Tag Archives: e-publishing

Mailing lists: the all embracing panacea or the hamster wheel of doom?

As you know, I’ve been writing books and attempting to sell the results since about 2010. I still think my books are good. I think the books I’m writing at the moment will be good too – or at least as good as I can make them and good by my standards, ie they’ll be more of the kinds of stories I’d like to read but that don’t exist.

However, for all my efforts, I’d be lying if I said I was doing well as an author, but the fact I write the books I want to read, rather than what ‘the market’ is after could be posing a problem there.

Originally, in the absence of a following to ask, my marketing strategy went like this.

‘Hey Sensible M T I’m going to write a book.’
‘Great plan Ditzy M T. What about?’
‘I’m going to write the books that I’ve always wanted to read but no-one has ever written.’
‘Is that a good idea Ditzy M T?’
‘Of course it is Sensible M T.’
‘But, if people wanted to read them, wouldn’t someone else have written them?’
‘No Sensible M T, I believe I have spotted a niche.’
‘Oh yeh?’
‘Yeh. I’m a person, I’m bog standard, so surely whatever I want to read will be something a whole group of other people like me want to read too, right?’
‘You think there are other people like you?’
‘Of course.’

Unfortunately, Sensible M T is correct. People like me are rather rarer than I anticipated so it’s taking me a bit of time to build an audience … and I think a lot of folks are getting mailing list fatigue, which is understandable, but a pity. Although at least, now, there are enough folks following my writing for me to be able to ask them what they’d like: hence the K’Barthan shorts, and there will be some, I promise once I’ve finished the K’Barthan accidentally long I’m working on – that’s hit 50k today, by the way. I have a nice properly short story brewing about how The Pan ended up jumping off the bridge (he mentions it to Ruth in the second book).

We’re on the road to nowhere!

As the Talking Heads said (blimey this is getting a bit Alan Partridge). But I do feel that I am running faster and faster to stay in the same place. Sales are a bit … well

That’s right. Pants.

Looking at my sales spreadsheet over the last umpteen years, I can’t help but notice that I am putting in more and more effort to achieve the same results. This last month, April 2017 if you’re reading this 400 years from now in a post apocalyptic world where electricity and computers have only just been reinvented, was one of the worst on record. It was the first time more than two days passed between book sales, for me, since 2013. Then came this month, gulp. There were several big blocks of four or five days when I didn’t sell a thing. The total earnings are £30. The lowest month for ages. Naturally, I thought I’d see if I could find out why.

First up, I tried a different type of mailing promo last month and it’s too early to tell if it’s worked yet. Second, the month before that, I didn’t do a promo. That’s two very compelling explanations, right there. But is there more.

Looking at onward sales I discovered these lovely factoids:

  • There are 4,247 people on my mailing list.
  • They have bought a maximum of 662 copies of the K’Barthan Series books in a combination of books 3 and 4  at $4.99 a pop (sales are about level pegging which is a good sign) or the box set at $7.99.
  • I’ve sold about 400 copies of book 2 since I started all this free book malarky – even though I give it away free to folks who join my mailing list.
  • That said, about 750 have bought Unlucky Dip, the short story, for 99c.
  • On the day of launch only 14 people bought the K’Barthan Box set.
  • Only 280 have bought Escape From B-Movie Hell.
  • If I take just one group of 1,000 mailing list members, I can see that 280 of them clicked on the links to find out more about the paid books when I emailed them about it. That’s actually not bad.
  • After three quarters of a year, or thereabouts, I survey my mailing list peps. You’d be amazed how many answer the ‘did you enjoy the books’ style question with, ‘I haven’t read them yet.’ Even after eight months or so some of them are clearly a little nettled to be even asked.
  • A couple of folks have joined my mailing list and then emailed me to say they downloaded the book two or three years ago, never got around to reading it and are really glad they have this time – there’s even a review that says that!

What do these pieces of information tell me?

  1. That I should be writing more short stories. Hmm.
  2. That information pages I send them to about each book on my website need an overhaul.
  3. That the books might be too expensive.
  4. Or that people are feeling a bit, what’s the point? about brexit and our impending ecological and nuclear doom and don’t want to shell out for a book any more.
  5. It reinforces the argument that a higher rate of output comprising shorter books at a lower cost is probably the way to go – I’m thinking 50k for $2.99 and 10/20k for 99c/p maybe. At least I have to have something between 99c and $4.99 – currently there’s only the stand alone.
  6. That if I’m smart, some or all of the future books I write should be about K’Barth.
  7. That anyone on my mailing list who is interested in reading the K’Barthan Series had already done so, with knobs on, when the box set came out and that any who might be weren’t ready.
  8. That folks who are interested in reading the second K’Barthan book often buy it straight after reading the first one, they don’t wait four days to get it free. That’s great because clearly they’re into it.
  9. That, in turn, could tell me that people who are less worried about money purchase my books and perhaps this is more evidence for shorter books that I could sell at a more accessible price for folks with less disposable income.
  10. That I need to make it clearer to people that they can borrow my books from libraries – but they have to ask because the librarian won’t have bought them (I’m not famous and not a sure bet). In short, I need to make sure that they realise that they can get access to my books, even if they are cash strapped.
  11. That the average reader has a to-read list that is well over 8 months long and reads the books in order.
  12. That while I have always assumed that a fair few of the people on my mailing list won’t have read my books 7/8ths is quite a lot higher than I expected.
  13. That the read through rate is only as high as 7/8ths if every single person who has bought K’Barthan book 3 and 4 in whatever format is on my mailing list, which I doubt.
  14. That the percentage of people who are actually reading the book I give away is gob smackingly low. Nowhere near the 20% I thought it was (going on Amazon downloads of the free book and totting up subsequent copies of the next books sold in 2015.
  15. That, possibly, the people who do read the book I give away in return for their email address are the ones who read it straight after downloading it. This could explain why they zip through the first book in a couple of days and then get stuck right into the rest of them rather than waiting for the free second book.
  16. That until a couple of years have passed, I won’t really know the results of my efforts to upsell since it will be a very long time before many folks get to the first book.
  17. For the long haul tbr people, at least regular mailings from me will keep them in touch and help them not to forget about my books.

