Tools for writers: Do we need them?

So I’ve just got back from meeting with a couple of fellow writers. We descend on The Showroom in Sheffield now and again (we try to be more frequent but it never seems to work out that way) to talk about what we’re up to.

How’s that sequel coming along? How many days in a row have you procrastinated over shiny things on the internet? That kind of thing.

Today’s discussion mostly revolved around writing tools and technology. Pete and Christie are hardcore into their technology. They both use Scrivener, which is a writing tool that let’s you organise your manuscript with all manner of virtual post-its and bookmarks to make moving around your work easier. It sounds great. Anything that makes editing your own work easier is a surefire hit.

But, I don’t use it. For anyone who can remember my previous “planner or pantser” post, I don’t even plan that much.

I get an idea for a story, cook it in my head until it’s nice and brown, then hit the keyboard with nothing but the images in my head and a notebook, just in case.

It’s strange to think that we’re all striving toward the same thing. We all want to write stories. But we come at it from such diverse directions. And I don’t think any of them are wrong. My friends love their gadgets. I’m probably considered a minimalist. We all get the job done in our own way. So why am I so jealous of their ability to be organised? ūüėĀ

What’s your method? Let me know if I’m a complete literary mutant or not ūüėä
Thanks for reading

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How D&D helped my writing

I’m totally addicted to Dungeons and Dragons.

I’d always wanted to play and never had anyone who knew how but, after dropping into someone else’s game for just the one session, I gave myself Gygax.

Since my exntded shore-leave from the blog, I now run two games, both very different, as Dungeon Master, and I play in another. I really can’t suggest it strongly enough. Especially for writers. There is no end to the creativity you can play out in the games. The story can be sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thriller, you name it!

I’ve found it’s a massive help to maintaining creativity. When my books are stumbling (all talk about the several projects I’m working on in a later post) and I can’t get my Auth-on, D&D has been exactly what I’ve needed.

Not only do I get to come up with ideas that don’t have to have every detail planned out, but the players do half the work for me! With a brief set-up, the players drive their own plot based on whatever they want their characters to do, often coming up with paths through the story that I would have never come up with

I would never straight-up novelise the games I run. Those are for me and my friends alone, to enjoy spending time together and having fun. But those little sparks of inspiration that playing gives me; those are priceless.

Being forced to think on the fly when a player takes a tangent, having to ad-lib and (my favourite part) playing all of the NPCs (non-player characters) is not only immense fun and such a rush, but brilliant for my story and character-generating skills.

Let me give you an example.

So, the players, who are a crew of a ship, have been attacked by an undead pirate and all of their belongings have been stolen. Limping to the nearest island and left to their own devices while their ship is fixed, they decided they wanted to head to a tavern.

While in the tavern, one player picks an arm-wrestling match with a local (who I had to make up) but the true moment of excellence was Eugene. A player asked if there were any locals at the bar, as he intended to fleece one of them out of some money (the players didn’t even have money to eat).

Anyway, I said there was indeed a young elf at the bar. He seemed out of place, nervous, with a large backpack at this feet. This, as it turns out, would be Eugene. Over the next few minutes, the player decided to tease me by asking Eugene’s entire backstory (which I didn’t have prepared) but the funniest part was the voice that came out when Eugene spoke. Because I hadn’t written this character before hand and, perhaps because of his name, the poor NPC ended up with the voice of Professor Frink from Futurama.

I could barely hold it together. Eugene tickled everyone around the table. And every time they go into the bar, they ask if Eugene is in there. Probably just to mess with me, actually.

The moral of this story, is that D&D is a GREAT writing tool. You should try it.

 

Thanks for reading.

Selling books ain’t easy – How to get your books noticed at events

Well, The Adventures of Alan Shaw is out there in the universe now. I’ve had my first couple of signings and everything seems to be going well. Lots of folks who read Greaveburn came along to both Waterstones in Doncaster and Leeds Steampunk Market to pick up their copies of the new book, which is very nice of them indeed.

