How the writing is going

Fellow writer Julie Farthing posted yesterday in the E-Pub Extraordinaires group, which I’m a part of, talking about the challenges of finishing a book, and lifestyle changes she’s undertaking to make writing easier. She also asks “how others are travelling on their writing journeys,” and tags myself and author Lynette McClenaghan.

So, how am I travelling?

Freedom from employment

On the face of it, things are going very well indeed. I quit my full-time job last September, but not for the reasons everyone might expect of a writer.

Mention of me in newspapers across Australia led to several requests for self-publishing help. I had been freelancing since 2004, and a combination of job-induced depression and a strong desire to work for myself, not this new area of my business, were what drove me to leave employment, but services for what I’m now calling “assisted self-publishing” now account for the majority of my revenue at Hourigan & Co..

I am now, then, a full-time participant in the independent publishing world. It has come at a cost: my income has dropped in 2013–14 to about AUD 30,000, roughly a third of the almost AUD 100,000 it was in 2012–13. (Assume from here in that $ means AUD, unless otherwise specified.)

Granted, in the previous financial year I was working full-time as the manager of a magazine company’s digital media business, and running my own freelancing operation. It is a great relief to now only have to two jobs to do (freelancer and novelist) instead of three, and that I got to ditch the one I liked the least (disempowered manager).

I’m not the only person reporting this drop after a career switch: indie publishing advocate J. F. Penn reports that “After 2.5 years, I’m currently earning about one third of what I was making as a business consultant.”

Arguably, I work harder for my $30,000 than I ever did for the $80,000 a year that I picked up from my old job. As a freelancer, I only get paid when I’m making things, and when that time is on the clock. My clients are mostly individuals rather than institutions, and as such their ability to pay for services is relatively low. I do a lot of work for free when projects run over-time and when I’m researching new production techniques. At my old job, I’d get paid even if I was wasting time in circular discussions at the boardroom table, giving advice my boss wouldn’t listen to, or building products that would never ship.

For those thinking of giving up their day-jobs, I caution you: first understand how sweet it is to suck the milk of an institution.

It strikes me from time to time that in the previous few years I might have maximized my writing output by giving up freelancing, adopting a strictly 9–5 stance towards my day-job, and refusing to take time away from my keyboard for relationships that were often unsatisfying or beset with drama.

I quit my job to find more time to write. Sometimes it’s worked. In the first few months I was finding two or three hours a day to write. In the past two, I’ve frequently been so busy with freelancing that I’ve had no time to write.

But I have discovered something else about myself in two years discussing work-induced anxiety and melancholy with my psychologist, followed by seven months without that burden on me: my freedom is extremely important to me. I’d almost go so far as to say that anything I do professionally from now on must obey the condition that it preserves:

  • My freedom to organize my own time and to work from a location of my own choosing, and to make my own decisions,
  • My freedom from the low-level bullying, submission to others’ inferior reason, and general loss of agency that is the hallmark of employment as we know it. (Lamentably, it could be otherwise: it is to our managers’ shame that they so frequently choose methods, cultures, and remuneration policies that stifle, dehumanize, and impoverish workers rather than those that empower, ennoble, and enrich them. But then, some in business view viciousness as a virtue.)

I am free. It does not necessarily mean I am writing more. But it does mean I am happier than I was.

How the books are going part 1: Sales

It should also be said that while I now make my very modest living in large part from my reputation as an author and independent publisher, hardly any of this is from book sales. As my Booktrakr dashboard reports, my career earnings as a novelist now stand at roughly USD 606.01 since 15 September 2011, with 369 copies of my two books sold, and 14,135 free downloads of Kiss Me, Genius Boy. This is in spite of the reviews I’ve received being very positive.

I’ll take responsibility for this: one of the key lessons from two years of being an independent author is that without marketing, no book will sell. It is simply very difficult to get the word out there skilfully and effectively, and I have not done enough, or the right things. Nor have I, in the past, made it a priority to learn about how to market my work.

