Tag Archives: advice from writers

What I know now, that I wish I knew then …

The advice kettle is sage and wise and also keeps the water hot, like an urn, only not.

Back on topic this week, I was asked for some advice by a writer who is just starting work on her first book. Even though she appears to be of sound mind, she was dead chuffed with what I wrote and asked if I’d share it on my blog so she could send people to the post. As a result, by special request, here is my rambling view on er … some of the aspects of writing that popped up.

BEFORE YOU START ….

1. What do you want to do?
a) have fun writing a book.
b) have fun writing a book and maybe make a bit of side cash – or at least get the cover artwork and editing costs back.
c) Rule the world: Yeh, move over JK, I am on your tail.

2. Decide on a target genre, who your reader is and what genre/store category your book fits into. Are there other books for the kind of reader you are aiming at. What are they like? What do their covers look like? Hint, you do NOT want your cover to stand out, you want it to be slick, well designed and exactly the same as all the others so readers know what they are getting (I so didn’t do this). Are you going to mash genres? Say you’re writing Sci-fi, is it something else too? Is it funny? Is it also fantasy. Are there other books like yours? Who writes them?

Your answer to question 1 will affect this as if you’re looking to make a living you need to totally conform to the standard tropes. Unless you are going to be an outlier. I thought I was going to be an outlier. It didn’t work too well for me. I write because … actually, I write because I can’t walk away from it and to be honest, walking away would be the sensible option right now.

Pantser or Plotter?

I was firmly in the pantser camp to start with – as in I’d just write and see where it went. It went to lots of good places but my first book took 13 years. Pantsing may well slow your rate of production so if a fast output is your aim plotting is good. Likewise, if your daily existence is the equivalent of having someone opening the top of your head and stir your brains about, constantly, with a wooden spoon, some kind of plot outline is going to be a huge help. Especially if you have menopausal brain fog on top (yes apparently that really is a thing and yes, of course I have it).

I find that even though I now write an outline, there is plenty of wiggle room. The key thing is to experiment and find what works best for you. I find that if I get too confined by an outline I stop enjoying it as much, I quite like the whole wondering around and seeing where it will go aspect, but when I relied solely on that I got frustrated with having to keep stopping while my brain sorted itself out. I really enjoyed the learning process – even though it was trying at times.

However, these days I am very light on time so if I want to produce a book every five years, I do need to plot a little bit so I don’t waste time. On the last two books of the K’Barthan Series I wrote 60k words I didn’t need. Right now my year’s output stands at about 40k so I can’t afford to waste a year and a half’s writing time on plot bunnies. Hence I now plot, but with enough wriggle room for the characters to act on their own initiative. This works for me – and that’s the important take away from this one: that what works for me may not work for you.

Write in whatever way suits you best.

Try to avoid being too rigid in your approach

My brain and my life.

To put this in perspective, basically, I pantsed my first novel and I wrote three versions that I sincerely wish I hadn’t written and one half cock novel (which I managed to tidy up and turn into something decent: my fifth published novel) before I managed to produce a book that measured up to my Quality Standards.

In that time, the male lead had appeared out of nowhere, one character had changed from a mechanic to a ganglord, the first book had ended up being the third and fourth ones and the other two were the backstory that popped up out of nowhere at the same time as my getaway-driving male lead. By the time I’d got to the last book, the plot was so complicated my brain was just about melting out through my nose – oh no wait that was hayfever.

What I mean is, you don’t have to stick too rigidly to the plan but you may have to shake things up originally and see what falls out to know if your book is going to work, or if it’s two books, or a series of short stories, or if the character who has just turned up in prison really is the male lead. Sometimes you get too many characters. Eric, from Escape From B-Movie Hell was actually in the K’Barthan Series to start with. Obviously he was human in that, but he was also telepathic. I just made him into an alien for his new world, his character didn’t changed much.

Likewise, at the second short in a series of five, I discovered that what I was writing was a novel. We’re 60k in and yes, I’ve already binned 40k. I’m not learning from my mistakes am I? But at the same time, the short was not a short so there was no point in forcing the issue. Now it’s a long. So what? It will be what it will be. Just try different approaches and you will find a number of different things that work.

Grammar and Punctuation

Bollocks to it. It’s the editor’s job. As you write you learn more, as you work with a decent editor you will learn loads. The point is, you will need an editor unless you are a very and I mean very rare breed. Most of us are too close in to self edit. Additionally, the only thing I really know about grammar and punctuation for sure, is that there are no right answers.

It doesn’t matter what you do, someone, somewhere will always complain so a lot of it is about having faith in your editor. I do edit my work but that’s more word choices, and tweaking stuff so it makes sense; structural things. It also helps me to do this if I need a bit of re-orientation with my giant sprawling novel. Also I have regular read throughs of what I’ve done so far so I can zoom out to the overall big picture. Otherwise I can get kind of lost. Am I a grammar nazi? No, that’s the job of my editor.

Also there will be points where you really dislike your book or think, ‘blimey this is a bit meh.’ That’s all natural. Everyone does it. Sometimes, a good way of getting round that is to work on several projects at the same time. I do that because my life is hectic and I can’t afford to not write something when the stars align and the grey matter is fired up because it happens so rarely. But working on multiple projects also helps you to ensure you’re always working on something you’re up for and enjoy.

Learning Your Craft

I never bought any how to write books – actually, I tell a lie, I have a Chuck Wendig Book on writing which is epic.

However, mostly I’ve learned to write by reading a lot of work by authors who write the way I want to; Pratchett, Adams, Woodehouse and Bryson, notably, along with Tom Holt, Robert Rankin, Nick Hornby, Spike Milligan and Tom Sharp but also non comic writers like H E Bates, Graham Greene, Neville Shute and Asimov. There’s the odd dash of historical fiction, Moonfleet when I was a kid, the Children of the New Forest and The Three Musketeers, Jane Austen. In addition my work has gained a lot of influences from TV; Dr Who – check my non violent hero who never thumps anyone – the original StarTrek, StarWars are the three big ones but also a lot of the 1960s TV shows like Get Smart, the Man from UNCLE, the Avengers, Thunderbirds etc.

This is where I confess that I am the only living person in existence who is not going to bang on about To Kill a Mockingbird or Moby Dick in this section. I have never read a word of either.

The point is, I’m guessing there is a similar list of relevant books to mine for each genre.  A list of must reads which any author would look to for inspiration if they wanted to write in it. If you don’t have one, make one.

The most important thing is patience. Nailing the whole write a book thing usually takes a long time. You are probably a faster learner than me, most people are, but it took me ages to write a book that measured up to my QS. On the upside, when I did, I knew at once that I’d cracked it.

Setting Deadlines

I don’t do this. It would kill me because if they were realistic I’d be in tears about how long each project was going to take and if they are unrealistic I’ll be beating myself up over failing to meet deadlines. I just set a long term goal and short term, realistic, targets and then creep slowly along. One of my friends got stuck a while back when we were at the same stages in our first book. I was stuck, too, but by telling myself it was temporary, or writing other scenes from other parts of the book, or, indeed other books entirely, I managed to keep on creeping slowly forward, I now have 5 books out, she’s just completing her third novel. Other writer friends have twice as many books out as me after two years in the game. So much of writing is a case of having a firm word with yourself and just getting on with it in whatever way you can. You may find deadlines work for you. I find they don’t but a handful of defined and doable goals, with no done by time, they do help. Like all this, you probably need to experiment to get your own happy medium.

In a nutshell, then, bollocks to deadlines; set targets.

Building an Audience

It’s well worth doing this as you go along rather than waiting until you’re ready to launch your first book. If you can manage a free short story you can give to folks in return for mailing list sign up that will help you to start growing a following. Open an account at instafreebie and bookfunnel to deliver the free book to folks. Join promos with other authors. Find websites and Facebook groups where you can chat to other writers in your genre and exchange marketing tips and ideas. For mailing, it’s up to you but I use Mailerlite – they’re cheap and do all the things I need them to do as an author.

This might sound a bit premature but if you can start getting people invested in you even if it’s only to share your journey, you are more likely to start off with some decent book sales.

Big caveat on your give away short though, it has to be your best stuff because it’s your shop window.

Working Out Who Your Audience Is

This is going to affect what you do considerably. For example it is really, and I mean really hard to reach young people or children online. I’d call my book Young Adult. When I wrote it, as well as me, I was thinking of my nephew, who was 12 years old at the time. When I do events, my books sell exclusively to 10-14 year olds, with the odd adult Pratchett fan thrown in. The buyers are usually parents who want to encourage their children to read books. Online, no matter how well your ads or your site piques their interest, kids will not be able to buy your books without their parents’ say so and you run into a whole heap of legal headaches if minors start signing up to your email list. The folks who buy my books online are 45 and over, more women between 45 and 50, more men over 50.

