Tag Archives: advice from writers

Evaluation is the name of the game … or is it just spin? Some career decisions

Have you ever had one of those days when the cold hard truth hits you right between the eyes? Yeh, well, I’ve been having a bit of a wake up for some time now but last week the shit hit the fan. Then, a comment from one of you lovely peps made me think, a lot. More on that story … later.

There is a nagging worry, in the back of my mind, that I’ve come over as a bit maudlin recently. It’s not my intention and I am basically happy but I have realised something about what I thought was my current, temporary, state of affairs. It’s not temporary. In fact, while there may well be different people involved, I’m probably looking down the barrel of the rest of my life.

This raises an issue.

Some days I feel a bit like this.

Some days I feel a bit like this.

Like everyone, I want to be a good mother and wife and a kind and dutiful daughter. However, if I’m going to be those things to any effect, I must ensure that I also have an identity and a life beyond them – even if there’s only time for it in a low key way, it has to be there. My problem is that with the way things are now, I can’t do all those things at the same time. Not to the levels I have set myself. I have to lower my sights. And I have to accept some home truths.

  1. If I am unhappy and unfulfilled I am crap company.
  2. To be happy and fulfilled I have to like myself.
  3. In order to like myself, there are certain commitments and duties to others that I am required to perform.
  4. It is essential that I am a sane, level-headed and likeable human being.
  5. There is a certain amount of me time, and sense of having my own life that is required for me to be a sane and likeable human being. There has to be space for things that aren’t my duty: interests hobbies and yes, my job.
  6. My duty is taking too much space for the career plan I have followed up to now and that is making me frustrated and irritable.
  7. The duty can’t be shirked although it can be streamlined a bit if I can get myself to relax and reduce tension levels enough to increase my efficiency … or just achieve anything approaching efficiency, full stop.
  8. The career plan therefore has to give, or at least be altered to one that’s achievable.

In short, I have to re-establish the illusion that I am in control of anything beyond my reaction to events (even if it’s not true).

The fact is, sitting in hospital with my mum on Sunday was one of the most harrowing things I’ve done. She clearly felt terrible, she was unable to speak – or at least unable to say the words she was thinking after the first few minutes awake. And I didn’t want her to suffer, but I didn’t want her to leave me. I knew she would, most likely, be fine in a few days but even so, bringing in the DNR notice for them to see was difficult.

She’s a lot better, and though she’s still in hospital it is mainly because the Social Worker can’t see her to evaluate her until Monday and I haven’t the stamina to get her home and then try and organise that on my own right now. And I think she needs evaluated.

So all this stuff, all the administrivia that surrounds looking after Mum and Dad; dealing with the NHS, the social, their finance people, their carers, their bank, their utility companies, the folks who deliver their milk … all of it takes time. On top of that, watching my parents suffer takes emotional stamina and energy. My concentration span is drastically reduced, and my frustration at the way every tiny task seems to mushroom into a Herculean labour, normally through my own stupidity or forgetfulness, means my default state is one of intense frustration. My anger-o-meter is always at the red end of the dial, even though I am, essentially, happy.

Other days I feel more like this.

Other days I feel more like this.

On top of that, I’m a mum. For those of you who haven’t had kids, having a child is like having your brain stirred, constantly, with a huge wooden spoon – especially if your kid is as adept at mental par cour as McMini. It’s wonderful but it coddles your thoughts. And while I can express the frustration I feel about my life to him, through the medium of humour usually, I must be careful I don’t unwittingly take it out on him in other ways. And sometimes I know the anger is in my voice, anger that has nothing to do with him, and I have to reassure him that if I sound angry, it’s just frustration with other things, and not his fault.

The net result for me, is that I feel as if I am clinging onto my own identity by my fingertips. That I am little more than a kite buffeted back and forth in the air currents of other people’s neediness. This is not a good place for anyone long term. I have to look after my parents. I can’t not. I have to look after my son. I can’t not. But I also have to find some way, among that, of looking after me. Because if I go down, they all do. And that won’t help anyone.

So, apart from running away from my life and never coming back (not an option) how do I sort this out?

Well, the writer bit of my brain that is bored stupid with Real Life and wandering off is still well and truly with me, but as careers go, my authorly efforts are not going that well.

Basically, I thought that with each book I wrote I’d make roughly the same amount of cash. However, I seem to have plateaued at the K’Barthan Series. After I’d finished the four K’Barthan novels I really needed something straightforward so I wrote a stand alone, Escape From B-Movie Hell. It bombed. I naively thought that everyone who read and enjoyed my four other novels would automatically think, ‘Yeh, I’ll buy this one.’ They didn’t. To be honest, I think I’ve sold less copies of Escape this year than I sold of K’Barthan 3 or 4 in my worst month. Therefore, since 2015 I’ve been kind of stuck in a rut going nowhere, a four book wonder, because in real terms, for all it’s done, I might as well have sat on my arse from July 2014 through to December 2015 and not have written the fifth book. It’s a pity as I had a gas writing Escape and I love the results. I just re-read it, it’s far and away my best book yet but the market begs to differ.

Thus, I have learned that new stuff is not working, and that I can’t afford to take 18 months writing a book which doesn’t work. And THAT means … well, it means I have to make a plan. Also because my periods of writing time are shorter and less frequent, I take a greater proportion of the hours available getting back into the plot of a big complicated book, slowing it all up even more. So, here’s what I’m thinking …

Though my brain is desperate for the regular escapes from Real Life that only writing can deliver, it is in a state of permanent mental exhaustion.  That makes the risk of burnout omnipresent. Full length novels are tricky and another series like the K’Barthan Series will be extremely difficult.  Scratch 6 years for a four book series, in MTM’s new reality we’re looking at a minimum of 15. That’s a long time to wait before I have another two or three books that my readers – or possibly a new group of readers who like that series – want.