That’s changed a lot in 2014. With several self-published author clients to guide now, I’ve felt I need to master the marketing side of things. And I’ve seen some surprise successes: an experiment with making PDFs available for sale has one of my authors selling in excess of $1,000 worth of a single, short non-fiction e-book every month—albeit through skilful promotion to her existing networks.

In my reading this year I’ve come across some wonderful resources on production and marketing, which I recommend to everyone in this game:

I found Platt and Truant inspiring, and owe them credit for introducing me to Gaughran, whose two books are to be commended for their practicality. Gaughran’s advice on category placement allowed me to briefly reach the #9 and #10 spots in the Australian & Oceanian Literature category on Kindle:

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Other things I am planning to do, or know I should do, include:

  1. Growing my email list and sending to it regularly
  2. Getting my covers professionally redesigned
  3. Making sure all my books have up to date calls to action in the back, asking people to:
    • review the book
    • sign up to my mailing list
    • take a look at my other works
  4. Spending some money advertising on BookBub and some other lists
  5. Blogging more regularly and with more focus

One challenge that will remain, even with the above taken care of, is that the advent of self-publishing has made the market brutally competitive, rewarding few writers except expert marketers who are also prolifically productive. The same J. F. Penn article linked to above mentions that “you need more than 10 [books] to make a very good living,” and says that making those books are related (i.e. in the same genre) is a key to success.

I have to overcome my current block, which is that the freelancing that sustains me is keeping me from my doing what is necessary to make the writing pay its own way.

On that matter, Platt and Truant also introduced me to the motivational The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which I highly recommend to all artists, especially those who frequently give in to procrastination or excuses and fail to get their work done.

Pressfield might say my freelancing is an excuse not to write—though I’d prefer to say it’s a revealing trade-off that shows being free is more important. If I’m to combine writing and freedom, I need to be more clever in my business, building volume, delegating tasks, and making it more self-sustaining. Here’s hoping it’s possible.

How the books are going part 2: writing

As far as progress on specific projects goes, things have been slow. I’m still revising Seize the Girl the third volume of the No More Dreams series. This has taken over seven months, though I’ve had on average only an hour or two every day to devote to it. Though again, I’m conscious that I’m making excuses, there are two things that have contributed to the length of the process:

  1. The manuscript is over 100,000 words long
  2. This is effectively, the end of my first novel, a single story set into three parts—and the first draft of this part was extremely disorganized. There were a few gaps in the story, multiple continuity issues, and to cap it all off, many of the scenes were out of order.

The lesson in point 2, which I’d offer to any author, is simply to avoid writing in a fragmentary way. By all means, make notes about scenes that may go here or there. But finish that work before you start to write in earnest, order your thoughts, and set out to write your story from beginning to end in as straightforward a manner as possible.

As always, I treat writing as an infinitely deep learning experience.

The redraft is 99% done. What remains is to put the manuscript into a presentable format, send it to my beta readers, wait for responses and then revise according to the trends I see. All being well, I may be able to  release the book before my thirty-third birthday in September, some nine months after I had planned to have the book out there.

Then, at last, I’ll be able to start the next one. I’m looking forward to it.

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Self-publishing and return on investment

Readers here might know that I make most of my living these days as a freelance editor, and that I’ve recently been doing a lot of work for self-publishing authors.

One of my clients asked me how he’s going to make his money back, in about as straightforward a way as you ever could, so last week I did what novelists do and wrote him a 4,500-word letter. The best bits of that email, cleaned up a little, are now on my editing website, hourigan.co. It’s an important piece for those considering self-publishing, and you can

read it here….

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To a writer facing personal troubles

I do a lot of writing. If you read this blog, you might have read a few hundred thousand pages of it in my books—what you might not know is that like a lot of writers in history, I also write a huge amount of letters, sometimes tens of thousands of words a month. Perhaps I should channel this elsewhere!

