Black Friday Weekend Freebies – Death & The City

Hope you’ve all had a good week so far and are planning a chilled-out weekend (let’s face it, if you’re reading this, you’re already chilling out compared to those folk stampeding around the shops).

I’ve put two Kindle ebook freebies up for the next 4 days – Friday 27th to Monday 30th November inclusive (until midnight Monday, Pacific time).

These are the books I learned the most by writing, back in 2008 – what not to do, genre ambiguity, what to say when I felt like it, whether it was bad writing or not – but mainly, how to stay sane 🙂 Editing was an unknown practise to me back then, so these are the long versions. Luckily, I did know how to proofread!

Considering all the ranting I do and advice I give, If you’d like the evidence that we all start somewhere, you can find it here:

3D DATC1 cover

Death & The City: Book One on Amazon

3D DATC2 cover

Death & The City: Book Two on Amazon

The books were originally one massive book, which I split in half down the middle – no reason except for print cost at the first time of publishing. Another lesson – in the digital age – that’s not necessary either, although I do still love my print books.

Here’s the blurb:

Lara Leatherstone – not her real name, she got it from an internet Porn Star Name Generator… and Connor Reeves, also not his real name – how he came by his, is less clear… Both are obliged to work their way through the To Do List of ‘Hollywood Hit-Men’ – a breed mostly preoccupied with gold chains, impressing barmaids, and shady contracts – erasing these unwanted pests with the minimum of paperwork. Or pay.

When her head office try to set her up in a team with a wingman, her main concern is they’re trying to manufacture a weakness that they can manipulate her with – not to mention once they agree on a working colleague, Pest-Control-sniper-turned-police-officer Connor, that he might be quite manipulative too…

Hope you all have a very happy and safe holiday weekend xx

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New Year’s resolution – the importance of still writing for yourself

Happy new year! I hope you’re all looking forward to 2015, like I am, and to the opportunities and changes it may bring to your creativity.

This was originally going to be a tutorial post, but I didn’t want to overload your New Year’s Eve inboxes and blog readers with something you’ll need a hot water bottle and supply of endless coffee to get through… so I’ll try and keep it on the shorter side 🙂

In a nutshell, when you set out to write for an audience, a target market, remember there’s still time (and a need) to continue to write and be creative for yourself alone.

Whether it’s therapy, or relaxation, or just for entertainment. Whether it’s recording your dreams or memories, or making plans for the future. You need to keep that part of your writing alive – the part that inspired you to write with a purpose in the first place – because nothing tries to suck the joy out of writing more than constantly thinking about deadlines, sales, and financial returns.

If you’re a compulsive writer and it’s something you’ve always done, it’s particularly important to keep writing for yourself, to preserve that feeling of serenity and the internal insights that arise from it. You will find yourself picking up inspiration along the way, and using elements of it in your commercial writing, but allowing yourself to BE yourself in your creativity, and taking time out from the ‘author’ side of it, is what will help prevent any disillusionment, doom and gloom taking over.

You don’t ever have to make your personal creativity public. Like a diary, you can write it in quill and ink in endless notebooks, or record them aloud using your phone, tablet, or computer. Keep your spontaneity going! It will do your mind and spirit good, as well as positively enhance your professional efforts.

Although I put quite a lot out there commercially, most of my creativity is still personal – I’m still developing my skills and different genre styles away from the marketplace. I still experiment and play with ideas, counsel myself with writing, and use other art forms like sewing, knitting, customising and painting to relax.

One of my longest writing therapy projects did eventually end up in novel form, and because I feel silly/embarrassed promoting it commercially – to me, it’s therapy I wrote for myself, in the guise of narrative fiction (written nearly seven years ago now!) – I give it away in regular Kindle ebook freebies, so a few times a year you’ll find it listed as free:

Death & The City: Cut to the Chase Edition

 Death & The City: Cut to the Chase Edition on Amazon UK & Amazon.com – search for it on your regional Amazon site as prompted by clicking here on the Amazon.com product page.

This is the version I made more reader-friendly by including shortcuts through the text, meaning you can skip through the internal monologue as prompted and read it more as an action novel, or read the whole thing in linear fashion as a semi-literary one. That was one of my technical experiments in ebook formatting that I’m quite proud of – you can see how it works by checking out the description and the ‘Look Inside’ preview on Amazon.

I’m still in two minds as to whether publishing it (unedited) was the true outcome or purpose, but in terms of the therapeutic side of writing, I definitely came out the other side feeling better for it, both internally and creatively. And having it out there, rather than filed away and forgotten, is a small reminder to me that writing therapy and self-analysis is worthwhile to some of us artistic types – even if no-one else reads it 🙂

I hope you all have a very happy and creative new year, and remember to make time for yourself in the process!

L xxx

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The Voodoo Viewpoint: Is new media stealing our souls and memories?

Halloween bookshelf

I haven’t blogged for a while, having had new things to deal with through the summer and autumn along with writing, and waiting for other things to be resolved – everyday life has got in the way, and all of it worthy of my time – so I can honestly say I don’t feel I’ve missed anything by not procrastinating online too much.

This post has been on my mind for a while over the past year, and I’ve turning it over further in my mind since a topic came up on Facebook regarding the well-roasted old chestnut of ebook vs. print books, and what might supplant them in the future. When I made my comment, I didn’t realise how much of an observation it really was. But the thought of it keeps returning to me, so I’ll attempt to dissect it further now. (I’ve used ‘Voodoo’ in the title as I was originally going to post it as Voodoo Spice first – but there is another relevance to the reference).

My comment on the post was:

I think real books will stick around for another reason – the same reason as real music disc collections, and real movie DVDs, and real photo albums. The death of these things will mean the end of being able to remember lost loved ones. Imagine going into an elderly relative’s last residence, and instead of shelves full of their favourite media that you can pick up and read and smell, and admire, all that’s there is a computer tablet full of password-protected cloud-storage erotica. Supposing they’re survived by 20+ family members all wanting a memento? Will they have to take turns hacking into his or her tablet to read their, erm, favourites???