So, if you are going to sell your books, think long and hard about who you are selling to. You may need to concentrate on libraries or making a print version – Ingram Spark are good for this if you are looking for world wide sales and will get your book distributed far more widely then Createspace or Amazon Print and for far less per copy than LuLu.

Here are resources which might help focus your thoughts on production and marketing, anyway …

The first is a series of books about how to format paperbacks using word and publishing indie books. They are by this guy here:

Aaron Shepard

Mr Shepard’s books, From Word to Kindle and POD for Profit might be useful. The amount of information he is dealing with has increased so where I bought one book: Aiming at Amazon, which dealt with the process of making print books. I would have never got my paperback stuff sorted without them. If you are looking at children’s books it might be worth looking at Adventures in Writing for Children and The Business of Writing for Children and the ones he has written about making a useable kindle file using word!

The three other essential ones that will give you an idea of how you can go about building an audience, indie musician style, and sell your books are a three book set by Patty Jansen. I heartily recommend these as they also propose a way of working that is not reliant on any one bookseller and with a work rate that is realistically attainable. They are:

  • Self Publishing Unboxed
  • Mailing Lists Unboxed
  • Going Wide Unboxed

Links to buy them from all retailers can be found here – scroll down to the bottom of the page.
Or you can buy them, direct, from Patty’s Website here

I realise I’ve probably given you way more information than you might want and about stuff way further down the line than the point at which you are now. It might look daunting but the thing is, if you enjoy writing and work at it, you will get there, and when you do it won’t feel nearly as daunting, putting your work out there. It is like putting your soul on the table and inviting snide comments but somehow it works out OK and the more you do it the more your confidence builds and the more you begin to believe in your work. Not everyone will like your stuff but that’s OK. I have one star reviews and that’s fine, and if it isn’t fine, avoid reading the reviews! 😉

Finally, the most important things

IMPORTANT THING ONE: enjoy it. Enjoy writing and the love for it will shine through in what you say. If you write with conviction and enthusiasm, pretty much any plot will work, I mean, look at my stuff! The rest is gravy.

IMPORTANT THING TWO: never, EVER look at other people’s progress and compare it to yours. They are not you. Their life, their personality, and probably their books are different. Keep your eye on your own writing goals, make them realistic goals and work steadily towards them. Enjoy the process of learning and enjoy writing.

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Real Life is underrated. Using mundane events to fuel your writing mojo.

I’m not here this week, I am going to post to my blog and give a talk at the same time.  Sadly this is through the wonders of modern technology and not because I have a clone but there we go, you can’t win ’em all. So without more ado, here’s a piece outlining my theories about pimping your world to add realism to your writing. At the risk of sounding a bit waffly …

_______________________________________________

Pimp your world!

Real life can feel like an unwelcome and endlessly demanding interruption to your writing happiness.

However, it doesn’t have to be like this. The mundanity of your reality depends on how you see it. Even if you write science fiction or something that is very much not real life, observing what is going on around you can bring you huge dividends if you can put the right spin on it for yourself.

This is an owl; in flight, even though it looks like some kind of ball. Yes. Real life can often be quite weird enough – without the help of a writer.

How does this work?

Embrace the mundanity, be interested in everything, because it’s the sense of natural curiosity that will give you answers to the odd but boring questions of life. And knowing those boring answers will give your writing texture and make it real. Sure, nobody wants to know what that broken bent thing at the back of the drawer is but as a writer, you do because you never know when you’re going to discover a use for it in your books.

Exercise your writing muscles when you’re not writing.

No I don’t mean your hands! I mean this; if you have to do some mundane chore when you’d rather be writing why no approach it a different way? For example, if you have to go shopping, maybe try to see the dreary trek to Tesco’s as if you are making it for the first time, narrate your progress in your head, as if you’re writing a book.

You can make your approach to this exercise range from lateral to literal, for example, your first thought might be, ‘Why am I pretending it’s the first time I’ve ever been to Tesco if I’ve lived here all my life?’

From there you could go on to ask why the character in your head is only visiting now if they’ve lived here forever. Why, how and where have they been shopping in the years leading up to today? What does the sudden need to visit Tesco’s signify? What changed that put them there?

Alternatively, you can take a different approach and narrate your progress without really thinking of the whys and wherefores but simply as if it’s a scene in a novel. Think about whether the ‘you’ in your narrative is sad, happy, bored or something else. If they are, why might be the cause? How could you show it?

For example, if they see a thistle growing between the cracks in the pavement would their mood effect it. EG flowers, spring, lovely. Flowers, funerals death horror. Thistle, prickly and difficult.

Would they notice different aspects of their surroundings in different moods and interpret them differently?If you have access to MP3s on the hoof you could pop on a pair of headphones and see if different types of music inspire different scenarios. Would up beat songs make your character skip happily over the tarmac? Do sad songs make them drag their feet etc.

The point is, if you are thinking this way, it can only help you to develop your writing voice and style at times in the day when you aren’t able to do any writing.

Engaging with your surroundings brings rewards.

Yep, as much as you can, even when it seems as if there isn’t any point. First; you never know what you might see second, if you want to get interesting stuff out of your head, you have to put things in; experiences, ideas, knowledge and you have to be open to them when they occur – which is often when you least expect it.

Terry Pratchett talking about books said:

You don’t know what’s going to be interesting until you’ve read it. Somewhere in a book on the history of false teeth there’ll be the making of a novel.

He’s spot on.

Seek out the small details going on around you.

The other day, as my son and I were driving along, a middle aged woman passed us on her mountain bike coming the other way doing a huge wheelie. She, and we, were going under the A14, in different directions, her on the cycle path, us on the road. As she landed, having wheelied all the way under the bridge she pumped one fist in the air. My son and I didn’t have time to hoot, wave or give her the thumbs up before she was gone but that experience had both of us thinking. We spent the rest of the journey making up a story about her. We are probably the only people that noticed what she did.

Another time, waiting in queue to go to work at Milton way back in the late 1990s I looked up into the blue spring sky. As I sat stationary in the traffic I watched someone in an aeroplane with one of those smoke canisters in it flying round above. They drew a smiley face. Did anyone else see? I don’t know. Weirdly, a couple of years ago, someone did the same thing over the skies of Bury St Edmunds. On both occasions, it left me feeling up beat. I haven’t put either event in a book yet, but I probably will.

Be interested in your surroundings.

Why? Because the insignificant details of what is going on around you are where you will discover the things that will give your work texture and realism. Look at the world around you, be curious, ask questions. Pepper your stuff with answers you discover and it will feel so much more real to your readers, no matter how outlandish it is.

The wall of the Baptist church, in my town, has what looks like bullet holes in it. I’ve always wondered what happened to that wall. I’ve seen bullet holes in things on the continent, where battles took place in the second world war, usually. My son was intrigued, too, and decided to try and find out. It turns out that those are, indeed, bullet holes. The church was used for communications of some kind during the war and a German fighter plane came over and shot it up. Another one flew over one of the main streets, shooting up a pub called the New Inn and the house next door, which just happens to be ours. So it turns out my house has bullet holes in it. Something like this would be a great story to fictionalise or, if you write non-fiction, a collection of stories like this about your local community can make for really intriguing reading.

Similarly, my son has made a point of learning the names of all the local cats, so now as we walk down the street, we greet them by name. This is probably quite weird but if you have a character in a book doing this it can tell you so much about them; that they’re soft hearted that they like cats? Or maybe, that they don’t like cats but they’re too soft hearted not to greet them anyway. Or, possibly, they’re scared of cats and greet them out of superstition, the way some folk salute magpies. One tiny detail, lots of potential.

Be interested in people.

Find out who they are, what they have done.

There was an old man who lived down the same road as my parents who my parents were on nodding terms with. As he became older, he began to suffer badly with arthritis and couldn’t get out much, so Dad started popping in to visit. It turned out that this fellow that my parents had known for years was in the 1936 British Olympic running team. He was injured just as he arrived in Berlin and the Germans gave him one of the best seats in the house to watch the rest of the games. He saw Jesse Owens win and since he was sitting few yards away from the ‘royal’ box he also saw Adolf Hitler having a massive melt down and completely throwing his bricks out of the pram when it happened. But he always swore that Hitler did shake Owen’s hand … when he had calmed down.

Often, each person is the sum of some amazing stories. People love to talk and if you listen, you will hear incredible things, things that also shed light on human nature.

For example, my mum grew up in the country and recalls how she and her brother saw a plane fly across the garden during the war. Some people had been shot at on the Downs while blackberrying the week before but Mum and my uncle were on their own and were delighted to be able to wave at the plane without being told off by an adult. They were even more delighted when the pilot who was blonde and curly-haired waved back! It was only after the plane had gone that they realised it had a cross on the side of it, not the circles of the RAF. Meanwhile Mum’s friend Norah used to talk of the time a ME109 was brought down on the Downs near Steyning in Sussex. Everyone was arming themselves with pitchforks, kitchen knives, pickaxe handles etc and went off to capture the pilot. The gentleman in question unwittingly evaded capture and was discovered wandering local lanes by someone taking an afternoon constitutional, someone who was unaware that a dangerous armed enemy was on the loose. The pilot asked, politely, for directions to the local police station so he could hand himself in.