It strikes me today that many of these might be worth sharing. While my correspondents’ side is, of course, private, many of the letters that I write are largely about my own experience, and worth publishing for the benefit or interest of others.

Today’s letter is to a fellow writer who recently told me that his project is being stymied by financial and relationship difficulties, which I can relate to.


Hi, —

Thanks for writing.

I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. There’s not much you can do in the way of saying things to make someone feel better at times like these, but here are two inspirational comic strips from Zen Pencils that I thought of when it comes to writers in difficulty:

I actually finished my first novel around the time that an ex-girlfriend who I had lived with left me for a mutual friend. Perhaps not surprisingly, I was glad to have my writing to devote myself to at the time—it was a good outlet for my emotions and having something else to focus on helped. That said, I could hardly sleep for about six weeks, in spite of what I thought was good mental resilience. Sometimes only time heals such things.

As for talk of failure—if you’ll permit me some of my own thoughts, I wouldn’t see it as something to be afraid of, exactly. There’s far worse—despair, and giving up. While one is still getting back on one’s feet and fighting, there is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. I was reminded here of a passage from Chogyam Trungpa’s book Shambhala, which I read from at a book co-op night for writers in Melbourne some time ago. You might like it.

There may be something inspiring for you there as a writer, in the sense that communicating the difficulties we’ve been through is part of our work.

To end on a hopeful note, in January this year I finished off a short book project for an author, that included editing and a website, and she’s had an excellent sales result so far, selling about AUD 1,200 in books to her contacts before the month is even over, and having already made back more than half the money she invested in the project. I’m really thrilled for her, and I wanted to let you know about the success story.

I hope things feel a little brighter for you soon. In the meantime, I guess the last thing I can offer you is just to say hang in there and keep writing—there is always some kind of salvation in it.

Good luck. Write to me any time you like.

—Ben

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Playing Rogue Legacy

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Since I’ve been living in Thailand, I’m away from my television and my consoles, so the only way I can play videogames (a longtime hobby of mine—I even did my honors thesis and an abandoned PhD on Japanese RPGs) is on my Android mobile, my iPad, or my Mac.

I’ve slowly grown more enamored with Steam, so much so that I announced yesterday it’s now my go-to point for games. I especially like knowing that if I change computing platforms at some point in the future, I’ll still have access to my purchases—which I can’t say about games I’ve bought from the Mac App Store.

Once I’d let everyone know I was on Steam these days, my friend Felix asked me what I thought of Rogue Legacy—which I’d never heard of. That’s now rectified.

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The art may remind you of Ghouls’n Ghosts.

Rogue Legacy takes inspiration from ancient text-mode RPG Rogue, which gave players an overhead view of their character’s progress through randomly-generated dungeons made of text characters. Rogue’s most famous recent descendent is the Diablo series, which reproduces its formula of random levels, loot drops, and simple, hack-and-slash gameplay.

Like Diablo, Rogue Legacy spices up the RPG formula with action elements. I’ve always liked the action-RPG idea, promising as it does to replace what can be rather boring turn-based battles with challenges to the player’s dexterity. It makes things more dynamic and fun—I think of how enamored I was as a child with Legend of Zelda II in comparison with the SSI Dungeons & Dragons games.

It also mixes the Rogue formula with a dose of retro, sprite-based design, and humor from its central conceit, which is that on death, one’s hero is succeeded by a descendant—likely afflicted with a hereditary disease. These diseases range from gigantism to IBS and colorblindness, and add different visual or gameplay features to each session—again, randomly. The character designs are also amusing, reminiscent (as I’ve read elsewhere) of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts.

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For a roguelike, Rogue Legacy includes a surprising amount of setpiece content, including bosses and this door near the castle entrance.

So—do I love it? It’s a qualified yes—with the main caveat being that I’m wary of how much of my time playing it could take up. After a few hours of play, I’ve settled into a groove with it where I’m always keen for just one more go.