However, I need to achieve stuff outside the care zone. My brain needs to write, for sure, and it needs to see projects start and evolve and finish so I can earn enough to pay for my mailing list and the production of new books. For that to happen, with the hampered state of my mental capacities right now, I need to write is something simpler or shorter. So that’s what I will do; write shorter, less complicated books, which I will sell for a cheaper price. And they’ll be about K’Barth. The stories will tie in with the big books and when there are enough, I will have one of the 20k books permanently free, give one or two of the others to folks who’ve signed up to my mailing list and charge real money for the 100k plus behemoths.

Two cyber buddies in writing in my genre started producing short stories as well as novels last year and I have been watching their results with interest. One’s publisher had a minimum ebook price for a novel that was quite high, so he decided to write some shorter things that he could price lower, one just wanted uncomplicated as well as complicated. Both have found that folks are reading their low priced short stories and then moving on to the longer more expensive stuff. They are also getting less complaints about the more expensive stuff being … well … expensive.

So that’s Plan A sorted. MTM’s planned releases for next year: three short books about K’Barth – if I do well – or two if hospital time is at a maximum. They’ll retail at 99p/99c and Gladys, Ada and the punters at the Parrot and Screwdriver will definitely feature in one or two of them. If you have any favourite characters you’d like to know more about, let me know in the comments and I’ll do something about them. So far I have a lot of votes for Gladys and Ada, several for Big Merv and one for General Moteurs. I’ll try to keep the shorts coming reasonably regularly, although if either parent dies I probably won’t write anything for ages afterwards, but I digress.

As my brain can’t do complicated right now – even if it does want to do writing – this looks like a neat solution. Even starting the first short, last week, took the pressure off. Suddenly the full length novel I’m writing, which I’d got a bit stuck on, has started moving again. It’s not about K’Barth so even when it’s done, only a handful of people will read it, but I’ll like it and that’s what matters, so that’s plan B, write a big novel at the same time as the small ones.

Which brings me back to the comment. Someone pointed out that my blog is quite informative and is kind of a book on its own … and that got me thinking. The thing about the blog is, it’s all planned out, well, it isn’t but I know what I am going to say before I start. So it did occur to me that I could write a generalist series of pamphlets about publishing books yourself. It would be a series called, ‘I fucked this up so you don’t have to’. OK no that’s the only-in-my-dreams working title. It would have to be called something a bit more anodyne and sensible like ‘Mistakes I made so you don’t have to’.

The point is, I wouldn’t have to think much to do those, it would just be a case of crafting them. The knowledge, and the trains of thought, are already in my head. I wouldn’t have to imagine or research much. I’d just explain what I have learned. It might be fun. So that’s plan C.

And there, finally, you have it. MTM cares too much. MTM is an authorholic. MTM will switch the pressure from completing long books to completing some short ones that are fictional and non fictional and then the long books can go quietly on in the background at the same time.

The strangest thing is that’s not a huge change in plan. I’ve just shifted the emphasis to shorts in the foreground and behemoth novel in the background. However, somehow, put that way, it feels like it might be achievable.

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A question of perception

It’s another ‘I’m an idiot, learn from me’ post today. It’s also long. Apologies for that but there’s rather a lot to say.

Recently I’ve been trying to get the initial ideas and machinery in place to launch a new book. There are several places where I’m stuck, mostly the same, old same old: you know, stuff like actually managing to write a blurb that makes it sound appealing or coming up with a viable title. There is also the aspect of things I might unknowingly stuff up.

OK, so I try to act with professional integrity. This is the internet. Whatever I do I will offend someone but I try avoid any dishonourable, shabby, dishonest or generally reprehensible behaviour if at all possible. I try to love my internetty neighbour the way I’d like to be loved myself.

However, I’m a writer and a flawed human being. I frequently offend people without even realising. Indeed, if life was a game I suspect unwitting offence would be my Special Attribute. A couple of things have happened, recently, that have made me very aware of this and concentrated my attention on the matter of how hard it is to achieve a good reputation on the internet, how difficult it is not to cause offence, however well meaning your actions may actually be. And how difficult it can be to gauge how others will react to your actions when the only guide you have is to imagine how it would feel to be on the receiving end.

It’s not just about trying to act with decency and integrity at all times. It’s about whether people think think you are. A lot of that is about what folks believe your intentions are. I think that no matter how genuine you wish to be, how honest you think you are being, or how principled you aim to make your approach, if you are selling anything, however obliquely, there are certain quarters of the internet where any attempt to connect on your part will be considered a hypocritical attempt to befriend people in order to sell them something. So far with me, it’s kind of been the other way round. But a couple of things have really surprised me, recently. Stupid things I’ve done without realising they were stupid.

On the up side, since I’ve made these monumental fuck ups, it means that by describing them to you at length I can ensure that you don’t have to. Here’s what I’ve learned from this series of unfortunate events…

The dreadful truth about titles.