What about the risible rate of earnings?

Hmm… what about it? More factoids.

  • It was 70% down on my £100 monthly average.
  • The worst since February 2015 when I had 70 friends and family on my mailing list and hadn’t worked out about permafrees with optimised listings – which worked then.
  • It is in keeping with the time of year. The worst month for sales always seems to happen in spring: Feb, March, April or May.
  • As I mentioned, it may be down to the choice of giveaway book in April.
  • I didn’t do much in the way of promo in March.
  • There has been no uptick in sales at the beginning of May, usually at the start of a month there is.

What does this tell me?

  1. That net worth of my efforts to upsell my other books from information I give on my mailing list is currently worth £30, or thereabouts, from an average £100. Possibly. But I’ll never really know for sure.
  2. That it’s very important to have a promo planned every month.
  3. That you need to be lot more savvy these days, and do a lot more to get your books in front of people, to achieve the same results you could have done with less effort a year ago. Mwah hahaharhgh so nothing new there!
  4. That promos do drive sales.
  5. That the merit of giving folks a second book as well as the original freebie they downloaded might be debatable. Is it getting read by many folks? Difficult to tell but it looks unlikely. Then again, I won’t really know until the long haul people kick in (if they do).
  6. That if I give the short away as a second book, instead, it might get more people reading because it’s accessible, but it might people off because it’s crap.

It could be that I am gaining a lot of new mailing list followers, but very few readers. But just as easily, it could be that I will need to wait at least a year before a big proportion of the folks on my mailing list get round to reading any of my books. Only time will tell.

So? Patience young paduan?

Yeh, looks like it. It takes a lot of time and effort to sort out my mailings, find interesting things to include or fun stories to tell. But, clearly when I join the right kinds of promos folks are downloading and enjoying the first book in the K’Barthan Series, it’s just catching them while they’re still enthused in a way that doesn’t annoy the ones who don’t want to be reminded for a year or so. It’s also juggling not earning much with the cash. I’m moving my mailing list to another provider but currently it costs me £40 per month to entertain 4,250 folks. If my £30 per month earning streak continues I will need to uncover a way to monetise my list slightly or I’m going to be in certain doo-doo.

Yep. Doo doo. Scary huh?

Mailing list factoids.

  • Open rates have dropped but only a little.
  • Open rates are slower. I would have a decent idea how a mailing had gone down in two or three days a year ago, these days it’s two weeks before the percentage of opens stops creeping up.
  • Click rates are down. A lot. From a fairly reliable 20% – 40% to about 6% -13%.

What do these factoids tell us Noddy?

  1. Perhaps there is a mailing slow down. It’s clear that folks are still reading my emails but taking longer. Also, a couple of unsubscribe comments along the lines of ‘I love your emails but I am on so many authors’ lists and I just don’t have time to read them’ might bear that out.
  2. Many authors are doing giveaways now, or promos, or things where groups of similar books are offered for free to readers in return for them singing up to the authors’ mailing lists. It may simply be that a lot of readers have already heard about the promos I’m taking part in from other authors involved before I tell them.

So what can I do?

Sit tight and keep doing what I do.

Once again, on this one, I am, dangerously, doing what works for me. This does not mean it’s what works, generally or even that it’s what other people like. After all, if I wanted to sell books to the normals I’d have a really attractive thin woman on the covers and they’d be that shade of green, taupe, blue, brown or red.

For the record, what I want to discover, from mailing lists I join is whether I find the author interesting, as well as the stuff they offer. I like to hear about their books, their progress on new work and about any books they’ve read and enjoyed. I also like it if the emails, themselves, are amusing, or chatty, like a letter to a friend rather than a ‘professional’ offering. Furthermore, as my readers will undoubtedly be getting loads of emails from other authors as well as me, I want to make mine stand out, in a good way. I want them to get enough enjoyment and value from the things I send them to make time for them.

So far, the feedback is good. I think it is weeding out the kinds of people who are going to like and enjoy my books from those who’ve downloaded them free but will probably never read them. Hopefully it will. I’d much rather have an engaged list of 500 people, than a list of 4,500 who aren’t interested.

These days, twenty or thirty folks unsubscribe from my list in a month. That would have come as a big surprise a year ago. But people still write back and interact so I must be doing something right.

I have come up with some practical answers for improving the usefulness of my emails and, therefore, open and click rates but when it comes to onward sales, or library borrows, I’m kind of scratching my head. Maybe my books are shite, except if they were, why are the reviews mostly good? And the bad reviews, with a few exceptions, tend to say things that suggest the reader was the complete antithesis of the book’s target market anyway.

Any other cunning plans?

Well … I need to ask folks questions, find out a bit more about what they are after and then give them what they are interested in. If I set this up right, I can send free books to the people who want free, paid books to the people who want paid and can avoid sending amazon offers to readers who use only Kobo or vice versa.

But while that might help me make the information more pertinent and useful, I’m not sure what I can do about the ten thousand free books they need to read before it’s the ‘turn’ of mine. I also wonder about the 19,000 folks who downloaded Few Are Chosen while it was permafree. Six hundred onward sales from those isn’t a very good track record.

But for what it’s worth, here’s my plan.

I have two weapons and two weapons only. I’m weird and sometimes I’m funny. This pertains to everything: my books, who I am and what I do. In all, the weird and the funny are key. Some people find that hard work, others really like it. So hopefully, if I can carry on being the way I am, I will, eventually, build up a group of follows who appreciate the weird and funny of me, at least, even if they haven’t read the damn books. And maybe, eventually, they will find one of my newsletters leaves them wanting more … enough to dig out the K’Barthan Series, Book 1 and start reading.