But it took a while to arrive here. Now, I’ve accumulated enough stat and class upgrades by adding to my manor, and gathered enough extra equipment, that I’m starting to feel a sense of power and the ability to move freely throughout Castle Hamson, and even to make it some small way into the more threatening forest, tower, and dungeon areas that surround it. The first couple of hours, though, are frustrating: a low-level character with no upgrades will die quickly, often before collecting enough loot to buy anything that will make it possible to get further into the castle on the next try.

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Die and you have to select a new hero—but they’ll start with their Daddy’s money.

The beginning player must rely on getting favorable castle layouts on a few playthroughs, that put chests full of money within easy reach, before they can break this cycle and reach a point where they can upgrade their manor or equipment after most deaths—bringing on that “one more go” feeling.

Though the initial frustration is a slight challenge to get past, it’s arguably worth it to make later upgrades seem more impressive and satisfying. Rogue Legacy makes you work to get to the point where the game is genuinely fun and engaging, and once you do—you’ll feel it was worth the effort.

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(iA) Writer Pro for Mac (review)

Just before Christmas I was surprised by the release of Writer Pro, an update to Information Architects’ feted distraction-free Markdown writing app iA Writer, which was for a long time part of my writing workflow. Since then I’d mainly moved on to more feature-full apps, among them the newish Ulysses 3 and coder favorite Sublime Text, but the promise of a pro update to iA Writer had me intrigued and I did eventually buy Writer Pro to try it out.

Hype and disappointment

Much as I want to keep you in suspense, and to be generous to Information Architects, whose work and writing I have often loved, it’s hard to hold this back: Writer Pro is catastrophically disappointing. I wanted to love this app. But I don’t.

In fact, my disillusionment with Writer Pro began well before I’d paid its hefty $20.99 price on the App Store. The promotional videos for the app are so self-important as to be ridiculous. Had I not been sitting in the living room with my parents at the time, in the lead-up to Christmas, I would have laughed out loud. The video seems modelled on the Apple promos for new iStuff, where Jony Ive and others talk with gravitas about the design process leading up to the new product. The video for iA Writer Pro ramps it up a notch, overlaying it all with an anxiety-inducing piano soundtrack that evokes the sound of a clacking typewriter.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily laugh at the gravitas. I’m typically excited about what Ive has to announce for Apple, though announcements for recent iPhones have given me a chuckle at times. The iPhone 5 is taller? Really? That’s your response to the vastly more usable 4–5 in form factor adopted by the most high-profile Android phones?

It was the paucity of features I thought I’d find genuinely useful in this update, combined with the deadly earnest expression of the developers’ belief that iA Writer Pro is revolutionary, that gave rise to laughter. iA Writer Pro:

  • it adds a (hideable) sidebar that breaks its predecessor’s ultraminimalism,
  • divides writing into a four-phase process,
  • three of which have their own unique font
  • and adds an unusual “syntax” mode that highlights nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on.

It was two days, as a result, before I decided that there had to be more to iA Writer Pro than that, and paid the $20.99 for the Mac version.

The sidebar

Writer Pro’s most obvious new feature is the addition of a sidebar that controls major functions for writing in Markdown.

This sidebar has four sections:

  • Workflow: a horizontal slider that controls movement between iA Writer Pro’s four phases
  • Structure: radio buttons for selecting heading levels 1 through 6, body text, and bulleted and numbered lists
  • Syntax (Control): a vertical slider that allows highlighting sentences, adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.
  • Statistics: a display for reading time, and counts of characters, words, and sentences (in the document or the selection)

Most of these functions are also available through keyboard shortcuts if the sidebar is off, which is welcome.

The workflow slider is essential to iA Writer’s flawed general premise, but can hardly be viewed as a positive addition.