I’ll fess up. I got in a bit of a muddle publishing my last two books. The main problem was that when I finished the third book in the K’Barthan Trilogy (as it was then called) I discovered it was a snadge over 300,000 words long. What to do? If I produced a paperback then, by the time I’d factored in the kind of discount that would pay the middle men (60%) I would have a book that cost about £25. So there’s book 1 at £9.99, book 2 at £11.99 and book 3 at £24.99. With books 1 and 2 ending on cliff hangers it does rather look as if I’m holding readers to ransom to find out what happens. Luckily there was a point where I could split it. So I did. But that cost more. Another £800 or so to be precise and another £90 plus 20% sales tax to upload it to the print on demand distributor I use.

With money tight, the question raised it’s head of spending a further £90 plus tax per book to change the word ‘Trilogy’ on the cover and front pages of the first two, to ‘Series’ in print. Also, what little traction the series had was as the K’Barthan Trilogy. I asked folks, took advice and tried to imagine how I would feel if a trilogy I was following had four books. The folks I asked reckoned a 4 book trilogy was not unusual and that no-one would mind. Since I’ve read the Hitch Hiker’s ‘trilogy’ and was delighted when it kept growing, rather than upset, I saved the £180 and went for the 4 book trilogy.

How wrong I was.

A couple of months ago the third book got a blistering one star review, slamming me for writing a fourth instalment. I paraphrase but the gist was like this:

“I know your game,” it basically said. “You’re just going to write book after book and never end the story, because you’re just a bastard writer! And all you bastard writers ever want to do is rip readers off and make us pay and pay so you can buy another set of gold plated wheels for your Mercedes Benz. Well I’m not reading any more of your crap you… charlatan!”

Fair enough, this case, someone has clearly watched too many episodes of ‘Lost’, and that £50 a month I earn from my writing may well look like the gold-plated-alloy-purchasing big time to some folks, but I was completely thrown. First that they were upset, second by the enormous gap between their perception of my personality and the real one.

OK, we all know the golden rule is DO NOT ENGAGE. NEVER reply to things like that.

I broke it.

I commented on the review apologising for causing offence, explaining that it wasn’t intended, that the story ends at the conclusion of the fourth book (in case anyone else reading that review wondered) and then I offered to send it to them for free so they could find out what happened. They never replied. I went and changed the title from ‘trilogy’ to ‘series’ in all the ebook files and on all the listings on every retail site I sell through – it already said it in the product desription. Naturally the retailers all accepted my chages except for Amazon who asserted that if it said ‘trilogy’ on the book cover (even if it’s too small to read) it will be called ‘trilogy’ until I pay the designers to change the j-peg and upload the new one.

I chalked it up as something to watch and a change to do when I brief the designers about my next book.

During last year, I entered both books for the excellent Wishing Shelf Book Awards. When the feedback came through I was very surprised to discover that readers there, too, had commented negatively about my writing a ‘trilogy’ of four books.

Clearly, something that hadn’t registered with me was really pissing other people off. So what have I learned from this litany of amateurism?

  1. Give yourself options.
    My four book ‘trilogy’ has royally ticked off a whole bunch of people. Folks I will never get back. Folks who will consider me a wanker forever and spread their opinions near and far. But the problem would never have existed if I’d had the wit to call it the K’Barthan Series from the get go. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, so learn from mine: if you’re writing a trilogy then, in the name of the almighty don’t call it that. Call it a series unless it’s actually finished, has three books the same length, and you are about to publish the first one.
  2. Give yourself some slack.
    Accept there are some things you can cover with research and some things that only experience will show you but.
  3. When experience does kick you in the teeth, learn from it.
  4. If you can repair the damage, do it as soon as you can but think it through, don’t hurry it or you may just make things worse.
    OK, so I can’t afford to get rid of the bloody ‘trilogy’ moniker until the entire series is edited at the end of November. The covers, I can, and will, change sooner. For now I just have to accept that I’ve fucked up, chalk it up to experience and learn from what I have done.

The grim truth about interacting on the internet.

The second smack in the face from reality came this week.

Recently, I’ve had a facebook ad running which offers the first two books in the K’Barthan Series to anyone who joins my mailing list. I’d heard that a good way to identify a market of people to show your ad to is to choose an audience who like books by an author similar to you. It then suggests you make reference to the author you, and they, know and love and suggest that if they like that stuff they might like yours. I’m always a bit leery about this, I mean, all those reviews saying I write like Adams are just setting folks up for disappointment because I don’t. But I thought it might work with a humorous bent if I aimed it at Pratchett readers.

After a bit of tweaking and watching and tweaking I ended up with an audience who liked Terry Pratchett books and an ad which referenced CMOT Dibbler.

OK, in my defence here, I wrote the copy while Sir Terry was still around but this is what it said:

“If you like funny British science fiction and fantasy why not check out this freebie: The K’Barthan Series stands complete at four books and I’d like to give you two of them. Yes, this all sounds a bit CMOT Dibbler school of marketing but I’m hoping you’ll find a lot more quality literary meat in these books than there is REAL meat in CMOT Dibbler’s sausages.

All you have to do is tell me where to send them – the books, obviously, real sausages will not be involved.”

Then there was this picture and the title and caption below.

FACTWSfacebookAd

“I’M LITERALLY cutting my own throat here.

If you love a bargain, help yourself to two award winning funny sci-fi fantasy books, Few Are Chosen and The Wrong stuff, parts 1 and 2 of the best selling K’Barthan Series are usually £4 but they’re free for a limited time. To grab yours click here.”

To start with, I got sign ups, shares and a couple of joky quotes about the quality of the meat – is it named? Yes it’s called Bob. In other words, exactly what I expected. Then a few days ago, from New Zealand, this:

Pep A: Ripping off a Terry Pratchett character to sell your book? Poor form?
Pep B: Poor form? Fucking shameful.