It’s my only answer. So I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope. I’ll let you know how I get on.

On a final note …

If you’re one of the 3,500 out of 4,247 on my mailing list who hasn’t read my book, I am absolutely agog to know two thing:

  1. What on earth you’re doing there?
  2. What on earth you’re getting from it?
  3. Your reasons for not reading the book yet – i.e. your to read list is too long, the book is too long, you’re a book blogger/reviewer and haven’t got round to it, you’re never going to read the book in a month of Sundays but you love the reviews and special offers on other people’s books etc.

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Filed under General Wittering, Good Advice, Marketing Ideas, self publishing

Can I have fried brains with that? Time management/productivity hacks for writers #amwriting #writingtips #timemanagement

The longest blog post in the world … probably.

This week I will be mostly talking about making something out of nothing, or as that pertains to my world: time management.

As many of you will remember, my lack of minutes in the day to do … well … anything much was a continuing trope in many of my posts last year. The frustration of not producing any meaningful work while any ‘free’ time melted away faster than the polar ice caps was strong, and the whinging on my blog extensive, as a result. Sorry about that.

However, good news, I think. It looks as if I’ve fixed it, possibly, or at least, bodged the problem enough for my writerly mojo to return. And as I bitched and complained my way through last year, I did realise that I’m not the only one who struggles with balancing their duties to others and their requirement to write. So I thought I’d share the stuff that has worked for me in the hope that, perhaps, it will help anyone reading this who has similar struggles. So off we go …

A long time ago in a galaxy far away …

Last November, actually, Mum was in hospital again, and as I tried to sort everything out, and write, and be a mum to my own son, a good daughter, and be happy, burnout loomed.

Once we got her sorted out, and back home with Dad, I knew that if I was going to carry on writing I would have to make changes, even if it was just changes to my attitude. And I was going to have to make them fast. I’m an old hand at this now. The trick is not so much as to solve the problem but to alter my thinking so I see it differently. This time the ‘solution’ I arrived at was twofold:

  1. I couldn’t write the kinds of books I had been writing and deal with the things I needed to do in Real Life. I would therefore write shorter, less complicated books.
  2. It was clear that many folks who read my books enjoyed the K’Barthan stuff best. And I knew K’Barth well. There wasn’t so much time for experimentation right then – so that was easy. I’d write shorter, less complicated stories about K’Barth.

Enter the new series of 99p K’Barthan Shorts. In a bid to discover more details about the ‘market’s’ demands I asked what people would like to see more of. Gladys, Ada and Their Trev was the answer from everyone.

Roughseas asked me to write on about how Betsy, on Turnadot Street, started her Bordello. The answer popped up almost immediately. Meanwhile there was another one about The Pan of Hamgee’s early years on the Blacklist. That popped up reasonably fast too. So I had two ideas for short stories ready to go. All that was left was to write them.

Keenly aware that I can’t actually guarantee myself more than about 40 minutes to write in each day, it occurred to me that one of the problems with my rate of production was that its slowness sapped my morale, resulting in even less speed. So making some steady progress was essential to keep up my spirits and keep going. Obviously, as an authorholic, I am, literally addicted – stopping would have been much more sensible but it wasn’t an option. I decided to try and find a way to write more efficiently. I had a bit of a think and I came up with five ways that I could, possibly, give myself a hand:

  1. There might be some book production tools I could use to speed up and ease the process – such as writing software or text-to-speech software.
  2. Planning and plotting a bit before I start would help if I could tie it into the way I write.
  3. Writing shorter and less complicated stories would reduce the cerebral load (as previously mentioned).
  4. If I could improve my time management I might achieve more in the moments I had,
  5. My brain was fairly porridgey and I needed to find a way to re-enthuse it and sharpen it up while avoiding burnout.

1. Production tools

Yes, I am aware this sounds nuts but it occurred to me that one of the problems I face, writing, is that I usually keep the whole plot in my head. This is fine until I’m sad, or  stressed about other stuff, or my writing routine is constantly interrupted. Then, I can’t do it. I lose track of who is doing what, and with what, and to whom. When I make notes to help myself I still fail to remember, or at least, I fail to visualise what’s happening where, so written notes are unhelpful. So back in November 2016 I was spending three quarters of each writing session working out where I’d got to and catching up, and then about five minutes moving it forward before I had to stop.

As I pondered how to solve this knotty conundrum I saw a free seminar by a bloke called Joseph Michael about using a writing programme called Scriviner. Now, I confess, I’d never thought about using Scriviner, it seemed completely pointless, but I couldn’t help noticing, as I watched this free seminar, that the way you lay out a project in Scrivener appeared to cover a couple of my big writing problems.

  • Finding a way to list major scenes in a memorable way so I can work out a cohesive plot
  • Finding something that can remember what’s happened so far, and where I’ve got to, when my head can’t in a way that’s instinctive and at-a-glance.
  • Being able to put bits I like but can’t use yet somewhere close to hand so I can just nip over and cut and paste them in and out and remember they are there.
  • Being able to flip from my writing to my research easily  if I want to.
  • Being able to fit more writing into a short time.
  • In short, having all the information and prompts I need to write effectively in one place without burying one room of my house in post it notes.

The way Joseph Michael had his demo Scrivener set up, everything was laid out on screen where I could see it. My mental filing system is visual and it works horizontally. My ideal filing system would be a huge long table, with all the work in progress laid out on it. I’d walk up and down the table and see what needs to be done. If I try to file things vertically, in stacked trays or in drawers I forget they are there and cannot visualise what I am supposed to be doing or the shape of my task. I lose things in a pile.