It’s not only the issue of having physical objects with which to remember a loved one, though. When you first make a new friend, visit their home for the first time, you see immediately by their books, music, film collections, and photographs what you have in common. Without those, it takes far longer to define. How do you learn about a person who wears nothing on their sleeve in real life? Are they hiding something about their personality, their cultural and entertainment tastes, behind password-protected anonymous digital storage products? How much of their social media persona is genuine – do they really like Top Gear, or do they just ‘Like’ it on Facebook? How long does it take to make early judgements of compatibility when all you see in their home is the faceless packaging and housing of technology? Is this creating the hacking, snooping, prying, suspicious culture that troubles present-day relationships?

Are we sacrificing our personalities, our ability to connect with one another in real life without the social media screens, in favour of electronic packaging?

Back to the subject of bereavement and memories, there is another agenda surfacing to consider.

Electronic media itself has no re-sale value. The tablets and electronic devices can be re-sold, but they lose value in the very short term. Unlike physical books, vinyls, cassettes, picture frames, CDs, and DVDs – when you buy anything in digital format, to watch, read or listen to, its solvency value is zero. So even if your descendants, friends and family don’t want to share the digital tablet and know your passwords to enjoy your *ahem* favourites, they can only sell the tablet itself. Even if you have bought 70,000 books, movies, and songs in your lifetime, they do not add up to £70,000 worth of house clearance on ebay to divide among the mourners. They add up to zero.

They money you spend on electronic books and media to fill your device has gone for good. You cannot donate the products to an Oxfam bookshop after you have enjoyed them in order for others to benefit. You cannot have a yard sale or a car boot fair stand of portable entertainment to fund a party, or to pay a few bills. You have not invested your money in anything physically reminiscent that can be enjoyed as part of the soul of a lost loved one, or liquidated as an asset in the future.

The money has gone for good, into the great black hole of the business that also sold you the device to enjoy it on, or to store in some online cloud.

So in the future, without personal possessions for family and friends to remember us by – not even the chance to flick through the same books and photo albums we held, and no idea how to access our family photographs and music – and more and more social lives being conducted online – how will anyone remember their grandparents and great-grandparents beyond faces on a screen?

Will the youngest family members have the sense of identity and individual heritage that children before the digital age grew up with?

Will old people just die and disappear, leaving nothing behind but an online account full of media they spent thousands on, which is worth precisely nothing to their descendants even if they have the ability to access it? Will their living memories and personalities evaporate the second you tap on ‘Confirm shut down/log off device’?

Will folk start leaving clauses on their departure, that no-one is to hack into the tablet at all to avoid finding out how much porn and erotica they downloaded to keep them warm in their old age?

Never mind what to do with Granny, the last Will and Testament says we have to burn her Kindle first… aptly named device, if ever there was one. I see a new business opportunity looming – the “Kindle Crematorium” where dirty old reading habits go after you die…

It’s a mystery that leaves me very curious. I already find houses without books, music, photograph or film collections very odd – rather like pictures of home interiors in advertising, with no identity of the occupants visible. Sterile, like a showroom to sell a product or furniture lifestyle – not a working, living home. And if that is what remains in the future, when individuals die, what is left to know of them? An indentation in the sofa, perhaps – where they sat while playing Candy Crush Saga online?

So never mind that a computer tablet doesn’t provide the same decorative impact as a bookshelf, or provide the same soundproofing from your neighbours. Never mind that it’s a good way of hiding your reading habits, and a bad way of storing your nekkid selfies. It’s also a good way of spending your children’s inheritance – permanently. Throwing your small change onto the Kindle Fire (literally), never, ever to return as second-hand small change, ever again. Quite possibly thrown away along with the material potential for any of your descendants to remember you for more than one surviving generation…

Happy Halloween! 🙂 xxx

If you want to learn to how to format a print-on-demand book, publish and distribute for free, click here for my tutorial. You can also learn how to format ebooks and multimedia booksIf those still light your candle 😉 x

Tutorial – How to Write Literary Fiction

Milford

Here’s how the world’s most famous online encyclopedia describes Literary Fiction

First, you have to have a grasp of what it is.

My English teacher at school, Steve Ridgeway, spent three years trying to convince me that English Literature was the best subject in the world. I hated every minute of it. Hated all the analysing, the digging around in historical events, the unearthing of metaphors, the excavating of the original authors’ motivations – which as far as I was prepared to see, was “Get into someone’s pants and end all this miserable artistic solitude.”

But I was paying attention all that time, just so I could be fully aware of what and why I was loathing the subject so much. Less than two years later, I wrote my first 110,000-word novel. And I started with my own issues, and motivation, and metaphors, before weaving a story around them – in exactly the way I’d been taught that literature was intended to develop.

In recent weeks, seeing the subject discussed online, I’m starting to wonder if in fact I was the ONLY one paying attention in class.

There’s an urban myth that literary fiction can be simplified and summarised as ‘character-driven, not plot-driven’.

Not true, in itself. If you’re going to construct literary fiction by method, you need to take it back a few steps from the mere concept of ‘complex characters’.

The characters themselves may be metaphors or illustrations of events the author has witnessed or experienced, the embodiment of personal demons or guardian angels, or even satirical/serious representations of real historical figures in another form – animal-form, child-form (see ‘Lord of the Flies’).

Those characters are a way for the author to illustrate and show interaction with forces outside of their own/the key character’s control, whether those are forces of good, evil, or apathy. You’re going to give voice and persona to issues you want to expose or confront through the medium of narrative – the issue might be ‘repression’ or ‘addiction’ or ‘vanity’ or ‘obsession’, for example.

The key character is going to go on a journey, either internal, external or both, with or via these other issues (supporting characters). The outcome for the key character in the story is growth/change/challenge (moral and/or physical). As well as his or her demons and guardians, what social and economic factors influence their progress?

If you have strong views on a certain aspect of your culture, what part of your own existing knowledge would you use in a metaphor for the situation in the story?

For instance: You might have a military background, and have a novel set in a supermarket stock warehouse. Instead of the team being run as you imagine a regular stock warehouse might be, it precisely reflects a military regime. That’s using your life experience to write two stories in one. You’re including your autobiographical experience and observations, which anyone in the military reading it would recognise, but also you are introducing it to an unsuspecting audience of less specific, day-in-the-life books, who might not read a military novel.

Another example would be if you wanted to write literary fiction set in a school, but you have experience of or have researched cults and sects. You don’t describe the school as a cult-affiliated school, or have wannabe wizards turning up there hoping to find out what happened to their missing parents. You write about a normal school. But the actions of the characters, as in the previous example, illustrate that there is another side to the story – that the school, the setting, the social culture within the walls, is a metaphor for a different story.

