up with a design layout.

We also had sent the final illustration from Rose to 2QT so the ever patient Charlotte Mouncey could turn this into a book jacket. I say jacket, as not only did she have to sort the front, but come up with the rest of the design and place the text of the blurb. This was something that I had tried to draft, working on the elevator pitch I had always used and with a word limit suggested by Ben Cameron who is doing the publicity campaign for the book. However, it turns out that people who run companies that do this sort of thing professionally are really good at doing things like writing blurbs and so when Catherine sent us a draft it was obvious what we should use that, so with a couple of tweaks it was set. After a couple of emails Charlotte then nailed the design of the whole jacket and the cover looks like this:

A-Ghost_Called_Dog_cov

So, just when I thought I was done with reading and checking. We got the final layout to check, and so one final read. This sent me back into another bout of editing frenzy but with a few final final edits we were done.

Things are in motion, and as I said, there are copies of my book in the world. It exists. It’s a thing. Now I just need to sell it. But people are reminding me to be proud, so for a moment I’ll allow that, in deference to Rachael, Dad, and Brooke.

It will be on to the next thing tomorrow.

Reality Hits – Editors and the Creative Process

If you have spent any time reading or looking at things about actual writing then you might quickly notice that the reality is not what is sold in books, TV, or film. Perfect prose does not slip easily from pen or keyboard, no matter how inspired you are, and there is a certain type of prolonged effort (some might even call it pig-headedness) that you have to embrace in order to reach the end of your first draft. And this is just the beginning.

In my last blog I wrote about finding a self-publishing company, which I am happy to say is 2QT up in the Yorkshire Dales. The manuscript has been sent off to their editor and this is where the fun begins.

There is a certain trepidation in showing your work to anyone, but for me there is also an excitement about working with an editor. I am lucky enough to be working with Karen Holmes who is an editor, copywriter, and author. She works with 2QT amongst others, and has certainly given me plenty to think about already.

I can’t claim to be an expert, but knowing how involved we writers are with our words, and how hard it is to both to get and take good criticism in any creative endeavour, I would imagine there is a certain level of trepidation for an editor when a new person’s book hits their desk. Sure there is a whole new book to explore, but is it any good and more importantly, will the author engage with the process? I won’t make any bold claims about the quality of my writing as my route into the craft does not have an academic underpinning, but I think I may have one advantage over some.

One of the many reasons that writing wormed its way into my life is that enables me to express things that are simply not possible from behind a drum kit, no matter how hard I tried. However, twenty years of being a musician has taught me a thing or two about the creative arts. I know how much work goes into producing seemingly effortless results and how to maintain that effort, but being a musician has also shown me with how to navigate a collaborative creative process. In the early days it can seem to some like every suggestion, every deviation from what you originally brought to the group, is a criticism or failure. However, all of the most successful bands that I have been in were based on everyone having an equal say, taking the best ideas and moving forward with them. The important thing is to create the best work possible utilising everybody’s skill and interests to the fullest extent possible. It is also one thing to read about this, or even write it, but having real world experience is what gives you faith in the process.

I knew writing for children was difficult. The choice of word and idea has to be carefully made to hold the interest of your reader and be of the appropriate complexity for the age you are writing for, all without talking down to them. I am also aware that the first draft of anything is really about getting the idea down. Everybody’s process is different; some like to have everything planned out, whilst others sit down and write to find the story. I am somewhere in the middle, but my big thing is always to get that first draft down so I can polish it later. The difficulty here is that it is very easy once you are deep in a draft to lose focus, either on plot, language, or both. This is where an editor is so helpful, because they read the draft without any of the baggage you bring having written it. Not to mention they are very likely better than you at writing in the first place.

It was not my first or second draft that headed off to be looked at, but having got the results back, it was certainly not my last either. I am still processing what Karen and I discussed, but the important thing is to have faith in process and not to be afraid to cut things that you truly love, or fight for the things that you believe are essential. It is not always easy to know which is which, but by talking it through and working hard they should become apparent. About the only thing I am sure of right now is that there will be questions heading to Karen in the coming weeks, but the pig-headed masochist in me is looking forward to the challenge of working over a new draft.

Time for me to get started.

Why Self-Publish?

It seems that the logical place for me to start this new author site and blog would be the reason the site exists in the first place. I am not exactly new to either writing or blogging, but it was only at the beginning of 2014 when I had a short story published over at the Devilfish Review that I truly began to grab the label writer for myself.

I have had my fair share of submission rejections, enquiries about representation rebuffed, competition entries disappear, and feedback concerning what was not liked when an agent finally did read my sample chapters. I have also had my successes, and I do not feel bad about this process. There has been a lot written about rejection and the inevitability of the experience if you try to be a writer. The truth is also that publishing is a numbers game, one that is not getting any easier as publishing adjusts to modern distribution and the proliferation of books thanks to the ease of digital self-publishing.

For me the challenge is that I am still writing, and apart from wanting to work on my craft, I like any other artist want my work to be seen, or my case read. In a discussion about writing earlier in the year when I mentioned having finished books, it was suggested that I should look at publishing one online. This started the process that lead to this site, but the project as I have been thinking of it has escalated over the last few months.

The idea was initially to get read, but having been a musician for over twenty years I have always been interested in independent labels and the idea of being able to do something myself was appealing. I was thinking a digital book, but hopefully with some kind of professional edit and a proper cover design. Me being me though, I wanted to explore all my options, and that is when things started to escalate. It was whilst doing my due diligence and discussing business plans with my dad that we found amongst a plethora of self-publishing businesses, a company that seemed to genuinely care about the books they produced and so I initiated contact and got a quote.

Taking into account the economics of scale, it seemed sensible to start with the most recently completed book as it felt the most finished and was substantially shorter so I got a quote, which wasn’t terrifying. As we started working things through it became apparent that it would be possible to do a bigger launch with a sensible print run of actual physical books.

As a result, here I am, announcing the start of the project that will lead to a fully edited children’s’ book of somewhere around 30 000 words depending on what happens during the edit. Not only that, but I will be documenting process here as we prepare to bring my book to a wider audience. I’ll leave you with the elevator pitch, but there will be more to come.

Everybody knows that it is a bad idea to build on ancient burial grounds, but when confronted with a pet cemetery in the back garden of a new house, what are you going to do?

For Abby and Chris’s parents the answer to this problem was to create a playhouse for their children in a new garden shed. However, when their children start seeing ghosts in and around the playhouse, it is just the start of a new adventure. As the haunting escalates, a pair of guardian witches begins to help, but when the children’s mother is kidnapped and taken to a strange parallel world, only Chris and Abby can follow to save her.