My computer is a drawer – even using WordPerfect to write doesn’t fully ameliorate the impact of that, despite the fact it has its documents in tabs and I can switch from one to another with a single click. Things get lost and forgotten in my computer. Important things. Scrivener looked as if it might be the computer equivalent of a table rather than drawers, and when I found it on sale for  75% off, I decided to try it.

Bonus! Except While it was, indeed, the closest thing a computer can produce, in organising and filing terms, to a table, it was incredibly frustrating to use because it’s very much NOT intuitive in some respects. So I bought the training course for a truckload of money. BUT ONLY because it has a 365 day money back guarantee. No 30 day nonsense. A whole damn year. If I get stuck, I look up the problem on the course site, watch the video, which lasts about 3 minutes and I’m set. I am quite quick to pick up computer stuff but even so this worked very well for me. The way it’s set out is like an encyclopedia you can look things up in, rather than a course of long lessons which you annotate. Thus you sidestep the thing where your mind wanders as you take notes and you leave out a crucial click or step, one that renders your notes worthless and necessitates spending 30 minutes of your 40 minutes’ writing time watching a video, from beginning to end, to sort out where you went wrong. It’s way more useful than I expected, almost indispensable. Indeed, it’s probably paid for itself already to be honest. Bugger. Won’t be getting that refund then.

Around this time, I also saw McOther dictating email replies into his iPad and a light dawned. I could speak my books. However, after discovering that there is no way to teach my iPad how to write ‘eyebombing’ when I say ‘eyebombing’ and having the same experience with many other words like that, I reckoned it would be more trouble than it was worth. Even doing some dictation for my non-fiction book where I used the word, ‘spectacles’ instead of eyebombing – with a view to using search and replace, later – it was, frankly, too much of a ball ache. It occurred to me that the whole process of teaching speech-to-text software to understand my vocabulary, the correct spelling for the word arse and all the rest might take a lot more time than it would save. Doubtless I will give it a go at some point, but for the moment, I think I’ll put it in the someday-my-prince-will-come section of my list.

2. Planning and Plotting

Obviously what I envisioned achieving for myself here is far removed from compiling a comprehensive plot and then sketching the story by numbers.  I am, at heart, a pantser. However, it did occur to me that I could save myself a lot of time if I could kick the habit of developing so much backstory that my first scene ends up being one of the last ones. This is how I write: I get to know my characters, get interested in their pasts and before I know it, a new story has emerged. It’s usually a better one but having it turn up a bit earlier in proceedings would save me … well 60k of wasted words last year so, in short, the entirety of last year’s output (some of those words will be rescued or recycled but not all 60k).

I heard about a free seminar promoting a course called Story Engines. Story Engines sounds brilliant, but I can’t afford it. It didn’t help that there was only a short window, during the zenith – or is that the nadir – of the Christmas and post Christmas bankruptcy period. Why does everyone who runs a $500 closed course think a good time to open it up is December when everyone is skint? Sorry, I digress. The seminar was pretty good and opened my eyes to the kinds of questions I should ask myself. Questions which I thought I was asking already but clearly haven’t been. However, I could only afford one course and I thought that, possibly, I would work out more of the plotting stuff on my own than I would the workings of Scrivener. And the Scrivener course cost less. A lot less.

And I still have about 335 days in which to decide whether or not I like it! So I bought it.

3. Writing shorter

An absolute epic fail. For example, I’ve binned 20k of the ‘short’ about how Betsy’s bordello opened and I’m now just bubbling under 29,000 words into the new one. I think I may squish it into about 40,000 but it could run to 60,000. On the upside, I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. Yeh. Thank you, Story Engines free training and lovely easy-to-see-what’s-going-on Scrivener layout. The magic is still happening, the picture is slowly de-pixilating and sliding into focus and the process is fun again. I also have a very much clearer idea of how Space Dustmen, the new series I’m working on, is going to go, and I’m really enjoying making notes and thinking about ideas. The characters are more focussed and yeh, things are happening there, too. Oh and there’s a non-fiction book.

On the writing shorter books front, then, null points. But on the writing, generally, a massive booyacka!

4. Time Management

We talked about the minuscule size of my writing window. How to make those minutes count then?

Scrivener was surprisingly useful and the plotting was helping but it was only a partial success. My efforts to write were still resulting in redundant words. Cf that 20,000 odd I mentioned just now and the other 40,000 from last year. Even though I will probably use three quarters of them, tweaked, a bit later in their prerequisite stories it was fairly essential that I did something to increase my rate of production and increase the suitability for immediate use of the stuff I produced.

So far, I’d some ideas plotted that I was really chuffed with, I’d laid out the basic chapters I thought I was going to write in Scrivener, added some notes, done the cards etc. But I needed more.

Somewhere, I read that comparing notes with other writers and posting your progress daily can really motivate you so I started a thread on a forum I visit. I’d also read that doing sprints works well for many people. You set a timer for twenty minutes and write until it goes off, have a 5 minute break and then rinse and repeat. I thought I’d see what I could do with that. I reckoned if I spent the first twenty minutes planning the scene and maybe writing a bit, and then the next twenty, going for it, I might get somewhere. No distractions, nothing, just writing the rest. So that day, I started my thread and explained what I was going to do. Then I turned off the internet, opened scrivener, sat down with the pinger set to twenty minutes and off I went.

Well.

That was a fucking eye opener I can tell you.

First sprint: 400 words, second 1000. Smecking Norah! Four weeks later, I have 28,800 words down. Even a hard, pulling-teeth-style sprint nets me 400 words. Just three of those sprints, ie an hour and a quarter given over to writing, and we are looking at 1,200 words, minimum. My record in one 20 minutes is 1,700. Typing. Every morning I can wake up knowing that, even if I only have half an hour to work that day, I can get a few hundred words done. Few things boost a writer’s spirits better than being productive.