In a way, literary fiction is “mash-up” fiction. You tell an unfamiliar tale in the guise of a familiar one, a cloaking device to reach and educate audiences that you otherwise wouldn’t. You are breaking the class and culture barrier, in the hope that a greater audience than the one you would reach with only a single military story, or a single cult story, will identify with it – and through that identification, find common ground on both sides of the fence.

You also need to examine your motivation as the author. Pretty much most (grown-up) fiction (and some fairytales) involves something wanting to get into something else’s pants, so there won’t be any nagging about that right now – although you might want to read this first, and perhaps this as well. Maybe even this, if you really can’t stop yourself.

Because the author of literary fiction is of as much interest to the academic as the novel itself, and if like me, future generations of incandescently fuming students are going to be made to pick apart your work until everything you’ve ever done is bare bones laid out for everyone to see, you don’t subsequently want them stalking you on social media, turning up at your book signings or on your doorstep shouting unintelligible things about the state of your mind, the gutter it lives in, and your pants, until they have got it out of their systems and their medications kick in.

Put it this way – a desire to share your insight, wisdom, and life experience in the guise of another tale, to educate and find common ground across class and cultural boundaries, is a healthy motivation. I wouldn’t pin too much hope on becoming a millionaire overnight and installing electric security gates against the aforementioned angry insomniac English Lit students.

When creating your key character, don’t over-develop it. An overdone, well-rounded, too-realistic character is a thoroughly irritating one, and belongs in the pages of chick lit alongside all of their sidekick friends who only exist to help them through a crisis and to massage their egos over a coma-inducing Blossom Hill strawpedo session.

Take a step back.

If your character is ‘a tough nut, has learned things the hard way, is cynical and tired of life’, then SHOW US THAT BIT.

Tell us that story! Otherwise, your story is merely a series of exchanges and scenarios where your emotionally crippled character makes excuses for their lack of commitment to doing anything remotely exciting for the reader in the narrative. If your character has a back story, then in literary fiction, you NEED to go back and start there. Literature-wise, that’s where things were exciting, where the character learned their limitations, met their demons for the first time, found out what it took to continue living and functioning. That’s where your character became strong. If they start out strong and over-developed emotionally in your narrative, they’ve already alienated most of the insular and shy consumers of deep and literary prose. Be prepared to go back there and share the introduction of those insecurities. Don’t throw them in as deus ex machina later on. A cavalier treatment of back-story just looks like you made it up on the spur of the moment to insert conflict or barriers, to delay progress. Your key character’s journey leads the reader – let them be surprised by what the key character learns about supporting characters and events on their journey, from the point of view of understanding their narrative host, their morals and issues, the effect of personal change.

(Don’t just beat your main character with the ugly stick and give them a hard time in life purely due to that. It’s a metaphor for prejudice. We get it already. The Ugly Duckling went there and did that when we were five years old).

That’s probably what is meant by ‘character-driven’ when that phrase is casually tossed around to describe literary fiction. The way folk say it implies that character is more important than plot. But ‘plot’ has to happen to ‘character’ for the character to go on any journey at all.

In literary fiction, it’s not just social setting and character that is a scope for metaphor. Every event, object, place and dialogue exchange is a potential for analogy. A man may love his car in the anthropomorphic sense, but only think of his wife in terms of chassis and bodywork. A collector of commemorative china plates may find that a broken or missing one constitutes a lost year of real-life memories. Characters apply meaning and emotional connection to strange things, in disproportion to the other people around them. They may gain or lose prejudices on their journey, but it won’t be the obvious things (to the rest of us) which affect their points of view.

All of the senses are involved in the depiction of alternative interpretation and implication in the story. I remember a particularly annoying school term dedicated to the interpretation of cloud and sky descriptions in poetry, followed by four more weeks on the subject of flowers… It’s a ****ing daffodil couldn’t he have just said it was ****ing yellow??!! AAAAAaaaaaarrrgh!! (This rant was delivered by my 14-year-old self, almost verbatim, to my considerably academic grandparents, who are no doubt all smirking down at me right now).

I remember being given Aesop’s Fables when I was very small, and first started out reading – flash fiction with morals. That was what set me up for my understanding of literary fiction in later life. You tell a story which is not just a story – the story also has a message, but the message has ‘multiple attachments’ – it contains unlimited implied alternative scenarios and characters where the same moral is evident, reaching out to a wider and wider audience in its retelling and subsequent analysis.

More than anything else, literary fiction does its work on the author, even before it reaches the audience. You may find yourself in characters you thought were only minor, may hear issues you are uncomfortable about voiced as your own. By its nature of having multiple layers of metaphor and parallel meanings, there is a great deal of potential for psychosis in literary fiction, and you may find hidden meanings when you read it much later on your own personal journey that were not yours at the time of writing.

But don’t worry. That’s completely normal to observe too. Writing literary fiction casts a shadow of yourself, one of those special shadows that can morph into many different things – career-wise, it may fly high into the stratosphere or crawl away under a rock, depending on how much others see of themselves and of their known worlds in your depiction, and whether it gives them new insights.

But as the author, the insights you wrote into your future self are more interesting when you read it later on – so don’t pay too much attention when grumpy students/reviewers later describe it as ‘utter wank’ 😉 x

Opening Doors Inwards and Going Outside: Writing v. Parkour

My blog exchange piece for Dan Holloway, on an unexpected pairing of pursuits, posted this week 🙂 x

dan holloway

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my experience of endurance rowing training, and the effect it has on my creative life. As I wrote, I found myself thinking about more and more of the creative people I know
(and those, most famously of course Haruki Murakami, about whom I know) who do something similar, training hard (I won’t indulge in transferene and say obsessively) at a particular kind of individual, repeetitive, non-competitive, endurance based physical activity. And I realised I really wanted to find out how it affected them.

And so I decided I’d love to have those people write for me about their experience. I am delighted to start with Lisa Scullard. Like many of my writing friends, I met Lisa on the writers’ site Authonomy about 5 years ago. We have since met in person several times and I have had the privilege of hosting…

View original post 4,494 more words

Back to Basics: I, Wordbot – or, who is the author anyway?

Okay. So, you’ve started writing – let’s say, something.

Where do you see this expedition taking you, as an individual?