And I looked at it and I thought… what happened there? And then the ad got this comment:

Pep C: Well. He’s dead now.

And the penny dropped.

Yes M T you daft, fucking moron! He died. And so suddenly this ad is not joking about characters we know and love from a favourite author. It’s trampling over people’s memories of a great man and maligning the dead. Events can cause changes in perception. And I completely missed that. So I’ve removed the ad. Because although it was working really well I didn’t think of that, and while, personally, I think it’s a bit weird to be offended, I do absolutely get why someone might be.

Have I replied or apologised? Well… no, because of another particularly important thing that I’ve learned about the internet, so that you don’t have to is that it’s bat shit crazy, and also:

  1. The international nature of the internet is a two edged sword…
    Yes, you can talk to the entire globe. Unfortunately, not all of it thinks the way you do. That means you can and will offend thousands of people effortlessly and unwittingly at the touch of a button: not just people in Britain but folks all over the world.Seriously though, I’m not American, from the RSA, Kenya or Zimbabwe. I’m not Australian, or a Kiwi, or Tasmanian or from India, Pakistan or South East Asia. I’m not from Holland, Germany, France, Russia or any of the myriad other places where people speak English and read my books, in English. I lack the instinctive grasp of other cultures that will enable me to see the point when funny becomes offensive to them if it doesn’t to someone British. But because I’m speaking English and they speak English too, THEY EXPECT ME TO.
  2. The internet contains a huge gap in perception.
    The aforementioned gulf between the spirit in which I act and interact on line, who I think I am, and what others perceive me to be. Frankly, it’s enormous. 90% of communication is non verbal and boy does it show on t’interweb – mainly through the medium of folks becoming very suspicious of one another. And what that equates to, if you’re selling anything, anywhere on line, is an assumption that nothing you do is genuine. That everything is crafted, honed and perfected with your eye on the next sale.So while you’re trying to just be, write a blog, do stuff, keep people informed, have a presence that’s just yourself: a benign and friendly presence, there are folks out there who will dismiss it as the work of a rapacious scammer who sees everyone as a potential victim (including them, unless they’re ‘careful’ a.k.a. prickly, aggressive and ready to take offence at the drop of a hat).
  3. 3. People are going to drop their weird shit onto you.
    There’s a saying, ‘you can please some of the people some of the time but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.’ I understand this but it seems that in today’s world, if you do anything that might put your name into the public domain, like paint, write, make music, act etc you are expected to please everyone, all of the time. Worse, if you don’t, no quarter will be given.Genuine mistakes, or simple errors of of judgement, far from being forgiven, are seen as an act of cynical aggression towards your innocent audience. A lot of people out there don’t really like themselves. They think they’re cynical, cold hearted conniving little shits, and guess what? Because they believe that about themselves they’re going to believe it about you too.
  4. Give them some slack. Try to stay positive and accept that sometimes you will offend others and it can’t always be helped.
    Long ago, I decided not to worry about the nature of the net. I am who I am and it’s hard to be anyone else. I know I will make mistakes and all I can do is try not to. It’s worth making peace with yourself and accepting that sometimes, no matter how benign you want to be and how hard you try to avoid hurting people, you will cause offence. Sometimes all you can do is apologise, chalk it up to experience, learn from it and move on. Sometimes our attempts to interact with people we don’t actually know personally, can be interpreted, by some as evidence that we’re out to get them in some way. It doesn’t matter how much cobblers that is, they’ve been burned by others and but there’s no way we will ever convince folks like that of our good intentions. There’s no point even trying. Indeed, the only thing you can do about them is hope to heaven that they never, ever find you.

So what can we do? How can writers or artists or anyone creative who interacts regularly on the internet behave ‘well’ without becoming too slick, too spun and anodyne?

Perhaps we can’t. Or perhaps all we can do is our level, genuine best to avoid saying anything that would offend us if you were on the receiving end. Do unto others and all that.

If you’re laid back and you write humour which, by its nature, is subversive you will undoubtedly prick the bubble of the pompous at some stage. But you may also stuff up and the way I have though sheer naivety, lack of foresight or plain ignorance and unwittingly offend many, many folks – good decent people who you don’t want to upset. When you do, I guess the only course is to chalk it up to experience – apologise if appropriate/possible and move on.

Few people do things deliberately to offend, whatever many internet users think. Most of us offend because we’re human, and flawed; and that’s natural. If we never cocked it up we’d be actual God. Because perfect is impossible unless you’re Allah, right?

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Goodnight and God Bless.

A story broke, today, about a new cure for alzheimer’s. It seems the damage can be reversed using ultrasound. It makes the loss Sir Terry Pratchett yesterday, to the same disease, all the more poignant. Yet I suspect he, of all people, would have appreciated the tragic irony in it.

Terry Pratchett is probably the reason I write. His books – and the outlook in his books – have been a huge influence on me, personally, because he puts the moderate, intelligent viewpoint – especially in his early works – with so much subtle sympathy. To me, the attitude and political viewpoint of his books sums up everything that is good about that moderate, live-and-let-live British view of the world. And if you’re foreign reading this and you want to know what pukka British is well, one aspect is that.

I bought my first Pratchett book when I was about 19 and at university. I think he’d written four disc world books at that point. Even then, I wrote a fair bit of stuff, myself, all of it funny fantasy. I’d never seen a funny fantasy book in a shop and I couldn’t see myself persuading anyone to buy it. In fact, I had resigned myself to writing reams of words which no-one would ever see.