All your characters need a back story that is as real to you as life, even if it is never mentioned in the actual book you write about them. Collecting stories like these from people you meet can give you some fantastic, readymade back stories, or at least a place to start.

Use the mundane.

Also using mundane events in writing can tether your writing to the real world, giving the most outlandish scenes realism or throwing scary stuff into stark relief.

So for example, say you have a character who is held captive by a scary bad guy. Her guards take her to the bathroom. It has one of those fans that comes on automatically when you turn the light on and then chugs away for several minutes after you’ve turned it off again. When she is finished the guards turn the light off and take her back to her cell, but she can hear the fan droning on for several minutes. A lot of us can identify with listening to that kind of fan. So when our heroine hears it in book we can immediately get alongside her. It grounds the narrative in reality making a situation that may be difficult to imagine more realistic, while, at the same time, highlighting the unusual or menacing nature of parts that are different.

To sum up then, there is gold all around if you if you look.

I think it was also Terry Pratchett who said something along the lines that if you want to write convincing fantasy you will need a better handle on how reality works than anyone else. It’s a strange dichotomy that fictional or hard-to-imagine events seem to spring to life if you can fix them to reality every day real things.

It’s worth taking notice, observing the everyday and riffing with your surroundings in your head as you go about normal life. Because if you practise your writing by adding a little fiction to your normal life it will help you to develop your writing style and voice, and train your brain to view the world differently. Likewise if you look for little snippets of reality to use in your writing you can add immense power and depth to your words.

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Welcome to my world. Oh look! It’s like a car crash only less pretty …

Last week I was talking about being organised.  Remember that. Mwahahahrgh! Yeh. I did mention, I think, that it’d be a while while I set my house in order first? Mmm. Looking at my schedule, it’s going to be quite a long while even for a normal person. But a good day, for me, is like the aftermath of a multiple car pile up. Messy. And then there’s the weird shit. Take yesterday. Yes, actually, take yesterday, I’d like a new one because it was dreadful. I’m just going to dump the day’s events here, wholesale, to give you an idea of what I’m up against.

For heaven’s sake!

Yes, let me share a glimpse of what my life is like; day in, day out. It all started earlier this week, Wednesday, I think when my Fitbit app started acting very oddly. All of a sudden, it was labelling today’s stats as completely blank, while the day before’s stats – the yesterday section – that was actually showing today’s step total etc. It was weird but I could still understand it so like the plug-in hard drive that my computer won’t read since the spring 2017 update, and like the printer I bought after Window’s decision that I didn’t need to be able to print pdfs anymore, and still haven’t set up, or my computer’s sudden – yet random – habit of arbitrarily closing down all open programmes without saving anything when I put it to sleep,  it wasn’t worth the time and effort sorting it out.

Come Friday morning I wake up, muzzy-headed and gritchy throated with pending cold and discover that it’s 7.33. That is 33 minutes after the alarm on my phone is supposed to have gone off and woken me. Never mind, all is not lost. I eschew any waking up time and leap straight out of bed, never something that puts me in good spirits. I rush to the bathroom to do my ablutions and head back into the bedroom to get dressed. I set the alarm alarm on my phone to go off at 8.50 so I can snooze it and it will keep ringing each 10 minutes. I have no sense of passing time, so if I don’t do this, I will get engrossed in something and suddenly realise that we are all still at home and it’s five to nine.

As I try to set my alarm it keeps saying it’s going to go off in six days’ time. Why the hell is it doing that, I wonder. I check. I’m setting it for ten minute’s time. Why won’t it chuffing set for for this morning like I’m asking it to. I go do something else, come back and the phone has locked, when I look at the lock screen I realise it is displaying the day and date as Saturday 13th January. My alarm didn’t go off in the first place because it’s set to go off from Monday through to Friday and the moronic sodding phone thinks it’s Saturday. Likewise, setting my alarm for 8.00 on a Friday won’t work.

Because it’s Saturday.

According to my phone.

Except it’s not.

Great, so now I will have to set the alarm for Saturday. No wait I really can’t be doing with this. Maybe if I turn it off and on again it will reset? What’s the worst that can happen? Oh yes, that the phone stops working and I lose my Mum and Dad’s banking app for ever. I did drop it in a car park before Christmas, and someone had driven over it and cracked the screen before I managed to find it but hey …

Hoorah it is OK. See the time, the weather app refreshed, 19.04 on 12th except it was the eleventh because this screenshot was taken on the 12th at the time shown the top right hand corner; 15:02. Yes, my weather app went into the future and refreshed itself.

No. It’ll be OK.

Are you sure MT? This is you, after all.

Yes, what’s life for if you can’t take risks now and again.

Sure enough it reboots but nothing goes wrong! Now it’s Friday. I set the alarm to get my 10 minute count downs and carry on. Downstairs, grabbing a hurried breakfast I lay out some vitamin pills and nip through to McMini with a bowl of cereal. When I return McCat is on the counter.

‘For fuck’s sake Harrison! Get off there!’ I shout.

He complies but he trots away with that special fast, I’m-not-running, there-is-nothing-to-see-here trot which means he has something he shouldn’t have. Sure enough he stops in the next room and puts something down that he’s been carrying in his mouth. One of my vitamin supplements. It’s some kind of essential oil but I’d laid out three different ones which come in identical capsules so I haven’t a blind clue which one. The cod liver oil capsule, I assume.

Later, buying cat litter at the pet shop the lady there and I had a bit of a giggle. She told me,

‘He’s definitely in the wrong body, that’s not a cat you have, it’s a dog. Still, maybe he thought he needed a more lustrous coat.’

The day didn’t improve. I had two skeins of wool which I decided I’d make into a pussy hat. I should have known that today was not the day to try and unravel a skein of wool shouldn’t I? I mean, why did I even fucking try. On I go, tosser that I am, and try to do it anyway. I even googled doing it right, hung the skein over a chair the way they tell you but I got this:

That’s fifty metres of wool there, my lovelies. I would buy another one but it’s silk and merino. Not something you think about buying twice. So over the next year and a half I’ll be unravelling that bastard in my spare time. For now, if anyone wants to hire a clown wig …

Yeh. That’s M T McGuire when she’s following the sodding instructions; using the back of a chair to hang the skein of wool over, winding it carefully onto one hand. What I didn’t realise was that the bloody thing was already knotted beyond help so when I started winding it just tied itself into the gargantuan Gordian knot you can see there. At first I couldn’t even find the other chuffing end so it was taking ages to tease out each loop and pass the ball of wool through. Finally I found the other. Then Harrison intervened and now I have four. All this because I want to knit a pussy hat but hate pink, so I thought light pink and the kind of pink that is, essentially, red, would get the message over without being all pink and I’m-a-girl-therefore-I-like-pink and fucking … PINK. Knob that I am.

On the up side, when I scolded the cat he did get the hint and he went away. Mummy is being both boring and grumpy while shaking the biggest and most exciting cat toy ever.

I’ve given up on the bloody thing for a while.

Actual plans for January …

Yes, I did have some.

However, unfortunately January is very busy with trying to catch up with all the shite I didn’t do because it was Christmas. There’s this quarter’s parish magazine – not going to happen until early February I’m afraid, and I promised I’d write a children’s picture book by mid January! Why in the name of God did I think I could do that? And of course, there’s all the pissy admin like putting all the dates of our holidays and term times in the diary in the kitchen and the one on my phone. Want to know how long that took? One and a half hours!

One and a half effing hours!!!! This must be a special skill. I’ve not even finished.

Now, I have to book the cattery for all our holidays and put the drop off and pick up dates in the diary. Aaaargh. And then there’s booking a baby sitter for the inevitable Christmas Party that one of McOther’s clients or another will always have – and yes, are having – this January. And not forgetting windows borking updates.

And I still haven’t done my tax return which has to be done end of January. Two years ago, I opted to do this online which is the stupidest thing I ever did. Sure I have until January to hand it in instead of October but actually October is easier, I have more time then than I do now. Also, if you fill in a paper form, then, if your income is under a certain amount – and mine very much is – you can fill in a short tax form. The online form is the long version. Fifteen pages of questions most of which are so incomprehensible to me they might as well be printed in a foreign language. All with the exciting frisson of knowing that if I get one wrong it’s a crime, my solicitor husband will be struck off and I’ll probably go to prison. Thank heavens the help line is helpful, even if there is a hefty wait to get on.

Then there’s the deadline aspect; miss the January deadline and I’m screwed, it’s a £100 fine but I am already at the point where HMRC will not be able to get a new password to me or unlock my access to their website should I discover I’ve lost my password and am unable to get onto it (they say it takes up to four weeks). That also adds to the excitement. Yes, of course I meant to do it last month! And the one before! But with all the joyous task of filling in those bastard Lasting Power of Attorney for Health forms and preparing for bastard Christmas it was impossible. Short of pulling an all-nighter, there was no time left to do it in.