I love the sprints and I love the camaraderie of chatting on the thread where we encourage each other and compare results. Definitely a really effective strategy, that one.

5. Avoiding staleness: saying, ‘bollocks’ to social media and making it quality time

With the sprints, Scriviner and even the plotting going well. I wondered if I could work on my freshness of approach. What I mean is, trying to persuade my times of  maximum brainpower to coincide with the times I had available to write.

After a lot of head-scratching it occurred to me that this writing game is a bit like a relationship in many respects. Sometimes, with dating, less is more. Three hours of quality time are worth many more hours of half cock time spent not really connecting that just make the whole thing go stale. I realised that, when quality writing time was thin on the ground, I was spending hours on social media while I did other things looking at emails, or generally staring at my iPad and phone to try and keep myself connected to the electronic ether and with that, somehow, to my writing. Even sitting at home in the evening watching tv, or while I was cooking, or some other situation in which I could never hope to produce any meaningful content for my books I would be gazing soulfully at the screen convincing myself it would help.

It didn’t.

While, on one hand, all this screen time made me feel as if I was maintaining the connection, on the other it fogged it, made me feel as if it was sapping my creativity somehow. And the more in touch with it all I tried to be, the more time was sucked into this faux ‘keeping in touch’, and the less time I spent actually writing. Across my wider life, writing was all I was doing … Oh and panicking about having no time. I did a lot of that. So as well allowing my brain to be gloopified by the wrong kind of screen time, I was starving it of stimulation. No fuel. Poor brain. How could I expect inspiration?

More head-scratching, and then I decided to try and make all the time I had count, across the board, not just in writing but in everything. So I limited social media and marketing time and added other things to my day, experiences, like coffee with a friend, a walk, reading, listening to music, shopping, eyebombing, etc. I also tried switching off the computer at six pm and not turning it on again until the next morning. I still checked my emails and social media first thing as I sat in bed with a cup of coffee. However, I started writing a to do list for the day at the same time. Then when I sat down at the computer after the school run it was easy to reorientate myself. I started experimenting with using sprints to write emails and social media posts. I listed things I needed to look at, set up a sprint to do it in and then stopped when the bell rang. I found I could achieve exactly the same amount of interaction in a fraction of the time. In the evenings, in front of the telly, I stopped checking Facebook on my phone and started knitting socks. Um … Yeh.

The results of this have been amazing. I have way more creativity. When I started this, a month or so ago, there was only really room in my head for one project. After a week, I started having ideas about a project I’d shelved because it was too complicated. After two weeks the short had turned into a novel. After three, a non fiction project popped up. It looks as if I may finish a novel this year. One that I only started writing in earnest four weeks ago. It is as if this simple act of giving my brain time to rest has jump-started my creative mojo. Yes I still get tired, I still get sad about my parents, I still have the odd week of PMT when I can’t meaningfully achieve anything but I also feel fulfilled and fantastic because I am creating stuff – and when I feel like that I create more stuff – and even when it’s not books, it’s very comfortable socks!

Conclusion

So what gave I learned here that might help anyone who has waded through to the end of this? D’you know, I think probably this:

  • Being open to new ideas and open-minded about trying new things can result in solutions you never believed possible. I am really surprised at how helpful Scrivener is, for example, and would never have tried it had it not been flagged as a godsend by a couple of the book selling gurus I follow.
  • Looking at problems from different angles can really help to solve them.
  • A writer’s brain is just like a computer, you need to put stuff in to get stuff out – although unlike computers, I find that putting rubbish into a brain doesn’t necessarily diminish output quality. But the biggie is input. Input has to happen for output.
  • Avoid getting stale.
  • Keep trying! I’m beginning to think that the people who achieve stuff are the folks who never give up. And I’ve discovered this by achieving stuff (in my own very small way but it feels big to me) because I can’t give up. So I’m beginning to think that, within reason, if you try to achieve something for long enough, and work hard enough at it, something WILL happen, even if it’s not what you were expecting. Or to put it another way, when life throws you lemons then yes, take time, lick your wounds, nurse your bruises, regroup … and make lemon meringue pie.
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Pie-ify me big boy!

 

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I bring you tidings of great joy … probably.

I hope this finds you well and that you survived hurricane Doris, if it hit your part of the world. We have, although unfortunately, it appears that our garden fence has not. It’s currently lying prone in the garden but at least it’s not blocking the street anymore! So, it occurred to me that I should, perhaps, make this week’s blog post a little lighter in tone. To that end, I bring you freebies and some writing news.

First up, writing news, because I’m not egocentric or anything. Phnark!If you follow my rantings and witterings on a regular basis, you may remember me saying I was going to try and write some shorter stuff. This was, mainly, because my life circumstances aren’t always conducive to writing long, complicated stuff. To that end, you will be glad to know that I’m now 26,500 words into another ‘short’ story about K’Barth. I have also binned 19,000 words, or at least reallocated them for use somewhere else, because they don’t fit with this story, because, as is my wont, I started in the wrong place. I really, really hope I’ll be able to stop doing that one day, but on the upside, at least it means I usually get two books when I work on one.

It looks as if this will probably pan out at about 40k words, possibly 60k so, I think we can safely say that as efforts to write a short go, it’s an epic fail. It might, however, see me end up finishing an novel in record time if it continues the way it is. Mwah hahahargh. Swings and roundabouts, eh? It’s all go!

In addition, the Space Dustmen characters are getting excessively antsy and their world is becoming more and more vivid so I am going to have to write something about them soon, or they’ll find and have a word. They are indentured labourers living at a space base and obviously, as the scum of the earth, they all live near the sewage processing plant, on P Deck. Oh ho ho! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you saw that joke here first! I’m just letting it ferment for bit more – the story I mean, not the sewage on P Deck – so it’s more obvious where I’m going when I start working on it again.