To the Oscars? To the Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards? To a disciplinary at work? To the headmaster’s office?*

*Usually if you start by penning your work of genius on the walls and furniture.

A few writers do well. A few do very well indeed.

For the majority though, it’s the worst hourly rate anyone could wish for.

What person in their right mind spends 17 hours a day for weeks/months/years on a soul-baring project, for the small chance of grossing $10 from Amazon Kindle in the first fiscal year after publication?

  • Do you visualise yourself turning into a 24-hour book-pimping machine once you’ve completed the fun part (viz, writing the story)?
  • Do you plan to change the world by preaching your message to the masses with the concise summation of “Buy my book! And write me a review!”
  • Do you want social conversations around you to gravitate away from the fondly-remembered “What are you up to nowadays?” and more towards “Do you know, I have no time to read anything anymore. I can’t even keep up with the latest Terry Pratchett and Jeremy Clarkson…”

Perhaps there’s something to be said for keeping your new hobby a secret. That way, you can succeed or fail in private.

Maybe analyse your reasons for writing. Do you desire to be a more interesting or worthy person? Instead of inventing interesting and worthy characters, maybe go out into the world and do some volunteering. Or take up an adult education class.

People write for many reasons. Catharsis and therapy, for their own entertainment, because they simply can’t find books to read that they identify with… to learn, to share, to teach, to excavate old personal bones of contention, or to throw light on dark corners of their life. Some of those dark corners seem to contain many heaps of used tissues. Remember, what makes you happy (or sad) may not be viewed the same way by everyone.

Anyway. Selling is a different job altogether, and if you don’t see yourself as a salesman (I’m certainly not one) by all means write – but don’t let the business of being ‘an author’ take away the enjoyment of writing. Just write, publish, and move on.

Being an author doesn’t have to define you. Again, rather like that thing what may merely light your own candle in fiction being the complete witch-trial pyre in other people’s minds and cultures – what you picture the job description of ‘author’ representing in your own mind, may manifest itself differently in other people’s.

When I was very young, someone made it clear to me that their idea of a writer was a useless bum with no skills whatsoever. My own idea of a writer was Barbara Cartland in a pink frilly dress writing about men in tights and ladies swooning, or possibly Clive Barker with a pint of snakebite and blackcurrant, writing about dead things and the afterlife. But the thought of being useless and having no skills was also taken on board, and I’m proud to say I have avoided gaining any of the skills that I should have supposedly gained by not writing. I found that the opportunity to learn more interesting skills came my way instead.

Writing shouldn’t be your excuse for avoiding life, but rather a way of expressing your experiences and philosophies of it. If you don’t have any experiences that you want to write about, and can’t manifest them (either legally or physically, such as sprouting wings), like the best of us, make them up – but it’s your own slant and viewpoints which will tell your readers who you are, through the medium of your characters.

So let’s talk about the taboo subject of authorial leakage. Unintentionally, or otherwise, what private agendas and personal revelations may surface in the process of revealing your new talent to the world.

Writing is like any other art form – so far in the West, until recent history, held as being mystically separate from the laws of real life. Free speech, artistic licence, call it what you want.

There are different forms of art. Art that is life-affirming. Art that inspires criticism. Art that inspires debate, and art that instigates discussion on what constitutes art. However, in modern history, public concerns are voiced more frequently about art that inspires crime and atrocities.

The old-school art school tend to stand by their guns that art should be allowed to be art in any form, whether it’s a dirty unkempt bed or half a cow in formaldehyde. But if it’s a dirty unkempt child or half a pet dog, that’s the NSPCC and RSPCA notified.

With the advent of social media, and internet-based reality live-streaming TV, some people are sharing ‘art’ that should more accurately be described as ‘evidence’. And with certain art forms inspiring domestic violence and murder on a daily basis, now in the headlines with alarming regularity, the conscience of the artist has to be considered as much as the consumer.

For instance, compare the theoretical concept of a designer of a war propaganda poster that leads to an uprising and mass genocide, to the writer of a play that inspires a sick man to go home and shoot his dog. Both had a detrimental effect. One, you might argue, was only doing their job, and was not directly responsible. But which one?

That’s the worst case scenario that you might potentially face, at any point in your career. A crime of any scale being credited to you as the inspiration.

When the paranoia bugs strike at the heart of your art, and you find that your hobby has become a form of inadvertent disclosure about the deepest and darkest places where you occasionally hide the used tissues, it helps to examine and monitor yourself as you write. Um, or maybe seek counselling, and take a bit of a break until things normalise around you again.

At least, until your fantasy world is looking a bit more healthy.

What’s your basic need for recognition, as a writer?

Some examples of an artist’s basic needs:

  • To share an enthusiasm for a specific theme or genre
  • To exorcise a past event or relationship
  • To shock the audience
  • To make people laugh
  • To make people cry
  • To make people angry
  • To gain any reaction whatsoever, usually in as an obscure fashion as you can muster
  • To prove something
  • To disprove something
  • Revenge
  • To make money
  • To make someone love you (good luck with that, have you tried baking? Or giving them a lift anywhere?)
  • To win awards
  • To give your imaginary friends something to do
  • To brag about how clever you are

Note that ‘to be a book promoter/salesperson’ is not on the list! 🙂

The skill isn’t in what you can excavate from the depths of your soul. The skill is in filtering out the story and making it user-friendly, so that whatever inflammatory critique it inspires doesn’t also have the police taking an interest in your magnum opus appearing on a convicted felon’s Kindle, highly annotated and shared with members of his gang…

Don’t worry that writing your book will have your friends and family looking at you funny, talking behind your back, or avoiding you. They’ll be doing plenty of that when you start asking them to buy it and to leave you reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

And that’s BEFORE they’ve even read it 😉

L xxxx 🙂

Netiquette for the indie author

Schmoozin' cocktail

Okay. So you’ve formatted and released your books, and established who your target audience is.

The next dilemma you’ll face, is how to market your work.

First of all, make sure you’ve written the best book that you can pull out of your head and heart. Not any other part of your body. If you’re dredging it up from elsewhere, the strain will show in every paragraph.

Secondly, make sure it has a clear and attractive cover.

Third, that the blurb is appetite-whetting enough to attract readers – don’t give too much away, but don’t be so vague that you could be describing pretty much any book. Try to avoid tag lines in the form of a question. It’s very pulp fiction noir, but if you’re not skilled in that particular genre, you’ll just come across as a lazy tag-line writer. Below are examples of weak tag lines:

~ Will he/she succeed?