Organised people won’t understand this but then organised people don’t have phones that tell them it’s tomorrow all fucking week and they probably have time to work out how to get Windows to install security updates but not the other periperal-destroying shite my version insists on adding as well.

Then there’s Dad. Dad is becoming increasingly surreal. On Thursday one of our lovely carers, Aimee, took Mum and Dad to the dentist, where Dad announced, loudly, that Mum was his mother, Aimee was his girlfriend and that although there was a bit of an age gap it was OK because he does have a ten inch cock. Jeez someone is going to sue us before long, and we will counter-sue for discrimination against someone with a disability. Luckily the folks in the dentist, like the folks at the garden centre and all the other places where Dad has been inappropriate are OK with it. On a lighter note, I discussed this behaviour with Mum and Dad’s doctor on Thursday morning. He was telling me that he had to prescribe medication to stop some of the gentlemen in the dementia wing at the local care home from making improper overtures to some of the lady inmates. I guess when you think you’re eighteen but are really an octogenarian with the social niceties of a toddler that’s what happens.

God help us.

And now, as I sit here and type, I look down and realise I’m wearing my jumper inside out and have been for half the day. Head, desk.

Every single fucking day is like this. Frankly, I’m I consider it a victory if I get enough of my shit together to dress before dark. And it’s not going to improve. This is a short term. Five weeks either side of half term. In other words, there will not be time to sort all this bollocks out before the wooden spoon is inserted back into my brain and everything is given a good old stir.

So to put it in pictures …

Planned MTM January.

Obviously … but I’m a realist.

Type of January MTM would settle for.

Yes, I would settle for this, I mean, it’s a bit stringy but it’s tidy and it’s all there.

How MTM’s actual January is going so far.

See illustration, left.

Status of MTM’s efforts to catch up: Exactly the same as day one.
Progress achieved: Zero.

Hey, it’s January, let’s see more people and do more things and catch up after being away for Christmas!

NO! Fuck off!

So there we have it. Clearly, I’m going to be spending January and February firefighting and catching up. Ho hum.

Here’s to the start of the MTM New Year in March, then.

Thank you for reading. If you have been trying to organise yourself this new year, and, like me, have had the wheels fall off your efforts before you begin, I hope this has given you a laugh and cheered you up.

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To Infinity and Beyond! Plans for 2018. #Newyearsresolution (sort of).

Heaven knows how many weeks ago it was now, far back in the mists of time, anyway; before Christmas, I posted about my efforts to bludgeon people into reading my stuff over the course of 2017. Basically, I discovered that I had a much higher rate of read-through on my perma free book than I thought and that I should maybe think about making something else permafree this year. Or Doing Something New.

Mostly, this year, I intend to be Doing Something New. Here are my New Year’s … not resolutions exactly, that will only set me up for disappointment in myself. Let’s call them Things I Intend To Do.

Yeh.

That sounds good. On we go then:

Thing 1: sort out my time management.

This one’s kind of done, I just need to put what I’ve learned into practise. The basic gist is to be more rigid about planning the day. There is so much to do that in order to avoid overwhelm the trick is to do a few sprints of several projects in progress to keep everything moving. I have no idea why I didn’t think of this before. I used to do it all the time at work, which was well busy and usually involved starting the day with a couple of hours’ firefighting. It’s the same now, as I usually get a call from Mum or the carers, or some wages come in to pay. This method sounds nuts, especially for someone like myself who prefers to do things one at a time in sequence. However, a bit at a time quells the rising sense of panic that it’s all too much and nothing is getting done.

Time allocation is also good for controlling those things that suck you in and spit you out at the end of the day before you even know it. Need to find a printer? Set a timer for one hour, make notes on what you need it to do and ask for advice in a forum. Then do something else. After someone answers your post set a timer for an hour and armed with the information, have a look a few different models on line. Compare prices if there’s time, if not, when the pinger pings, stop, schedule an hour on the printer search in for tomorrow and do something else.

This is a bit hit and miss, but even a nod to apportioning my time seems to be working in that it gives me the illusion of control. The time slots are flexible. I’m doing a course at the moment so I give myself 90 minutes to watch each new vid and do the homework. Writing is a minimum of a 20 minute sprint; more if I can, and so on. I try to write down what I need to do as well, so I can enjoy the feeling of achievement crossing it off the list afterwards.

Thing 2: write something every day.

Yes, set the timer, write for 20 minutes and hey presto there are 250 – 700 words that weren’t there yesterday. Not doing too well on that so far as I’m still ‘getting rid of Christmas’ as in thank you letters, taking decorations down and all that other malarky. Not long now though and my real, proper 2018 can start.

Thing 3: make it easier to write.

That is simple stuff like doing a plot outline and a scene list. That way, if there’s only twenty minutes to write, you avoid spending nineteen of them working out where everyone’s got to and what happens next. I am a born pantser and I was very sceptical about plotting but I did some free training from Joe Nassis and it is really good. If you get the chance, or find it online somewhere it’s so worth doing. He does a course attached, too, but I don’t have time to do it justice. The principles he sets out are brilliant though because the technique gives space for the characters to do their own thing but without you heading off after plot bunnies.

Other ways to make writing easier to do include:

  • Having more than one project on the go so there is always something I feel like writing.
  • Planning in advance (as mentioned) not hugely but enough to have titles for your scenes and be able to dive in and write one at any point in the book.
  • Doing sprints to focus my attention on what I’m doing.
  • Taking a break from the computer so that the time spent at the keyboard is quality time – ie knitting in front of the telly at night rather than writing mailshots or coding web pages.

Thing 4: set out my wares better.

Phark, alright no giggling at the back you smutty lot. At the moment folks can buy my books in a fair few places. They can also buy bits of my art, and bits of artwork from the books. After using some of my own artwork to illustrate a blog post the other day I linked it to a place where the picture is for sale as a card. I sold three. It occurred to me that I always sell a few cards when I take a stall to sell my books but that none of this is organised. None of it is anywhere easy for people to find if they want it. Then there are my books, currently, there’s is no way people can buy my books from my site.

However, just recently Bookfunnel introduced a system that will make that possible. It looks complicated but I am looking into opening my own online store, so people can buy ebooks direct from me.

Thing 5: diversify.

Leading up from Thing 4 really but … tidying up the other day I found the beginnings of a sketch of General Moteurs, and since Unlucky Dip, with my dodgy homemade cover seems to get way more downloads than my other books in giveaways it makes sense to resurrect plans to make more artwork of the characters like this.

Not General Moteurs

Guess who?

Originally, the plan was to do a spoof of the cover of A Hard Day’s Night but my pictures of The Pan of Hamgee came out really shit. To be honest, I thought they all came out really shit but other folks, people who don’t even know me, seem to disagree. An artist friend tells me this is usual because you’ll always be too close to your own drawings. Perhaps it’s time to try that one again, then see about turning it into postcards. Also on the agenda is making more things like the K’Barthan bling pictured to the right, or possibly below, but nearby anyway.

You can do all this stuff on sites like cafe press and zazzle. They are really expensive but they print, ship and process payment after which they give me a royalty – a pitifully small royalty but one that takes no admin or effort on my part after making the original product.

In other words, keep up the policy of paying more for cover art that can be used for other things.

Then there’s the eyebombing. I’ve really missed a trick there. The other day when sharing some of the year’s eyebombing highlights someone said,

‘You should make these into postcards! I’d buy a set.’

Amazingly, I’ve done nothing arty with my eyebombs short of sharing them on instagram and facebook. I’ve written the book text but left it sitting for lack of cash. Now I’m thinking I should have made a calendar and all sorts. Head desk. So for 2018, now that I am earning for the admin I do for my parents, my plan is to squirrel that cash away and then use it make more of the opportunities that arise, not to mention try and notice what is happening when said opportunities are busy smacking me about the face and still failing to get my attention.

Thing 6: chill.

Yep, that’s Thing 6.

You can never do all the things you ought to, so you just have to content yourself with doing what you can.

There’s been a bit of a journey this year with the situation with my parents and the sadness associated with it. Sadness can be a habit if you’re not careful. On the other hand, if you blank it too effectively you wonder what damage it’s doing inside, and you have to open yourself up to being hurt because that’s the only way you can engage with the people you love who are suffering.

Suffice it to say that this year has been about learning to do what it is possible to do, accepting that it isn’t as much as I’d like, and letting the rest go. It does feel as if I’ve made some strides with this now, not least in that I’ve found ways to shoulder the burden without ceasing to write, although I had to stop writing for about nine months to work that out. I think it was worth it. In other circumstances I imagine I could be a better mother, a better daughter and a better all round better person. But looking at it, I’m probably about as decent as I’m capable of being right now. I haven’t murdered anyone and I’ve only been rude to the gets I’ve encountered occasionally, so that’s OK.