And then I read The Colour of Magic.

And it was a revelation. Because it was exactly what I was trying to do, except it was done properly, down to the last detail.

I remember hoovering it up and just thinking, “I want to write like this.” Except that it’s really, really hard to write like Sir Terry.

Within a couple of months, I’d decided that he was probably going to write all my books for me and I’d never write like that anyway. I put my efforts at novel writing aside and started writing  stand up. But I continued to love the books and admire the man. I loved reading the books as they came out, seeing his style grow and evolve. He had the common touch, too. Remember the book about vampires? I can’t remember which one it is but it’s early – in the first 10. The vampires are complaining that there’s nothing to eat and not even a tampax for a nice cup of tea. I laughed like a drain at that because it’s the kind of joke I’d have with myself but deem to tasteless for the ‘normals’. And he’s put it in a book. I liked that he pricked the hide of the pompous and poked fun at the self important.

It made me feel an affinity with him as someone who, perhaps, might not quite fit. Here was a mind like my own a person like me. Doing well. And that’s the thing about Sir Terry, almost anyone who read and loved his books felt like that about him. He had this way of touching on the unmentioned humour of … well … pretty much everything and for pretty much anyone in a way that made you feel as if he would be a complete gas to go to the pub with.

The late, great, Sir Terry Pratchett

The one time I met him was at a book signing, and he was every bit as lovely as you’d expect, from reading the books. He must have been there about four hours and signed literally hundreds of books. I got there early and queued up the street for that brief few second meeting. He was affable, friendly and chatty. He kept the queue moving without making anyone feel rushed. It was impressive.

18 months or so after meeting the great man in the flesh, I was invited to apply for a job which I then managed to actually not get. I thought someone up there was trying to tell me something: ie that Real Life and Real Work are for the Normals and not for me. So I started writing funny novels again. With a vengeance. Because even if Terry Pratchett had written them all for me, no two people will write the same book right?

Trouble was, I was churning out pages and pages of shockingly piss poor writing that I sincerely wished someone else had written. And I didn’t know how to make it right.

And then a friend found Sir Terry’s e-mail address and I sent him an e-mail. Naturally, writing to the god, whose work I just loved, and I sent a joke, ‘are you the real Terry or a fake terry like terrylene?’ I asked him. And I got a reply saying. ‘I’m the real Terry’ so I sent him another one, which basically said, ‘bloody hell! can I ask you some questions?’ and he sent one back along the lines of ‘now look, it’s all very well but questions only take a minute to ask and a long time to answer, so you can ask me three things.’

So I asked him the first question: if he had to work hard to sell his book or ‘did you just send it in to the first publisher you could think of and they wrote back and said yes please?’ his answer, ‘That’s pretty much the size of it.’

There is no doubt that – after a pause to marvel how anyone could be that good at something  – I asked him a second question. But since a computer crash has long since dispensed with my transcript of the correspondence I can’t remember what I asked or what he said. Clearly I wasted the opportunity but at least, true to M T list making form, it means there is NO THING TWO. Moving on.

The third question I asked was if he had any general advice for myself and a writer friend who were both struggling to make our stuff work. At the time I was doing a creative writing course. The teacher wrote literary fiction and she thought my writing was ‘just stupid’. But Sir Terry, bless him, he bothered to write back. And he this is what he told me.

‘If you want to write, and write well, you have to practise. Write. Write every day…’ he said.

And I can’t remember the exact working of the rest of it – which seems strangely apposite and is entirely typical –  but the gist of it is this.

Write. Write as much as you can. And when you can’t think of anything to write, write about how irritated you are that you can’t think of a bloody thing to write about. Write something. Anything and do whatever it takes to spend some time, every day doing it. Practise and you will gain such an  instinctive grasp of words that expressing your thoughts is effortless, and more to the point, accurate. And when you learn that… that’s when you will learn how to say the difficult things and your words will have power.

That doesn’t read very well because the hard disk crash ate the words Sir Terry wrote, which I no longer remember and my words lack the power of his – although I’m working on that – but the essence is burned into my soul*.

His advice came at a time when I was on the brink of giving up, on writing on work on everything. When I’d resigned myself to a dead end life and a succession of dead end jobs working for a university that paid most of its workers an annual salary equating to less than the average town rent. When, I had been told I was worthless for so long by so many people that, despite the best efforts of those who thought different, I’d begun to believe it. It was tough advice – he didn’t pull any punches – but it made me feel that perhaps there was something I could do, possibly even do well, if I tried really, really hard. And I set out to do it. There are a lot of other factors which turned my life around and switched on my self confidence, but the small ember of resolve I felt after that e-mail was part of the small beginnings.

So thank you, Sir Terry, for making the world lighter and better and wiser for all of us, thank you for 70 books, and thank you for the advice. The world is a quieter, duller place for your passing.

 

* that’s a little melodramatic isn’t it? Never mind.#

# this is a post about Terry Pratchett, people. Footnotes are obligatory.

Since Sir Terry was one of the people who advocated leaving your comfort zone regularly, I scared myself in his honour today by eating two chocolate toffees I found in my drawers (obviously not the drawers I’m wearing but the ones in my desk) which are best before 2008. I am also still wearing my comic relief drawn on face, which should do.

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Guest Post. Handy hints on developing a villain over a series.