~ Does love conquer all?

~ What will they do?

~ In a race against time, can they beat the clock?

~ Will truth/justice/honour prevail?

The above are all too vague and over-used. Number four, in particular, basically describes everything from the school run to the TV quiz show Countdown. You don’t actually need a tag-line. Just write a decent story, package it nicely, and keep your fingers crossed that enough folk will enjoy it to recommend it to one another. That’s the best form of promotion, because it doesn’t actively involve you.

I have one opinion about asking for reviews:

How to lose friends and irritate people.

Amazon Kindle frowns on reviews written by friends and family. Reviews posted on request in exchange for free books have to state in the text ‘I received a free/gifted book in exchange for my honest review.’ Editors, formatters, publishers, cover designers, contributors and other people involved in the book’s development and production cannot post reviews of the book. Any reviews unearthed seen to be breaching their guidelines are unceremoniously removed without notice. You can say all you want about the practises of major publishers and their methods, but down at the other end with the indies, you have to play fair. And if the book itself doesn’t live up to a ream of glowing, paid-for or solicited reviews, it’s one of the best ways to attract a shed-load of bad ones.

I don’t ask for reviews, but I’ll happily give away books if someone thinks they’d enjoy a book I’ve written. I don’t set them homework afterwards. I’ve seen good friends of authors run at the sight of them approaching on social occasions, crying for mercy the familiar pleas of “I haven’t finished reading it yet!” or “I don’t really know how to use the computer or post reviews on Amazon!”

It’s crass to treat your friends and family as a marketing machine for your work. Do you promote them and their business? Do you give them any help or support with their dreams and ambitions, whether it’s getting them a make-over, working to create the house and garden they most want, helping them find a date, arranging for them to have the car they’ve always dreamed of driving, writing them endless job references and endorsements? Because that’s what you’re asking for, in a nutshell. There is a mentality among some authors that family and friends are there to be used. If you need private feedback or approval, or help proofreading your book, ask one or two to take a look BEFORE you publish it. Don’t ask them to do your heavy lifting afterwards.

Be dignified.

Mannequin

Remember – you are the front window for your writing.

Authors themselves are the best support network, many of whom now have learned, to their cost, that nobody close to them socially is interested in their new hobby as a self-promotion machine, and liked them better while they were still only writing in their bedroom after school with paper and pen.

I was once asked to post the same review on several sites, having genuinely written a nice one of my own volition, because I enjoyed the book. I said no, explaining to the author that having it pop up on every outlet or listing for the book would instantly imply that it had been an insincere, solicited review, possibly paid for as well. You have to put your foot down when approached about these things yourself – it turns the whole author support network into a protection racket of back-scratching. If an author then leaves you a sour comment on your book, with you having either declined to review theirs or having not read it, most likely, ignore them and move on.

Don’t sink to their level. It won’t endear you to the audience. Trolling the internet is time wasted that you could be writing a bestseller in.

Make sure you are always working on the next thing, and having new ideas. There’s nothing sadder than pimping your one solitary book for years, waiting for Hollywood to call. In the same vein, make sure that you have a life, and are taking a healthy interest in the people around you from day to day – and not in the desperate search for material for your own work. What are their dreams? What are their life stories? When was the last time they took up a new hobby? For that matter, when was the last time you did?

I’ve got to the stage now where I’m starting to receive unsolicited spam from ‘social media experts’ on sites such a FB, LinkedIn and Twitter, who haven’t looked at what I do and seen that it’s also my own job. All they trawl for is the word ‘author’ and send out a pitch for their services, announcing that I can’t possibly have the time to promote my own books as well as write and that the cost of their services is very reasonable. Which is true. I only teach others how to promote their own books, in between writing my own books. And I’ve never had to spam or apply for work. I get referred by word-of-mouth, and have to turn down or suspend jobs all the time because I’m too busy. And because my job is so easy I’m sure most folk could do it, my I.T. and technical services are damn near rock-bottom 🙂

That’s one of the reasons I’ve written these tutorials. So long as you can write a good story, format it nicely, present it in an attractive way, behave yourself online, and not alienate all of your family and friends in person, you could get lucky and sell a handful of books. The best way to sell more books, is to write more books. If your readers are keen on your material, they’ll come back for more of it.

Remember, in the real world, selling yourself online isn’t everything. Getting on with life and enjoying yourself is. Make sure you leave time for that. It’s scary how fast the time passes while following your book’s progress up and down the Kindle charts, and trying to influence it in any way possible 🙂

L xxxxx

Niche marketing – part 2…

Following yesterday’s post Niche marketing – the psychology behind success I’ll give you an example from my back catalogue, where I really was writing for a perceived ‘niche market’ as I saw it.

When designing your perfect reader, you have to realise that there is an element of caricature in the concept. Like for romance writers, their perfect reader might be the single city girl commuting, with her dog-eared, much-loved paperback copy of their book (not ebook, so that everyone can see what she’s reading) in permanent residence at the bottom of her Chloé.

Have you noticed that bags and shoes aren’t referred to as bags and shoes in chick lit anymore? It’s all label this and designer that. Shopping-channel porn. Unfortunately, it also tends to date books quickly, due to fashion’s fickle nature – you’ll see what I mean in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho novel, where Patrick launches into a loving and verbose description of the contents of his man-tastic living room.

Christian Bale in American Psycho

As such, lurid technology envy should probably also be avoided, now everyone and their two-year-old owns an iPad. As for cars, they go out of style faster than shoes – quite literally…

Digression alert! What I was saying, is that your planned ‘niche market’ is ‘a character’ as much as the people in your novel are also characters. So for the traditional romance/chick lit author, her ideal reader is the city girl commuting on the train, enjoying her favourite books en route, and usually sneaking them out under the desk and in her lunch hour too. She probably gets wobbly on a gin and tonic, and leaves parties early to curl up in her PJs and watch Bridget Jones for the umpteenth time rather than embarrassing herself instead. She’d never ask a guy out because she’s too shy, but secretly would like to dance on a table just once in her life. Abroad. Where nobody knows who she is.

Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones

That’s a caricature. It’s a perception of a potentially real person or reader, but doesn’t define or specify a completely real person or reader.