Happy New Year everyone.

Run fast, laugh hard, be kind.

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Navel Gazing and Pocket Lint; MTM’s Year in Publishing 2017

Yes it’s time for me to do a round up of business. When I say business, I mean my business, such as it is, not ‘the business’ of world book sales. Anyway here goes.

So, how’s it been?

So so if I’m honest. Marketing-wise, I have not had the time to do it justice but I’ve turned the corner with the writing, definitely.

Sometimes, in publishing, it can feel as if you are running faster and faster to stand still. Now, clearly an author with my output rates isn’t going to be able to keep up with the standard, low margins high output model that is doing so well.

However, I have happened upon a group of authors who are doing very well thank you without ever troubling the best seller lists. It all started with a thread on Kindleboards here from Australian sci-fi and fantasy author Patty Jansen. She has also written a really good set of books about her alternative approach which I highly recommend any fellow authors who are stressing about sales, and what have you, should read.

Seeing as I’ve always had a slightly different approach to what I want to achieve with my book sales, I thought it was time I evaluated my efforts so far, all of them. I’m using Booktrakr, which may not be 100% accurate but is on point enough to give a good idea of my career wide sales.

One Man: No Plan M T McGuire

Which Genre? This one.

What genre are we in?

OK, in case you don’t know. I sell humorous science fiction fantasy action adventure books with a dash of romance here and there but no squelchy bits. They’ve been described by a friend as ‘Douglas Adams meets James Bond’.

Or to put it another way, the books are genre transcending, which is polite-speak for,

‘they’re an extremely hard sell.’

And when I say ‘hard sell’ I mean it. Frankly, I suspect I’d have an easier time trying sell a dog turd in a paper bag than my books. BUT when people finally read them, they do tend to enjoy them.

General overall goals in writing

Over the course of my writing ‘career’ I’ve rather loosely kept to four goals:

  1. Produce more books and find people who will love them.
  2. Find a way to access those people where I am in control ie no middle man like Facebook hiding my posts from everybody because they want me to pay for ads.
  3. Make some cash, although to be honest, I haven’t really written enough books to make much, but I’ve set a goal of £300 a month – about $400 – by the end of 2019.
  4. Increase sales from sites other than Amazon because they dick their suppliers around less than Amazon does.

In so far as I have a customer strategy, it’s get a small group of folks who love your work and buy everything you do. Keep as much control over your access to them as possible – ie have as many on your mailing list as possible rather than relying on third parties, although I’d rather someone followed me on Facebook than stayed on my newsletter list when they didn’t want to.

So basically, I’m looking at the 1,000 fans theory, I’m looking for superfans.

Goals for 2017.

Last year, such as they existed, my goals were:

  1. Experiment with new ways to find readers who will enjoy my stuff.
  2. Write more books.
  3. Concentrate on growing my mailing list and making sure that the people on there want the things I can give.
  4. Find out if there’s anything they want related to my fiction books which I can deliver but haven’t yet.
  5. Find out what the folks on my mailing list want if it’s not the books I’ve written and decide if I can deliver it to them.

What actually happened?

A lot happened in my personal life over 2017 and I had to stop writing and evaluate the situation. Basically, I had to work out if I could continue to write at all. Then I had to work out what, if anything, I could to change of the handful of factors within my control to make sure that happened. I sorted a new way of working. Tried it out, wrote a short and half a long, sent the short to my editor and … she died bless her.

So this year’s new release – originally for September – will now happen next year.

During the various crises, I let a lot of stuff ride, I just about kept the mailing list going with promos, book recommendations and group giveaways. I also did a couple of mailing swaps. I managed an International Bookbub.

However, it felt as if my book sales had stopped. Dead.

This morning, I decided I’d have a look and see if it really is and if so, how bad the situation was. Was I right thinking my sales are dropping like a stone?

Yes and no. Let’s look at some graphs!

No wait! Don’t run away.

Monthly Revenue 2014-2017

You can see three big spikes here, the first one, mid 2015 is when I first made Few Are Chosen permafree. I optimised it for UK readers and I was getting between eleven and thirty downloads a day. As you can see, a lot of those folks went on to buy the other books. In early May there was an algo change and the downloads dropped from eleven to thirty to about five or ten each day. Read throughs, drop accordingly. I never managed to optimise my listing for the UK store quite as effectively because they brought in KU and you weren’t allowed to use the words, Kindle, Good or Free so I had to bin my highest performing keyword phrase, ‘Good Free Kindle Books.’ As you can see, that cost me about $100 a month and Amazon about $30, which seems counter intuitive of them and is one of things that has me wondering if KU is about more about destroying the opposition than anything.

Monthly revenue from Jan 2013 to now … yeh you are welcome to laugh!

Numbers of books bought from 2013 to now note the 99c international Bookbub which makes a huge spike on right hand side of this graph but doesn’t register much in the revenue graph shown above.

As you can see there’s a small blip around the time Escape From B-Movie Hell comes out – Dec 2015/Jan 2016, that’s in red. I had about 400 people on my mailing list at that point and did a full-on launch. It shifted 65 of them but a lot of the original K’Barthan Series fans seemed unwilling to give Escape a try. Indeed, I wonder if those sales were simply folks from the Bookbub the month before who were moving on from the series to the stand alone.

Ditching the Permafree.

Since the permafree first in series was only getting a handful of downloads a day and a far lower proportion of those seemed to be translating into sales for the paid books, I put it back to paid in January 2017.

Yes, this cover attracts more readers than the cover for Few, but Escape, which has a person on it, does equally well.

Looking at the graphs now, that might have been a mistake but at the time, I’d recently discovered Instafreebie and was getting a fair few downloads there. Also, a 105k book is a hell of a lot to give away – I’m not sure if that means I got greedy or desperate. Since running a year’s worth of Instafreebie promos, I’ve discovered that the short story, Unlucky Dip, is downloaded far more in promos than the novel. Furthermore, the people who have downloaded it, joined my mailing list and stuck around are one of the most dynamic and responsive groups. Escape also scores more highly in downloads when offered free. Both the books doing better have a person, or people, on the cover. Clearly the adage about having people on book covers is true. Go figure.

The rates that folks read the other books seems a bit better on Instafreebie and Bookfunnel, too. Over the three years I had the first in series on permafree, it was downloaded 19,140 times (according to Booktrakr). You can gauge how well the permafree is working by the number of sales of the second book. The results break down as follows:

  • 2015-2016 227 onward sales of book 2 and the highest of the two others sold 275.
  • 2016-2017 there were 148 onward sales of book 2 and the highest of the others sold 206
  • 2017-2018 (or at least end of Dec) there were 32 onward sales of book 2 and the highest of the others sold 60. However, the box set, sold 54 copies so in ‘real’ terms it’s probably a drop in onward sales of about 20 books.
  • Revenue is way down from about £1,500 the two previous years to £800 or so

On the face of it, that looks as if a permafree book might still be a smart move for me, but perhaps a new one, or one written specially to give away would be the way to go. I am sorting a potential candidate out with the K’Barthan Shorts. If they come in at 10-20k each I can use one of those or do one longer one at 50k so I can try and get it onto Bookbub.

That said, though less people are buying my books, meaning that growth has, in theory, slowed down, if those people are folks I can access, directly with new release bulletins, rather than being at the whim of Amazon, Facebook or the like, they might be a lot more valuable to have on my side in the long run.

Instafreebie or Bookfunnel versus Facebook Ads and Permafree.

Is the $20 a month on Instafreebie worth the outlay? Possibly. When I joined Instafreebie I was on a $10 account at Bookfunnel so I kept that and added Instafreebie by turning the Facebook Ads off (I was getting about 20 new sign ups a month for $30).

The thing with Instafreebie is that, barring the ones who’d downloaded Escape and Unlucky they seem to take a very long time to get round to reading, we are talking, literally, years in some cases from what they’ve told me, but they are keen, and interested, and they also buy from sites other than Amazon so they fit my ambitions to increase my access to readers on other platforms. Hopefully I’ve been sewing some seeds there.

With Instafreebie, 2,417 readers have downloaded books from me in return for mailing list sign up. I have offered three different books and I suspect I may have shot myself in the foot there with folks on my mailing list downloading all of them. This could well go some way to explain the drop in income I have experienced although this year, Escape, the pariah stand alone, has done way better this year although I did get a 99c International Bookbub on that. Then there’s the fact many haven’t read the books they’ve downloaded yet, so people are not reading them quickly and buying all the other books the way they were after downloading the permafree. Finally, there’s price, I have put it up from $4.99 to $8.99 – and lower on Amazon where the books are still $4.99. I may need to review that.

Interestingly, at Bookfunnel, I’ve given away 148 books – some a short and some the original permafree – in return for mailing list sign up, and 2,251 copies of Few Are Chosen, alone. Of those, 306 were giveaways and the rest were people who’d signed up to get the book on Instafreebie clicking the link on my autoresponder sequence to download the book from Bookfunnel.