I am delighted to welcome my cyber buddy Charles Yallowitz, author of the long running fantasy series, Legends of Windemere, to talk about villains. Legends of Windemere is a seriously epic series – 9 books and counting. But as well as writing lots of excellent books Charles runs a great blog; plenty of thought provoking posts, interesting news and lots of chat in the comments. I thoroughly recommend you have a look at it, here. But do read the article first won’t you? Which reminds me… over to you Mr Yallowitz.

The Lich by Jason Pedersen

The Lich by Jason Pedersen

First, thanks to M T McGuire for allowing me to write a guest post. The question posed was about character development over the course of a series. Legends of Windemere, my fantasy adventure series, has six books out with a seventh on the way. So I get asked about this area a lot since I’m also very character driven. I always go on about the heroes, so this time I’m going to give a few tips on how to develop a villain in a long series.

  1. Give them a few scenes in each book, but don’t overuse them. Each appearance should have an impact to either the story or the villain. Appearing too often can weaken their influence over the reader and develop them too quickly. For example, I use my villains at the beginning to set up their end of the story. After that, they appear maybe every 2-3 chapters for brief scenes or confrontations. The latter is typically saved for the second or third act depending on what the outcome will be.
  2. Henchmen and secondary villains help fill out the opposing side of an adventure. These characters can be around for one or two books then be eliminated. You need to give them a reason for being with the bigger enemy, but it can be very simple. Money, bloodlust, fear, or any base wants can be used. A character like this only needs enough personality to do their job and be a threat. Not saying you can’t evolve them in a short time, but keeping it simple prevents them from growing too big. Unless that’s what you want, which means see #1.
  3. Very few villains are pure evil. Those that are have to be used sparingly and will have an issue being in a long-term series. Give your villains some longevity and depth by giving them a ‘good’ trait. It can be a delusion that they are right, a soft spot for something, or a personality trait that one typically finds in heroes. For example, the Lich in my series is an undead necrocaster and definitely a creature of darkness. Yet he demonstrates a loyalty to his master that rivals the heroes of the story. It doesn’t make him a good guy, but it does make the Lich a deeper villain.
  4. Going too evil can shorten your villain’s lifespan. In a series, the bad guys have to create multiple plans and make several attempts to kill the heroes. Each one has to be either equally or more evil than the last. Otherwise readers might think the bad guys aren’t trying any more. You still have to be careful if you have a few more books to wring out of the character. So if they do something so horrible that it can’t be topped then you will have trouble keeping them going for much longer. For example, I have a villain who starts off pretty bad with wanting to ‘break’ one of the female heroes. He was going to go for a while, but he began as a real monster. As the first few book progressed, he got worse and worse. I tried giving him a time out for a book, but it was too late. This villain had to either be removed for me to keep the story going.
  5. The heroes shouldn’t be the only ones to get new toys and abilities. Villains that run longer than one or two books should get some type of upgrade. New weapons or spells or a powerful new henchman can be introduced at the beginning of a story. After all, if the bad guy keeps losing then it’s a pretty smart bet they’ll try to upgrade themselves to, at the very least, stay on equal footing with the heroes.
  6. If you’re going to have a villain turn good then set the groundwork a book or two beforehand. The intensely loyal henchman shouldn’t have an abrupt change of heart after following orders for several adventures. It’s not realistic and comes off as the author wanting to save the character since most villains are killed by the end. Have your potential turncoats demonstrate the ability to be good just like a traitorous hero will show a sign or two of being bad. Have them doubt their path or reveal that they weren’t always a villain. Plenty of methods to make sure this isn’t a plot twist out of nowhere.
  7. Multiple villains can help flesh out the entire group because they will play off each other like the heroes. You can include scenes where these characters discuss plans or take an interest in the life of their comrades. There should always be an edge to it since these tend to be distrustful people, but they are together. Having everyone in their own corner and planning to betray the other villains can get silly.

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In search of a prince – or the ups and downs of frog kissing…

This week has been rather busy: recovery from half term, the production of the parish magazine which I now edit for my sins and a visit from McOther’s folks. As a result there hasn’t been time for much.

However, this afternoon, I got out into our garden for a spot of metal detecting. Our garden is a bit hit and miss. The first thing I found in it was a clay pipe head; early because it was small, from the period when tobacco was still expensive. The second thing was this.

IMG_2310Yep, believe it or not, that’s a bead which, upon presentation at my metal detecting club, was deemed to be Saxon. Yeh I was pretty gobsmacked and all.

So, this afternoon, I thought I’d go and have a look outside and see what I could find. One hole was left with the ‘treasure’ in situ because Harrison, our nut bar cat, wee-ed in it. Several other holes were left open so Harrison could dig vigorously in them, gnaw at roots and roll in the diggings, leaving me free to find more shite old nails treasure uninterrupted by the constant signal from the identity disk on his collar.

With a LOT of help from the cat, I finally managed to discover that our lawn appears to have been laid on a large piece of crappy 1970s carpet.

I also managed to dig up this impressive collection of total crap.

IMG_2312The nails range from modern to hand made and a couple of hundred years old. The round blob on the right is a lead thing and is… well I’m hoping it came out of a cannon because that would make it interesting to me even if it’s worth jack all and of no interest to anyone else.

So, in summary, metaphorical frogs kissed: 10. Handsome princes found: none.

Meanwhile sometime in the last two years or so, McOther had found a… um… metal thing in the garden. After a great deal of thought and brain wracking he has come to the conclusion that he probably found it while sieving the stones out of the earth for a flowerbed he made. After a few months of it lying about in his office he got round to showing it to me, just before Christmas.

“Can you show this to your metal detecting club,” he says.