The romance author only needs to write their own book with his/her particular reader in mind. She/he doesn’t need to try and target ‘everyone’ and include members of the House of Lords, prisoners on Death Row, Guatemala, Greenpeace activists, people who work on whaling ships, and the creepy guy that never talks but licks the library windows. Even though they can all read as well, most likely. What I’m saying is, don’t announce that your book is for ‘everyone’ – try being specific, and see how your story, its cover, and the way you promote it stands up to your concept of who in the worldwide ‘market’ you are considering would appreciate this sort of book.

Here’s my own example – chick lit/crime, ‘self-help’ fiction, Death & The City:

DATC hd cover

Other editions and covers available – see ‘eBooks’. Also in paperback print and hardcover.

Now I had only one reader in mind at first: Me.

But as I wrote, I realised there was an existing concept of women out there who might also enjoy it.

The ones who hadn’t always managed to pick the right guy – or any guy. The ones who clung to the rails but spent most of the time off them, while they struggled with growing up, daily life, work and peer pressure.

Lindsay Lohan Daily Mail UK September 2013

The ones who saw everyone else’s mistakes, but still couldn’t make their own life work out perfectly…

Angelina - Girl, Interrupted

Somewhere inside them is always a seed of strength, whether it’s that they know better, they know what’s best for them deep down but other people always seem to get it wrong, or that they have already been through the ‘worst case scenarios’ on a number of occasions, and have come out the other side…

Britney at MTV Awards

They’re a bit feisty on the surface, and never seem to take any crap, and are occasionally better survivors single than in a relationship – but that’s only because they’re protecting themselves, their sanity and their children first…

britney-spears

They don’t ‘need a man’ but the right one will find them – eventually.

Katie Price 'Jordan'

And you know that the minute she picks up the ball and runs with it, she’ll kick everyone’s ass…

Angelina Jolie - Lara Croft

…So that’s my caricature of a potential ‘niche market’ audience. It sounds quite specific. But when you read into it, and expand on it, you’ll find that some of the characteristics you’ve given your ‘specific reader’ speak to a much wider audience than you first realised. Lots of people will identify with elements of it.

But you don’t advertise that fact.

You stick to communicating your idea of ‘one perfect reader’ who will get the most from your work, take the best message it contains on board, feel it speaks to the best version of themselves, and leads them to further insights of their own.

Sounds idealistic, doesn’t it? But niche marketing is all about selling idealism, that others will then want to be a part of. How or what you write is up to you, whether your intentions are good and it comes from the heart, or you only want to find the fastest route to making money. Either way, you still then have to promote it, whether it’s to a publisher or directly to the public – and you need to say who you are writing for, not just why.

It’s funny. I’ve never put together an actual pinboard of my ideal reader as above, and here it is. I carried the concept of my ‘reader’ and the various representations of that reader around in my head. But looking at them, and looking at my various covers, I think this is the best one so far:

Death & The City - Heavy Duty Edition hardcover

Cover for the Smashwords/Kobo/Sony/Diesel Ebooks/iTunes Bookstore version and Lulu hardback

The pink is more appropriate – but I still think it’s not quite there yet. I’ll need to make a bigger ‘niche marketing’ pinboard and see where that leads me…

Make your ‘ideal reader pinboard’ – it might surprise you 🙂

L xxx

Genre Jazz II: Worldbuilding and popular Romance

In the last post I was talking about parody and mash-ups in fiction as a form of new fictional world creation out of existing fabric. Worldbuilding doesn’t end at sci-fi, fantasy and steampunk though.

Reading popular romances lately is a bit like entering a Bridget Jones theme park. Perky secondary characters, unlikely-sounding tycoons who don’t wear high-waisted Simon Cowell trousers or drive Bugattis, or work in real-world industries like Bill Gates – and everything has so much emotional ‘significance’ – from the town or city it’s set in, to the memories inspired in the heroine by the ancient family coffee-pot being utilised to pour a non-significant cup of Java.

Now, I’ve done my share of chick-lit, five years ago with ‘Death & The City’ in 2008. It’s ‘psycho-chick-lit’, and the reason that the lead character notices everything, looks for significance in everything, and analyses everything, is that she’s a self-monitoring, OCD, psychotic-psychopath. I was aiming for a genre mash-up of Bridget Jones meets American Psycho. There’s a reason it’s over-written and contains too much TMI, and that’s because, in my personal experience, learning to filter reality from psychosis takes a lot of self-monitoring, and the best way to portray it realistically was not to filter or edit. Unfortunately, a psychotic can’t go back and edit their thoughts, or their nightmares, so they’re stuck with them, like a demon-possessed mental train set whizzing from one illusion to the next, reinforced by pattern-matching at every station stop.

I did eventually do a cut-down version that readers could skip through, (the Cut to the Chase edition) but more out of experimenting with ebook formatting than out of pity for readers. It’s my own book, basically I wrote it to remind myself to focus on reality and not head off down the path of antidepressants and antipsychotics. So I pick it up once in a while to remind myself of what it used to be like, and how to avoid going down that route again.

I don’t think the eventual sequels will turn out the same – like the lead character Lara was trying to do, I’m running on a different personality now to the one I was escaping at the time. One that doesn’t get out that much, but definitely a saner and less scary one 🙂

Writing it was my own personal journey of self-help, as well as a fictional outlet for a lot of ‘what ifs?’ regarding my job at the time in nightclub security. Ten years previously I was also a bar tender, with another personality. And the kind of preconceptions the public had about that kind of person working in the industry. I could do the real job at night, dealing only with what was in front of me and quoting the licensing laws at people, and during the day I wrote all the delusions up (my own, and of the occasional drunk customers) in the form of fiction. My main relationship was with my car, in which I did up to 300 miles a week, all at night on empty roads, so that was a major feature and place to happily delude myself with new stuff to write down when I got home. And my holiday-romance daughter, who has since turned out to be equally interested in fantasy things, writing about undead carnage, Youtube, heavy metal, and dreaming about what it would be like to have a split personality. Luckily, I can tell her that’s all completely normal, because I went through the real thing.