What I noticed, however, is that new readers were leaning toward Greaveburn rather than Alan Shaw. Despite the logic which would suggest that the next book would be better. After all, I’ve had a lot more practice at this thing I do, so I certainly hope I’ve learnt something (Jury’s still out, though). And I think I know why. Greaveburn is shorter!

Why would you start reading a new author, not knowing if you’re going to like it, and pay a pound extra for the larger book? Of course you wouldn’t! You read the shorter, cheaper book and, if you like it, you read more. I also noticed that as the pile of Greaveburn copies went down, people picked it up more. That would suggest readers believe the sales of books to be indicative of quality. So, the sales of Greaveburn perpetuated themselves.

Awesome!

Just when I thought no one would be interested in the older novel, it kicks serious ass at Leeds Steampunk Market.

Of course, for the author, you want people to read and review your new work, so it can feel disappointing. But once Greaveburn had sold out, people headed over to the Alan Shaw pile and they disappeared, too. That pretty much proves my point about reader psychology and the books they buy.

Also, everyone wanted to know if the books were part of a series. People want to read epic stories nowadays. Everyone is looking for their next 50 Shades of Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series. For the love of God, if someone asks you if your book is part of a series, even if you’re still working on the other books and it’s just a possibility, tell them about it!

Another thing I noticed, which seems odd but is true, most people, on stepping through a door, will turn right. Don’t ask me why. They just do. Unless there is something staggeringly brilliant to their left that they just can’t pass up, they will go right. So, if you’re at a market, try to shift your stall over that side. You don’t want to be next to the door, though. People browse before they buy. Be the third or fourth stall. By then, readers/buyers will have got a feel for the room and be ready to hang around.

Another thing I’ve observed is how sellers present themselves. Over the course of any event weekend, you can observe people floating on by stalls. Why is that? There seems to be a correlation with how the stall holders were coming across. If you sit behind a phone/tablet/book, and look disinterested, why should the reader/buyer be interested in you? Also, if your stall is surrounded completely, new people won’t come over. If you’re lucky enough to have some lovely person come and have a conversation with you, then ask them politely to move over so that people can still get in. They really won’t mind. Then carry on chatting.

A similar point is to not have too many people behind your stall. On occasions where I’ve had myself, my shop girl (either my wife, or a friend who helps me out) and my publishers all behind the table, people feel overwhelmed. It’s like they’re having a job interview. So they don’t visit. I get more casual visitors when it’s just me, or me and my shop girl, than at any other time.

This post is turning into a thesis! Sorry.

On the subject of shop-girls…and don’t take this the wrong way…but a pretty face next to you is hardly a bad thing. Unless you have pretty face of our own. But I don’t. I’m more of a keep-the-kids-away-from-the-fire kind of face. And so a friendly, pleasant young lady with me helps to even me out. It also helps if that assistant knows their stuff. Make sure they’ve read the book! Let them listen to you sell your own material. My friend, Fran, helps me out regularly, and I’ve noticed that she pretty much directly quotes me when explaining the book to others. And it works! She’s read the book herself so she can comment on whether people will like it or not, and she explains the premise just as well as I do. Perfect!

A tip I got from a very nice fellow author, Sam Smith, was to use The Rule of Three to explain your book to other people. This rule is based on the magic number that makes everyone’s brain go wahoooHOOOO! But also on something I’ve mentioned before; that everyone is looking for the next book to read which they will enjoy just as much as their last one!

So, described your books by comparing them to three other things. Let’s use Greaveburn as an example to make it easier to explain:

It’s like Frankenstein¬†meets¬†Les Miserables¬†with a hint of The Hunchback of Notre Dame where every character is a villain.”

See the three elements? That gives a really good idea of what the story is about, the feel of it, and then finished off with something unique to the book.

