The business of writing

Writing is, in many ways, not merely an extension of what I do as a businessman, but a reflection of many things I do on a day-to-day basis. But first, some background. I began writing with every intention of self-publishing. After looking at the existing environment of agents and publishers and seeing a rather unpleasant landscape populated mainly by gatekeepers, striking out on my own became a very natural decision for me to make.

Octane, the business through which I publish my works, is the same business I’ve been at the helm of since its inception in June 1999. I’m a designer, programmer, an occasional writer for a variety of business publications, a marketeer of sorts (a duty thrust upon many a reluctant entrepreneur) and now — finally, after many years of formulating ideas — a self-published author.

So where are these parallels of which I speak of?

Trust, and the management of expectations

Clients, much like the reader, have expectations, which I, as a businessman and a writer, must meet with. A brief may — and often does — contain promises, which are either implicitly understood, or laid out as a series of actionable tasks. By comparison, as a writer, a synopsis may merely hint at or explicitly detail what lies within a novel.

Be they a reader or a client, the synopsis or brief must not contain falsehoods, or anything else you might fail to deliver, or deliver incorrectly. Managing expectations is paramount, because if you do not, you don’t just damage trust, you risk loosing it entirely.

Always be realistic about your goal, but then strive to over deliver. I cannot express how important it is, and hugely rewarding, to exceed the expectations of a client, delivering to them not just what they were seeking, but then exceeding with things that might otherwise have been unachievable.

As a writer, the over delivery is something that you, the author, must build towards in some way that rewards the senses of the reader, to manipulate their emotions such that they feel the triumph and the tragedy as if it were real.

Accuracy, as always

As a task, reading requires concentration, and the capacity to retain certain pertinent facts, like the names of characters, events, places and such. Whereas using a website or a web application (subject to user training) has a certain mindlessness to it, whereby the visitor must not find anything too challenging such that it interrupts that passage from point of entry to achieving their expected goal.

However, in either instance, if something isn’t correct, or where the reader or the visitor expected it to be, their motion is broken and they then have to stop to think. Stop and think? Making someone think isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when they’re thinking about why something they’re doing isn’t the way it should be, or where they expected it to be, then yes, thinking becomes a bad thing.

In many ways, accuracy is an extension of trust and expectation, but it is wholly large enough to separate out and discuss in isolation. As a writer, your accuracy manifests itself in a bewildering variety. Spelling, yes. Grammar, too. Continuity — now there’s a beast with potential to make anyone look like an idiot. Readers expect these things. Visitors, too.

Accuracy, therefore, must be habitual and not some likeable, aspirational goal that we choose to explore later, when we have the time.

Being unbelievably believable

You may, on occasion, hear me say or write certain things, such as that people must first buy into people before they buy from people. Of course, you may substitute people for businesses, but in essence, the thrust of the statement remains intact.

“My name’s Wayne Smallman and I sell ideas that change the way companies do business, usually in the form of novel web applications.”

An extract from the Octane website. The key statement here is that I sell ideas. Be that while I wear the hat of a businessman, or that of an author, I’m selling ideas that, to many people, are just unbelievable. Often, a client might lack the abstract eye to see what it is that I see so clearly, which limits the extent to which I’m able to communicate any given idea, so I must employ other techniques to win their trust, which typically involves providing demonstrable evidence that I’m able to produce those unbelievable things I speak of.

Again, we’re in the realms of trust — as always. But here we veer deeply into the actual minutia of writing itself, or at least the intricacies of story telling. Think of those notable characters of cinema and book, those that you really, truly believe in. Think of the journey you either enjoyed or endured, as the protagonist fought their way from one crisis to another.

Often, the believability of the situation arises entirely as a result of your belief in that character. Because of this belief, you are then only too prepared to then suspend in situ your sense of disbelief if the situation, where you then accept the implausibility of their plight.

Of course, in writing, the genre plays a very important part. Should you shove scavenging aliens or a zombie horde into the sumptuously decadent Palai de Versailles, during the romantic times of the great kings of France, your reader might not be entirely receptive to your ideas, or appreciative.

A fundamental aspect of success — and one that is particularly difficult to control — is word-of-mouth marketing. Once people have been enriched by your works, they often strive to convince others just how unbelievable you really are. However, for me personally, this journey is one I must start afresh, as an author, since the trust I’ve amassed as a businessman is neither readily nor readily transferrable.

Final thoughts…

So, you thought being a writer was a purely creative endeavour? Yes, but only so far. But because writing is a formulaic (if you pardon the pun) process, as an activity, there are several predictable and well-defined components that you can manage either in isolation, or as a whole.

Ultimately, the end product is one borne of almost indefinable creativity. But the process by which you manage that product, once an habitual process, it is transformed into something you can, over time, come to rely on.

Women, eh?

I think this one article, on the subject of writing strong female characters, kind of brought things to a head for me, this being perhaps the forth or fifth article I’ve read dealing with the (apparently thorny) subject / issue of female protagonists.

Why is it even a issue to begin with? I think — if what I’ve been reading is anything to go by — the thinking appears to settle into two groups:

  1. the male authors who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to write something with a female protagonist, yet can’t quite figure out an angle of approach, since they’re not writing from personal experience, in an emotional context;
  2. the author (male or female) who writes something with a female protagonist, with the intention of doing the “crop top, big knife, and tattoos” thing, knowing it’s by far the easiest angle of approach, and therefore likely to monetize more easily, too.

I’ve written two novellas so far, both of which feature a female protagonist. But the only quandry I found myself in was timing; I’d intended to have another novella or novel between them featuring a male protagonist, just to space them out. Why? Because I personally didn’t want to be labelled some kind of neofeminist science fiction writer!

I suppose the characters I’ve written appear (or at least read) more realistic because of the upbringing I’ve had (three older sisters) and mostly having had some wonderful women in my life, removing the need to guess what a woman might do in what might be perceived as a typically male situation, as was often the case with Leonora in Earth Day.

Lucidity, on the other hand, really wasn’t about action or anything like that. So I didn’t have to think hard about how the Barbara would react.

One would hope things might not be as cliché in the future. But the problem is one of experience more than anything else. Obviously, this is just an opinion, not fact, and it would be great to hear the thoughts of others.