“OK,” I look at it and shrug. It looks like a shite bit of faux old metal, the kind of thing that gets imported from China on pretending-to-be-medieval boxes and the like. “What is it?”

“If I knew I wouldn’t need you to ask them.”

“Fair point. Where did you get it?”

“I can’t remember.”

Then you know how it is, I was ill for the November meet, the Christmas one wasn’t really that kind of meeting, I forgot January and I finally remembered it last night.IMG_2309

“What do you reckon this is?” I ask the chairman of the club, who is pretty knowledgeable.

He perks up at once as I hand it over.

“This looks really old, where did you get it?”

“I’m not sure, McOther found it.”

“Hmm, I think it might be part of a Saxon cruciform broach. It’s a horse’s head. It’s got copper bug eyes, a stylised snout and those round things are it’s nostrils. There’s a line across his head where the browband* goes too.”

“Get away!”

“Show it to the FLO.”

* part of a horse’s bridle, brow band above the eyes, nosemband across the nose.

Shit.

“Right.”

So I join the queue for the FLO, that s, the Finds Liaison Officer which is always good because I get to see some of the amazing stuff my fellow club mates have dug up. In this case, highlight is a bronze age axe head, that another member of the club has dug up and he also has a really cool celtic coin.

“What do you think it is?” the FLO asks me when I present him with McOther’s piece of tat.

“I dunno, the Chairman reckons it could be Saxon, and a horse but I thought it was probably an arts and crafts bracket or some bit of Victorian shite.”

“Hmm… what if I told you the Chairman is right and your bit of old shite was actually over a thousand years old?”

“Fuckorama.”

Yes, so it turns out it’s a bit of a 5th Century Saxon cruciform broach and McOther found it on the surface of the soil, the way I found the bead. Yet when I get the detector out and dig, suddenly, I have a garden full of shite. Except that I know I don’t. The stuff is there and I will find it eventually. I just have to perservere… and find the cat something else to do while I’m going about it.

So how is this relevant to writing?

Well, this week, I discovered that, like the second one, the last two books of the K’Barthan Series have failed dismally to make the cut for the Wishing Shelf Awards. I’ve kind of hoped that they might squeak onto the short list. I’ve kind of hoped that with all three because the first one came third, or second, they said third at the time but they say second now… the point is I was expecting it to come nowhere.

However, try as I might, the kids who voted the first one onto the list have not enjoyed the subsequent ones enough. Or maybe there are just a lot more books around that are way better than mine, or at, a lot more of the books that are miles better than mine are being entered. Or maybe I’ve lost my mojo. Or maybe there was a t in the month and an r in the day and I needed it to be the other way around. Who knows? Whatever it is, I have been unable to repeat the feat. Maybe the current work in progress will be good enough to get onto the 2015 short list… maybe but probably not. The thing is, I’ll enter it anyway. The feedback, alone, is worth the price of entry.

You may be wondering how this ties in with finding Saxon stuff when you’re not trying, and a selection of nails, three milk bottle tops, a lead thing and the head of  pitching wedge when you try really hard. Well, I guess my detectoristic plight reflects two tenuous and slightly contradictory lessons.

First thing: don’t force it. Sometimes, if you just relax and go with the flow you’ll hit gold… or at least second/third, or a Saxon copper horse head.

Second thing: keep trying. Because just as any detectorist will tell you, to find your gold stater you will have to dig up a lot of shite. So whatever it is you’re doing, trying to dig up Saxon stuff, trying to write a book – or at least one that you don’t wish someone else had written – or trying to write a book that’s good enough to get onto an award shortlist, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time trying before you get it right. Or, as any fairy godmother will explain, if you want to find your handsome prince, you are going to have to kiss a lot of frogs.

 

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How did it all go? What I learned from doing a #booksigning

A little while back I write this post about my nervousness about taking a stall to flog my books at Bury Christmas Fayre. A week on, let me fill you in on how it went.

Stall with author in situ, yes, I buffed my nose with Mr Sheen.

Stall with author in situ, yes, I buffed my nose with Mr Sheen.

Truth is, I forgot to write down what I sold on day one, going solely on the amount of extra money. Looking back on it that was a Bad Idea. That said, I reckon on it being about 5 copies of book 1, a set of post cards and 4 sets of Christmas cards.

Nuff said, the next day I kept a religious tally of everything I sold: 8 copies of Book 1, 5 Boxed Sets and a copy of books 2, 3 and 4. I also sold 7 lots of art cards which I’d brought along, just in case. On the Sunday morning, one of the people who’d bought a boxed set contacted me by e-mail and bought another one. This netted me total sales of 11 packs of art cards, one pack of post cards and 40 books: enough money to pay for the stall, the banner, the stock and most of my outstanding credit card bill. I just wish I’d done the Sunday, too, and netted a profit!

So what did I learn? Several things. Here they are.