I give the second book away in my mailings, too. 2,835 folks have downloaded those; 60% of the folks who’ve visited the download page.

Clearly it’s much easier to download books from Bookfunnel than from Instafreebie!

The numbers for this year that I gave in the last section suggest that the permafree made a big difference and that I should definitely add it to my marketing arsenal!

Sales from other vendors than Amazon

Free books given away. The big spike in the middle is an international Bookbub and the other to the left is an E-reader News Today.

This is the same graph; free books but shown by vendor. After the Bookbub vendors other than Amazon feature much more prominently. Woot!

Clearly the Bookbub for Escape From B-Movie Hell resulted in some sales on other sites than Amazon. At last there are other colours edging into the dark blue. To my delight, the trend continues right through to today. Kobo promos are excellent for this. What appears to be happening is that sales of my books on Amazon are, indeed, tanking since the April algorithm change. However, sales on the other sites have held steady. I never expected this. Sure, I do Kobo promos and they are excellent but Smashwords are delivering too. Google play is tailing off a little but sales are still trickling in – for all the reports that they are making free books invisible, a permafree on Google Play might be a good plan.

Paid book sales by vendor. Amazon still has the major share but Kobo and Smashwords are coming up the rails.

 

This is my yearly income since I’ve been publishing books.

If we look at the yearly income graph we can see a substantial drop this year on last year. It also includes a 99c international Bookbub.  Whereas most months, in 2016, I was selling at least one book every day, this year, that’s not happened at all and you can see that with no permafree there are fewer downloads of the second book in my series.

Is it all bad?

D’you know, I’m not sure but I think it might be better than it looks. April on Amazon was miserable for me this year. That could be an algo change, or it could simply be that after four months the last of the folks who’d downloaded the first book in my series for free had bought the rest. And of all the sales channels, it’s Amazon which is down the most, with Google Play dipping a little. Kobo and Smashwords seem to be reasonably stable.

Clearly, I want my books everywhere so I will always sell them on Amazon, but I also want to get away from relying on a single retailer which, in my experience, has been a more of a primadonna to supply to than the others. At the moment it looks as my efforts to widen the field, at least, are succeeding. Also, bear in mind I’ve not had a new book out for two years and my duties of care have eaten into my work time so I’ve done far less marketing. As we speak I have some ambivalent AMS ads which aren’t doing that well – and to be honest, I think it’s going to take too long to research and produce properly targeted ads to make them viable. However, I will definitely return to Facebook ads and I will also dip my toe into a couple of other advertising channels in the New Year. It may take months to produce some ads, and it will take months to produce some books, but a couple of hours a week on these things is better than nothing at all.

What does this tell us?

  • That I am correct and my income is dropping.
  • That it might be worth my looking at a permafree again, but something shorter than a full 120k book.
  • That my upped prices may be a little too high, either overall or on some sites.
  • That other platforms will tolerate a higher price than Amazon.
  • That my particular rate of output might be better suited to other platforms than it is to Amazon.
  • That my decision to pitch my books as artisan crafted rather than mass produced is the right one.
  • That people might, possibly, be taking longer to read free books.
  • That figures are sometimes different to your expectations.
  • That marketing evolves all the time, what works today may not work tomorrow.
  • That Amazon is quirky – and therefore best not relied upon.
  • That you can infer many things from the same information.
  • What works for other authors may not work for you.
  • Cultivating the right connections is important. You need to find places where folks will share information with you and where you can share it with them. Almost all the decent marketing information I’ve had this year comes from two groups, one on Facebook and one on Goodreads.
  • I think there may be a disconnect between the kind of people I think are on my mailing list, and reading my books, and the folks who actually are.

Tune in next week, if you can bear to, to discover how I’m going to try and breathe some life back into my book sales for 2018.

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Coming to terms with #dementia

For some time now, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a blog, or a website, specifically dedicated to my experience of dementia; with my dad, mainly, but also, these days, with my mum since she, too, is getting very forgetful.

However, it seems far more sensible to do it all on here. The subject matter on here is so random anyway that I doubt many of you will take exception to the more detailed post about my dementia-related experiences every now and again. If you look at the menu, there’s now a dementia section and all the posts which mention Dad’s Alzheimer’s are tagged Dementia and should appear there. Obviously, in true M T McGuire form, it would be pointless talking about my situation if I didn’t occasionally share a list of things that have either worked to keep me sane or that I’ve fucked up royally so that you don’t have to. This isn’t exactly that list but below are some of my less than ordered thoughts on the subject.

Here are the golden highlights of coping with dementia, in yourself or in others.

Be not proud! And be absolutely up front with people.

Yes, you read that correctly. All will become clear.

The first sign that something was amiss with my dad was when my parents refused to come and stay. Our spare room was on the top floor and the loo was in the middle. Dad always needed a wee in the night and he began to wake up in a very disorientated state.  Mum didn’t always wake up too and she was afraid he’d fall down our stairs. So for three years, from about 2004, they refused point blank to come and see us. Mum never told me what was wrong, she just made up excuses. She’s bollocks at making up excuses so I assumed I’d upset her but she said I hadn’t. I got very down. I didn’t know what to do.

Luckily, I have a brother so I rang him and asked him what the fuck my parents were up to. He didn’t know either but said he’d ask them. When he broached the topic with Mum she told him at once. So it was he who explained about the stairs, about Dad going weird in the night and Mum’s concerns. The last eighteen months we were in that house Mum and Dad started coming to see us again. We were in a small market town with a perfectly decent hotel and a lot of equally decent guest houses. We put them up in one, within walking distance of our house. The moral of this story then, be honest, because when trouble crops up, there’s usually a work around.

Mum could have saved herself and us heartache if she’d just admitted that Dad had a tendency to get dizzy when he got up in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t have even had to mention the dooh-lally part. Likewise, I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I’d read the signs and worked out that something was wrong earlier or just asked my brother sooner. But hey ho, it all worked out in the end.

Act early.

These things are like the flight path of a landing aeroplane. You sink, level out, sink, level out and so on to the bottom of the chasm. If you can manage to think ahead a bit, to what the next level of deterioration might be, you can save yourself a lot of grief. It’s hard to look at the next stage of the illness when you,are losing your mind or when a loved one is losing theirs. Naturally you don’t want to think about it, but trust me, for the sake of everyone concerned it helps. For a long time, Mum and Dad seemed to be in denial. Mum kept a very close eye on Dad and I watched her sinking. Imagine if you are eighty and you are looking after someone who is, essentially, a giant two year old. As a mum with a two year old of my own, I knew how hard I found it to keep my eye on him all the time. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to cope when you are elderly.

Talk about it.

Mum and Dad are actually very good at this, they have talked to me, extensively, about being mortal, I know what kinds of funerals they want, what kinds of hymns, what kind of goodbye. I suspect they’ve willed money for a piss up wake. They also talked to me about what might happen if they went nuts well in advance of any dementia appearing. In Mum’s case we have talked about how she felt when she was in a similar position to that which I’m in now, looking after my granny. My grandmother had lots of small strokes, micro bleeds at the back of her head and as Mum puts it, ‘she just faded away’. For her last year my granny was lying on a bed in a home. In those days there were no living wills or powers of attorney for healthcare. Even so, when my granny got pneumonia, they asked my Mum what kind of treatment she would want, Mum said to make her comfortable. They did, she got better without the life prolonging drugs and died peacefully a few months later.

In her last year, as well as being bed-bound, my granny couldn’t speak and made no signs of recognising Mum’s presence. Mum used to go and see her and sit there crying quietly for forty minutes. The staff in that home were wonderful, and were wonderful to Mum, too. They assured her that my granny was different, more peaceful, even calmer, after a visit. They took the time to see that Mum was OK too. Mum and I still talk about this, and I really wish I’d been able to have the same kinds of conversations with Dad about his dad, who also ended up in a home. It’s hard to talk about these things, but if you can open up to someone you trust it will help and it will also give your carers a feel for what your wishes will be, and how you will want to be treated, when you are no longer able to tell them.

If you are the carer, it’s worth making sure you have someone to talk to and if the main carer is not you it’s worth finding someone for them. There is a lovely lady who comes to see Mum who is the deacon at her church. I saw the lady talking to Mum one time when she was in hospital and couldn’t speak. I asked Mum, afterwards, if it would help to see this lady often. She said it would. She never rang the deacon herself, so I did and now she comes to visit Mum regularly. I know it helps.

People want to help you. Let them and if you can’t let them down kindly.