Let’s try to do it with The Adventures of Alan Shaw:

“It’s like Indiana Jones¬†is thrown into an¬†H.G Wells novel and travels the world having Pulp-style adventures, where you get to see how the Steampunk era develops as the character grows up.”

An easy sentence to memorise, and it lays it all out for the potential reader. Then, once they’re hooked, you can tell them a little more.

Try it out, it really helps to explain a complex idea such a novel to someone, and can help maintain your focus when writing a sequel too.

And last but not least… a tip on setting up your table. People seem to think that if they touch a book, they have to buy it. I once jokingly suggested to a potential reader that the cover didn’t have glue on it and I wouldn’t be offended if he put it back down after reading the blurb. He did NOT find this funny. So, now I have two cheap book stands to make my stall look a little more three dimensional and interesting and I always lay one book blurb-up on the table to people can read without having to pick it up. I’ve had more people doing the bent-over-scan than I can remember. It really works!

I hope that’s been helpful.

Embrace the weird, my friends.

Public appearances

Hi everyone.

I’ve been a busy boy lately. In the last few weeks I’ve been to talk at my local college about writing, another workshop with a group of young writers, had a radio spot and I’m headed toward another event next weekend.

This all sounds awesome. Except for that I have zero confidence in public appearances and I’m absolutely terrible at talking to large groups of people. Small groups? No problem. Get me stood in front of a class or give me the need to be articulate in the slightest and I’m completely lost. That’s why I write things down!

image

^ That’s me looking a Goon at the college talk.

But lately the deep end of the pool has risen up to claim me. It started with a talk at Doncaster College as part of the Turn The Page festival run by local libraries. It seemed like a great idea. Go talk to aspiring authors, maybe sign some books, and hopefully not have a heart attack in the process. But it was oh-so-much harder than that. The college had the lovely idea of setting up the room in which I would be talking in a university lecture-style with me at a pulpit and host of faces staring down at me. I became acutely aware of how Loosestrife felt on page 3 of Greaveburn with all those students looking down on him (Which gave me a giggle as life started to imitate art). What made this particularly interesting and a real learning experience, was because most of the atendees didn’t have English as their first language, and as I talked I became acutely aware that either my accent or vocabulary wasn’t getting through. And so I had to change tack half way through and start re-planning on the fly. Yikes.

It was an absolute blast. I got a little adrenalin rush like jumping out of a plane without the parachute. But I survived it! Hell yes, I did. And I reckon I nailed it…or maybe not…

Anyway, the next event, on the very same day in fact, was a radio interview where I had to review someone else’s book as well. That part was kind of fun apart from when the interviewer started asking me historical questions about when the first dirigible was used and what the difference between an airship and a dirigible was. Just for the record, I am neither historian or engineer. But I am the King of Blag. And so I winged it. And I think I didn’t sound too much of a complete idiot so I’m chalking that one up as a win, too.

Don’t argue, just let me have it, ok? ;D

With that done, next came my talk with a local Young Writer’s group this week. As my girlfriend (scratch that, fiance, since I got engaged recently and completely forgot to blog about it. Naughty Craig) is an English teacher, I figured I would be prepared for talking to young adults (read: teenagers) by her stories and advice. Oh, how wrong can you be?

I had lots of fun and we talked about all manner of geeky things, but there was absolutely no order to the proceedings at all ūüėÄ

Dear Lord, I’m not ready for children yet.

But they were brilliant, enthusiastic, and extremely insightful and clever. Much more than I was, to be honest. But I think I made them laugh a few times, which was good, and they seemed to really grab onto the idea of Greaveburn being inspired by a funky “cheese dream” which ended up being the catchphrase of the whole evening. So what did I do wrong? Plenty. Afterward I was acutely aware that some of the particularly astute members of the group were very quiet and overpowered by some who were louder and perhaps had a lot less insight. And I did nothing to help those poor quiet kids. To them, if they’re reading this, I apologise profusely. I’m still learning. And I hope you’ll contact me so I can maybe help you on a one-to-one basis as you deserve.