Lastly, on the writing news front, I thought I might have a pop at some non-fiction. This is a project that I may even try to do the trad way, I’ll have a think. However, I was out taking photos for it this morning and having thought I was nowhere near, I now find that I easily have enough illustrations to compile the book.

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Happy me!

So, what else do I have for you this month? Two lovely promos, that’s what. Yep!
First up, the lovely Andrew Q Gordon is running a promo for fantasy books this month. There are ten books featured and you can grab yourself a freebie in return for mailing list sign up. To find out more, the promo page is here or click the picture. This one runs from 27th February to 3rd March.

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Second up, once again, Patty Jansen is running a monthly promo which segues effortlessly into position on 4th and 5th March, just as Andrew Q Gordon’s promo finishes! Handy.

This one is for no strings attached free books on either Instafreebie and Bookfunnel. So, no mailing list sign up is required but you need to feel confident side loading them to your reader/tablet/computer yourself.

You can cop a load of that one, here or click on the picture, as before.

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Anyway, I hope the promos are useful. I was rather chuffed to see that they are are full of fresh books (to me). So I’m hoping there is lots of interesting stuff in them for you too.

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Filed under About My Writing, Author Updates, General Wittering

On book covers? Am I nuts? #notosexism #isitjustme #yesitisjustme

Today, McMini was invited to a tenpin bowling party and I went along. As we stood watching the kids bowl I was chatting to the Birthday-ee’s mum and we got talking about the portrayal of women in the media and how difficult it was to find books to read. Run with me, I’ll get to the point but the background makes sense, I promise.

It turns out that, as a teenager, she, like me, discovered fashion magazines. I enjoyed many aspects of them, as in, I loved clothes and fashion, but we agreed that both of us found them a bit depressing because the women in them were always the top 1% of beautiful and yet presented by the magazines as the norm. And because of that, we both found that though we loved clothes, and fashion, buying the actual magazines was a slightly depressing experience which left us wondering why we didn’t look like the glossy women on all the pages, whether we should, whether the fact we didn’t was normal, and whether finding out about clothes and fashion was worth all that shit; all that angst that we didn’t conform to the magazines’ idea of ‘the norm’ which wasn’t normal at all. As a teenager, I was pragmatic enough to decide that life was too short to feel shitty about myself. So I stopped buying them. So did my friend. For each of us, meeting another person who felt this way was a first.

As a kid, at school, my study walls were plastered with pictures of animals and stunning views clipped from the pages of National Geographic. The only people on there were the Beatles. Most other study walls in that school were covered with pictures of the kind of women my peers aspired to being; fashion models who were miles prettier than any of us … because well not necessarily because they were but because … Photoshop. And mostly, when they stuck them on the wall, that’s all my peers knew about these women. That they were pretty. And they thought that’s all you needed to be. Pretty. And I’m not 100% certain that magazines, adverts, book covers, or anything else that reinforces this view is a great idea. Because if you self actualise through your looks, you’ll never know who you really are, and when they start to fade it will do your head in.

You see, I’m older now, there’s a lot of spare M T where the bump was when I was gestating McMini and it has forgotten to spring back. I still have an hourglass figure but it goes further out and less far in. I need a lot more whalebone to keep my boobs in a place where they used to sit quite happily without artificial help. I often lose them under my arm pits at night and yes, dropping a couple of dress sizes would be convenient because it would make clothes easier to buy. And yes, some mornings, dressing myself feels like trying to find the most interesting and artful method to drape camouflage netting over a Zeppelin. But I’m OK with that because I may be a bit of a twat, a lot of a twat to be honest, but I am nearly fifty now and I’ve learned to like me, on the whole, and what I look like is just puff.

So, what worries me about all this body idealisation is that I can’t help wondering if the reason I’m content with my greying hair and ageing looks is because I was pragmatic enough, as a kid, not to buy into this women should be beautiful and look decorative shit; to avoid fashion mags and the idealisation of physical beauty for its own sake. And what happens to the folks who did? As their looks fade, are they hanging on by their perfectly manicured fingernails, surgically nipping, tucking and enhancing themselves until they finally wake up one morning, look at themselves in the mirror and think, who the fuck is this?  Is the loss of their looks like the loss of their personality for them? Is that what’s wrong with us today? Is that why the current POTUS would rather walk about looking like an oompah loompah with a brillo pad on his head than admit that he’s knocking on a bit and going bald? Fair play if he wants to but …

A few years ago, I read an article which cited a study into male eating disorders, needless to say I can’t find it now but, basically, the posit was that male eating disorders were growing. The article claimed the rise of eating disorders and poor body image in men was directly proportional to the increased portrayal of perfect six pack wearing chaps in lad mags. I admit I found it kind of strange, at the time, that there was more for me to ogle in a copy of Loaded than there was in Cosmopolitan, but I’m drifting off subject.

What my conversation, today, revealed was that I am not alone. That, there is another person who thinks that, self image-wise, fashion magazines are full of bollocks that makes us feel shit about ourselves, and therefore best read with the cynical goggles set to maximum, or, if that doesn’t cut the mustard and they still make us feel shit, not at all.

So we went from this to a conversation about book covers. Friend went on to say that she also hated book covers with people on, found them hugely off putting because:

  1. They’re always unrealistically attractive.
  2. Most of us want to imagine the protagonists for ourselves and if the image doesn’t match what’s in our head it will be annoying and possibly off putting as we read the book.
  3. Most women have trouble identifying with some pert, impossibly thin, scantily dressed, six foot teenaged girl model so it puts them off buying the book because they think they will not identify with the protagonists.
  4. It’s fucking sexist for heaven’s sake. Enough of the bowling ball bums in leather onesies or chain mail bikinis. It was shit the first time in the 1970s and guess what? Yep, it’s still shit.
  5. Same for the guys, but at least if it’s a ripped torso the head is usually cut off, because otherwise we can’t imagine our perfect man’s head on top. Well that isn’t a pleasant thought is it really? But it’s the truth and at least, on the upside, we’re not, by implication, telling blokes how their faces should look.