There are a lot of people around my mum and dad who love them almost as much as I do. They are sad to see people they love and respect struggling. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that the people who love you may be even more upset about your illness than you are. So if you or a loved one are in similar poop, and people offer to help you, let them. Mum and Dad have a big group of folks who give them lifts, pop in to visit, pick up shopping sometimes or generally help out. I think they had a hard time accepting help from these folks at the start but now they revel in it. They get continuity in that these are people they’ve known for some years, yet they also have variety in that it’s not the same old faces. Likewise for the helpers, there are enough of them to avoid fatigue setting in. Despite his dementia, my father is a very social animal, and this has helped him stay with us for far longer. Likewise, Mum and Dad have a four carer team but they also employ a cleaning lady for a couple of hours a week and a family who work in the garden. These folks all give support that goes well beyond their job descriptions. They do this because when Mum and Dad were fitter and younger they were good to these folks. I’m a great believer in karma now that I’ve seen it in action on my folks. So if people offer help, and it’s useful help, let them. Pride has no place in this.

But at the same time, set parameters for your helpers.

If anyone helping you, or your loved one, gets too clingy or too overbearing, tell them. When you are ill and losing your capacity to process everything but your emotions, you don’t have time to put up with anything that will make it worse. So if someone who wants to help is … well … not helping, you have to tell them. Or if you can’t, you have to find someone who can and ask them to do it for you.

My mum loves her garden. She sees it as a living thing, an entity which must be treated with kindness and sympathy. However, she is very arthritic and once Dad had started to get really forgetful, it was too much for her to do on her own. There was a point where the chap who was coming to do the garden kept cutting down the wrong things, pruning stuff wrong, planting vegetables in the wrong places, forgetting to water them etc and you could see that something inside Mum was curling up and dying along with her plants, but she couldn’t let him go. She couldn’t face the hassle of finding a new gardener while she was trying to look after Dad, or, indeed, the hard task of telling the current one she no longer needed his services. Her heart was so full from the pain of seeing her soul mate, my father, her husband, in such distress.

In the end, after a family holiday, my Mum became very ill with pleurisy. At this point, Dad had reached the point where he was so forgetful that he couldn’t cook or look after her the way he would have done. My brother and sister in-law went to stay and they gave the gardener notice and employed the people who do it now. My mum almost cried with relief and the ‘new’ gardeners are wonderful and love Mum and Dad dearly.

Moral, don’t wait for the crash. Take action first.

Avoid being too proud.

Mum is of the old school where she believes that if Dad is ill she should look after him herself and that nobody should know about his disability for as long as possible. But actually, when you’re in your eighties, you can’t look after someone who weighs about eighteen stones, can’t wash himself and has to be talked through the process of going to the bathroom every two hours hours, every night. You need help.

When Mum finally agreed to let someone come and sit with Dad for an hour, three afternoons a week, so she could get out into the garden, she blossomed. And the lady who came round did the ironing and all sorts of other stuff that Mum was struggling with fitting in around caring for Dad. So it helped in all sorts of other ways she hadn’t anticipated. It also meant there was no longer the danger of Dad coming out into the garden looking for Mum and falling down. The carer would bring him out, with his walker, and sit with him.

Even if your loved one seems gone, keep searching.

Dad is very different to how he was. He’s the same person, but he’s a different incarnation of that person, the raw genetic make up. He has lost his filters, his ability to moderate what he says and he has become very much more self centred. Just as a child learns to think about others, so as he regresses to a more simplified state of self, Dad has lost that skill. It’s not his fault. It’s just the way it is.

He can no longer read, his ability to read a novel was one of the first things to go but he is unable to read even short stuff now. It’s interesting that Mum writes herself notes, but even at the start, if she wrote a note for Dad and put it by the clock saying, ‘went out to garden at ten to three back in for tea at four’ he would not think to read it or look at the clock. This was so early on, when he was just my dad with no short term memory. These days he can be a little boorish, which is incredibly sad because Old Dad would be horrified if he could see himself like that. But a lot of the times, the boorishness is asking for help. ‘I can’t get a word in edgeways,’ means, ‘your sentences are too long for me to follow, can you slow down.’ The answer is to speak in short sentences, starting with a shared memory and then as the conversation gets going, you can bring it forward to the now. Lo and behold! Before you know it, back comes Dad. Reaching Dad is all about trying new things. When the landscape of his mind changes, you just experiment until you get him back again.

It’s OK to grieve for someone before they go.

Although I’d recommend keeping it to short bursts. But sometimes you need to cry. Or just drive up to the top of a hill and shout your anger into the wind – my parents live near the South Downs so that’s quite easy for me. But yes, while my dad is still himself in some ways, I still pine for the refined non-raw version. But I also hear him, I hear him in the way I talk to my son, in the anarchic conversations we share, I hear him as I tell my son to get into bed! And that if he could manage to clean his teeth sometime before I die of old age it would be wonderful. I hear my dad speaking through me as I comfort my son after a bad dream. I remember who Dad can be, over and above the raw genetic version I have now, and it’s extremely important to me that I do, that I keep sight of the man who is in there still, but who the present Dad can’t be. And I cry. But that’s OK. Sometimes you need to cry. Ration yourself, though. Indulge your grief too much and it’ll take you under but bottling it up is also unhelpful.

Sometimes your loved one’s disease will speak more loudly than they do.

My dad says some seriously inappropriate things but it’s just his illness talking. It’s hard to accept that sometimes, especially when the person says something that upsets you, but you have to let it go. If you can, it will allow the relationship between you on good days to be much more similar to the old one before the dementia came.

Make the most of the good days.

Need I say more? Enjoy them. Do stuff. Go out on a whim. My parents are the most social dementia sufferers I’ve ever met. They still go out, visit friends, have lunch with people … It says a lot for their friends, too, that they are so accepting.

Pace yourself.

Being a carer is hard. It can fill up your life, suck up your emotional energy, sap your physical energy, your strength of spirit and your creative mojo. Alzheimer’s is a long, slow death of a thousand tiny cuts. To put it in perspective, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed four years after Dad began to deteriorate. Dad’s still around. It’s been about fourteen years, the last nine or ten that we’ve really known something was wrong, but … fourteen for Mum, definitely. Not a barrel of laughs.

The truth is, no matter how much you may love the person in your life who is ill, you cannot give your all for that amount of time. You have to ration how much you give. You have to look after yourself, leave time for yourself, or you will go under and then you’ll be no use to anyone. And if you aren’t the main carer and they are neglecting their own sanity and health, you have to make them understand this as well. As it’s often said, this is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t run twenty four miles at the same speed as Usain Bolt.

Do what’s right for them: it usually works out.

There was a point when I would worry that Mum and Dad were so far away. It was difficult to get them into a home because Mum was far too well to go into a home and she refused to send Dad into one alone. My brother and I discussed moving them nearer one of us but if we did that, which one of us would it be? We live on different sides of the country. So they stayed put in their own home and I worried that if something happened, and I couldn’t drop everything and be with them, I would have to let them fall. Indeed, eventually, I did.

Mum had a stroke and went into hospital in March 2016. At least by this time we had the afternoon carer and an agency helping Mum and Dad get up in the mornings. I had to ring the lovely lady who would look after my dad in the afternoons and ask her to sleep with my dad so I could drive down to Sussex and be with my Mum. I remember sitting with Mum in hospital at three am. They asked her where she was, she said she was at home, they said she was confused, I told them no, she was having trouble speaking and that what she meant was, she was with me. They finally got her onto a ward at five and at six they told me I should go because the car park was free until six am. I slept two hours that night. Mum came home at three in the afternoon. I had to try and look after both of them. It was horrific. I slept two nights with Dad while Mum slept in another room. Then my boy needed to go to school and my husband to work. I had to go home. I hired a care agency for the following week and my brother came down for the next three nights.

There was a week of special hell while we got a care team sorted. Mum refused to accept she needed live in care, but she kept falling asleep with things on the stove and burning saucepans, and she was getting very forgetful. My brother and I wanted to move them near one of us but they both refused. Now that we have their lovely care team in place I realise they are so much better off where they are, where they have friends and where they have lived for over 40 years.  Once they had twenty four hour care, keeping them in their own home was a no-brainer. Thanks to their fantastic care team, they now enjoy a social life far and above anything I could deliver if they came to live here. They are in the right place for them even if there were points when my brother and I felt like it was the wrong place for us.

Make time for yourself.

When you have children, people say you must keep something that you do just for you; continue your career, a part-time job, a hobby, whatever; something that validates your humanity as something other than your little one’s mum. Something that is not about motherhood. Something that is about YOU. It is very hard to squeeze that in when you are trying to care for elderly parents and a small person at the same time.

That is why, even though I have to fight for the time to write and struggle to find ways of putting my head anywhere close to a place where it’s possible, I can’t give up on it. Because I have to hang onto something that makes me who I am; something that defines me as someone other than Mum and Dad’s daughter, or McMini’s Mum, but ME; Mary.

You cannot self actualise though the job you do, but likewise, you are more than the visits, the form filling, the planning, the admin. Give yourself you time. Allow yourself to be human. You are a person in your own right, you are important as well. Allow time to be you.

Conclusion

Well … that was a bit of a monster, wasn’t it? But in a short snappy sentence, I guess the nub of it is this: when a loved one is long-term ill then, if you want to look after them, you have to look after you.

Chilling is important.