Anyways, what I’m getting at is that public appearances are full of pitfalls for authors. No matter the preparation, something will come up that you can’t account for. Expect the unexpected. And if all else fails, just relax and have fun. I certainly did, and maybe next time I’ll even be better at it. Who knows?

But if nothing else, I hope this blog post helps you to realise that someone else is always worse at public appearances at you. And that person will always be me.

 

Thanks for reading!

What does it take to make a book?

Yes, writing a book is a damn good start. It’s the ONLY start, in fact. But what comes after that? I don’t know about you, dear readers, but when I was feverishly typing well into the night, pulling out my hair when characters didn’t do as they were told, yelling EUREKA when¬†everything starting coming together, I didn’t really consider what would happen afterwards other than “I want this to get published”. Such a simple dream, right? Well, it’s¬†no¬†easy task. I’m not going to bash on about how to get yourself an agent/publisher (I honestly believe that there is no one on the planet or in this dimension who can truly tell you how to do that, only tell you what NOT to do). And¬†I’m not going to profess to understand all the ins and outs of publishing, marketing and selling books to you. The point of this post is to show you all the stages that I’ve come across¬†in going from accepted draft to book-in-the-hand, and hopefully shine a little light on how complicated getting a book in print really is.

The Contract

¬†The irony of this stage is that it comes at the very beginning of your Book-Having journey, at a time when you’re still bouncing around the room at the idea of being accepted for publication, quaffing ale in celebration (I always wanted to quaff) and giving yourself a hearty pat on the back. It also happens to be the time when you need to be the most level-headed and thoughtful.¬†Read it. Read it again. Email your¬†potential publisher with questions. Read it again. No, really read it. Make sure you know what you are¬†getting yourself into.

Yes, it’s your life blood in that pen

Important things to note:

  1. Does it mention how much input you’ll have in the editing process? No publisher will relinquish the final word on decisions about your book, but somewhere in there it should mention negotiation and your creative right to withdraw should you be displeased with the path your novel is taking. It’s YOUR novel. You should be able to run away if you’re not happy with what’s going down.
  2. Does it tie you into a deal for your next few books? This is a mixed blessing. If they’re willing to sign you for the next few books, you have some solidarity for your next project. Just also be aware that this clause means you’re going nowhere. If you’re unhappy with the publisher for any reason over the course of this whole process, you might still have to submit your next book to them for consideration, even if you don’t accept the further contract in the end. This can be VERY restrictive for your future projects, or support them. Think about what it means to you.

Other than that, remember that a contract ties the publisher to you as much as the other way around. If they’re willing¬†to sign you, they have faith in your work as a marketable product. That’s a bloody good thing. Go back to quaffing ale! WOOHOO!

The Edits

Every author’s nightmare, the edits come first and so are gotten out-of-the-way¬†fairly early on. Your publisher will assign you an Editor/Project Leader at this point. Get to know them. Give them a list of questions. Tell them what you were aiming to do with the book; subplots/subtexts, themes, character developments. That way, when they read your novel, they’ll know what you were aiming for and be able to pull at those strands, giving you an idea of if you’ve succeeded or not. Then any good Editor will tell you what areas to develop and possibly suggest how you might go about it.

They WILL ask you to rewrite. No-one’s novel goes through unscathed. This might be YOUR fifth draft, but it’s only the first as far as they’re concerned. Expect things to bounce back and forth a¬†little. This is where your ability to take constructive criticism really needs to shine through. There are so many writers out there that bitch and whine¬†at the slightest negative comment. You’ve met them on forums, Twitter, Facebook. You’ve thought “what a douchbag”. The Editor will be thinking the same thing. Don’t be that douchbag. Ask questions in order to clarify what they want you to do. You ARE allowed to negotiate. Maybe suggest other ways of making a similar plot/character change if you have another idea.¬†But in the end, they generally know what they’re talking about. Unless it’s absolutely imperative to your novel, don’t be precious. What’s that famous bit of advise we’ve all heard a million times?