The structure buttons, on the other hand, will help newcomers to Markdown discover how to add structure to their documents while they learn the markup. iA Writer has long been one of my first recommendations for Markdown newbies, and if anything, the sidebar in Writer Pro improves on its suitability for these users. Yet after a period of time, the buttons become redundant: why move your cursor to click a button for Heading 1 when you could type “#”?

Syntax Control, the most hyped feature of Writer Pro in the promo videos, is also the strangest. Writers fond of the advice that one should avoid adverbs (and sometimes even adjectives) if possible may find the highlighter useful to expunge these superfluities from their work.

I admit that I actually did use Syntax Control while editing this review, and found the adverb highlighter particularly useful, even if it sometimes get things wrong (highlighter, for instance, is definitely not an adverb, but Writer Pro thinks it is). I may grow to think more highly of Syntax Control than I do.

Yet overall, to a native English speaker the focus on parts of speech in Syntax Control seems counterintuitive. Just why would I need to see all the verbs in my document highlighted? The development team’s answer to this is that with Syntax Control you can scan your work for repetition, as though this were the chief evil in writing.

Syntax Control looks to me like a solution to a nonexistent problem, and that this central feature in the new app is relatively weak is one of the clearest indications that the app as a whole is inadequate as a step forward, particularly at its price point.

Finally, the statistics panel is an act of outright vandalism. It’s now the only way to get those counts for words, characters, and so on. While that might seem okay, you may well cry when you realize that if you turn the sidebar off to get back to the original iA Writer’s minimal presentation, the counts no longer appear at the bottom of the window or screen when you move the mouse. If you want the counts, you can clutter your screen with the whole sidebar … or you get nothing.

Four phases, three fonts

iA Writer divides the writing process into four phases:

  • note
  • write
  • edit
  • read

Note, write, and edit have their own fonts, while read uses the sans-serif font already introduced in edit mode.

All the fonts are designed by Bold Monday: write mode uses the Nitti font familar from iA Writer, while note mode uses a proportional sans-serif and edit and read uses a proportional serif.

There seems little difference between the four modes except that the font is different for three of them, and the cursor colour changes. The only difference between read and edit modes appears to be that read mode takes the cursor away and grays out the other sidebar controls.

Another review of Writer Pro points out that if you are saving your documents in iCloud, it will also change the folder that the document is in. Comments on iA’s support forum demonstrate that though there is a certain invisible depth to these modes in the way they handle files on iCloud, users (including myself) can’t easily understand how it works or exactly what it is doing and why.

For many these file-management features will be an an annoyance or an irrelevancy, particularly if they like to edit their Markdown files in multiple applications and so avoid iCloud, as I do.

Occasionally you would hear around the internet requests to be able to change the font in iA Writer, and finally you can do it! Writer Pro keeps the excellent typographic presentation of the original iA Writer, but now gives you three different font options. In addition, there is more nuanced Markdown formatting that makes a visual distinction between heading levels.

Yet—wouldn’t it have been intuitive to serve this request by adding a font selector to a menu or a preferences dialog?

What’s still missing

Although it’s thrown at users a bunch of solutions to problems that never existed (the need to select a mode depending on whether you’re taking notes, writing, or editing; an inability to highlight the conjunctions in a document), iA Writer Pro ignores some of users’ long-running feature requests. It’s also missing some features that you’d expect from a pro-grade Markdown writing app.

No dark mode

Over the years, I’ve seen numerous requests directed at the iA Writer Twitter account, including some of my own, that ask for a dark mode, with light-colored text on a dark background. The official response has been “press Fn+Ctrl+Opt+Cmd+8 to reverse your display’s colors”. This comes with a few nasty side-effects, including the presence of bright pixels at the screen corners if you’re in full-screen mode.

Years on, and a $20 paid upgrade later, and iA Writer users have got a bunch of stuff they never asked for, but there’s still no dark mode.