 

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When it feels right but is … wrong. #writing #indiebooks

This week: you have another opportunity to benefit from the vast store of wisdom I have earned by royally fucking things up so that you don’t have to.  

It started like this.

Wednesday; visit the parents day, and this week I arrived in extremely dire need of a wee. It is fairly usual that the pint of water and two cups of coffee I need to kick start my day turn into about five pints by the time I’ve driven fifty miles or thereabouts and I drive the next ninety in some agitation. This Wednesday was no exception.

At Mum and Dad’s the downstairs loo is just off the lobby before you go into the house proper and I usually use it before I announce my presence, otherwise the ten minutes of hellos can be a bit excruciating for my poor bladder. Into the loo I rushed, and breathed a huge sigh of relief as what felt like about a gallon of wee went into the pan. Except that each of the lavs at Mum and Dad’s has a riser for people with dodgy hips, and if you sit on the riser in the downstairs loo wrong, the wee runs down the inside of it and despite being positioned over the bowl, the gravitational wonders of surface tension bend the wee round and under the edge of the riser and it then falls over the side of the pan onto the floor. Well, it came from a skip, still in its wrapping, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. But yes, you guessed it. A significant portion of my wee deluge had missed the pan entirely and puddled on the floor.

Joy.

The original dribbly-wee loo riser of doom (centre) among other skip scored offerings.

There I was. I’d done the right thing, sat on loo, weed into hole but somehow, despite following the instructions it had all gone somewhat awry. I spent the next five minutes wiping it up with loo roll and anti bacterial floor spray. It’s not just me, the foibles of this particular loo riser are a known problem and I soon had it all ship shape again with no harm done. The point was, sometimes, even when you do things the right way it all goes horribly wrong.

So how does this tale of substandard urinary aim have any connection with writing?

Well, it’s like this.

There’s a quote that appears on something I use – my Kobo Writing Life dashboard, I think – that goes like this:

‘If you want to read a book that has not been written yet, you must write it.’

Way back in 2008 when I finally finished my first decent novel that is, exactly what I had done. But to be honest, while this is great advice, it only works if you are in touch with the popular Zeitgeist on some level. I sell my books on the internet which, to all intents and purposes, is American. It is devilishly hard to reach non Americans but back then it was even harder (except on Amazon at that point).

Therefore, I shot myself in the foot instantly by writing a very British book set, mostly, in a fantasy world but when it came here, it came to London. Yes Dr Who is like that but it was put on by the BBC and when they first did it, they had a captive audience comprising all of Britain. I wrote British because I was bored of books and films where the main protagonists are American and the setting America. I wanted to see some shizz go down in my own country. What I failed to grasp was that there is a reason the vast majority of books are about Americans in America. It’s to connect with Americans; the biggest and most easily reachable group of readers in the market place.

Yes, I’d done kind of the right thing but … wrong.

The problem wasn’t even that I was writing a book that could well hold more appeal to British or Australasian readers. It was that I hadn’t researched my market – I thought I had but, no. That’s why I didn’t understand how hard to find they would be. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would be unable to reach British readers without taking special measures. OK so that was 2008 but even now, in 2017, you have to work at finding international readers and even harder at finding readers who buy from sites other than Amazon.

Likewise, I’d read a lot of Victorian and Edwardian fantasy: the Narnia Books, The Five Children and It, The Incredible Mr Blenkinsop (I think that was its name) the Borrowers, the Wind in the Willows, The Lord of The Rings. I’d seen films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Mary Poppins and Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, I’d read Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett. In most of those books, the writer has invented a completely new world, or a new creature, or a new something. The point is, while they may have broad themes that are similar, good versus evil baddie, etc, each one takes place in its own fantasy world or hidden world within this one, often there are specific and new creatures created for purpose of the story. The notable exception is Terry Pratchett, who took the tropes other people used and poked gentle fun at them.

In the same way that I thought, at my parents, that rushing into the bog, sitting down on the ice cold, thigh freezing riser and letting it all out was enough, and discovered that oh it so wasn’t, I genuinely thought putting my book on sale and supporting my efforts with advertising on the big promo sites was all it would take to find readers. It wasn’t. I wrote weird books, that are funny and I had covers made expressly to say, ‘this book is like nothing you have ever read’ because when people saw my books, I wanted them to think, ‘Pratchett’. When I got reviews that said that, I quoted them. I wrote my book the old way. The E Nesbitt way. And I sold that as an asset … the wrong way.

When people talk about wanting ‘different’ I suspect that what they really mean is that they want the same old ware wolves and sparkly vampires but with … say … slightly different lighting.

That is where Sir Terry cleaned up. He kept to the standard tropes, and spun them differently. If you want to succeed financially, I think, possibly, the trick is to write something bang on genre that has a different angle; a standard, boilerplate, trope made interesting enough to you for you to be able to stand writing in it.

When it comes to making choices, I guess it’s wise to think through the ramifications, but with writing it’s hard to anticipate what they might be sometimes. If you like writing wacky but want to produce a well edited book with a professional cover, it’s worth looking at how much cash you have to throw at it and how long for. When I started this game, the estimate was that once you’d produced six books you’d reach tipping point; momentum would be easier to maintain and sales would rise.

‘Great!’  I thought, ‘I have budget for six novels.’

Now that I’m writing my sixth book, that magic tipping point number is more like twelve! Things change and move. How long can you sustain your business without making a profit? OK now double it. Hell, quadruple it to be safe.

Likewise, when you plan what you’re going to do to reach readers, I’d thoroughly recommend keeping as much of it under your control as you can. This is why so many writers ask readers to sign up to their mailing lists. I had an amazing three months back in 2014 when I optimised my book listings for UK readers and started getting a ton of downloads on Amazon and, even better, a really good read through rate – seriously it was massive, about 20% of the folks downloading the first book bought the others But then Amazon changed the algo – which they do around April or May each year, it seems. Overnight the downloads of the free book ceased. And that was that.

These days, however many author lists readers are signing up to, I still believe that if you can make your emails personal, fun and interesting enough they will stay with you. Just don’t make them too fun or your readers will sign up for the emails rather than your books or if they do, be prepared to monetise your blog posts, newsletter etc – either as non fiction books or paid content. The great thing about mailing lists is that if someone doesn’t get on with your books they can unsubscribe so you should end up with a list of folks who might, eventually, read your books! If you’re really lucky, some will part with cash for them.

Once you have some readers, it’s also worth listening to them. I always sold my books as fantasy and when asked to cite comparable writers I’d suggest Holt, Prachett, Rankin … When people started reviewing them, the bulk of them cited Douglas Adams. I now publish them in sci-fi. They don’t sell as well there as they did in the days when I could put them in fantasy and they’d be actually visible. But now that fantasy is kind of, ware wolves and shifters with a small corner for epic, my books definitely do better in sci-fi! Sci-fi seems a bit less rigid in the genre factors required, too, hence the next series, Space Dustmen, is going to be sci-fi with the odd planetary visit.

To sum up, what I am trying to say, I guess, is that now, more than ever, you need to think long and hard before you even start to write that book and you need to keep pretty nimble afterwards. So, if you’re thinking having a pop at writing or are working on your first book, maybe you should ask yourself these questions:

  1. Who are you are writing for?
  2. Where you you find them?
  3. Can you find them easily and inexpensively?
  4. How often do the authors they read release new books?
  5. Can you keep up with book production rates for your genre? or to put it another way …
  6. How much time do you have? Even if you give up your job.
  7. What kind of writing career will fit with your life?
  8. How and where will you sell your books – it’s no good being wide if everyone in your genre whose books you like and who might like yours too and do mailing swaps or promos with you is in KU.
  9. How long before you need your books to start funding themselves to keep going?
  10. Are there other ways you can monetise your writing to support book production until such stage as your book business is self financing.
  11. How big is your social media following? Are you up to a kickstarter to fund book production?

The way I see it there are two broad choices about what you decide to write.

The first choice is to conform. You, write to market, so if it’s fantasy, you write about ware wolves or witches and yes you light them differently or whatever it takes and you write about six books (minimum) a year. And you thank your lucky stars you’re not in Romance where you have to write one a month!

Alternatively if you really can’t face the prospect of writing about creatures someone else has already invented or making your hero American, or 101 other must haves for the best selling book, accept that you are unlikely to earn diddly squat for a long, long time and just go for it writing the kind of stuff you love, that fulfils you as a reader and writer, stuff you want to read that hasn’t been written yet. But if you choose this route, you have to be extremely pragmatic about your chances of earning anything for many years and extremely lateral and original about what you do to earn from your books in other ways.

It’s quite good if you can avoid combining motherhood to a small child and trying to look after sick, elderly parents, at the same time as trying to have any sort of career, too.

This is where I am right now. But hey, my sixth book will be out next year and who knows, 2027 I may even have written twelve and if I market the hell out of them, well who knows, they might pay for the thirteenth book.

Mwahahahargh! I can dream.

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