“Murder your darlings”

The Cover

Now you’ve gone through the¬†scary bit, we get to the utterly cool part. Don’t lie to me, you’ve imagined what that book cover will look like ever since¬†enumerating the first chapter. Your publisher will have their own ideas, but that doesn’t stop you making suggestions. If they’re any good, they’ll ask you what you think, anyway. Look for artists yourself. It doesn’t hurt. The publisher might have their own cover artists on hand already, but getting some ideas from elsewhere is helpful. Find a few different things you like, drop it in their inbox (in a purely platonic sense). Why not?

The prelims (preliminary designs)¬†will come back and you’ll probably pass out from excitement. Dust yourself off, splash your face and have another look. This is what people are going to see ON SHELVES. Squee!¬†(Quaff quaff)

While searching for “bad book covers” I found this. What is this book even ABOUT!? Evil Knievel Kitty leaps the ring of flame?

The cover is the face of your book. Once you’ve calmed down a little, think about what¬†the image¬†says about the content. Again, your publisher will have already thought about all this and taken it into consideration. But you have a duty to consider it too. The main point I’m making throughout most of this post is that you shouldn’t sit back and be quiet once you’ve “finished” your¬†writing. You know the content of your novel better than anyone else, without exception. It’s your baby. Make sure you don’t regret any decisions¬†so that when the release date comes around, you can beam with pride and oil your oversized head rather than fretting.

The Marketing

You’re already doing this. Blog, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads¬†and Gods only know what else. You’re selling yourself as an author and a professional. But your Marketing Womble (some don’t like being called that. I wouldn’t suggest it unless you’re pretty confident in their sense of humour)¬†is about to take that and hopefully blow it off the charts. Listen to them. It’s funny really, because as Writers we constantly paw over our wording, hidden meanings, trying to get across out ideas in the most succinct and effective way possible. So why do we tend to suck at writing about ourselves? Your bio needs to be as good as Chapter 1 of your novel. Maybe even better. You’re a writer. That makes you creative, interesting, intelligent, maybe a little eccentric (I don’t feel a single one of these things apart from the latter, but readers will kind of expect the others, too). Make sure that all your social networking reflects what an utterly fantastic human being you are behind that keyboard.

Marketing Wombles. Warning: Appearance may vary

Your Marketing Womble will be compiling a press release pack. This is everything about you and your work in a neat little package. Work your angles, but make them obtuse (see? I did maths at GCSE!). For instance, while I’m trying to sell myself as an author and my novel is inherently a Gothic Steampunk¬†story, that doesn’t mean that they’re the only niches I should appeal to. I’ve hit the Steampunk¬†circuit¬†about as hard as it’ll take, and the Goth scene, too. But I’m not restricting myself too much. Readers of all kinds of Speculative Fiction will be interested in Greaveburn¬†(honestly, they will!) so similarly, make sure you tell everyone about your novel, not just the little nuggets of folk who are expressly interested.

In addition to that last point, remember that unless you’re a super-selling author, you’ll have a day job, too. I’m a Nurse, for example. So make sure that other people in your profession know what you’re doing. They’ll be interested. Who doesn’t have a day job and secretly harbour some other ambition, be it Rock Star, Writer or¬†Athlete? Be that person who did what they want to do, and be as inspiring as you can be.

The Signings/Interviews

Now, as you all know, I’m still moving toward this¬†point myself, and so I can’t go into detail about exactly how scary/brilliant the signings¬†stage¬†might be. Expect further input at a later date including¬†photos and rants¬†(and weeping fits when I make an ass of myself). What I can¬†tell you about is interviews. Petrifying. Utterly petrifying.¬†I made a major mistake here, folks, so pay attention and don’t do it yourself. DO NOT do radio interviews first. You’re live, recorded, and if you’re anything like me, you’re nervous as hell. Recipe for a big Disaster Cake with face-palm flavoured¬†icing. Written interviews with newspapers/blog tours etc. mean that you can hone your answers so you don’t sound like an ass. Don’t get yourself into a situation where you’re live on air and the radio host puts you on the spot with a ridiculous request such as “come up with a codename for our other guest who wishes to remain anonymous…NOW! QUICKLY! THREE SECONDS TO GO!” (actual example). Hideous. I still have night-sweats. This is a pretty extreme example, but another is when people ask me what Steampunk is. As anyone who is into the genre knows, there is no succinct answer to that. Try not to ramble.