No outline mode

One of the main reasons I don’t use iA Writer regularly at the moment is that I’m in the middle of editing a 110,000-word novel, and for that I need to be able to jump around my document to my different chapter and section headings.

This need for outlining has driven me to more full-featured text editors and Markdown editors, including Textmate, Textastic (just $8.99!), Ulysses 3 and the multiplatform Sublime Text.

Is there hope?

There’s a backlash against Writer Pro on iA’s support forums right now, and it leads me to hope that the developers might change their direction and move Writer Pro more toward being a capable (and dare I say conventional) app that warrants its “pro” designation.

While it’s certainly against iA’s ethos to turn Writer Pro into a full-featured text-editor laden with menus and syntax highlighters, incremental upgrades to its core features may have been worth paying money for:

  • dark mode
  • tweaked, improved Markdown autoformatting
  • tweaked, improved DOCX import and export (one of my favorite features, and not seen in other Markdown editors I’m aware of)
  • more import and export formats (ePub, HTML)
  • an outline viewer or navigator
  • extra font choices (not top of my list, but important to others)

Until or unless iA starts thinking about adding features such as these, some of which have been desired and asked for by its users, instead of making bizarre revolutions that shuffle people’s files without telling them, and cluttering what used to be a pristinely minimal user interface.

The alternatives

These days my main writing environment is Sublime Text, a cross-platform text editor designed for coders with robust navigation features which is also easily extensible with a unique package manager. While for many Sublime Text would be overkill, these days I almost can’t live without being able to hit Cmd+P and zip over to another chapter without taking my hands off the keyboard.

In addition, I’ve been spending time with Ulysses 3, which also has an outline viewer, and distraction-free modes that parallel Writer Pro. Ulysses 3 is distinguishing itself these days with robust export options and a template language inspired by CSS, and is now my preferred environment for creating ebooks from finished manuscripts.

And there’s still iA’s original distraction-free writing app, iA Writer, not quite as polished in some ways as the new Writer Pro, but less cluttered, easier to understand, and only half the price at $9.99. Superior in some ways to its successor, iA Writer is the drawing board its developers may need to go back to.

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Overman

From a deleted chapter in Seize the Girl:

And when, as I sometimes did, I threw myself wholeheartedly into identifying with my strident and forthright contempt for nearly all that was commonly accepted as good, I imagined myself fairly shining with the holy radiance of the overman.
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Chiangmai and Bangkok: Different universes

First time taking BTS..., © benhourigan
First time taking BTS… (Typical Bangkok.)
, © benhourigan

A friend asks, “You lika Bangkok?” Well…

It’s been a mixed bag—I started out in this relatively awful hostel on the (also relatively awful) Sukhumvit 11, which has a distressingly strict no-guests policy … and bedbugs, which at the daily equivalent of close to THB 30,000 a month is not on.

But then the girl I came down here to meet took me to Chao Samran on the weekend with her friends for one of the best parties I’ve been to in my life, I spent a couple of days finding a new apartment to stay at off Sukhumvit 22, and I can finally relax at “home” and do some work again. And last night we went to Asiatique, which has a spectacular view over the river from the deck.

Comparing it to Chiangmai—well, they’re two vastly different things. Bangkok reminds me of Tokyo: it’s maybe Tokyo before the property bubble and the subsequent 20 years of stagnation. Chiangmai makes me think of a small Japanese city as it might have been 70 years ago. Bangkok (or at least this part) can be almost expensive as Australia, which makes me feel very lucky that business is good right now; in Chiangmai it’s almost inconceivable that you could spend as much money as you could back home. Chiangmai has a restorative, meditative quality and human scale; Bangkok has an immense, fractal variety and modern grandeur. They seem to belong to entirely different universes.

Twilight sun over Doi Suthep, from my room on Sripoom soi 1., © benhourigan
Twilight sun over Doi Suthep, from my room on Sripoom Soi 1. (Typical Chiangmai.)
, © benhourigan

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