So as you might guess, seeing a lot of TMI and mental ramblings, delusional thought-patterns, anthropomorphic significance of inanimate places and objects (i.e. scene-setting red herrings), stalking behaviour, and denial of real-world issues glossed over in romance fiction is a bit weird to me. If I was back on the other side of events in my life, it would all act as reinforcement – telling me Sure, be a stalker, or encourage creepy guys, there’ll be a happy ever after before you know it. Funny how that never happens in real life. Which is why I left Death & The City: Book Two somewhat open-ended to be continued later after the two protagonists agreed on a deal. I haven’t even reached that stage yet emotionally myself to know if there will ever be a significant other with whom to do that sort of, er, research…

Lots of writers debate about the problems of writing sex scenes. I don’t even know if I should be writing love scenes. I don’t have the experience. So writing to me is all just ‘what ifs’ – not based on reality. There’s no such person in my life to base it on, and never has been.

In a way it’s good, because I don’t have to worry that anyone would ever recognise themselves in a male lead in one of my books. Background characters for sure, I get inspiration for those everywhere – but even those better know I made most of their character traits up, because I was too busy listening to the voices in my head most of the time to hear their chatter 😉

Anyway, after Death & The City, subs, waiting around, and then discovering broadband, writer sites, the social networking of the internet, and self-publishing – and after a couple of career changes, then becoming a full-time writer and editor – I started looking back into an old teenage ambition to write category romance, without the psychoses (or zombies, real or imaginary). But since picking up a number of the trad published rom-coms and chick-lits to read through over the last couple of years, it appears that the world of trad romance has also lost the plot (while I was away really losing it and getting it back again) so to speak. Lost it in favour of first-person ramblings and red-herring significance attached to everything, combined with a designer label shopping channel, Oddbins wine-list, men with no latex or stalker allergies, and cars that have blown themselves up on Top Gear.

So out of the shock of that, came this year’s parody (of many books and movies) The Zombie Adventures of Sarah Bellum – a more readable, reader-friendly epic about a love-struck idiot who’d take any man at any time of day, dead or alive, given the opportunity…

But it is curious, as to how every romance I’ve picked up in the last eighteen months breaks every rule in the book (the book in question being my fave How Not to Write a Novel by Mittelmark and Newman), as well as indicating that the romantic aspirations of young women today are being influenced more by the need for mental health intervention than for wedding lists and family planning advice. Some women who have been through the real thing (mental heath issues, not romance) don’t relish the portrayal of behaviour which leads to restraining orders in real life, suggesting that it should be deployed to achieve happiness. Or that happiness is a man. Happiness is not a man. Happiness is knowing who you are when you look in the mirror – and I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally.

In proper romances, as I recall, the *sane* lead character does not find themselves fascinating to the detriment of all other storyline, action and dialogue. They engage with other characters, their family, work and the world, yes – but mainly, they engage with the Plot. They do not engage with the socks their Great Auntie knitted every time they wear them. They do not gush over the French chandeliers. They do not drool over technology which will be redundant by the time the book is published. They put on regular socks (if they must, but the wearing of clothes generally is usually accepted as a given), they walk into rooms in which the reader assumes the lights are on unless told otherwise, and they do not show themselves up as gold-diggers by doing an inventory of the hero’s apartment and all his gadgets.

There’s another good reason for this. Like wandering around inside the mind of a psychopath, which leaves you wanting a cuddle and a Paracetamol, wandering around inside the mind of any verbose woman for too long leaves you wanting a bit of mystery back in your life. Fuck the Great Auntie’s socks and Mister Tiggles the cat. If all you can picture while reading is the author’s fantasy man, fantasy wank, fantasy shopping trip, fantasy best friends/sidekicks, how much she hates her day job and her boss, and the number of Nigella Bites cooking shows she watched while detailing every meal she wishes she was eating instead of writing and attempting to diet, it’s like spending too long in the company of someone addicted to personal revelations and co-counselling. Which should really be left to people with actual problems and issues that they need help with. Not the kind of thing you can get the answers to by pulling the petals off a daisy instead 🙂

In other words, chatty is fine. Self-absorbed (in silence) is fine. Self-absorbed chattiness, no. Ouch. Bad author. That’s not romantic escapism at all. That’s a recipe for insomnia and psychotic episode flashbacks. If your character is not going to come out as a psychotic who has been (or will be by the end of the book) prescribed everything on the a la carte trolley from Mellerill and Largactyl to Olanzepine and Citalopram, tone it down. One in four of us would like to have a bit of escapism into what it’s like to think straight. Not what it’s like to live in a world where the heroine thinks exactly like us and gets away with it, without turning purple by the end and fatally believing she can fly.

So that’s the internal world of the heroine, being done to death everywhere I look. But what about the external world? The theme park version of every trendy setting on the planet?

If you must name a specific town or place, please go there first. People live there, who will see a theme-park candy-coating a mile off. There is a certain beach I would not want a moonlit romantic tryst on, for fear of stepping on a hypodermic needle or getting deafened by the noise of the regular doggers under the pier. You are allowed to create unnamed fantasy places where people live by simply not referring to them by name, or inventing one if you must. People use the phrase ‘going into town’ when they go out, or ‘going to the beach’. If your town or village is a character and also a real place, why is it a character? Is it historically significant to the plot, or was frequented by a relevant historical figure? Is it haunted or paranormal in some way? Are you marketing it as tourist material to the residents? Remember, that giving an existing location a characterisation not yet known to the residents in real life will raise eyebrows – even more so if you give the general public themselves a new and improved reputation of any sort.

As a writer, I have my reasons for going psycho. But as a reader and consumer, I would like to read things once again which make me experience what it’s like to be romantically sane for a while. Interesting, but normal. And not in a comparative, unresearched, patronizing, I’m normal because the girl next door is sectioned kind of way…

Indulge me 🙂 xxx

Worldbuilding in SF – Advice taken from the great Terry Pratchett

Photo of Sir Terry Pratchett from Wired.com

My last post about the London Book Fair 2012, and attending the panel talk on Science Fiction in China, reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s talk I went to at the Barbican. It must have been in 1999, because DS-10 was still in the cable-knitted hoodie with feet attached that I made for her, and not quite walking yet, strapped to me in the stripy baby-sling. And of course she tried to participate in the seminar as much as our illustrious speaker, until she went to sleep, thankfully, and stopped trying to mug the poor man sitting next to us in the crombie coat and Doctor Who scarf.