I could go on for ages about stupid things I’ve said or done on air. One was comparing a really irritating and obnoxious co-presenter as a zombie Bernard Manning LIVE-ON-AIR. I thought it was hilarious, and as it turns out, so did a lot of people who contacted me after the interview, but it was a huge risk. Have more control over your mouth than I do! Another example is how I’m so nervous that I start to answer a question without knowing what I’m going to say, and then in my rambling, forget what the original question was. I’m chuckling as I type this, but I could cry when I do it ūüėÄ If you want a gret example¬†of this, tune in to the July edition of the¬†BookIt show on SineFM and listen to me make an utter fart out of myself while go from discussing Steampunk, to¬†the fashionable¬†benefits of¬†plaid in five seconds flat. Hilarious. And pathetic.

 

Well Folks, that’s all we have time for this week. As always,¬†I hope some of this has been informative/useful. Happy writing!

Thanks for reading.

Book Trailers

As the Indie Publishing Steamroller really gathers speed, we’ve started to see developments in the way books are advertsied. If they’re ever going to compete with movies or tv, for example, they’re going to need proper adverts that move and not just static images in a newspaper or on a website. And that’s where book trailers come in.

This phenomenon is turning into a real franchise with plenty of companies springing up in people’s garages who are willing to produce one for you. Let’s look at a few good ones while we’re here, eh?

Here’s one for LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfield which uses the illustrations in his book for an epic effect:

 

Or what about this one for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters,which still gets me howling with laughter:

These two were the exception to the rule with an excellent budget and proper backing, however, for the rest of us, there are some that are simple but effective:

And so the question is, do these things really work? Well, based purely on the amount of hits on Youtube, I’d say yes. We have to bear in mind that the forst two trailers were exceptional and/or very funny which increases the hit-rate. But if you can make yours intriguing enough, or funny or scary or anything else that people want to see (smexy?) then yes, the trailers work.

Now, as I’ve said¬†for those¬†of us with no budget at all such as myself, there’s ALWAYS¬† a cheap option, and it’s very easy to make your own trailer. This is where I go all Blue Peter on you and tell you to go scrounge some empty toilet rolls, sticky backed plastic, ols washing-up liquid bottles and PVA glue…so go ahead, I’ll wait…

…got it? Good, now throw it away, what do you think this is, the 80’s?

Most of you out there with your brainstem jacked directly into the internet will have free software on your computer such as Windows Movie Maker which will allow you to make your own trailer. Most of you will have a mobile phone which can take video or photographs. And most of you have fingers with which to operate the aforementioned gadgets. Do I have to spell it out for you? Get out there and start taking some pics/videos/voice recordings. Get them on your computer and have a play around. It can take days, hours or minutes, as much or as little as you like, to create your own book trailer. And, just to prove it, I’ve made one of my own to show exactly how terrible the results can be.

I’ve cheated a bit here. I googled a lot of images to make sure they were appropriately creepy. I also downloaded the free sound file for the backing track. The movie maker “skills” are my own, of course. But¬†I think you’ll get the idea of what I’m going for. And so, in celebration of me moving on from my old project, and with my next novel in sight, I’ve created a commemorative trailer for Not Before Bed before I finally stop bashing on about it. Here it is. Don’t have nightmares (yeah, right).

Due to technical issues, I’m afraid you’ll have to watch it here.

…Ok, don’t judge me.

Thanks for reading.