Or as my friend put it.

‘I won’t buy a book if I don’t like the cover and if it’s sexist or objectifies women then no, I won’t like it. In fact that’s the main thing that put me off reading sci-fi and fantasy books when I was young. Also, why would I be interested in reading about someone I cannot realistically identify with? If the cover shows a skimpily dressed size zero model, I’ll assume it’s erotica, or that these are characters I will have no sympathy with and I’ll move on. Where is the logic in cutting off half your readers?’

This is why almost all the scifi and fantasy I enjoyed as a kid, short of a few titles, was stuff I saw on TV. There might have been scantily dressed ladies involved but the big difference is that they were never pitched as the reason to watch.

So, that’s two of us, then, standing alone among the sheep. That’s how it feels, anyway. At times like this I feel my fellow authors are bastards and my fellow humanity comprised of pliant idiots but that’s just hormones messing with my donkey.

Obviously, that isn’t how it is but oh how glad I am that, finally – probably thanks to some severe tweaking of the algorithm by Amazon, I am, occasionally, able to find fantasy book without a really off putting picture on the front of some young woman, who’s way more attractive than me, and far younger, pouting grumpily at me the way the girls who bullied me at school used to do, or a muscly torso, neither of which will encourage me to pick up a book. Maybe that’s why the main readership of my books turns out to be older, wiser men and ladies between 45 and 50. Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels the way I do about the images of humans that surround us.

There are so many ways to make a book look interesting. Fine, I know I’m on very shaky ground critiquing covers with the ones I have which I, personally, love but which, I appreciate, are an acquired taste. Also there has to be a grain of truth in the idea that having people on stuff sells, and my psychometric profile is rare: something like 6% of humanity – or was it 4% – so I’m unlikely to ‘get’ what the rest of the herd loves but guess what? Of the three books I have on instafreebie, this crappy home made cover is the one that gets the most downloads when I do a promo. Crappy home made cover, 6,000 words as opposed to 103,000 or 80,000 respectively. Hmm. Go figure.

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Runner up for instafreebie downloads is this one, even though, from the point of view of appealing to American readers, I might as well have called it ‘Escape From B-Movie C**t’ since they seem to view the word ‘hell’ as about the same level. Null points for research there! MTM slaps own hand.

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So basically, I, the very very murky looking pot, am about to accuse a kettle trend of blackness. But the fact is, I would prefer to avoid contributing to the deluge of images of ‘perfection’ which, I think, cause damage to young women and men and cause mid-life suffering to the pretty ones who come idolise their looks above all else as a result. So I will not knowingly put attractive models on the front of my books, unless it’s really obviously a joke.

So, back to sexist book stuff.

Here’s an advert that made me think, eeeeesh.

So, it’s a great design, the colours are fab, the idea is great, and even though the actual cover of the book (bottom left hand corner) is fine. Even if it looks more like the cover of an issue of Cosmo than the cover of a book it’s a cool image.

However, back to the surrounding advert. There are some things about this advert that make my skin crawl. I feel really guilty about only picking the one I’m displaying here, because it is a very skilful drawing and it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into it and the author is extremely professional and talented. But I think there’s a judgement error here.

First up, it’s quite a sexual image. There’s a LOT of flesh on display and there is also a hint of nipple, but our skimpily dressed elfin lady has the body of a teenager, a young teenager, and I think that’s why I find this image disturbing. Which side of the age of consent is she? I’m wondering. And the answer I’m coming up with is, the wrong side. OK, look, getting a bit basic here, but if she had any pubes they’d show at the bottom of that v in her trousers, so now I’m thinking please let them be waxed as opposed to not there yet. And worse, if you look at her, her features are kind of simplified, so not only does she have the body of a 12 year old and NO pubes, but she has the face of a child which is really freaky. I am absolutely certain that wasn’t how it was intended, indeed, I’d lay bets that’s a truly excellent book, but I just can’t bring myself to read it, because of the way that ad comes over. Am I the only one who thinks this is creepy, a bit paedo-tastic, and somewhat demeaning to women?

It is becoming a parent that has made me see the world differently. Or I am just turning into a massive prude. I probably need to lighten up. After all, t’was ever thus; catsuits, or the lack thereof, perky nipples and bottoms like two bowling balls in a sack have always been ten a penny on sci-fi and fantasy book covers.

But listen peps, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing, or that we have to carry on with that shit now many of us are in charge of artistic direction, ourselves. Three examples of buttock clenching cheesiness in the modern vein, though drawn with consummate skill, can be found under discussion here. I’ve included one of them here.

Hey big boy, if you think you’re hard enough, take your hugantic weapon and … yep. Freud would have a field day with this.

Hey big boy, if you think you’re hard enough, take your hugantic weapon and … yep. Freud would have a field day with this.

All three of the ones on the page linked, and this first one especially, would get a ‘not on your fucking life’ vote from me despite the artistic skill of the drawing – although on the poll in the article, many women really liked this image. At least it’s a lot clearer that this woman is not a minor.

Talking about cheese, if you want a good chuckle, there is a selection of amusingly dreadful sci-fi and fantasy book covers on display here – and yes those are the kinds of things I was trying to take the piss out of with B-Movie Hell.

So what’s to do? Nothing really, I can’t stop over-excitable folks from drawing shag-worthy fantasy vixens and I should probably be saying, ‘she can dress the way she likes even if the sword is a really cheesy metaphor for a schlong.’ Likewise, I can’t stop people thinking that a bitchy-looking pouty girl on the cover will sell books. Especially when it appears that they do, indeed, sell books.

And to women.

But why?

Heaven only knows.

And will I?

No.

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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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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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What makes a good bad guy?

