Taking the Dickens approach to writing as an Indie Author
|November 7, 2013|
Now that I’m putting out my own books (that I’ve become my own publisher in effect), I’ve had to dramatically change how I write. In the recent past I’d work on six or seven projects at a time, shifting from one to the other as inspiration either took, or failed, me. But now I’ve had to say to myself, ‘Okay, Tom, which book is nearest to completion? Well, stick to that till you get it done!’ Basically, I’ve had to learn to crack my own whip.
It’s pretty gruelling at times, pushing ahead on the one project, working on it day and night, whether ‘in the mood’ or decidedly not. But it’s the Dickens approach, and Dickens was incredibly successful. He wrote from 9am to 2pm every day and nearly all his books were released in serial form, coming out in either weekly or monthly instalments. He couldn’t get sick of ‘The Pickwick Papers’, say, and move on to ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. No, he had to stick to ‘The Pickwick Papers’ till it was done, whether he desired a change or not.
It seems Dickens’ work ethic needs to be emulated by the Indie Author of today, should he or she hope to maximise the chance of attracting a decent-sized readership, and therefore having a hope of fulfilling the dream of earning a living from the craft.
One of the places I distribute my ebooks is Smashwords, and its founding CEO, Mark Coker, has pointed out in a number of blogs and emails that the more successful Indie Authors on his site are usually the ones who publish more than one book. In fact, it seems the more successful Smashwords authors not only publish multiple books, but they do so with regularity.
It makes sense. With multiple books, one book can feed off another. When one gains traction, it can have a lead-on effect, spilling over interest to a book that was previously idling. But if you’ve just got the one novel out there, then you’d better hope it’s a bloody good one, because where will readers go next?
I’ve been working myself ragged to get out my latest book, ‘One Shot’, for Christmas. But the joke is that currently there isn’t anyone hanging out for my next book … Well, a small few. A very, very small few, at present. But that might change, of course, which is why I need to adopt this new work ethic now. Yes, unfortunately, ’One Shot’ won’t be available till next year, but I am very glad I’ve copied the Dickens formula of getting out one book at a time. Because if I’d stuck to my old ways, I’d have seven books ready in seven years time, but nothing ready to release in the coming months. I’d have no way, basically, of creating expectation. And, in an ideal scenario, great expectations.
But the Dickens approach does beg the question of quality control. I’ve read several Dickens novels and with some of them I’ve wished he hadn’t had such concrete deadlines hanging over him. That said, I’ve also read books by a contemporary (roughly) of his, Henry James, who, as a man of independent means, could write if andhen he felt like it, and wished at times someone had put a bomb under him!
So how to get the balance right between the Dickens and James models of output?
My answer is editors. In the past, because I would write multiple projects at once, often not coming back to the first project till a year later, having completed the circle, I found this naturally provided me with ‘distance’ and ‘perspective’ on my own work. Now, having commissioned myself, as it were, to produce books to deadline, one at a time, and with regularity, that ‘distance’ is no longer possible because I’m not giving myself any respite. Therefore, getting the opinions and feedback of others is all the more critical.
My last book, ‘Forever Human’, had two editors work on it, one followed closely by the other, and I found that had very beneficial results. I could bounce off their responses to the book with my rewrites; I could find in their fresh impressions, the distance I required to do the necessary revisions. I’m taking a similar approach of contracting multiple editors with ‘One Shot.’
So, I’ve accepted that with my writing now, I’m locked into working on one book at a time, and setting myself reasonable but fairly tasking deadlines to get each finished.
If only it ended there.
Because Mark Coker has also written how, of all the Smashword writers, the ones who produce series often have the best chance of taking off. Essentially, the writers who are taking a leaf from Dicken’s book and producing not chapters weekly or monthly, but linked novels every year or every two years.
Aaargh! It’s enough to make me scream, as it forces me again to re-access my output and work-process.
I do actually have a six book series that I have extensively mapped out. I think it has the potential to garner a committed readership in healthy numbers. But here’s the rub. Once I start the first book, I’m not just committing myself to the one book for the next year or two, but to six books for the next decade or more!
Quality, quantity and a consistent output – they all help contribute to momentum. And a connected series of books, it seems, can lead to the greatest chance of success of all, since it might even lead to a climate where people are actually hanging out for your next instalment.
Oh, the novelty of that! Well,
I’m not going to start that series just yet. I’ll wait till I’m used to my new discipline of producing a different book every year or so, before I embark on my six-part door-stopper.
And when I do, Dickens would be proud.