Yes – Terry Pratchett’s talk attracted a huge crowd of SF/Fantasy fans, and wannabe authors of all ages, although I think I had smuggled in the smallest and most disruptive one. Sorry about that, Sir Terry 🙂

It must have been around the time that Science of the Discworld was emerging, because the discussion was on ‘world-building’ in science-fiction and fantasy. Now this term, popular nowadays, refers to the creating of your imaginary world in which your narrative, or story takes place. The world in which your characters dwell. You can’t just give a man in a dress a magic wand and talking horse, and expect the world around him to be immediately perceived by the reader as the next best thing to Mordor. It’s the genre where taking the reader on location with you is of primary importance.

In current everyday general fiction, you say a story is set in Paris, or in Hollywood, or in London, and folk pretty much know what you’re getting at. You don’t need to go off into lengthy descriptions of the scenery or the weather. Readers today have seen it all on TV, and the internet, and you don’t want it to sound like the travelogue of a backpacking journalist. Fixing the location in your reader’s mind saves you a lot of word-count and drives your story faster to the heart of the action (and hopefully the hearts of your characters).

Some authors do travel-writing in fiction well, because they have been there, or are seasoned travel journalists already (such as Belinda Jones). Their writing style is recognisable as such. Reading Belinda Jones novels, to me, is like going on holiday, when I’m stuck at home, in weather that (against all news items to the contrary) suggests an Ark will soon float past the bottom of the garden. I read them for the escapism, the descriptions of the beaches and hotels, and occasionally the fit entertainment…

Ahem. However, with SF and Fantasy, unless you’re writing a fairytale of Bognor Regis, generally you’re creating a world for your characters to inhabit, whether it’s on board a colony ship in a space opera, or an enchanted island in a children’s story. So you can’t just say it’s “like a Boeing 747 in space” or “Disneyworld Florida but the puppets are real” – well, you could, but your readers will feel cheated (especially if they’ve never been on board a plane, or visited Disneyworld). You’ve got to say more about the place your characters inhabit, than you might do if you’re used to writing kitchen-sink drama, or chick-lit about handbags and shoes.

Terry opened the discussion on mapping your created SF/fantasy domain with the unforgettable statement: “How does the shit get out, and the clean water get in?”

Your characters have got to drink, eat, and shift by-products, so the design of Ankh-Morpork, on the Discworld, starts with the river (and what a river – that’s a lot of by-products, which it would be, for a heaving great city). Would a city on top of a mountain work, or would only a small village last in those conditions? How would a city in the clouds function, in plumbing terms? Your readers will want to know these things, and if there aren’t any satisfactory answers, you and your readers are both missing out.

A community functions on the basis of sanitation services, and provisions of food and water. Say, for example, you have a nomadic tribe living on a desert moon, who raise herds of giant herbivorous quadruped working-animals the size of double-decker buses. What are these herds of great land-creatures eating? Sand? Air? Where is their poop going? How are they kept from wandering off at night and trampling their biped masters in their sleep? How is the animal husbandry and midwifery managed? Enquiring minds will want to know.

Terry took a question from one of the younger audience members – not DS-10 of course, whose conversation at the time was limited to ‘Digger’, ‘Tit-rings’ (which was how she pronounced ‘Tinky Winky’ from the Teletubbies) and ‘Towel’ (which was actually ‘Kyle’ from South Park). The question from the more expressive young audience member was: “What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a science fiction or fantasy author?”

Terry’s thoughts on this were strong.

“Don’t read too many books already published in your chosen genre. You don’t want to be writing imitations of what’s already out there. Read geography. Read history books. Read about science.”

…Research how worlds function, what shapes them, geologically and politically. How they progress through technology and learning, arts and culture.

It was this answer that stuck with me as I headed home, while DS-10 discovered the joy of playing lucky-dip in other people’s pockets on the London Underground, then completely charmed an elderly couple in the train seat opposite, on the long journey back to Hastings.

When I read SF/fantasy, I want that world to be somewhere real I can picture – whether it’s the likes of Greg Bear taking you on a new physiological journey in the familiar world (Blood Music) or humanity as we (sort of) know it living in an extraordinary one (The Discworld series). So definitely, don’t throw out the laws of physics and chemistry, or natural history, and think you’ll get somewhere starting from scratch. You’ll either make too much work for yourself and the readers, by re-inventing everything from the ground up (no stone or S’mak!abl! left unturned), or you’ll gloss over what could be fascinating detail by talking to the readers as if everyone in the real world already grows their own Fnargle and participates in the Great Wibbly Jai Ho before bedtime.

It’s also easy to make the same mistake with character names. An unusual name is not a qualification. Calling your lead character ‘Stumpy Jack’ or ‘Great Wizard Shazam’ is no excuse for skimping on personality traits. Considering that he’ll just be known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Shaz’ to his friends, you’ll need to find some things that those friends will have intimate knowledge of about him – not just that he has a stump, or is a Great Wizard. The same goes for Fantasy stories, where the character’s parents have forgotten to put the vowels on their birth certificate. If your reader is mentally tripping over the name Knrrph’vngyllr’kk every time it appears in the narrative, it slows down reading enjoyment, and just like the Great Stumpy Wizard examples above, it’s not a qualification either – you’ve still got to give the awesome Knrrph’vngyllr’kk a sparkling personality. I would say, as a rule of thumb, never give your charismatic hero a name that his love interest is unable to shout out ecstatically in bed without sounding as though she’s inhaled a pillow-feather.

So anyway, ever since, I’ve applied the academic research idea to writing all fiction. I sort of write about the real world, but at the same time sort of don’t – my worlds hover between extremes of reality and SF/fantasy, and SF/fantasy is where my own evolution into becoming a writer started, so it wouldn’t surprise me to find myself going full circle eventually. I’ve read so many textbooks it shows – one of my novels has been tagged ‘self-help’ already, no doubt from the amount of psychology I read up on, over about fifteen years of its development. I even added an ‘academic and popular references’ bibliography to my latest version of it on Kindle, because I felt the research deserved the credit for a lot of my character’s make-up (and my own progress, while doing the research – power of the object over the observer).

You can always learn new things, and get excited about learning new things. And at the end of the day, if you’re writing SF and Fantasy, that’s what you want your readers to experience, when reading your books. Give them your enthusiasm for what you learn, and what you want to show them of your own insights through learning. Because that’s where your originality lies – in your own inner journey.

L xxxx

http://terrypratchett.co.uk