  1. Plan your stall in advance.
    Work out your bulk discounts, special offers, etc and make a price list. Print several copies of the price list, and get them encapsulated if you can, so that customers – or you – can spill coffee on them without fear. A calculator is handy and a cash box and some of those plastic stands you put books on (I got them off ebay too: 10 for £14). Make sure you’ve ordered enough books. Too many is probably better than too few.
  2. Make sure you have everything you need – or at least, the stuff you know you need.
    This can’t be stressed enough. Read the requirements given by the venue. Do they want you to bring your own table and chair? If they provide these remember to bring a table cloth. I used a dark blue cotton single sheet which cost me £7 on ebay. Bring water and some lunch (you will get hungry and thirsty no matter how unlikely it seems with all the adrenaline that is in your system). Write a list of all the things you are taking and tick off each item as you put it in your car.Life saving items for me were: plastic book stands, scissors, sticky tape, blu-tack, food, drink, price lists and a last minute purchase of some wacky sweets (more on that story later).
  3. Pimp your stall.
    Yes, make it pretty, bring a banner print off pictures of your covers so that if you have the good fortune to be in front of a wall you can pin them up – I did this but I didn’t bring enough. Make it striking so people are drawn to come and have a look.
  4. Have something to give away.
    I had two things: bookmarks advertising the series as a whole with blurb and e-mail address, plus sweets. You need the sweets to be wrapped because… well you’ve seen that e-mail that gets sent round every now and again about the wee on the bar nuts, right? So: wrapped sweets are good. It was my extreme good fortune to be in possession of some chocolate brussels sprouts. These were really just those mini chocolate footballs you can get but wrapped in sprouty looking green foil rather than the usual football foil.
  5. Provide something that will make people linger.
    In my case, it was two things. I had a tribble that people could pet – it cost me £10 at LonCon and it’s supposed to squeak but it broke on day two.*
    So I had the tribble for people to pet but what actually worked was the simple premise of providing a bin for the chocolate wrappers – in the form of a K’Barthan Series mug. That meant that the juxtaposition of the words ‘chocolate’ and ‘sprout’ was enough to get most of my potential customers’ attention. They then spent enough time diddling about trying to get the foil wrapper off the sprout for me to bend their ears about my books and cards. I also offered free book marks so if they were interested but not sure they had something to take away. Somebody downloaded a copy of all four books the following day, so I suspect this was one of the ebook users to whom I gave a book mark.Final note: When providing foil wrapped sweets of any description, at least three people an hour will eat the sweet with the foil on.
  6. Bring some bling. I read a post recently which gave excellent counsel against buying too much branded stuff off Vistaprint and the like. So… yes, you will get by on bookmarks and a t-shirt. However, if you do find an offer for reduced fridge magnets, post cards or the like and if your art work is really cool, it’s worth having a few things. One couple were humming and haaing as to whether they should buy the first book or the full set. I had discounted the full set so it was £39.99 instead of £46, which is what it would have been with all the books at full price. I had already added a set of three post cards to make the brown paper parcel more interesting. So I gave them a minute or two and then said, “look, I shouldn’t try to force you one way or another, but if you do buy the full set I’ll throw in a set of fridge magnets worth £3.” They bought the set.
  7. Enjoy yourself. Very important this one. Especially if being yourself, on the stall, is going to give them a sort of mini preview as to what the books are like to read. If you’re smiling and laughing with people and cracking jokes, others will stop to join in or listen. It also helps if you know the people on the tables around you and you can take the rip out of one another or just big up each other’s products.

*Incidentally, despite the fact it broke after two outings the company who sold it to me refused to replace it. Even if I’d used it every day we’re talking about my contacting them in October after purchase in August. Can you believe that? They wouldn’t sell parts for it either. This is another blog post, in itself, but basically, the moral of this story is: avoid giving your custom to http://www.tribbletoys.com or http://www.startrek.com – they are rip off merchants selling shoddy, over priced goods which break straight away and their customer service is piss poor.

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What’s in a book cover? A change gives a different perspective on an established series.

Today I am delighted to share Tahlia Newland’s new, super-duper, improved covers along with some info on the why, the how and the wherefore of covers, cover changes and the reasons she made her changes.

One of the great things about indie publishing is that, thanks to ebooks and Print on Demand technology, covers can be changed at any time. But why would you want to? What’s in a book cover?

Changing covers after publication is not limited to indie books, either; mainstream books with a long shelf life often get new covers and some even have different versions available at the same time. Why? Are the publishers not happy with the original covers?

No. Looking at young adult titles, the original Twilight covers were stunning, but after the movie came out, those covers were replaced by ones with photos of the movie characters. The new covers appealed to a different (possibly younger) audience, and changing the covers opened the book up to a new market, those who had seen the movie but not read the book. They also highlighted the human element in the book and communicated more about the content of the books.

The Harry Potter series also had different covers, and each new look appealed to a different kind of reader, thus giving a boost to the established series. And now, Tahlia Newland’s Diamond Peak series has a brand new set of covers for the same kinds of reasons. The previous covers were graphic, symbolic and sophisticated, aimed at an older market; the new covers are dramatic and sexy and say more about the series in one glance.
Diamond Peak Series3

The use of faces and a Photo-shopped style of artwork is the more traditional style of young adult cover, and though many young adult books have moved away from this look, the style existed and was used for so long because it appealed to the target audience. The fact that it is less in use today will make these ones stand out all the more.

The covers highlight the action, the romance, and the strong female character at the centre of the series. Those elements have always been there, this cover merely emphasises them. The only thing the covers don’t hint at is the humour. The mysticism is there in the sparkle on the cover for Eternal Destiny.

Here are the previous covers – graphic, symbolic and sophisticated – though fabulous covers, they say little about the content, even if you take the time to read the symbolism. These will remain the paperback covers, at least for the foreseeable future.
Diamond Peak Series2
Which covers do you like best?
Find out about the AIA Seal of Excellence award-winning Diamond Peak series on the author’s website. http://tahlianewland.com/my-books/diamond-peak-series/ or visit her Amazon Author page.

All covers by Velvet Wings Design. What’s in a book cover? A change gives a different perspective on an established series.

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