Recently, as my thoughts turn to planning a new book, I’ve been wondering what makes a good baddie? If you see what I mean.

In my current w.i.p. the baddie is a politician, and I suspect, he will be not so much evil as morally bankrupt. To make things right, our hero will have to manipulate things so that the politician, in getting what he wants, will unwittingly deliver justice for the goodies of the book. In so far as there are any. A bit more like real life then, even if it’s set in space.

But I do want my villain to be bad. And while you can fiddle with the circumstances and the dynamics; on their own, they don’t always make the actual being evil. So I’m trying to work out if I want my latest bad guy to be greedy and selfish and incidentally evil or whether I want to go for a full on supervillian: a being who is intelligent, pointy-brained, and who plans (and revels in) his malevolence. The first is more real, the second an absolute gas to write and great fun to hate.

To get my head around concepts and ideas of ‘evil’ versus ‘bad’ or just ‘greedy’ I have turned to current affairs. I find current affairs intensely distressing if I look them directly in the face. Even so, they seem to be even worse than usual right now. There’s nothing like a bit of economic trouble to bring out the hatred in all of us it seems.

20130329_080920

Here we are in a modern and supposedly enlightened world and the various peoples of The Book are still trying to kill one another with gusto – and anything else that comes to hand.

We have an organisation of people pretending to be Muslims who believe half the population is shameful and valueless. It’s better to be a goat than a woman under the Taliban. After all, even their livestock can roam freely to find food. But if the male folk in a woman’s family die, the honourable thing for her to do is stay at home and starve to death rather than go out into the world unchaperoned to buy supplies. Yes that’s how much a woman is worth to them. Nothing. Because having kids and periods makes us unclean – Lord above if ever there was a bit of biblical health and safety advice that went big time wrong it’s that bit – oh and we don’t have a cock to think with, which makes us bad. And heaven help us, the Taliban seem quite moderate compared to ISIL, the Islamic State.

And then you get Israel which has had it’s foot on Palestine’s neck for years and just. Won’t. Lift. Off.  I wouldn’t pretend to be able to fathom Middle Eastern politics, there is no knowing Who Started It because the fighting there began at the dawn of time. I’ve read enough of the The Book – Old Testament/Torah/Koran – to appreciate that. But historically, countries like Britain, America and Russia have exacerbated the problems in an already volatile area for their own gain; fanning the flames of enmity, promising everyone what they wanted and delivering it to no-one: for years. And in return we get ISIL, the Islamic State. I guess it kind of serves us right.

Then… enter the ‘Christian Right’ and holy smoke, there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one – who vilify women and single mothers, not to mention the poor. They justify the hatred-filled crap they spew as the word of God when all it’s about is power and more money for them. I thought god was supposed to be a loving father – you know, ‘love they neighbour as thyself’ and all that – not a psychopathic, vengeful shit-head. Maybe I’m wrong. It would be funny if there wasn’t an actual, realistic chance of these people gaining power in America, a country which looks, from the outside, as if the political choice is between rabidly conservative and a few steps to the right of Atilla the Hun.

And when I turn on the news and see the latest venom-filled cleric screaming spittle-flecked hatred in the name of whichever version of God they purport to believe in, I confess I feel contempt. Contempt for someone who uses their intelligence, or presence, or social standing to persuade others to maltreat people in the name of a supposedly loving god. And contempt for the brainwashed sheep who follow them.

Which is where it all starts, of course.

The minute we stop seeing extremists as human beings, we become like them. Because that’s what they’re doing to us. That’s how they can justify massacring whole towns, that’s how they can justify institutional peadophelia – selling 12 year old girls into sexual slavery because they dare to get an education: learn to read, learn to think, is peadophelia in my book. No wonder extremism is so attractive to every tinpot fuckwit with a Kalishnikov. What better excuse for violence, bullying and sexual depravity than ‘god told me to do it’? Even if it’s patently, bollocks. I really feel for the world’s quiet, moderate people of faith, who have to put up with people thinking that nutters like the Islamic State and the Christian ‘Right’ represent religion.

What the angry rationalists fail to realise is that using religion to manipulate people is a completely different from having an actual faith. I suppose that’s what a lot of the K’Barthan Series is about: that just because the extremists are in power, it doesn’t mean everyone is one. Even so, it seems that nothing is more guaranteed to make you despise and kill your neighbour than a jolly good argument as to whose philosophy you should employ to go about loving him. Weird isn’t it?

You know, I wanted to make my villain female in this next book – think Servalan out of Blake’s 7 – but, in light of the state of world affairs, I really don’t think I can. There’s enough hatred directed at us women without my making one of us a love-to-hate baddie. The saddest thing is that every time I make stuff up, on the grounds that it’s chillingly evil, I find someone, somewhere, is already doing it.

Servalan: Scary baddie from Blake’s 7 Image: from http://jasonnahrung.wordpress.com

Stepping off the soap box and dragging this back to the point, apart from depressing me profoundly what does the state of world affairs have to do with writing credible bad guys?

In a nutshell, because what current affairs show us is that contempt is the key. A good look at history is an excellent place to start if you want to analyse the subtleties of evil. All you need to do then is give your baddie a healthy dose of idealism at the expense of any practical consideration whatsoever. He doesn’t have to be all-other-beings-are-inferior-my-pawns-to-be-used-and-discarded, supervillain bad. All he has to do is believe, passionately that the ends justifies the means and forget that the populations of the nations he is playing with are actual real humans. There are many faces of evil and often one begets another. So you can have some seriously bad karma starting off with deeds done with good intent.

Hmm… for all his supercilious air I think I prefer the supervillain like Lord Vernon. At least he’s honest.

So, what are your thoughts folks? Who’s the baddest of the bad? Love-to-hate superbaddie or vainglorious politician. More to the point, which one do you most like to see in books?

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